Why does OT and NT teaching on demons appear to differ?
It is undeniable that there is a difference between the way the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) describe illness and disability:
Exodus 4:11 Then the Lord said to [Moses], “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?
Luke 11:14 Now [Jesus] was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled.
Those OT and NT views on what causes muteness (and other verses on blindness, deafness etc.) are clearly irreconcilable.
2 Kings 1:2 Now Ahaziah fell through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay sick; so he sent messengers, telling them, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this sickness.” 3 But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?
Luke 11:18 And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.
The context of 2 Kings 1:2 is in line with overall OT teaching that these gods “do not exist” (see, e.g., Deut. 4:35,39; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; 1 Kings 8:60; 2 Kings 19:15; Isa. 43:11; 45:5; 46:9. But in Luke 11:8, Christ appears to speak about Beelzebul (a variation on the name Baal-zebub; see 2 Kings 1:2, quoted above) as if Beelzebul is real (although in fact careful reading shows that he is not doing so). On the face of it, however, the OT and NT view of Beelzebul is also in conflict (not so directly in conflict as Ex.4:11 vs Luke 11:14, but still showing a different world-view from the OT to the NT).
So why does this difference occur? There are three suggestions:
- The Old Testament is not as inspired as the New Testament (…we are not going to consider this view!)
- The New Testament reluctantly “accommodates” to Jewish superstitions of the day.
- The New Testament picks up the ideas of the day and turns them to form part of the new teaching about “the devil” and sin.
The accommodation theory
Accommodation means saying, or writing, something to be understood, but not having to believe everything that goes with it. Not just at the level of the word “moonstruck” (which occurs in Matt.4:24 and 17:15 in description of demonic epilepsy, selēniazomai), but also in more extreme examples, such as Luke recording that a Greek slave girl was possessed by the pagan demigod Python (Acts 16:16 — ‘having a spirit of Python’; echousan pneuma Pythonos).
There is certainly some element of accommodation in the NT demon accounts.
- Christ anointing the eyes of a blind man with mud, or putting saliva in the ears of a deaf man, or rebuking a fever, etc. are clear signs that Christ was willing to do what the patient needed to help them believe.
- Also Christ told a parable about the unclean spirit who brings seven more, which is also a form of accommodation (on this, see the answer to ‘Does Matthew 12:43-45 show that demons are real?‘).
- Christ never once lectures the sick or his disciples about the non-existence of demons.
- James also appears to accommodate to demons when he says “the demons also believe and tremble” — though in context he is probably referring to Christ’s healings.
- Paul tells the church at Corinth to tolerate brothers and sisters who still believe demons exist (1Co.8:6).
However, accommodation to demons is more complex because it inevitably clashes with the view of Ex.4:11 that God, not demons, causes illness.
The Jewish belief in demons had grown both in Babylon and during the Maccabean period. The surviving materials from the Apocrypha (e.g., Tobit), Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls), the Diaspora (books of medical-demonology like the 1stC Testament of Solomon), and physical sources like inscriptions on pottery and walls, are full of it. These sources confirm what we know from the synoptic Gospels, that most Jews believed any illness they could not explain was caused by demons. But if they could explain an illness (like leprosy or palsy) then they do not ascribe it to demons.
“In the world of Jesus, the devil was believed to be at the basis of sickness as well as sin. The idea that demons were responsible for all moral and physical evil had penetrated deeply into Jewish religious thought in the period following the Babylonian exile, no doubt as a result of Iranian influence on Judaism in the fifth and fourth centuries BC when Palestine as well as Jews from the eastern Diaspora were subject to direct Persian rule.” (Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 1981 p.61)
But there was another side to it. Demon belief was also sometimes connected not to the idols of the Old Testament (which was the OT view of demons) but to the offspring of fallen angels (cf. Dead Sea Scrolls — Book of the Giants), or to the idea that demons were themselves a lower class of fallen angel (“the devil and his angels”). It is important to note that the NT draws a limit: the NT does not accommodate the stories of the origins of demons that circulated in “Jewish myths” (Titus 1:14, etc.)
Making demons part of the new doctrine of the NT on the devil
The other big change in the NT is the rapid development of the devil from a minor, allegorical, character in the OT to a major, almost literal and omnipresent, character in the NT. In the OT, the devil (Satan) appears once in the prologue of a drama (Job 1 – a book of poetry); a second time in a vision related to the intermarriage of the high priest’s grandson with an Arab businessman’s daughter, and that same high priest (Eliashib) dishonouring his grandfather’s memory by embezzling temple funds (Zechariah 3). A third reference turns out to actually be God himself (1 Chr 21:1), and was not part of Jewish understanding of “the devil” at this period.
So why does the NT have this sudden upsurge in the devil’s activity? Why is he upgraded from an obscure bit-player to a major role? Why does he go from 3 or 4 references in 39 books, to nearly 100 references in 27 books?
