Musings on Mark: Reign of the Demons

Jesus’ first public miracle in the Gospel of Mark is an exorcism (Mark 1:23-26) This is no coincidence; neither is the fact that it is contained within a pericope portraying Jesus as a teacher (vv. 21-28). On a narrative level, the Markan author desires to show how Jesus is the one with unique authority: he not only teaches with command (v. 22) but he exorcises with it as well (v. 27). The reader knows that this authority is given to him by God, and Jesus functions as the eschatological messiah, come to usher in the reign of God (cf. 1:14-15). But this forces us to ask, Wasn’t God already reigning? Had God abdicated the throne? And if so, who (if not God) was ruling the world?

Who Runs the World? 

We can dispel with any notion that God had abandoned his sovereign rule of the cosmos. No Jew of the Second Temple period would have denied God’s place as king over the universe,[1] as various texts of the era demonstrate:

  • “There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me” (Isaiah 45:21).[2]
  •  “As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne…” (Daniel 7:9).
  • “He [i.e. the Lord] appointed a ruler for every nation, but Israel is the Lord’s own portion” (Sirach 17:17; cf. Deuteronomy 32:8-9). 

Despite this, things were obviously not as they should have been. God’s “portion” had been taken into captivity by the Neo-Assyrians in the eighth century and the tiny kingdom of Judah met the same fate when the armies of Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem, flattening the temple to its god. With the arrival of the Persian Empire came the return of Jews to the land, an event decreed by God’s māšîaḥ Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1; cf. Ezra 1:1-4). But this simply did not entail the restoration of the kingdom. David’s throne, as it were, remained unoccupied. Despite a brief period of autonomy in the second and first centuries BCE, Judea was under foreign domination. For all of Jesus’ life, it was Rome who was in control. 

Foreign powers brought with them foreign deities, rivals to Israel’s god. What were Jews to make of them? The apostle Paul equates pagan deities to daimonia, “demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20). This need not imply that they were nefarious entities; a daimonia was viewed as a lesser deity and could be good or evil.[3] But in the LXX, the Bible of Diaspora Jews including Paul, the word daimonios was used in various contexts to describe beings lesser than and rivals to Yahweh: 

  • “They sacrificed to demons [Greek, daimonioi] and not to God, to gods whom they had not known. New recent ones have come whom their fathers had not known” (Deuteronomy 32:17, LXX).[4]
  • “For all the gods of the nations are demons [Greek, daimonia], but the Lord made the heavens” (Psalm 95:5, LXX [96:5, MT]). 
  • “And they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons [Greek, tois daimoniois], and they poured out innocent blood, blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the carved idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with the murders” (Psalm 105:37-38, LXX [106:37-38, MT]). 

The use of daimonia with reference to foreign gods populated the cosmos with beings who were not only inferior to Israel’s god in power but who also were situated closer to the world of human affairs.[5] While Yahweh resided in the highest heaven, between it and the world below existed gods who at once were subservient to Israel’s god but nevertheless represented cultic rivals. “I do not want you to be partners with demons,” Paul told the Gentile Corinthians. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Corinthians 10:20-22)

Good vs. Evil 

The domination of foreign powers over Israel coupled with the presence of myriad daimonia meant that at a very fundamental level the world could be divided into those who worshipped Israel’s god and those who did not. In other words, there was a conflict between good (Yahweh) and evil (daimonia). This attitude is seen clearly at Qumran where there was belief in spirits good and evil who were influencing events on levels both national and personal.[6]Apocalypticism often entailed such a cosmic struggle that at once explained the current state of affairs and anticipated a hopeful change in affairs. It was into this milieu that Jesus was born and his ministry in the Gospel of Mark has clear apocalyptic overtones.  Daimonia had infiltrated the world and had set up a kingdom to rival that of God’s. The task of God’s christos was to prepare the world for the reign of God and to do that the occupying kingdom must first be dismantled. 

And so, on a sabbath day in Capernaum Jesus performs his first public miracle: an exorcism. The war on evil had begun. 

[1] Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, second edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 77. 

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all citations of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] See the discussion in Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 220-221.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all translations of the LXX are from The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019).

[5] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 39-40.

[6] Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, Volume 1: History, Culture and Religion of the Hellenistic Age (New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1987), 238.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “Musings on Mark: Reign of the Demons

  1. Love the painting; who is it?

    I think this is precisely the right way to frame the issue of demons and Satan in the NT—their demise foreshadows the fall/transformation of their earthly pagan holdings.

    I also like that you mention the tension in Jewish apocalyptic between God’s eternal rule over the world and the current state of the world. We too quickly relegate the implications of the gospel story to the spiritual realm when its primary aim was “to prepare the [concrete] world for the reign of God.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s from the ceiling of a museum at the Vatican but I’m not sure who painted it. It’s beautiful though!


  2. Really liked this. One thing in our modern/post-modern world we can lose sight of is that, in the ancient world, there was no hard and fast line between spiritual and material or supernatural and natural. The Roman occupation of Israel was the physical counterpart of a spiritual occupation of Israel – two sides of the same coin – two manifestations of the same phenomenon.

    The story that pulls these together most clearly is Jesus and the Gerasene/Gadarene demoniac, where the demon identifies himself as Legion.

    Liked by 1 person

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