Signs of the kingdom: the dispossession of Legion

Crises in heaven and earth

The coupling of political realities with spiritual realities is a hallmark of Jewish apocalyptic. In such works the heavenly stage is reflected upon the earthly stage. Examples of this relationship are numerous: disturbances in the heavens spell disaster for the earth, the unrolling of heavenly scrolls ensures the pouring out of divine judgement on the nations, the toppling of Satan from his celestial throne signals the collapse of his great city on its seven hills.

Yet this dichotomy rarely appears in discussions of Jesus’ dealings with the spirit world. Instead, our understanding of Jesus’ exorcistic activity is generally limited to the spiritual and the individualistic levels. At these levels Jesus’ exorcisms rarely point beyond themselves. They might assure us that Satan has been defeated or prove that Jesus is divine, but they do not signify anything in the realm of history and politics.

gerasaOf gods and demons

These truncated and non-political readings of demon-possession and exorcism are flawed. For Jews and early Christians, demonic forces and pagan politics were intrinsically linked. Jews and Christians of Antiquity did not merely stubbornly identify the gods of Greece and Rome as demons, servants of Satan (Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 106:34-38, Baruch 4:7-8, 1 Corinthians 10:20), they also maintained that such spirits ruled over them, supplying them with the animus and political clout necessary to persecute God’s people (Revelation 13:4-5, 16:13-14, cf. Deuteronomy 32:8-9, Psalm 82, Daniel 10). Satan was, in the words of the Fourth Gospel, “the ruler of the world,” the keeper of the nations (John 14:30, cf. Matthew 4:9, Galatians 4:8-9, 2 Corinthians 4:4).

Jesus’ exorcisms, like his deeds on the chaotic seas, were thus more than deeds of power and authority; they served also as eschatological signs, parables of the impending kingdom (cf. Matthew 12:28). They did this primarily by prefiguring the coming exorcism of Satan from heaven, and, on the other side of the same coin, the disintegration of Satan’s pagan empire on earth.

Satan or Rome: whose Legion is it?

Among the exorcism stories, the minidrama concerning Legion in Mark 5:1-20 most clearly exhibits the apocalyptic outlook and its coupling of spiritual happenings with their concomitant political ramifications.

For many commentators the name of the demon provides the key to the whole episode, grounding the scene in a Roman military context and forcing the reader to reevaluate the situation as something more than an exorcism. Besides the demon’s conspicuous name, M. Eugene Boring bolsters the Roman connection with four other considerations (Mark, 151).

  1. While not appropriate for pigs, the word translated ‘herd’ (ἀγέλη), could be used of military units. Additionally, the legion which destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, Legio X Fretensis, maintained a boar as one of its emblems (cf. Matthew 7:6).
  2. The rushing of the swine (ὁρμάω) recalls the charging of soldiers into battle (LXX Joshua 6:5, Judges 20:37, 2 Maccabees 9:2; 12:22).
  3. The permission (ἐπιτρέπω) Jesus gives to the demons to enter the swine would fit in a military context. Jesus “dismissed” them.
  4. The demons are more concerned with their habitation in the country (χώρα) than with their possession of the man. They beg to not be sent “out of the country,” surely voicing Rome’s desire to remain in their territorial holdings.

Although points 2 and 3 fit comfortably within the passage when read with the Roman legion in mind, on their own they provide little positive evidence for a thoroughgoing anti-Roman reading. The anti-Roman interpretive paradigm becomes stronger, however, as it resolves the oddities of points 1 and 4. It answers with decisive ease both why the pigs are characterized as a ‘herd’ and why the demons wish to remain in the country: the regiment of swine stand in for a Roman army.

In corroboration with this evidence, Jewish writers could readily represent pagan (and Roman) armies with swine (Psalm 80:13, 1 Enoch 89:10-12, 2 Esdras 15:30).

For these reasons a parody of Roman military might is therefore almost certainly intended by Mark.

But despite his recognition of this evidence, Boring rejects an anti-Roman reading of the passage, one that “represents the expelling of the Romans [from the land].” Instead, according to Boring the story ought to be read through a “cosmic and eschatological framework.” Presumably he means that the immediate political implications of the allegory are of little consequence. NT Wright concurs and takes Boring’s approach a step further. For Wright the pericope uses Roman military imagery not to condemn Rome, but to critique nationalistic Jewish sentiment: “The driving of the pigs into the sea may well be regarded, at least by Mark, as symbolic of what the Jews desired to do with the unclean Romans… But Rome is not the enemy; it is the satan and his hordes, who are deceiving Israel into thinking that Rome is the real enemy” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 195-196).

