Sunday, May 19, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 2)

My last post dealt presented an introduction to and formal analysis of the Gerasene Demoniac passage in Mark 5:1–20. In this brief post, I will examine how Mark depicts Jesus as one with authority over the natural and the supernatural.

Power Over the Natural/Supernatural
            With the rise in popularity of psychoanalytical readings of scripture over the last century it is unsurprising that quite a bit of academic attention has been given to this particular passage as an example of popular perceptions of mental illness in the ancient Near East. This reading is aided by the demoniac’s erratic and harmful actions that consist of social exclusion—either self-imposed or imposed upon him by the community—and the inability to be bound (v.3), and loud shrieking and self-mutilation (v.5), in addition to the schizophrenic manner in which the demon-possessed character is described, vacillating between the first- and third-person singular (I/me/he) and the plural (we/us/they/them). The inconsistent language gives testament to the character’s fragmented self.[1] Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Mark curiously describes the Gerasene in v.2 as “a man in an unclean spirit” (ajvnqrwpoV ejn pneuvmati ajkaqavrtw≥), suggesting that the man is completely consumed by his demonic identity.[2] Building upon the work of social psychologist Frantz Fanon, both Hollenbach and Myers have previously argued for what might be dubbed a psycho-political or “socio-psychological” reading of the passage, in which demonic possession occurs as the result of “class antagonisms rooted in economic exploitation”[3] and furthermore as being representative of public anxiety over imperial occupation.[4] The contributions of Myers and others have been particularly helpful in drawing insight for modern readership; however, we should nonetheless be mindful of the fact that the world of first-century Judea was perceived by its inhabitants to be a world quite literally occupied by unclean spirits (more on that later) and supernatural bogeymen, and no amount of Bultmannian demythologizing can lay that reality aside.
            It is within this context of the natural and supernatural that Mark places Jesus as one with authority to heal and cast out demons. As briefly discussed above, this passage is immediately preceded by Jesus’ calming of a storm on the Sea of Galilee, an episode which follows the format as Jesus’ first major exorcism in 1:23–27.[5] This power over nature and the supernatural alike is further highlighted in the Gerasene demoniac’s initial address to Jesus: “What have you to with me, son of the Most High God?” (v.7). This naming of Jesus (a gentile title rare to the New Testament) by the demons is an attempt to exert magical power over him; however, it is clearly an impotent and ineffective attempt.[6] The authority of Jesus over an entire legion of demons is ultimately too great—in the end, even these supernatural beings entreat Jesus by begging him (parekavlei) to allow them to stay in the region by entering a nearby herd of pigs. Foregoing a physical struggle, and with little more than a granting of permission, Jesus liberates the Gerasene from his tormenters.[7] As the demons enter the herd of swine and send them careening over a cliff into the sea, the violent potential and destructive nature of the supernatural is witnessed, and Jesus’ nonviolent authority even over such powerful forces as the demonic legion is realized.

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, Mark (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2007), 167.
[2] Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 342.
[3] Paul W. Hollenbach, “Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study,” JAAR 49/4 (1981), 573.
[4] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 192-3.
[5] Marcus, 189. In Jesus’ dealing with both the raging sea and the demon-possessed man in 1:23–27, he uses the same command, fimwvqhti (lit. “Be muzzled!”), establishing a link between Jesus’ power over natural and the supernatural.
[6] Myers, 191.
[7] Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story: Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 76.

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