Jesus’ Journey Into Hell and Back — told symbolically in the Gospel of Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

Jesus heals the man with unclean spirits named Legion Luke 8:29-30

Roger Parvus has posted an intriguing comment about the Gospel of Mark’s narrative of Jesus casting out of the “Legion” of devils (the story where he sends them all into a herd of pigs who then run off a cliff and drown) on Tim Widowfield’s discussion of Wrede’s Messianic Secret. He wonders if the story is in fact a parable or metaphor for Jesus descending to Hell — something we read about cryptically in other parts of the New Testament.

It is a fascinating possibility. Note that the author of Mark’s Gospel claims that Jesus always spoke in a parable of some sort to his disciples (Mark 4:34) and some scholars have even suggested that the entire Gospel narrative itself was written as a “parable” of the Christian’s destiny and way of life — that is, even the acts of Jesus are symbolic. This idea is supported by the clearly symbolic features of a number of the stories, such as Jesus in something of a joint-action healing a woman who had endured a blood-disease for 12 years while raising from a sleep or death a 12-year-old (pubescent) girl. The author also curiously “explains” that the disciples were in shock on seeing Jesus walk on water because they had failed to understand the miracles of the feeding of multitudes with a few loaves and having so many baskets of scraps left over (Mark 6:51-52). There are mysteries in the narratives and sayings in Mark’s Gospel that are lost to us now.

Before I quote here Roger Parvus’s comment, I will quote an extract from another scholar who has broached the same idea that the scene of the exorcism of Legion is a metaphor for Jesus’ despoiling of the demons in Hell:

Eric C. Stewart (Gathered around Jesus: An Alternative Spatial Practice in the Gospel of Mark, pp. 261-2 — a University of Notre Dame thesis) refers to a study that argues Jesus’ voyage to the Gadarenes — where he exorcises the man possessed by Legion — is best read against the Greco-Roman traditions of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar that were considered the gateways to land of the dead. (I have reformatted the paragraph for easier reading and added hyperlinks to the biblical references.)

Roy Kotansky argues that the story of the Gerasene demoniac is best read against the Greco-Roman traditions of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar at the edge of the world.837

He first notes that the “other side” in Mark 4:35 has as its antecedent the sea in Mark 3:7.838 This sea is not identified in 3:7 as the Sea of Galilee. Kotansky argues that this sea should be read as the Mediterranean rather than the Sea of Galilee.839 The trip, then, becomes a voyage to the “Other Side,” that is, to the edges of the oikoumene. “Accordingly, all the sea-crossings of both miracle catenae, at least in the mythic imagination, are to be construed as true sea-voyages; their destinations, when recorded, will not tally well with known geographies of the circum-Galilean region.”840


Pillars of Hercules Español: Columnas de Hércules
Pillars of Hercules Español: Columnas de Hércules (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kotansky notes that the context of Jesus’ landing fits better within the context of a westward journey on the Mediterranean. Sailing past the edges of the earth to the west in Greek mythology, one would arrive at the land of the dead, that is, the house of Hades.841 This context, the realm of the dead, is the one into which Jesus lands in Mark 5:2. Kotansky’s argument relies heavily on the textual variants in Mark 5:1. He supposes that the textual problem indicates that the text was not originally set in a circum-Galilean locale, but rather at Gadeira, the symbolic end of the earth to the west.842

While Kotansky’s argument as a whole contains certain problems,843 the idea that Mark’s text (or its pre- Markan source) alludes to the traditions of seafarers arriving in strange and distant lands seems likely.844 There are many common elements between the stories of sea travel discussed in chapter 4 and this Markan unit.845 The disciples and Jesus are threatened with shipwreck and death (4:37-38) and land on a distant shore in which the “natives” behave in uncivilized fashion—living among the tombs and in the mountains (5:2-5). This wild figure, ironically, is the only one to show Jesus hospitality, treating him with the reverence due to him (5:6—where he “does obeisance” to Jesus). The “civilized” people of the region, upon seeing evidence of the exorcism, ask Jesus to leave their “borders” ( οριων   5:17).

837 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles in Cádiz (τα Γαδειρα): Death, Myth, and Monsters at the ‘Straits of Gibraltar’ (Mark 4:35-5:43),” in Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Bible and Culture: Essays in Honor of Hans Dieter Betz (ed. A. Y. Collins; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 160-229.

838 Kotansky, Jesus and Heracles,” 165. 839 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 168-70. 840 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 171.

841 See chapter 2, section 1 and chapter 4, section 2.3. Also Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 173-6. Kotansky notes many elements of the sea-crossing and Jesus’ arrival that hint at themes of death and dying in the narrative.

842 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 185-92.

