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Exorcism and Healing in Early Christianity

March 13, 2018

On the weekend last I returned from a short (but very interesting) conference on “Healing and Exorcism in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity,” held in Orebro School of Theology (Orebro, Sweden).  The focus, contributors and paper-titles are listed here.

My own presentation was, “The Ritual Use of Jesus’ Name in Early Christian Exorcism and Healing,” and here is my abstract:

“On the one hand, the use of Jesus’ name in early Christian accounts of healing and exorcism fits within the larger pattern of the invocation of powerful names (e.g., daimons, angels, etc.) in Roman-era exorcism and “magic”.  On the other hand, the invocation of Jesus to the exclusion of other beings/powers suggests something distinctive within that larger pattern.  This particular, even singular, focus on Jesus’ name (and the power/person it represents) likely reflects the unique status accorded to the risen/exalted Jesus in early Christian circles, and, along with some other distinguishing features, gives to early Christian exorcism and healing an identifiable character.”

I posited three main distinguishing features of early Christian exorcism and healing practice.

(1) The exclusivity of Jesus’ name, i.e., earliest texts portray Jesus’ followers as invoking his name alone, in contrast the the use of various and even multiple names/figures in non-Christian practice.

(2)  The early Christian ritual use of Jesus’ name was one facet of a wider devotional pattern in which Jesus figured centrally.  Here again, this distinguishes early Christian practice.  The evidence of various other forms of Jewish ritual practices, and “pagan” practices as well, typically involved invocation of names of powerful beings, but this was not attached to any further devotional practice directed to these beings.  But in early Christian circles, Jesus was invoked at baptism (the initiation rite), and in the collective worship gathering, hymns sung celebrating him, prayers directed through Jesus or to Jesus jointly with God, the shared meal understood as one in Jesus’ honour, et alia.

(3)  The simplicity of method in earliest Christian ritual practice.  Unlike the more elaborate practices portrayed in pagan and other Jewish circles, involving such things as elaborate and fixed spells, the use of fumigations and/or various devices, the reports of earliest Christian practice typically involve a simple command (e.g., to the demonic spirit).

The papers from the conference will appear in a volume to be published by Mohr-Siebeck in due course.  In the meantime, my thanks and appreciation to Dr. Tommy Wasserman and Dr. Mikael Telbe, and their various assistants, for a well-run, informative and cordial conference.


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  1. Miguel Manuel permalink

    Hi, Professor Hurtado. Ty for your future answer,

    My question is this: when did it start the practice of calling upon angels and martyrs/”saints” in order to carry out an exorcism.?

    Plus, In the conception of the early first century christianity, Did they maybe thinking on a kind of risk to demon activity the very act of veneration of martyrs and calling upon angels and so on?

    Greetings from Barcelona, Spain

    • Dear Miguel,
      To my knowledge, the earliest extant evidence of invoking angels or other beings by Christians is from “late antiquity”, fourth century CE and later. See, e.g. Patrick Crasta, “Graeco-Christian Magical Papyri,” Studia Papyrologica 18 (1979): 31-40; Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, eds., Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994). The earlier texts (e.g., New Testament writings) reflect a practice of invoking/calling upon only Jesus’ name. They apparently felt no need to call upon lesser beings.

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    I was wondering if you have an opinion to share on Stevan L. Davies’ book “Jesus the Healer”? I guess chapter 7, “Jesus’ Exorcisms” is the most appropriate to comment on here. but the majority of the book is also relevant to the exorcism topic.

    • I don’t have any comment on Davies’ book.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        At the conference did the names of demons come up in conversation? Davies makes the claim that Jesus probably wanted to know the name of a demon, and that Jesus would combat that name with “the Holy Spirit”, or “the Spirit of God”. Of course the only name we get in the Gospels for a demon is “Legion”, so evidence for this is scant. I was just wondering if the topic of demon names came up as common at all in Second Temple Judaism.

      • John: As I indicated in the posting about my paper, I dealt with the use of Jesus’ name and in the context of Roman-era use of powerful names for ritual purposes. I also mentioned the idea that beings had secret names, the knowledge of which gave power over them.

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    [John: As you pose several questions, it will be simpler to interlace my responses with them in your comment. LWH]

    Larry I was wondering about your view of “The Strange Exorcist” story (Mark 9:38-41). Do you see any significance to it being the apostle “John” who protests against the strange exorcist? For example, the fourth gospel has no exorcisms narrated and is usually attributed to John.
    LWH: I have no view on the subject.

    Also, do you think Luke is following Mark only, and has changed “us” to “you” by coincidence? Or do you think Luke has a saying like POxy 1224 2, so he has deliberately altered “He who is not against us is for us” into “he who is not against you is for you”, because Luke prefers, or even values higher than Mark, his other sayings source at this point in the story?
    LWH: I suspect that POxy 1224 reflects the reading/influence of the Synoptic Gospels.

    Finally, to the context of your paper for the conference, do you think this story is the earliest evidence of Jesus’ name being used to cast out demons? So then, the gospel of Mark is evidence of how early Christians worshiped Jesus at this point in the narrative, thus the story is not historical in the sense that it does not belong with Jesus’ Pre-Easter ministry?
    LWH: The use of a powerful name doesn’t comprise “worship” of the being, only the sense that the name and person bears power. The historical question is whether Jesus’ disciples exorcised and healed in Jesus’ name during his ministry-time. That would be quite remarkable. I continue to ponder the question.

  4. Florenc Mene permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I look very much forward to reading your interesting essay! In light of your observations, it is interesting how, in later centuries, two of these peculiar facets of early Christian exorcism and healing came to lose their distinctiveness. First, Jesus’ name is no longer the only one used in such practices (e.g.: “The most excellent Virgin Mary, Mother of God commands thee”). Second, the exorcism or healing method is no longer simple, but involves a number of prescribed rituals, including specific spells and even fumigation (involving incense). In fact, even certain objects—once consecrated—come to obtain special power in exorcism.

    • Yes, the Christianity of “late antiquity” seems to have acquired its own pattern in such matters, taking on much more of the practices of “magic”.

  5. Have you reviewed or critiqued James Waddell’s “The Messiah A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios” . If so, please give me the link.

    • I didn’t write a full review of Waddell’s work, but I do offer some views about some of his claims in my essay, “Paul’s Messianic Christology.” The pre-publication version is on this blog site under the “selected published essays” tab.

  6. Andrew Cress permalink

    Excellent! I look forward to the volume. I am working on a dissertation concerning Jesus’ connection of exorcism with the kingdom’s arrival (e.g., Luke 11.20). Any chance we’ll get to see a pre-pub version of your paper on this site?

    • Andrew: Perhaps a pre-publication version in due course. But my paper doesn’t so much deal with Jesus’ practice; more on the practices ascribed to earliest Christians.

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