New Testament

In the NT there is no substantial difference. Sometimes “unclean spirit” and “demon” occur in the same account, or in parallel accounts between the synoptic Gospel writers:

Luke 8:29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time 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 desert.)

Luke 9:42 While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

Old Testament

But in the OT the two are distinguished. Or rather “evil spirit” and “demons” are distinguished. All mentions of “evil spirit” come from God, but “demons” (in KJV below “devils”) are idols — which have no breath or spirit in them according to Jeremiah and Habakkuk.

The term “unclean spirit” is not used in the OT. But the idea of uncleanness of idols is found:

Zech. 13:2 “And on that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness.

There are three mentions of “evil spirit”, one a disagreement between men in Judges, the other two a form of mental illness that twice came upon Saul:

Jdg 9:23 (KJV) Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech:

1Sa 16:14 (KJV) But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him. … 16 Let our lord now command thy servants, [which are] before thee, to seek out a man, [who is] a cunning player on an harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well.

1Sa 19:9 (KJV) And the evil spirit from the LORD was upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his javelin in his hand: and David played with [his] hand.

There is a third reference to a “lying spirit”, but that is in an ironic parable by the prophet Micaiah and best considered separately.

The Old Testament does not really know the concept of “demons”. Yes there are four verses which have traditionally been translated “devils” (KJV) or “demons”, but this is simply a description of idols — “who are no gods”.

Lev 17:7 (KJV) And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils, after whom they have gone a whoring. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.

Deut 32:17 (KJV) They sacrificed unto devils, not to God; to gods whom they knew not, to new [gods that] came newly up, whom your fathers feared not.

2Ch 11:15 (KJV) And he ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made.

Psa 106:37 (KJV) Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils.

The OT also confirms that idols have no “spirit” (Hebrew: ruakh) in them:

Jer 10:14 (KJV) Every man is brutish in [his] knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image [is] falsehood, and there is no breath (spirit, ruakh) in them.

Jer 51:17 (KJV) Every man is brutish by his knowledge; every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image [is] falsehood, and [there is] no breath [spirit, ruakh] in them.

Hab 2:19 (KJV) Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, And there is no breath (spirit) at all inside it


So the answer to the question is twofold

  • in the NT there is no difference, both appear to exist in the 3 synoptic records — although as these are journalistic accounts of events they only reflect what was done and said. The gospel of John and the rest of the NT do not treat demons in this way.
  • in the OT there is a big difference — evil spirits exist, and come from God, demons are just false gods who do not exist.

This raises another question : Why does OT and NT teaching on demons appear to differ?

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4 Responses to What is the difference between “unclean spirit” and “demon”?

  1. Anthony Buzzard says:

    Thanks for writing on demons. You say rightly that evil spirit and demon are the same, and you say “both appear to exist in the 3 synoptic records — although as these are journalistic accounts of events they only reflect what was done and said.” Jesus spoke to the demons and they to him. The demons are always distinguished from the human victims and the demons cannot be illnesses. Illnesses do not recognize the Messiah. So what is your definition for demon/evil spirit in the synoptic narrative accounts?

  2. Steven says:

    Hi Anthony. Evidently a demon is a demon is a demon. Specifically demons in popular Second Temple period Judaism are not illnesses, demons are supernatural evil beings under the control of Beelzebub, and according to some traditions in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in texts like Testament of Solomon they are not created beings, but the immortal souls of giants who drowned in the flood. This view compares, for example, with the translators of the Septuagint who added to Is.65:3 LXX : “[Israel] burn incense on bricks to demons, *which exist not*” Which confirms again that demons are demons are demons, just that the authors of the Testament of Solomon believed demons exist, wheras the translators of the Septuagint believed they did not. So the definition for demon/evil spirit in the 3 synoptic narrative accounts is (generally speaking) a demon/evil spirit.

    Likewise the same definition is true for Gentile demons; there is no question about what the demon which possess the girl in Philippi is, as Luke says ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα Πύθωνος = having a spirit of the Greek god Python. Because she is a Gentile girl, outside Palestine, she is infected by (polytheistic) pagan gods, rather than (monotheistic) Jewish demons.

    So that is what the text is. A demon is a demon is a demon.

    Does that answer your question? Or is your question, why do those churches who do not believe in fallen angels and evil spirits read these verses in the 3 synoptics as only describing the beliefs of the day? If that is your question then there would be 3 main answers:

    1) the 3 synoptic accounts were written to provide journalistic accounts of Jesus and the disciples miracles. They aren’t medical-scientific descriptions, any more than Jesus rebuking the fever (Luke 4:39), fevers don’t have ears. They also aren’t demon-fighting “spiritual warfare” texts such as can be found in the Testament of Solomon, Jewish magical papyri, or the shelves of modern Christian bookstores. Or indeed the demon stories of the Talmud, or rabbinical explanations such as Rashi states that kordiakos is the name of the demon which rules in a drunk person (while to Maimonides kordiakos is simply alcoholism).

    2) “demons” are only a subcategory, appendix, of the way the NT treats the devil – with 70+ references. Jewish readers with a strong foundation in monotheism and knowing that God causes illness, death, even darkness and “evil” (disaster Is.45:7) would know that demons (in the OT pagan gods) were just superstition. They would also know that the only two occurences of “Satan” in the OT occur in poetic books – the prologue to Job and Zechariah’s vision of Jeshua the priest’s ghost and Satan in the throneroom, while his grandson and greatgrandson sully his name with intermarriage and bribery on earth below. So those with a strictly monotheistic (not dualistic) ground had a different starting point about supernatural evil than the Pharisees, the schizophrenics, epileptics, and blind of the 3 synoptic Gospels.

  3. Steven says:

    3) the third answer would be the one that pulls the 2 of those above together. If we add 1) the journalistic approach of the synoptics to 2) that demons are only a subcategory of a non-dualistic view where God is the source of death, illness, darkness, and the OT sees pagan demons as pagan gods which don’t exist then that brings us to 3) WHY?

    3) WHY?

    Well what is different between the OT and the NT? What does the NT have that the OT doesn’t have? The answer evidently is Jesus. So the reason we find demons in the synoptics (but not in the OT, nor in John) is the same reason why we find a disobedient devil in the NT (completely different from the obedient diabolos in the Septuagint) Jesus made them; Jesus came to bring the darkness to light, expose the darkness. Also, and this goes back to why Jesus has his disciples cast out demons and then says he sees it as Satan falling from heaven in Luke 10:17-18, because just as Christ’s parable about having been tempted for 40 days by a character from Zechariah’s third night vision was to teach the disciples how he could keep sin out, the healings are also done in this way to teach the disciples (and us) the way Christ casts physical and mental evils out. The purpose of these acted parables is not to teach Christians that exorcism of the immortal souls of drowned giants is a better treatement than anticonvulsants like Topiramate and Fosphenytoin for epilepsy, but to teach Christians that Christ has power over the fundamental cause of illness, and death – sin.

    So what is the definition of a demon in the synoptics? A demon in the synoptics is a supernatural evil of popular belief being used in an acted parable to show that just as God had power over Baal Zebub and gods which didn’t exist (and could neither heal nor cure in in 2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16 where King Ahaziah of Kingdom of Israel (Samaria), appeals to Baal Zebub who doesn’t exist), Christ has power over Beelzebub who still doesn’t exist – including illness beyond man’s knowledge – schizophrenia etc. but ultimately the lesson of the demon-language of the synoptics is to teach us that Christ has power over the greatest demon, the devil of personal sin-habits, and “through death he might destroy him that hath the power of death, that is the devil” (Heb. 2:14).

  4. p1234m says:

    thank you God bless you

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