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i. Difficulty of classifying NT cases.

1. From the medical side.

2. From the Biblical side.

ii. Leading cases reported in Gospels.

1. Capernaum lunatic.

2. Case at foot of Mt. of Transfiguration.

3. Gerasene victim.

4. Other cases.

iii. Question as to possession by evil spirits. Prevalent mis-conceptions. Truer conception.

iv. Our Lord’s method of restoration. Kinship with modern medical treatment.


The word ‘lunatic’ in the Authorized Version of NT is the translation of σεληνιάζεσθαι (from σελήνη, ‘the moon’) which occurs in Matthew 4:24; Matthew 17:15, and nowhere else in the NT or in classical or Biblical Greek. Literally its meaning is ‘to be moonstruck.’ The Vulgate translates it lunaticus, and in Matthew 17:15 lunaticus est, where Tindale gives ‘is frantick,’ and other versions practically follow the Vulgate. Sir John Cheke (1550) has the expression ‘is moond’ as the equivalent of ‘lunatic,’ putting into plain English the ancient thought expressed by the word. The influence of the moon on persons was believed to be injurious, and to be able to cause them to become moonstruck (Psalms 121:6), an idea which has been widely prevalent and still persists. The fact that certain forms of insanity are periodical, no doubt gave rise in part to the idea. Dr. Menzies Alexander says: ‘The popular idea that there is some connexion between the moon and epilepsy is partly due to the confusion of epilepsy with epileptic insanity. The bright moonlight of the Orient has a curious stimulating effect on such creatures as crows and dogs, making them restless and noisy. It has an exciting effect also on those afflicted with epileptic insanity. In both cases darkness acts as a sedative.’

The Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 of the two passages in Mt. above cited prefers ‘epileptic’ and ‘is epileptic’ as translation for σεληνιάζεσθαι, but without substantial warrant. The ground for the preference according to Eneye. Bibl. is that a Greek medical writer of the 7th cent. gives ἐπιληττιχός as the correct scientific term for the disorder referred to, and that δαιμόνιζὁμενος and σεληνιαζόμενος were the popular terms for the same disease.

But the word ‘lunatic’ covers more than the cases in which Mt. uses σεληνιάζεσθαι. The mentally deranged also are described by the Evangelists as δαιμονιζόμενοι, and no kind of doubt is possible that the latter term included many sufferers who are now called lunatic, as well as simple epileptics and epileptic idiots. The uncontrollable explosions of nervous energy which characterize these cases were not unnaturally attributed solely to demonic agency. The explanation is so simple and direct and apparently so adequate, that none other was sought for. But the term ‘lunatic’ must be restricted in its use to those who were mentally deranged, and ought not to be applied to those who were simply epileptic, or suffering from mental feebleness or imbecility.

The attempt to trace a differentiation between mental diseases on the part of the Evangelists cannot be pronounced successful, being based upon far too slender ground in a simple NT passage, Matthew 4:24, where δαιμονιζομενοι and σεληνιαζόμενοι are placed side by side. (1) We have no grounds for expecting such precision in writers like the Evangelists. (2) The same writer uses (Matthew 17:15) the word σεληνιαζεσθαι of a case which is not simple epilepsy (see below). (3) He does not use the word for the Gerasene demoniacs of Matthew 8:28, where we have undoubted cases of lunacy. (4) Luke the physician knows nothing of the distinction so far as his own usage is concerned. (5) It is not to be thought that Mt. alone of the Evangelists traced a distinction between the epileptic and the possessed, or that be would not attribute an attack of simple epilepsy to the domination by evil spirits.

The Evangelists class all the cases together, and use both words to cover the same trouble of mental derangement, while the latter word δαιμονιζόμενοι is also employed with a wider signification. The fact that the description given in the Gospels enables us to classify the instances under the broad types of mental disease is evidence of the faithful unsophisticated narration of what the Evangelists had seen or heard, not of their having any scientific understanding of the phenomena in question.

i. Difficulty of classifying NT cases.—The Gospels record and describe three clear cases which may be included under the general head of lunacy. Others are probably indicated with no kind of description; or only the very vaguest is given. But the task of determining to which particular class of lunacy the cases described are to be assigned is not without difficulty, and perhaps cannot at present be accomplished without some degree of uncertainty. The difficulty is twofold.

