24 January 2013

A Demon Haunted Time

The Context Of The Book Of Tobit

The Book of Tobit, one of the apocryphal Old Testament books, is set around 735 BCE (during the lifetime of the Greek poet Homer), not quite six centuries before it was probably written.  It was probably written in Hebrew or Aramaic (the Dead Sea scrolls include copies of parts of it in both languages).  Tobit made it into circulation just in time for it to be included in the final phases of the process of transcribing the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek in Alexandria.  This translation took more than a century and concluded around 135 BCE, at a time before the Jewish people had developed the modern Hebrew Bible canon that would ultimately determine that Tobit was not a part of this canon. 

Tobit isn't a long tale.  It runs just over eleven pages in the Revised English Bible (which is the consensus translation of the Bible into modern English in the United Kingdom, that was completed in 1989 with input for all of its major Western Christian denominations: the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and many Protestant denominations).


Tobias is the son of the righteous but down on his luck Jewish international merchant Tobit after whom the book is named who has continued to follow Jewish law and make generous charitable gifts when his fellow Jews in exile have ignored their religious obligations and gone native in during their exile from their Gallilean homeland (a place now located in Israel).

Tobias travels from his home in exile (Niveah, Iraq) to Tehran (now part of Iran) and back, accompanied by the disguised angel Raphael who has been ordered by God to assist Tobit and his daughter-in-law to be Sarah through Tobit's son.

The purpose of the journey that Tobias takes is to recover a small fortune held for Tobit by one of his father's cousins in an informal banking arrangement there that was stranded in Iran when trade relations between the countries broke down.  With Raphael's guidance, Tobias uses fish guts to heal his father's blindness.  Tobias also uses guts from the same fish seized with his hands on the bank of the Tigris River to exorcise on the night of his wedding to his cousin Sarah from Tehran, a demon who killed her previous seven cousin-husbands on the night of their weddings to her, before any of these seven men had an opportunity to consummate their marriages. 

For good measure, the story includes a beginning and an ending monologue from Tobit, extolling his son to generously give to the poor, adhere to the law of the Torah, and not to marry anyone who wasn't Jewish and wasn't one of his cousins.  It concludes with a song of prophecy that embeds an apocalyptic prophecy predicting the destruction of the Temple and then the restoration of a Temple in the end times following a return of Jews from their Diaspora.

Familiar Themes

In worldview and style, the Book of Tobit has great similarities to the portions of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke attributable to the presumed prior sayings Gospel called the Q source, to early catechetical work used by the Jerusalem headquarters of the Jewish Jesus movement around the same time that the Gospels were being written called the Didache, and to the canonical New Testament Letter of James.

In Tobit and the New Testament alike, faith healing and exorcism go hand in hand with each other are a practiced not only by Tobit under the direction of Raphael, but also by Jesus, Saint Paul, and the other Apostles.

The focus on faith healing and exorcism seems far less pronounced in earlier Hebrew Biblical writings. It remains a part of "the tradition", after the New Testament canon is closed, in the stories of the lives of Saints in the early Roman Catholic church.  But, these accounts gradually grow more sparse after Christianity transitions from its status as a persecuted counter cultural movement to become the established religion of the Roman Empire. Soon careful philosophers and bureaucrats had mostly replaced crazed and wild mendicants and martyrs in the organized Christian church.

What Did This Mean To Its Intended Audience?

I am not a believer.  But, even atheists do not deny that Judaism and Christianity are absolutely real phenomena. 

It also seems plausible that even though demons don't actually exist, that in the last couple of centuries BCE and the first couple of centuries CE, there was widespread popular belief in the theory that all manner of afflictions were attributable either to demon possession or to some other cure that a faith healer could resolve in a moment. 

Or did they?

Why at this moment in time in the Eastern Mediterranean, did people come to think that they lived in such a demon haunted world?  What changed that caused this belief system to fade?  Was this really a change in belief system or just a change in literary style?  What motivated someone to invent this story which reads more like a parable than a history or memoir?

Was Demon Possession An Imperfect Germ Theory of Disease?

One way to understand a demon possession theory of disease is as a natural set of inferences to make from the germ theory of disease infused with our natural psychological tendency to infuse coincidence or correlation with the coherence of a presumed agent acting with intention and moral purpose. 

A colony of harmful viruses or bacteria or parasites or fungi in your body can certainly feel like a demon intentionally possessing you, but are invisble to people who are not infected except via the symptoms of the disease.  People who have these kinds of infections, which would have been much more common two thousand years ago, give or take a couple of centuries, can certainly act in strange ways in the throes of fever and internal pains.  And, people who didn't adhere to Talmudic law regarding ritual purity and food preparation may also have been more likely to receive these infestations, reinforcing the perception that disease and immorality went hand in hand. 

Exorcists and faith healers with good timing and immunity derived from having suffered from the latest outbreak personally, could ritually schedule their rituals shortly before these infectious diseases were due to have run their course in their latest victims, so as to create a steady stream of what seemed to be cause and effect anecdotes to support their abilities.  Failures could be attributed to particularly menacing demons that were too powerful for the exorcist to defeat.

Were These Miracle Stories Universally Understood As Fictional Parables?

Perhaps, however, the people of the time believed no such thing.  It could be that this was a literary convention and that stories full of people who could heal with a touch and exorcise demons were understood to be fictional stories in the nature of parables.  In the same way, people in the early 21st century generally do not believe in vampires and werewolves and superheros, even though our popular literature is so full of them and those accounts often contain no express statement that they are fictional.  Perhaps all reasonable people at the time understood these elements as parables and symbols of the virtue of the people who had these powers as a matter of literacy convention and from context.

Did Miracle Stories Have Different Meanings For Adults And Children?

Or perhaps, the legends, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, were meant to be understood in different ways by different audiences at the same time.  They may have been intended to be understood as real by children, and as parables by adults, a scenario in which a disclosure that a story was fictional within the text itself would be inappropriate.  Indeed, publicly acknowledging that tales like these could be fictional even today is considered a major breech of etiquette.  Perhaps modern day Biblical literalists are acting like iron age children who never grow up, unlike their fellow iron age child believers.

The Non-Naturalist Explanation

Suppose that you are not a metaphysical naturalist (i.e. you are not a skeptic).  Then, perhaps that was something about that particular historic era that allowed demons to overrun the region, and God or some other cosmic force sought to restore the balance with exorcists that culminated in the century or so around the time of Jesus and Saint Paul (several similar exorcist-faith healing Messiahs expired around 4 BCE).  As the exorcists were successful, demons went the way of the Mammoth and with them exorcist lines grew dilute, assisted by the fading practice of cousin marriage, a celibate priesthood, and the absence of a societal need to maintain large corps of natural born or specially trained exorcists.

In this account, demon possession only seems implausible now because demons, and the miracles needed to counter them, are now so rare in the "civilized world" even though they were once far more common.

Are These Questions Unanswerable?

From a remove of two millenia, with precious little contemporary commentary until the third century CE or so, it is hard to know what people actually believed and what these stories meant to them.

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