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Religious Healing in First-Century Christianity

  by: L.D. HANKOFF
The Journal of
Psychohistory 19(4). Spring 1992

The acts of miraculous healing by Jesus and his disciples form a major theme in the development of early Christianity. In particular, these New Testament accounts frequently portrayed healing as the casting out of evil spirits from possessed individuals. In so doing early Christianity established a model of behavior for both sufferer and religious healer that would continue to modern times. What were the first-century contexts and possible sources for the emergence of early Christian healing? Masses of individuals believing themselves possessed by unclean or evil spirits sought the help of Jesus and his disciples. How can we understand this historical portrayal, its literary and behavioral reality? Does it bear a correspondence to our modern formulation of crowd behavior and possession?

Our modern-day concepts of the occult and the scientific are not readily matched to the understanding that the first-century Palestinian had of the real world. Magic and science did not exist as separate and well defined pursuits or disciplines. Medicine, an art and practice based on observation, shared the marketplace with magical and spiritual healing. In the Roman world, Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.), in his Natural History, recognized that he was stacking in one storehouse "20,000 noteworthy facts" of diverse origins and vastly different natures. While he spoke scornfully of the deceits and lies of the Magi, he dutifully recorded the most fantastic hearsay items without comment. Pliny noted that the powers to heal or transform took both a natural (ratio) and a super-natural (religio) form.(1) The boundaries of magical belief in the Roman world were not clear and much of medical practice was supernaturally rooted. The deliberate trickster, the charlatan, the mountebank exploited popular imagination and took his place alongside the sincere medical practitioner and religious healer In first-century Palestine, the miraculous healing by Jesus and followers occurred within a context of public exorcists and accounts in the Talmud, Flavius Josephus, and other writings.

Among the rabbis, of particular interest is R. Hanina ben Dosa, a con-temporary of Jesus. Hanina lived in Arav in the Galilee and was a student and colleague of the great sage Johanan ben Zakkai. It is likely their association began when Johanan spent 18 years there early in his career, contemporaneous with Jesus. Hanina was renowned for miracles and spiritual healing. When Johanan's son became ill, the teacher asked his disciple to pray for his son "that he may live." Hanina's fervent prayer was answered. Johanan's wife then asked her husband, "Is Hanina greater than you?" Johanan replied that Hanina is like a servant before a king who comes and goes while he, Johanan, is like a nobleman who only comes before the king at specified times. On other occasions when called on, Hanina's words had healing effects.(2)

In the New Testament, the healing power of Jesus of Nazareth is por-trayed as a key element in his attracting public attention and inspiring faith. Spiritual healing by Jesus is mentioned 65 times in the Gospels, all but four of these occurring in the synoptic Gospels. In Acts 12, episodes of miraculous healing by the followers of Jesus are recounted. Specific cases of healing by Jesus are referred to 49 times and general or unspecified references occur 16 times. A specific episode is often repeated in two or three of the synoptic Gospels. In all, 24 healings by Jesus of specific individuals are found.

Could all of these episodes have been the results of good propaganda or the gullibility of willing followers? Let us consider briefly the role of suggestion and imagination in the presentation of the phenomenon of spiritual healing in early Christianity. The New Testament records throngs of individuals seeking healing, villagers carried out on stretchers to the ministering Jesus, and groups traveling long distances to the ex-pected site of healing. It is likely the descriptions became dramatized and enlarged as the episodes were passed from hand to hand and finally recorded or redacted. The witnessing of a few dramatic cases or incidents may have been taken as illustrating the experience of the entire crowd of participants.

On the other hand, the repetition of the accounts in more than one Gospel and their variety and detail points to the existence of some undeniable facts as the basis for the spiritual healing in early Christianity. The presence of large witnessing groups in the various episodes supports the reality of the events and argues against the pure invention of the accounts.

Suggestion plays a significant role in other ways, however. The individual drawn along in a group shares in its emotional experience and is infected by the prevailing beliefs. Individuals not fully experiencing the intensity of spiritual healing may have been swayed by the more dramatic participants. Some individuals may have even innocently simulated the healing experience in order to have shared in the greatness of the events.


The spiritual healing of the records takes three forms: (1) exorcism; (2) healing at a distance by prayer; and (3) magical acts or gestures.

Exorcism, the ritual expulsion of evil or unclean spirits, was an established practice in the Jewish world of the Second Temple period.(3) It was on this background of demonic influence and possession that the depiction of Jesus as a divine healer was drawn. Josephus described how one Eleazar, a countryman, expelled demons from men by placing a ring under the nose of the possessed. The ring contained a root prescribed by King Solomon under its seal and the odor "drew out the demon" through the nostrils of the afflicted one. Josephus makes mention of the root of a plant named for the site where it is found, Baaras, which had the ability to expel demons from men. Eleazar demonstrated his skill at exorcising before a full audience including Vespasian. To convince the witnesses of the actual expulsion of the demon, Eleazar placed a basin of water nearby and on command the departing demon overturned it.(4)

The method of exorcism attributed to Jesus in the Gospel accounts is simply that of directly addressing or rebuking the unclean or evil spirit or declaring that the afflicted healed.(5) "And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw him, would fall down before him and shout, 'You are the Son of God!"' The simple direct command to the occupying spirit is seen in a talmudic account of possession. The Roman Emperor's daughter was entered by a demon, Ben Temalion, that was expelled by R. Simeon bar Yochai, who called out, "Ben Temalion, leave her!"(6)

Healing by prayer, often at a considerable distance from the sick one, occurs in the accounts of the miraculous healing by Jesus and Hanina ben Dosa. Approached by a Roman centurion near Capernaum for help with his paralyzed servant, Jesus listened and was astonished at the centurion's faith. "And when the messengers got back to the house they found the servant in perfect health."(7) In the district of Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman asked for help with her daughter who was tormented by a devil. Jesus replied, "Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted." Returning home the woman found her daughter cured.(8) Nearing Samaria on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus was hailed by ten lepers asking for pity. Still at a distance, Jesus called out, "Go and show yourselves to the priests," and the lepers discovered themselves cured.(9) One of the group, a Samaritan, turned back to thank Jesus and praise God. In all of these cures by a simple declaration, the recipients are gentiles. The fact of their being gentiles served as a message that faith, regardless of formal religious identity, was the saving element.(10)