843 For several criticisms see David E. Aune, “Jesus and the Romans in Galilee: Jews and Gentiles in the Decapolis,” in Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Bible and Culture: Essays in Honor of Hans Dieter Betz, 230-51.

844 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 183: “The particular phrase, ‘they came into the land of x,’ carries with it a ring of a far and distant place. We have already met up with it in the epic narratives describing the lands of the Laestrygonians and the Phaeacians, and, in the apocryphal acts, the land of the cannibal Myrmidons. The notion of an entrance into a faraway country signifies the wayfarers have disembarked onto the mysterious shores of fable and not into the familiar territory of history. The expression calls to mind distant and unfamiliar places not belonging to the known geographies of the hero’s frame of reference—for Odysseus, his island home of Ithaca; for Jesus, his Galilean homeland.”

845 See chapter 4, section 4.1.

Stewart then discusses Aune’s criticism of Kotansky’s thesis, but does not dispute the possibility that Kotansky’s identifications could be correct since ancient readers would not bring the same scientifically accurate view of geography that modern readers bring to the text.

Here is Roger Parvus’s comment copied from here:

In regard to the Gadarene episode: I am wondering if it is about something more than an exorcism. The question “He asked him, ‘What is your name?’” is ambiguous. Is the question directed to the possessed man or to the demon possessing him? It is of course always taken as directed to the demon. But would the author of the story have presented Jesus as ignorant, before being informed by the spokesdemon, that there was more than one demon present? And would the author have allowed the spokesdemon to basically refuse to give a name or names, and instead just have him bring Jesus up to speed with his “Legion” reply? Surely the author doesn’t want us to think that demons can refuse to give their names to Jesus as long as they are numerous enough! “Sorry. My bad. I didn’t know there was more than one of you in there.” True, Jesus may have had time constraints, but supposedly it was important to get names in order to effectively eject the little devils. Then too, doesn’t it seem like overkill for a legion of demons to be in a single man?

I am thinking the question was directed to the man. And that by the answer “Legion” the author is telling us that the unnamed man stands for or represents a multitude of people who were being held captive by the demons. If so, what we have here is an allegory about the harrowing (i.e. despoiling) of hell. It is the harrowing of hell in a different setting. The crossing of Jesus over the water is along the lines of the crossing of the Styx. And according to Strong’s Concordance, Gadara means “reward at the end.” Assuming that etymology is correct, it would be fitting code for Hades. The man (or legion of men) running up to worship Jesus would correspond to the many who ran to greet him when he arrived in the Underworld. Until his arrival there they were living — again appropriately — in tombs. According to Marcion’s version of the harrowing there were some who refused to welcome Jesus in the Underworld. They had been tricked so often by the Creator God that they were afraid they were being tricked again. To them would correspond the townspeople who were fearful and asked Jesus to leave (Mk. 5:15 and 17).

Unlike GMatthew, GMark doesn’t have any part of the harrowing of hell at the end of his gospel. GMatthew only has two verses about it: “Tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Mt. 27:52-53). This would correspond to the Markan legion of ex-tomb dwellers who “went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done… and all were amazed” (Mk. 5:20)

But there is an element in GMark’s version that makes me think his harrowing episode was gnostic (Simonian?) in origin. The tomb-dweller was naked, crying, and “cutting himself with stones” (Mk. 5:5). This may be intended to convey that man’s body, in gnostic fashion, is alien to him. It was the Creator God who put man in a material body. Part of redemption is escape from it. The man was furiously trying to cut his way out of his body. And after Jesus frees the man from the demons, he clothes him. (Mk. 5:15). This is reminiscent of Paul’s desire to leave his earthly body behind and get something better from the God in heaven: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” (2 Cor. 5:1-2)

So the Gadarene episode may be a Simonian allegory about the harrowing of hell: Jesus crosses over to free a legion of tomb-dwellers from the demons holding them captive. But if so, I have no idea why Gmark located it where he did (i.e., in chapter five) — unless that gospel was intended to be just a very loose collection of allegories without much strict chronology.

Why in chapter 5? I would suggest the answer may not be complicated. Other narratives in Mark’s Gospel, especially those in the opening chapters, are riddled with allusions to the final scenes of the Gospel. This is not unusual in classical writings of the day. The crudely clothed John the Baptist in the wilderness announcing the coming of Jesus is balanced against the young man in the tomb finely dressed announcing the appearance of the resurrected Jesus; the crowds going out to seek Jesus in vain in the early morning foreshadow the women at dawn seeking Jesus in vain at the tomb. There are many others and I have listed them (at least the ones I have noticed up till now) on vridar.info at Mark’s flags for interpreting Mark.

