To hell with the pigs!

Jesus asked the man possessed, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. They begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. Luke 8:30–32

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On the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, these remains of a fifth-century church and monastery at Kursi mark the traditional location of Gergesa where Jesus cast demons out of Legion. In the distance are hillsides where swineherds cared for pigs.

On first hearing, this story is about Jesus liberating a tormented individual by casting out a Legion of demons from him. But when the early church retold this story—as three Gospel writers do—it may have taken on laughable or even revolutionary political overtones.

The incident happens immediately after Jesus calmed a storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. Having demonstrated sovereignty over nature, Jesus now takes command in the spirit realm. The boat makes landfall in Gentile territory—on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, in a region called the Decapolis. Here farmers raised pigs, something forbidden for Jews.

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This map shows why ancient manuscripts variously say that Jesus healed Legion in the country of the Gerasenes, Gadarenes, or Gergesenes. All three refer to the Gentile region of Decapolis, here shaded with green lines. Red arrow shows the six-mile sea journey to Gergesa (today called Kursi) from Jesus’ base at Capernaum.

First-century listeners to this story must have caught their breath when the demon-possessed man said his name was Legion. That was the term for a unit of the Roman army that included five thousand men and an equal number of auxiliary troops! The army of ten thousand that Rome used to subdue Palestine—and eventually destroy Jerusalem—was the Tenth Legion. The symbol of this hated occupying force was . . . a pig!

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A brick stamp from the Roman era reads LEG X F, meaning LEG[ion] X [“ten”] F[retensis], official name of Roman troops that subdued Palestine. At the bottom of the stamp is the pig that symbolized this army.

Did the story of a demoniac named Legion and the sequel with perishing pigs infer that the Roman empire, with its pig-honoring Tenth Legion, also was demon-possessed? Understood this way, the story takes an anti-imperial edge:

  • Jesus cast demons out of a man named Legion just like countless Jews hoped God would expel the Tenth Legion from Palestine.
  • Confronted by Jesus, demons from a man named Legion entered swine and went pell–mell into the “abyss” (or “hell,” 8:31)In the same way, many people of Palestine hoped that Legions of Rome would go to oblivion.
  • Swineherds and local people by the Sea of Galilee tended to their pigs just like Jewish collaborators schmoozed the occupying forces of Rome.
  • The swineherds were afraid after demons left the possessed man, and they wanted Jesus to leave (8:35, 37). Similarly, Jews who collaborated with Rome were afraid of what would happened if the Roman army left Palestine. Such collaborators were behind the plot to kill Jesus.

It looked like Rome was invincible, and the Tenth Legion stayed in Palestine until the fourth century AD. Whatever political discontent the story of demon-possessed pigs might have stirred among ancient listeners, however, the narrative does not end with hatred. Jesus tells the man who was delivered from a Legion of demons simply to return home and declare how much God has done for you (8:39).

Sometimes non-violent political theater, parody, or satire are good ways to call for change and vent anger against oppressors.

© 2015 J. Nelson Kraybill ***************************************IMG_0425

Join me for a Peace-Pilgrim bible study tour to Jordan, Israel and Palestine this fall! See: Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015. Watch for information on another Jordan, Israel, Palestine tour in the fall of 2016.

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See my book on Christians and Jews in the Roman empire at http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Allegiance-Politics-Devotion-Revelation/dp/1587432617/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1425912158&sr=8-1&keywords=apocalypse+and+allegiance

The map on this blog was produced by license agreement with biblemapper.com

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