Friday, April 4, 2008

Matthew 10:1: Disease and Demons

Matthew 10:1 says, "Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness" (NRSV).

In the Greek, the passage says that Jesus gave his disciples authority over unclean spirits in order to cast them out and cure disease.

What's that mean? The disciples' authority over unclean spirits enabled them to heal the sick. And what's that mean? That Matthew attributes disease and sickness to demons.

There are places in the New Testament in which this is more explicit. In Matthew 9:32-33, Jesus heals a mute person, whose condition was caused by demons. In Luke 13:11-16, Jesus heals a woman who was bent over and crippled because of Satan. And Paul had a thorn in his flesh that he calls "a messenger of Satan" (II Corinthians 12:7).

I wrote to a fellow Hebrew Union College student who is now a professor. I once took a class from him about demons, so I thought he'd know something about how the ancients viewed disease. "Did they attribute diseases to demons?" I asked him. After the customary pleasantries, he replied as follows:

"Literature from the Ancient Near East indicates that demons were blamed for any number of physical and mental ailments. There are, of course, gospel accounts in which someone is simply described as sick, incapacitated, or dead, without mention of a demon or evil spirit, and there are explicit exorcisms as well. But overall, my take has always been that illness in general was attributed to demonic forces during ancient times–-I don’t know enough about classic Greek thought to suggest whether their views were different, but as far as Semitic cultures go, I’m pretty confident."

And so Semitic cultures attributed diseases to demons. What about Greek thought? I checked my Oxford Classical Dictionary on that, and I found that different people said different things. In the article "healing gods," I learned that the Greeks held that possession (usually by a god) caused certain diseases, particularly epilepsy. Yet, in the article on "medicine," I read that "Hippocratic doctors, by and large, were committed to the idea that the phenomena of health and disease are explicable in the same way as other natural phenomena." In the ancient world, there was the belief that demons caused disease, as well as people who sought natural explanations for it.

As far as Jewish religion is concerned, the Jews had physicians, which may indicate that they saw many diseases as naturally-caused (since they believed in solutions other than exorcism). Jesus Ben Sira was a second century B.C.E. author whose book appears in the Apocrypha, and he praises doctors as agents of God (Sirach 38:1-15) The woman healed from hemorrhages after she touched Jesus' robe consulted physicians in Judea before her encounter with Jesus (Mark 5:26; Luke 8:43). And even the Hebrew Bible can be pretty positive about medicine. Jeremiah 8:22 says, after all, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?"

But, at the same time, the Jews believed in demons. Jesus referred to Pharisaic exorcists, after all (Matthew 12:27; Luke 11:19).

Of course, blaming disease on demons can lead to tragedy. I've read of Christians who have pursued exorcism instead of medicine to cure disease, with fatal results. And, unfortunately, there have been times when exorcism itself has proven deadly. Once, for example, an exorcist jumped on a sick child's chest to get a demon out of her, resulting in the child's death.

But there may not be a conflict between blaming disease on demons and using medicine to cure it, at least not always. Having a disease does not necessarily mean that one is possessed, since a demon can cause illness without taking residence within the person. Satan caused Job's illness, but he did not possess him. And a demon can use natural causes to bring about disease, as God can utilize secondary causes to effect his will. Therefore, one can use medicine to cure diseases that demons may have brought about.

Can we say that demons are responsible for all disease? Not really. We bring some diseases on ourselves. If I eat poorly and neglect exercise, then I'm susceptible to heart disease. I'll probably get lung cancer if I smoke. Demons don't cause these things. I do (or I would, if I did them).

Yet, Matthew 10:1 says that authority over demons allowed the disciples to heal all manners of diseases. The passage seems pretty comprehensive in attributing disease to demons. Maybe it makes that claim because it doesn't know every natural cause of illness (a liberal view). Or, from a conservative perspective, perhaps demons can cause every disease, but not every person with a disease has it because of demons. A demon can give heart disease to someone who eats right and exercises. But not everyone with heart disease can blame demons, especially when that person eats fatty foods and doesn't get out of the house.

And so Satan is someone who brings disease. God, however, is a healer. Tomorrow, I'll write more about the implications of this.