So it is my suggestion that this story appears in chapter 5 and not “rightfully” at the end because it is part of a larger interwoven symbolic framework throughout: it ties in with the symbolic tale following, a narrative of a resurrection from the dead. Compare the narrative of the death of John the Baptist which is another clear foreshadowing of the death of Jesus. “Mark” was not writing a historical biography of Jesus. He was writing a symbolic narrative for the faithful who understood these mysteries. They were the ones who, in Christ, were descending into hell and back and living a new life in Christ.

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17 thoughts on “Jesus’ Journey Into Hell and Back — told symbolically in the Gospel of Mark?”

  1. The ancient Greeks celebrated an annual festival called Thesmophoria in mid-October. This festival commemorated a mythical story in which the God Pluto abducted the Goddess Persephone (aka Kore) down into the underworld. During this abduction, a swineherd named Eubouleus happened to be herding some swine nearby, and those swine fell down into the same crevice that Pluton used as his route to take Persephone down into the underworld.

    In the Thesmophoria festival, a group of women would take a dead pig down into a crevice. They would place the dead pig at the crevice bottom and then pick up the rotten carcass of the previous year’s pig and take that rotten carcass back up to the earth’s surface. There, the women would tear up the carcass and mix it with grain and burn the mixture in a fertility ritual.

    I think that the gospel story about Jesus making a herd of swine jump off a cliff is related to the Greeks’ Thesmophoria festival, which is based on a Greek myth about a herd of swine going along with an abducted woman down into the Underworld. The festival’s idea is that dying beings (humans and their possessing demons) go down into the Underworld but that later these beings are resurrected and reborn as fertile beings.

    The Greek myth is altered by the Jesus story in an interesting manner.

    The Greek’s myth is based on the idea that human beings are possessed by demons and that when a human being dies, his interior demons descend with his body down into the Underworld. Since Persephone was a deity, she was not possessed internally by demons, but rather she was surrounded externally by demons that circled her inside the animals around her. Since she was a deity, she was immortal and could not die, but she could be and was abducted by a more powerful deity, Pluto, who took her down into the Underworld as an extraordinary act. As Persephone was abducted down into the Underworld, she was followed automatically by her external demons in the nearby swine. Thus the swine themselves were transported down into the Underworld.

    In the Jesus story, the demons are inside a human demoniac, who does not die in the story. Rather, Jesus casts the demons from inside the demoniac into the nearby swine and then sends the swine down into the Underworld without a dying human being.

    Matthew (8:28) indicates that the original story was about two (not one) demoniacs. One demoniac was a man, and the other demoniac’s gender is not specified. Matthew is vague about whether Jesus cast the demons out of both demoniacs or out of only the one male demoniac. Because of the parallel stories in the other Synoptic gospels, I think that the original story was that there was one male and one female demoniac, and Jesus cast the demons out of only the one male demoniac, leaving the female demoniac possessed by demons.

    I think this second demoniac was Mary Magdalene. (The Matthew story takes place in Gadarenes, which is phonetically similar to “Gadalenes”, whence “Magdalene”.) So, Mary Magdalene was a woman who had become deranged and permanently possessed by demons because of her repeated participation in the gory Thesmophoria festival. She had carried dead pigs down and up the crevice so many times that her organs of fertility suffered a chronic bleeding.

    The story about Jesus and the herd of swine is followed closely by the story of the healing of Jairus’s daughter. This latter story includes a woman with chronic menstrual bleeding who has been following Jesus and who touches his cloak, thus miraculously stopping the bleeding. This is Mary Magdalene, who has followed Jesus from the first story into the second story.

  2. “Things which could not safely be written in plain language could be put in the form of miracle stories. It was not safe to say openly that the Romans in Palestine would be driven into the sea. But it could be said figuratively. The Tenth Legion, quartered at Jerusalem, had for emblem a boar. By making Jesus send a “legion” of demons into a herd of swine and drive them into the water to drown, the revolutionary lesson is conveyed in symbol to those who “have ears to hear”.”

    Archibald Robertson, Origins of Christianity.

    1. Glad that you are mentioning this history book by Archibald Robertson, one of the very best overviews for the general reader, devoid of abstruse and confusing scholarly disputations, and focusing on the dynamism of the emergence of Christianity in the critical 1st and 2d C.

      Do not miss Archibald Robertson’s other great book, “Jesus: Myth or History,” by far the most limpid description of the ferocious debate between “mythicists” (Robertson coined the word) and “historicists” in the 1900-1940 period. Best expose of the role of Conybeare, Cheyne, Schmiedel, Loisy, Guignebert, Bultmann, Bruno Bauer, J.M. Robertson, Smith, Drews, Couchoud, Rylands, Dujardin, Klausner, Eisler, Goguel, Howell Smith, in this classical debate, and excellent recapitulation of the critical arguments used by both sides of the controversy. Nothing more lucid, digestible, and attractive, has been published on this subject since.

