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)

Read within the first-century ethos that accepted spirit possession, these verses take on new meaning. The Spirit, obviously a beneficent one associated with divine power (God is being quoted here from Psalm 2:7: “The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’”), has “gone down” (katabainō) to Jesus. This action is not meant to be read as a brief, yet transitory, visit (“Hello! Nice to see you. So long and good luck!”) but the beginning of a permanent condition (“And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.’” [John 1:32 ESV]). From now on, according to Mark, Jesus will work spirit-empowered miracles demonstrating the power of his alter ego. (Note: Jesus was about 36 at the time of his baptism – apparently, he was doing nothing significant for the entire time until the moment when the spirit empowered him.) Afterward, “the spirit” drove Jesus into the wilderness. It remained and worked in Jesus and became part of him. All this is captured in the first few verses of the Gospel of Mark. And that’s not all.

What powers had Jesus been given? Even before Jesus’s baptism, his baptizer, John, claimed that Jesus would be the one to “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” That is, (the risen, as it turned out,) Jesus would be the one authorized to dispense the same spirit to his followers. And, as we will see, this idea is reflected in the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul, and in a series of sayings in the Gospel of John:

[Jesus said:] “Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another paraklētos (“defense counsel,” or “assistant”) to be with you forever– (John 14:16 NET)…But the paraklētos, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you (John 14:26 NET)…When the paraklētos comes, whom I will send you from the Father– the Spirit of truth which goes out from the Father– that one will testify about me (John 15:26).

But before getting ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at the very first “miracle” Jesus performed after his battle in the wilderness with the demonic spirit. In Mark 1:21- 27, Jesus exorcised an “unclean,” that is, an evil spirit from a member of the Capernaum synagogue. The destructive spirit (it threw the man into convulsions) recognized the holy, or beneficial, spirit acting in Jesus: “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” Despite the traditional view that the “holy one” is Jesus, it is more likely that the demon refers to the Holy Spirit working within Jesus. Three more times in Mark’s gospel, Jesus exorcises an evil spirit (5:2-18; 7:25-30; 9:17-26). His enemies, however, challenge the source of his power.

According to Mark (3:22), Jewish officials from Jerusalem (“scribes”) come to Galilee to check out what Jesus was doing. They did not reject the notion that Jesus was spirit-possessed. However, they attributed his possession to “Beelzebul,” that is, an evil spirit. In this same passage, Jesus’s own family describes him as “out of his mind”. The Greek word used here is existēmi, meaning “to put out of place,” “to give up possession of,” or “to drive out.” In other words, Jesus’s “mind” had been replaced by another “mind,” the definition of spirit possession/dissociative disorder. (The same Greek word is used in Acts 8:9; the King James version translates it there as “bewitched.”)

Visions are common with the spirit-possessed; out-of-body visitations to the heavenly realms frequently occur to spirit-possessed prophets including those in Jewish scripture (e.g., Ezekiel 1:1; Daniel 7:1). Jesus was described as having such visions.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit [that possessed him] into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil…[who] took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur. And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and began ministering to his needs. (Matthew 4:1-11 NET)

[Jesus] said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18 NET)

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’s followers would also experience spirit-induced visions.

And [Jesus] said to [Nathanael], “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51 ESV)

According to the New Testament, Jesus’s status as a spirit-possessed worker of wonders was part and parcel of the earliest Christ-faith message. In the apostle Peter’s speech in Jerusalem (a speech created by the author of Acts but believed by that author to accurately capture the teachings of the earliest church), he reminds those around him that they…

“…know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announced: with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him [i.e., possessed him]. We are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.”  (Acts 10:37-39 NET)

The early gospel of the Jerusalem church, according to Acts, promoted the fact that Jesus was possessed by a Holy Spirit giving him powers he would not otherwise have had. He healed and exorcised with those powers as the Gospel of Mark makes clear. But that was not all. Within 50 days of Jesus’s death, according to Acts, the earlier prophecy of John the Baptist would be realized:

“Now when the day of Pentecost had come, [the first apostles] were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:1-4 NET)

“To fill,” in this case, requires replacing what is already there. These Christ-believers’ “minds” were at least temporarily replaced by the spirit. But the condition described here and elsewhere in these texts do not require that the foreign spirit manifest itself continuously. In fact, that is not what is being described nor what we would expect from other descriptions of spirit possession. In spirit possession, the invasive spirit acts intermittently, manifesting itself in harmful or beneficial ways depending on the type of spirit doing the possessing. This seems to have been the case among the people to whom Paul preached.