Hanina's miraculous healing was marked by the fervency of his prayer. In healing the son of R. Gamaliel of a fever, Hanina was at a considerable distance, perhaps in the Galilee. He had announced at an exact moment that the fever had left the boy, the timing being confirmed by witnesses in the boy's home. Healing at a distance offers this kind of opportunity for proof and so we find exactly the same detail in relation to the healing of the centurion's servant. In the Fourth Gospel the story is dramatized by servants bringing news of the recovery to the official as he returned home from his encounter with Jesus.(10) In another demonstration of faith, when a girl fell into a cistern, Hanina announced hourly that she was well and finally that she was saved, a miraculous agged stranger (Abraham) intervening.

A variation on healing by prayer is presented when the sage Benjamin the Righteous (probably Abba Benjamin) became dangerously ill. Angels called out to Heaven the charitable deeds of Benjamin, the fatal decree was removed, and 22 years were added to his life.(11)

A talmudic account describes healing brought about by a show of sympathy. A disciple of R. Akiba fell ill and the sages did not visit him. When R. Akiba (d. 135 C.E.) set out to visit him, the disciple's house was prepared in anticipation. Seeing this the disciple promptly recovered, declaring, "My master, you have revived me."(12)

The revival of the dead (or near dead) in the various accounts usually took place by a simple declaration from the healer. When the son of the widow of Nain was being carried for burial Jesus said, "Young man, I tell you to get up," and the dead man sat up. Lazarus, dead four days, had to be approached by the removal of the stone at the tomb opening. Jesus offered a prayer and then called out, "Lazarus, here! Come out!" to accomplish the revival of the dead man. The daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official, who appeared dead was, according to Jesus, only asleep, and he quietly roused her, saying, "Little girl, I tell you to get up."(13) A similar feat is ascribed to the apostle Peter who brought back to life a pious woman from Jaffa by prayer followed by a command to stand up.(14) The returning to life of the seeming dead was not unknown in those days of rudimentary medical knowledge; Pliny describes the physician Asclepiades of Prusa reviving dead men who were awaiting burial or cremation. Pliny recounts six incidents of spontaneous revival but then opines that most of these stories are false.(15)

A third form of healing, involving magical acts and gestures, bore some resemblance to empirical medical practice, which often turned to bizarre concoctions and amulents. On three occasions Jesus used his saliva in a healing process. The restoring of sight to a blind man at Bethsaida in the Galilee begins with Jesus applying spittle and laying on hands. The man replied he could see but not clearly, whereupon Jesus again laid his hands on his eyes and he saw clearly. A more complicated course occurred in the case of a man blind from birth. Jesus in Jerusalem, seeing the man, made a paste on the ground with saliva, applied it to the blind eyes, and directs the blind man to wash in the Fool of Siloam, where his sight was granted.(16) The application of a paste composed of spittle and dirt is reminiscent of a formula for curing blindness in the Book of Tobit. An angel instructs Tobias, son of Tobit, to save the gall from a huge fish he had landed and apply it to eyes blinded by a white film.(17) A third use of spittle by Jesus occurs with a man both deaf and speech-impaired. In the region east of the Sea of Galilee, the crowd brought this man to Jesus to lay hands on him. Jesus took him away from the crowd, put his fingers into the man's ears, applied spittle to his tongue, and looking up to Heaven, said, "Be opened," upon which the man's ears were opened, the ligament of the tongue loosened, and clear speech obtained."(18)

Healing by touch figured dramatically in the career of Jesus. It is also mentioned in the Talmud although no unequivocally first-century episode is to be found. An interesting sequence involves a late second-century rabbi, Johanan ben Nappaha. Johanan was able to cure colleagues of illness by simply taking the sufferer's hand and raising it. When he became ill, another sage visited him and cured him by raising Johanan's hand. It was, of course, asked why Johanan could not cure himself, to which the reply was, "The prisoner cannot free himself from jail." The description of the healing by Jesus of Simon Peter's mother-in-law of a fever uses almost exactly same formula in one Gospel as that of Johanan's healing. Jesus "took her by the hand and lifted her up." This same language appears in the healing by Peter of a lifelong cripple seen at the Temple gate. Peter told the cripple to rise, took him by the right hand and raised him up. The cripple's bones were strengthened, and he leaped up. Jesus cured a leper by touching him, and demonstrated in addition his willingness to make physical contact with this sufferer. Jesus restored sight to two blind men by simple touch.(20)

Healing through direct contact also occurred when the sick were able to touch the garment of Jesus. A woman who suffered a hemorrhage for 12 years touched the fringe of his garment and was then told by Jesus that she was healed. In still another extension of healing through contact, garments of scarves taken from Paul's body cured the sick and caused the departure of evil spirits.(21)


There are significant contrasts between the healing described in the Talmud and that of the New Testament. The talmudic accounts are few in number and always involve individuals in contrast to the profusion of New Testament accounts and the innovation of mass healing. Not only Jesus but the apostles Peter, Philip, and Paul heal entire crowds of people. Furthermore, exorcism by a first-century rabbi is never reported, and the second-century encounter with the demon Ben Tamalion is entered into with great reluctance by R. Simeon b. Yohai. R. Simeon resorted to exorcism only as a means of annulling a decree of persecution by Rome against the Jews.6 When Johanan ben Zakkai spoke with an idolater about possession, he belittled rituals concocted to chase out demons.(22) Almost all talmudic references to demons are after the first century.(23)