1. The current classifications, in vogue amongst alienists, of the various insanities are very numerous, and by common consent far from being final. Certain of these systems, some adopted by lnternational Congresses and others determined by representative associations, and generally in use among the leading mental physicians of Great Britain, are valuable chiefly as giving facilities, the one for international conference, the other for national comparison and correspondence. Clouston in his Clinical Lectures provides a good working classification. Following the example of many illustrious predecessors, he divides mental diseases: (1) according to the mental symptoms manifested, and (2) according to the causes of the disorder and to the relationships of the disease to the great physical periods of life and to the activities other than mental. But the researches of the present day, and especially in respect of the causes of mental derangement, with their suggestions of toxic and bacteriological origin, are profoundly modifying the generalizations which only a few years ago were accepted as satisfactory. Brilliant and enthusiastic investigators in ltaly, France, Germany, America, and in our own country are ‘settling much and unsettling more’ (Clouston), and while this condition of science is full of promise for the ultimate goal of all such research in the alleviation and recovery of the malady and the removal of its causes, the prevalent uncertainty does not lessen the difficulty of classifying the NT cases. The difficulty arises largely from the facts that (a) the symptoms from one class are combined in ever-varying proportions with symptoms of other classes, rendering the task of deciding which is the predominant symptom according to which the malady must be classified well-nigh impossible; and (b) a similar combination is discovered among the causes producing the disorder. Accordingly some have scoffed at the attempt to classify mental diseases with all the divisions and technology of a botanical or zoological system. And perhaps it is more important to mark carefully all the symptoms in each case and study the predisposing and actual causes so far as they can be ascertained.

2. The difficulty from the Biblical side lies in the following facts. (a) The descriptions of the cases mentioned in the Gospels are non-scientific. They do not profess to give a complete methodized account of the ailments with which the power of Jesus dealt. The Evangelists give no sign that they themselves understood what they describe. (b) They deal only with symptoms. Causes of the disorder were not sought for, the prevalent theory of demonic possession being to them adequate to account for the trouble, and this possession the only possible cause. Our Lord Himself speaks and acts as though upon the whole He shared the conceptions of the time. Possibly because in this realm, as in others, He in His incarnate condition shared the limitations of the race, or because He could not take upon Himself the task of correcting and remoulding the deep-lying misconceptions of that generation with respect to these matters, without withdrawing His strength from far more vital concerns on which in the short time at His disposal He must concentrate all His attention. (e) The Evangelists’ descriptions probably do not give all the symptoms which a modern alienist would have noted, but only those which for one reason or another were pressed particularly upon their observation.

ii. Leading cases of lunacy reported in NT.

1. The case in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28, Luke 4:31-37). The symptoms indicated by the Evangelists are—

(1) The predominance of unclean habits and instincts. Mk. speaks of the man as being under the influence of an unclean spirit; Lk. of the spirit of an unclean demon. This might possibly mean no more than that the victims of this malady habitually haunted unclean places, as tombs, and desert regions believed to be the habitation of demous. But the greater probability is that it points to ‘moral alienation,’ which Esquirol (Maladies Mentales) declared was the proper characteristic of mental derangement. ‘The subtle influence of epilepsy, or rather of that condition of the nervous system which gives rise alike to epileptic seizures and certain mental symptoms, is most strikingly manifested in the change which takes place in the moral character’ (Bucknill and Tuke).

(2) Convulsive seizures. This feature is not made prominent in the case before us, but is indicated by the words of Mark 1:26, ‘And the unclean spirit tearing ((Revised Version margin) ‘convulsing,’ σπαράξαν) him and crying with a loud voice.’

(3) Uncontrolled impulse, leading the victim in defiance of all that was fitting and customary to burst into the assembly at the hour of worship.

(4) The patient’s belief in and identification of himself with an alleged evil spirit. He speaks of himself and the evil power as one—‘What have we to do with thee?’ This may be explained as an example of a well-known delusion classed as demonomania, but the question must not be fore-closed (see below). At least, however, an element of delusion may be traced in the feeling of entire and inevitable subjection to the monstrous control.

(5) The acknowledgment of Messiah. This has been claimed as the classical criterion of demonic possession, all cases where it is not found being regarded as not due to this cause even although the Scripture so attributes them (Menzies Alexander). But argument from silence is always perilous, and especially so in dealing with the Gospel narratives. And other cases might yet be genuinely demonic where the confession is apparently or really absent. And, on the other hand, the acknowledgment might reasonably be regarded as the last vestige of rationality in the otherwise deranged nature.

