Possession and Exorcism in the Literature of the Ancient Church and the New Testament


It seems natural for a modern reader to include the phenomenon of possession in the category of disease, and to regard the exorcism narratives of the New Testament as a special case of narratives of healing of disease.(1) Since the New Testament otherwise does not seem to tell about healing of mental diseases, it seems natural to regard the exorcism narratives as exactly that: people suffering from mental disorders who were healed from their disease. The exorcism narratives can be seen as a special case of disease narratives also in another way: They explain the causes of disease by reference to the work of evil spirits, demons. Then it becomes as difficult for us to relate to this causal explanation as when the same explanation is applied to bodily diseases.

In this article I would like to point to a perspective which to some degree problematizes the approach which I have just sketched. I would suggest that in antiquity one did not primarily approach possession and exorcism as a phenomenon of disease, but that it was interpreted in light of a different and more comprehensive frame of reference. I will make this explicit by going through some texts from the ancient church – then I will look at some of the New Testament texts.


Let me begin with Tertullian, his Apologeticum (Defense, written 197 A.D.: the book is regarded as the most outstanding book within the Latin apologetical literature prior to Augustine). (2) Tertullian constructs this book as a commentary on two accusations that are directed against the Christians: (1) “You do not worship the gods”; and (2) “You do not offer sacrifices for the emperors”. (3) The first half of the books, ch. 10-27, is a comment on the first accusation, and the answer is short and pointed: “We do not worship your gods, because we know that there are no such beings” (“Deos vestros colere desinimus, ex quo illos non esse cognoscimus”, Apol. 10,2) (4) Tertullian then starts with the critique of Greek mythology which for a long time ago had become customary within parts of the ancient philosophy, and which had been taken over by the Jewish and Christian apologetical tradition. One notices soon, however, that Tertullian intentionally steers towards a climax, which comes in ch. 23-27. Here the common critique against polytheism is left for – I believe – a specifically Christian motif. The saying “your gods do not exist” does not mean that the Greek-Roman gods are mere phantoms due only to human projection. In the Greek-Roman cults one related to real powers, who do exist, but they are not what they purport to be. They are not gods. They are demons. “And we affirm indeed the existence of certain spiritual essences; nor is their name unfamiliar. The philosophers acknowledge there are demons” (Apol. 22,1). (5) The activity of the demons consists in deceiving human beings, tricking them into worshiping the demons as gods. In this way they lead people away from the true God.

Tertullian gives this bold assertion, which probably sounded quite provocative in the ears of a reader in antiquity, a rather surprising basis in Ch. 23ff. Let me quote an excerpt:

“But thus far we have been dealing only in words; we now proceed to a proof of facts, in which we shall show that under different names (god and demon) you have real identity. Let a person be brought before your tribunals, who is plainly under demoniacal possession (daemone agi). The wicked spirit, bidden to speak by a follower of Christ, will as readily make the truthful confession that he is a demon, as elsewhere he has falsely asserted that he is a god. Or, if you will, let there be produced one of the god-possessed (de deo pati), as they are supposed, ….if they would not confess, in their fear of lying to a Christian, that they were demons, then and there shed the blood of the most impudent follower of Christ…. The truth is… that neither themselves nor any others have claims to deity, you may see at once who is really God, and whether that is He and and He alone whom we Christians own; as also whether you are to believe in Him, and worship Him, after the manner of our Christian faith and discipline.But at once they (the demons) will say, Who is this Christ … is he not rather up in the heavens, thence about to come again… All the authority and power we have over them is from our naming the name of Christ, and recalling to their memory the woes with which God threatens them at the hands of Christ as Judge, and which they expect one day to overtake them. Fearing Christ in God, and God in Christ, they become subject to the servants of God and Christ. So at our touch and breathing, overwhelmed by the thought and realization of those judgment fires, they leave at our command the bodies they have entered… It has not been an unusual thing, accordingly, for those testimonies of your deities to convert men to Christianity (“haec testimonia deorum vestrorum Christianos facere consuerunt”; Apol. 23,4-18) (6)

This text contains several interesting points ov view – which in a strikingly consistent way are found in all of the literature of the ancient church. Before commenting further on these views, I would like to give some more textual examples which may give an impression of the wide distribution of these motifs.