As we have seen from the talmudic reports of healing by prayer, Jesus could not have been criticized by the Pharisees for engaging in spiritual healing per se. However, the healing practices of Jesus were in significant conflict, actual or theoretical, with Jewish religious law in at least four way: (a) He carried out healing acts on the Sabbath (elective healing was forbidden by Jewish law on the Sabbath). The Gospels describe the criticism Jesus received from those in the synagogue when he healed on the Sabbath and the defense he made for his healing acts;(24) (b) In the process of miraculous healing, he forgave the sins of the sick (forgiveness being the realm of God);(25) (c) When he cast out devils he was accused of sorcery by the Pharisees who said he used the prince of devils, Beelzebub.(26) A reference in the Talmud repeats the accusation of sorcery and states that "Yeshu was hanged" for this and for enticing Israel to apostasy. This talmudic statement, censored in many editions, is apparently an authentic reference to Jesus from the Second Temple period.(27) While its historical accuracy may be questioned, it is highly significant as a statement based on contemporary sources in the life of Jesus. This accusation of sorcery appears as a response to the proliferation of demonological beliefs in disease and cure among the followers of Jesus; (d) The use of saliva by Jesus as described in three healing acts many also have been questioned by the Pharisees. Jewish Law prohibited the use of certain incantations for healing purposes because of their heretical nature. Commentators on this law add that expectorating together with the use of God's name is an act of disrespect.(28)


Eight of the 24 healing episodes of Jesus in the Gospels and four of the 12 in Acts refer to an unclean or evil possessing spirit. The New Testa-ment descriptions of demonic possession cover a wide variety of illnesses. The possessed were sometimes mad, savage, or violent in their bahavior. Epilepsy was cured, as was a woman bent double for 18 years from possession by a spirit. When Peter Simon's mother-in-law fell ill, her fever was "rebuked" to achieve her cure. Mary Magdalene was cured of seven demons and the Gadarene demoniacs were relieved of their unclean spirits into a herd of 2,000 pigs.(29)

The New Testament demonological cures were at odds with first-century rabbinic sentiments. Fears about demons and their powers were widespread and precautions were taken to avoid them. The kordiakos, a delirious condition described in the Talmud, was attributed to a demon, and cemeteries and privies were considered dangerous because of lurking demons.(30) Involvement with demons, however, in a manner suggestive of witchcraft or sorcery, was regarded severely. In several places the Pentateuch gave the specifics of forbidden magical practices: (a) divination or soothsaying; (b) sorcery, the casting of spells, or enchantment; and (c) necromancy.(31) The Talmud detailed these Pentateuchal prohibitions, condemning those practitioners who summoned ghosts (Heb., ovos) as a means of soothsaying or exorcised demons.(32) In the first century B.C.E. drastic measures had been taken to eradicate witchcraft, R. Simeon b. Shetah ordering the hanging of 80 witches in one day in Ashkelon.(33) When Jews in the first century attempted healing in the name of Jesus, the Talmud condemned the practice.(34) The turn of Jesus and his followers toward a spiritual healing centering on demonology strongly set them apart from rabbinic belief. Starting from a common acceptance of divine assistance in healing, the New Testament embraced demonic ex-planations far beyond what the rabbis could accept. Talmudic medicine as it unfolded in this period and later was empirically oriented and placed little etiological value on demonic possession.(35)

In the typical talmudic view of disease, an internal pathological state needed correcting, most usually by removal of a physical bane. The demonological theory of disease also looked to an internal cause but through a turning away from a physiological to a psychological (really a psychophysical) frame of reference. Jesus and his followers minimized anatomical and physiological aspects of treatment and the New Testament writers presented the supporting evidence. Bones were straightened, a deformity of many years was corrected, a withered hand made whole, a fever dispelled, and conditions existing from birth corrected instantly. Anatomy posed no limit for demonic theory. In a unitary view of the individual, body and spirit are one and inseparably experience healing or sickness. The spiritual healer and the afflicted individual shared a view of disease in which the body-spirit entity is curable by spiritual means.

In so elaborating the demonic element in spiritual healing, the New Testament authors advanced a disease concept of nearly universal proportions. A single cause could explain all illness. The New Testament, however, is not a medical textbook, and Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter and son of a carpenter, an ethical genius, did not bring a medical viewpoint to the wide array of sufferers who sought his healing miracles. We need not deal with miracles when we ask, How were so varied a group of conditions attributed to demons? And, Why were so many people concurrently suffering from demonic possession?

The exclusiveness of the new faith in the area of demon control is demonstrated in the episode of the Jewish false exorcists who using Paul's name to conjure spirits were violently rebuked. Only the truly faithful had power over demons. Another episode in Acts which points up the extended power of the new faith over the spirit world is that of Paul and a fortune-telling python girl who pestered him with her unsolicited demonic voice. In this episode, after several days of her voices. pursuing him, Paul angrily dispelled her demon because it bothered him, not her. She had not sought help and her voices had been a source of profit which was now sorely missed by her business managers.(36)

The healing acts and other demonic encounters achieved a new model of the spirit world and its means of confrontation. However, the battle lines had already been drawn in the great test of Jesus by the Satan in the desert. Following baptism Jesus received the Holy Spirit and went into seclusion in the desert for a prolonged period of fasting. During these forty days he experienced the presence of the devil who tempted him to violate his faith. He emerged from this trial and immediately launched into his ministry with vigor and designated his first disciples. He was isolated and actively contended with the devil during his prolonged period of bodily mortification.(37) He emerged in an empowered state with himself as the sole witness to the internal events. The context for spiritual healing was now established as a confrontation with unclean spirits wherever they could be found. This visionary quest of Jesus which prepared him for his ministry was an encounter with Satan which defined for the Gospel readers the great antagonists for mankind's souls.


