There are not many accounts in the Bible of people self-harming and this story, in Mark 5:1-20 of a possessed man living in the tombs, whose encounter with Christ led to a complete change in his life, has always caught my attention. I would like to tackle this a couple of ways. Firstly I would like to talk more generally about the passage, including an interestingly political reading of it, and then I would like to talk from a more personal point of view as someone who has self-harmed and as someone with a mental illness.
The first thing we note about this passage is that we are no longer on familiar ground. Gerasa (sometimes given as Gadara and other place-names) is in gentile territory, outside the Jewish areas of Palestine. Other clues to the gentile nature of this story are that the man is living among tombs (v3) which are places of uncleanliness (Num 19:11) and we are told that there are pigs nearby (v11). An interesting passage to look at is Isaiah 65:2-5, especially verse 4:
[a people] who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil; who eat the flesh of pigs, and whose pots hold broth of impure meat;
Here Isaiah characterises the rebels against God as living in tombs and eating pigs, so it is interesting to wonder whether Mark wants us to remember this verse, and draw conclusions as to what sort of person the demoniac is.
Another thing to note about the gentile background of the region is that the demons, when speaking to Jesus, use the term “Son of the Most High God” (v7) a term which is used of Yahweh by gentiles elsewhere (Gen 14:18-20; Num 24:16; 1 Sam 14:4; Dan 3:26, 4:2 and also in Luke 1:32, 6:35)
Myers (1) suggests a reading of Mark 5 as a return to a figurative Egypt. He suggests that crossing the ‘sea’ (sometimes ‘lake’) in v1 may signify going back to Egypt/gentiles to make them part of God’s Kingdom, and then leaving them in the world to continue the work. He also suggests that the drowning of the “legion” of demons is a reference to the drowning of the soldiers of Egypt in Exodus 15:4.
Here lies an interesting interpretation. Myers suggests that this story – along with the rest of Mark – is a response to the occupation of Israel by the Romans. He suggests that we should take note of the demons being called “legion” (a legion being a Roman term for 6,000 soldiers) and their defeat by Jesus. It is worth noting that the term used for “herd” (v11) is an unusual one. Firstly, pigs do not travel in herds, but also the term agelē was used to refer to a band of military recruits and that when Jesus dismissed them (“gave them permission” v13) the term epetrepseri is a military command, which is then followed by the pigs charging into the sea, as though they were troops rushing into battle. (1) Another thing I found interesting was this:
“Since the fall of the city a few months earlier [in 70CE], Jerusalem had been occupied by the Roman Tenth Legion, whose emblem was a pig.” (3)
This, of course, is interesting if you date Mark to around that time period.
I would also like to point out that “it is possible that originally this story was meant to be humorous – unclean spirits destroy unclean animals!” (4)
To me this is a story of extremes. The One who stilled the waves (Mark 4:39) meets a man who is the very opposite of stillness, a man who “night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” (5:5) Just as he calmed the storm, so he calms the demon-possessed man, by letting his demons go into the pigs, and then drown. The man goes from unclean to clean by Jesus’ actions – which is a subversive act as purification was the domain of the religious authorities, the priests, and not “ordinary” people like Jesus. Was the story intended as an allegory on the Roman occupation? I am not sure, having read cases both for and against. While Myers argues that for Jesus to free the man who had a Legion of demons in him was a statement against the Romans who had legions in they occupied lands, and also that the man may have become the focus of his community’s fear and hatred of the Romans, a “scapegoat” who acted out in his screams and violence the subconscious or repressed desires of the local people, other scholars disagree. I find the idea interesting, however. This is just a very short introduction, I would like to study more but unfortunately only have access to a few bits of material.
The Gerasene demoniac is, leaving aside the priests of Baal, probably the only “self injurer” in the Bible. As such his story has been used by and to mentally ill people in general and self injurers in particular. I think a lot of people find the story troubling, a study of mentally ill people found that they reacted badly to the idea that self harm, mental illness and the like in this story was evidence of demon possession. (5)
We can, however, see a lot of mental illness in this man. For a start there is the vulnerability of this man socially, personally and financially. He is personally vulnerable due to his dependence on others, his loss of control over thoughts and circumstances, socially due to stigma. His plight, like ours may be regarded as “signs of sin, malingering, weakness, lack of character or willpower, or poor upbringing” (6) He may be financially vulnerable due to his lack of education/employment, lack of healthcare and similar.
The Gerasene is identified by his illness/demon first before identification as a person. This is an issue for many people who are mentally or physically disabled. His attitude toward Jesus, thinking that here came another torturer, was described by one commentator as being similar to the treatment some receive in mental healthcare, an expectation of degradation and forced treatment being confounded by the lack of condemnation in Jesus’ treatment. He can also be seen as someone who acts out what we all repress, screaming in pain and revolt.
It is difficult for me, as with others, to see my illness (or to be frank, anyone’s illness) as demon-derived. It is also difficult for me to see the immediate release and cure of the man with the demon, as that is certainly not the experience of most Christians who suffer mental ill-health. I think sometimes this leads to unrealistic expectations from Christians, who think that if we pray, take charge of “demons” etc then the person will immediately become cured, in sound mind and sitting with Jesus. The trouble being that we are not Jesus, and cures and miracles in the gospels are for specific reasons, not always being just for the purpose of freeing the person. Miracles in the gospel are “signs”, as John’s Gospel puts it, “signs that you may believe” rather than simply being for our comfort. While Jesus healed many he did not heal all, and we do of course know that there were people with physical illnesses and deficiencies who did not get healed and yet were Christians. I don’t have an answer to the “is it demons” thing, as I don’t know what to make of it. I do hate the way that some Christians say that we are demonised because we have mental health problems but do not say that about physical illnesses, even though Jesus cured a woman of a bad back that was given her by a demon.
To finish off, I think the main thing I get from this tale is that, first, Jesus did not condemn the man’s self harm although he did change his behaviour. Second, Jesus was not afraid to approach the man, even though others were. He did not cast him out or chain him up but restored the man to community, firstly with Jesus himself and later with those who had been scared of him. There is also an interesting connection between self harm and the pigs in that self harm is a visible sign that we are hurting and Jesus gave a physical sign (the pigs drowning) of being healed.
This is a problematic passage, but there are good things to be gained from reading it. Jesus’ compassion on the unclean outcast who everyone else was afraid of and wanted to lock up reassures me that even if I am unwell, Jesus still comes to my place of the tombs and heals me, even if it is not as instantaneous as the Gerasene disciple’s healing.
- Myers, Chad, “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus” (NY: Orbis Books 1988, 2008 2nd printing)
- Derrett, J Duncan M, “Contributions to the Study of the Gerasene Demoniac” JSNT, 3, p5
- Harwood, William, “Mythology’s Lost Gods” quoted in www.earlychristianwritings.com/mark.html
- Witherington III, Ben, “The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary” (Grand Rapids, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2001) p182
- Guth, Christine J, “An Insider’s Look at the Gerasene Disciple (Mark 5:1-20): Biblical Interpretation from the Social Location of Mental Illness” (Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, vol 11(4) 2007)