      Both “The Origins of Christianity” and “Jesus: Myth or History” are two classics of the biblical literature, which have been unfairly forgotten and ignored. Compare the elegance of style and clarity of thought in Archibald Robertson’s writings with the turgid, pedantic and inflated books currently published by all professional academic scholars and most of the non-professional.

  3. I have a different explanation for the “Messianic secret” element of the story about Jesus casting demons from a demoniac into a herd of swine.

    As I have proposed in previous messages, the gospel stories were a “fan fiction” genre created by young people who joined the religion after James put an end to the ritual of climbing to the top of Mount Hermon to experience the mystical vision of Jesus Christ dying on the Firmament. These new members of the religion simply were supposed to have faith in the accounts told by the original members who did experience the vision.

    As a clever and imaginative rebellion, some of these new members created and distributed fictional stories about what might happen if Jesus Christ descended from the Firmament down to Earth, where the religion’s new members would be able to see and encounter him. These stories were mischievous, and many of them included a humorous element in which Jesus confounded the original members (the disciples). It was blatantly obvious that Jesus Christ was a deity who had descended to Earth, but the stupid old disciples did not understand who Jesus Christ was and what he was doing and saying right in front of the disciples. Jesus’ telling everyone to keep all his miraculous divine acts secret was a characteristic joke in the genre.

    The essential joke was the original members had prohibited the new members from climbing Mount Hermon to see the vision of Jesus Christ in the Firmament, so subsequently Jesus Christ came down to Earth, and then only the new members (not the old disciples) recognized the essence of this miracle-working visitor. In the first stories, Jesus told the ordinary people, the healed people and the religion’s new members to keep the miracles secret — secret from the old disciples.

    In the story about Jesus casting the demons into the herd of swine, the inhabitants of the nearby town become informed about the miracle. In the Matthew story, the swineherds went to the town and told the miracle. In the Luke story, the healed demoniac went to the town and told the story.

    The disciples following Jesus did not tell the story, and their silence perhaps indicates that they did not perceive and understand the miracle that had happened right in front of them. The disciples did not hear the conversation between Jesus and the demons, and they did not see the demons fly into the swine, and they did not understand why the swine ran off a cliff. Therefore, Jesus did not have to bother himself to tell the disciples to keep the miracle a secret, because they did not even perceive the miracle. It was only the swineherds and the demoniacs who had perceived the miracle and so told about it.

    This was one of the first stories in the genre. As the genre developed, the disciples and other followers did perceive the miracles, and so then Jesus had to tell them to keep the miracles secret.

    1. Mike,

      Fascinating. Where can I read more about this ritual that James stopped? Tell me what you can, please? read my post to JW about the link he gave to Roger Viklund’s site comparing Secret Mark with raising Lazarus and the Gerasene swine herd incident. There are more parallels to this in the gospels and Gospel of Judas.

  4. “The “civilized” people of the region, upon seeing evidence of the exorcism, ask Jesus to leave their “borders” ( οριων 5:17).”

    More of “Mark’s” great Irony at works. The reaction of the people to Jesus’ exorcism of the demon spirit from among them was to exorcise Jesus from amongst them. This foreshadows the crucifixion where the people exorcise Jesus’ spirit from him.

    Joseph (exorcising the nonsense that “Mark” is a simple account of what “Mark” remembered about Peter’s preaching)

    1. Joe,

      Sounds like Hyam Maccoby’s “Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil” wherein he details the Balder and Loki Scandinavian myth to the gospel myth of Judas and his “betrayal” of Jesus. Judas is the needed scapegoat to exorcise the guilt from the populace for the desired death of the redeemer… The Gospel of Judas and the Garden of Gethsemane stories have connection to all this (all centering on James). I’ll say more in post to JW below.

  5. See this article on Roger Viklund’s Web site:
    “Overlaps between Secret Mark, the Raising of Lazarus in John, and the Gerasene Swine episode in Mark:”


    The raising of Lazarus story incorporates elements from a miracle story about healing a demon possessed man, or conversely the swine story combines raising the dead and driving out demons stories. The 3rd or 4rth century collection of sermons,”The Book of Steps” contains a passage that says healing the sick is coded speech for bringing fence sitters back into the community.

    1. JW,

      OMG, JW. This link blew my mind. Right away I see parallels with the Garden of Gethsemane and Gospel of Judas tales of Judas’ “betrayal”. You see, Judas is really JAMES in both of these stories, and in the “Overlaps” article’s three stories. It is James in the role of successor to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane scenario, and also in The Gospel of Judas. (The infamous “kiss” of Judas is really JAMES kissing Jesus figuratively, as in First Apocalypse of James, which is James receiving enlightenment.)