The broader cultural context of the phenomenon of possession may shed light on the first-century prominence of spiritual healing. The anthropological study of belief in possession has demonstrated its remarkably wide distribution. Oesterreich in his classic 1921 work traced the long historical record of possession and exorcism.(3) In the highly varied presentations of possession, Oesterreich noted the distinction between those forms in which normal awareness of one's individuality was temporarily lost and those in which self awareness was preserved, the somnambulistic and lucid forms of possession, respectively. Further-more, the possessed individual is not always a victim or sufferer, but in some cultures a ritual leader enters a state of possession as a means of healing the participants. The ritual leader in such rituals serves as a medium for a healing deity or supernatural being.(38)

Bourguignon systematically reviewed 488 cultures and concluded that three-fourths demonstrated some form of belief in possession.(39) Bourguignon found it useful to distinguish between cultures that did and did not manifest trance behavior in conjunction with possession. When the belief !n possession combined with a trance or altered state of consciousness (ASC), an occasion for a healing or exorcism ritual followed. Exorcism as a curing ritual takes extremely varied forms around the world, although some features are typically present in the possessed individual experiencing an ASC: (a) a changed physiognomy or personal appearance; (b) a changed voice; and (c) a new personality. This form of total transformation, somnambulistic possession or demoniacal somnambulism, is often followed by amnesia. A general sequence is often observed in which the belief in possession brings the afflicted individual to the center of a public healing ceremony. The audience engages in enthusiastic ceremonial dancing, drumming, or singing which facilitates the induction of the ASC in the possessed individual. The possessed one in an ASC is confronted by the knowledgeable and powerful healer, exorcised, restored to health, and afterward amnesic for the ASC. Can this observed sequence accommodate the descriptions of early Christian healing of the possessed? In some New Testament episodes a typical sequence is discernible. The possessed individual was carried along in the crowd to Jesus. The voice of the possessing demon is heard from the mouth of the possessed individual. Exorcism followed at the command of Jesus, and the healed individual became his faithful follower. The legion of devils in the Gadarene demoniac pleaded not to be expelled. The exorcism left the healed man sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus. The very first healing episode in the ministry of Jesus, as described in Mark and Luke, portrays a possessed man whose unclean spirit challenged Jesus harshly by words through the man's mouth. Jesus replied, "Be quiet. Come out of him," and the unclean spirit, throwing the man down, left with a shriek.(40)

When the possessed individual publicly manifested an ASC, the elements for an exorcistic healing were put in place. As a general term, alternate state of consciousness refers to an experience in which there is a significant change in awareness of environment and self from our ordinary waking state or normal consciousness. A developing science of consciousness in recent decades has expanded enormously our knowledge of ASCs, an area which we can barely touch here. In the ASC of the possessed individual, the possessing entity typically appears to replace the personality, voice, and behavior of the individual. Psychologically the phenomenon has been described as one of dissociation, the possessing entity being dissociated or operating apart from the conscious awareness of the individual. Dissociation serves as a psychological defense in the normal as well as in pathological conditions. Normal dissociation serves to split off unbearable feeling, images, and cognitions that create psychophysiological overload on the functioning conscious state of the individual. Among the most pathological conditions in which the mechanism of dissociation is significant is the multiple personality disorder (MPD). In the MPD the various personalities of the individual are dissociated and function autonomously even when they are aware of each other. Dissociation is the key defense mechanism for the presentation of an ASC. What are the factors which may induce an individual to utilize dissociation and enter into an ASC? Among the most studied ASCs which may fall within normal experience is the trance induced by hypnosis. The hypnotic trance offers an opportunity to study an ASC under controlled and experimental conditions. The major components of the hypnotic experience have been listed as absorption, dissociation, and suggestibility.(41) Absorption refers to a condition of highly focused atten-tion in which background awareness is lost. Dissociation may be observ-ed in the response to a post-hypnotic suggestion of which the individual lacks awareness but carries out involuntarily. Suggestibility refers to a heightened responsiveness to social cues, the individual following the lead of those in the social environment. When the fame of Jesus took hold in the Galilee, the crowds which came to see him might very well have facilitated ASC experiences. The individuals were totally absorbed in the words and gestures of the charismatic new healer, and the power-ful suggestion of his healing ability was in every mind.

The similarities between states of possession and MPD have often been noted. The multiple or double personality disorder as studied in contem-porary psychiatry is characterized by two or more separate and distinct personalities in the individual. Most cases have more than ten per-sonalities, sometimes innumerable ones are reported. The demons or devils inhabiting the afflicted healed by Jesus were sometimes multiple: seven in Mary Magdalene and legion in the Gadarenes. In MPD a dissociated alternate personality often expressed hostility toward the primary personality. Violence toward others is common and suicide may occur. In MPD the various alternate personality elements are derived in some way from the individual's past life experience and constitution. The savage or assaultive behavior and the devil speaking through the mouth of the possessed in the New Testament resemble the more explosive MPD patients. The processes of cure in possession and multiple personality bear some similarity. The healer obtains the attention of the interloper, addresses it directly, and restores full self-control to the suf-ferer. The exorcist and the psychotherapist follow a roughly similar course of action except for their final act. When the demon has been collared, it is expelled or destroyed, whereas successful MPD treatment ends with a fusing of the alternate personality with the primary personality of the individual.

Possession and MPD have the common element of more than one entity occupying a single person, a condition that defies our ordinary sense of psychophysical unity. For our understanding of first-century religious healing, however, another similarity of possession and MPD may be of more importance, namely, their common use of external consensual validation in order to take full form. Both possession and MPD require a process of interaction between the sufferer and a discerning observer for an appreciation of the condition's seriousness and need for help. In treatment, the diagnosis of MPD is frequently difficult to make, and the patient may have a long career of help seeking before the diagnosis is agreed upon. The possessed individual, similarly perturbed and perplex-ed learns of being possessed from the reactions and descriptions of others. The specifics of the possession belief of the culture provide the outline for the features found in the afflicted individual. In both possession and MPD, continuing events and interactions are important in the shaping and elaboration of the full picture and the individual's reaction to the condition.(42)

In MPD, the element of interaction has often raised the issue of an iatrogenic contribution to the dramatic features of the condition. To what extent has the zealous psychotherapist suggested symptoms to an accommodating patient? Does a preconception on the part of the clinician lead to an imposing of a history and subjective features on the sug-gestible patient? The doubts about MPD as a meaningful psychiatric diagnosis have been essentially dispelled in the past decade by the ac-cumulation of clinical data and the establishment of well-defined diagnostic criteria. The dependence on a highly interactive relationship between patient and diagnostician, nevertheless, remains as a significant clinical concern. The key feature of dissociation in MPD requires an intimate exploration of experiences and symptoms that are ordinarily lost to consciousness. The clinician often relies heavily on inference to arrive at a formulation with the MPD patient. As treatment progresses and the features are delineated, techniques such as hypnotherapy may be applied in which the alternate personalities are brought directly into the treatment setting. Similarly, in possession, the knowledgeable exorcist captures the attention of the possessing demon and thus makes clear the nature of the affliction.

