Savi Hensman

Jesus and the tomb-dweller: lifting death’s shadow

By Savi Hensman
April 5, 2015

A story of a spectacular exorcism, written nearly two thousand years ago, might seem of little relevance to today’s world. Yet gospel accounts of Jesus’ encounter with a deeply disturbed and isolated man raise important issues for the church and society, as well as foreshadowing his own death and resurrection.

Purity and holiness

In Mark’s gospel (there are different versions in Matthew and Luke), Jesus and his followers make their way by boat to the area around Gadara (or possibly Gerasa or Gergesa – ancient texts vary). This is not an obvious place to go. The region known as the Decapolis was mixed and many residents were Gentile: it was a place of pagan temples and customs which breached rules in the Hebrew Bible.

To reduce the risk of being culturally and politically overwhelmed by surrounding nations, some laws emphasised keeping different categories apart. These included ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals and different types of seeds and fabrics (Deuteronomy 14.3-20, 22.9, 11). Ploughing with an ox and donkey yoked together was forbidden too (Deuteronomy 22.10).

Ethnic and gender barriers were also maintained. “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord.... You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity,” states Deuteronomy 2 (English Standard Version). For a man to lie with a man as with a woman (Leviticus 20.13), or wear women’s clothes (Deuteronomy 22.5), was prohibited as well.

The boundary between the living and the dead was likewise strictly maintained. Those who touched dead bodies became ritually unclean (Leviticus 21.1-4, Numbers 19.11-13) and it was forbidden to seek out mediums and necromancers (Leviticus 19.31).

Purity codes can sometimes remind people of the spiritual dimensions of life but holiness is at a deeper level. “In the Bible ‘holiness’ is a characteristic of God Who is apart from the universe and beyond its limitations. The song of the serafim is ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory’ (Isaiah 6:3); that is to say, God is apart from everything in the material universe, yet in that universe there are intimations of His holiness – ‘The whole earth is full of His glory’”, wrote Louis Jacobs, a rabbi and academic, in ‘Holiness according to Jewish tradition’.

While few individuals can be deemed holy, he explains, the “holiness ideal is... not for the few saints but for men and women living normal lives in the physical world. How can they be holy? The Jewish reply is by keeping in touch as much as possible with spiritual things” which involves “a certain readiness to give up too much attachment to worldly things.”

Holiness, in Christian terms, might be described as not conforming to the world but rather being open to being transformed so that God’s image is more clearly shown (Romans 12.1-2, Colossians 3.9-14). Some Christians nevertheless apply purity codes from the Hebrew Bible, albeit selectively, outside the original cultural context and without fully considering the implications for people who fail to conform.

In the gospels however, Jesus is portrayed as deeply attentive to those around him, especially the most marginalised, and willing to challenge religiosity if this hurts them. In Mark 2-3 he questions the legalistic enforcement of the sabbath, pointing out that this was made for humans not vice versa, incurring the hatred of sections of the religious and political establishment.

In the story of the Gadarene swine (as it is sometimes known), love takes him far beyond his comfort zone, to reach out to someone who is profoundly distressed and alone. It is not clear whether he is even Jewish and certainly he lives amongst swine-herders (pigs were regarded as unclean) and, more disturbingly, surrounded by corpses.

Violence, denial and remembrance

When Jesus steps out of the boat, “immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.”

Today this would be recognised as mental illness and, hopefully, approached in a more humane way than placing someone in chains – though brutality still occurs. The self-harm suggests a troubling level of sorrow or anger: the man was not simply acting in an odd way but clearly suffering.

While mental health problems do not always have external causes, often they are triggered by painful life-circumstances. For example some people who experience abuse as children or adults, or other types of trauma, adjust well. But others find themselves struggling to cope and may display their inner turmoil in ways that are outwardly disruptive. In the story, there are hints at what might have triggered this man’s condition.

“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead”, states Leviticus 19.28, a prohibition echoed in Deuteronomy 14.1. The cutting, and living amongst the bodies of the dead, may just be a reaction to circumstances but could also indicate an extreme form of mourning, which sets the man apart from the rest of the living.

In addition, when Jesus asks the name of the spirit which possesses the man, he is told, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” This may (or may not) be a reference to the Roman legions who occupied the country, sometimes enforcing their rule by harsh violence. This gospel may have been written around the time of the war between Roman and Jewish forces which ended with the destruction of the temple and mass deportation of Jewish survivors. There appear to have been atrocities on both sides and Gadara was reportedly the scene of a massacre by emperor Vespasian’s forces.

