For those who accept the metaphysical reality of daimons (I’m using a straight transliteration of the Greek, in order to place at a bit of distance the baggage that tends to accompany the word ‘demons’) the conventional idea is that they belong to an order of created, malevolent, non-corporeal beings.
The popular conception a ghost is that it is the spirit of a dead human being.
Peter Bolt has provided solid documentary evidence to show that for many people living at the time of Jesus, ‘daimon’ would have been virtually synonymous with ‘ghost’.
Although not mentioned by Bolt, angels are often associated in the popular mind with the spirits of the departed. In this case, of course, they are regarded as the spirits of good people. We need look no further than the lyrics of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. When Joseph is assumed to be dead, his brothers sing:
There’s one more angel in heaven.
So far as ancient Greek literature is concerned, the perception that daimons were spirits of the dead, while not universal or unambiguous, was certainly widespread.
Moving from belief to practice, we find that daimons were often associated with the dead in the practice of magic. Many of the spells used were used in connection with graves and corpses, the idea being to enlist help in gaining access to the underworld, or even to enlist the help of the ghost of the departed individual. The corpse-daimons (ghosts) of those who had been killed violently were thought to be especially powerful.
Over one thousand curse tablets have been discovered, dating from the 5th century BC to about the 5th century AD. Tacitus knew that these tablets were used to enlist the spirits of the dead in order to harm the living. The tablets refer to the daimons of those buried in a certain place.
Turning to Hellenistic Jewish literature, we find the same connection between daimons and the spirits of the dead. In the LXX of Isa 65, for example, the worship of daimons is closely linked with the dead, and with magical practices. Connections between daimons and the dead can be found in Philo and Josephus.
To summarise: in the time of Jesus, many people (although not all) would have automatically connected the daimonic with the dead. They would therefore have understood Jesus’ authority over the daimons as authority over death itself.
We turn now to the four accounts of Jesus’ dealings with the daimonised in Mark.
Mark 1:21-28 has an account of the man in the Capernuam synagogue. It is of interest that the daimons ask Jesus: “Have you come to destroy us?” This question, suggests Bolt, ‘raises the exciting possibility that Jesus was about the unlock the stranglehold of the dead on the living.’
Mark 5:1-20 has the dramatic account of the Gerasene daimoniac. It is no surprise, given what we have considered so far, to find that this man is located among the tombs. When the daimons request that Jesus not send them out of the region, it is difficult to see why this would be referring to the immediate geographical locality; rather, they may well be referring to the underworld, and (now taking Lk 8:31) to premature punishment.
To our reader who connects daimons with the departed spirits, this man from the tombs, is literally filled with a legion of the dead. The clash with Jesus shows that Jesus can control such hoards, cast them out, and even banish them from the region which aqllows them to exert an influence in the upper world. The spirits of death were bent on destruction…,but Jesus, acting as a superior spirit, certainly sent them back to their proper domain, and perhaps ever “destroyed” them.
The account of the Gerasene daimoniac is preceded by that of the stilling of the storm. There, certain questions have been left unanswered, and so point us what follows: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38) and “Who them is this that even the winds and waves obey him?” (Mark 4:41). These questions find their answers at Gerasa, where Jesus not only demonstrates his profound concern over one who is perishing under the destructive influence of the world of the dead, but also shows that he is the one who can liberate people from such terrible bondage.
The story is cast as a context between Jesus and the power(s) of death. The man leaves the tombs and once again enters ordinary life. The ‘dead’ had come to life again.
In Mark 7:24-30 the account involving the Syro-Phonecian woman’s daughter does not add anything from the metaphysical point of view. But it does demonstrate that Jesus’ power over evil spirits and compassion for those thus oppressed extends even to a Gentile.
Mark 9:14-29 has the account of the boy at the base of the mountain. Such boys were often used in magical divination to channel the spirits of the dead. In this case, the exorcism is so powerful that it appears to kill the boy. So when Jesus raises the boy, as if from the dead
someone who regarded daimons as ghosts would see a powerful demonstration that Jesus’ dealings with the powers of the dead issued in ‘resurreciton life’ for their victims.
To conclude: many in Jesus’ day would have regarded daimons as the spirits of dead persons. They would therefore have understood Jesus authority over the daimons as an assault on the world of the dead, and on death itself.
It is likely that when Herod speculated that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life, he was thinking the Jesus had recruited John’s ghost to work miracles. A person who died a violent death, as John had, would be regarded as having a very powerful ghost.
The actions of Jesus would have raised important questions for those who witnessed those actions and for those who first read about them: was Jesus simply a magician who had the ability to manipulate the spirits of the dead, or had he already begun an assault on the world of the dead itself, in order to break the stranglehold which the dead held on the living?
By the end of the story, Mark’s readers are left gazing upon the empty tomb of a man who had been crucified, and hearing the declaration that he had risen. Apparently, Jesus’ assault on the dead was complete, and the dead would no longer hold sway over life because a far greater spirit was now alive in their world. Mark’s story holds promise that his readers could look at their world with new eyes, and face it with less fear, because a man who had been crucified had risen from the dead.
Based on Bolt, ‘Jesus, the Daimons and the Dead’ in Lane (ed) The Unseen World. Baker (1996), pp75-102.