The shaping of the possession experience is suggested in the New Testament descriptions of devil encounters. Jesus interacts with the possessing demons and issues direct commands to them. When the devils issue shrieking from the mouths of the possessed, Jesus orders them to be silent. The onlookers are struck by his power: "He gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him."(42)

The sociocultural influence on the manifestations of possession and MPD is borne out by a historical perspective on the two phenomena. Oesterreich noted that possession declines in societies as the "belief in spirits loses its power" (p.378) and with the arrival of Christian missions among primitive peoples. MPD has followed an even more erratic historical course.(43) In the early nineteenth century, the reports of divided personalities, long noted in legend and anecdote, became the subject of scientific study. Cases were studied with great interest throughout the century. The attention of such figures as Pierre Janet, Morton Prince, and William James underscored the scientific importance of MPD.(44) Interest, however, changed early in the twentieth century, and the prior reports were criticized as the unwitting shared fantasies of patient and doctor. Recent decades have seen a change back to the view of MPD as a significant clinical reality. The meaning of demonic possession took a decided historical turn with early Christianity. The New Testament, more specifically the synoptic Gospels and Acts, defined possession as the particular domain of the early faith and the possessing unclean spirits as the particular antagonists of the new-found faith. When Jesus began to build his following, he specifically empowered his disciples in the realm of the demons. He gave them "authority over the unclean spirits" and directed them to "cast out demons."(45)

Does the comparison with MPD illuminate the question of the role of individual psychopathology in possession? MPD is clearly a pathological condition with a high incidence of comorbid psychiatric disorders, destructive and dysfunctional behavior by the alternate personalities, and nearly always a history of childhood abuse. Most MPD cases have an age of onset before l2.(46) In general, possession appears more limited in its scope of dysfunction and more related to immediate life circumstances. Bourguignon has related the practice of exorcism for possession to cultural settings characterized by an oppressive social structure, a lack of trust in social institution, and an inability to protest or resolve social conflicts.(47) The ceremonial exorcism which operates within the power of the society's belief system may result in conflict resolution or tension reduction. The ceremony is enormously supportive and cathartic. The possession condition is interpreted by the group as the "cause" for some of the sufferer's past difficulties. Personal problems or symptoms may be reinterpreted in terms of possession and the "blame" for difficulties redirected. Palestine under Roman rule had much in common with the characteristics noted by Bourguignon in cultures which practice the exorcism of the possessed. The Roman rule was oppressive, often brutal and impoverishing, and tolerated no political initiative or protest. In offering healing through exorcism and declaring a kingdom of God available on earth, Jesus reframed an intolerable situation and provided an experience of relief and hope.

A key element in the clinical picture of MPD is a history of abuse in childhood. Careful studies have elicited reports of childhood trauma in nearly every case of MPD.(46) These reports have often been verified and figure prominently in the pathogenesis of MPD. The child experiencing trauma may respond with the emotional shielding mechanism of dissociation. ln this defensive maneuver, the individual may be able to feel separated from the trauma as if it were happening to someone else. The child may have experienced an overwhelming traumatic situation or, more often, have been exposed to repeated abuse of a physical, sexual, or psychological nature. The dissociative state evoked in childhood trauma may become a template for the dissociated personality element which forms the phenomenological basis for MPD. The dissociated condition takes on an identity distinct from the primary personality of the individual.

Might the possessed individual share with MPD an experience of child abuse? Almost nothing is told of the New Testament sufferers in terms of background. Is there general background evidence of significant child abuse in Palestinian society? There are fragments of information on the subjects of corporal punishment, sexual exploitation, and infanticide that must be examined cautiously. The morality and habits of Roman society may have had little in common with the province of Palestine.

The Talmud, which reveals considerable detail on everyday life in Palestine, assumes a higher moral standard for Jews compared to their gentile neighbors. However, we know that Jews of the era had slaves and were subject to the corrupting influence of the power of a master.

It is likely that school was a scene of some physical punishment. Corporal punishment was permitted by the Jewish schoolteacher. Children began school at age 6, and the Talmud cautions the eager teacher not to mete out severe punishment to a child under 12.(48) Furthermore, the teacher is told to whip only with a shoe latchet.(49) A child fearing his father's punishment died when he jumped into a cistern.(50) Another child struck in anger by his father died, leading to the suicide of the mother and then of the father. (51)

Is it likely that sexual abuse of children occurred in 1st century Palestine? The Roman world was awash in sexual license and exploitation. The literature and history of the era reveal the most extremes of sexual abuse is "indulgence". When Nero's wife died in 65 CE., the Emperor re-placed her with a youth who resembled Poppaea. Castrated and dressed in feminine finery, the youth fully served Nero as his new empress.(52) Did Palestine suffer from pollution by Roman mores? Philo writing in the Hellenistic atmosphere of Alexandria compares the restraints of Jewish law with the sexual license he apparently observed around him. Pederasty "formerly a disgrace" is now a matter of boasting, and youth lose their masculinity as a result of effeminate practices.(53) Alongside Philo's condemnation of the sexual practices of the gentile world, the Talmud offers the formal religious legal view of these matters. Temptations and opportunities for sexual misconduct are to be avoided and an unmarried man was forbidden to teach small children.(54) The Talmud had many references to pederasty and its condemnation is clear. However, the very frequency of the talmudic references and the precautions offered to avoid its outbreak may have been drawn by the likelihood of its occurrence. This remains an open question.

