Marcan and Pauline Accounts of Alienation:
MARK 5:1-20, ROMANS 7:4-25
I have long pondered what seem to me great similarities between Mark’s narrative of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and Paul’s rhetorical “autobiographical” account in Romans 7 of the process of alienation whereby a human being loses control over his own behavior and becomes subject to the enslaving power of sin. It seems to me that Mark and Paul employ quite different literary forms in order to proclaim the same gospel message: that Jesus comes to vanquish the forces that have seized illegitimate control over human beings and that keep them engaged in self-destructive and mutually-destructive behavior in the service of evil, sin, and death; in sum, Jesus has come to raise human existence out of the tombs into life.
I am using the term “alienation” for the psychic phenomenon of involuntary surrender of control over one’s behavior to a force or personality that an external observer may recognize and describe by saying that the person in question is “not himself/herself” or “is out of his mind” or “is possessed,” while the one subject to this experience may describe his/her condition as loss of control over one’s own behavior or as seizure of one’s self by an alien force. How this phenomenon is best to be understood is debatable: the modern fashion is to speak of “schizophrenia” or just simply of “insanity” as the disintegration of an integral psyche into elements warring with each other or vying for control over the persons behavior; in antiquity observers had no qualms about explaining this phenomenon as “demonic possession”– seizure of control over a person by a force or personality that comes from outside of the person thus described. Surely this is consistent with the Marcan description of the Gerasene demoniac who is possessed by a “Legion” of “impure spirits” (πνεύματα ἀκάθαρτα). It is reasonably clear, moreover, that Mark represents these alien spirits as the host of Satan, the “strong man” into whose household Jesus has entered to plunder his chattels, i.e. those poor human creatures who have been enslaved by Satan. While the modern reader who ponders the story may hesitate to acknowledge the existence of an authentic demonic realm whose prince (ἄρχων) is Satan on grounds that such an explanation is either inconsistent with monotheism or that it somehow involves projection of an inner psychic force within the mentally-disturbed person outward into an objective realm, nevertheless we can hardly fail to recognize in this phenomenon something that is truly demonic in that, although it does indeed operate within a human psyche, yet wreaks havoc and constrains the person to act in ways that are self-destructive and hostile or destructive of others. It is authentically demonic, and whether or not one is inclined to identify it with an objective evil force with its own persona or multiple personae, one will not hesitate to call this evil.
That is precisely how the behavior of the Gerasene demoniac is described by Mark in 5:1-20. But can we demonstrate that Paul’s account in Romans 7:5-25 describes the same or a very similar experience? I want to offer a very brief analysis of the Pauline text as an attempt at such a demonstration. I offer my own idiomatic translation into English, substituting alternative language for Paul’s consistent and repeated use of “flesh” with reference to selfhood subject to control by the powers of Sin and Death, and “spirit” with reference to the judging and willing self which. when alienated, cannot put into action what is deemed good and intended but which, when re-fashioned and assisted by divine initiative, is enabled both to see what is right and to do what one recognizes as right.
Paul’s account has much to say about the (Mosaic) Law and the tenth commandment, “You must not crave what belongs to another,” as factors in bringing about enslavement to Sin and Death; these features have no analog in Mark’s account of the Gerasene demoniac, the origins of whose demonic possession are never disclosed. Where the parallels are readily discernible is in the description of the phenomenology of possession. Finally, it should be noted that although there has been considerable discussion of the question whether Paul’s account is autobiographical or a rhetorical representation as personal experience (prosopopoieia) of the state out of which God in Christ redeems sinful humanity or as a translation into a first-person narrative of the primal experience of Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation and falling from grace into sinfulness and mortality, the question, however interesting, cannot really be answered and is ultimately not relevant for the parallelism between Paul and Mark explored here.
