How many demoniacs lived among the tombs?

Posted on May.19, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark, Luke. Average rating: 6.2 / 10 (Rate It).

The incident where Jesus cast a number of demons into a herd of pigs is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels. In each account, the demons recognise Jesus and beg him to send them into the pigs rather than do anything worse. The demon-possessed pigs then rush down a steep bank into a lake in which they drown. One detail on which the accounts differ, though, concerns how many men the demons had possessed.

In Mark, the demons possess just one man:

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake. [Mark 5:1-13]

Luke too puts the demons in just one man:

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’–for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. [Luke 8:26-33]

In Matthew, though, the demons possess two men:

When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine?’ And he said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. [Matthew 8:24-32]

The details in the accounts are similar enough to make it clear that the same incident is being described. So did Jesus cast Legion out of one man or two?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    You have to say that Mark and Luke don’t actually rule out the presence of a 2nd demoniac. Still, the obvious reading of them is that there was just one man. Perhaps, if you believe the author of Matthew is Matthew, you can say he had a better knowledge of what actually happened.

  2. 2

    I can understand why Matthew, having a pericope involving two demoniacs, might remove one to simplify the narrative. I find it harder to understand why, having a pericope involving one demoniac, he would add a second (yet he does this not just with demoniacs but also with blind men). Any suggestions?

  3. 3

    Are you asking for a non-inerrantist explanation? My suggestion would be that curing two men looks more impressive than curing one…

  4. 4

    I am hereby moving my high rating regarding the region in which the demoniac(s) lived to this case. The region problem seems less difficult.

    This problem seems more difficult. As I’ve said elsewhere, I tend to follow early church historians and adopt Matthean priority. Which might then mean that Mark (and then Luke) removed a demoniac to simplify the narrative.

    So that may be an explanation of the elision.

    But it does not strike me as a distinctively inerrantist explanation. Somehow this elision seems much more serious than leaving out an unridden mother donkey or the intermediaries in the interchange with the centurion. Strictly speaking, I suppose that if there were two demoniacs, then there was one as well. But that chafes at me.

    The idea that Matthew added a second demoniac to make the story more impressive seems very unlikely to me. For starters, it doesn’t seem that simply increasing the demoniac count renders the story more impressive. Apart from that, even if two are more impressive than one, why not three, or seven?

  5. 5

    Indeed, I’ve no good explanation. But he does indeed make a similar addition with the blind man/men at Jericho as well (or if you prefer, Mark and Luke make a similar simplification).

  6. 6

    “Apart from that, even if two are more impressive than one, why not three, or seven?”

    On that point at least there’s a simple reply: the more you add the less plausible it becomes. There’s not that many demoniacs roaming around. :)

  7. 7

    Willoughby Allen gives two possible explanations in (1907) A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Matthew:

    1. The author of Matthew, summarising Mark, was perhaps relying on memory and did not bother to unroll the gospel all the way to Mark 5.

    2. The author of Matthew had already omitted one story of a demoniac (I imagine this means Mark 1:23ff) and so adds a second one here to compensate. A similar explanation applies to the two blind men at Jericho (since the author of Matthew omits Mark 8:22-26).

  8. 8

    On remark #5

    Unlike demoniacs-living-in-tombs-whose-demons-are-cast-into-swine-who-run-headlong-into-the-sea, blind men were more prevalent. I’m more willing to suppose that there are multiple healings of blind men in the Gospels. There may even be multiple healings of blind men on the road to or on the road from Jericho. So I view this as a more serious problem than the blind men near Jericho.

  9. 9

    It’s interesting here, that Matthean priority seems to provide a lot more plausible explanations of Matthew’s famous ‘double-vision’ that Markan priority does.

    The idea that Matthew would add a second demoniac or a second blind man to make up for one he’d left one out seems like quite a stretch. It’s not like readers would be keeping a demoniac score card or something. At least Allen doesn’t argue that Matthew added a second donkey to make up for the donkey he’d left out ;-).

    And arguing from an assumption of Markan priority that, in essence, (the author of) Matthew didn’t consult Mark seems somehow self-stultifying.

    On the other hand, if Matthew is first, it makes some sense (though doesn’t make me particularly happy as an inerrantist) to say that Luke and Mark just left out the extra demoniac and extra blind man for narrative purposes.

  10. 10

    “arguing from an assumption of Markan priority that, in essence, (the author of) Matthew didn’t consult Mark seems somehow self-stultifying”

    Well. The suggestion that Matthew had read Mark – but didn’t actually have the text before him at that particular moment – seems within reason.

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