Paul himself first experienced this type of spirit possession somewhere in the vicinity of Damascus, Syria. He described the event in his letter to the churches in Galatia.

“When the one [God] who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles, I did not go to ask advice from any human being.” (Gal. 1:15-16 NET)

Paul’s possession states also led him to experience extraordinary visions and divine revelations.

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak…For even if I wish to boast…I would be telling the truth, but I refrain from this so that no one may regard me beyond what he sees in me or what he hears from me, even because of the extraordinary character of the revelations. (2 Cor. 12:2-7 NET)

Note that Paul (referring to himself obliquely in the third person) was “in Christ” when he experienced these visions and auditions. In other words, Christ was in him – interchanging psyches were at work. Paul induced this form of spirit possession in members of his congregations: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27 ESV). Other translations mask the interchanging of personalities by rendering the verse as “you have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Make no mistake. These people are inviting a powerful spirit to dwell within them resulting in a complete personal transformation: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.” (Rom. 13:14 NET) Enter that spirit-possessed state, Paul enjoins, and quench the temptations arising from your human alter-ego.

From Paul’s letters, we learn that the earliest Christ-followers began to equate God’s Holy Spirit with the Spirit of Christ, or the Spirit of God’s Son. In fact, new followers were baptized “in the name of Jesus,” imitative of magical formulae used in the ancient world to call down a divine power for assistance through possession. Acts presents Peter as representing this new form of baptism, not simply as John the Baptizer administered it, that is, as a water-based symbol of atonement, but also involving the conferral of a divine and powerful spirit.

[Peter said:] “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 NET)

Jesus answered [Nicodemus], “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5 ESV)

Paul brought this spirit-infusing baptismal practice with him to the nations (the non-Jews) as apostle to the Gentiles.

“Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? …Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2, 5 NET)

Here, Paul is arguing with members of his Galatian congregation who want to add to their new faith obedience to certain Jewish-specific regulations contained in Torah. Paul reminds them that they received God’s spirit, which empowered them to work miracles, not as a result of becoming Jewish but by accepting his “gospel” of faith.

Paul’s pneumatic ministry was fully realized in Corinth, Greece, in a congregation partly made up of more educated and elitist members. They fully embraced these spirit-possessed, dissociative states in their meetings, manifesting their new abilities in numerous ways.

“For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.”  (1 Corinthians 12:8-11 NET)

As might be expected, such pneumatic, or “pentecostal,” forms of meeting were prone to theological and ecclesiastical disunity and organizational chaos. To ensure the survival of Christ-faith in some kind of universally recognizable fashion, order and orthodoxy quickly came to be imposed. Note that chronologically-later texts within the New Testament play down the role of spirit-possession and heighten the necessity for rules, order, and unity of belief. This revised emphasis is most obvious in the so-called Pastoral epistles, among the latest of the New Testament texts to be written (not by Paul). Spirit-filled prophecy, often inconsistent and contradictory, was no recipe for a long-term, stabilized religion in the Roman empire either. Even in Paul’s day, manifestations of the spirit were leading to disorganization and disunity: the spirits had to be “discerned.” The church tamped down pneumatic expression in favor of ecclesiastical and hierarchical order. When the “new prophecy” of the Christian Montanus arose in the second-century, for example, which proffered new, spirit-induced words of revelation, the church quickly converged and declared the movement “heretical.” The age of pneumatic Christianity was over…or was it?

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