Demons and Unclean Spirits shown to be

Madness, Epilepsy, and other Physical Maladies

Commentary on Matthew Chapter Four

[Editor’s note: Here follows an excerpt from our commentary on Matthew Four, in which we discuss the question of demoniacs and unclean spirits. The reader is encouraged to follow up by reading the article by S. Snobelen, showing that attribution of physical and mental maladies to demons was a regional phenomenon, confined to Galilee of the Gentiles, and therefore a question of regional superstition and terminology. However, these articles should not be interpreted as an endorsement of modernistic trends to rationalism or deny of the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy, of which we are firmly committed and convinced. Realizing not all will agree with these pieces, as always, let each man be persuaded in his own mind. ]


And they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with diverse diseases and torments,

 Since Matthew already reported that Jesus healed all manner of disease among the people of the Jews dwelling in Galilee, we must conclude that those mentioned here are Jews from other parts of Palestine together with Gentiles dwelling in Syria.

 and those that were possessed with devils,

 There are two basic views about devils, demons, and unclean spirits. One view has it that they are supernatural beings, either the spirits of the wicked dead, or fallen angels; that Satan’s proper name is Lucifer; that he was chief among the angels, but sought to be equal with God and thus led a revolt in heaven, but was defeated by Michael and his angels and was cat down to earth, where his inveterate hatred for God drives him to wreak havoc, tempt man, and persecute God’s people. Further, Adam’s sin gave Satan dominion in earth and over death and Hades, where he reigns, tormenting the souls of the damned.

 Another view is that the angels do not have free will, but being spirit cannot be tempted with evil, and therefore cannot fall or revolt. The terms devil and Satan are used various ways in scripture. Sometimes they refer to a source of evil or temptation (Matt. 16:23, Simon Peter; Jn. 6:70, Judas Iscariot), women guilty of malicious gossip (I Tim. 3:11; Tit. 2:3 – where diabolos is translated false accuser/slanderer), other times  to an enemy nation or persecuting power (Zech. 3:1; Rom. 16:20), and other times as a personification of an inanimate object such as an idol (I Cor. 10:20; cf. Ex. 34:15; Lev. 17:7; Deut. 32:17; II Chrn. 11:15), or something abstract, like sin (Heb. 2:14; cf. Gen. 4:7). The Hebrew word “satan” is not a proper name, but a generic term that signifies an adversary or opponent. It first occurs in Numbers 22:22 where it is used of the angel of the Lord when he stood as an “adversary” to Balaam. The same term is used of the Philistines vis-à-vis David (I Sam. 29:4); and the adversaries of Solomon are likewise so called several times (I Kng. 5:4; 11:14 – Hadad the Edomite; I Kng. 5:4:23, 25 - Rezon, the son of Eliadah). When I Chron. 21:1 says that “Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel,” the adversary almost certainly was not a demonic being, but an enemy nation, probably the Philistines (cf. II Sam. 24:1).

 In Zechariah, the prophet records a vision thought to confirm the existence of a supernatural agent called Satan: The prophet saw Joshua the high priest in filthy garments and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. However, the passage is symbolic. Joshua represents the children of Israel returned out of captivity; the marginal reading calls Satan “an adversary.” When we consult the historical situation behind the vision, we find that the Jews were attempting to rebuild the temple, but were hindered and opposed by the governing authorities of the region, who persuaded the king of Persia to stop the work (cf. Dan. 10:13; Ezra 4; Neh. 4). However, it was the ministry of the prophets Zechariah and Haggai to encouraged the people to continue the work of rebuilding the temple (Ezra 5:1; Zech. 4:9). Hence, it is almost certain this is the meaning of the vision, and that the Persian monarchy and governing authorities opposing the work are the adversary represented by “Satan.”

 In Revelation, John depicts a battle in heaven in which a dragon and his angels fight with Michael and his angels (Rev.12:7-11). The dragon is often interpreted as Satan. But here again the passage is symbolic and should not be interpreted literally. The better view is that battle represents the earthly ministry of Christ and that of his disciples. Michael is Christ; his angels are the disciples and messengers of the gospel. The dragon hearkens back to the serpent in the garden and is a personification of sin and death; his angels are those who oppose the gospel. Following our first ancestors’ fall, God said that he would put enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent; the serpent’s seed would bruise his heel, but it would crush the serpent’s head. (Gen. 3:15). The seed of the woman was Christ; the seed of the serpent were the children of disobedience (the Romans and Jews) (Jn. 8:44). The serpent would strike the promised Seed in the crucifixion through the Jews and Romans acting in obedience to the impulse of sin and disbelief, bruising his heel; but Christ would crush its head. The sting (venom) of death (the serpent) is sin; the strength of sin was the law (I Cor. 15:56). By his substitutionary death and atoning blood the law was fulfilled and taken out of the way, “spoiling principalities and powers” (Col. 2:13-17). In his resurrection, Jesus delivered the crushing blow to the serpent (II Tim. 1:10). Death, which had ruled from Adam to Moses as the prince of this world (Rom. 5:14, 17; Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), was cast out, and its principality destroyed.[1] Thus, John says Michael  and his angels overcame the dragon and his angels “by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. 12:11). This shows that the battle concluded with the cross and preaching of the gospel, and was not a literal battle waged in heaven at all.