Justin Martyr (ca. 160 A.D.): “For we do continually beseech God by Jesus Christ to preserve us from the demons which are hostile to the worship of God, and whom we of old time served… For we call Him Helper and Redeemer, the power of whose name even the demons do fear; and at this day, when they are exorcised in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified under Pontius Pilate, governor of Judæa, they are overcome. And thus it is manifest to all, that His Father has given Him so great power by virtue of which demons are subdued to His name, and to the dispensation of His suffering” (Dialogue, 30,3). (7)

Same author: “He (Christ) said, “I give unto you power to tread on serpents, and on scorpions… and on all the might of the enemy”. And now we, who believe on our Lord Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, when we exorcise all demons and evil spirits, have them subjected to us (Dialogue 76,6) (8).

In Dialogue 85,1-3 Justin refers to the exorcisms as the very evidence of the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the Father: “For every demon, when exorcised in the name of this very Son of God – who is the Firstborn of every creature, who became man by the Virgin, who suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate…who died, who rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven – is overcome and subdued. But though you exorcise any demon in the name of any of those who were amongst you – either kings, or righteous men, or prophets, or patriarchs – it will not be subject to you. But if any of you exorcise it in (the name of) the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, it will perhaps be subject to you. Now assuredly, your exorcists, I have said, make use of craft when they exorcise, even as the Gentiles do, and employ fumigations and incantations.” (9)

Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 180 A.D.): The Greek poets were inspired by demons. “This is clearly evidenced by the fact that even today demons are exorcised from possessed in the name of the true God, and then the deceiving spirits confess themselves that they are the demons who once worked in the poets…” (Ad Autolycum II,8).

Origen (ca. 235 A.D.): The critic of Christianity, Celsus (ca. 175 A.D.), “asserts that it is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of power”. Origen continues, “Hinting, I suppose, at the practices of those who expel evil spirits by incantatons. And here he mainfestly appears to malign the gospel. For it is not by incantations that Christians seem to prevail (over evil spirits), but by the name of Jesus, accompanied by the announcement of the narratives which relate to him; for the repetition of these has frequently been the means of driving demons out of men, especially when those who repeated them did so in a sound and genuinely believing spirit. Such power, indeed, does the name of Jesus possess over evil spirits, that there have been instances where it was effectual, when it was pronounced even by bad men…” (Contra Celsum I,6). (10)

“If then the Pythian priestess is beside herself when she prophesies, what spirit must that be which fills her mind and clouds her judgment with darkness, unless it be of the same order with those demons which many Christians cast out of persons possessed with them? And this, we may observe, they do without the use of any curious magic, or incantations, but merely by prayer and simple adjurations which the plainest person can use. Because for the most part it is unlettered persons who perform this work: thus making manifest the grace which is in the word of Christ, and the despicable weakness of demons, which, in order to be overcome and driven out of the bodies and souls of men, do not require the power and wisdom of those who are mighty in argument, and most learned in matters of faith” (Contra Celsum, VII,4). (11)

An interesting aspct of the latter passage is the emphasis that Origen places on the fact that there among the pagans only are a few specialists that are able to perform exorcisms, and then with magic means and incantations, while every Christian, without such means and with only a simple calling upon Jesus’ name can perform an exorcism. In another place Origen emphasizes a different aspect of exorcism, namley that it proves the reality of the resurrection: “How could a phantom drive out demons or otherwise perform others things of great importance?”

Athanasius (ca. 320 A.D.): The reality of the resurrection can be proven. “And how does it happen, if he is not risen, but is dead, that he expels the false gods who by the unbelievers are said to live, and the demons whom they worship, and persecute and destroy them? For where Christ is mentioned, and faith in him, all idolatry is eradicated, all demonic deceit is revealed, and no demon even tolerates that the name is mentioned, but hurries to flee, as it hears it mentioned. This is not the work of a dead man, but a living and first and foremost God” (Der incarnatione verbi, 32). (12)

“It is clear that if Christ were dead, then he would not expel the demons…, for the demons would not obey one who is dead. But when they obviously are chased away at the use of his name, then it should be clear that he is not dead, especially because the demons who see the things that are not visible for humans – should know it if Christ is dead. Then they would simply deny him obedience. But now the demons see exactly what the ungodly do not believe; that he is God, and therefore they flee and fall down for him and say that which they also said when he was in the body, “We know who you are, you the Holy One of God” (De incarnatione verbi, 32). (13)

Let it suffice with these textual examples. They should be sufficient to characterize and document the distribution of this set of thought. It is peculiarly constant through the whole time period of the ancient church and in all parts of the church.

