Blasphemy against Beelzebul: Jesus and the worship of demons

During the second temple period king Solomon became a legendary exorcist in the minds of many Jews. As traditions relating Israel’s king to exorcism proliferated, Solomon established himself as the archetypal Hebrew exorcist and as the ancient expert in all things demonic. Josephus, for instance, gushes over Solomon’s God-given abilities:

God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day

Antiquities 8.2.5

The Jewish historian then illustrates the power of Solomon’s methods by describing a particular contemporary case of demon-possession: Bearing a ring adorned with Solomon’s herbal recipe, a Jewish exorcist named Eleazar drew out a demon from his patient’s nose, all the while reciting Solomon’s (pseudepigraphical) incantations. Having applied such techniques, the spirit came under the charge of the exorcist and was commanded to tip over a cup of water as proof of successful expulsion.

This notion that Solomon and his students could control demons appears elsewhere in ancient texts. The Gnostic Apocalyspe of Adam (1st-2nd century AD), for example, refers to Solomon’s retinue of demons sent out to find a missing person. In the Testament of Solomon1 many similar traditions coalesce. According to this text God gives king Solomon a powerful ring with which he can enslave demonic forces. Having thus captured Beelzebul, the “prince of demons,” Solomon brings under his command the entire horde of unclean spirits. It is by these demons that the pious Solomon constructs God’s temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus & Beelzebul

The texts outlined above, particularly the traditions contained in the Testament of Solomon, provide an excellent background for the Synoptic Beelzebul controversy (Mark 3:20-30). Like Solomon and Eleazar, Jesus was known as a powerful manipulator of spirits. Jesus was so capable as an exorcist—consistently eliciting what we might call a psychosomatic response—that his enemies accused him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the “ruler of demons” (Mark 3:22). Unlike king Solomon in the Testament of Solomon, however, Jesus’ authority over demons was not always viewed in a positive light. To some observers, his command of evil spirits came not from God, but from his voluntary submission to and manifestation of Beelzebul’s spirit. According to his opponents then, Jesus “had” Beelzebul (Mark 3:22) and, indeed, could be identified as Beelzebul (Matthew 10:25).2 Jesus was, for all intents and purposes, a witch, a son of Satan (cf. John 8:44).

As I explored in a previous post, the return of unclean spirits following their removal by Jesus may have generated much of the controversy surrounding his exorcistic work. To some, it seemed as though Jesus cast out lesser demons only to open up his patients to the infestation of greater demons. As part of a grand deception, Jesus expelled one demon only to send it back with seven worse demons: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none… Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45). Jesus then was not, after all, an exorcist on the side of God; he was rather a diabolical strategist arranging his demons for war: calling for retreat when necessary but mustering reinforcements for opportune strikes.

While Jesus denied the implication that he was responsible for revenant spirits, he at least admitted to the possibility of demonic regression (i.e. they return on their own terms—Matthew 12:44). Unlike Eleazar and his Solomonic rites, Jesus could not guarantee that a demon would “never return.”3

Why Beelzebul?

The traditional identification of Beelzebul as the commander of demons—attested by the Synoptic Gospels and the Testament of Solomon—provides much of the rationale for Jesus’ association with this figure originally understood as the Philistine god of Ekron (cf. 2 Kings 1).4 Like Beelzebul, Jesus appeared to have unclean spirits at his beck and call (cf. Mark 1:25, 9:25).

More than this though, Beelzebul was thought to perpetuate the worship of demons among human beings. In the Testament of Solomon Beelzebul reveals: “I send upon men my own demons in order that they may believe in them and be lost” (27). By identifying his own possessing δαιμόνιον as the “holy spirit and “spirit of God”—and by threatening its blasphemers with eternal punishment (Mark 3:28-30)—Jesus no doubt encouraged his listeners to approach this spirit with reverent fear. For Jesus and his followers, the spirit at work was none other than God; for others, Jesus was facilitating the worship of a demon.

1—Although eventually Christianized, parts of the Testament of Solomon were likely written by Jews in the 1st century CE and based on older traditions.

2—During a possession experience, a human might become the vessel of some spirit’s identity and will.

3—Only at the impending eschaton is the ultimate destruction of unclean spirits realized—(this abysmal end is prefigured in the Gerasene Demoniac episode).

4—Israel’s king sought the cult of “Baal-zebub” in order to attain information relating to his injuries (2 Kings 1:2). As such, Baal-zebub may have been known as a potent healer. It is therefore possible that Jesus was associated with Beelzebul due to the curative nature of his exorcisms.

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