Jesus and the Geresene Demoniac

Texts, Luke 8: 22-; Matthew 8: 23-34

Benjamin Rush is said to be the first to turn American psychiatry from the understanding of madness as caused by the possession by demons and the attempt at a scientific account in terms of natural causes. [note 1]. It had barely been a century and a half since the trial of witches in Salem. Our joke on this, as a reader of the New Testament, is that Jesus had, though a better cure rate than Rush, or anyone else in modern psychiatry. But that humans are not able to judge and cast out spirits with any reliability does not mean that Jesus did not or could not, and we can in this inquiry try to see what was intended by the old understanding of certain kinds of madness as demonic possession.

Jesus cured this malady in addition to the bodily infirmities as lameness, blindness, leprosy and such, and is reported to have healed demon possessed persons on various occasions. His trip across the sea of Galilee to Geresenes, near the Decapolics, is apparently undertaken toward this end, as it is his destination. On the way, during a storm, the apostles who will witness the event are caught in a storm, and Jesus is wakened to rebuke the winds and waves. On a later Journey Jesus walks out to the boat in a storm, and calls Peter to walk with him on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). “Who then is this, that he commands wind and water and they obey him” (Luke 8:25). The authority over even the elements is related to or concomitant with the authority over spirits about to be demonstrated.

Jesus healed demon possession on various occasions, and Mary Magdalene is said to have been left by 7 demons Lk 8:2. The Geresene demoniac, like the one at Capernaum, (Luke 4:33-37) recognizes Jesus, saying:

Ah, what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the holy one of God.

This recognition of the Christ by the demons occurs on many occasions (Lk. 4: 41). At Geresenes, The man had been bound, but had broken all attempts to chain him, and had gone to live naked among the tombs. Jesus asks the demon, “What is your name.” He is told it is “Legion, for we are many.” We would call this a certain kind of multiple personality disorder, though it is not clear that these originate in the personality of the person afflicted.” Strangely, the demons plead with Jesus not to send them into the abyss, or out of the country (Mt.), and Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs nearby, who then run into the sea there and are drowned.

The authority over wind and sea has cross references, and is related to what in philosophy is called the problem of teleology, or of reconciling purpose with elemental nature. Shakespeare’s Prospero has such powers in a limited range within the theater, and Xenophon’s Socrates wonders if this is the goal of the natural philosophers, to use the knowledge of nature to govern wind and sea. It is by the name, through the spirit, and given to the Apostles along with the ability to heal.

When Jesus asks, “What is your name,” the question addresses the person displaced in the possession. The question aims to call the person back to himself. The answer he gets is that his name is “Legion, for we are many.”

It is sometimes not clear whether possession is a synonym for madnesses or compulsions, as though “he has a demon” were obvious, and the only way to say that one is mad.

Jesus cures the demoniac, but declines that he should come follow Jesus. This may correspond to the difference between restoring the ability to run, done by the doctor for a broken leg, and the training of an athlete to run well. In Sybil, Dr. Wilbur restores the subject to herself and her “normal” life, setting her back on the sidewalk, heading toward her college classes and her cultivation.

This ability to cast out demons is given by Jesus to the Apostles. It is by the name of Jesus that they flee or are cast out (Luke 10: 17-20). In connection with the rule of wind and waves, the “spirit world” is likened to the sea. “Name” in this sense is fairly called mysterious, but it is related to the previous sense. In relation to psychiatry, this shows what the art of the healing of the soul would be, and shows too that we lack faith, as we cannot do this whenever we want- it is by a Grace or by the Holy Spirit, which goes where it wills, not where we will. Human art then, the very meaning of “Psychiatry,” will be an art of doing what can be done given that we lack such knowledge and Spirit. The humans at Salem assumed for themselves the ability to recognize possession and treat the problem in the community through the courts, and were mistaken, regardless of whether Jesus did indeed heal the demoniac and many other instances.

In Mark (9:14-29), one brought had something similar epilepsy, with self destructive seizures from birth, where the demon would try to throw him into fire and such. Here the apostles ask Jesus why they could not drive out the demon. He answers that this kind can only be driven out by prayer.

The miracles generally in the New Testament are healings and resurrections. While skeptics may say these are “natural” events with unknown causes, that they are delusions or frauds is unlikely. While the efficient cause is the focus of skeptics, we note that nature is the guide in each case, with the natural health guiding what occurs by unknown means. The distinction between black and white magic- that the black magic does not fulfill but distorts the natures, turning princes into toads for example, this pertains. The miracles of Jesus are all symbols and the fulfillment of natures. Each is also an analogy- the healing of the lame or blind, and effects the soul and body alike toward a natural health.

On p. 140 of his text on psychiatry, Rush himself refers to this ability of Jesus to heal, and his giving the ability to the Apostles- as part of what ought be told those in madness who imagine they have powers of prophecy.

[In progress]

The madness of Nebuchadnezzer in the 4th chapter of Daniel, is similar in his reduction to the condition “near to beast,” eating grass and growing hair and claws, but is not said to be a multiple personality disorder, as is the Legion, nor is it called a possession by demons.

Note 1 Penn Medicine. The History of Pennsylvania Hospital.

Rush credits modern medical science with expelling such practices as de-tonguing those who blaspheme or say mad things. He is rather a great proponent of bloodletting and various bizarre but supposedly more scientific methods. To both are contrasted the healing of Jesus.

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