Spirit-Possession: A Hallmark of the Earliest Church?

In his groundbreaking work, Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity, Stevan L. Davies makes the case that scholars have largely overlooked a major component of early Christian culture and ideology: that of spirit possession. Most readers of the gospels are familiar with Jesus exorcising demonic spirits from a number of victims but overlook the entire cultural predilection for belief in, and literary reflection on, spirit-controlling phenomena which are evident throughout the gospels and letters of Paul. These texts are, after all, the earliest written Christian material. Remarkably, the high valuation of spirit-possession quickly diminishes in later New Testament texts and, by the second century, such spirit-centered faith is largely deemed heretical.

If you tune your ears properly, references to spirit possession begin to reveal themselves especially in the Gospels of Mark and John and in the letters of Paul. But first, a bit of discussion about the phenomena itself. As Davies points out, spirit possession is a cross-cultural and timeless phenomenon not restricted to any particular faith system or geographical location. Modern Western culture is generally only familiar with the concept of demonic possession showcased in various popular books and movies. But the actual phenomena itself continues to exist. Though considered less common in the West, spirit possession is reported more frequently in cultures that are receptive to it as an explanation for certain behavior that Western culture describes scientifically. Virtually every contemporary religion acknowledges spirit possession, usually of the destructive kind, and exorcistic formulae and methodologies have been devised to deal with it. Western psychiatry subsumes these phenomena under the category of dissociative disorders and treats them accordingly. Usually, psychiatry focuses on treating what are usually destructive dissociative states (known in other cultures and in religious parlance as demonic possession). Rarely are positive, or beneficial spirit-possession events studied, treated, or even acknowledged. In fact, with this Western cultural bias strongly entrenched, modern readers fail to recognize the evidence for the belief in, and welcoming of beneficial, or holy, spirit possession that is reflected throughout parts of the New Testament.

Right from the start, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel in the New Testament, describes as spirit-possession the events that transpire at Jesus’s baptism.

“Now in those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.’ The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. (Mk. 1:9-12 NET)

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