I would briefly comment on some of the elements which make up this set of thought.

(1) The first one is the thought that the gods of the Gentiles are demons. The roots of this conception must be sought in the Old Testament, where the gods of the Gentiles are not denied existence, but definitely divine quality. They are nulities that do not have any power than can be compared with that of Yahweh. They exist, but they are not God. The gods of the peoples are ælilim, it is said in Psalm 96,5. This word may in the Old Testament stand in a synonymous parallelism with the word “idol”, but also to sjedim, demons (Deut. 32:17; Psalm 106:37), and se’irim, evil spirits (Lev. 17:7; 2 Chron. 11:15; Isa. 13:21; 32:14). In Deut. 32:17 we read for example about the apostate Israel: “They sacrificed to demons who were not God, to gods whom they have not known”.

Both in the Old Testament and in later Judaism one may observe two approaches in thepolemic against pagan cult. Partly, a “rational” polemic against the images: It is ridiculous to pray to dead things which cannot even take care of themselves, and which are made by humans (cf. Jer 10:3-5; Isa. 44:12-20; the apocryphal book Solomon’s Wisdom, 13:10-19). But partly there is also a polemic to the effect that the Gentiles actually relate to real powers in their cult, but these powers are demonic. “For all the gods of the peoples are demons”, is the short and pointed statement in the Septuagint version of Psalm 96:7. This text is frequently quoted already by Justin Martyr, and later by one church father after the other. Already the apostle Paul seems to presuppose this thought in 1. Cor. 10, where he warns the Christians against participating in meals sacrificed to idols: “”What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons” (1. Cor. 10:19-20, supposedly we find here an allusion to Deut. 32:17).

(2) The second element in this set of thoughts is the idea that when people worship these demons in the pagan cult, and want to befriend them, then they risk to be possessed by them. Possession is a phenomenon of paganism; it has connection with pagan worship. Possession does not occur in the church among baptized people.

Here I want to insert to comments, firstly about what could be called the baptismal exorcism, secondly about possession among Christians.

(1) Already in the church order of Hippolytus (ca. 210 A.D.) there exists a broadly developed pre-baptismal exorcism; several repeated exorcisms during the time immediately prior to baptism. In Hippolytus’ conditions for admission for those who want to follow the baptismal instruction we read the following, “If anybody has a demon, then let him not hear the Word from the teacher before he has been cleansed (Apostolic Tradition 16,8). (14) And further: “From the day that they (who are to be baptized) are elected, let there be laying on of hands with exorcism every day. When the day of baptism approaches, let the bishop perform exorcism on each one of them, so that he may be certain that the baptizand is clean. But if there is anybody who is not clean, he should be set aside because he did not hear the instruction with faith. For the alien spirit remained with him.” (Apostolic Tradition, 20,3). In Hippolytus it seems as if the pre-baptismal exorcism is meant diagnostically so to speak: It will reveal and heal possible possession in the baptizands. The possession is here presupposed to be something that may occur in baptizands, but not necessarily often. Secondly, there is reason to believe that a preventive effect is ascribed to the exorcism; it is supposed to prevent possession. Exorcistic prayers often include a phrase where one prays that the spirit in the future may stay away from the person for whom the prayer is made, or the spirit is ordered to do so in direct speech.

When it is so important that the exorcism take place before baptism, it is undoubtedly connected with the understanding of baptism as a seal, as a protective wall against possession. It is imperative that the enemy be outside the city at the moment the wall is being built. If the enemy is inside the city, the wall will work against its purpose. It is important that the demon not – so to speak – slip under the seal of baptism. Then it would be more difficult to drive it out afterwards (so clearly in the Gnostic material in Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theodoto).