"Proselytes and those that play with children delay the advent of the Messiah."(55) This indirect reference to sexual exploitation of children is a typical talmudic approach to two very difficult and complex legal prob-lems. Sexual activity outside of marriage was forbidden and punishable with death under certain circumstances. For an act that does not warrant capital punishment, a lesser punishment is meted out and the community suffers the presence of degrading behavior. Proselytes are grouped with pederasts in this judgment because proselytes were likely to commit religious infractions that reduced the religious sanctity of the community but likewise did not warrant execution. The advent of the Messiah was hoped for when a generation was worthy of such a blessing.

While pederasty was severely condemned by the Talmud, child mar-riage was not. The father could promise in marriage the young girl at 12 and at 13 the boy could enter into legal marriage. It was viewed as desirable for youth to be married soon after puberty.

In the gentile population of Palestine it is likely that Roman and Mid-dle Eastern mores made pederasty a commonplace. In the Jewish population the practice was probably more covert but not necessarily rare. Furthermore, slavery practiced by Jesus and gentiles facilitated the des-cent into sexual exploitation of master over his chattel.

Vestiges of the ancient savagery of child sacrifice and infanticide persisted in first-century Roman society. The mass child sacrifice of the Carthaginians in prior centuries was regarded with horror. However, it is likely that infanticide was easily accepted by first-century Romans as a means of family planning. The excess of males in the adult population as indicated by burial inscriptions(56) is likely evidence for the infanticide of newborn girls. It was a time when there was a strong impulse to small families or even no children at all for many carefree Romans. When it was prophesied that Rome would have a king born shortly, the Senate forbade the rearing of males for the year.(57) The decree was thwarted, however, and Augustus was born that year fulfilling the prophecy. In the second century, a certain Julianus sacrificed many boys in magic rites.(58)

The Jewish prohibition on murder and human sacrifice clearly includ-ed infanticide, a point emphasized by both Philo(59) and Josephus.(60) Philo describes the context of infanticide in vivid terms, suggesting that in his Hellenistic environment infanticide was commonplace, at least in the surrounding gentile population.

Should we suspect child abuse as a factor in the possession sufferers flocking about Jesus and the apostles? The possibilities for child abuse, particularly sexual exploitations, were likely in the Roman and gentile world and must have included Palestine to some degree. Might in-dividuals traumatized in childhood been predisposed to a dissociative state that was manifested as possession? The case of Mary Magdalene, a prostitute possessed by seven spirits, is the most suggestive of a picture resembling MPD. It is possible that her childhood may have been marked by the kind of trauma that we associate with the etiology of MPD. Of the many other possessed cured by Jesus we can only conjecture on the etiological contribution of early childhood trauma.


Many times in the New Testament the scene is presented of throngs in a state of great arousal, seeking cures for a variety of illnesses, and many under the influence of possession. The details suggest the phenomenon described above of the possession ASC for at least some of those in the crowd. The health-seeking individual who becomes the object of group attention and the contagion of group expectations may now appear acted upon by the possessing demon. The possessed individual is observed by the group, which provides the public memory of the events and are witness to the changed status of the individual and the new expectation.(39) The sick came out from the village, some even carried as their physical condi-tion required, to be healed by Jesus. The expectation of the group was intense. The possessed individual was acted upon by the powerful healer and, most important, a fundamental change followed the healing exer-cise. While the individual may have been relieved of a physical condition the more important change was that of the acceptance of the faith in a new order presented by Jesus and his followers. In this regard it is in-teresting to note that in one mass healing described in Matthew, the cor-responding description in Mark omits any reference to healing but states only that Jesus "taught" the assembled group.(61) It has been pointed out that in modern faith healing as in American Christian sects the signifi-cant element is often that of a renewed faith rather than a change in physical status. The significant accomplishment in modern faith healing is that of the internal change of religious belief while the actual physical condition may remain unchanged and not pose an issue in terms of faith.(62)

In contrast to the New Testament descriptions, no report of mass heal-ing is to be found in the Talmud. We do, however, know of emotionally aroused crowds from Josephus, who described false prophets and charlatans attracting huge crowds expecting miracles. A certain Theudas led a large following to the Jordan River with the promise that the waters would part; a large band of "dupes" followed an Egyptian who claimed prophetic powers; and a large number of Samaritans gathered on their holy mountain at the prodding of a pretender. All were slaughtered by the Romans.(63)

Joseph astutely observed that on "festive occasions" when the Jewish population converged on the Jerusalem Temple to carry out its sacrificial obligation, "sedition is most apt to break out."(64) The holiday throngs, spiritually aroused by the meaningfulness of a religious pilgrimage, were easily led to protest against Roman rule.

Crowd behavior also took the form of mass suicides in war, Josephus describing 12 such episodes, usually involving civilians or soldiers facing defeat or in panic. Interestingly, two of the mass suicides involve the drowning of Gadarenes, as did the pigs of the Jesus exorcism.(65) Both of these Gadarene drowning episodes in Josephus occurred before the Gospels were written and might have influenced the details of the thousands of drowning pigs. Of the cases of spiritual healing the majority are set in the rural areas, mostly the Galilee. This is particularly striking in the synoptic Gospels, where out of 65 references to miraculous healing by Jesus, only one is in the urban setting of Jerusalem. I suggest that the rural condition played a role in spiritual healing, the uneducated farmers and laborers of the Galilee being more easily convinced of both demonic possession and its exorcism than an urban audience.

The impressions given in the Gospels and Acts are of throngs of people ostensibly suffering from various illness, pressing forward to be healed. How could small villages have had so many sick individuals? How were they able to assemble themselves to provide the healer with a mobile clinic for his work? Animated by the news of miraculous healing by Jesus, Galilean and Samaritan villagers flocked to see him. The word of the revival of Lazarus, for example, was a specific reason given for throngs wishing to see him. In the towns of the Galilee and the Decapolis large crowds followed him. Many traveled considerable distances from Sidon and Tyre, Jerusalem, and beyond the Jordan. The crowds were so great he feared being crushed. One wonders at the vigor of these diseased people traveling great distances over difficult terrain for the uncertainty of a miraculous cure. Obviously, the writers of the New Testament were comfortable portraying multitudes of sick and possessed individuals as physically able to travel between cities. Their infirmities could not have interfered with their hiking abilities.

