It’s a topic that lots of people have informed, and uninformed, opinions on: demons in the Bible. Read this excerpt from the Archaeological Study Bible to gain real insight on the topic.

Demons and the Bible

Many readers assume that the belief in demons attested in the New Testament is simply a function of its authors’ sharing in the superstitious beliefs and practices of all ancient peoples. The question of the reality of demons, of course, cannot be settled by archaeology. Researchers can demonstrate, however, that the notion that the New Testament writers simply shared the prescientific views of their contemporaries is simplistic and misleading.

Demons in the Ancient Near East

Ancient Near Eastern society was awash in texts containing magical incantations and amulets intended to protect people from evil spirits (spells for defense against demons are called “apotropaic spells”). For example, one of the feared demons of Neo-Assyrian times was the lion-headed female figure Lamashtu, who was thought especially to attack pregnant women and babies. For protection women wore a necklace with a pendant of the god Pazuzu. An enormous number of apotropaic spells have survived from Babylonia, employing magical words and rituals involving plants, animal parts and other sacred objects. Even today in the eastern Mediterranean it is not uncommon to see amulets intended to ward off the “evil eye.”

Demons in Nonbiblical Jewish Literature

Ancient Jewish literature was also fascinated with magic as a means of dealing with demons. The Apocryphal book of Tobit tells the story of one “Sarah, daughter of Raguel,” who had been married — and widowed on her wedding night through the intervention of the demon Asmodeus — seven times. Meanwhile Tobias, the son of the blind Tobit, journeyed to Media, where Sarah lived, traveling in the company of a man who turned out to be the angel Raphael.

TOBIAS

While Tobias was sitting by the Tigris River a fish tried to eat his foot. Raphael instructed Tobias to seize the fish and extract its gall, heart and liver. If he would burn the heart and liver in the presence of an individual afflicted by a demon, that person would be delivered. Arriving in Media, Raphael informed Tobias that he was to marry Sarah but that he could thwart the demon, Asmodeus, by burning the fish’s liver and heart when he went in to her. Tobias safely took Sarah as his wife, after which he used the fish gall to cure his father’s blindness.

SOLOMON

The Testimony of Solomon further illustrates the widespread belief in apotropaic magic. This is a pseudepigraphical work (one that falsely claims to have been written by a famous person of the Old Testament) attributed to Solomon. In this work Solomon received a powerful ring from the angel Michael. With it he could imprison or control demons and deliver people from affliction. For example, Solomon forced the demon Lix Tetrax to help build the temple by hurling stones up to the workers.

Demons in the Old Testament

The Old Testament is remarkably reticent about evil spirits, so much so that it seems to have no developed demonology. Even so, three facts stand out:

There are no incantations, rituals or amulets prescribed for giving an individual protection from spirits. Considering how much of the Torah is devoted to ritual and to sacred objects, this is a remarkable omission. God is said to have complete authority over the spirits, which cannot operate in the world without his approval. If a “lying spirit” goes out, it is only with divine consent (1Ki 22:23; cf. Job 1–2). The main concern of the Old Testament writers was that people avoid seeking to avail themselves of magical powers through contact with spirits (e.g., Dt 18:10–12).

Demons in the New Testament

The New Testament demonstrates two realities about evil spirits:

  • Jesus alone (Lk 4:41) has absolute power over them, but this was a matter of divine authority, not magic or sorcery.
  • The New Testament mocks the claims of magicians by describing their inability to deal with real spirits. The failed efforts of Simon the sorcerer (Ac 8:9–24) and the sons of Sceva (Ac 19:14–16) to obtain apostolic authority illustrates the point that the miracles of the New Testament had nothing in common with ancient magic.

Jesus had no use for demonic spirits and did not seek to employ them to do his bidding.

Ancient Voices

And he explained the matter (of Tobias’ desire to marry Sarah)* to Raguel, and Raguel said to Tobias, “Eat and drink, and be merry tonight. For it is fitting that you should marry my child. I must, however, explain to you the true situation. I have given her to seven men, and they died during the night when they went in to her. But for now, be merry.”

But Tobias said, “I will not taste anything here until you settle matters with me.”

And Raguel said, “Receive her from this moment in accordance with your decision. You are her relative, and she is yours. May God, the Merciful, guide and prosper you most wonderfully.”

Then Raguel called for his daughter Sarah, and he took her hand and presented her to Tobias as his wife. And he said, “Now in accordance with the Law of Moses receive her, and go to your father.” And he blessed them. Then he called for Edna his wife; he then took a scroll and wrote out a marriage certificate and sealed it. Then they began their dinner.

Raguel then addressed his wife Edna and said to her, “Dear, prepare the other room, and take her there.” And she did as he said and took her there; and she wept.

Then she wiped away the tears of her daughter and said to her, “Take courage, child! May the Lord of heaven and earth give you joy instead of this grief. Take courage, child!”

When they had finished dining they took Tobias to her. As he went in, Tobias remembered the words of Raphael, and he took some incense embers and placed the fish’s heart and liver on them so that it produced smoke. When the demon smelled the fragrance he fled to remotest Upper Egypt, and the angel Raphael tied him up.

*Words in parentheses added by translator where text has gaps

— Tobias Takes Sarah as His Wife and Thwarts a Demon, According to the Book of Tobit

From Tobit 7:10—8:3 (Rahlfs’ Septuagint), trans. by Duane Garrett

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