 Regarding the term “Lucifer,” this word is derived from the Latin Bible and is a compound made up of “lux” (light) and “fere” (to bear). It occurs in Isa. 14:12 in reference to the king of Babylon (Isa. 14:4), where it translates the Hebrew “heylel,” “Venus” or “the morning star.” The same term also occurs in the Latin Bible at II Pet. 1:19: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star (“lucifer”) arise in your hearts.”[2] Here we see that the term is not a proper name at all and has no reference whatever to a demonic being or fallen angel.

 Unclean spirits and demonic possession seem to be no more than physical and mental illness, the Jews having learned to refer to them this way beginning with the Babylonian captivity and the Greek conquest of Palestine. No cases of demonic possession occur in the Old Testament, and those recorded in the gospels occur exclusively in Galilee, the Decapolis, and other areas heavily populated by Gentiles. When Jesus heals men afflicted by physical maladies in those regions, it is often described as casting out an unclean spirit, but the same afflictions and miracles of healing in Judea make no reference to devils whatever. Hence, the whole thing seems to be nothing more than the regional superstition and terminology of those living in areas populated by Gentiles, similar to today where in the West there are no occurrences of demonic possession, but in Africa and other superstitious and uneducated areas of the globe, belief in evil spirits is wide spread and bodily ailments are commonly attributed to this source. This is confirmed by Bishop Lightfoot, who gives the following account of demonic possession: 

 “There were divers diseases, which, in their own nature, were but natural diseases, which yet the Jews did, commonly, repute as seizure and possessing by the devil; especially those that distempered the mind, or did in more special manner convulse the body: and, according to this common language and conception of the nation, the language of the gospel doth speak exceeding frequently. Examples of this kind of dialect among the Jews, we might produce divers, as that in Maimonides:  ‘A man, which is troubled with an evil spirit, and saith, when the sickness  begins upon him, Write a bill of divorcement to my wife, he said as good as nothing, because he is not ‘compos sui’: and so likewise a drunken man, when he comes near the drunkenness of Lot,’ etc.  he calls the evil spirit , or ‘a sickness;’ and by it he means lunacy, or distractedness, that had its ‘lucida intervalla.’ So the Jews speak of a man ‘that is possessed by Cordicus:’ which they interpret to be, ‘a spirit that seizeth on him, that drinketh too much wine out of the wine-press.’  And, to spare more; because the story in hand is of a child, take but this example of an evil spirit, which, when conceived, did seize upon children: ‘Shibta (say they) is an evil spirit, that seizeth upon children by the neck, even upon the sinews behind the neck, and drieth them up from their use and strength, till it kill him.  And the time of it is from the child’s being two months old, and the danger of it is till the child be seven years old.’ Which seemeth to mean nothing else but convulsion-fits, or shrinking of the sinews, or some suchlike thing; a natural malady.”[3]

 and those which were lunatic, and those that had palsy; and he healed them.

 The word “lunatic” means “moonstruck,” and describes someone who is insane or suffers convulsions or epilepsy. However, lacking knowledge of medical science, the Jews and other superstitious peoples fell into the error of supposing men were possessed with devils, an error common to this day among the primitive peoples of Africa and other countries. Thus, in Matt. 17:14-21, a father brought his child to Jesus saying he was “lunatic” (v.15), but in healing the child Matthew describes Jesus as having “rebuked the devil” (v.18). In the parallel account in Mark, the father said his son had a “dumb spirit, and wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away” (Mk. 9:17, 18). But who cannot see that the child suffered epilepsy or some form of recurring seizure, and was not possessed by a devil? Indeed, Thayer defines “lunatic” (selhniazomai) as epilepsy: “to be moon-struck (cf. lunatic); to be epileptic (epilepsy being supposed to return and increase with the increase of the moon): Mt. iv.24; xvii:15.”[4]

[1]  “He destroyed the enemy and the avenger, and death the prince of this world, together with the other unseen hostile powers.”  Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica, VIII, ccclxxvii; Ferrar ed. 

[2] “et habemus firmiorem propheticum sermonem cui bene facitis adtendentes quasi lucernae lucent in caliginoso loco donec dies inlucescat et lucifer oriature in cordibus vestris”

[3] John Lightfoot, Harmony of the Gospels, Complete Works (1684) Vol. 3, pp. 102, 103

[4] J. H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon (Fourth Edition), p. 573

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