Possessed or Possessor?

Thursday, 22 April

I put up a good fight, but I was spectacularly defeated in the end.

By the end of Tuesday afternoon, my theory that Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit lay in ruins, shot to pieces by Leonard’s counter-attack. Unsurprisingly, Leonard’s explanation of the relationship that existed between Jesus and the Holy Spirit was entirely to the contrary of my spirit-possession model; Leonard believes that Jesus was the dominant, controlling force in the relationship and that Jesus had possession of the Holy Spirit in the same way that the magicians of antiquity had possession of their magically-acquired spirits. 

He began his counter-hypothesis by pointing out that the Gospel writers reveal that Jesus was able to transfer his miracle-working powers to his twelve disciples (and to a further seventy-two disciples in the Gospel of Luke) in order to grant them the ability to cast out demons, heal the sick and raise the dead, therefore the power source that enabled Jesus to perform miracles could not have been exclusive to Jesus alone and it could be transmitted to others at will. Furthermore Leonard said that Jesus and the disciples are capable of summoning these powers entirely at will and whenever a miracle is required and this contradicts the standard model of possession in which it is the possessing spirit that dictates at what time and to whom a possession episode will manifest itself. 

Leonard also mentioned that the behaviours that are typically associated with spirit possession are absent in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. He said that since spirit-possessed prophets and demon-possessed demoniacs were commonplace in the ancient world, Jesus’ contemporaries would surely have recognised the symptoms of spirit possession and we would expect to encounter allegations made by observers, in the polemical materials at least, that Jesus was exhibiting possession-like behaviour. However this is not the case and the evidence is, in fact, to the contrary.

Take, for example, the hypnotic or somnambulistic form of possession in which the individual loses awareness of himself and he is left with no memory of the events that took place while he was in the possession trance. Leonard argued that if Jesus performed miracles while in a somnambulistic state then he would experience moments of disorientation or confusion immediately following a miracle and he may even be unaware that he had performed a miracle. But not only do the Gospels authors fail to record any amnesiac or disorientated behaviour in their accounts of Jesus’ life, they promote a strong and recurrent theme that is entirely to the contrary; each time the Gospel authors include a response from the crowds immediately following a healing or exorcism the crowds do not comment on Jesus’ passive state but instead on the notable degree of authority that he exerts over his miracle-working powers.

To illustrate his point, Leonard quoted from one or two Gospel passages in which the witnesses to Jesus’ miracles comment on the remarkable authority that Jesus has over his miracle-working powers and he drew my attention to the recurrent theme of ‘exousia’ (a Greek term meaning ‘authority’) that appears time and time again throughout the Gospels. Then, as conclusive evidence for Jesus’ governance over his powers, he asked me to read the temptation narrative in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. Leonard’s argument followed that if the Gospel authors intended the reader to believe that Jesus was spirit-possessed throughout his temptation in the wilderness, then the dialogue should not be understood as taking place between the devil and the person of Jesus, but between the devil and the possessing power (the Holy Spirit), therefore interpreting the temptation narrative in terms of spirit-possession paints the bizarre picture of the Holy Spirit - a spiritual power deriving ultimately from God - being tested in its faithfulness to God. On the contrary, Leonard believes that Jesus cannot be spirit-possessed in this instance since the Gospel writers present the devil as repeatedly attempting to exploit Jesus’ human nature by tempting him to use his powers for self-gratification (‘command that these stones be made bread’), to frivolously test the strength of his powers (‘cast yourself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning you: and in their hands they shall bear you up’) and to further his own authority and self-importance (‘all these things I will give to you...if you will fall down and worship me’).

By portraying the devil as appealing directly to Jesus’ human weaknesses, the authors of Matthew and Luke affirm that Jesus himself directly determines how his powers are employed and he can use his powers for beneficial purposes or for evil/selfish gain if he so chooses. Therefore, Leonard argued, the implication that Jesus had absolute autonomy in the application of his powers invalidates the possibility that he was subject to passive divine-possession and indicates, to the contrary, that he exerted a degree of authority and control over his spiritual powers that was comparable to the proficiency in magical spirit manipulation that was demonstrated by the magicians of the ancient world. 

There is no doubt that I will recall further details from this conversation over the next few weeks, but I have covered the main points here. One thing was for certain that afternoon - it is unlikely that Leonard will be joining the local church electoral roll anytime soon...