Geographical Distribution of Demon Possession

Mapping Demon Belief in the New Testament


S. Snobelen


Demon-possession in the Gospel accounts is not a geographically-uniform phenomenon. Specific cases of demon-possession in the synoptics occur in regional clusters, always in northern environs such as Galilee, rather than occurring throughout every location through which Christ travelled and performed healings.

Conversely, not a single case of demon-possession in Judea or Jerusalem is recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Moreover, the Synoptics include several quantitative summaries of demon-possession that imply that demon-possession was a common and even characteristic phenomenon in Galilee and the northern regions. No comparable statements for Judean areas are found in the Gospel records.

Finally, certain ostensibly physical pathological conditions, such as blindness, deafness and muteness, which are sometimes attributed to demon-possession in the north, are never so characterized in the south, even though descriptions of these conditions do occur in texts commenting on the Judean ministry.

The evidence: a geographical survey of demon possession in the synoptics

Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a town in the Roman province of Galilee. Aside from the intense period leading up to his crucifixion, the synoptic Gospel accounts show that Christ spent most of his three years’ ministry in the north, particularly, but not exclusively, in Galilee. The records themselves attest to a great number of cases where Christ healed demoniacs, although only a few of the cases are commented upon in detail. The following will summarize the data.

First, we find evidence from particular statements in the synoptics that demon possession was common in Galilee and the north. A few examples will reveal the general tenor of these statements. In the opening chapter of Mark we are told that Jesus “cast out many

demons” (daimonia polla) and that “he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:34 and 39; all quotations from the RSV).

Mark also recounts that the twelve disciples both healed many who were sick and “cast out many demons” (daimonia polla; 6:13). Matthew records the same occasion as that described in Mark 1, and mentions the locals in Capernaum bringing “many who were possessed with demons” (daimonizomenous pollous; 8:16; cf. Luke 4:41).

On another occasion in Luke 7:21, we find Jesus, while near Nain, curing “many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits.” These examples, with their deliberate emphasis on the great number of demoniacs, demonstrate that whatever the situation elsewhere, demon possession was common in Galilee—even endemic.

As with these quantitative summaries, when we turn to examine specific examples, we see that all such cases of demon possession occur in the north, and usually in Galilee. For example, the first healing of a demoniac recorded in Mark occurs in the synagogue of Capernaum (1:21-8). Mark also mentions the case of a demon-possessed girl from Syrian Phoenicia in 7:24-30, another northern region. Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons were cast out, was from Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The most celebrated case of demon possession in the New Testament—that of the Gadarene demoniac—occurred in the north as well, beside the Sea of Galilee (Matthew; Mark; Luke ).

When we turn to the fourth Gospel account, we discover that John does not record a single case of demon possession, although he does mention people with sickness. Many scholars have noticed this and have offered suggestions as to why this should be so.

One theory is that John came from a Sadducean background and, since Sadducees did not believe in demons, he refrains from mentioning them. Aside from the fact that there is no strong evidence for this theory (and in any case, the Book of Revelation tells us that John certainly believed in angels), a better explanation of this apparent anomaly lies in the fact that John, unlike the synoptics, concentrates almost entirely on the south.

The disproportionate ratio of coverage between north and south in the synoptics is reversed in John. With John we have almost an entire Gospel account devoted to the Judean ministry in which demons could appear. Yet, they do not. This is further evidence for the clustering of demons in the north.

In order to confirm the northern bias of demon-possession during the ministry of Jesus, I analysed every reference to demons and evil spirits in the Gospel accounts, paying close attention to the location of each occurrence. The results of this survey are displayed in the accompanying table and map.

To strengthen the above-outlined pattern even further, we can take an additional step and note that there is a difference between the way some examples of physical ailments are described in the north when compared with the south. Illnesses mentioned in the south are always treated as purely organic conditions, while in the north they are sometimes treated as afflictions caused by demons. Thus we see some cases of blindness, deafness and muteness in the north attributed to demons. In Mark 9:14-29 we are provided with an account of a boy possessed by a “dumb and deaf spirit” (9:25; cf. 9:17).

Moreover, Matthew 9:32-3 records an incident in which Jesus healed a mute man, who was thought to be possessed by a demon. Furthermore, another man afflicted by a demon is described in this same Gospel account as “blind and dumb” (12:22; cf. Luke 11:14). Cases of the blindness in the south are depicted quite differently.

After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus healed people in the Temple who are simply described as being blind (Matthew 21:14). The man born blind in John 9 did not find himself in his condition because of demonic affliction.

As for blind Bartimaeus from Jericho—he is just “blind Bartimaeus,” not “blind, demon possessed Bartimaeus” (Mark 10:46-52). All this, even though his actions are similar to that of a demoniac: he cries out and attributes Biblical titles to Jesus (Mark 10:47-48). This demonstrates that even demon-like behaviour in the south was not readily attributed to evil spirits.

