228 Commentary

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Commentary

Dennis R. MacDonald

In The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. (Yale UP, 2000), MacDonald devotes a chapter to this story. MacDonald begins by noting the typical elements of a Hellenistic exorcism tale:

Typically told, an exorcism brings the exorcist and the demoniac (or an agent for the demoniac) into contact and then lets the exorcist and the reader learn of the victim's condition, such as deafness, convulsions, antisocial behavior, or preternatural cognitive powers, as in Mark 1:24: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." The exorcist then rebukes the demon or demons and demands departure (the apopompe). Often the exorcist sends the spirit or spirits into the wilderness, the earth, the sea, or a living host (the epipompe). The demon may dramatize its exit by producing violent effects, and the crowd, amazed, acknowledges the exorcist's powers. (p. 63)

MacDonald then notes the unusual features of this account which have made many scholars question the character of this episode:

    1. Of the exorcisms in the NT only this one begins with a voyage.
    2. The detailed graphic description of the victim's antisocial behavior is unparalleled.
    3. The demons refuse to obey Jesus' command to leave the man, and negotiate for more favorable terms.
    4. The request for the demon's name is unparalleled and results in a puzzling answer, "Legion, for we are many."
    5. The permission for the demons to possess a nearby herd of pigs is unparalleled.
    6. The extended epilogue with the hostile reaction by the townsfolk has no parallel in any other miracle story. The witnesses usually celebrate the achievement.
    7. The demoniac's request to follow Jesus is not typical, nor is Jesus' refusal to accept him as a disciple, and neither is the instruction for him to return home and tell everyone what Jesus has done for him. All these elements seem out of place.
    8. This is the only NT exorcism that ends with a voyage.

In looking for possible influences to explain this strange story, MacDonald suggests two well-known Homeric tales: Circe the witch (who turned Odysseus' men into swine and would later see them drown in the sea) and the famous story of Cyclops. After several pages of detailed analysis, MacDonald offers this summary of "the remarkable density and order of parallels between the stories of the Cyclops and the Gerasene. (Items in square brackets occur out of order.)"

Odyssey 9.101-565 text</font>

Odysseus and his crew, in a convoy,
arrived at the land of the Cyclops.

On the mountains "innumerable goats" grazed.

Odysseus and crew disembarked.

They encountered a savage, lawless giant
who lived in a cave.

The giant asked Odysseus came to harm him.

The giant asked Odysseus his name.

Odysseus answered, "Nobody."

Odysseus subdued the giant with violence and trickery.

[Circe had turned Odysseus' soldiers into swine.]

The shepherd called out to his neighbors.

The Cyclops came to the site
asking about Polyphemus's sheep and goats.

(Polyphemus usually was depicted nude.)

Odysseus and crew reembarked.

Odysseus told the giant to proclaim
that he had blinded him.

The giant asked Odysseus, who was now aboard
the ship, to come back.

Odysseus refused the request.

Odysseus and crew sailed away.

Odysseus awoke during a storm at sea in the episode immediately following the story of the Cyclops.

Mark 5:1-20

Jesus and his disciples, with "other boats,"
arrived at the land of Gerasenes.

[On the mountains "about 2,000" swine grazed.]

Jesus and his disciples disembarked.

They encountered a savage, lawless demoniac
who lived among the caves.

He asked Jesus not to torment him.

Jesus asked the demoniac his name.

The demoniac answered, "Legion."

Jesus subdued the demons with divine power

and sent them into the swine and then into the sea.

The swineherds called on their neighbors.

The Gerasenes came to the site
to find out about their swine.

The demoniac, once naked, now was clothed.

Jesus and his disciples reembarked.

Jesus told the demoniac to proclaim
that he he healed him.

The demoniac asked Jesus, now aboard the ship,
if he could be with him.

Jesus refused the request.

Jesus and disciples sailed away.

[Jesus awoke during a storm and calmed the wind and the sea just before exorcising the demoniac.]