We also, however, encounter a slightly different conception, and this idea would in the future become the most important interpretative key for the pre-baptismal exorcism, which became a part of the baptismal ritual of the church – and still is in the old churches. Here all unbaptized people are thought of as being “dwellings” for unclean spirits before baptism. So for instance in the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 130 A.D.): “Before we believed in God the habitation of our heart was corrupt and weak, like a temple really built with hands, because it was full of idolatry, and was the house of demons through doing things which were contrary to God. But… we became new, being created again from the beginning; wherefore God truly dwells in us” (Barnabas 16,7f). (15)

(2) My second commennt concerns the question of possession among the baptized. It is already implicit in what I have said, and in what I shall say later, that in the ancient church one unequivocally placed possession in paganism. Where Christ rules his power is at work so that the demons flee. Baptism incorporates the believer into the kingdom of Christ; it is a seal, a protective defense against possession. May Christians nevertheless be possessed? Yes, but only if they go for it, that is, if they again actively seek the domain of the demons’ power. Tertullian tells about a Christian woman who went to the theatre (where people slaughtered and maimed one another as entertainment for the masses) and came back possessed. “In the outcasting, accordingly, when the unclean creature was upbraided with having dared to attack a believer, he firmly replied, “And in truth I did it most righteously, for I found her in my domain””(De spectaculis, 26). (16)

Let me finally before we leave the material from the ancient church, say a few words about the Sitz im Leben of exorcism. I have several times emphasized that possession for the ancient church is a phenomenon that is closely connected with paganism, idolatry. This corresponds to the fact that it is in the preaching and literature of the church that were aimed at people outside the church that it plays a role. The great mass of evidence in the sources appears in the apologetical or missionary literature. In the literature aimed at Christians exorcism is very seldom mentioned, and usuallly only in connection with exhortations which have reference to baptism and the exorcisms at baptism. This literary Sitz im Leben corresponds probably to reality: The exorcism occurs primarily at the border between church and paganism; it is primarily a missionary phenomenon. But here again it is really important: The exorcism is a sign event which with evidence for all demonstrates that the house of the strong one has been robbed by the one who is stronger; that Christ has conquered Satan and all his army. It is obvious that Christian exorcism made a deep impression on people in antiquity, both Christians and non-Christians. I once again would remind of Tertullian’s words: “It has not been an unusual thing for these testimonies of your deities to convert men to Christianity.” In the exorcism one saw before one’s very eyes that the name of Jesus had power over the strongest that one had known so far.

In the ancient church one was of the opinion that one quite concretely had made the experience that there was no demon who did not bow to the name of Jesus. The Christian exorcism was in principle 100% efficient. Several testimonies, both from Christian and pagan authors, confirm that the Christians really were recognized as exorcists. The critic of Christianity, Celsus, speaks of the power over the demons that the Christians seem to possess, and both Origen and Tertullian say that the pagans used to fetch a Christian when they wanted help for a possessed person. Besides the efficiency of the Christian exorcism, people in antiquity must also have been struck by the fact that all Christians could do it, and that they did it without the usual complicated incantation techniques, only with a simple command in the name of Jesus.

The contrast is clearly seen when one compares this with the formulae of exorcism in the ancient magical papyri. Here different names of gods and other unintelligible names are heaped on top of each other, the more the better, and this massive number of supposedly efficient names is probably the best evidence that this was not particularly efficient. One sees also that Old Testament names of God and the name of Jesus are included in these syncretistic magical formulae, maybe an indirect testimony about the fame of Jewish and Christian exorcism. It also looks as if one in parts of the practice of the church has not steered completely free from a magical misunderstanding of Christian exorcism. We find little of this magical understanding in the leading theologians of the church: one finds it in the adjuration formulae that eventually became common.

If we look at healing and exorcism as confirming signs which accompany the preaching of the church, it may actually look as if one in the ancient church would place more emphasis on exorcism than on miraculous healings. The reason for this is not difficult to grasp: The Christians were not alone in doing and experiencing miracles; also the demons might perform miracles. But in the exorcism the demon is directly confronted with Christ. The exorcism functions so to speak as a “miracle of confrontation”, where the demons loudly are forced to proclaim who Jesus really is, and that he is their superior. This is the reason for the great significance ascribed to exorcism in the missionary literature of the ancient church.