      Incidentally, the election of fictional “Matthias” in the Acts 1 replacement election of Judas as apostle is also James (the defeated candidate, “Joseph Barsabas [son of the Father, Joseph, father of Jesus] JUSTUS” is the giveaway). There are several important clues to the identity of all these characters. “Linen clothes” worn by Nazirite “priests” like James, are in Mark and Secret Mark and John’s Lazarus story (also, the empty tomb scene with the TWO “angels” James, and Jesus). Lazarus was “loved” by Jesus. And the disciples looking to the new Master as in the Gospel of Judas and Lazarus (“Let us also go that we may die with him [spiritually]) and in the other one (forget which without looking).

      The myth of betrayal began with a scribe noticing that the word “to deliver” in original Hebrew Matthew could be pejoratively read as “to betray”. The antiSemitic gospel writers seized the moment (maybe retrospectively in Matthew’s case) to write in a fictional narrative of betrayal by someone named, conveniently “Judas” — a figure of the Jews in general. The Garden scene is one of Jesus giving final instructions to his disciples to MEDITATE (“WATCH with me one hour”) and follow James as his successor (“My Deliverer [not “betrayer”] is at hand”). All the details are there, including a terrible rendering of Zechariah 13:7 which is really, “Rise up, O sword of my Shepherd [Word], within the man who is my companion [disciple], says the Lord of Hosts. Strike, O Shepherd [Holy Spirit], that the sheep [disciples] may become troubled [in spirit], I will replace my hand upon the little ones [disciples].” The disciples would all “fall away” in meditation that night, sleeping through their appointed “hour” with the “Deliverer” — Jesus in Holy Spirit form. He comes THREE times in their meditation, he is “DENIED” three times by Peter. (“Deny” is’ aparneomai’ in the Greek, which is “ignore” or “reject utterly”, not “deny”.) “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” is their sleeping through meditation. Jesus is “very sorrowful” not because he is going to die –he WANTS to return to the Father — but sorrow for THEM, because he must LEAVE them.

      I think “Rise up, let us be going, see my Deliverer is at hand”, Matthew 26:46, is a double meaning, both that in their meditation he is there for them, and Judas (really James) is come to take over for him as Master after his death. The “kiss” in verse 48 is James becoming a Master. In Luke, Luke 22:50, he is the “one of them” who “strikes off” the RIGHT EAR of the High Priest’s servant, Malchus, which is the ear that not coincidentally is taught even today to disciples of Masters (like me) for hearing the mystic “Word” of God. Now look carefully: “Jesus touched HIS EAR and healed HIM.” –Luke 22:51. He didn’t just heal the ear, he healed HIM, which is very meaningful. Jesus, through James (First Apocaplypse of James details this beautifully) initiates Malchus, and heals him spiritually. SAME as LAZARUS, raised from the dead, by a SHOUT from Jesus (the WORD). The “servant of the High Priest” is a double meaning: “disciple of the Master”.

      I wrote a book on much of this called “Saviors, Beyond Qumran, Nag Hammadi, and the New Testament Code”, available at Amazon under my name, but I would also email a pdf of it if anyone asks for it. My email is: sahansdal at yahoo dot com.

      I only lately learned of the Judas connection to the James thing, so it isn’t in the book, but will be when I rewrite it soon. There are hundreds of parallels to Sant Mat in all these ancient sources, and it will soon be readily available information, if I have anything to say about it! It is all way too cool to keep to oneself…

      Check out the online Sant Mat books above I listed in another post, especially “Sar Bachan” – the Swami Ji classic on Sant Mat,. He lived in the 1800’s. The others are more recent. Sawan Singh is my Master’s Master, and Julian Johnson was an American MD, living with Great Master (Sawan Singh) in the 30’s and 40’s. In Sar Bachan is much to tie in with this discussion of Judas and James. In the Gospel of Judas is “Apophasis Logos” (“Judas” incipit) as “Shabd” (Hindi for “Word”) and the “region never called by any name” as “Anami Desh” (No-name region, highest in Sant Mat cosmology). The “five kings” which no longer trouble Judas (really James) are “lust, anger, greed, attachment, and vanity” in Sant Mat –also, the same five “kings” slain without mercy by Joshua in Joshua 10.

      There is a ton more I want to go into, but not now: Codex Sinaiticus revealing orthodox corruption to key verses like John 9:4 (“sent US”, not “sent me”). Paul in Hebrew Matthew 24 as false apostle and author of the “AntiChrist” gospel “concerning” Jesus (but key words deleted in the Greek) for example. also evidence there (see Taborblog, “Hebrew Matthew”) for an elevated John the Baptist (he was Jesus Christ’s Master). I am open to considering that Jesus was really James in another cover of the great James the Just. SO much comes to light when other sources are applied, like Robert Eisenman, key for discovering Paul as Liar, and James as Righteous Teacher, at Qumran….

