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In the age of Greenpeace and animal rights the idea that Jesus of Nazareth sentenced two thousand pigs, one of the more intelligent mammals, to death by drowning by allowing demons to invade and terrorize them raises problems for most readers. Didn't Jesus care about animals? In the Old Testament God does (for example, Prov 12:10). And even if Jesus did not care about pigs, shouldn't he have cared about the livelihood of the swineherds and the owners? He certainly did not ask anyone's permission.
The story in Matthew 8:28-34 and Luke 8:26-39 is drawn from Mark 5:1-20. In these accounts Jesus, confronted by a severely demonized man, does not immediately drive the demons out, but instead ends up in a short discussion with them. The demons request that Jesus send them into a large herd of pigs feeding nearby. When he consents, the demons do enter the pigs. The herd stampedes, rushes into the Sea of Galilee and is drowned.
Before we turn to the main issues, we need to deal with two less important ones. First, the name of the place where this story occurs differs among the Gospels and their translations, which points to a very difficult textual situation. In the best Greek text Matthew has Gadarenes, Mark has Gerasenes, and Luke agrees with Mark. Most modern versions translate the terms accordingly, but the King James has Gergasenes in Matthew and Gadarenes in the two other Gospels, for it is following a later, probably corrupt, Greek text. But to what town do these names refer?
One possibility is Gerasa, modern Jerash, about thirty miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Although it was a very prosperous town in the first two centuries A.D. , it is unlikely that its lands reached the lake. The second possibility is Gadara, a site now called Um Qeia, five miles southeast of the sea. Its lands certainly reached the lake, for Josephus mentions the fact and its coins show a ship. The final possibility is that the reference is to a lakeside town. The site of modern Khersa has been suggested, but it probably gave rise to the corrupt reading Gergasenes after Origen's suggestion in the third century. Whatever the actual town (we will never know the names of all of the towns and villages on the east coast of the Sea of Galilee), Mark uses "Gerasene" to refer to its people, and Luke follows him. Matthew (who likely wrote his Gospel in Syria, thereby closer to the site) prefers to refer to the town he knows, in the region he believed the place was located. Later scribes, not knowing any of the places, confused the matter. One thing is certain: all of the places named are in the Decapolis, Gentile territory of the ten independent cities to the east of the Sea of Galilee.
The second preliminary issue is that Matthew mentions two demonized men, while Mark and Luke mention only one. This is a common problem in Matthew. For example, in Matthew 9:27 and Matthew 20:30 he mentions two blind men where the other Gospels mention only one, and in Matthew 21:2, 6 he says that two donkeys were brought to Jesus while the other Gospels mention only one. In each case it is not at all unlikely that two (or more) were present. Blind beggars (and other types as well) would group at city gates, a donkey young enough not to have been used for work would likely be with its mother, and more than one demonized person might find refuge in the same groups of tombs. But even if there is no necessity of seeing a historical problem, we may wonder why Matthew would mention two when one seems to do for the others. While other answers also may suffice, one reason is that Matthew's interest in the miracles is due to his Christology. That is, the miracles show the power of Christ. By mentioning two he heightens that power. The healing of one may have been a coincidence, but not the healing of two. Similarly, if two donkeys are brought to Jesus, the significance of his fulfillment of the Scriptures is underlined.
Concerning the major issues in this passage, it becomes clear that the Gospel writers were interested in quite different issues than those with which modern readers have struggled. We tend to romanticize the role of animals, while in the first century animals were raised for food or for other useful purposes. Everyone was familiar with animal sacrifice, whether for a secular marketplace or in the temple. We also see the economics of the story, while the Gospel writers were far more concerned with God's present provision (Mk 6:7-13) and future treasure in heaven than in preserving economic security now. Furthermore, we see the violence done to animals, while the Gospel writers were concerned with the violent destructive behavior of demons and their effects upon human beings (which they knew from firsthand observation). Therefore, the Gospel writers saw the whole story from another perspective.
In Mark, for example, Jesus comes into the land of the Gerasenes. Mark later notes that this is part of the Decapolis, underlining the fact that it is Gentile country, even if it once belonged to Israel. In other words, Jesus is in an unclean land. The demonized man even uses a title for God ("God Most High") normally used by Gentiles. He lives in the tombs, an unclean place, the place of the dead. He is controlled by "an unclean spirit" [RSV] (Matthew and Luke simply say he is "demonized"). The pigs, of course, are unclean animals (Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8), which Jews were not even to raise for others (so runs the rabbinic rule in Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7:7). So the unclean spirits go into the unclean pigs and drive them to their deaths, while the man who was in the place of the dead (and surely would soon enough die) is delivered and reenters life (returns to his own house). From this perspective the pigs are not the issue--they are unclean--and the townsfolk miss the point when they see only their loss of pigs and fail to see the delivered man. Indeed, the pigs plunging into the sea may suggest that the unclean land had been freed of the unclean spirits with the removal of the unclean animals; but the people do not want salvation, preferring pigs.
Another set of issues is also present in this passage. This is the only exorcism in the Gospels in which the demons answer back to Jesus. In fact, they do so after Jesus commands them to leave the man (a detail not mentioned in Matthew). Their concern is that they not be tormented, that is, sent to hell (Matthew specifically adds "before the time," meaning before the final judgment). Why would they say this? First, Jewish teaching was that demons were free to torment people until the last judgment (see Jubilees 10:5-9 and 1 Enoch 15--16). Second, Jesus' appearance and power to expel them looked to them as if he were beginning the final judgment too early. Therefore, the permission to enter the pigs is an admission that the last judgment is not yet taking place. The demons are still free to do their destructive work. Nevertheless, wherever the King is present he brings the kingdom and frees people from the power of evil.
There is no suggestion in this story that Jesus was not in control or that he was tricked. He had just stilled a destructive (perhaps even demonically inspired) storm (Mt 8:23-27; Mk 4:35-41; Lk 8:22-25). He remains the sovereign "Son of God" in the deliverance of the demonized man. But the account gives the Gospel writers a chance to point out that while the kingdom of God does come in Jesus, it is not yet the time of final judgment when evil will finally and totally be put down. Demons remain and act like demons, tormenting and killing what they inhabit, but they are limited in that Jesus could and still can free people by his power.
We moderns may not like the idea that demons do have this destructive nature, that of their master (see Jn 10:10, where the "thief" is an image for Satan). Jesus, of course, did not tell them to kill the pigs; the demons just did to them what they wished to do to the man in the long run. Nor do we like the idea that God is limited in his options here, choosing in his mercy to delay the final judgment, which would have been brought about had he removed the evil forces totally. But both of these facts underline the most important issue, the value of a person. So precious is human life that, when necessary, a whole herd of animals may be sacrificed for one or two people.
See also comment on MATTHEW 8:28-34.