I’m often asked if I believe demons are real and if so, can they really live within people and take control away from them. I always answer, “Yes. Demons are real and the Bible gives evidence of people being controlled by them.” There are several instances in the Holy Bible relating to how Jesus cast out demons from possessed people and this article is about one such instance recorded in the synoptic Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the synoptic1 Gospels, because they include many of the same stories, often in a similar sequence and in similar wording. Most scholars agree that only two viable reasons for such parallel accounts can be given: either a gospel writer knew and used the gospel of others, or there was some other common, but unknown source, which is referred to by academics as the gospel of Q.2 ‘Q’ comes from the German ‘quelle’ meaning ‘source’.3 Matthew, Mark, and Luke stand in contrast to John, whose content is largely distinct.4
Many gospel events can be compared closely by using what book publishers call a ‘parallel’ or ‘harmony’ account, which compares the three book reports’ side-by-side; some of them include the book of John, too. This is a very useful and timesaving tool. The one I use most is A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels for Historical and Critical Study,5 but there are many good ones available at most Christian book outlets, and you can also find one on-line6 to use for free.
Anyway, we are going to study the event of Jesus casting out demons near the city of Gadara.7 Please read the story at Matthew 8:28–34, Mark 5:1–20, and Luke 8:26–39, because there are slight differences which some people consider contradictory. If you don’t have the time to read the scripture now, I have provided an overview, along with our study.
Jesus Heals a Man with Demons
Remember the story of Jesus calming a storm on the sea? Well, it is right after that event, when Jesus and those with him came ashore, in several boats (Mark 4:36), on the other side of the sea in the region of the Gadarenes, where he met a naked demoniac,8 who lived among the tombs of the area’s graveyard. Being a fierce man, he had been previously bound many times with shackles and chains of which he would shatter to pieces.
“These tombs were caverns, natural or artificial, in the sides of the rocks, containing cells in which the dead bodies were placed and closed up.” The entrances to some caves were not sealed on the outside, but had an access separate from the burial chamber, that could have been used as the man’s home. These tombs are still visible in the outlying areas of the cities in the region.9
The man is elaborately described as a pathetic outcast; shrieking wildly and cutting himself with sharp stones, showing “that demon possession is not mere sickness or insanity but a desperate satanic attempt to distort and destroy God’s image in man.”10
There is one contradiction that stumbles many readers; Mark and Luke speak of a single demoniac, but Matthew indicates two possessed men. Many scholars believe that Mark’s and Luke’s accounts only reference the one man, because it was through that particular one which Jesus confronted the demons.
We can only speculate why the men were demon-possessed; they had to be more than just sinful people, like us all, so how did that happen? As one scholar suggested, their sin, of some nature or other, “opened the way for this awful curse, and that when the alien spirit had taken hold of body and mind and will, it had the power of plaguing with various disorders—with wild, moping, melancholic madness, or with epileptic convulsions, or blindness, or dumbness.” The discernment of the Jews distinguished between these common maladies and those inflicted by malign spirits.11 We should accept this event with insight into how careful we must all be to keep away from satanic influences.
Jesus commanded of the demon, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” (Mark 5:8, ESV).12 Kneeling before Jesus and speaking through the possessed man, the demon asked, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” (Luke 8:28). Jesus asked the demon, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many” (Mark 5:9) and he begged not to be sent into the abyss. “The demon’s warped plea for exemption from torture, when it is itself the source of torture, is heavy with irony.”13
Many demons possessing the two men were indicated by the name the leader used. “A legion, in the Roman army, amounted, at its full complement, to six thousand, but here the word is used, as such words with us, and even this one, for an indefinitely large number. . . .”14 And they controlled these men and subjected them to intense oppression. They tormented them “as one combined force under the leadership of one demon, their spokesman. This accounts for the alternating singular (my) and plural (we) pronouns” in various verses.15
Noteworthy is that the demons recognized who Jesus was (the Son of the most high God), even from some distance away (Mark 5:6), and they knelt down before Jesus, not as an act of worship, but out of respect or homage to one of a higher power than themselves. And the question they raised, “What have you to do with me?” is an idiom16 meaning “what have I done to you that you should do this to me?”17 (Also see: Judges 11:12; 2 Chronicles 35:21; 1 Kings 17:18.)
What are Demons, anyway?
As mentioned above, the demons begged Jesus not to be sent into the abyss, implying that it was not their time. Evidentially, they already knew a time was coming when this would happen. The abyss refers to a deep pit or underworld where Satan and his fallen angels will be bound during the millennium (see: Revelation 20:1-3).18 But it is also inhabited now—with demons!