We now turn to the New Testament texts. At first glance it may seem as if the comprehensive framework around possession and exorcism that we found in the literature of the ancient church is not very prominent. It may also to begin with look as if possession and disease are regarded as belonging to the same category, and that the border between them may by blurred.

We may read that a person is “demonized”, and this is then placed toghether with “moonsick” and paralytics (Matt. 4:24), “all who were ill” (Matt. 8:16=Mark 1:32). Or it may be said that a person “has” an evil spirit or demon (Matt. 11:18; Luk. 4:33 and 8:27 – in the latter case Matt. 8:28 has “demonized” while Mark 5:2 has en pneumati akathartoo, “with and unclean spirit”; further also Mark 7:25 (the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman). It may also be said that people are “troubled” or “afflicted” with unclean spirits (Luk. 6:18; Acts 5:16). It seems as if all these expressions can be used interchangeably and are synonymous, and that they are used about what we would call possession. But the expression “have a spirit” is also used in one case where we probably would not find it natural to talk about possession, namely in Luk. 13:11, where we hear about a woman with a “sickness caused by a spirit”. Jesus talks about this woman as being bound by Satan, not possessed, and I believe this may be seen as similar to 2. Cor 12:7, where Paul speaks about a disease that he has as a messenger of Satan.

If one takes as one’s point of departure the terminology that is used to describe the phenomenon of possession, the border between possession and disease seems to be unclear. It is different, however, if we take as our point of departure the phenomenon of exorcism.

There seems to be a relatively clear distinction between two types of miracle stories in the New Testament: on the one hand the stories where Jesus heals diseases; on the other hand stories where Jesus expels a demon.

Let me briefly describe the difference:

(1) In the healing stories Jesus addresses himself normally to the sick persons themselves in a friendly, encouraging fashion. He praises the faith of the sick persons (or the faith of those who bring the sick) and proclaim to the sick that they are healed and forgiven.

(2) In the exorcism stories the whole structure is different. There we meet an angry and threatening Jesus, who does not at all address the possessed, but the demon (or demons) in the possessed person. The possessed is talked about in the third person. The climax of the stories is not, as in the healing stories, a proclamation of forgiveness of sin, but a powerful command to the spirit to come out of the possessed. As far as I can see, all stories in the gospels fall within one or the other of these two categories. (Matt 17:5ff seems to be an exception: Jesus drives an evil spirit out of a sick boy and speaks to the sick, not to the spirit. But if we compare Matt 17:14-21 with the synoptic parallels in Mark 9:14-29 and Luk. 9:37-43, we see clearly that the Matthean version is an abbreviated rendering of a story which in Mark and Luke is a classical exorcism story, and that the dialogue is between Jesus and the spirit in the possessed boy.) The story about the woman who had a spirit of sickness, Luk. 13:10-17, is for instance clearly a healing story, not an exorcism story. Jesus does not in that case perform any exorcism. And when Paul in 2. Cor. 12:7 tells that he three times asked the Lord that the messenger of Satan might depart from him, it does not mean that he three times sought out an exorcist or three times performed an exorcism on himself, but it means that he three times asked for healing from his disease.

I think it will be fruitful and clarifying to let the concepts of exorcism and possession mutually define and delimit each other, so that we only talk about possession in those cases where the adequate response to the condition is exorcism. What then is characteristic of those cases where Jesus performs an exorcism?

One might say that it normally is the direct dialogue between Jesus and the demon in the possessed person. This dialogue is always lacking in the healing stories, but always present in the exorcism stories (with one exception, naturally: where the demon is a demon of dumbness).

The dialogue contains some fixed elements: The demon knows who Jesus is, and says so clearly and precisely: Jesus is the Son of God and has come to make an end to the rule of the demons. The demons know this long before any human being has acknowledged who Jesus is. The disciples do not know it, but the demons in the possessed know it. “What do we have to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” (Luk. 4:34).