Attempting to classify the above, it may be ranged symptomatically under Clouston’s head—‘States of Defective Inhibition, or Impulsive Insanity,’ the chief characteristic of which is uncontrollable impulse, and which includes general impulsiveness, cpileptiform impulse (indicated by the convulsions), animal, sexual and organic impulse (pointed to by the term ‘unclean’ applied to this and other instances). Clinically considered (according to the causes) it most nearly approaches epileptic insanity. This ‘means insanity with epilepsy, whether the convulsive affection has preceded the insanity and has seemed to be the cause, or whether it has appeared during the course of the mental disease only as a symptom or complication’ (Bucknill and Tuke). The presence of epileptic insanity is not always indicated by epileptic fits but by the character of the mental disturbance, the paroxysmal gust of passion, the blind fury. And therefore Defective Inhibition is difficult to distinguish from Mania. Out of 385 epileptic women observed by Esquirol (Maladies Mentales, vol. i.), only 60 were free from mental derangement, and nearly all were unstable, peculiar, easily enraged.

2. The case at the foot of the Mt. of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:14-20, Mark 9:17-29, Luke 9:37-43).—Two sides are plainly marked in this disorder: (1) The physical. Uncontrollable paroxysms accompanied by foaming at the mouth and gnashing of teeth, succeeded by utter prostration. The affliction had been from infancy, pointing to some congenital disease involving the other physical features—deafness and dumbness. (2) The mental. At least idiocy, but more probably lunacy, a feature of which was the suicidal mania manifested. The indication is that during the time while he was free from convulsions and their effects the patient was not mentally disturbed. The suicidal impulse was apparently spasmodic and periodical, but no very solid ground is given to theorize upon.

The epilepsy is more pronounced than in the previous case, and the suicidal tendency is added. But possibly, if the previous instance had been fully described, it might more nearly approximate to the one under consideration. The classification must be under the same general head—Defective Inhibition or Epileptic Insanity (rather than Epileptic Idiocy—as Alexander).

3. The Gerasene victim (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39).—The physical symptoms, the convulsions, that characterize 1 and 2, are here absent, and the features of mental derangement become all-prominent. The victim is possessed by an ungoverned violence, having the command of a morbid muscular energy. This uncontrollable power was one that increased, for the description implies that in the earlier stages they had been able to control him in some measure by binding, but that the binding had increased the violence of the power so that he could no longer be bound (Mark 5:3-4). ‘The tenses used (δεδέσθαι, διεσπᾶσθαι, συντετρίφθαι) denote the relation of these past acts to the present inability’ (Gould, Internat. Crit. Com. on ‘St. Mark’). The malignant power controlling the life drove him into the tombs and mountains, causing him to utter frenzied cries and leading to impulses of self-mutilation, apparently also to homicidal tendencies (Matthew 8:28). Loss of personality is the dominant feature of the case, evidenced by the absence of the sense of all fitness, causing him to destroy his clothing and rush about in nakedness, and by his positive feeling of being possessed by a legion of devils which tore his life asunder. At times he thoroughly identifies himself with the power that controlled his life (‘we are many’), and is terrified by the fear lest he and they should be driven from their hiding-place. A conspicuous feature also was the homage paid by the evil power, or by the man in spite of the evil power, to the authority of Jesus (Mark 5:7, Luke 8:28).

The case belongs to those described by Clouston as ‘states of mental exaltation or mania,’ which includes the varieties simple, acute, delusional, chronic, ephemeral, homicidal; and the indications all point to acute mania with delusions. The fixed idea of plural possession would lead to the medical classification ‘Demonomania,’ a variety of ‘religious mania.’

4. Other cases.—(1) The daughter of the Syro-phœnician woman, Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30. (2) The dumb demoniac, Matthew 9:32-34, Luke 11:14-15. (3) The blind and dumb demoniac, Matthew 12:22-24. These cases are not described except in most obscure terms. In (2) and (3) the interest of the narrator was fixed upon other elements of the occasion. And they would all be doubtfully classified as cases of lunacy. (4) Mary of Magdala (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2), with whom are classed other women healed of evil spirits and infirmities. Mary Magdalene is said to have been delivered from seven demons. The expression may be due (a) to the Evangelist’s sense of the violence of the derangement to which she had been subject, or (b) to the current idea of manifold possession among the disciples, to which Jesus gave no sanction, or (e) to mania and delusion of manifold possession. But nothing can be determined beyond the fact that Jesus had delivered her from grievous bodily or mental distress, or a combination of these.

