When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town.
Matthew 8:28-9:1 (NRSV)
This story in Matthew is a good story to talk about how the gospel writers shape their stories. It appears in all three synoptic gospels.
In Mark’s account, Jesus goes to the country of the Gerasenes, not the Gadarenes. There is one demoniac, not two. Jesus also asks for the demon’s name, which is Legion, giving the story an explicit connection between the Roman Empire and the spiritual oppression of the people. Jesus also commands the man to go tell everyone what has been done for him, and no negative consequences of this are recorded. Unusually, Mark’s account is the longest and most detail rich of the three.
Luke’s account is similar to Mark’s account, just shortening the story a little.
Matthew’s account is the most different. The location is different, the number of demoniacs is different, the name of the demon is irrelevant, and not only does Jesus not advertise what happened, the outcome is ultimately negative and Jesus has to return back across the Sea of Galilee.
We could, and people have, expend a lot of energy trying to harmonize these accounts with explanations of varying levels of credibility. But what is probably more profitable is to ask ourselves what Matthew is trying to get across in his own, unique take.
The town of Gerasa was a prominent town from the perspective of Roman dominion. It would later be called the Decapolis, and it is a meaningful backdrop for Mark’s (and Luke’s) more explicitly anti-Roman account.
Gadara, or at least the region around Gadara, was a city of splendor in its day, as the ruins attest. It was the capital of Perea, which was the eastern part of Herod’s kingdom (the western part being Judea) and dotted with tombs in the nearby cliffs that you can still see to this day. It was also one of the first cities sacked in the First Jewish-Roman War – the same war that would see Jerusalem destroyed.
For Matthew, this region serves as a mirror to Judea. The things that Jesus has been up to over there, he’s now up to over here. They, too, were under Herod’s governance. In many ways, this allows Matthew to zero in on this territory as a Jewish city under virtually the same auspices as Jerusalem. This story becomes one of local, regionalized, Israel-oppressed-by-her-own-Roman-sympathizer-leaders that is one of Matthew’s prominent themes. This may explain why the detail about the demon’s name is left out of Matthew, assuming he knew about it from Mark. The Roman connection was not as important to Matthew as the intra-Jewish one, which is a distinguishing mark (no pun intended) of Matthew’s specific gospel.
The issue of why Matthew has two people where the other accounts only have one has been the topic of much debate and speculation, especially since this isn’t the only place where other gospels talk about one person, but Matthew says there were two. Perhaps we might assume Matthew’s account is What Really Happened and just as well ask why the other gospels report one person instead of two. Another explanation that I think holds a lot of promise is that having two people satisfies the Torah’s requirements of having two witnesses. This fact works both for and against Jesus in the narrative and plays into one of Matthew’s central concerns, which is, “What does Israel think of Jesus?” There are certainly other takes people have on the issue, but very little attention in the debates is given to the meaning of having two demoniacs; most of the energy is spent on explaining how all the accounts can together be correct despite the differences, and that’s not a particular interest of mine.
Demons crop up in Matthew’s gospel usually as a supplement to sickness and disease. Jesus goes around healing and casting out demons. And the demon cases are always in the region of Galilee, never in Jerusalem or Judea – a fact probably explained by the fact that Jews did not all share a belief in demons or supernatural beings, and Matthew is putting together the accounts from different sources. So, Source A may describe certain kinds of physical ailments as a disease, whereas Source B may describe it as demonic possession.
This interchangeability provides us some insight into not only the gospels but the way of looking at the world in the first century where there is a hidden, spiritual world that is operating behind the physical one, and a given thing that happens can be described either way (or both).
In our mind, these are two, separate explanations. Something either has a spiritual, supernatural explanation, or it has a physical, naturalistic explanation. This is largely a modern dichotomy and is at least partially behind a lot of the heat modern evangelicals feel regarding evolution: either God supernaturally created the universe or it arose from naturalistic processes – they are not both portrayals of the same phenomenon (although nobody seems to think this about the water cycle for some reason).
But in the first century Levant, spiritual and natural are not oppositional categories. They are more like plastic overlays. You can talk about the spiritual world behind what you see, or you can talk about the natural world behind what you see, but these things are not separate; they cohere in the same phenomenon.
So, is the Roman Empire an occupation of territory by Roman soldiers? Yes. Is it an occupation of territory by demons? Also, yes. The political oppression of Rome and the spiritual oppression of demons are not two, separate issues. They are the same issue and experienced the same way.