Can we gauge the mood of these crowds of sufferers seeking a cure? The massing of individuals under the impetus of a shared belief brought them in physical contact with one another. Canetti in his penetrating work Crowds and Power notes that the stringent social restriction on touching are removed under conditions of the crowd. "There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown… a human propensi-ty as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality.. It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched."(66) Within the crowd the individuals are in contact and the physical reality of the crowd recreates the original social self, the syncytial self with ties to the existing and historical tribe. Touching by the healer figured prominently in spiritual healing. The shared feeling and common existence of the sufferer and healer was thereby demonstrated.

The experience of merging with the crowd, responding to its direction, limiting one's individuality, is in a continuum with a state of dissociation. The individual's consciousness is narrowed, judgment is partially suspended, and a state akin to a trance exists. The excitement of the crowd replaces individual concerns. With demonic possession and its cure the central focus, the individual taps his own fund of experience to fit the demonic model: who has not sinned? In effect, any sinner might be a part of the crowd seeking spiritual healing. Jesus provided direction for participating in spiritual healing by emphasizing the role of faith in the seeker. For example, he tells the Canaanite woman whose daughter is tormented by a devil, "Woman, you have great faith, Let your wish be granted." Every sinner who was a believer was thus a candidate for spiritual healing and could join the crowd seeking Jesus and his miraculous powers.


In framing the behavior of crowds psychologically in terms of dissociation or trancelike state, I am not suggesting that mental illness is the total explanation for demonic possession. Trancelike states are often part of normal creativity or imagination in unique or ambiguous situa-tions. Our most complete case report of an ASC and spiritual healing in the New Testament is more understandable as religious experience than as mental disorder. This is the episode of Paul on the road to Damascus, who following a vision of Jesus was sightless and did not eat or drink for three days. Led to Damascus, Paul was cured by the laying on of hands and the words of faith from Ananias, a Jewish-Christian.(67)

Empirical studies of crowds provide insights relevant to the New Testament reports of mass sufferers and healing. It has been found that observers will impute to all crowd members the ostensible sentiments and behavior of the crowd.(68) Thus, observers will assume most crowd members are looking at the speaker and attuned to the speaker's message. Such reported observations are usually an overestimation and contrast with the fact that crowds do not begin as homogeneous assemblages but rather contain many curious or interested bystanders and a few more ac-tive individuals. It is the action of a few conspicuous individuals which may have the effect of giving a crowd its identifiable characteristic. It is this characteristic which emerges as a crowd norm when the qualities of a few have become a standard of feeling and conduct for most of the crowd members.

In a study of American Christian faith healing, Pattison et al. found psychopathology of significance for a small segment of the population studied." They noted that while all members of the community believed in faith healing only a few experienced it. Among those experiencing faith healing, most sought and found a reinforcement of their faith. A small subgroup, however, experienced faith healing but continued to report disruptive personal and interpersonal experience. As in Milgram's studies, a few individuals in the crowd may set the tone of expectation.(68) That these attention-getting cases may be more pathological (and more like MPD) remains as a conjecture.

In the New Testament situation, the crowds, assembling to view an itinerant preacher of some notoriety, may have been stimulated by the action of a few individuals experiencing ASCs. The most dramatic of these cases of demonic possession may have been among those cases ac-tually named in the Gospels. The majority of curiosity seekers in the crowd may have been thus provided with a model or an emergent norm of demonic affliction and its expected cure. The witnesses of the events may quite naturally have reported a uniform picture of the sufferers and the healed.


Spiritual healing, as we know, was a major theme, perhaps the key one, in the development of early Christianity and the presentation of Jesus and his disciples as purveyors of a developing faith. The effective-ness and ready acceptance of spiritual healing by the mass of Jews and non-Jews who encountered it is related to the fact that it brought together several disparate strands of meaning. Possession by itself was well known and accepted as a reality throughout the known world. For the early Christian, however, possession by an evil spirit was pitted against faith in Jesus and his God. The dispelling of this evil spirit was incorporated by the faithful into the unified healing of spirit and body. The appearance of a possession and its cure by exorcism emerged as one standard public model for spiritual healing and induction into the new religion. Physical conditions and psychological disturbances were viewed as equally open to the effectiveness of the dispelling of the possession evil spirit. To this belief system was added the unique contribution of Jesus that faith in a kingdom of God on earth was the essential and curative element for the suffering individual. Thus, the spiritual healing of developing Christianity wove together the extant beliefs of the era with the hopes of the sufferer and the vision of a curative faith.

While spiritual healing was an established tradition in rabbinic Judaism, the New Testament depictions of cures by Jesus and the apostles were a radical development which served to widen the inevitable separation of the two religions, These portrayals of mass illness and mass cure of demoniacs combine the following elements: (a) demonology was promulgated as a universal disease theory by the developing church; (b) all demons challenged the new faith and could by overcome by true faith; (c) traveling exorcists were commonly seen performing for fees; (d) the rural Galilean personality often was easily aroused to emotional expression; (e) the psychological defense of dissociation in predisposed individuals served to narrow consciousness, block out inconsistencies, and sometimes contribute to the formation of an ASC based on an inner template of sinfulness; and (f) the sensation-seeking crowds utilized these individuals in a model of illness and faith healing. With these diverse contributants the healing of the demoniac became a major theme in the developing religion. REFERENCES BELOW