The Evangelists give full prominence to the physical side of these distressing afflictions, not because they understand the symptoms they describe, but because they testify simply and artlessly to what they had themselves witnessed, or what had become part of the common tradition from the testimony of eye-witnesses. But the physical is not the only side. Even in bodily disorders it is being more fully recognized that there is the mental or psychical factor in the problem as it faces the physician (see art. Cures). And the NT plainly sets forth this psychical element in the cases now before us. They ascribe the trouble directly to an intangible spiritual influence which possesses the being of the sufferer, takes the use of the bodily organs, and controls the will. And thus emerges—

iii. The question as to possession by evil spirits.—How far does the NT in attributing these disorders to demonic possession give a true account of the phenomenon? The question is not to be determined by invoking authority, either that of the NT or of our Lord Jesus Christ. The authority of the Gospels is of a totally different order, and moves in a higher sphere than that of writers who were ‘supernaturally’ lifted above the current conceptions of their generation. We have no warrant for believing the Evangelists to have been granted knowledge of mental disease in advance of the scientific attainments of their own day. Nor can inquiry be silenced by the appeal to the fact that our Lord Himself habitually spoke and acted as if He recognized the presence of evil spirits in mental disease. The Christian apologist takes unnecessarily perilous ground when he declares that for our Lord to have been limited in knowledge invalidates His authority as Prophet and Saviour. In His condition as incarnate our Lord did share the limitations that belong to our human lot, and advanced in knowledge of human affairs and scientific problems by normal human processes.

But it is equally important that the matter should not be dogmatized off the roll of discussion by those who claim to speak in the name of science and declare that the NT explanation is ‘impossible’ on the ground that spiritual agencies do not exist. The question, if left open, must be open on both sides; and there are certain considerations which must be borne in mind while we examine the possibility of spiritual agencies being concerned, as concomitants of the physical disease or nervous instability, in cases of mental derangement, whether in NT times or in the present day.

(1) We must guard ourselves from the conception of these evil spiritual agencies as semi-sensuous beings, possessed of bodily form, appetites and passions. The conception has vitiated human thought from early Semitic times, in the NT age, through the Middle Ages down to the present, when it is even yet strangely persistent. The popular thought of Satan is grotesquely dominated by that idea, and much of the prevalent disbelief in the existence of a spiritual adversary can be traced to that gross misconception.

(2) Kindred to this is the thought of a multiplicity of demons being concerned in the possession of a human life. This idea has been responsible for much false conception in the case of the Gerasene sufferer. And it cannot be too strongly emphasized that nowhere does our Lord give the least sanction to any such notion. He never speaks of more than one evil or unclean spirit (see Alexander, Demonic Possession, ch. vii.).

(3) In place of misconceptions, a right conception needs to be grasped of the malignant powers that can make a prey of an otherwise disordered human life. So far from the idea of semi-sensuous beings representing the truth, it would be far truer to think of possession as akin to the condition seen in intense anger, or extreme fear. ‘Anything is a possession that dispossesses the man of himself, from whatever world it comes’ (Bushnell). We are yet far from being able to define the nature of mind or spirit. We believe in mind on the ground of its manifest action in the directing of our human activities, because of the things it creates and destroys. But what mind is, passes our power to conceive and define. And the same is true of spirit. But we can make no progress in understanding the Universe and our human life within it, except on the assumption of a Supreme and Holy Intelligence and Will behind all physical and mental phenomena. We believe in a living Personal God, and the faith illumines all life and being. Moreover, we are ourselves personalities constantly acting upon, and being acted upon by, other personalities. A moral world is inconceivable on any other terms. And is it unreasonable if we decline to admit the impossibility of other superhuman personalities, some of them centres of benignant and others of malignant moral energy, being present and active in and upon our life here? Who can reasonably deny that such evil agencies may conceivably take advantage of an unstable nervous system or a disordered physical constitution, and possess and control the whole being?

