Spirit Possession As A Cross-Cultural Experience -- By: Craig S. Keener

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 20:2 (NA 2010)
Article: Spirit Possession As A Cross-Cultural Experience
Author: Craig S. Keener


Spirit Possession As A Cross-Cultural Experience

Craig S. Keener

Palmer Theological Seminary Of Eastern University

Various cross-cultural parallels to NT spirit-possession narratives (in terms of both behavior and interpretation) suggest that scholars should respect the NT descriptions as potentially reflecting eyewitness accounts or sources. Anthropologists have documented spirit possession or analogous experiences in a majority of cultures, although interpretations of the experiences vary. In some cases, possession trance can produce violent behavior toward oneself (cf. Mark 5:5, 9:22) or others (cf. Acts 19:16), and some cultures associate it with publicly recognized, apparently superhuman feats of strength (cf. Mark 5:4) or knowledge (cf. Mark 1:24, Acts 16:16-17).

Key Words: spirits, demon, demons, demonization, possession, exorcism, anthropology, anthropological, historical Jesus, cross-cultural

In this article, I am not primarily interested in the exegesis of specific passages about demonization or the theology of the early Christian works in which they appear. Rather, my focus involves a more fundamental historical question: whether many of the sorts of descriptions we find in early Christian documents reflect genuine eyewitness material. The argument here will not relieve scholars of the task of examining these texts individually to determine their editorial tendenz and other features and discussing to what extent the evidence suggests historical tradition in a particular account.1 What I do wish to challenge here is the frequent assumption

that these descriptions cannot stem from eyewitnesses. The basis for this challenge is the frequency of analogous descriptions today.

In this article, I contend that spirit-possession claims (known to NT scholars from the Gospels and Acts) are a fairly widespread cross-cultural experience. They are often expressed and interpreted in culturally specific ways, but the claims themselves appear widely. That some accounts today bear striking resemblance to reports from Mediterranean antiquity warns against skepticism that the ancient accounts can reflect genuine eyewitness sources or experience.2

Even some NT accounts that some scholars consider overly dramatized, such as the self-destructive behavi...

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