Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus

Traditional Christianity is metaphysical. That is, a large slice of its teachings is based on the premise that reality is a continuum beyond the purely physical. 

We humans generally perceive only a physical world. This is nature - the realm which can be investigated by science and by its associated disciplines like history, archeology and the like. But there is another reality, another "world", according to Christian doctrine. Humans are sometimes given glimpses of this other world, such as the author of The Revelation to John in the New Testament. Jesus, so traditional theology has it, was fully and completely human. Just as we can be investigated by medical science and healed by doctors, so could he. 

But, so it is said, his nature was more than just human. A part of him as it were extended across into the non-physical world. In that sense he can be called the Son of God. He participates in the nature of the Creator of the universe.

The differentiation between the physical and the meta-physical (meta being a Greek word meaning "across" or "with" or "for", amongst other meanings) is, however, a comparatively modern one. Almost without exception, the vast majority a human beings until now have thought of the physical and the metaphysical as a single reality. 

Thus the question to someone in first-century Palestine, "Do you think demons are real?" would probably have been greeted with some astonishment. Demons were part-and-parcel of their world view. It was obvious to them that bad things in life - such as what we would call disease - were caused by the actions of evil beings hiding behind what they could see and touch.

Humans, according to the metaphysical view, can't usually reach across from this part of the world into the other part without some special talent or gift.. Some are able to see and talk to beings who inhabit the metaphysical dimension. They have reported that these other beings constantly move around in our world. 

But because ordinary people can't usually see them, they have to infer their existence from the things they do. These beings or "spirits" are broadly speaking of two kinds - the good and the evil.

It's important to say at this point that the above might be considered a cynical parody by some. They would describe the situation in different terms. One group, for example, would not question the existence of angels (good spirits) and demons (bad spirits) because their existence is not questioned in the Bible. And because the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it must be correct about everything.

That the world is this way is what some would today call a "doctrine felt as fact" for people before the modern age. That is, it was part of unquestioned reality, the way things are. Such matters as the existence of demons are not only not questioned, they are frequently if not usually completely beyond consciousness. 

We do much the same today. How frequently, for example, do you or I question the existence of gravity? Even though we know much about its effects, we know almost nothing about what it really is. We take gravity as read every moment of our lives. The supernatural was similarly not questioned in Jesus' time. It was just there.

Behind the ancient metaphysical way of life lies a more subtle difference. Beginning with Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), people began asking a new kind of question. Before their time, going back to at least the time of Aristotle (384-322bc), people supposed that we could work out everything by examining the end result of events ("teleological" cause from the Greek telos or "end"). 

Thus one had to ask of a falling object, "What characteristic of the object makes it fall?" We now ask, "What happened before the object fell?" That is, we look for a prior cause (known to philosophers as the "efficient" cause).

Thus if someone falls down in a fit, we want to know what caused the fit. We might diagnose epilepsy, or chemical poisoning, or a blow to the head. But in Jesus' day, fits were simply known to be end result or telos of evil spirits at work. The characteristic of an infected person (who had fits or raved or ran about with no clothes on and so on) was that they possessed a devil, just as a stone possesses that which causes things to fall.

Very few would then have asked, as we naturally do today, "Do demons exist and if so what gives rise to that existence?" That demons or devils were always around trying to infect people was simply a given, a "doctrine felt as fact". 

To ask our question would have been rather like questioning the existence of gravity today. If anyone were to ask, "Does gravity exist?", you might suggest that he or she go to the top of a tall building and test it for themselves. Demons were taken for granted in the same way. 

A person might wear an amulet inscribed with a prayer designed to ward off evil spirits. One such prayer is recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is against evil spirits that cause fever, chills and other afflictions. An amulet would, as it were, get in the way of the end result. It would interpose another power with a different telos.

Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as what we would today call an exorcist. In his time he would have been known as a healer (since medical complaints were caused by demons and he had access to the greater power). Those parts of the gospels which are good history include accounts of how Jesus drove out demons. The bare bones historical text assumes that he went around casting out demons (Mark 3.20-27 and parallels) and that he commissioned his followers to do the same (Mark 6.7-13).

In other words, whatever you or I might think about the scientific validity of the kind of healing described in the gospels, we should probably accept that Jesus did in some sense heal sick people.

Another window into the gospel acceptance of demons is to note that Christians have from the beginning seen the Hebrew Scriptures as prefiguring God's new dispensation brought to the world through Jesus. The beginning of Matthew's Gospel goes so far as to portray Jesus as a direct descendant of David. In Matthew 9.27 the gospel author makes the two blind men address Jesus as the "Son of David". The other gospels include similar references (Mark 10.47; Luke 18.38). John 7.42 is explicit:

But others said, "The Messiah will not come from Galilee. The scripture says that the Messiah will be a descendant of Kind David, and will be born in Bethlehem, the town where David lived."

Keeping this in mind, the story in 1 Samuel 16.14-23 takes on a new significance. The "Lord's spirit" leaves Saul and is replaced by an "evil spirit" sent by God to torment him. David in effect becomes an exorcist. The evil spirit departs when he plays his harp to Saul. 

If Jesus was seen by early Christians as the Messiah (Christos in Greek) and therefore also as a "new David", his capacity to cast out demons would have seemed entirely natural.

If one reads about this, and then asks the question, "Do demons exist?" I think one may be missing the point. Or rather, wondering if demons exist is a valid question but of little relevance to the gospels. Jesus almost certainly  thought that demons exist and worked to banish them from infecting people. His way of understanding the world isn't ours, and I see no intrinsic reason why we should think as he did.

To suppose that demons might exist is today an unnecessary complication. There are better and more satisfying explanations for things we observe than the proposal that they may be caused by devils or angels. 

But it's important to recognise that, in a very real sense, they did exist for Jesus and the early Christians. The line between reality and perception is, as we know today, extremely narrow - so much so that it makes considerable sense to say, "Perception is reality."

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