The First “Apostle to the Gentiles”? The Possessed Man from Gergesa

Among the earliest messengers (Greek = apostolos) proclaiming the messiahship of Jesus were the twelve specially chosen disciples and, later, secondary followers of Jesus who learned about him from those who knew him. Initially, these messengers limited their target audience to Jews; after all, the Jewish messiah had come; they based their belief on prophecies found in the Jewish scriptures. Outside Israel, Jewish messengers began sharing news of Jesus with non-Jews. Initially, this happened at Antioch in Syria and possibly in Damascus as well. In time, a targeted mission to non-Jews was launched. One such mission was funded by the Antiochenes themselves. Paul and Barnabas were the messengers they sent. After all, Paul believed himself to be divinely chosen for this role referring to himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles.”

As we can see from this brief summary, there were outreach efforts by the Jesus-people to non-Jews before Paul. The New Testament Acts of the Apostles tells of Greek-speaking Jewish believers who fled Jerusalem under persecution and ended up in places like Antioch and Damascus (and probably Galilee, Alexandria, Babylonia, and even Rome) where they brought news of Messiah Jesus. But were these the first messengers to reach out to Gentiles?

A curious story is told in the Gospel of Mark, and repeated and adapted by Matthew and Luke, about an exorcism that took place in the region of the Decapolis, the ten Gentile cities located east of Israel across the Jordan River (except for Scythopolis, ancient Beth She’an, which lay to the east of the river). The oldest manuscripts of the first three gospels are not unanimous when it comes to exactly what region within the Decapolis Jesus and his disciples were visiting. Some recorded it as Gerasa, some as Gadara, others as Gergesa. The latter was the only region that had a steep bank on the Sea of Galilee, both of which figure prominently in the story.

Mark’s exorcism story is unique in a number of ways. It is the longest such story in the gospels (the Gospel of John has no exorcism stories). It is the only account of an exorcism in which Jesus converses with both the demonic spirit and with its victim. It is also highly politicized.

The story of Jesus contained in the gospels is certainly a source for spiritual learning as it has been for centuries. But it is also a tale of anti-Roman, anti-Satanic political subversion. After all, those who followed Jesus acclaimed him a king without the sanctioning of Rome or the emperor. They announced that Jesus would (now or later) overthrow these forces that oppressed Israel.

The gospel (Greek = euaggelion) that was proclaimed throughout the empire about how Augustus (r. 27 BCE – 14 CE) had brought peace following years of civil war and strife, the one who had put the pirates to flight in the Mediterranean, who had brought economic stability, who encouraged religious revival, was being challenged by Jesus’s supporters. It was not the arrival of Augustus, son of Apollo, savior of the republic/empire, bringer of peace in our time that constituted the good news they said. It was the arrival of Jesus, Son of God, savior of humanity, bringer of peace for the righteous oppressed that was the real good news.

The political messaging is nowhere more evident in the gospels than in the story of the Gergesene demoniac. As the story goes, Jesus approached a man possessed by an “unclean spirit” who had been living “among the tombs.” Jesus was recognized; the unclean spirit identified him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God,” a title claimed by Roman emperors, Tiberius in Jesus’s adult years (14-37 CE). Interestingly, although in the Gospel of Mark the disciples struggle to determine exactly who Jesus is, the demons have no problem identifying him. It is the demonic spirit speaking here, not the victimized man.

The possessing unclean spirit pleads with Jesus not to torment it. In true exorcistic protocol, Jesus obtains the name of the demon, a means by which to gain power over it. It reveals its name to be Legion.

Many are familiar with this demonic name. It features in modern Hollywood recreations of possessions and exorcisms but what is nearly always missed is the first-century political implication of the name. First, consider the time period when the author of Mark wrote (I’ll call him Mark though the gospel is anonymous – names only became associated with them in the second century). Because of certain details given in Jesus’s “little apocalypse” (Mark 13) predicting Jerusalem’s downfall, most scholars believe that Mark was written around the time of the actual destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE after a four-year revolt by the Jews. It actually took longer than four years to root out all the insurrectionists, hostilities finally ending with the capture of the rebel stronghold at Masada in 74. Five Roman legions (nominally 6,000 troops each) were required to quell the revolt. Among them was the Legion X Fretensis, from which a unit was left behind in Jerusalem to prevent any further rebellion. More on this in a moment.

Afraid, the demon Legion asks not to be exiled from the mostly-Gentile region. This is curious.  Was Mark suggesting that demons and Gentiles naturally belong together? After all, Gentiles are among the “sinners” identified by the gospels and Paul (Matt. 5:46-7; Gal. 2:15). Instead, Legion requests to be transposed into a nearby herd of pigs – another indication of the Gentile environment in which the story takes place; pigs were strictly non-kosher. Jesus grants the demons’ request transferring it/them into the pigs (2,000 of them according to Mark). Seemingly of their own accord, the pigs “rushed down a steep slope into the lake,” that is, the Sea of Galilee.

It cannot be coincidence that the demon Legion chose swine for their new home. By way of background, each Roman legion carried an identifying standard (a post with iconic imagery attached) wherever they went that included its own symbol like modern athletic teams have mascot symbols. One of the most identifiable symbols for the Legion X Fretensis was the boar – that is, a wild pig. And Jesus sent this group of pigs into the sea. Remember that the messiah was expected to overthrow the forces oppressing Israel, both human and spiritual. In this story, Jesus demonstrates that he can do both. He rids the land of the legion and banishes Satan’s forces all at once, sending both into the sea. Because the story ends with Jesus doing what the messiah was generally expected to do, it may be that Mark was not yet aware of the tragic conclusion of the Jewish revolt. He may not have known that Jesus did not return and did not vanquish Rome on behalf of his people. But he likely knew that the battle had begun.

But Mark’s story does not end there. The pig herders who we find out witnessed the entire event run back home to tell everyone about it. Their friends and neighbors came back with them and saw for themselves that the previously possessed man, whom the public had been incapable of restraining and had simply abandoned to the wilds, seemed normal. Were they joyous? Were they glad to have their fellow citizen returned to them in good health? They were not. Mark says “they were afraid.” Jesus had demonstrated that he was a legitimate, if insurrectionist, challenger to Rome’s authority. The people wanted none of that – consider that in Mark’s day, during the revolt, they did not want to bring the legions down on themselves.

The formerly demon-possessed man (like many gospel characters, we do not know his name) understood he no longer was welcome at home. Apparently, there was no social mechanism to reintegrate him back into their world. He had been relegated to the marginalized; he was forsaken. Therefore, he wanted to travel with Jesus – where else could he go? But Jesus said no. Instead, Mark records Jesus as directing him to “go to your home and to your people and tell them what the Lord has done for you, that he had mercy on you.” Jesus sent him right back to where he was not wanted but he had a mission. Mark wrote that “he began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him, and all were amazed.” Read this again. Jesus sent him on a mission with a message. He is a messenger of the good news of both Jesus’s victory and the mercy of the Jewish God. He was now an apostle (Greek = “messenger”) to the Gentiles sent not by a vision nor was he self-motivated. He was sent by Jesus “and all were amazed.”

As with the story of the Samaritan woman (John 4), we tend not to pay much attention to what Jesus told these people to do, that is, to proclaim his arrival and his authority. These two individuals, in my view, satisfy the requirements of apostleship even if we do not think of them in the same way as we do the marquee apostles like Peter, Paul, James, and John. But if we take the word for what it means, I do not see how we can rightly deny their place in the gospels as messengers of the good news.

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