The difference between OT and NT is very simple — Christ. It is not just an issue of accommodation, since the NT doctrine of the devil goes far beyond the contemporary Jewish ideas. The Jews had some ideas about malevolent, supernatural characters — e.g., Asmodeus (Tobit), Belial (Dead Sea Scrolls), Azazel (Talmuds), fallen angels (1 Enoch, Jubilees), the snake having been motivated by Satan (Life of Adam and Eve, Wisdom of Solomon); but nothing in any Jewish book is on the scale of the allegory found throughout the NT.
In this context, demons become a sub-set of the NT teaching on the devil. Of course, Jesus does not actually confirm the literal existence of Beelzebul, as lord of the demons, but Jesus does take his own mission to “destroy” the devil (Heb.2:14) as including destroying “demons”.
Illness and sin are related in OT and NT
When Adam and Eve sinned, not only did they become mortal (prone to death) they also became prone to sickness. The existence of sickness is a subset of death.
Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. [Also see Ps. 88; 116]
Therefore, in Messianic prophecies, the Messiah (Christ) is seen as curing sickness as part of defeating sin and death.
Isaiah 42:7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Isaiah 61:1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
Jesus himself compares his work in healing sin to that of a healer:
Mark 2:17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
OT – no need for an allegory of “sickness as demons” since Christ had not yet come.
The main concern of the OT in this area was to prevent the Jews worshipping gods like Baal Zebub, and therefore called these false gods demons, while making it clear they could do nothing:
Jeremiah 10:5 Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak; they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”
Isaiah 41:23 Tell us what is to come hereafter,
that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
that we may be dismayed and terrified.
NT – highly developed new teaching, including demons into the Satan allegory.
Other answers on this board (see Who was the tempter in the wilderness? etc.) develop the idea of why Satan was developed as a new teaching by Jesus. But, put simply, such an personification of sin was impossible before Christ came, since the personification of sinlessness (Christ himself) was not known. As a subsidiary part of that devil allegory, demons are also upgraded in the NT into an allegory of the physical effects of sin (sickness, disability) before the ultimate effect, death:
- sin, death = allegorized as the devil then, under death / under the devil:
- sickness = allegorized as demons
There is an element of accommodation. If the Jews had not already absorbed Babylonian and Greek ideas about demons causing illness then the NT’s casting out of demons would not have been possible. But even so, Jesus seems to sometimes go out of his way to use demon language (and Jewish methods of exorcism) in the healings. This goes beyond accommodation — as with everything Jesus did, it was primarily to teach.
However, another important conclusion remains: demons disappeared as quickly as they came.
Why the difference between Matthew, Mark and Luke vs. John and Paul?
The story isn’t over. After the three first gospels (two Jewish witnesses for Jews, a third Greek writer for Greeks), we come to the fourth Gospel, John (written for those who were already Christians) and suddenly demons have gone. In the only occasions in John where illness is healed (John 9, the man born blind), the illness is strictly attributed to God, which brings us back to what God said to Moses in Ex.4:11.
In Acts 16:16 we have the encounter with the girl possessed by Python, already mentioned.
Then in the epistles of Paul demons do not occur except in 1 Corinthians 8 & 10, which brings us back to OT identifications of demons with idols which do not exist:
1Co.8:4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
1Co.10:20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
Therefore, it is not as simple as the OT vs. NT view on demons. Instead, the Gospel of John and epistles of Paul actually revert back to OT views on demons, with the only possible exception from Paul being 1 Tim.4:1, where the “deceitful spirits” are human teachers as 1Tim.4:2-4 shows.
That leaves only James 2:19 (the allusion to Christ’s gospel healings mentioned above), and two symbolic references in Revelation which reflect the OT view of demons as idols:
Revelation 9:20 The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk,
Revelation 18:2 And he called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.
So what should we say about this step back from the demon healings in the synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke? Why, after all the demon healings in those 3 gospels, should demon language suddenly stop?
No more need for demon healings.
The clearest clue is probably the lack of demons in John. John felt no need to introduce casting out demons as an allegory of Christ’s power over sin, since for John this is already demonstrated by Christ’s resurrection and defeat of the devil himself. Matthew, Mark and Luke are different — they are presenting a story for people who do not yet accept the outcome, that Christ is raised. So for Matthew, Mark and Luke these casting out of demons are not just idle journalism; the healings are advance demonstrations of what comes later, the triumph over sin, death and the “devil”. This also is the reason that Jesus himself did this. He had not yet “destroyed” the devil (Heb.2:14) on the cross, so the most that Christ could do during the ministry was give the people and his disciples a foretaste of his power over the devil by defeating “demons” — even knowing that according to Ex.4:11 illness came from God because of Adam’s sin, nothing to do with any Beelzebub. In this way every time Christ cast out a demon it was not just a compassionate healing (though it was that too) but also an acted parable of the casting out of sin and death to be achieved at Golgotha.
Which brings us back to where we began with the unambiguous teaching of the OT:
Deuteronomy 32:39 “‘See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
The demons in the three synoptic gospels are just the first act of the play, a prologue to the finale — the defeat of the devil. Their inclusion is not there to accommodate to Jewish legends about demons, but part of an argument designed to bring the readers to the realisation that life and death, sickness and health, are ultimately in God’s hand — and the only sure cure is provided in life through his Son.