Exorcism in Jesus’ Name


(Larry Hurtado): I draw attention to an important study by Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic:  A History (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2008).  Readers of this blog site will be particularly interested in his extended discussion of “Jewish magic in the Second Temple period” (pp. 70-142). 

One of the provocative points Bohak makes is that ancient Jewish magic seems to differ in some respects from “pagan” magic.  Indeed, Bohak goes so far as to propose that the ancient Jewish monotheistic stance may have prompted and shaped ancient Jewish magic in distinctive ways.  E.g., more typically in magical texts, you appeal to particular deities, and can even threaten them if they don’t do what you want.  Bohak contends that ancient Jewish magical texts reflect invocation of angels but not direct appeals to the biblical God.  The transcendence and sovereignty of God (in ancient Jewish belief) meant that you can’t jerk him around the way you can deities in a polytheistic scheme.  That’s a very sketchy characterization of what in Bohak’s discussion is more nuanced and supported, so do read his discussion before you make up your mind.

Another point that struck me was almost a throw-away line on p. 88.  Here Bohank commences his discussion of exorcism as “the best attested” of ancient Jewish magical practices of the second-temple period.  He classifies “the mechanics” into three types involving  (1) “the use of animal, vegetal, or mineral substances” (e.g., the account in the book of Tobit where burnt fish-entrails drives the demon away); (2) “the personality and innate powers of the exorcist himself”; and (3) the use of “elaborate incantations, as well as specific implements and rituals, by a professional exorcist”. 

Then, in a fascintating parenthesis, Bohak states: “A fourth type, exorcisms ‘in the name of Jesus,’ is one of the earliest signs of the parting of the ways between Judaism and nascent Christianity, and will not be dealt with here.”  Hmm.  Really interesting!  Given that some scholars contend that no “parting” is observable till perhaps the late second or third century (or, per Boyarin, not till the fourth century CE), Bohak’s statement is a real head-snapper.  For the use of Jesus’ name in exorcisms likely goes back to the earliest decades after Jesus’ execution (and quite possibly even back into the time of his own activities). 

So, does Bohak’s passing observation point to one of what may be a number of important religious practices (esp. involving the ritual use of Jesus’ name) characterizing earliest circles of the Jesus-followers that signal a distinguishable religious movement far earlier than some scholars have recognized?

About larryhurtado

I'm a scholar in New Testament and Christian Origins, currently Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh (since 1996), and previously Professor in the Department of Relgiion, University of Manitoba.

10 responses »

  1. Jesus name?

    What was the name used? Jesus?

    Philippians 2 says

    ‘And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!
    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth…’

    Was the name that was above every name the name ‘Jesus’, so that Christians could use the name of ‘Jesus’ in exorcisms?

    • The accounts in the Gospels and Acts in particular show that “Jesus” was used as the name invoked in exorcisms, healings, etc. Likewise the acclamation reflected in Philip 2:9-11 is “Kyrios Iesous Christos”, i.e., using Jesus’ name and ascribing to him the two titles, esp. “Kyrios”. Acclamation is one thing; invocation another.

  2. I am a little slow in understanding your reply.

    What is the ‘name that is above every name’ that God gave? Is it ‘Kyrios Iesous Christos’?

    • I think most scholars take Philip 2:9-11 to be referring to the conferral of “Kyrios” upon Jesus, here likely with its association with the divine name, YHWH. (“Kyrios” seems to have been the Greek word used orally in place of YHWH among devout Greek-speaking Jews of the time.)

      • I think I understand now.

        Christians used the name ‘Jesus’ in exorcisms, because Jesus had been given the name ‘Lord’.

        But why didn’t they use this name ‘Lord’ that Jesus had been given? Most scholars tnink that ‘Lord’ was the name above every name. Why not use the name that Paul said was given to Jesus, if that was the name above every name?.

  3. “Lord” represented the status they believed God has bestowed on Jesus. But “Jesus” identified him. So, the acclamation was “Kyrios Iesous” (or “Kyrios Iesous Christos”), i.e., “Jesus is Lord”.
    Having been exalted and given divine glory, Jesus was now the plenipotentiary of divine power, and so invoking his name (in faith) meant to use his authority, e.g., in exorcism.

  4. I’m still being slow in understanding you.

    I get that ‘Lord’ represented the status that Jesus had been given.

    But ‘Jesus’ identified him. Your name is what identifies you.

    So what was the name above every name that God gave him? Was it ‘Lord’? Did Paul regard ‘Lord’ as a name?

  5. Per Philip 2:9-11 “kyrios” seems to have been the “name above every name”, because, as I said, it functioned among Greek-speaking Jews as the reverential substitute for YHWH (which in Jewish piety is the “ineffable name” above all others).

  6. Thanks for the reply.

    If ‘Kyrios’ was now a name, and not a substitute for a name, why could Christians not use this name in exorcisms?

    Why could Christians now invoke the name ‘Kyrios’? If ‘Kyrios’ was the name of Jesus, then it identified him.

    If ‘Kyrios’ was the name above every name, and was a name that Jesus now had, why would Christians not use it in preference to ‘Jesus’ – a name that was not the name above every name?

  7. I’ll try one more (last, please?) time: First, I don’t know with full confidence *why* early Christians did this or that. It is, however, clear *that* they did this or that.
    Now to the issue: “Kyrios” = Jesus’ new status, office, role. “Given the name above every name” (Philip 2:9-11) = given the status above every other (as also in Hebrews 1:1-4). So, Jesus could be referred to simply as “the Lord/Kyrios” (as often in Paul). But it simply is the case that they invoked Jesus by name “Iesous” in exorcism, healing, and also typically in ritual acclamations.

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