(4) It must also be made clear that the physical disease may be the effect of a potent psychical disorder. The whole mischief may come from the side of the mental or psychical. A long-continued yielding of the mind or spirit to evil agencies may result in physical deterioration, just as truly as physical deterioration may give the opportunity for an evil spiritual possession. ‘Prolonged mental enfeeblement is followed by brain atrophy, and prolonged mental disturbances by structural brain changes’ (Clouston). A consideration of our Lord’s method in dealing with this disaster in humanity will increase our unwillingness to bar out the ‘demonic’ element in lunacy. See also artt. Accommodation, vol. i. 20 f., and Demon, ib. 441 ff.

iv. Our Lord’s restoration of the ‘lunatic.’—The Synoptic Gospels all ascribe to Jesus a unique command over these afflicted persons and over the alien power that possessed them. He was able to restore the lost self-control and also to deal with the disease which was commonly the physical basis of the mental derangement. The latter portion of the process is akin to our Lord’s healing of bodily diseases (see Cures); but the action of Jesus is upon the body through the mind, and upon the mental or psychical directly. Mental physicians who treat lunacy from the physical side yet fully recognize the existence of the psychical, and the possibility and actuality of alleviation being brought by action upon that side of the ailment. ‘The action of “mind on mind” in healthy brains is direct, intense, and most subtle. The same is the case when the brain is disordered, and hence in psychiatry mental therapeutics are a most important means of treatment’ (Clouston). Such facts are truly illuminative of the action of Jesus, and we may not unreasonably attribute His restoring power to a master-influence which, while it transcends all that is known of the human, yet is not on a totally different plane. In Jesus the power of mind was at its fullest and finest by reason of: (1) His intense and penetrating sympathy with mankind; (2) His vigorous will to bring help and deliverance to all human sufferers; (3) His continual and perfect alliance and moral union with the Divine Power in which He lived and moved and had His being. The Divine Will can and does manifest itself in every human unselfishness and sympathy and generous helpful impulse, and through a human personality healing forces of God Himself are at work amidst all human distress and oppression. And in our Lord that Divine healing might find full scope and unhindered freedom of activity, so that the Name of Jesus was a healing, restoring, life-giving Name, even empowering feeble disciples to cast out devils (see art. Miracles, c.).

The method of Jesus clearly suggests the exercise of a Holy Divinelyinformed Will and Personality upon other wills and personalities. The features which most impressed those who witnessed His action were the rebuke, the command, the authority which claimed and obtained unhesitating homage and obedience (Mark 1:21-27, Luke 9:37-43), inevitably reminding them of ‘the majesty of God.’ Especially does His dealing with the Gerasene lunatic indicate His secret. He goes direct to the lost self-control, seeks to recover the submerged personality, and to remove that self-identification with the evil power. He endeavours to awaken the man to the true sense of his own individuality and to set it free from an alien domination. ‘What is thy name?’ He asks. By the efficient co-operation of the man He would break up that terrible sympathy and alliance which caused the victim to say, ‘We are many.’ (The suggestion of Schmiedel that in asking this question Jesus was, like a modern alienist, seeking to discover the delusions of the patient, amounts to an anachronism). And the unique Personality of Jesus had the power to evoke, and give once again its commanding controlling place to, this essential energy of the man.

Modern treatment of the insane bears a most suggestive likeness to the method of Jesus. By cheerful surroundings, by healthful labour, by the encouragement of all existing faculty in the patient, by amusement and music and religious exercises, and not least by human sympathy, the endeavour is made to conserve every vestige of self-possession, to keep alive and to develop all available capacity. The constant effort is to penetrate through all physical and psychical disabilities to the real and effective personality. It may fairly be said that medical skill and investigation into causes and remedies of this distressing malady are yet in their preliminary stages, and the progress of the years may be followed with the utmost hopefulness because in all such investigation the Divine Spirit energizes.

Literature.—Griesinger, Mental Pathology and Therapeutics (translation ), 1867; D. Hack Tuke, Dictionary of Psychological Medicine, 2 vols. 1892; Bucknill-Tuke, Manual of Psychological Medicine, 1874; Maudsley, Physiology and Pathology of Mind, 2 vols. 1879; Clouston, Clinical Lectures on Mental Disease6 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1904; Macpherson, Mental Affections, 1899; Traite de Pathologie Mentale, by various writers, ed. Ballet, Paris, 1903; Kraepelin, Clinical Psychiatry (translation ), 1904. On Biblical aspects of the question, consult artt. on ‘Medicine,’ ‘Satan,’ ‘Demonology,’ ‘Exorcism,’ etc., in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ; also kindred artt. in Encyc. Bibl.; R. Bennett, Diseases of the Bible, 1887; Menzies Alexander, Demonic Possession, 1902 [brings together most valuable data for the discussion of the whole question]. See also Literature at end of artt. Miracles and Cures, and chapter on ‘Demoniacs’ in The Finger of God, by the present writer.

T. H. Wright.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Lunatic'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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