Beyond this dialogue few or no criteria for the presence of an evil spirit in a human being are indicated in the gospels, except that the demons in different way hurt the people whom they have possessed. It is as if the question of criteria or symptoms of possession has not been felt to be difficult, simply because one was used to the phenomenon and recognized it on the basis of long experience. It seems therefore also not be necessary to have a special spiritual gift in order to determine possession, it has expressions that are evident to all and can be determined by all, Jews, Gentiles, and the disiciples of Jesus. (The spiritual gift to “discern spirits”, 1. Cor. 12:10, concerns according to the context the ability to discern or test prophetic messages, cf. 1. Cor. 14:29.)

In the same way as above – with reference to the ancient church – I now ask what is the framework for these exorcism stories.

(1) The exorcisms of Jesus must in the light of the New Testament be understood within a larger framework of conflict between God and Satan. Satan’s goal is especially to lead people away from God, and generally to destroy God’s good creation. In this battle both God and Satan have at their command an invisible army of spiritual beings, angels and demons respectively. One of the means of Satan in his effort to destroy God’s creation is demon possession. The fact that possession exists is evidence of the power of Satan in our world. And therefore it is also clear what the significance of exorcism is. Jesus clarifies this by using a picture: “Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? An then he will plunder his house” (Matt. 12:29). When Jesus expels demons from tormented people, it is visible evidence that the power of Satan is broken. Satan is bound by Jesus, and Jesus is plundering his house; that is, reconquering and reestablishing that which the Devil has destroyed. Hence, Jesus’ conclusion, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28).

The exorcisms of Jesus lose their meaning if they are disconnected from this context. Others also could perform exorcisms. Jesus himself speaks about Jewish exorcists who did not believe in Jesus, and exorcism was perform in the pagan environment. We know this from sources from antiquity. But the “ordinary” exorcism did not free people from anything but the concrete sufferings that came with the possession. They were not transferred into a completely new reality; they still lived in the domain of the power of the demons and had still to fear them, try to appease them, scare them off, etc.The whole culture of antiquity was dominated by fear of demons and possession, and the ancient practice of exorcism rather supported and emphasized this fear than remove it. Here the exorcisms of Jesus are significantly different. He not only frees the possessed from their sufferings, he transfers them into a brand new reality, a new realm, where the power of the demons are finally broken and where it therefore no longer exists any fear of the demons. Several historians of religion have been struck by this peculiar characteristic in the oldest Christian writings: Here we meet people with a security and a confidence of victory over against the demonic world which one hardly sees elsewhere in antiquity. They have met one who is infinitely more powerful than the demons; therefore he has taken away from them all fear and anxiety and given them a unique security.

(2) What about possession as a “phenomenon of paganism” in the New Testament? Do we find the same combination of demons and idols, and paganism and possession, that we found in the literature of the ancient church? Not directly, not explicitly pronounced. We have to remember, however, that the Jewish conceptual material which forms the background for the texts of the ancient church, are older than or contemporary with the New Testament. One would therefore a priori expect that the same understanding was presupposed also in the New Testament. Is it therefore maybe that the evil spirits some places in the New Testament are called “unclean” (Matt 10:1; 12:43; Mark 1:23; 3:11; etc.) It is also striking that even in the New Testamemnt the majority of the exorcisms take place in the “border area” against paganism, in “the Galilee of the Gentiles”, no one takes place in Jerusalem. (The most profiled stories are Mark 7:24-30: the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman; Mark 5:1-20 par.: the man in the tombs east of the see of Galilee, where the villagers held pigs, and therefore were pagans. The two remaining complete exorcism stories leave the question whether paganism was involved unanswered: Mark 1:23-28 par: the man in the synagogue of Capernaum; Mark 9:14-29 par: the boy with an unclean spirit.) Here we also have to mention one exorcism story outside the gospels, the one in Acts 16:16-18. This story is especially interesting because it so clearly does not connect possession with disease, and because the connection with pagan cult here is unequivocal (cf. v. 20f).

