One of the latest books I have read is Gary Yamasaki’s recently published monograph Perspective Criticism: Point of View and Evaluative Guidance in Biblical Narrative (2012). Yamasaki’s book highlights the importance of understanding the role of the storyteller and how the story of a biblical text is selectively narrated to the audience (an aspect of the biblical studies field which is oftentimes overlooked). While reading the book, I immediately thought of several different biblical texts that the proposed method could be applicable to and I have decided, for this invited blog post, to share some of my thoughts about the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:1-20 (also recounted in Matt 8:28-34 and Luke 8:26-39). Can this approach be used to help us understand the figure of the demoniac in Mark 5:1-20? What can it tell us about how the reader should feel regarding the man with the unclean spirit?
1They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits* begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
14The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. 18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
Is the man with the unclean spirit the antagonist of this account? While a cursory reading might cause one to answer yes to this question, a deeper reading of the story with an emphasis on perspective makes it clear that the man is most definitely not the antagonist. First, we must be aware of certain details of the account that the omniscient narrator has purposefully included. The narrative time of the story, as it is recounted in Mark’s gospel, is not arranged chronologically. As the audience reads about Jesus continuing on his ministry and coming to the other side of the lake, they are introduced to a new character, a man with an unclean spirit. This is what is told in 5:1-2; however, in 5:3-5 the narrator completely removes the audience from that place and time with Jesus on the other side of the lake. The point-of-view of the story is transposed to a different time where the narrator recounts the history of the Gerasene demoniac and how he came to be in his current predicament. We are told that no one could restrain him and that, unlike most people, he has and continues to live among the tombs.
Why does the narrator interrupt this story with information about the history of the demoniac? For one, the interruption allows the audience to understand who the man is and what he has already been through. The backstory gives context and informs the reader about the character’s history. Why is this relevant? Simply put, without this information, the reader would not have enough material to understand and subsequently relate to the man’s predicament or to empathize with his situation. The backstory in 5:3-5 allows the audience to accept the validity of the man’s condition and to understand the difficulty he has posed for the Gerasene people. When Jesus will cure him later on, he will aid the man to reintegrate into the community.
As we might expect, Jesus heals the demoniac by sending the unclean spirits into swine whereupon they rush down a hill and drown. But this is not the conclusion of the account. The antagonists of the story are revealed, beginning at 5:14, where the audience is told that the people of the community – hearing about what has happened – reject Jesus. Their dismissal, however, is irrational. Why? Because the audience is given the same information and sees what they see: “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.” (5:15). What are they afraid of? They are afraid of Jesus’ miracle, which, the audience knows, has cured the man. The person who was uncontrollable and living among the tombs is, after having interacted with Jesus, no longer affected by unclean spirits. The narrator tells the audience that he is sitting (as opposed to wrenching his shackles as he once did), he has been clothed (a sign that he is prepared to return to the community), and he is in his right state of mind. Yet, they are still afraid and, as a result of that fear, they cast Jesus out. This is an important detail because the community rejects Jesus and casts him out in 5:17 much like they did to the man in 5:3-4. How does the narrator give the audience the opportunity to make this connection? The exposition from 5:3-5 gives them the information to be able to compare the man’s situation with the protagonist Jesus. That perspective is critical to shaping how the reader will react to a character. Rather than understanding the Gerasene demoniac as a figure at odds with Jesus, it becomes clear that the narrator wishes the audience to empathize with him and instead reject the unbelieving people.
It would seem that the identification of the audience with the man is also highlighted at the end of the story. The man, after being healed, asks Jesus to be with him. Surprisingly, Jesus refuses the request, instead telling him to go home and spread the message of what has been done for him. The Gerasene demoniac’s transition from being possessed to healed is underscored in the shifts of the story’s settings where, at the outset, he is among the tombs, but by the end he returns to the Decapolis. Only then, once he has spread the word, does the narrator inform the audience that, “everyone was amazed” (5:20).
The point-of-view of a biblical text is crucial and it helps us to better understand the account of the Gerasene demoniac. Being aware that the narrator provides the audience with privileged insight into the backstory of the man helps to change the audience’s perception of him. In this case, the information helps the audience to empathize with the character.