      Happy reading. Hope you do look at the Sant Mat Masters. It is truly “the Way”.

  6. See also “Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark Chapter 5”, by Michael Turton

    “Historical Commentary

    This pericope is obviously unhistorical, containing several miracles and certain geographic absurdities. “The country of the Gerasenes” is thirty miles from the Sea of Galilee, not directly adjacent. However, Gundry (1993, p256) suggests that this may refer to the modern town of Kursi, which sounds a bit like Gergasa. The miraculous aspects of this story rule it out as a historical event. It contains numerous Markan themes and motifs — boats, the shore, crowds, and crowds amazed at Jesus’ powers. And most miraculously, in v15 the demoniac shows up dressed and ready to go. Where did the clothing come from? Must be a miracle!

    A number of other possible sources have been suggested. Macdonald (2000) argues that this scene is based on the story of Polyphemus the one-eyed giant from the Odyssey (summarized on this site) and the story of Circe, who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs.

    Many New Testament scholars see a reference to a Roman legion occupying Palestine, either Legio 1 Italica, which had as its legionary standard a boar and was in the east in around 67, or more likely Legio X Fretensis, which had among its standards a bull, a tireme, a dolphin, and a boar, and was responsible for occupying Jerusalem after the Jewish War (ended 70 CE), staying into the fourth century. After 70 it was stationed in Gerasa for a while (Winter 1974, p180-181). Against this interpretation is the fact that Gerasa is in Gentile rather than Jewish territory, where the legion would not have been viewed so negatively (Donahue and Harrington 2002, p166). However, in the second century Legio X was made the sole occupying legion of “Syria Palestina” (Hadrian’s abusive name for the Jewish homeland), so a later date for Mark might be indicated. In addition to the symbol of the pig itself, Myers (1988, p191) points out that this pericope is saturated with military terminology. The term agele that the writer uses for a “herd” of pigs is often used to denote a gaggle of new recruits for the military, the Greek term epetrepsen (“he dismissed them”) echoes a military command, and the pigs’ charge (ormesen) into the lake sounds like a military attack.

    Cliff Carrington in his Flavian Testament has also pointed out some parallels between this and a passage in Josephus, where Jewish rebels, led by a rebel named Jesus (son of Shaphat), are chased into the nearby lake and killed by Titus’ army. Myers (1988, p191) also sees possible Josephean parallels, with both War 4.9.1, and Antiquities 14.15.10. Joseph Atwill (2005) who in a forthcoming book uncovers a number of resonances between the fighting around Gadara and this passage, observes:

    “In the Gadara passage in War of the Jews Josephus tells us the number of prisoners taken captive: ‘There were besides two thousand and two hundred taken prisoners’ Josephus also informs us that, ‘ A mighty prey was taken also, consisting of Asses, and sheep, and camels, and oxen’. Notice that there were no swine taken.”(p49)
    At the general level, enemy soldiers killed by drowning recalls the fate of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.

    The structure of the pericope is laid out below:

    They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Ger’asenes.

    And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him any more, even with a chain;

    for he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones.

    And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped him;

    and crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”

    For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

    And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”


    He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

    And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country.


    Now a great herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside;

    and they begged him, “Send us to the swine, let us enter them.”

    So he gave them leave.

    And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

    The herdsmen fled, and told it in the city and in the country.

    And people came to see what it was that had happened. And they came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine.

    And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their neighborhood. And as he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. But he refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

    And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decap’olis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled.

    And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side,

    Whatever its source, nothing in this pericope supports historicity.”

  7. Neil,

    Thank you for bringing the chart of linking allusions (Mark’s flags for interpreting Mark) to my attention. By its pairing of 16:3-8 with 5:1-20 it does indeed provide this latter passage — the harrowing of hell, per my proposal — with an impressive link to right where it would chronologically occur in the basic myth.

    The linkage of the two passages also puts the young man in chapter 16 into a different perspective. If indeed he is the man symbolically named ‘Legion’ in chapter five, it explains why the Easter morning announcer of the resurrection in GMark is a man and not Jesus or an angel. ‘Legion’ corresponds to the “many” in GMatthew 27:52 whom Jesus released from Hades and sent back into the world (at least temporarily).

    Also interesting are the changes GMatthew has made to these passages. He eliminates the symbolic name ‘Legion’ from his account of exorcism, and adds an additional possessed man to it. And in his Easter morning account he replaces the young man with an angel who descends from heaven. Although he retains part of the harrowing of hell and actually relates it even before the burial of Jesus, he is careful to point out that it happened “after” (Mt. 27:53) his resurrection.