It may be argued that demonic possession and sin or sinfulness are two very different things. While that may be a proposition that a theologian will choose to argue at length, I am only attempting here to show, in the first place, that Mark describes demonic possession in much the same manner as Paul describes sinfulness in fallen humanity. But it seems to me that Mark envisions exorcism of demons, forgiveness of sins, and healing afflictions of the body as different aspects of the same saving function (szein) performed by Jesus and, to a lesser extent, by his disciples. Moreover, while Paul speaks relatively little about healing bodily afflictions and exorcising demons, yet he does describe the plight of the self in the sin-sick soul in a manner very much like that which Mark uses to describe the plight of the demoniac. My impression is that Mark’s and Paul’s understanding of the saving work of Jesus Christ is not very different.
7:5 In our former alienated condition,1 there was a pathological sinfulness acting within us owing to the incitement of the Law,2 bringing our efforts to a dead end.3 6 But now we are no longer subject to the Law: that aspect of us which was repressed has died,4 so that now we serve God in the spirit of the New Creation rather than in old-fashioned obedience to the letter of the Law. 5 7 Does that mean that the Law is sinfulness? Hardly! But the truth is that, were it not because of the Law, I would never have come to know what sinfulness is: I wouldn’t have understood what lust is if the Law weren’t telling me, “You must not lust!” 8 And sinfulness, incited by that commandment set every kind of lust into action in me. When there is no Law, sinfulness is dead.6 9 Time was when for me there was no Law and I was alive, but when the commandment confronted me, sinfulness sprang into life, 10 and I died, realizing, to my chagrin, that the commandment intended to bring life actually brought about death. 11 That is because sinfulness, aroused as a consequence of the commandment, deluded me and thereby brought about my death.7 12 So the Law is sacred, and the commandment is sacred and righteous and good. 13 Does that mean that what is good meant death for me? Hardly! But sinfulness was bringing about my death by exploiting what is good, to show its sinful nature, i.e. to prove to be sinfulness par excellence when taking advantage of the commandment. 14 We know, of course, that the Law is something spiritual, but I-I am alienated, a slave sold into the power of Sinfulness.8 15 The action I perform I do not recognize as my own; what I do is not what I intend to do; rather, what I do is what I despise. 16 But if what I do is not what I intend, that means I assent to the rightness of the Law. 17 As the situation now stands, it’s not I any longer that acts, but rather it’s the sinfulness inside of me.918 I know very well that what is good has no dwelling inside of me-in my alienated self; there’s the capacity in me to intend what is good but not to bring it into effect; 19 it’s not the good which I intend that I do but rather the evil which I do not intend. 20 But if what I do is what I don’t intend, then it isn’t I that am acting but rather the sinfulness that is housed inside of me.10 21 So I come to see this governing principle:11 that when I intend to do what is good, all I can do is evil! 23 To be sure, I delight in God’s law deep within myself, but I observe a different ruling power within me that makes war against my rational will and takes me captive to the ruling power of sinfulness present within me. 24 Poor me! Who will rescue me from this corpse in which I live?12 25 Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ! So: I do serve God’s law in my mind, but in my alienated self I serve the rule of Sinfulness.13
1“our former alienated condition”: literally “when we were in the flesh.” Paul’s perspective, of course, is from the now obtaining redeemed state of his and his listeners’ existence.
2Literally: “The passions of sins through the Law were active in our members (body).” I take this to mean that something beyond our control was taking place within us and that somehow the Law was one factor in that process.
3Literally: “to the end of bearing fruit for death.” I take this to mean that the behavior thus described is ultimately self-destructive and/or destructive of others, at the very least futile.
4Literally: “having died in that where we were coerced.” In other passages Paul speaks of sinners dying with Christ and rising to new life in a new existence that is free from sin.
5Literally: “we serve in newness of spirit and not in oldness of letter.” I take this to mean that in the New Covenant existence one no longer obeys God by observing precepts of the written law but through direct discernment of and obedience to God’s will as mediated by the Holy Spirit.