  1. I really enhoyed this article. Do you study this in college?

  2. We know abusive visits to McDonalds may cause heart disease. However, there are many others which we didn't have a clue of and attributed them to spirits and the works, but genetics has eventually proven us wrong. I'm not being skeptical here though. In spite of that, I do believe somehow spirits and demons have an impact on the onset and development of many maladies. It's evident in Medicine that autoimmune diseases, some cancers and psichiatric disorders are intimately related to the emotional/spiritual status of a person. Even the WHO has recently added the word spiritual to the concept of health. But to what extent? Can people harm others by evoking such forces? Can faith truly heal someone? Scientific evidence is pretty scarce. Still, I'll keep taking my pills and saying my prayers.

  3. Hi Thiago! Thanks! I learned a few pieces of this in school.

  4. Dear James, nice try but you entirely misinterpret the passage. It says: "...he gave them power over unclean spirit, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of disease, and all manner of infirmities." The power given to the disciples were to do a number of things among which were to cast out demons AND heal diseases. It did not say IN ORDER to cast out demons, that is just your addition. Christ Himself did not attribute all disease to demons. He cured St. Peter's mother-in-law of fever without attributing it to demons. (Matthew 18:14). In some other places he cured the sick, raised the dead without attributing the cases to demons. The apostles also cured diseases without exorcism as well. So please go back read the the passage before your next and i hope you correct your error. God bless you.

  5. It says he gave them power over unclean spirits, in order to cast them out and to heal diseases. The power over unclean spirits relates to the healing of diseases.

  6. "in order" in the passage refers to the reasons for the power. They are: Casting out unclean spirits, AND healing diseases and infirmities. Compare Matthew 8:17 where demons possession is distinguished from infirmities; Luke 5:15 where infirmities are cured without reference to demons; Luke 8:2 infirmities and demons and demons are mentioned as two separate evils same also for Acts 5:15-16. There are sickness caused by demons and there those not caused by demons. Over both kinds of sickness did the Christ Jesus give power to the Apostles. God bless you. Fr. Nkamuke

  7. But the power is over unclean spirits. Jesus gave the power over unclean spirits, in order that his disciples might heal diseases.

    I'm not saying there's nothing to your overall argument. I'm just saying that the grammar of that verse in Luke seems to connect demons with disease, somehow.

  8. But from that passage you draw a conclusion which is contradicted by other passages in the Holy Scriptures. This is where I strongly disagree with you. God bless you. Fr. Nkamuke

  9. In Sacred Scriptures, it is unsafe to reach a conclusion based on one passage only. Such an approach is bound to lead to serious errors. You must compare before drawing a conclusion. If you an avid student of the Sacred Scriptures, I'll advise you consult the Fathers. Rev. Haydock did an excellent job in his Catholic bible commentary. There are other works such as St. Jerome's and St. Augustine's available even online. God bless! Fr. Nkamuke

  10. I'm open to reading that. I never claimed my post is the final word on the subject. I'm just referring to a verse that stood out to me on account of how it is phrased.

  11. And as I reread this post, I think I was fairly balanced. I said demons may cause some diseases, but not everyone with a disease has it because of a demon.

    Plus, maybe there is another way to understand that Matthew passage other than what you're understanding me to say. I think the passage is saying that, somehow, the disciples' power over demons relates to their healing of disease. But what is the relationship of demons to disease? I'm thinking along the lines of this being a fallen world with sin and disease, and Satan somehow has jurisdiction over that, in this day and age.

  12. Jeanette says:

    Personally I feel the explanation is in the language of the text- "AND to cure." However, psuedographica like the book of jubilees chapter 10 explains ancient Jewish thought on the relations of demonic possession and illnesses- that illnesses which require medicine began passing man after the flood, and it was attributed to the spiritual powers left over in the world from the disputed Nephilim, sons of the "sons of God".
    However the influence of demons on the processes of the body could be explained by influencing the emotions by whispers of darkness. "I am alone, I am vulnerable, they hate me." Negative emotions have strong effects in harming the internal organs and their components, and make it easier for opportunistic infections and chronic ailments to take root.
    I feel that Jesus's bestowing of authority in the "and to cure all manner of diseases" is a spiritual authority to effect the physical realm, and the authority to bind demons as a spiritual authority to remove a causative agent...! not -THE- cause of everything, but -a- cause. Sin in and if itself is a causative agent too. The admonitions against sexual activity outside of marriage? Fastest way to gain a pleathora of infections from animals and other people. God's admonition / blessing and curse in the ten commandments, punishing the parent's sins even to the third and fourth generation? That's how long it can take to fight the genetic mutations that can come from potent viral and bacterial infections the person has exposed themselves to.. But faithfulness throughout thousands of generations? God's power and authority over these problems is eternal!
    I'm.. Of course relating thoughts where I've been pondering the same question for a long time. :)


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