Demons are an embarrassment. The typical scholar of the historical Jesus can’t avoid the fact that one of Jesus’ main activities is exorcism. You can go the whole way through seminary not hearing about that aspect even as you become very well acquainted with the two-source hypothesis. That’s why I found Graham H. Twelftree’s Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus so refreshing. Here is someone willing to address the topic generally swept off the table. If the gospels are to be believed, then Jesus was an exorcist. And if he was an exorcist, that must imply a thing or two about demons, no matter how embarrassing. There’s a lot to this question, of course, and things are never as simple as they seem.
Many of those who look for the Jesus of history suggest that the Galilean sage simply accepted the framework of his era in which various diseases such as epilepsy were considered demonic. As he healed such people—also somewhat of an embarrassment since it implies the supernatural—he understood their maladies in the same way his contemporaries did. That tidy package, however, doesn’t sit well with narratives that assume a world full of demons. Things have changed since the first century, of course. After the Middle Ages demons fell out of favor. And yet, the gospels remain pretty much unchanged, trying to fit into a new worldview. This is the uncomfortable place in which those who seek the historical Jesus find themselves.
Twelftree approaches and analyses the text at its word. The casting out of demons was an eschatological (end-times) act. It was the beginning of the end for the evil spirits that torment this world. Of course, two thousand years have come and gone and, according to some, demons are still with us. The number of requested exorcisms has been on the rise. The end times have lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated. It’s beginning to look like politicians can do what God seems reluctant to affect. Bringing about the end of the world is no matter of clearing the house of demons, but rather letting evil take the helm. If that’s a mixed metaphor, let’s just say demons are masters of confusion. Since medical science has given us a great deal of comfort and relief from suffering, we’re glad to let demons go as the explanation of diseases. But that doesn’t make things any easier for those looking at the first century when, as Twelfree demonstrates, Jesus was an exorcist.