I believe therefore that there is a large degree of continuity in all of the material we have looked into. We are confronted with a set of thoughts which received its first expression in Judaism in the “inter-testamental” period; which was carried forward and received a christological centre in the New Testament writings, and which was developed further in its Christian form in the literature of the ancient church. Central elements in this set of thoughts are the following, (1) the idea of the connection between demons and idolatry, paganism and possession; (2) the thought of Christ as the conqueror of the demons who have “bound the strong man” and shows his resurrection power in Christian exorcism; and (3) situating exorcism primarily on the church’s border toward paganism.


Two points may be emphasized in closing:

(1) The set of thoughts that we have examined lets the modern experience of the church with the phenomenon of possession appear as totally “normal” and exactly what one would expect: exorcism takes place primarily on the border of the church with paganism (animistic paganism, we might add today). That posssessions “at present are rare in Christendom” as it was stated in the Church Ritual of the Lutheran Church in Denmark-Norway in 1685, would hardly have surprised a Christian in antiquity. He or she would have said: This is only to be expected – you are a people of baptized persons whom Christ has placed his seal on.

(2) The approach to the phenomenon of possession during the first time of Christianity does not primarily start from the problem of “disease”, but from the problem of “idolatry” or “pagan worship” – or more generally formulated: When people seek contact with the spiritual world in non-biblical cults, then there is a present danger to be occupied by the forces with whom one seeks contact. Is this completely without relevance in our neo-religious age where one plays with the spirits – and where a certain type of paganism is on its way back? I do not believe so.


1. Dr. Skarsaune is professor of Church History at the Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology in Oslo, Norway, specializing in patristic studies. Professor Skarsaune was not able to attend the consultation but has allowed that this article which was originally published in Norsk Tidsskrift for misjon, No. 3, 1997, pp. 157-171, be presented at the consultation in the historical section. The translation and the endnotes have been provided by Tormod Engelsviken. They have due to time contraints not been seen by Dr. Skarsaune. For technical reasons the article has been divided and placed in two files.

2. Quotations are taken from Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.): The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. III. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, reprint 1986.

3. Ibid., p. 26.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 36.

6. Ibid., pp. 37-38.

7. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. I , Reprint 1973, p. 209.

8. Ibid., p. 236.

9. Ibid., p. 241.

10. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, p. 398.

11. Ibid., p. 612.

12. T.E.’s own translation into English from the Norwegian translation.

13. Own translation.

14. Own translation.

15. G.P. Goold (ed.): The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. I. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1975, p. 399.

16. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.III, p. 90.


1. Sources:

Baasland, Ernst; Hvalvik, Reidar (red.): De apostoliske fedre, Oslo 1984

Chadwick, Henry (transl.): Origen: Contra Celsum, Canbridge 1965

Dix, Gregory (ed.): The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, London 1986

Grant, Robert M. (ed.): Theophilus of Antioch. Ad Autolycum, Oxford 1970

Hansen, Andr. (overs.): Ungdomsskrifter af Athanasius den Store (Vidnesbyrd af Kirkefædrene XVII), Christiania 1891

Lake, Kirsopp (transl.): The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. I, Cambridge, Ma., 1975

Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James (eds.): The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. I,III,IV. (Reprints of the Edinburgh edition of 1885), Grand Rapids, Mi., 1973, 1986

2. Studies:

Andres, F.: Die Engellehre der griechischen Apologeten des zweiten Jahrhunderts und ihr Verhältnis zur griechisch-römischen Dämonologie (Forsch. zur christlichen Literatur- und Dogmengeschichte XII,3), Paderborn, 1914

Engelsviken, Tormod: Besettelse og åndsutdrivelse i Bibelen, historien og vår egen tid, Oslo, 1978

von Harnack, Adolf: “Det Kampf gegen die Herrschaft der Dämonen”, in: Andres, F.: Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten I(4. Auflage)Leipzig 1924, S. 151-170

Roness, Atle: Demonbesettelse. Psykiatriske og teologiske synspunkter, Oslo, 1981

Thraede, K.: “Exorcismus”, in: Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. VII, Stuttgart, 1969, column 44-117

Wey, H.: Die Funktionen der bösen Geister bei den griechischen Apologeten des zweiten Jahrhunderts nach Christus, Winterthur, 1975.