Why is it that such physical problems are sometimes attributed to demonic agency in the north, but never so in the south? What was so special about Judea that drove away demons? These examples also demonstrate that it is wrong to assume that all cases of demon possession relate to mental illness.

To sum up, the results reveal that every single case of demon-possession in the Gospel accounts occurs in the north, outside Judea; there are no examples of demon-possession in Judea or Jerusalem recorded in any of the four Gospel accounts. What is more, there are several occasions in the Synoptic treatments of the Galilean ministry where we are told that Jesus healed many people possessed by demons. Again, this is in stark contrast to the lack of even a single reference to demon possession in the Judean ministry.

Possible objections considered

Next, we must test this pattern for flaws or alternative explanations. If the pattern is real and significant, it must be able to stand up to rigorous objections. Could it be that there are no accounts of demon possession in Judea because no miracles of healing are recorded there at all? No, there are miracles of healing recorded in both Judea and Jerusalem. Could this pattern be the simple result of the fact that the synoptics spend so much time focusing on the Galilean and northern ministry? No, because, once again, miracles of healing are recorded in Judea.

The accounts of the southern ministry in the synoptics, while not as extensive as the accounts in the north, are by no means insignificant: there was ample opportunity to record cases of demon-possession, if they occurred in that region.

Also, when we turn to John, we see that the majority of his Gospel account deals with the Judean ministry and there is not a single reference to a healing of a demon-possessed person (the only references to demons in John occur when Christ is accused of having a demon — which seems to have been a standard form of slander and abuse among Jews). Thus the pattern holds up in the Gospel accounts.

It is only when we leave the Gospel accounts that we find two possible exceptions to this general pattern. First, in Acts 5:16 we read that those with unclean spirits were brought from the towns “around” or “in the vicinity of Jerusalem” to be healed by the Apostles.

 The Greek is not overly precise, so it is hard to say from how far away these demon-possessed people came, but the language does show that wherever they were from, they were not from Jerusalem itself—the main centre for Jewish religious teaching in Judea. But it is worth noting that this is the only example in the book of Acts of demon-possession in a predominantly Jewish region. Based on the pattern of the Gospel accounts one would expect examples around every corner. Yet this is not the case.

The other apparent exception comes in Acts 10:38 where Peter, giving an account of Christ’s ministry, noted that Christ healed all who were oppressed of the devil (ho diabolos). First, it must be stressed that Peter does not specifically use the word demon (daimonion), and it is possible that this distinction is not without import.

Second, while it is true that Peter mentions that the ministry of Christ took him through first Galilee and then Judea (10:37), he does not specifically mention where the healings of those oppressed by the devil took place. His is a general statement about Christ’s ministry as a whole, and since most of Christ’s ministry took place in Galilee, the greatest force of the statement about demons (assuming the reference is to demons) would naturally apply to that region.

As a Galilean himself, the cases of demon possession would have left a strong impression on him, and it is thus not surprising that he should mention them in such a summary of Christ’s ministry. Also, the summary statement of healing is no less true if Peter knew that those oppressed by the devil lived in Galilee. There is no necessary contradiction in stating that Christ worked in Galilee and Judea on the one hand, and that he healed all oppressed by the devil (or demons) in the north.

Furthermore, it is a long established principle of Biblical exegesis that unclear passages should be interpreted by those more easily understood. In this case, as we have seen, the wealth of testimony from the Gospel accounts confirms that every example of demon possession during the ministry of Jesus occurred in the north. Nevertheless, even if, for the sake of argument, Peter’s summary statement is meant to include otherwise unrecorded cases of demon-possession in the south, such information would in no way counter what would still be an overwhelming trend.

Christ’s words to his disciples in Mark 16:17 offer another possible exception: “In my name shall they case out demons.” Once again, however, we are dealing with a general statement with no specific geographical cues. Nevertheless, the statement is clearly prophetic, so we can confirm just how it was fulfilled by consulting the rest of the New Testament. Here we see that the Apostles (including, later, Paul) did in fact encounter cases of demon-possession after Christ’s ascension.

But, the point is that with the possible exception of Acts 5:16, these cases occurred in Gentile dominated regions outside Judea. Absolutely no cases occurred in Jerusalem, and no individual cases are highlighted from Judea.

With regard to any unrecorded cases, we may expect that the pattern revealed during the ministry of Jesus would continue in the years immediately afterward his ascension. But the force of the impressive pattern of clear examples from the Gospel accounts cannot be taken away by the three above possible exceptions. If belief in demons was much weaker in Judea than in Galilee, we would still expect to see some belief in demons in the south, just as we should not be surprised if some in the north did not believe in demons. The “demons” may not have travelled, but people and ideas certainly did.

