Writings on Christianity

Exorcism in the First Century Jewish Mind

ExorcismTo most today, talk of exorcism, demons, and spirits is the stuff of movies and antiquated religious notions.  How can anyone actually believe in these things?  The Bible presents a far different picture: we are physical and spiritual beings, and we live in a universe which is inhabited by spiritual beings known as demons and angels.

The following posts will explore the question of exorcism (expelling an evil spirit or demon from a human).  I hope to address how the topic was understood in the first century Jewish mindset, and how Jesus’ own exorcisms were similar and different.

Exorcism in the 1st Century Jewish Mind

In order to assess how the Jews of the first century understood the spirit-world and exorcism, one must look to intertestamental Jewish literature.  These writings are more pronounced in their discussions about demons and exorcisms than the OT, which generally has very little to say about demons or exorcism.[1] The most notable exception of this is found in the story of David in 1 Sam 16:13-23.  In this passage, David is employed to play music in the presence of King Saul with the purpose of driving away an evil spirit (רוּחַ הָרָעָה) which has been tormenting Saul.  This exception is important, and is mentioned in later intertestamental Jewish writings as we shall see.  Our exploration of the Second Temple Jewish literature begins with the story of Tobit.


Within intertestamental literature, what is likely the most explicit and well-known example of a demon haunting a person and being driven away is found in the book of Tobit.  Scholars believe this work originated in the 3rd century BC, which means that it would have likely been known to the Jews of the first century, and thus provides theologians with a view into how the Jews might have understood a variety of issues, including demons and exorcism.[2]

Written in a narrative style, the story takes place in the time of the Assyrian exile, and is about a man named Tobit, his wife Anna and their son Tobias.[3]  In the story, the recently blinded Tobit sends his son Tobias on a journey to collect some of his invested money (Tob 5:1-3).  An angel named Raphael, who takes the form of a man, accompanies Tobias on his journey and protects him (5:4-12:22). Unbeknownst to Tobias, his journey would involve securing the organs of a fish[4] for future medicinal and exorcistic purposes (6:5) and meeting his potential future wife Sarah, to whom Tobias was next of kin (6:12).

Tobias was uncertain about marrying Sarah (6:14), because the first seven men who tried to do so were killed in the bridle chamber by a jealous demon named Asmodeus (3:8).  The angel Raphael reassures Tobias, and gives him the following instructions:

Take some of the fish’s liver and heart and put them on the embers of the incense.  An odor will be given off; the demon will smell it and flee, and will never be seen near her anymore.  Now when you are about to go to bed with her, both of you must first stand up and pray, imploring the Lord of heaven that mercy and safety may be granted to you. (6:17-18)

Tobias braves the challenge and marries Sarah (7:13).  Remembering the words of Raphael, Tobias follows his instructions and smokes the fish organs on the embers (8:3).  This results in the fleeing of the demon “to the remotest parts of Egypt,” where it is captured and bound by Raphael (8:3).  Tobias and his wife pray, consummate the marriage, and live to see another day (8:4-18).

For our study, this story allows us to view a possible theological Jewish understanding of demons and a method or removing them.  The author of Tobit seems to assume a belief in the following: angels (5:4), demons (6:16), mystical or ceremonial means of removing a demon through a ritual (6:14-15), and the need to pray to God who ultimately provides safety and deliverance (8:5).  These elements contribute to our understanding of the Jewish mindset of the intertestamental period.

The expelling of the demon is particularly important.  This chasing away and defeating of a demon may not have been viewed as the equivalent of what would be called an exorcism in the first century,[5] but it does point to the view that demons could be defeated by means of a ritual given by God (here through his angel Raphael).  Graham H. Twelftree, an expert in demonology of the ancient world, argues that this act of expelling demons, by means of fumigation, was a method of exorcism which the Christians in the first century were very familiar.[6]  Thus, the cognitive environment of the 1st century likely embraced the idea of expelling demons by means of a fumigation ritual similar to what is described in Tobit.  This leads to next piece of evidence from a discussion in Josephus.


The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus mentions the practice of exorcism in his writings and describes it as both an ancient and a modern practice.  One section in Antiquities 8:45-49 highlights this well.  This passage begins with a reference to Solomon, whom Josephus assigns exorcistic powers, and then refers to a present-day man named Eleazar, whom Josephus himself had witnessed exorcise demons.  Josephus describes his manner of exorcism to include: use of scents to drive out the demon (8:47); mentioning of Solomon (8:47); reciting Solomon’s incantation (8:47); possessing command over the spirit after it had left the man (8:48). These clues, and others, illuminate a 1st century Jewish contextual understanding of exorcism.

Examining this passage, Josephus describes Solomon’s “manner of using exorcisms” as being left behind, so that others could perform the action (8:45).  What is important, regardless of whether Solomon actually did the historical action of exorcism, is that Josephus wants to stress the antiquity and cultural longevity of the practice of exorcism.  In Josephus’ mind, exorcism has been happening for hundreds of years and was still occurring in his day.  This shows that exorcism had become firmly rooted in the cultural and theological framework of the Jews in Josephus’ time.

