Saturday, May 18, 2013

"What Power Expels Us": The Authority of Jesus in Mark 5:1-20 (Part 1)

Below is Part 1 of a 5-part blog series on Jesus and the interplay of power in the Gerasene Demoniac passage in the Gospel of Mark (5:1-20). See also Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

                        Behold, a legion hurls headlong the swine
            Of Gerasenes, and once enchained in tombs,
            It loudly grunts with pain. From lips possessed
            It had cried out: ‘O Jesus, Son of God,
            Offspring of David’s royal line, we know
            Who Thou art and why Thou hast come, what power
            Expels us, at Thy coming filled with dread.’
                        Prudentius, from “A Hymn on the Trinity”

There is something about demonic possession that has captured the human imagination for millennia. Among the ancient collections of sayings from the Desert Mothers and Fathers we find tales of monastic struggles against demons both within and without, spiritual entities capable of tempting the mind and mutilating the flesh. Abba Poemen, a fifth-century Egyptian monk, traced all forms of human sinfulness and indulgence to demonic forces, proclaiming, “Everything that goes to excess comes from the demons.”[1] Within a postmodern context these anecdotes may seem superstitious at best and laughably naïve at worst, but considering the fact that films like The Exorcist (1973), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005),  The Last Exorcism (2010), and other thematically similar movies continue to be produced every few years, it is apparent that popular fascination with the demonic possession trope is far from waning. Whether encountered in ancient monastic literature or on the big screen of a suspenseful summer horror flick, the notion that a person could somehow be physically inhabited a sinister power greater than the human spirit is curiously frightening, and stimulates the imagination to consider both the nature of autonomy and the darker side of human behavior.
In literary depictions of exorcisms, demons are expelled from the body by means of a priest or shaman who makes use of special incantations (“The power of Christ compels you!”) or ritualistic items like holy water. In the Gospel of Mark, the character of Jesus is made known early in his ministry primarily as an exorcist and miracle worker who travels the Galilean countryside casting out demons and restoring the unclean and disabled. Perhaps no other story in the Gospel of Mark is as bizarre and peculiarly detailed as Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed by a “legion” of demons in Mark 5:1-20. In this blog series I will argue that the Gerasene Demoniac episode is an attempt by the author of Mark to illustrate in a single narrative Jesus’ three-fold authority over nature (demonic possession), political/military power (“Legion”), and the traditions of the religious establishment (uncleanliness). I will begin with a brief examination of how the form of the Gerasene Demoniac pericope demonstrates that Jesus is depicted as the sole arbitrator and greatest power among several other powers in the narrative, and will follow with a focused discussion on each of the three powers mentioned above.
Form of the Pericope
            Every good narrative contains a plot, and well-executed plots consist of a rising action or conflict, a climax, and then a resolution followed by a falling action. Mark 5:1–20 involves two primary cycles of action (A and B below), with two climaxes that each culminate in a crucial moment of decision for Jesus. These moments of decision conspicuously underscore Jesus as one with the authority to grant permissions to demons and give orders to gentiles, and are predicated by one or more characters “begging” Jesus (i.e. some cognate of parakalevw). Curiously, of the ten occurrences of parakalevw in Mark, five of them are found in Mark 5, and four of those five occurrences are integral to the plot of Mark 5:1-20. When each climactic moment of decision arises, the narrative is halted until a verdict is reached, and the falling action entails a “sending forth” as a consequence of Jesus’ decision. This threefold mini-plot thus makes use of the following formula: Character “begs”—>Jesus decides—>Character acts.
                        I. Arrival in the land of the Gerasenes (5:1)
                                    A. Confrontation with the demoniac (5:2–13)
                                                1. Description of the demoniac (5:3–5)
                                                2. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits (5:8)
                                                3. “Legion” is named (5:9)
                                                4. Exorcism (5:13)
                                                            a. Demons “beg” (parakalevw) Jesus:
                                                                        1. Not to send them out of the country
                                                                        2. For permission to be sent into swine
                                                            b. Climax: Jesus “gives permission” (ejpevtreyen aujtoiæV)
                                                            c. Legion is sent forth from the man and enters the swine
                                                5. Swine and demons are drowned in the lake
                                    B. Confrontation with the townspeople (5:14–20)
                                               1. Swineherds recount previous events “in the city and in the country” (5:14)
                                                2. Townspeople encounter healed demoniac, become frightened
                                                            a. Locals “beg” (parakalevw) Jesus to leave the country
                                                            b. Jesus returns to the boat
                                                3. Former demoniac “begs” Jesus to let him join the disciples
                                                            a. Climax: Jesus “refuses” (oujk ajfhæken)
                                                            b. Former demoniac is instead sent forth to tell “what the     
                                                            Lord has done” for him
                        II. Jesus and disciples return to the “other side,” presumably Capernaum       
            In turn, this episode is situated within a much wider series of narratives that reiterate Jesus’ authority as the “son of the Most High God.” In the preceding pericope (Mark 4:35–41) Jesus calms a storm upon the Sea of Galilee, prompting the disciples to ponder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Immediately after leaving the land of the Gerasenes, Mark includes another healing narrative (the woman with a hemorrhage in 5:25–34), embedded within a resuscitation narrative (the raising of Jairus’ daughter in 5:22–24, 35–43). Observing the two cycles of conflict mentioned above within their context, Jesus is readily identifiable as the most powerful authority figure in the Gerasene narrative, to whom tempest-tossed lakes, legions of unclean spirits, healed women and gentiles, temple authorities, and even death itself all defer. In my next post, we will turn to a closer examination of each of the three categories of power over which Jesus exerts his authority.

[1] Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Trappist, Kentucky: Buena Prensa, 2006), 185.

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