Diabolical Possession (in the Bible)

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Strictly defined, diabolical possession is the state of a person whose body has fallen under the control of the devil or a demon. Although the Old Testament was familiar with demons (e.g., the goat offered annually to Azazel and their attempts to harm man, exemplified especially in the case of Asmodaeus in the Book of tobit (Tobias), it would seem that it describes no true cases of possession. The "evil spirit from the Lord" that troubled Saul (1 Sm 16.14, 23; 18.10) can hardly be classed as a demon; in any case, Saul's symptoms point to pathological depression rather than to diabolical possession.

In the New Testament, on the other hand, many cases of possession are described. The possessed person may display superhuman strength (Mk 5.34; Acts 19.16) or knowledge (Mk 1.2324; Acts 16.16). It is clear that the New Testament often attributed to diabolical possession some purely natural afflictions, such as epilepsy (Mk9.1328) and blindness and dumbness (Mk 12.22). Of such it may be said indifferently that they are cured or that the spirits are driven out (Mt 12.22; 17.15, 18; Lk6.18). Part of the reason for these attributions was the lack of knowledge in those days (and even much later) necessary for scientific diagnosis of nervous and mental disorders. This does not provide a basis, however, for a rationalistic denial of the possibility or fact of possession. The indifference with which the New Testament writers often attribute disorders to demons or to more natural causes springs from their theological view of the relationship existing between the devil and his minions, sin, human ills of all sorts, and the mission of Jesus. God created all things good and established man free of every affliction (Gn 1.12.25); death and other human ills entered the world through the sin of man (Gn 3.1619; Rom5.1214), instigated by the serpent that later tradition identified with the devil or satan (Wis 2.24; Rv 12.9). Thus the presence of death and other human ills were a continuing sign of the dominion of Satan in the world. Jesus, coming to establish the kingdom of God, enters into immediate conflict with the satanic powers that have dominion over men. His triumph is seen at the very outset in His personal conquest of temptation (see temptations of jesus) and throughout His ministry in His miracles, especially in raising the dead, in cures, and in exorcisms. So closely are these three types of miracles related in releasing man from the power that held him captive that St. Peter could recapitulate the miracles of Jesus' ministry by saying, "He went about doing good and healing all who were in the power of the devil" (Acts 10.38); Jesus Himself summed it up in a similar way in saying, "Behold, I cast out devils and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I am to end my course" (Lk 13.32). His exorcisms are done by the power of God and are a sign that "the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Mt 12.28); they signify that one stronger than Satan has entered his house, bound him, and seized his spoils (Lk 11.22). The dominion of Satan was radically overcome in the ministry of Jesus, by the conquest of sin in the obedience of His death, and by the conquest of death in His Resurrection, but Satan's efforts will continue until the parousia; for this reason Jesus gave to His disciples and to His Church the power to continue to triumph through exorcism (Mk 6.7, 13; 16.18; Acts 5.16; 8.7;16.1618;19.12).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek, 565567. r. e. brown, "The Gospel Miracles," The Bible in Current Catholic Thought, ed. j. l. mckenzie (New York 1962) 184201. f. m. catherinet, Les Démoniaques de l'Evangile: Satan (Paris 1952). w. foerster, in g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 2:19.

[j. jensen]