Acts 19 – Exorcists in Ephesus

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.”

seven-sonsIn 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.

Jesus and Demons

As with his healings, Jesus commands the demons to leave without invoking an authority (Matt 8:28-34).  Later exorcisms in Acts are done in the name of Jesus, but Jesus simply command the demons and they leave the victim.   In fact, knowing the name of the demon was consider the first step in an exorcism.  In Luke 7:26-36 Jesus encounters a man with a demon living among the tombs near Gerasenes.  This demon speaks to Jesus and calls him “Son of the Most High God.”  This ought to have given the demon power of Jesus since he knows Jesus’ true name.  But Jesus simply commands the demon to give his name, then commands the demon to come out of the man.  No other authority is necessary for Jesus to cast out the demon, they simply obey him.

Also absent from Jesus’ exorcisms are the elaborate preparations for an exorcism described in contemporary literature. [Tobias] took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him (Tobit 8:2-3).  The Testament of Solomon is more or less a manual on how to cast out demons written in the third century A.D., although it may contain material from much earlier.  In this story, workers in the Temple find a ring which is able to control demons.  Solomon then captures and interrogates a series of demons.  They are forced to give there name and what they are in charge of as demons.  Then Solomon forces them to explain how they are cast out.  For example, in chapter16  Solomon interrogates a demon called Kunopegos, a spirit in the shape of a horse in front and a fish in back (a sea-horse?)   He can change himself into a man and causes seasickness.  In order to thwart this demon, one must go through a complicated ritual involving bowls and hemp ropes. Solomon sealed him with his ring and stored the demon away.

What is the point of Jesus’ exorcism ministry?  Twelftree argues that there is a two-stage defeat of Satan being described in the gospels, the first mission of Messiah render the power of Satan useless, it is in his second coming that he will judge him and consign him to the Lake of Fire (270).  Satan is trying to hinder Jesus’ ministry, but Jesus constantly defeats him with no struggle whatsoever.

Bibliography:
G.  H.  Twelftree, “Demons, Devil, Satan,” in DJG 163-172.

Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook for the study of New Testament Miracle Stories (Routledge, 1999).