Why Did The Spirit Exorcise Jesus? Studies in Mark, Pt. 48

After coming up out of the Jordan River at His baptism, Mark says that the Holy Spirit “drove” Jesus out into the wilderness. The Greek word for “drove out” here (1.12) is εκβαλλει. This word is interesting because it is used a number of times in Mark’s Gospel. In fact, it is used a few verses later in 1.34. In 1.34 the text reads: “…Jesus healed many who had diseases and ‘drove out’ many demons…” 6.13 says, “They ‘drove out’ many demons…”

The thing that fascinates me is that the same word that is used of exorcisms in Mark’s Gospel, is the same word that is used of Jesus’ trip into the wilderness. In other words, Mark’s Gospel makes it appear as though the Holy Spirit is exorcising Jesus. Too many English translations gloss over this and soften it. For example, the NIV and TNIV both say that the Spirit “sent” Jesus out into the wilderness and the NASB says that the Spirit “impelled” Jesus. The KJV, NRSV and ASV all use the language “drove out”, which is the closest to a literal reading.

One thing that fascinates me is that Mark could have used another word here but he didn’t. For example, he could have used the term “απαγετε” which means “lead”, that he employed in 14.44. Or he could have used the word “αποστελλω” which he uses over and over and has the meaning of “send”. But he doesn’t. No, he uses the same word to describe exorcising evil spirits as he does the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness. So, the question I have is twofold: 1) Why does Mark do this (evidently it isn’t accidental)? and 2) What does it mean that the Spirit “drove Jesus out” as one would “drive out” demons in an exorcism?


  1. It's noteworthy that those modern translations are essentially just following the examples of Matthew and Luke who (assuming Markan priority) were the first to gloss Mark's awkward choice of verb. It is curious that Mark would choose such a strange term, but I have no idea why.

    P.S. the verse you cite in the first paragraph is actually Mark 1:34, not 1:33.

  2. Ken,

    You're right that this is an awkward choice of verb. You're also right about my slip regarding 1.33, 34--I fixed that, thanks.

    I, however, do not assume Markan priority. I think Mk. was the third to be written (this would make the phrase more odd, actually). Still, I see your point, even though I'm not sure that the translations are following the so-called editorial gloss.

    The two questions remain either way. I have some ideas as to why I think Mk does it; I'll expound at some point in a future post.

  3. You see Mark as 3rd? That would certainly make the choice of verb stranger! This verse is commonly cited in favor of Markan priority, so I would be curious to hear why you think he would intentionally change it like this.

    God bless!

  4. Mark’s use of ekballen in 1.12 is all the more confusing when read in light of what happens later in 3.22, where the religious leaders say that He is “driving out demons by the prince of demons”. In other words, if, in the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was exorcised, then what the officials say here actually makes a lot of sense. Perhaps that’s why Mark chooses to use “ekballen” at 1.13 after all, so that when he gets to 3.20-30, where the leaders (and others) are making this claim, he can have Jesus debunk it. I mean, think about it, if the rumor is spreading around that Jesus is demon possessed, then Mark, whose work is laden with exorcism stories, would want to address the issue. In setting the story up the way he does, by the time we actually meet the claim head-on in 3.20-30, Jesus can now debunk it and that’s exactly what happens. It could well be the case that Mark wanted to take a different approach to the issue and that is not only why he begins his work with this story but also why he chooses to use “ekballen”. Let me know if this makes sense.

  5. It seems like ekballen has a sort of directional sense to it. In that it is leading "out" of something (or in the case of unclean spirits driving or pulling out). So in the context maybe it was employed to emphasize the spirit immediately leading Jesus "out" of the water and then into the wilderness.

    It seems like a very pictorial word (in the sense of leading "out").Really I guess I feel like there is really no special significance to this verb and that it is just the most appropriate in it's context to emphasize the immediacy of the spirit drawing Jesus out of the water and leading him into the wilderness to do what God called him to do. Like there is no time to waste.

    Bryan L

  6. Bryan,
    excellent insights. your thoughts may hit the nail head on, honestly, i had not thought of it as Him pulling Jesus out of the water. i'll have to think on this more. I do think, however that there is something going on with this word because Mk could have stuck w/Mt or Lk or employed another of the words he used. there has to be some significance to it. whether that is what i said or you said or some other thing, i'm not a hundred percent sure. i do think, however, that both of our answers make sense. i just wonder if there's more to it in a "big picture" sense than what you have posited? again, i'm going to have to think on this some more.

  7. It is possible that Mark is attempting to anticipate his exorcism theme, but I'm not sure I see what he intends this to imply about that theme. Even if you are right though, I don't think this diminishes the strength of the argument from this verse to Markan priority. For whatever Mark's intention, the result is a text that could just as easily be read the opposite way: that Jesus' being "cast out" into the desert (the abode of demons) would strengthen the scribe's objection! Obviously, Mark did not intend such a conclusion, but his choice of word seems to make it possible. Note that, unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn't explicitly say that Jesus resisted the temptation, nor does he credit the Spirit with any further role in 1:13-14.

    Presumably, Mark did not anticipate his story being deconstructed like this, but isn't that the point? Doesn't it make more sense that Matthew and Luke would have changed Mark's verb and added fuller temptation accounts to avoid the potential confusion (especially since they differ from one another in how they do so), than that Mark took one of their perfectly sensible accounts, removed the temptation itself and added a verb so open to misunderstanding, without making his point clear?

    I suppose you could argue that Mark is willing to make these moves precisely because he expects his readers to already be familiar with Matthew or Luke, and so be less likely to make such a misunderstanding, but this would still be an awkward change.

  8. Maybe Mark is setting up the Spirit as the one who 'casts out' whenever that casting out occurs in the rest of Mark? He is the one who 'casts out' in 1:12, and He is the one who 'casts out' elsewhere. He's the power behind it all. Again, this would have important application re. the accusations/debate in 3:22-30. ???

  9. Larry,
    Interesting idea but it still doesn't really solve the riddle of why Jesus Himself is "cast out". Your reading would seem to group Jesus with those whom God is not pleased with (e.g. demons, etc.). Maybe you could try to flesh this idea out a little more because it is kinda creative and with some explanation, might work.

  10. Here's a completely different idea. I've thought of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness as a recapitulation of Israel's 40-year exodus (their own time of testing, with the wild beasts, and attended by angels). But where Israel failed the tests, Jesus succeeds as the true Israel, the true Son of God. This comes out more strongly in Matt & Luke, where Jesus answers the satan's temptations with quotes from Deut, referring to Israel's wilderness temptations...

    Anyway, I wonder if this ekballen is an allusion to Israel being driven out of Egypt into the wilderness (see, for example, Ex 12:39). In this case, "driven out" is less like an exorcism, and more like a cattle drive--the Spirit being like the pillar of cloud and fire that led/drove Israel through the waters and into the wilderness.

  11. Tim,
    I get what you're saying on this and to be sure, many have linked the first 13 verses of Mk. with the Exodus event, for example, see R. E. Watts's book "Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark". I'm not sure I go this route but it is intriguing and on some level compelling. Still, it doesn't answer my question of "why" Mark used ekballon and not another word. In other words, it leaves unanswered my question about why Jesus is "exorcised" just like those with evil spirits in the rest of the story.