Biblical Studies Exorcism
Graham H. Twelftree
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0272


In the biblical material the motif of exorcism—expelling an unwanted spiritual entity from a person or place—is dominated by stories related to Jesus. Of all the activities associated with Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels exorcism appears to be the single activity that took the greatest amount of his time. Indeed, we know of no historical or literary figure in antiquity who is said to have conducted so many exorcisms. (It is not immediately clear why the Gospel of John does not mention exorcism.) Uniquely, Jesus appears to have taken his exorcisms not as signs or evidence of the expected Kingdom of God but, along with other healings, as its realization. In a range of approaches in the period there were exorcisms thought to depend entirely on the charismatic force of the exorcist. On the other hand, there were exorcisms in which the words uttered, or activities carried out, were considered determinative of success. Although these so-called magical exorcisms did not always need an exorcist, but could be performed by anyone, there were highly regarded professional, often peripatetic, practitioners whose identity can only be inferred from the texts. The sheer volume and the chronological and geographical range of data suggests magical exorcism was the most common approach to exorcism around the time of Jesus. Within this range there were approaches in which both the identity of the exorcist as well as what was said and done were important. For example, in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls Pharaoh is said to ask Abram, the key character in the story, to “pray for [him] and [his] house that this evil spirit may be exorcised from [them].” Abram heals Pharaoh by “prayer but also by the laying of his hands” on Pharaoh’s head (1Q20.20). As an exorcist Jesus appeared to depend on his own personal force. When questioned, however, he said that he depended not on Satan as accused, but on the Spirit. Also, all his exorcistic commands have parallels in the literature in which the words are considered operative or performative. His followers used the same method, though their power-authority—Jesus, not the Spirit—was obvious. This article concentrates on exorcism in the New Testament, though it also takes into consideration traditions before and after, along with the concomitant fields of demonology and possession that are important in interpreting exorcism in these texts. From the great amount of literature available, priority is given to representative and more recent publications, as well as to a few classic studies.

General Overviews

Of the few overviews available, Sorensen 2002 provides chapters on the biblical material as well as on that of the ancient Near East and early Greece. Yamauchi 1986 discusses Jesus as an exorcist in the context of the debate about magic. Kay and Parry 2011 provides chapters ranging across the biblical material and beyond. Twelftree 2007 covers the topic from Jesus to the end of the 2nd century CE. Grayston 1975, Annen 1976, Best 1977, and Dunn and Twelftree 1980 provide very brief sketches of the field.

  • Annen, Franz. “Die Dämonenaustreibungen Jesu in den synoptischen Evangelien.” Theologische Berichte 5 (1976): 107–146.

    Though not unique, Jesus’ exorcisms more clearly than other miracles make visible his work and message. The essay considers the historical question of Jesus being an exorcist, the historicity of the individual stories, and the form of the stories. There are discussions of the message of the exorcisms of Jesus and the existence of demons.

  • Best, Ernest. “Exorcism in the NT and Today.” Biblical Theology 27 (1977): 1–9.

    Belief in demons and exorcism were not unique to the early Christians for whom the exorcisms of Jesus represented his victory over evil. Best sees a careful distinction in the New Testament between the evil of possession and evil for which forgiveness is offered. The essay concludes that the language of possession and exorcism is an irrelevant, irrational superstition for most people who live in modern industrial society.

  • Bhayro, Siam, and Catherine Rider, eds. Demons and Illness from Antiquity to the Early-Modern Period. Magical and Religious Literature of Late Antiquity 5. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2017.

    An introductory volume covering ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Second Temple Judaism, medieval and the early modern period on illness, and demons and their changing identities. Although an excellent introduction, the contributors also give attention to language and a plethora of primary sources.

  • Dunn, James D. G., and Graham H. Twelftree. “Demon-Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament.” Churchman 94 (1980): 210–225.

    The essay discusses the portrayal of Jesus as an exorcist, the ancient understanding of demon possession, and the significance given to the exorcisms of Jesus. Though not interested in a worked out demonology, the New Testament gives a consistent portrayal of evil as a unified personal center, organized on a cosmic not merely social scale, and that some cases of demon possession in the New Testament can be “demythologized.”

  • Grayston, Kenneth. “Exorcism in the New Testament.” Epworth Review 2 (1975): 90–94.

    Grayston observes that Paul offers no stories of exorcism; there are no exorcism stories in John’s Gospel; Matthew and Luke raise the question of whether the exorcisms of Jesus are from God or Satan and appear to have a skeptical attitude to exorcism; and Mark has few exorcism stories. It is concluded that the problems of demon possession in Galilee were marginal to the work of Jesus, and the earliest Christians were not much interested in exorcism.

  • Kay, William K., and Robin Parry, eds. Exorcism and Deliverance: Multi-disciplinary Studies. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2011.

    Exorcism is discussed in separate chapters on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the early church. These discussions take place in the context of other essays on psychological, philosophical, pop culture, and theological perspectives, and an interest in the contemporary and practical-theological relevance of the topic of exorcism.

  • Sorensen, Eric. Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament and Early Christianity. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.157. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.

    Exorcism, along with the attendant notion of possession, is examined in the ancient Near East, ancient Israel, early Judaism, early Greece, the New Testament, and early Christianity. This exploration is motivated by the question of how Christianity maintained its exorcistic traditions where it conflicted with social conventions. It is concluded that exorcism remained relevant to Christianity through cultural adaptation, authoritative tradition and innovative theological interpretations.

  • Twelftree, Graham H. In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism Among Early Christians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

    Jesus is identified as a magico-charismatic in that his exorcisms were dependent on his personal force and an outside power-authority. This was also the dominant approach by the early Christians. While early-2nd-century literature shows no interest in exorcism, the Longer Ending of Mark marks a resurgence of interest in exorcism.

  • Yamauchi, Edwin M. “Magic or Miracle? Disease, Demons and Exorcisms.” In Gospel Perspectives 6: The Miracles of Jesus. Edited by David Wenham and Craig Blomberg, 89–183. Sheffield, UK: JSOT, 1986.

    This chapter begins with a discussion of the Christian, pagan, and social scientific perspectives on magic and miracle. To evaluate what are deemed provocative recent publications, Yamauchi surveys diseases, demons, and exorcism in the ancient world before turning to the New Testament with a particular interest in the characterization of Jesus as a magician. There is an emphasis on the perspective and presuppositions of the interpreter in reading the ancient data arguing for the reality of possession and exorcism.

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