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EXORCISM (Gr. exorkizō, to adjure). The expelling of demons by means of magic charms, spells, and incantations. It was a common practice among ancient heathen. In Acts.19.13-Acts.19.16 the profane use of Jesus’ name as a mere spell was punished when the demon-possessed man turned on the would-be exorcists; these “vagabond Jews” were pretenders. Christ, however, implies that some Jews actually cast out demons (Matt.12.27)—some probably by demonical help, others (in the name of Jesus) without saving faith in him (Matt.7.22). He gave power to cast out demons to the twelve, the seventy, and to the other disciples after the Ascension (Matt.10.8; Mark.16.17; Luke.10.17-Luke.10.19; Acts.16.18). The Bible never mentions Christians “exorcising.”

The practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer, divination, or magic. There is one example of this in the Apocrypha (Tobit's expulsion of a demon), but in the NT the casting out of evil spirits by Christ and His apostles is common (cf. Mark 1:25; Acts 16:18). Since that time exorcism has been practiced by the church until the present day. In the early church it became common to exorcise catechumens from pagan and Jewish backgrounds before baptism. This practice was mentioned at the Council of Carthage in 255.

In the Middle Ages exorcism formed part of infant baptism; the service included the exsufflatio-the thrice-repeated breathing on the face of the infant with the accompanying words, “Depart from him, thou unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit.” This was condensed in the Rituals Romanum of 1614. Early Lutheran baptismal services, however, as well as the First Prayer Book of Edward VI (1549), contained a brief exorcism. The title of “exorcist” described in the early church a minor order* of the ministry, whose office included laying hands on the insane, exorcising catechumens, and helping at Holy Communion. Today in the Roman Catholic Church the order is retained as a stepping-stone to the priesthood, but it has no real significance. The Eastern Church has no order of exorcists. Within the Pentecostalist movement the casting out of devils is often practiced by charismatics, and the Church of England has several licensed exorcists.

See D. Omand, Experiences of a Present Day Exorcist (1970).

EXORCISM, EXORCIST ek’ sôr siz’ əm, ek’ sôrsist (ἐξορκισμός, the administration of an oath, ἐξορκιστης, an exorcist). The act, and the performer of that act, of expelling an evil spirit, thereby releasing the person possessed by that spirit.

The latter word occurs once in the NT (Acts 19:13). A cognate, ἐξορκίζω, G2019, “to adjure,” “to exorcise,” is found in the LXX (Gen 24:3; Judg 17:2; Matt 26:63; Acts 19:13).

The concept of possession by a god or evil spirit is ancient. The Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks have left ample evidence. Various physical illnesses and states of frenzy were attributed to possession. Formulas of exorcism of definable types are found in ancient incantation texts. Exorcists employed such formulae, sometimes saying a specific magical word thought to have extraordinary power, and occasionally using magical objects. The demon was addressed by name if possible, as it was characteristic of ancient thought that to know the name of such a being was to control him. The exorcist might also invoke the name of a favorable deity. This was in contrast to the practice of Jesus who performed exorcisms with a touch or word of command, without invoking the name of another. It should be noted that there are many instances, particularly in Gr. lit., where possession by a demon was not considered bad. Plato attributed Socrates’ impulses to a “daimon.”

The apocryphal Acts, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and Jerome provide evidence of the continuing involvement of early Christians in this activity. The apologists cited cases of exorcism to prove the power of Christ and the compassion of His followers. During the course of church history, matters of possession, witchcraft, etc., had great importance. Near the end of the 15th cent., James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer compiled their code of the practices of the church against such evils, the Malleus Maleficarum. The next cent. saw the Flagellum Demonum, and in the 17th cent. there appeared the Thesaurus Exorcismorum and the Rituale Romanum. The latter, based on some of the preceding material, has been revised and published through the present time by the Roman Catholic Church. In the rites of that church, exorcism has become a preventative measure (for example, warding off demons from a baptism), as well as a curative one.

In conclusion, it should be stressed that the expulsions performed by Jesus are not called exorcisms in the NT, and that in contrast to typical exorcisms in pagan and even Jewish lit. they were devoid of magical formulae, devices, and invocations. Our Lord’s authoritative commands were an expression of His victory.


J. L. Nevius, Demon Possession (1894); M. Summers, The History of Witchcraft (1926, 1956); H. C. Lea, Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, I (1939); C. William, Witchcraft (1941); E. Langton, Essentials of Demonology (1949); M. F. Unger, Biblical Demonology (1952); R. H. Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1959); J. Lhermitte, Diabolical Possession, True and False (1963); T. K. Oesterreich, Possession Demoniacal and Other (1966); K. Koch, Occult Bondage and Deliverance (1970).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

ek’-sor-siz’-m, ek’-sor-sist (Exorkistes, from exorkizo, "to adjure" (Mt 26:63)):

1. Definition:

One who expels demons by the use of magical formulas. In the strict etymological sense there is no exorcism in the Bible. The term "exorcists" is used once (Ac 19:13) in a way to discredit the professional exorcists familiarly known both among Jews and Gentiles.