It is possible that demons must be embodied to survive on the surface for any length of time, but that disembodied spirits must, otherwise, go underground. Although the nature and abode of demons is explained extensively in the ancient Jewish apocalyptic religious text of 1 Enoch, and also in the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are also threads found in the Bible, too.
The demons are disembodied spirits of deceased hybrid angel-humans (Nephilim), originally produced by the villainous sons of God (see Genesis 6:1-4), who later died when God flooded the earth. One reference to this is in 2 Peter, when speaking of the fallen angels in the days of Noah: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment. . .” (2 Peter 2:4).19 (For more about the Nephilim, see the link to a previous OBS article in References & Notes following this article.)20
What About All Those Pigs?
“Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, ‘If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs,’” (Matthew 8:30-31). So, Jesus gave his permission, “And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea,” (Mark 5:13).
Since pigs were unclean animals for the Jews, why were they even around in such a large number? Why did Jesus give the demons permission to enter the animals? Pigs may not fly, but they can surely swim, so why did they drown?
The area where all this happened was Gentile territory with a federation of ten cities, called Decapolis.21 So a herd of pigs would be common, since it was a standard food for Gentiles and sometimes a sacrifice to their pagan gods. Jesus sending the demons into the pigs, even though they were someone’s property, may have been a message to all; if the pig’s owners were Jews, they were dealing in an illegal trade, but if the owners were heathens, they insulted the Jew’s national religion, so either way the permission was just.22
Some few researchers suggested the pigs were producing manure to fertilize crops, or that the Greek word (choiros) meant not swine but an indigenous type of little lamb in the Akkadian23 language (maybe, but this is a bit ‘far-out’ in my opinion). And finally, one suggestion was that these were wild feral hogs overrunning the country side.24 The story was interpreted by Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to mean that Christians have no obligations to animals and this thought has been a point of contention in discussions of Christianity and animal rights.25
Pork was forbidden by law as food to Israel for a good reason: pigs were scavengers and at that time the animal was vastly inferior to the higher bred domestic animal we know today. Back then, it furnished a food too gross for such a climate. So, “where Christ comes in, the swine must go out.”26
The pigs were drowned—why? Just running into the sea should not have caused their death, since pigs can swim. One writer suggested they made a conscience choice to commit suicide, figuring that it was better to die than to live with the demons.27 I’m sorry, but I can’t buy that answer; pigs can’t think and reason like humans. It makes a lot more sense that, considering what the demons did to the two men, the pigs were just overwhelmed and went berserk (another word for being possessed by a demon), therefore causing their own death. Or maybe Jesus directed them to do so, as part of a lesson.
The author that suggested the pigs used their own volition to commit suicide, did add a good point: “the pigs, which were likely used in sacrifices to pagan Gods, redeemed their goodness in Creation by being sacrifices for the removal of evil . . . Maybe their example of sacrifice to eliminate evil was a radical message from the least likely source?”28 Or perhaps this is another possible example of a miracle that has a visible lesson—the point being that the deliverance of one man (or two) is worth the destruction of many pigs.29
The Story’s End
“And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region.” (Matthew 8:34). What a shame! In return for Christ’s works of love, majesty, and mercy, the citizens cared more for the pigs than they did for the poor men who were nearly destroyed by the demons.30 Author Nathan Aaberg wrote: “Maybe what was so unsettling to the people of this region was not just Jesus’ ability to free the demon-possessed man of the demons, but also the seeming suicide of the pigs.” The way they ended their lives doing something good may have been deeply unnerving.31
So Jesus got into a boat to leave, but the men (or at least one of them), now free of the demons and clothed by the disciples, wanted to follow Jesus, but was denied the request and told that a far nobler calling would be to return to the cities and exclaim the good news of what happened. Spreading that news was actually the first recorded witness of Jesus’ abilities in a Gentile area.32 It foreshadowed what would soon happen after Jesus’ death (Luke 8:38-39).
One thing we can learn from this account is that evil spirits are real. They are not just figures of speech to indicate certain bad habits, or bad qualities, or diseases. To believe that way announces to others that you believe there is no devil, no real entity producing evil in this world. How pleased Satan must be to hear people talk in such a way.33
Another thing we learn is that it is wise to read the many events of Jesus’ life on earth in all four Gospel books, because each apostle has viewed or considered each event a bit differently. This presents us with extra details, explanations and perspectives. Putting it all together will give us a more detailed description of what happened.
For more information about Satan, the devil, and demons, enter one or more of those terms into the “Search the OBS Site” search box on the right side of this website. It will indicate a selection of Outlaw Bible Student articles available on those subjects.
Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- synopsis: Greek term meaning ‘seeing all together’ or ‘giving an account of the events from the same point of view.’