The point is: the general pattern holds up even if there are some limited exceptions. What is more, even if we are only dealing with a general pattern of demonic activity during the ministry of Christ (i.e. including some possible unrecorded Judean cases as well), it is still true that none of the examples explicitly listed in the Gospel accounts occurred in the south. There must be a reason for this inbuilt into the inspired Word. And even if we are only witnessing a general pattern, this fact alone gives us a compelling reason to seek for explanations.

Given this very powerful evidence, therefore, we must ask: what is going on? Why do we find so many demons in the north and so few (if any) in the south? Why are organic ailments in the north sometimes attributed to demonic activity, but never in the south? For the person who believes in the inspiration of Scripture these examples can be neither accidental nor without purpose. Something is being taught by this pattern.

There are two general explanations: the first is historically-based, the second comes straight from the Bible. We will begin with the historical explanation, and outline the biblical one at the conclusion of this article.

Belief in demons in Galilee and Judea

Based on his studies of the relevant Talmudic literature, Cambridge rabbinical scholar Herbert Loewe concluded that during the first century AD rabbis in Galilee and Mesopotamia generally believed in the literal existence of demons, while those in Judea did not. Loewe first of all includes a commendable appeal for the need to exercise great care and sensitivity with respect to local and chronological distinctions:

‘...references must be examined to see whether they are the utterances of individuals or genuine examples of popular belief; and distinctions must be drawn between local and general beliefs, between Semitic and non-Semitic, and between Jewish beliefs and those borrowed by Jews from their neighbours in European countries.

A requirement more vital than any of the foregoing, is the exercise of careful analysis in selecting Talmudic material. It is absolutely necessary to assign each authority to its proper local and chronological category; that is to say, evidence which applies to Babylon is inadmissible for Palestine; that which is found to occur in Galilee cannot be used to prove arguments for Judaea; and the same care must be exercised in respect of chronology.’

Loewe next summarizes the results of his findings:

‘In investigating Talmudic evidence as to spirits, the reader will notice, at the outset, different attitudes adopted by the Rabbis in dealing with this question. In some cases the reality of demons seems to be taken for granted absolutely; in others it seems, with no less certainty, to be denied. Stories occur in which both these attitudes may be traced simultaneously. The reason for this may be found if the nationality of the respective teachers be sought. It has already been stated that Galilee was the centre of Palestinian demonology, and it will almost invariably be found that Galilaean teachers accepted, while Judaean teachers rejected, the existence of spirits. The numerous instances which the NT furnishes would have been impossible save in Galilee; there is a strong similarity between these and those adduced by Galilaean Rabbis. The same must be said of those Rabbis who came from Mesopotamia. And they were brought up in surroundings in which superstition was rife, their teaching was tinged by a belief in spirits, and in comparison with them the clarity of Palestinian teaching stands out in bold relief.’ Loewe, “Demons and Spirits (Jewish),” Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (Edinburgh, 1911), 4:612-13 (emphasis as in original). See also H.A. Kelly, Towards the death of Satan: the growth and decline of Christian demonology (London, 1968), p. 68

Loewe then goes on to cite supporting evidence from the Talmud to show that superstitious belief in demons was a characteristic feature of rabbinical teaching in Galilee, while a sceptical traditional prevailed among rabbis in Judaea. We have just seen this regional historical phenomenon played out in vivid fashion against the New Testament documents.

There is additional confirmation of this trend in the teachings of the Sadducees, who occupy the extreme sceptical end of the spirit-belief continuum. We know from history and the Bible that the Sadducees (who were associated with the Temple and Jerusalem) believed in neither demons nor angels (Luke). The effect of Sadducean teaching would have reinforced the general trend in the south.

This background information opens a window on demonic activity during the ministry of Christ. Belief in demons was taught and fostered in the north by the local rabbis; coversely, those in the south were encouraged by a sceptical outlook by the Judaean teachers. Since belief in demons was rampant in the north, many people attributed sickness to demons.

 Because demon belief was much less common in the south (the above-cited scholarly source implies that it was virtually nonexistent among Judaean rabbis), then the demons did not exist either. Does all of this sound familiar? People who believe in ghosts, see ghosts. Those who don’t, don’t.

Those who put their faith in televangelist healings are “healed” by televangelists. Those who do not, are not. Enthusiasts who believe in UFOs sometimes see UFOs. Those who do not are much more inclined to attribute unidentified flying objects to more mundane entitities like airplanes, unusual cloud formations and swamp gas. We can even extend this phenomenon across time. In eras when belief in ghosts, witches and devils was rife, sightings of all three were much more common. Yet no-one reported seeing a flying saucer, as such, until well into the twentieth century when alien life and technology had entered the popular consciousness.