    I think the changes GMatthew made were not innocent. As you know, I think that GMatthew (and GLuke too) were proto-orthodox reworkings/sanitizations of an original gospel (urMark) that was Simonian. I think that in the Simonian urMark the resurrection of Jesus was a return of Jesus to heaven. He did not reanimate a material body and did not return to earth. He went from Hades back to his father in heaven. It was the souls in Hades that Jesus freed and clothed who returned briefly to earth and appeared to people, telling them about the wonderful trick (the crucifixion) that Jesus had played on the rulers of this world and the resulting freedom for men from the bondage of those rulers. And after those souls in turn departed for heaven, Jesus himself appeared to people like Peter and “Paul” (Simon of Samaria) to appoint them apostles whose mission was to spread the same message. (This I see as the basic myth. I think it was this myth that was in chapters 6 – 11 of the original version of the Ascension of Isaiah. And it was this myth that the author of urMark supplemented by prefacing it with an allegorical account of “Paul”/Simon).

    The proto-orthodox author of GMatthew aimed to correct the Simonian gospel. Among the things he needed to Judaize were its Simonian dismissals of the material world, including human bodies; for those dismissals were ultimately a denigration of the Creator God of this world, the God of the Jews. So he makes Jesus’ resurrection into the reanimation of a body and has him briefly return to this world to confirm that reanimation to chosen individuals. And he wanted Jesus to be the first such bodily reanimation. Only subsequently did the redeemed residents of Hades rise. And in good proto-orthodox fashion GMatthew was careful to specify that they rose with bodies: “And many bodies (somata) of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Mt. 27: 52-53. my bolding).

    A few other observations:

    — In GLuke’s account of the exorcism we read: “Jesus then asked him, ’What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him” (Lk. 8:30). ‘Legion’ is the response but it is again ambiguous whether it is the man’s response or the spokesdemon’s. What follows after that (“because many demons had entered him”) is GLuke’s interpretation of why the response was given. ‘Legion’ could be the man’s symbolic name and, according to GLuke’s interpretation, he had that name because many demons had entered him. But it is important to notice what the author of GLuke has done. First, he has changed the reason from what it is in GMark. In GMark the reason is “because we are many” (Mk. 5:9). And in GMark the words “because we are many” are not the author’s interpretation. They are part of the quote from either the man or the spokesdemon. So, again, I do not see why it could not be the man who is saying “My name is Legion, because we are many,” with the meaning “because I represent many” (i.e. the “many” in Mt. 27:52 who came out of the tombs). There is ambiguity in the Markan text and, if I am right that the original text was Simonian, the ambiguity may be deliberate, so that those on the outside see but do not understand.

    — Finally, notice that the word legion occurs again later in the Markan account: “And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had (or comprised) the legion, sitting there clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.” (Mk. 5:15) The Greek word “eschekota” can mean “had” in a possessive sense, or something vaguer like “comprised”. So this verse doesn’t resolve the ambiguity of the earlier use of “legion.” Moreover, the words “the one who had (or comprised) the legion” are curiously missing from some early translations (e.g. the Latin Vulgate). So it is unclear too whether they dropped out of Vulgate or came into the Greek text as a gloss.

  8. An old post, but a very interesting possibility (about the Gadarene swine being an allegory for the harrowing of Hell). As to why it’s in Mark 5 and not at the end, I have a couple of additional suggestions:

    The verses immediately before Jesus encounters the possessed man describe how he calms the wind and the sea (Mk 4:37-41). After this episode, he returns to the other side and raises the daughter of Jairus, calmly stating that death is no more than sleep (5:39). This incident seems to be part of a broader portrayal of Jesus’s authority over the spirit world, which would have included personifications of the four ancient elements (air, earth, fire and water), as well as unclean spirits and the demons who ruled over the Underworld.

    Maybe there is also a structural clue. In an even older post (http://vridar.org/2008/07/10/reasons-for-luke-to-change-marks-account-of-the-calling-of-the-disciples/), Neil summarises the calling of the disciples in Chapter 1 like this:

    Jesus starts his ministry in Capernaum

    Jesus calls disciples

    Jesus casts out a demon – his fame spreads

    Jesus enters Peter’s house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law

    Jesus heals many after sabbath

    Many look for Jesus but Jesus leaves them behind

    The sequence of events in Chapter 5 and 6:1-13 bears more than a passing resemblance to this, but with a number of twists:

    Jesus continues his ministry in Gadarea

    Jesus casts out a legion of demons – the people are frightened and want him to leave

    Jesus returns to his own country

    Jesus enters Jairus’s house and raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead

    Jesus cannot perform any great works after sabbath, except for a few healings

    Jesus sends out the twelve, giving them power over unclean spirits

    After this, the narrative seems to take a new direction, going on to describe the death of John the Baptist. As Neil’s post observes, this is an allusion to the death of Jesus, so the Passion theme is still there, hovering in the background.