Another key element of this passage is Josephus’ description of Eleazar.  Josephus writes that he is from our “own country” and that Josephus himself had witnessed him release people from demons (8:46).  By mentioning his eye-witness testimony and Jewish place of Eleazar’s origin, Josephus emphasizes the Jewishness of exorcisms. Josephus also informs us that Eleazar used a “ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils” (8:47).  This harkens back to the Tobit’s use of fumes to expel a demon.  After expelling the demon, Eleazar warns it not to return by invoking the name of Solomon and by using Solomonic incantations (8:47).  This could mean that Eleazar did not believe he could perform the act of exorcism out of his own ability or power, but was in need of a higher authority in order for his exorcism to succeed.

The passage then is rich in information about exorcism, and further contributes to our understanding of the first century Jewish notion of exorcism.  Now will we will turn to one other example in Jewish literature, one that is found in the scrolls of Qumran.


Building on the evidence of exorcism from the first two examples, it is not surprising to find the concept of exorcism within the Qumran community.  Hebrew scholar Edward Cook agues just such a stance, “As is clear from many of the scrolls, the land and sky of the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. were, at least in imagination, populated not only by angels but also by demons.”[7]  This world of angels and demons also had a need for exorcisms.  Qumran literature does not describe “straightforward exorcisms,” rather “demonic defenses…composed as psalms and assigned to biblical characters…meant to be recited.”[8]  One piece of evidence which shows this most clearly is 11Q11.

This scroll contains six columns of psalms,[9] which unfortunately seem to be missing large potions lost from the original.[10] The columns seem to be used in incantations against spirits and demons (2:2) and claim ancient authorship (Solomon 2:1, David 5:4).  By claiming the authority of David and Solomon, these incantations may have been recited as prayers (“May the LORD smite you” 4:4) against the demons.  If this is the case, then this is similar to Josephus’ account of Eleazar using Solomon’s authority and incantations.

These three examples (Tobit, Josephus and 11Q11) illustrate a conceptual framework for understanding the Jewish mindset of the 1st century regarding demons and exorcisms.  In these cases, it seems that the Jews believed in the real problem of demons and of the true cure of exorcism.  The last two writings reveal the necessity to link exorcistic power with an ancient authority figure (David or Solomon), and the first two examples are concomitant in their use of fumes to expel a demon.  All three examples acknowledge some kind of overarching dependence on YHWH.  Thus, it seems reasonable to argue from these three examples that exorcism was a 1st century Jewish practice and that the Jews understood themselves as inhabiting a world populated by demons, which David George Reese argues, required “various procedures and conjurations” as a “means of protection against them.”[11] Within this cognitive environment we read of Jesus’ exorcistic ministry.

 In the next post, I’ll explore how Jesus’ exorcisms were similar and different to these…


Abegg, Martin Jr., Edward Cook, and Michael Wise. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. New York: HarperSanFranscico, 1996.

Coogan, M.D., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. 3d. Oxford: University Press, 2001.

Evans, Craig. “Jesus and Evil Spirits in the light of Psalm 91.” Baptistic Theologies 1 (2  2009): 43-58.

Freedman, David Noel, ed. Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Kuemmrlin-McLean, Joanne K. “Demons.”  Pages 138-140 in vol. 2 of Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Anchor Bible Reference Library 2. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Perrin, Nicholas. Jesus the Temple. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2010.

Reese, David George. “Demons.”  Pages 140-142 in vol. 2 of Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Sorensen, Eric. Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament and Early Christianity. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.

Twelftree, Graham H. In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism among Early Christians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007.


[1] Notable exceptions of this which mention demons or Satan include: 1 Sam 16:13-23; Job 1:6-12; 1 Chr 21:1; Zech 3:1-2.  Joanne K. Kuemmrlin-McLean believes the challenge of understanding how the OT understood demons is threefold: (1) there is no single Hebrew term which “can be consistently and unquestionably translated as “demon;” (2) “many of the terms used to refer to demons are either hapax legomena or only used a few times;” (3) the English term demon is used to “refer to two very different concepts—evil spirits and neutral anonymous gods  or spirits: “Demons,” ABD 2: 138-139.

[2] M.D. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version (3d; Oxford: University Press, 2001), 11.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Which tried to capture him in 6:3.

[5] Graham H. Twelftree, In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism among Early Christians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007), 37

[6]  Ibid., 38, 40-41.

[7] Martin Jr. Abegg, Edward Cook, and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (New York: HarperSanFranscico, 1996), 588.

[8] Ibid., 589.

[9] Along with containing five psalms from outside the Hebrew canon, 11Q11 also contains Psalm 91, which Cook believes was “used throughout the centuries in magical exorcisms in both Judaism and Christianity”: Ibid., 590.

[10] According to the Cook’s reconstruction: 589-590.

[11] David George Reese, “Demons,” ABD 2:140.

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By Tom Schmidt

Christian, husband of Rach, Church Planter,musician,

9 replies on “Exorcism in the First Century Jewish Mind”

Fascinating background, Tom! Thanks for sharing your work with us. I’m now looking forward to the next post!!

I was studying Matthew 12:26-27. 26 “And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.” My ESV Bible footnote directed me to Josephus to explain how the Jews in Jesus day exorcised demons. I googled it and found your page. It is very helpful. Thank you, Mr. Schmidt.

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