- Wallace, Daniel B, “The Synoptic Problem,” (Bible.org, retrieved 11 August 2019), https://bible.org/article/synoptic-problem
- Slick, Matt, “What is the gospel of Q and does it prove the Gospels are false?” (CARM, Christian apologetics & Research Ministry, retrieved 11 August 2019), https://carm.org/what-gospel-q-and-does-it-prove-gospels-are-false
- “Synoptic Gospels,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 21 May 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels
- Burton, Ernest De Witt, and Goodspeed, Edgar Johnson, A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels for Historical and Critical Study, (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917).
- Beckham, Jeremy, “The Synoptic Gospels presented side-by-side,” (Parallel Gospel, 2014, [powered by Biblia/Logos Bible Software]), http://www.para-gospel.com/section
- Gadara: capital of the Roman province of Perae, 6 miles (9.7 km) SE of the Sea of Galilee.
Easton, M. G., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (London: Thomas Nelson, 1897).
- de•mo•ni•ac: [from Greek daimoniakos, from daimon-, daimon] 14th century; possessed or influenced by a demon.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
- Exell, Joseph S., The Biblical Illustrator: St. Mark, (London: James Nisbet & Co., n.d. [about 1905]), p. 189.
- Grassmick, John D., “Mark,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, (Eds.), (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, p. 122-123.
- Exell, Joseph S., The Biblical Illustrator: St. Mark, (see above), p. 190.
- All scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), ©2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. The text has been used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Gruenler, Royce Gordon, “Mark,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 774.
- Jamieson, Robert, et al., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), vol 2, p. 70.
- Grassmick, John D., “Mark,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (see above), p. 123.
- idiom: a phrase or expression that has a figurative meaning that is different from the literal meaning.
- The NET Bible First Edition Notes, (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Matthew 8:29.
- Brand, Chad, et al., (Eds.), “Abyss,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), p. 15.
- Heiser, Michael S., “Where Do Demons Come From?” (Logos Talk, 28 October 2015), https://blog.logos.com/2015/10/where-do-demons-come-from/
- Hermann, Ray, “When the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind — the story of the Nephilim,” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 9 December 2019), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/when-the-sons-of-god-were-having-sexual-relations-with-the-daughters-of-humankind-the-story-of-the-nephilim/
- Cline, Austin, “Jesus Punishes the Swine with Demons,” (Learn Religions, 25 June 2019), https://www.learnreligions.com/jesus-punishes-the-swine-with-demons-248690
- Jamieson, Robert, et al., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, (see above), vol 2, p. 71.
- Akkadian language: Akkadian is an extinct East Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia from the 30th century BC until its gradual replacement by Akkadian-influenced Eastern Aramaic among Mesopotamians between the 8th century BC and its final extinction by the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.
“Akkadian language,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 18 July 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akkadian_language
- “Top ten reasons why there were pigs in Gerasenes,” (Linear Concepts, 17 October 2012), http://www.linearconcepts.com/archives/2011
- “Exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 20 July 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exorcism_of_the_Gerasene_demoniac
- Exell, Joseph S., The Biblical Illustrator: St. Mark, (London: James Nisbet & Co., n.d.[about 1905]), p. 196.
- Aaberg, Nathan, “Demons and Pigs — A Fresh Look,” (Whole Faith Living Earth, 20 August 2018), https://www.wholefaithlivingearth.com/demons-and-pigs-fresh-look/
- Schreiner, Thomas R., “Luke,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 817.
- Exell, Joseph S., The Biblical Illustrator: Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1952), p. 152.
- Aaberg, Nathan, “Demons and Pigs — A Fresh Look,” (see above).
- Martin, John A., “Luke,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, (Eds.), (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, p. 227.
- Exell, Joseph S., The Biblical Illustrator: St. Luke, (London: James Nisbet & Co., n.d. [about 1905]), vol II, p. 64.
9 thoughts on “Demons, Jesus, and the Pigs”
Thanks for a very interesting post and for referencing my blog. Your words have prompted me to write another post on the story – https://www.wholefaithlivingearth.com/more-on-jesus-demons-and-pigs/ I suspect you will still disagree with me on multiple points, but it is good to have a dialog. I really appreciate your willingness to tackle topics from the Bible in new and candid ways.
Your comment is appreciated. I have read your current post and agree with your assessment that, upon Jesus’ return, he will “include the restoration of our respect and right relationship with all of God’s Creation.”
Seems like I can’t give you enough compliments on your writings which has opened my eyes and changed my thoughts on so many Biblical subjects.
I was curious about the title of this article and wondered how pigs would become part of a Bible subject. This all came together and made so much sense. Thank you again.
Your comment is more than gracious — thank you. I am pleased that you find my articles of educational value; that is the primary purpose of this ministry.