Tag Archives: demons

Demonology: the basics of Middle Platonic beliefs as a background to early Christianity

Apuleius
Image via Wikipedia

This post completes a series on beliefs about demons that were widespread in philosophical thought at the time of the rise and early growth of Christianity. The previous two posts:

It seems strange to think of “demons” being a topic of “philosophy”, but one of the defining characteristics of “Middle Platonism” was its interest in religion. (See my earlier post, Middle Platonism: a few basics.) Other beliefs (e.g. Jewish sectarian) were extant, too, but here I am only addressing those of Middle Platonist philosophers.

John M. Dillon (The Middle Platonists) discusses the demonology of Apuleius in his De Deo Socratis (=The God of Socrates) at length because

There we find all the basic Middle Platonic doctrine on daemons set out . . . We have here, then, in the De Deo Socratis, the most complete connected version of Middle Platonic demonology extant . . . . (pp. 317, 320)

So though Apuleius was not born till about 123 CE, his writings are consistent with the thought that spanned the Middle Platonic era from the first century BCE to the second century CE, the same period relevant for the development of Christianity. read more »

Demons 101 – Early Christianity’s Middle Platonic Background

In my previous post I cited a “Distinguished Scholar”‘s textbook summary of Middle Platonic ideas that formed part of the background to early Christianity. I continue this post with a discussion of the philosopher who introduced ‘demonology’ into Platonic philosophical views during the century preceding that of Paul and the earliest Christians.

In an earlier post I quoted translated passages from two Middle Platonist authors given prominence by Everett Ferguson, Philo and Plutarch, that depicted their particular views of cosmology and the place of demons in the universe. That post upset some readers who appeared to take exception to the posting of evidence from primary sources that lent support to the discussion of Earl Doherty in his publications arguing that the Jesus originated as a mythical construct. A significant part of Doherty’s discussion focuses on the way certain Middle Platonic views informed the intellectual background to the New Testament epistles.

Since that post I’ve had more time to look a little more closely at one of Earl Doherty’s sources, The Middle Platonists, by John M. Dillon. read more »

Videos capturing gods entering humans and communicating through their blood

I am fascinated by other “foreign” ceremonies. They invite comparisons with the ones with which we are familiar, and help grasp a bigger picture of what “it” is all about.

My days in Singapore are numbered as I look forward to a new position back in Australia, so I was very glad when some Chinese locals went out of their way to encourage me to attend the opening ceremony celebrating the birthday of one of their gods. This one happened to be at the Aljuneid locale (suburb? district?) of Singapore. (Aljuneid also happens to be an Arab name — Arabs, especially from Yemen, have a long history of ties with Singapore, and I happen to work with one of the Aljuneid descendants here.) I asked the local Chinese who encouraged me to attend the ceremony for the name of the god, but was met with uncertainty as to how to convey something apparently uniquely Chinese in a meaningful way to me in English. So I can’t say what god(s) the following videos depict.

It seems to me that somewhere in Singapore there are temporary marquees being set up every week for the purpose of celebrating a local society’s or community’s particular god’s birthday. One night is for the opening ceremony, another for a community meal, and yet another for entertainment. (The decorative detail — its colour and intricacy — of all the paraphernalia is astonishing. Maybe I can post some photos later.)

I have the impression that the community meal is also routinely accompanied by entertainment in the form of Chinese opera. But the Chinese audiences for this, from my few experiences, are far fewer than those for the modern pop entertainment on the final night. Some of my younger Chinese work colleagues have expressed some astonishment that anyone could sit through and enjoy a Chinese opera. I do have to admit the audiences to these that I have observed are a small number from the older generation, plus me. But the community meals also come with auctions and/or raffles that seem to keep the many scores of diners happily entertained.

But last night was the first time I had the experience of witnessing the opening night ceremonies of a local god’s birthday. It was a lengthy process, two and a half hours no less, but I enclose here only two of the videos/photos I captured.

The first video depicts the moment that the god enters his human medium. If interested, you might want to fast-forward the first 50 or 60 seconds. read more »

Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world

The Flammarion woodcut portrays the cosmos as ...
Image via Wikipedia

When reading the New Testament I like being able to relate its thoughts and images with thoughts and images in the contemporary literature of the non-biblical world. It gives the text I’m reading a bit of “body”, helping me see it as part of a culture now lost to us. Establishing relationships like that has the power to enable bible texts to stand on their own feet and tell me where they are coming from. This is a healthy turn around from my reading them as if they are ‘my mystery’ that I must find a way to interpret. It’s as if the books have found courage in numbers to speak up and push me back along with my idiosyncratic manipulations of them.

End of the world

read more »

Eddy and Boyd – miracles and global human experience

Continuing from previous post’s notes on Eddy’s and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition . . . .

Comparing the world views of ancients and moderns

It is difficult to get a clear handle on exactly what Eddy and Boyd are arguing against when they complain that “modern Western academics” are misguided over the differences between ancient and modern worldviews and beliefs in miracles.

They charge “modern Western academics” with falsely believing that there is a huge divide between ancient and modern worldviews.

A False Dichotomy

. . . We are told that the reason people in the past could believe in and claim to experience miracles, while modern Western people supposedly cannot, is because, unlike us, ancient people were “naive and mythologically minded.” Ancient people supposedly had little or no awareness of the laws of nature . . . (p.64)

Ancient people “supposedly had little or no awareness of the laws of nature . . .”? I would have been interested in reading how E and B might have explained exactly what they meant here.

It is through generalized statements like this that E and B are actually the ones who are constructing “a false dichotomy”. Many major academic studies have been dedicated to understanding the minds and worldviews of both ancient and present day peoples. It is simply nonsense to suggest that when someone speaks generally of a modern worldview based on a scientific paradigm contrasting with worldviews from a pre-scientific era, they are to be somehow blamed for failing to understand the extents and nuances of human experiences. The former claim is a generic claim about social norms in a modern western culture, while the latter is a statement about actual behaviours and beliefs at an experiential level. The fact that social institutions (not just a narrow slice of academia) legitimize the scientific world view for social educational purposes is a separate issue from the personal beliefs of many individuals and sub-groups of society.

From the same “modern Western academics” about whom Eddy and Boyd complain are out of touch with “global human experience” come sociological and anthropological studies demonstrating the universality of beliefs in the supernatural. (See Human Universals compiled by Donald E Brown.)

So the studies of “modern Western academics” belie E and B’s sweeping generalization about “modern Western academics”.

Is present human experience on a global scale saturated with experiences of the supernatural?

Of course not. Unless one defines an experience of the supernatural to be whatever one believes to be a supernatural experience.

I can say that present human experience on a global scale is saturated with untimely tragic deaths, with weddings, with buying and selling, with home-building. Such experiences are open for all to see and witness. And we can all read and hear of people reporting supernatural experiences and fulfillments of astrological or other occult predictions. But of course the latter category merely represents beliefs about experiences.

Eddy and Boyd obviously know this, and concede that most such reports can be explained naturally.

Thus, a recovery from an illness or a pay-rise can be both be “experiences of the supernatural” to one who believes they are answers to prayer. The same people often, I think, also consider failure to recover from an illness as a negative answer to prayer, so even that may be defined as a supernatural experience, too. Or even a calamity, like a car crash, as a message or punishment from the supernatural.

And in Asia countless people offer prayers before Buddhist and other shrines, presumably very often in thanksgiving for “supernatural” favours.

And many people believe that their gambling wins and losses are the results of omens, charms or little rituals. I suppose they could also be defined as “supernatural experiences”.

So Eddy and Boyd don’t put the proposition quite like that, but rather as:

. . . present human experience on a global scale is saturated with reported experiences of the supernatural.

Well, of course. And they cite no “modern Western academic” who disagrees with THAT claim, despite their laboured efforts to give  just that impression.

And of course the difference between reported experiences of the supernatural and actual experiences of the supernatural is the same as difference between those believing a cure from an illness was an answer to prayer and those believing it was a natural or medically assisted process. In other words, the issue at stake is not the experience itself, but the belief about the experience.

Eddy and Boyd are in fact asserting nothing more than that present human experience on a global scale is saturated with supernatural interpretations of experiences.

Are academics really out of touch when they assign different interpretations to such experiences? One presumes that levels of education would correspond with levels of understanding about how the world works.

Eddy and Boyd are not really arguing about experiences, but interpretations of experiences. Their choice of words is misleading or confusing, however. Consider their complaints against “secular academics”. E and B charge them with defining “‘present human experience’ too narrowly” (p.67). But instead of pointing to the vast areas of human experience that their “narrow definitions” exclude, they can only bring themselves to point to what is “commonly reported” across cultures. So it seems the bottom line of Eddy and Boyd’s complaint is that “modern secular academics” do not include “common reports” or interpretations of experiences on the same level as common experiences themselves. It was once commonly reported that left handed people and eccentric women were in league with evil powers. It was once commonly reported that the earth was flat.

A demon haunted world

Eddy and Boyd don’t cite cross cultural experiences with good angelic beings, nor even cross cultural experiences of a single deity. I would have found such a discussion more interesting than the one they do cite. They cite instead the “cross-cultural” report of “demonization” as evidence that the vast bulk of humanity experience the supernatural. (I thought demonization means to actually turn something or someone into a demon, literally or figuratively, and that the more appropriate term for what E&B are describing is “demon possession”. But I’ll use E and B’s term, assuming they know the literature on this topic better than I do.)