So perhaps, the tomb-dweller has experienced or witnessed extreme violence in the course of war. Often today, as in the past, such experiences are met with denial and shame, glossed over through displays of nationalist or militarist sentiment or channelled into hatred and dreams of revenge.

Meanwhile other everyday forms of violence, including domestic and child abuse and rape, are frequently shrouded in secrecy, especially if the perpetrators are seemingly respectable. Occasionally there is an eruption of widespread disgust. But many people project their unease on to ‘outsiders’ and refuse to accept that their friends, or admired public figures, might behave in such ways. They may make light-hearted responses to, or simply refuse to believe, facts which call into question the neat division between the villainous and the virtuous.

And the social and economic system overall keeps sizeable numbers of people (including some in ‘rich’ countries) in perpetual fear that their basic bodily needs, as well as need for human companionship, might not be met. Some influential thinkers seem to believe that permanent insecurity spurs people on to higher achievement, but in reality there is a price to pay in damage to health and wellbeing. When none but the richest can be certain that they or their loved ones will not perish from hunger, thirst, cold or heat, life is lived out in the shadow of death.

In addition, numerous people across the globe die every day of preventable illnesses, due to unhygienic living conditions and inadequate health services. The extremes of prejudice and scapegoating also destroy lives. Those who object too strongly to the prevailing order may risk losing their livelihood, being thrown into disease-ridden jails or even becoming the targets of death-squads.

In the gospel account, Jesus orders the “unclean spirits” out of the man, and is begged for permission for these to enter a nearby herd of swine. He agrees and the pigs rush down a steep bank and are drowned. This may seem hard on the swine, (but they were presumably being bred for slaughter anyway) and on the owners, but commercial considerations cannot outweigh the value of human life.

The horror of the past has perhaps been dramatically re-enacted, the violence and loss brought to the surface. The account states that “people came to see what it was that had happened. And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.” They “began to beg Jesus to depart from their region.” Far from rejoicing at the ill man’s restoration to health, numerous people are upset.

In many societies, now and in the past, denial of painful truths and marginalisation of those who embody them can help things to run more smoothly. It is noteworthy that, in the modern world, many who have been subjected to extreme or prolonged violence spend much of their lives in institutions: children’s homes, psychiatric wards, prisons, camps for displaced persons or immigration detention centres and so forth. Sometimes these provide a refuge where healing can take place but at times it would appear that marginalisation is perpetuated, while the aftermath of hurt and injustice is kept out of sight and out of mind for the rest of society.

Yet is not only those most obviously affected who lose out: ultimately all are spiritually harmed when compassion and truth are not properly valued. And fear not only of physical death but also of loss, if not openly faced, can lead people to be easily swayed towards cruelty or callous indifference to their neighbours and willingness to surrender their own freedom.

Descent to the death, rejoining the living

The gospels describe how Jesus’ commitment to treating all people as precious, and witness to a Divine realm (or commonwealth) of mercy and peace where the last shall be first, lead him into intensified conflict with the powerful. In the end, they frighten away most of his followers and turn a crowd against him. He is condemned as a rebel and blasphemer, beaten, mocked and nailed to a cross.

This is a shameful death, one which transgresses purity codes. Deuteronomy 21.22 states that, “if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” Galatians 3.13 refers to this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Even in modern societies which still practice the death penalty, it usually carries a stigma.

In Mark 5, love for someone suffering intensely leads Jesus across the lake, into a place of turbulence and sorrow, where he brings healing. As the gospels reach their climax, because of Christ’s love for humankind – so often trapped in cycles of hurt and denial, fear of death and death-dealing – it is he who is bleeding, alone, ending up amidst the dead. His body is placed in a tomb.

Yet, according to the New Testament, this is not the end. For early on Sunday morning, when those who love Jesus bring spices to anoint his body, they find that the stone at the entrance has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. Mark 16 describes how a young man dressed in white tells the women, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.”

They are sent to share the good news but at first they, like the people in the Decapolis, are afraid. However in time they discover the hope and freedom which comes from being witnesses to a new way of life, no longer lived in death’s shadow but rather founded on love and truth.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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