Mark 5:1-20 and the Pigs of Gerasa

As I prepare to teach Mark 5:1-20 at my church’s youth group this upcoming Wednesday, I am again struck by how odd this episode of scripture is. Why is the demoniac living in a graveyard? How is he able to break out of chains? Why does it seem as if Jesus grants these demon’s request? Why pigs? Why do the pigs drown themselves? And why in the world would Mark put a story like this in his Gospel?

In order to answer this, we’ve got to complicate the story even more. But we will then conclude with a few points of application for our time now.

Pigs and Ancient Jewish Persecution

Today, we might think that pigs are kind of cute. They frequently appear in children’s movies, cartoons, and storybooks. An ancient Jew would not feel the same way. Pigs weren’t kosher. That is, eating pork was forbidden in Torah (Leviticus 11:7-8) as pigs were considered unclean animals.

But that’s not all. After Judah’s exile, and after Persia allowed a remnant to return to Jerusalem and rebuild, the people of God began to take their Torah adherence rather seriously. If God punished them for their disobedience to the covenant, they were going to make sure that it wouldn’t happen again. But Persia didn’t stay in power for long. Alexander the Great conquered that nation, and after his death, his land was divided up amongst his war leaders. Jerusalem was given to the Seleucids, and eventually, its control fell into the hands of man named Antiochus Epiphanes.

Antiochus Epiphanes made it his mission to eradicate adherence to the Torah. Jewish practices were outlawed. Now that Jerusalem was under Greek control, they needed to act like good Greeks instead. And he did this by burning Torah scrolls, forcing Jews to participate in Olympic games, and sacrificing a pig on the altar of the Jewish Temple. More than this, though, certain prominent Israelites were forced to eat pig’s flesh as symbolic rejection of their religion. If they didn’t, they were tortured and killed. Yikes!

Rome eventually conquered Greece. But pig-paraphernalia didn’t exactly disappear from Israel once they in charge. In fact, the tenth Roman legion, the army that destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., wore the symbol of a pig when they marched.[1]

Demons and Ancient Jewish Magic

There’s another layer to Mark 5 that we’ve still got to uncover.

There was an ancient belief that demons and evil spirits were strongest at night. When Jesus and the disciples arrive in Gerasa, it’s night (Mark 4:35). Another common ancient belief was that all supernatural beings have rank. They all had to answer to a higher power in some form or fashion. And if an exorcist or magician knew the name of that higher power, or sometimes even the name of the demon itself, they could cast the unclean spirits out and take control of the situation.[2] In an extrabiblical book called the Testament of Solomon,[3] written right around the time Mark’s Gospel would have been, the character Solomon uses a demon’s name (and a magic-imbued ring) to thwart Beezelbul, the prince of demons.

What’s odd about Mark 5’s exorcism account is that it isn’t a professional Jewish exorcist who attempts to use this “magic formula” to take control of the situation, it’s the legion of demons themselves. When Jesus approaches the demoniac and calls these unclean spirits to come out of the man, the demons respond by attempting to pull rank. They ask: “what do you want to do with me?” They also make sure they mention Jesus by name and that he’s the Son of the most high God. Classic exorcism formula. By calling out Jesus’s name and his “superior” (it seems these demons didn’t understand that Jesus is also equal to the Father), they likely hoped to strip him of his exorcism abilities. 

The Pigs of Gerasa

There are two powers at play in Mark 5: that of the Roman occupation and that of the present evil age. By just uttering a few words, Jesus deals with them both.

The symbolism of Mark’s retelling is hard to miss. The demons are called “legion.” They beg him to not send them out of the “country” that they presently occupy in v. 10. But after being cast out into unclean pigs, they immediately drown themselves in the sea. Rome has no power over the kingdom of God. And even when the townspeople reject Jesus out of fear and ask him to depart from their region, he sends his healed witness back into the city as a herald to proclaim that kingdom’s immanent arrival.

From another angle, Jesus undeniable strength is hard to miss. A mob of demons numbering in the thousands came up against the Christ. They had been strong enough to break out of chains but a mere sentence or two from Jesus’ mouth terrified them. And once this legion of demons is divided up amongst pigs, things go south for them. It’s as if these demons scared these pigs so badly, they couldn’t help but drown themselves.

Conclusion

So, what’s the deal with Mark 5:1-20? And what can we get from this story today? Here’s a few points of takeaway:

1. Jesus and the kingdom he is bringing about is stronger than any earthly nation. Certain political powers might seem to be in charge, but it’s the Lord who has highest rank. And at the Day of the Lord, it will be especially bad for those who persecute the people of God.

2. The present evil age and the supernatural entities that reign within it are quickly passing away. Jesus’ kingdom has a cosmic reach, and his power as the Son of God is infinitely stronger than any power they might masquerade as having.

3. We who have been healed and forgiven have a responsibility as heralds of the gospel. Just as the former demoniac was sent, we have been sent back into our cities with the charge to proclaim the good news.


[1] Paul Winter, “On the Trial of Jesus,” Studia Judaica (New York, 1974) 180-181.

[2] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 147.

[3] The “Testament of Solomon” is a pseudepigraphal writing. It uses the namesake of Solomon the king to tell a made-up tale. And while it’s labeled extrabiblical, there are no Christian denominations that accept this book as part of the biblical canon.

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