Exorcism, Exorcist

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.

Bibliography 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).