Acts 19:11-17 reports the amusing story of the Sons of Sceva who attempt to cast out demons in the name of Jesus and Paul. Jewish exorcists are well known in the ancient world. Legends about Solomon’s great power of demons were well-known. Josephus says God gave Solomon great wisdom, but also remarkable magical powers (Antiq. 8.42-49).
“God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return, and this method of cure is of great force unto this day.”
He goes on to describe a Jew by the name of Eleazar who cast out demons in the presence of the emperor Vespasian and many other witnesses. The method Eleasar used to cast out the demon was strange: “He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed.”
Solomon is not the only Jewish name thought to have magical powers. In Paris Papyri 574, the exorcist says to the demon, “I abjure you by Jesus the God of the Hebrews,” and “hail God of Abraham, Hail God of Isaac, hail God of Jacob, Jesus Chrestus, Holy Spirit, Son of the Father.”
In Ephesus, at least some Jewish exorcists attempted to use the names of both Jesus and Paul as “power words” to cast out demons. This is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek ἐξορκιστής (exorcist) is used. When commanded, the demon reverses the usual process and “exorcizes” the exorcists! This humorous scene shows that the God of Paul is not to be manipulated like the other gods of the ancient world.
The news of beating of the sons of Sceva spreads quickly. The text says that the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor (μεγαλύνω). This does not necessarily mean people became believers. The word appears in Acts 5:13 to refer to the reputation the apostles gained in Jerusalem (“held in high regard by the people”), but certainly in that context people were not converted to Christianity.
What are the implications for modern evangelism and/or church life? While I suspect this will have a different application in the West as opposed to other parts of the world where a belief in demons is more vivid, American Christianity is not immune from using the name of Jesus as a quasi-magical word that someone guarantees we “get what we wished for.” This kind of neo-paganism is common, but very dangerous.