  9. Hi Neil,

    About the possibility that the original myth was:

    1) crucifixion of Jesus before the gates of Sheol
    2) Jesus who preaches in the Sheol and exorcizes the demons to free the good souls who are imprisoned there
    3) ascension to celestial Jerusalem with the freed souls

    …replaced by Mark by:

    1) baptism of Jesus at the Jordan
    2) Jesus who preaches along the sea of Galilee and exorcizes the demons to free the good people there
    3) ascent to earthly Jerusalem with some disciples + a historical crucifixion,

    …this idea, by myself explored here, was advanced the first time by Georges Ory, in the his book Le Christ et Jésus, p. 234-235:

    Le mythe étant infiniment antérieur aux évangiles, et ceux-ci l’ayant adapté à leurs convenances, il n’est pas impossible de déceler comment il a été utilisé et interprété.
    Primitivement il devait se présenter comme suit:
    Au temps de la fin du monde, le dieu Jésus descend les cieux. Il prend la forme des habitants de chaque ciel pour ne pas etre reconnu des archontes qui régentent les sphères planétaires, sa dernière forme étant celle d’un homme. Quoique son apparence soit humaine, son corps n’est nullement fait du chair et de sang mais d’une substance mystérieuse non soumise aux lois du monde matériel. Son but est de révéler les mystères du salut aux ames des morts qui l’attendent dans le Shéol (et qu’il va libérer) et, peut-etre aussi, aux hommes. Cette révélation aux hommes est loin d’etre assurée dans les textes primitifs, surtout s’il s’agit de doctrines secrèts appartennant aux mystères, mais – à la veille de la fin du monde – certains initiés se sont peut-etre crus autorisés à dévoiler une partie de ces mystères aux hommes qu’ils en jugeaient dignes.
    Jésus ayant pris la forme d’un homme est pris pour tel; il est arrete à la porte meme de l’Enfer; c’est en effet par le Val du Cédron ou Vallée de Josaphat ou du Jugement dernier que l’on pénétrait dans l’Enfer; l’arrestation de Jésus à ce endroit était tout indiquée.
    Jésus est jugé, condamné; le mythe ne disait probablement pas comment le dieu était tué mais il devait le montrer crucifié. Après trois jours, il recevait le bapteme de mort et il ressuscitait grace aux eaux de la Vie. Nous ignorons comment et par qui il était baptisé. Jean-Baptiste (mort et descendu aux Enfers avant Jésus) a pu jouer un role dans cet épisode.
    Jésus se mettait alors à precher aux esprits emprisonnés, puis il remontait au ciel avec sa croix et sa tunique de lumière accompagné des ames de quelques justes. (137)
    Dans une seconde version du mythe, celle des évangiles, l’Ascension eut lieu en deux étapes. On voulait que Jésus ait eut le temps de confier un message, une doctrine, une mission, aux hommes qui se prévalaient de lui. On interrompit donc son Ascension pour le faire séjourner sur terre quelque temps. Une confusion facilita cette “rectification” théologique. Alors que Jésus était retourné dans la Jérusalem céleste, on retint Jérusalem tout simplement, c’est-à-dire la ville de Judée. Les morts profitèrent de cet arret sur terre car – et c’est Matthieu qui l’atteste en 27:53 – à cette occasion, les cadavres des saints ressuscitèrent, sortirent des tombeaux, entrèrent dans la ville sainte et apparurent à un grand nombre de personnes.
    On ne saurait trop insister sur l’importance, extreme et grave, de cette modification du mythe car c’est elle qui permit la transformation du dieu Jésus en homme et d’un récit sacré en compte rendu historique. Dès l’instant que la scène se déplacait de l’Enfer sur terre, que le dieu cédait la place à un homme, il fallut trouver quelque part les éléments de la biographie de cet homme inconnu vraiment “tombé du ciel”; on fit des emprunts un peu partout mais on en fit surtout aux récits que l’on possédait sur l’activite de Jésus aux Enfers.

    (my bold)

    The note 137 says:

    Voir Cahier du Cercle Ernest-Renan, n° 42; Un Mythe chrétien primitif, 1964.

    It would be interesting to recover this article: isn’t it? 😉
    Note that it is the part of the book that I have found most original.

    1. Thanks, G — there is much I need to catch up on. Hopefully, the text you mention is one Rene Salm has translated and made available on his site. I am also looking at another person’s article on the Asc. Isa. that I expect to post about some time in the future. There is so much to consider.

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