The Gerasene Demoniac (Mk 5:1-20) is the most dramatic exorcism account in the gospels. I am going to leave aside the text critical problems surrounding Garasenes/Gadarenes/Gergesenes and some of the other historical issues (Gerasa is about 55/34 miles from the lake and Gadara about 8 km/5 miles away) for the moment and concentrate on the meaning of the story. The Jewish worldview is evident as the demonic realm is represented by ritually unclean places (the tombs), animals (pigs) and persons (the demoniac appears to be a Gentile - note how he addresses Jesus as “Son of the Most High God” [cf. Gen 14:18-20; Num 24:16; Deut 32:8; Ps 82:6; Isa 14:14; Dan 3:26; 4:32, 34]). There may also be a political edge to the story (see esp Meyers 1988, 191-97; Horsley 2001, 141-47). Both Meyers and Horsley build on the observations of Frantz Fanon that the colonized displace their anger from real political forces that invade and oppress them to malevolent spirits and thus the actions of the demoniac is a public symbolic act reflecting the collective anxiety over Roman imperialism. Second, a “legion” (λεγιών) calls to mind a Roman military unit (can be up to 6000 soldiers, though only 2000 pigs drown) as does a ”herd” (ἀγέλη) who “charge” into the sea. The drowning of the pigs has scriptural echoes of the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Sea in the Exodus story. Finally, though much more debateable some see a specific referent behind the story such as Vespasian’s reconquest of northern Palestine by sending Lucius Annius to Gerasa with a calvary and a number of foot soldiers (War 4.9.1) (Meyers 1988, 191) or the Tenth Legion (symbol was the boar’s head) who besieged Jerusalem (War 5.71-97) and may have sacrificed a pig to the Roman standards in the temple (cf. War 7.17; 6.316) and in 71 attacked the fortresses of Machaerus and Masada, both with cliffs over the Dead Sea (Incigneri 2003, 191-94; note this doesn’t fully explain why the story has “Gerasa” but Incigneri notes on pp. 193-4 n. 137 that this feature may be because Simon ben Gioras came from Gerasa [War 4.503] and had been defeated & executed as part of the Roman Triumph).
Not all scholars embrace this political reading. In his review of Horsley, Gundry argues “legion” simply means numerous (“for we are many” in v. 9) (2003, 137) and Boring cites a parallel from Horace who spoke of a “cohort of fever demons” (Odes 1.3.30) (2006, 151), but both overlook the other military imagery and Exodus imagery as well as the comparative analogy of colonial Algeria cited by Horsley. Boring thinks that the real implications of the story is that Jesus drives unclean spirits out of Gentile territory so that Israel is no longer exclusively “holy land” (2006, 152). However, Daniel Cohen has strong arguments against a pro-Gentile reading: he points out that there had always been a Jewish presence in the Decapolis at least since most of them were conquered by Alexander Yannai (103-76 BCE) though the “significant indigenous Jewish population that was marginalized by a colonial Greco-Gentile population with the support of Roman imperial power” (2010, 153-56) and his Jewish reading is that Jesus intends to rid the world of foreign imperialism and restore the land to Jewish sovereignty while Gentiles are still permitted to live in Eretz Israel (2010, 159). Cohen also protests the over-interpretation of Mk 5:19-20 as a commision to a mission field when Jesus simply tells the healed man to go home (οἶκος) and tell his close family & friends what the “Lord” (i.e. god of Israel) had done for him, which he subsequently disobeys by breaking the theme of secrecy and telling everybody how much Jesus has done for him (2010, 160-68; I am not entirely convinced by Cohen that Mark sees the Gentile mission as “illegitimate” [p. 168] as there are other hints in the gospel from the asides about Jewish customs to the Syrophoenician woman, the two feeding narratives or eschatological predictions of a mission to the nations [13:10; 14:9] that Mark writes for a mixed audience, but I agree with Cohen that this story is not primarily about the Gentile mission). Finally, Joel Marcus allows that the pre-Markan story may have been a satire of the Roman milatary presence (e.g. the legion, the wild boar emblem on a Roman legion stationed in Palestine [cf. 1 Enoch 89:12]), but argues that it is unclear if the evangelist shared such anti-Roman sentiment or was more focussed on the battle against Satan (2000, 351-52), but it seems to me that in the ancient worldview earthly/heavenly realities were intertwined and human political conflicts had a heavenly counterpart (e.g. the chief prince Michael as defender of Israel against the princes of Persia or Greece in Dan 10). Walter Wink writes that for Jews or Christians, “The spirit [Satan] they perceived existed right at the heart of the empire, but their worldview equipped them to discern that spirit only by intuiting it and then projecting it out, in visionary form, as a spiritual being residing in heaven and representing Rome in the heavenly council (1992, 7). Thus, if we get rid of the anachronistic “separation of church and state”, the story of “Legion” fits in with the broader message of Mark with its announcement of the imminent coming of God’s kingdom or empire and of the Son of Man in power as a direct challenge to the current political order and the unseen spiritual forces thought to rule through it.
- Boring, M. Eugene. Mark. The NT Library; Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
- Cohen, Daniel. “The Geransene Demoniac: A Jewish Approach to Liberation before 70 CE.” Pages 152-173 in Judaism, Jewish Identities and the Gospel Tradition: Essays in Honour of Maurice Casey. Edited by James G. Crossley; London and Oakville: Equinox, 2010.
- Gundry, Robert. “Richard A. Horsley’s Hearing the Whole Story A Critical Review of its Postcolonial Slant.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26 (2003)
- Horsley, Richard. Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
- Incigneri, Brian. The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003)
- Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8. Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000.
- Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. New York: Orbis Books, 1988.
- Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.