Now we can extend this pattern even further to our current topic. Those who believe in demons, experience or attribute demon possession. Those who don’t, don’t. Strange, anomalous happenings once attributed to ghosts, fairies and demons are now attributed to UFOs, the laws of chance and medical causes. People often see and experience what they believe—regardless of whether these things exist in reality.

 This also explains why one can talk to many evangelicals who have “seen” or “experienced” the devil, but one will be hard pressed to find a Christadelphian who has either seen the devil of orthodoxy or been demon-possessed. Why does the devil and his demons afflict those who believe in them and leave those alone who do not?

This pattern strongly infers that putative cases of demon-possession in the Gospel and other New Testament accounts are positively related to local belief. In other words, where local folk belief encouraged or allowed for belief in demons, cases of possession exist—often in large groupings. Where such belief was either not taught or even actively discouraged, cases of demon-possession are severely reduced or non-existent.

 The implications of this unmistakable pattern in the New Testament have profound ramifications for the ontological status and reality of personal, malevolent demons in the New Testament period. This striking pattern cannot be adequately explained by recourse to the argument that demons are fallen angels ruled by satan (spirit beings not restricted by geography), and intent on attacking Christ and his ministry.

If demons were literal spirit beings under the direction of satan, the distribution of demonic activity should be uniform, or even close to uniform, in all locales visited by Christ. That the distribution instead shows marked clustering, provides powerful Biblical testimony that confirms the non-existence of demons as personal spirit beings under the control of satan.

Demons in Acts, the Epistles and the Book of Revelation

This analysis can be extended further to the rest of the accounts of demons in the New Testament. We see in Acts 8:7 healings of unclean spirits in Samaria, which is to the north of Judea and thus fits the general pattern. Next, we see a reference to a woman with a spirit of python in the Gentile area (Philippi; Acts 16:16-21). This reflects a Gentile belief and not a Jewish one, so this example also fits the pattern: the people of a region are afflicted by “beings” that are believed to be real in their particular area. Additionally, we are told of further activity of evil spirits in Acts 19:12-18, but once again, although Jews were involved, these examples occur in the Gentile region of Ephesus.

To summarize the rest of the New Testament, for Paul demons are worthless idols that have no existence in reality (1 Corinthians 8:4, 10:19-21, 12:2); he does not touch on the phenomenon of demon-possession in any of his writings.

When writing to the mainly Gentile Corinthians, he does not record a gift of casting out demons. Here it is probably relevant to note that Paul was not a Galilean Jew, and thus may have had more contact with Gentile demons than Jewish evil spirits. Demons in Revelation are idols and seducing spirits (Revelation 9:20, 16:14): there is no talk of possession. It is only when we turn to James that we see what appears to be a general reference to demon-possession (James 2:19).

That this should be so is hardly surprising: James, the brother of the Lord, was raised in Galilee and was familiar with demon-possession. He was also writing to Jews and Jewish Christians (cf. James 1:1 and 2:2, which uses the term synagogue), who would be familiar with demon-possession, even if they had not witnessed it in their regions. Paul, in writing to a predominantly Gentile audience, does not feel he needs to mention demon-possession at all.

James also wrote at a very early date, perhaps as early as the late 40s AD, when his memories of such events in Christ’s Galilean ministry were still fresh (I think James’ allusion is to the Gadarene demoniac—other Galilean case). James’ references, then, are likely reminiscences of Galilean demon-possession. Thus, the general geographical patterns holds up for the entire New Testament.

This evidence presents a serious obstacle to the believer in fallen angels. Not only does this pattern imply accommodation (or something like it), but it cannot be assimilated easily into the other main alternative: literal, personal, malevolent demons.

If this is what the Bible is speaking about, why the regionalization? If Satan was trying to attack Christ in his ministry, why were the demons so ineffective and virtually absent in the south? If the demons of the Gospel records really were fallen angels acting under diabolical orders, why were they not powerful enough to swarm into the southern regions and continue to afflict hapless victims and further attempt to impede the ministry of Christ?

If they had power to enter into a person and bring on that person debilitating illnesses, could they not travel to all regions? Was Christ’s power more effective in the south? Yet he spent more time in the north. Some might argue that the demonic onslaught started with the beginning of Christ’s ministry and that part-way through his ministry Christ gained control over them, thus when he went down to Judea late in his ministry, they had already been driven away.

But this will not do, because although references to demons and evil spirits are much reduced in the book of Acts, there are examples nonetheless, after this supposed victory. Once again, the geographical distribution of demon-possession cannot be explained by literal demons.’


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