Demons, Sickness and the Second Temple

by Sep 10, 2023Biblical studies, Christian Living0 comments

In the cultural waters of Jesus and Paul, people already had an idea of the demonic. In Hellenistic Greek, “daimonia” were semi-divine beings with powers of various sorts who could be either good or evil. Basically, the same worldview as Ghosthunters on the Discovery channel. The Septuagint (Old Testament in Greek) even uses demons (daimonia) to designate heathen gods. 

Judaism, in the inter-testamental period, took up the term and used it to designate evil supernatural beings who caused physical harm in all sorts of ways. Who also tempted people to idolatry, witchcraft, vices of all kinds, just about anything that would keep them from seeking God. 

Without going full-on Michael Heizer on you, Second Temple literature is divided over the ordering of terms. Some make a solid distinction between evil spirits and demons. Others just use the word as a synonym, viewing spiritual beings as fallen angels; they could be called “angels” or “spirits” (pneumata). The use of “angel” (Messenger language) was often more associated with larger cosmic aspects (apocalyptic literature) and was associated more frequently with the work of Satan. 

It was in this time that sickness became strongly connected with, if not evidence of, demonic powers. But first a word of caution: Second Temple literature is not authoritative. No doctrine should be built exclusively nor predominantly from these works. Catholics hold some of the Second Temple books as inspired. They call these books the Apocrypha (First and Second Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus, the Book of Tobit etc.) and consider them authoritative scriptures. 

These works give us insight into the terms used and their meanings in the time of Jesus, as well as what jewish people believed in the first century. In no way do we build doctrine from these texts no matter how much they confirm our beliefs. Maintaining proper categories and not allowing Second Temple literature to become authoritative is important. Just as important is using such works as helpful contextual aids in interpreting scripture. These are historical works that inform us of the ideas surrounding a Jewish first-century worldview. They should not be read into the New Testament witness as an interpretive key, but be allowed to shape but not determine our understanding of authoritative scripture. Methods become central to scriptural interpretation; for example, one would need an actual textual connection, if not overwhelming conceptual connection, between the New Testament and intertestamental literature in order to apply the historical background. Even then, one is presuming much of the author’s thought process. In short, the book of Enoch is not Scripture!! 

That said, (*Dawson hops off his soapbox and curtsies)

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were scrolls dating back to the intertestamental period. They were Important texts from a Jewish sect hidden away in caves but found in the mid 20th century in a place called Qumran in Southern Israel. The best evidence comes from some of their teaching texts that retell biblical stories in their own  particular way, helping us see how they understand the world to work.  So in the letters and scrolls below, we have direct and narrative evidence of the connection between demons and sickness. In the first texts human illness found is ascribed to demonic powers leading tot he conclusion that jewish thinking at Qumran saw demonic power as connected to sickness. 

  1. In the Genesis Apocryphon (1Qap Gen 20:12-29) there is a report of Abraham’s healing action on behalf of the pharaoh. When Abraham lays his hands on the Egyptian monarch, the plague is expelled in the form of the demon that has been causing it. (The technical term “g r” is used here, conveying the sense that a hostile power has been brought under control, as does the Gk term “epitimao”, which in the gospels is often translated inadequately as “rebuke” (cf. Mark 1:25; 4:39; Luke 4:35; 8:24; Matt 8:181). 

Because of pharaoh’s unwitting violation of the law of God by taking Sarah as his wife, he has come under demonic control, from which he is released in response to his request to Abraham and that patriarch’s action in expelling the demon. 

  1. Similarly, in the Prayer of Nabonidus (4QPr Nab) we have similar information. The fragments tell the story of King Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, who was afflicted with a disease and prayed to God for salvation. 

“I was afflicted [with an evil ulcer] for seven years…and an exorcist pardoned my sins. He was a Jew from among the [children of the exile of Judah, and said,] ‘Recount this in writing to [glorify and exalt] the Name of the [Most High God]’” (I.3-5).

The Prayer of Nabonidus parallels the biblical story in Daniel 4, in which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is afflicted for seven years and his condition is explained to him by Daniel. The only difference from Daniel is the affliction was demonic. Is it a retelling of Daniel’s story with a demonic twist, showing the influence of the demon-sickness connection in first century Jewish thinking? Maybe. We should look at literature from the rest of jewish world to see if they agree.  

  1. Book of Jubilees

The Book of Jubilees was a work found by scholars to be heavily influential on the thinking of those at Qumran. Yet, no copy was found there. The earliest copies we have are Ethiopian Coptic sources; all from early church fathers. It was well known to early Christians, as evidenced by the writings of Justin Martyr and Origen, just to name a few. 

The Book of Jubilees mentions  cures for human ailments resulting from medicinal herbs, as well as through the direct action of angelic powers in their cosmic struggle with demons. The herbal remedies are ingredients in Creation; knowledge of their use has been granted to certain “wise ones” among God’s people (Jub. 10:10-14). Although God is ultimately in control over the fallen angels and the demons, He allows some of them to continue to exercise their malevolent power on Earth as a part of the divine judgment of disobedient humanity (Jub. 10:7-8). 

The remedies for the evils that the demonic leader, Mastema, and the Egyptians perform are not given to them, however, but are given as graces to chosen human beings (Jub. 48:10).

The narrative evidence comes from works that was held in high regard thoughout the jewish speaking world. It is even part of the Catholic Apocrypha. 

  1. Book of Tobit 

The book of Tobit was written about the same time as the Wisdom of Sirach  (Early 2nd cent. B.C). This work teaches that sickness is seen as the result of the work of demons. It tells the story of Tobit getting the “new car” treatment. He was blinded by sparrow droppings which fell in his eyes. One could say, Tobit had a very crappy day. The physicians were unable to cure him (Tob 2:10). 

Like all good Second Temple stories an angel is involved. The angel is named Raphael, meaning, “God heals.” Raphael gives the information necessary for the cure and exorcism. A mix of fish guts (liver and heart) were the remedy needed to restore his sight (11:8). Since demons hate the smell of fish guts the “fishy” concoction was effective in expelling demons (Tob 6:7-8; 8:1-3) and the man’s sight came back to him. In the end, Raphael acts like an angelic bounty hunter who tracks the demon to Egypt and hogties it (8:2-3).

In Second Temple literature, we see the Jewish view of demonic and sickness begin to form. They seem to have held something like the following concept: God permits human sickness and other disasters to occur, sometimes demons are involved but in the end these powers will be overcome, and God’s work of renewing the creation will be complete.  

God’s use of secondary agents is highlighted. The use of creation, (ie, herbs and primitive concoctions) to aid in healing is supported. Also, God works healing through intermediate agents like angels, rather than directly as in the Old Testament biblical tradition. This is kinda like texting someone who is at the dinner table with you but God’s ways are mysterious. We can understand that all this is in the background thinking of Jews in the first century.