For both commentators then, the spiritual and the political are distinct realities. The political garb in which the exorcism story is presented is either ultimately irrelevant (as in the case of Boring) or intended to censure political messianic expectations (as in the case of Wright). Jesus is, after all, a spiritual Messiah, a conqueror of Satan and demons, not of armies and nations.

As I alluded above, interpretations like these are not convincing because they erect a division between the spirit world and the physical world that simply didn’t exist in apocalyptically-charged works like the Gospel of Mark. We can no more deny the symbolic import of Legion and his abysmal fate than we can deny the symbolic import of Babylon’s seven hills, the Whore’s corruption of the nations, or the number of the Beast. These images, names, and numbers addressed concrete political realities in John’s world. And it is precisely for this reason that John’s forecast of doom and vindication gave real hope to churches weighed down by the brutality of Rome. The heavenly visions of angels and demons given to John guaranteed relief and vindication in this world, not in another. In this tethering of heaven and earth, spirit and body, lies the essence and power of Jewish apocalyptic.

So then Whose Legion is it? Legion belongs, in fact, to both Satan and Rome. Satan’s demonic power is exerted through the physical manifestation of Roman military might. Legion’s demise heralds the demise of violent pagan supremacy. For Mark’s first readers, Jesus’ encounter with Legion revealed the demonic face behind the pagan mask. For modern readers, the episode puts back together what has been rent asunder: the spirit world and the physical world.

The binding of Legion and the fall of Rome

The exorcism of Legion, like all of Jesus’ powerful deeds, was a sign prefiguring the replacement of an unclean kingdom with God’s kingdom (cf. Revelation 11:15); its rhetorical function running parallel to the binding of Satan in the pit (Revelation 20:1-3): with Christ now secured in heaven, Satan’s rule of the nations would soon give way to God’s rule of the nations (Revelation 20:4-6). The pagan empire, a kingdom of death and demons, would be cast into the abyss along with Satan and his Legion.

The spiritual drama played out in Gerasa between Jesus and Legion would go on to ripple throughout the Mediterranean in concrete ways; the nations held in captivity to demonic gods would throw off the yoke of pagan imperialism and begin to serve the one true God. As the present evil age came to a close, the nations once perverted by Rome’s demonic immorality and idolatry would awake to find themselves fully clothed and in their right mind, proclaiming the victory of Jesus and Israel’s God.

23 thoughts on “Signs of the kingdom: the dispossession of Legion

  1. This is one of my favorite “starter” examples to use when talking to people about these issues.

    It’s an important connection to make, because there are times when the Gospels will portray an event or teaching as seemingly very heavily “spiritual” with no clear immediate referent to the concrete or political, and this gets used to support the “people expected the Messiah would bring political deliverance, but he brought spiritual deliverance instead” narrative.

    Episodes like this help demonstrate that this dichotomy was likely nonsensical. It would be like claiming that people are skeletons, not bodies.

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    1. It’s really a fabulous passage for drawing the spiritual and political strands together. I’ve considered whether this episode is the key to understanding the whole of Jesus’ exorcistic activity but I’m not so sure. Andrew has a post connecting Jesus’ parable of tying up a strong man with LXX Isaiah 49:24-25 which concerns Israel’s return from exile and the judgement that befalls the nations that oppose them—a political message no doubt. But one could say the military imagery is merely being transferred onto the spiritual battle between God and Satan.

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      1. Yes. One of the aspects of the Legion episode is that the “transposition” is very explicit. It would be like the demon saying his name was “Caesar Augustus.”

        There are some other passages that I think clear up somewhat when we see the exorcistic activity as at least symbolically political, such as further in Matthew 12 (after the strong man thing) where Jesus describes the present, unbelieving generation as a person who has a unclean spirit leave them, then come back sevenfold.

        Since the exorcisms are often coupled with healings, I think we can put them in roughly the same category in terms of the prototypical restoration of Israel. Even the OT prophets often coupled the physical welfare of the people with their freedom from oppression (ex. Isaiah 65).

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  2. That’s a great point. In Matthew 12 Jesus uses a parabolic story about demons to describe the current political situation. If Jesus could do it, surely the Evangelists could craft a parabolic/allegorical exorcism narrative like Mark 5. Have you thought much about what the parable of the returning demon really means? It is lost on me.

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      1. I love it. You posit great reasons for reading the story as an analogy not as a discourse on demonology. Ha! I had no idea that we’d find so many demon stories serving political-historical ends. It’s rather sophisticated.

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