6I am translating Paul’s noun ἁμαρτία, a feminine singular abstract, as “sinfulness” rather than as “Sin.” Clearly he is not referring to an individual sinful act but to a state or behavioral tendency in the psyche. I am not going to comment on what Paul says about the role of the Law and the commandment in bringing sinfulness into action because it is not directly relevant to the parallelism with Mark that is my chief concern here. But I will note that I have chosen to translate the Greek form of the tenth commandment, οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις, as “You must not lust,” although it is usually conveyed by “Thou shalt not covet,” or perhaps more properly, “You must not desire what belongs to another or others.” Although I realize that I may be rendering an expansive term much too specifically, I have chosen to convey the verb ἐπιθυμεῖν here as “lust” because it seems to me more meaningful in the context to understand the demonic character of this desire and how it could trigger temptation to sin.
7Being alive” and “dying” or “death” here are, of course, not literal in any sense of physical life and death; they are clearly spiritual experiences or experiences of psychic processes and states. I understand “being alive” here to refer to integrated and efficacious selfhood wherein the judgment and will are effectual and result in action according with one’s intentions, while “dying” is the process of losing control over one’s actions even as one may still discern and intend what is right and good, and “death” is the condition of impotence to effect what one discerns as right and good and intends to do.
8Literally: “but I am fleshly, having been sold into subjection to Sin.” At play here is the conventional language of enslavement, slave-marketing and (ultimately) “redemption” or “buying back” of the slave to be a free person again. Here then “a slave sold into the power of Sinfulness” means that the speaker is no longer free to act according to his own intentions but is at the beck and call of a slave-master, Sinfulness, that compels him to perform actions that are self-destructive and destructive of others.
9This description goes the the heart of the experience of alienation as I am using the term: the judging and willing aspect of the psyche is split apart from the acting aspect, so that the actions performed are not recognizable as one’s own deeds but as another’s. Someone else seems to be in control of one’s body and using it quite otherwise than as one intends.
10Here my translation is very close to being literal. Paul uses the Greek word οἰκεῖ, which I have translated “has (no) dwelling” in verse 18 and “is housed” in verse 20. This language seems very close to the image used by Jesus in Mark 3:27 of the house of the strong man who is first bound so that his house can be plundered. It is language consistent with the notion of possession, where an alien force or person seizes control of a body, as Apollo is said to seize control of the body of his prophetess, the Sibyl, at Delphi or elsewhere.
11In the last five verses of the chapter the Greek noun νόμος is used in several different ways: (1) the Law (laid down by Moses) of God; (2) “governing principle” or “controlling factor” (a sort of automatic coercive force clicking into operation whenever one exerts one’s will; (3) “ruling power”; this is the same as νόμος in sense (2) but now it is represented as a personalized force exerting a will counter to one’s own will; this appears to be the same as the next νόμος, “the ruling power of sinfulness present within me”-in verse 23 this is the general of an army laying siege to one’s selfhood and then taking it captive in order to make it a slave to the general’s superior, a ruler to whom one’s selfhood is now subject. Finally in verse 25 νόμος is at first “God’s (Mosaic) Law, but then must be conveyed in English by “rule” where it is both that automatic coercive force controlling one’s behavior and at the same time a personified master whom one is obliged to serve.
12Literally: “the body of this death.” I take this to mean “this self/body in which the real me is trapped and powerless to act according to my own intentions. The sense is much as that indicated earlier in verses 9-10, “Time was when for me there was no Law and I was alive, but when the commandment confronted me, sinfulness sprang into life, 10 and I died, realizing, to my chagrin, that the commandment intended to bring life actually brought about death.” The body in which one resides is not a corpse that is can or should be buried, but it is “meat” (perhaps the real sense of Greek σάρξ, usually translated “flesh”) to be manipulated by another or others rather than controlled by any power resident within it; in another sense the body or selfhood is a “corpse” because there is no real “life”-no growth or nourishment, no capacity to relate to other creatures, no hope whatsoever for any meaningful existence in the future.
13In this summation Paul gives perhaps the clearest expression in the entire passage to the nature of alienation: the psyche is riven into two parts, one an inner core that consents to God’s will and that intends to perform it, the other a body or acting self that carries out acts that are evil, devastating to one’s self and to others.