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1. Pliny Natural History 12/15/65.
2. Babylonian Talmud: Berakoth f.34b; Yebamoth f.121b.
3. Traugott K. Oesterreich. Possession and Exorcism: Among Primitive Races in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modern Times. New York: Causeway Books, 1974; Dieter Georgi. The Opportunity of Paul in Second Corinthians. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp.102-3, 152; Jewish Encyclopedia. s.v. "exorcism").
4. Josephus. Ant. 8.46; War 7.178.
5. Matthew 8.32, 15.28; Mark 9.26, 2.12; Luke. 8.28, 13.12
6. B. Talmud: Meilah f. 17b.
7. Luke 7.10; Matthew 8.13.
8. Mark 8.30; Matthew 15.28.
9. Luke 17.17.
10. Samuel T. Lachs. A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Iloboken, NJ: Ktav, 1987, p.156.
11. B. Talmud: Baba Bathra f.1 Ia.
13. Matthew 9.24; Mark 5.41; Luke 8.55, 7.15; John 11.43
14. Acts 9.41.
15. Pliny, op. cit., (n. 1), 7.37.124; 26/8/14; 7.52.173-8
16. Mark 8.22; John 9.14
17. Apocrypha: Tobit 6.9.
18. Mark 7.32.
19. B. Talmud: Berakoth f.5b.
20. Mark 1.31., 41; Matthew 8.31 9.29, 20.34; Luke 5.13; Acts 3.7.
21. Matthew 9.20; Acts 19.11.
22. Midrash Rabbash: Numbers 19.8. An important example of spiritual healing in the post-Second Temple is that of R. Judah the Prince (2nd-3rd century C.E.) who as redactor of the Mishnah is the foremost figure in the Talmud. There lived in his neighborhood the two grandsons of R. Johanan b. Gudgada who were mute but who were attentive to the presence of R. Judah when he entered the college. He prayed for God's mercy for them, they were cured, and it then became evident that the two mutes were extraordinarily versed in religious learning (Hagigah f.3a).
23. jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. "demonology.99
24. Mark 3.2; Matthew 12.11; Luke 13.14,14.4.
25. Matthew 9.5; Mark 2.6.
26. Matthew 9.34, 12.24; Mark 3.22; Luke 11.16.
27. Joseph Klausner. Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times and Teaching. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, p.47; Morris Goldstein. Jesus in the Jewish Tradition Macmillan Co.: New York, 1950, p.22.
28. Mlshnah: Sanhedrin 10.1.
29. Luke 13. 11,4.38, 8.2; Mark 5.13.
30.L. D. Hankoff. Ancient descriptions of organic brain syndrome: the "kordiakas" of the Talmud. American Journal of Psychiatry. Aug.1972, 129:2, 233-236.
31. Leviticus 19.31, 20.6, 20.27; Deut. 18.10-11; LEncyclopaedia Judaica s.v. "magic."
32. B. Talmud: Sanhedrin ff.65a-66a; Kerithoth f.3b.
33. Enc. Jud., 14.1564; Mishnah: Sanhedrin 6.4.
34. Goldstein, op. cit. (n.27), p.33, B. Tat: Abodah Zaraft f.27b.
35. J. Snowman. A Short History of Talmudic Medicine. New York: Hermon Press, 1974.
36. Acts 16.16, 19.13.
37. Matthew 4.1-11; Mark 1.12-13; Luke 4.1-13.
38. Raymond L. M. Lee. Self-presentation in Maylaysian spirit seances, in Colleen Ward (ed.), Altered States of Consciousness and Mental Health, Sage, 1989, pp.251-266.
39. Erika Bourguignon. Possession. San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp, 1976.
40. Mark 1.23-28; Luke 4.33-36.
41. David Spiegel and Etzel Cardena. New uses of hypnosis in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry Oct.1990, 51:10 Supplement 1 3943.
42. Mark 1.25, 27, 34; Luke 4.35, 41.
43. Michael G. Kenny. Multiple personality and spirit possession. Psychiatry Nov.1981,
44, 337-350; Erika Bourguignon. Multiple personality and possession trance. Ethos
17:3, Sept.1989, 371-384; Nicholas P. Spanos. Hypnosis, demonic possession, and multiple personality, in Ward (n. 38), pp.96-124.
44. One case description is recorded as early as 1816 (Pierre Janet, The Major Symptoms of Hysteria. New York: Hafner, 1965); and a report in Germany in 1791 described a case of "exchanged personality" (Henri F. Ellenberger The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books, 1970, p.127).
45. Matthew 9.35; Mark 3.13,6.7; Luke 9.1.
46. Frank W. Putnam. Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press, 1989.
47. Erika Bourguinon (ed.) Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change. Columbus: Ohio State University press, 1973.
48. B. Talmud: Kethuboth f.503a.
49. Ibid. ,Baba Bathra flIa.
50. Ibid., Semahot 2.~5.
51. Ibid., Chullin f.94a.
52. Suetonius. Nero, 27.
53. Philo. The Special Laws 1.60, 3.6.
54. B. Talmud: Kiddushin f. 82a.
55. Ibid., Niddahf. lib.
56. Keith Hopkins. On the probable age structure of the Roman population. Population studies 1966, 245,264, Pierre Salmon. Population et depopulation dans l'Empire romaine. Brussels: Latomus, 1974 p.80.
57. Diodorus Skulus. 20.14; Plutarch. De Superstitione. 171 .D. 13; Polybius. 37.9; Suetonius. Augustus, 94; Porphyry. On Abstinence From Animal Food, 2.26.
58. Dio Cassius. 74.1 6.5.
59. Philo, op. cit. (n.53), 20.110.
60. Josephus. Against Apion 2.202.
61. Matthew 19.2; Mark 10.1.
62. David Hufford. Christian religious healing. Journal of Operational Psychiatry 1977, 8:2, 22-27.
63. Josephus Ant. 20.97,169; 18.87.
64. Ibid., War 1.88.
65. L. D. Hankoff. Flavius Josephus: First Century A.D. view of suicide. New York State Journal of Medicine. Oct. 1977,77:12, 1936-1992.
66. Elias Canetti. Crowds and Power. New York: Continuum, 1981, p.15.
67. Acts 9.9, 9.17, 22.13.
68. Stanley Mugram. The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1977, pp.215-243.
69 E. Mansell Pattison, N. A. Lapins and H. A. Doerr. Faith healing; a study of personality and function. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Dec.1973, 157:6, 397409.

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