E and B list some of the “cross-cultural characteristics” of this “demonization” (p.68):

  • being seized by a demon so that they fall into a trance or seizure
  • frequent outbursts of violent behaviour, sometimes exhibiting strength beyond the normal
  • the ability to recite information that the one demonized is not expected to know
  • the ability to speak some words of a language they did not learn
  • the ability to contort ones muscles and limbs in an unnatural way
  • objects move and fly near the demonized person

There is nothing new here, and these characteristics might have been more persuasive if E&B had taken the trouble to actually cite the details of just one report of the several they footnote that actually defy possible natural explanation. Disappointingly, on page 70 they write:

We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports may be explained in naturalistic terms.

They continue:

But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be explained in naturalistic terms?

Firstly, there are no “reports of the supernatural” in any of this. There are only reports of bizarre and seemingly inexplicable human experiences that are interpreted by some observers as being caused by demons. In a pre-scientific age lightning and earthquakes and illness and even accidents were interpreted in many quarters as being caused by supernatural forces. Many people even today still interpret them the same way.

In our scientific age we still have much to learn. We don’t look at each remaining unsolved question and assume it is unsolved because it is forever beyond the possibility of a natural explanation. Maybe we will even find more evidence in time that not all problem events were fully (or fully honestly) reported. Reporting shortcomings, or even fraud, are not entirely unknown.

But back to the point. If most can be explained naturalistically, then why not single out just one that must surely prove not to be the case for us all to see and consider? Why resort to an argument from credulity? If I keep hearing of alien abductions so often, do I really suddenly encounter one that is so totally different from the rest that it is in a class of its own? If so, then let’s cut to the chase and identify and discuss those singular cases only!

Secondly, if most of the cases of the above behaviours can be explained in naturalistic terms, what is left of Eddy and Boyd’s complaint that “modern scholars” define “present human experience too narrowly”? If most cases can be naturalistically explained, then E&B’s complaint surely falls flat.

The fact that some academics themselves believe in the supernatural is neither here nor there, notwithstanding E&B’s efforts to see this as significant. Time and peer-review assessments and investigations will test their claims.

Epistemological humility?

After having shown the poverty of postmodernism for establishing “truth and fact” in historiography, E&B turn to postmodernism to argue that non-secular beliefs should be treated on an equal footing with religious ones. They are of the view that to do otherwise is a kind of “cultural imperialism” and smacks of intellectual arrogance.

I suggest that the secular worldview is really the spin-off from it being thoroughly and repeatedly tested and proven in the field of the natural sciences. This success rate gives a priori validity to approaching the rest of human experience through the same mindset.

A supernatural worldview has no comparable a priori validity to appeal to.

“The world view” and an American view?

E&B disagree strongly that the “Western worldview” is basically a naturalistic one. They contend that only a narrow clique of secular academic culture has embraced naturalism. “The majority of Western people”, they claim, are as believing and experiencing of the supernatural as the ancients ever were. They cite polls taken within the United States to support this claim (p.74). Over 80% of Americans believe God performs miracles today. This is apparently enough for E&B to believe that  over 80% of humanity experience “miracles”. They do not clarify if they would include a pay-rise as a miracle if that supposedly followed someone’s prayer request. But even if they mean only miracles of the kind where the dead are raised, it is good to keep such statistics in global perspective:

There have, for years, been comparative studies of religious fanaticism and factors that correlate with it. By and large, it tends to decline with increasing industrialization and education. The US, however, is off the chart, ranking near devastated peasant societies. About 1/2 the population believe the world was created a few thousand years ago . . . (Chomsky, 1999)

Casting legions of demons into the sea — an original version?

This is one of a number of surviving Ugaritic incantations for exorcisms:

I will recite an incantation against the suspect ones;
alone I will overpower . . . .
And may the Sons of Disease turn around,
may the Sons of Disease fly away . . . .
may they beat themselves like the ill of mind!
Go back . . .
The Legion to the Legions,
The Flies to the Flies,
those of the Flood to the Flood

From Incantations I lines 20-30 (p. 179 of An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit by Johannes de Moor, 1987)

Now I don’t know the original word translated as Legions, and I do not have access to my copy of the companion cuneiform and dictionary volume of this anthology. But though I have not included the scholarly marks indicating gaps and guesses in the above, it is a scholarly translation and the Legion translation is cross referenced to Mark 5:9

And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

It seems superfluous to compare the incantation’s order that the demons beat themselves like the ill of mind with Mark 5:5

Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.

And to compare the demons of the flood turning back to the flood with Mark 5:13

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

The same text notes that Baal was the preferred god for exorcism because of his mastery over the sea and the monsters therein:

Baal is the champion of exorcists because he had defeated Sea and Death with their monsters. (p.183)