2. Method of Expelling Demons in the New Testament:

The method of Jesus in dealing with demoniacs was not that of the exorcists. While it is said (Mt 8:16) that He "cast out the spirits with a word," it is abundantly clear that the word in question was not ritualistic but authoritative. In Lu 4:35 we have a typical sentence uttered by our Lord in the performance of His cures: "Hold thy peace, and come out of him." In Mr 9:29 we have Christ’s own emphasis upon the ethical element in dealing with these mysterious maladies: "This kind can come out by nothing, save by prayer." In Mt 12:28 Jesus gives His own explanation of the method and power used in His cures: "But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the kingdom of God come upon you."

In Lu 9:1 the terms "authority" and "power" are used in such a way as to show the belief of the evangelists that to cure demon-possession an actual power from God, together with the right to use it, was necessary. This group of passages gives the New Testament philosophy of this dread mystery and its cure. The demons are personal evil powers afflicting human life in their opposition to God. It is beyond man unaided to obtain deliverance from them. It is the function of Christ as the redeemer of mankind to deliver men from this as well as other ills due to sin. Miraculous cures of the same kind as those performed by Christ Himself were accomplished by His disciples in His name (Mr 16:17). The power attributed to "His name" supplies us with the opportunity for a most enlightening comparison and contrast.

3. Exorcism in Ethnic and Jewish Writings:

Exorcism among ancient and primitive peoples rests largely upon faith in the power of magical formulas, ordinarily compounded of the names of deities and pronounced in connection with exorcistic rites, upon the bodies of the afflicted. The words themselves are supposed to have power over the demons, and the mere recital of the correct list of names is supposed to be efficacious.

Attention should be called again to the incantation texts of the Babylonians and Assyrians (see, for translations and full exposition of texts, Rogers, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, 146 ff). In this direction the absurdities and cruelties of superstition have carried men to extreme lengths. In the case of Josephus we are amazed to see how even in the case of an educated man the most abject superstition controls his views of such subjects. In Ant, VIII, v, in speaking of the wisdom of Solomon, he says that "God enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanitative to him." He also describes, in the same connection, a cure which he alleges to have seen, "in the presence of Vespasian and his sons," performed in accordance with methods of incantation ascribed to Solomon. A ring to which was attached a kind of root mentioned by Solomon was placed at the nostrils of the demoniac and the demon was drawn out through the nostrils. The proof that exorcism had actually taken place was given in the overturning of a basin placed nearby.

The absurdities of this narrative are more than equaled by the story of exorcism told in the Book of Tobit (see Lunge, Apocrypha, 151-53) where the liver and heart of a fish, miraculously caught, are burned upon the ashes of incense, and the resulting smoke drives away a demon. This whole story is well worthy of careful reading for the light it throws upon the unrestrained working of the imagination upon such matters.

In the rabbinical writers the very limit of diseased morbidness is reached in the long and repulsive details, which they give of methods used in exorcism (see Whitehouse, HDB, article "Demon," I, 592b; compare 593b; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, II, 775-76).

4. Contrasts of New Testament and Popular Methods with Demons:

In most striking contrast with this stand the Biblical narratives. The very point of connection which we have noted is also the point of contrast. The mighty and efficacious word with which Jesus rebuked and controlled demons was no exorcistic formula spoken by rote, but His own living word of holy power. "In the name of Jesus" did not mean that the sacred name formally uttered possessed magical power to effectuate a cure. The ancient Semitic formula, "in the name of," given a deep ethical meaning in the Old Testament, had a still deeper meaning in the New Testament. The proper and helpful use of it meant a reliance upon the presence and living power of Christ from whom alone power to do any mighty work comes (Joh 15:5).

This fundamental difference between the ideas and methods of Jesus and His disciples and current conceptions and usages becomes the more striking when we remember that the lower range of ideas and practices actually prevailed among the people with whom the Lord and His followers were associated. The famous passage (Mt 12:24 and parallel) in which the Pharisees attribute to demoniacal influence the cures wrought by Jesus upon the demonized, usually studied with reference to our Lord’s word about the unforgivable sin, is also remarkable for the idea concerning demons which it expresses. The idea which evidently underlies the accusation against Jesus was that the natural way to obtain control over demons is by obtaining, through magic, power over the ruler of demons. In reply to this Jesus maintains that since the demons are evil they can be controlled only by opposition to them in the power of God.

It is most suggestive that we have in Ac 19:13 ff a clear exposition, in connection with exorcism, of just the point here insisted upon. According to this narrative a group of wandering professional Jewish exorcists, witnessing the cures accomplished by Paul, attempted to do the same by the ritualistic use of the name of Jesus. They failed ignominiously because, according to the narrative, they lacked faith in the living Christ by whose power such miracles of healing were wrought, although they were letter-perfect in the use of the formula. This narrative shows clearly what the New Testament understanding of the expression "in my name" implied in the way of faith and obedience.

Here as elsewhere, the chastened mental restraint under which the New Testament was composed, the high spiritual and ethical results of the intimacy of the disciples with Jesus, are clearly manifest.

Our Lord and His disciples dealt with the demoniacs as they dealt with all other sufferers from the malign, enslaving and wasting power of sin, with the tenderness of an illimitable sympathy, and the firmness and effectiveness of those to whom were granted in abundant measure the presence and power of God.