|Giotto, Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo (detail) (1300)|
Exorcisms have been a part of Catholicism from the very beginning. When Jesus sends out the Twelve Apostles, “they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:12-13). But did you know that exorcisms actually predate Christianity, and that there were Jewish exorcists at the time of Christ?
Jesus actually refers to this, but it’s such a brief mention in Scripture that it’s easy to overlook. It’s in Matthew 12:24-28, while the Pharisees are questioning Him about His own exorcisms:
But when the Pharisees heard it they said, “It is only by Be-elzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Be-elzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Jesus’ remark makes it clear both that Jewish exorcists existed in His day, and that they were apparently successful in driving out demons.
That’s all the detail that Scripture gives us. Fortunately, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us much more, in Book VIII of Antiquities of the Jews:
Now the sagacity and wisdom which God had bestowed on Solomon was so great, that he exceeded the ancients; [….] God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers.
The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a Foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man; and when this was done, the skill and wisdom of Solomon was shown very manifestly: for which reason it is, that all men may know the vastness of Solomon’s abilities, and how he was beloved of God, and that the extraordinary virtues of every kind with which this king was endowed may not be unknown to any people under the sun for this reason, I say, it is that we have proceeded to speak so largely of these matters.
All of that neatly prefigures Catholic exorcisms, instituted by Jesus Christ, and done in His name. The two clearest Scriptural descriptions of these exorcisms are in Matthew 7 and Acts 16. The first actually mentions exorcisms as something of an aside (Matthew 7:21-23):
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
It’s simple and effective. Of course, not every exorcism is as simple; we know of at least one case in which even the Apostles weren’t able to drive out a demon, because they needed to be praying and fasting (cf. Mark 9:17-29). But we still see that just as Our Lord had entrusted Solomon and the Jews with some sort of ability to perform exorcisms, Jesus entrusted the Apostles with the power to drive out demons in His Name.
There are three things that I hope that you take away from this post. First, the connection between Solomon and Christ. This isn’t the first or the only time that Solomon prefigured Jesus. In 2 Samuel 7:12, God promised David that He would establish a great Kingdom through David’s offspring. This is fulfilled in a limited sense with King Solomon, and in an infinitely greater sense in Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Solomon builds the Second Temple, while Christ’s Incarnate Body is the prophesied Temple (John 2:21). I talk about that dimension much more here, along with the Virgin Mary’s connection to the whole thing. Christ refers to Solomon’s role as a foreshadowing in Luke 11:31, when He says of Himself, “something greater than Solomon is here.”
|An excerpt from the diary of St. Isaac Jogues, recounting the martyrdom of St. René Goupil.
This sign is from the Shrine of the North American Martyrs, near where both men were killed.
Second, the importance of the Name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10). St. Peter exhorts the crowds on Pentecost: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Shortly thereafter, Peter heals a crippled beggar by saying, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). For this, Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin, and the Holy Spirit inspires Peter to deliver this defense (Acts 4:8-12):
“Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”