There is an intriguing story, preserved in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, in which Jesus is accused of preforming exorcisms and healings by the power of a demon called Beelzebub (originally ‘Beelzebul’; see Day, 151-159). The accusation against Jesus is taken so seriously that anyone who makes such an accusation has committed an unpardonable sin from which salvation is impossible (Mark 3:28-30; Matthew 12:30-32 [the saying is also preserved in Luke 12:10, but it is not made in reference to the Beelzebub accusation like in Mark and Matthew]). Most readers of the Gospels do not believe that Jesus was actually possessed by the demon Beelzebub, and justifiably so; Jesus appears to categorically deny using the power of Beelzebub, claiming instead to be empowered by the “Spirit/finger of God” (Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20).
To refute the allegation, Jesus sets up what appears to be a philosophical argument known as reductio ad absurdum, Latin for “reduction to absurdity.” This type of logical argumentation takes a claim to its logically necessary endpoint in order to demonstrate that the claim is necessarily false. How does this work in the case of the Beelzebub accusation? First, Jesus tells his accusers that a house or kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. By analogy, using a demon to cast out demons would cause division in the kingdom of Satan, making his kingdom weak, and therefore it would be counterproductive for Satan to allow Jesus to use the power of Beelzebub to cast out demons. The reader can thus infer that Jesus is making an argument along the lines of: “since using a demon’s power to cast out other demons would bring Satan’s kingdom to an end, it stands to reason that I could not possibly be using a demon to cast out other demons.”
However, it has been argued that this is not the only possible interpretation of Jesus’ words. Giovanni Bazzana, a professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, recently argued that Jesus’ original saying might not have included a categorical denial of using the power of Beelzebub in his recent book Having the Spirit of Christ. Giovanni argues that Jesus’ statement that ‘a house or kingdom divided cannot stand’ might not have originally been understood as a reductio ad absurdum but rather as a justification for Jesus’ use of Beelzebub’s power. That is to say, if a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, then using Beelzebub’s power against Satan is an effective method by which Jesus is bringing about the end (Greek telos) of Satan’s kingdom. In the words of Bazzana, it is possible that “Jesus is presenting an actual scenario in which the realm of Satan is in turmoil and even threatens to come to its telos. If one adopts this interpretation, then Jesus is admitting that he is performing exorcisms and healings by virtue of the power of Beelzebul and against that of Satan” (Bazzana, 38).
This interpretation solves one of the difficulties with the reductio ad absurdum reading, which is the following analogy of the binding of the strong man in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 3:27; Matthew 12:29; Luke 11:21-22). The saying, according to Mark (the earliest Gospel) is as follows:
“No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.” (Mark 3:27, KJV)
This analogy is difficult to square with the idea that Jesus is denying using Beelzebub’s power. But it does work very well with the other interpretation, that Jesus is revealing his strategy for defeating Satan’s kingdom. To quote Bazzana again, “all commentators agree on the fact that the ‘strong one’ ought to be identified with Satan, who is mentioned in the preceding verse. The notion that Satan is ‘bound’ and thus defeated flows naturally from the sayings on the divided kingdom and household, once the latter are taken not as a reductio ad absurdum… but as an indication of the means (internal dissension and betrayal in his dominion) through which Satan is weakened” (Bazzana, 47).
It is unlikely that we can ever know for certain which interpretation of Jesus’ words are original, however, I consider the evidence in favor of Bazzana’s suggested reading to be relatively strong and certainly worth serious consideration. Bazzana goes into a lot of relevant redactional critical and anthropological data in his discussion of the evidence and implications of his interpretation. This suggested interpretation might seem a bit bizarre and even heretical to orthodox Christian theists, but we must be willing to follow the textual/historical evidence wherever it leads, regardless of one’s religious predilections.
Photo credit: FreeImages.com/catzmagick
Bazzana, Giovanni B. Having the Spirit of Christ – Spirit Possession and Exorcism in the Early Christ Groups (Yale University Press, 2020).
Day, Peggy L. An Adversary in Heaven – Satan in the Hebrew Bible (Scholars Press, 1988).