Evil Spirit or Epilepsy: a Third Way?

Recently in a class with J.R. Daniel Kirk, we discussed this passage in Mark 9:

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy1 to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy,2 and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus1 asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out,1 “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. (Mar 9:14-27 NRS)

Johnson Reginald Daniel Kirk has already addressed the issue on his blog here, but I had some brief thoughts that I wanted to share as well. In class, it was noted that Joel Marcus consistently uses epilepsy to describe this encounter with the demon possessed boy. A few options are immediately apparent:

  1. The boy had a medical condition that Jesus ignorantly considered demon possession.
  2. The boy had a medical condition which Jesus described as demon possession to be understood.
  3. The boy had a medical condition caused by the presence of a demon.
  4. The boy did not have a medical condition, but the effect of demon possession closely resembled the effects of a medical condition.

The first has the disadvantage of not taking the text seriously, but the second, third, and fourth are purely speculative. Personally, I find option three to be the most appealing as a balance of my convictions concerning science and the Bible.

Perhaps Paul can be of help in providing models for understanding the relationship of medical condition to possession. In Romans (and other letters), Paul rather curiously introduces Sin and Death as personified powers. Beverly Gaventa, for example, argues that Paul portrays Sin as a cosmic power involved in the apocalyptic showdown. Sin works counter to God’s good creative force in the world corrupting all it touches, and it is portrayed as deviously twisting the scriptures for its own end. We could call it merely a metaphor, but Paul seems to view Sin as a truly real force. That is not to say that sin as the rebellious behavior of individuals is not present. It most assuredly is, and Paul insists that we will all be judged on the basis of it. Nonetheless, Sin as a force is a reality in the apocalyptic battle ground of Romans. The relationship of Sin the power to sin the action is not clearly explained, but there is the general sense that the latter emerges from the former.

So how does all that help us with the question at hand? It seems to me that we can view this relationship between Sin as a power and the localized instantiation of sin as a model for understanding the relationship between the condition of the boy and the demonic powers. Whatever sin occurs in the life of individuals is mundane—that is, it would be appropriate to say, for example, that Fred cheated on his wife. This is a completely true statement. However, it is also completely true to say that the power of Sin has warped human sexuality and the risen Lord is coming again to set it to right. Maybe the boy had epilepsy, but even so the powers of demonic forces were at work in his life. However you want to slice it, the Son of Man exercised his authority over all things to confront the condition of the boy and in so doing defeated demonic powers.

Leave a Reply