Is this person having a seizure because they have a disease? Yes. Is this person having a seizure because of demonic activity? Also, yes. They are not two, separate causes. They are the same cause.
Now, not all Jews believed in demons and angels, and they would be unlikely to portray any event as having that spiritual aspect. But this was the view of many Jews, and we find it present in all the gospels except John. No demonic activity is present in the gospel of John, although the Apocalypse makes a point of pulling back the curtain to observe the spiritual forces operating behind what the inhabitants of the earth are experiencing.
It is important to note this about the first century worldview, because when we see Jesus casting out demons, it is not to add that extra Dungeons and Dragons flavor to our Christianity. It is a spiritual way to describe Jesus liberating his people from the forces that oppress them, whether it is the Legion or sickness or sin or corrupt leadership or whatever is plaguing Israel and keeping her from being whole and restored. It is only through the lens of seeing the spiritual animus and the physical manifestation as the same thing that Jesus can plausibly call Peter “Satan” or refer to certain Pharisees as sons of the devil or refer to death as sleeping.
In this story, the demoniacs are fierce, enraged people who lived on the margins of society. We don’t know their background or how things ended up this way. We do know that they are angry, strong, and severely antisocial – a danger to everyone who gets close.
The words from the men (who both speak) come to us from that spiritual realm where they recognize Jesus as the Son of God – a powerful ruler, a Caesar, the promised King of the Jews – and ask if he has come to torment them before “the time.” Apparently, the demons perceive that there will come a time when their heyday is over. There will come a time when judgement will come upon all who have oppressed faithful Israel, and Israel herself will be healed and restored to her former place. This event has not yet happened in this story, and the demons rightly perceive that this encounter is some kind of prefiguring of that event.
Jesus commands them to leave the two Galileans and enter pigs who perish in the sea. Some have pointed out that, since pigs are unclean animals to the Jews and the pigs are destroyed by the sea, that this recalls Israel’s liberation from Egypt. This is certainly possible, as the liberation of Israel is precisely what we are seeing in this story.
Since destruction in the sea is often used as a metaphor for armies, this may also prefigure the actual judgement God will bring on the oppressors of Israel – namely the corrupt Israelite power structure. They will be handed over to the Gentiles and destroyed.
Perhaps all or none of that is intended, but the one thing that is clear is that Jesus is about his mission – liberating Israel from her oppressors.
Well, the people who tended the herds of deviled ham who committed suey-cide (old Baptist preacher jokes die hard) did not take this turn of events well. They tell the people in the town what happened, and they all get riled up and ask Jesus to leave.
This is a stark difference from the other gospel accounts where the liberated demoniac becomes something of an advocate for Jesus and people are amazed at the change in the man. Here, people become greatly alarmed and force Jesus to go away.
But this serves Matthew’s narrative very well. In the other gospels, the demon possession is linked directly to the Roman Empire in a Roman city. Jesus liberates the man, and everyone is happy. Here, the possession occurs in a Jewish city. Jesus liberates the man, and many Jews are not at all happy about this and turn hostile to Jesus.
This is another presentation of a primary conflict in Matthew – that between Jesus and the Israel who likes the way things are and rejects him. This is in contrast to the Israel who is lost and wants to be found, who leaves everything and sacrifices everything to follow Jesus so that she might be saved. In fact, just a few verses earlier Matthew compares corrupt Israel unfavorably to a Roman centurion. Even the Roman Empire has more faith than Israel. This will come to a head, obviously, in the crucifixion.
This also recalls Moses and Egypt. Moses kills an Egyptian who is beating an Israelite. Then, when he intervenes in a fight between two Israelites, they turn against him. He is their liberator, but his liberating activities breed resentment. Jesus as Israel’s Lord and Christ brings a new hope to those who would be faithful, but brings rejection and hostility from those who would keep Israel under their yoke.
This passage, like so many others in Matthew, reaches out to a Jewish audience and asks them to make a decision. Who do you think Jesus is? Will you follow him and be saved? Will you reject or ignore him and continue in a life of slavery that ends in death?
It is a decision that once had Jerusalem as its epicenter. Then the Roman Empire. And now creation itself.
- Have you at times artificially separated the “spiritual” from the “physical?” How does this division affect our priorities and actions?
- One of the more intriguing steps from the Twelve Steps program is Step 6. “[We] were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” Isn’t this a default for every Christian? What does it mean to be “entirely ready?” What would liberation truly mean? Are there costs associated with it?