Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

What is going on with Legion and the pigs?

Why does Legion beg to go into the pigs? Why does Jesus let them? Why do the pigs then rush into the sea?

The story of Legion is puzzling (Mark 5:1-13; Luke 8:26-33; Matthew 8:28-32). It strikes most Christians as weird. What is going on here?

As per Heiser’s Fifth Law, if it’s weird, it’s important. Weirdness is a clue that we’re probably missing something that Scripture’s original readers would have taken for granted—something that would have made the text sensible to them.

This is certainly true in the case of Legion. This is not a random event that the gospels leave unexplained. The explanation is simply assumed as obvious. Here’s what’s going on:

In the ancient world, water was believed to be a natural barrier to spirits. This is most obviously demonstrated in the common motif of deceased spirits having to cross a river, like the Styx, to enter the land of the dead. The river functioned to keep the dead in their proper domain since they could not cross it unaided. The same motif appears in Greco-Roman stories of spirits which are defeated by driving them into the sea (e.g. Pausanias, Elis 6), and in the ancient attitude to people who died at sea. For example, the Athenians were known to make cenotaphs for those who died at sea, setting them beside the shore and calling their names three times so they could return to land (Odyssey 9.62–66).

This is important contextual information to the story of Legion, because in ancient Judaism and Greco-Romanism, there was no clear distinction between ghosts and demons. In modern Christianity, everyone “just knows” that demons are fallen angels, like Satan. But this idea only seems to become ubiquitous in the church somewhere around the fifth century; it is foreign to the text of Scripture and to the worldview of those who wrote it. In Judaism, the widely-accepted view of demons was that they were the spirits of dead Nephilim; not fallen angels. Demons, in other words, were a particular kind of ghost. Angels are far more powerful beings, and would generally have no reason to want to get “inside” someone.

That said, this is a difficult topic to disentangle because the Greek term daimon is used very much like the Hebrew term elohim to refer to any spirit—which is probably where the confusion arose in the first place.

Whether or not this view of demons is correct, it was what people in biblical times believed. Combine this with the common belief about water being inimical to spirits, and some interesting clues start to emerge:


Both Mark and Luke explicitly place the meeting between Legion and Jesus at the sea-shore. The confrontation is taking place at the boundary between earth and water—a dangerous place for spirits. Note also that the pigs demonstrate Jesus’ immediate audience to be Greco-Roman, not Jewish—Jews would never farm pigs, since they are unclean.

Legion’s worry

In Luke, Legion begs Jesus not to send him into the “abyss” (ἀβύσσου). We tend to interpret that language in terms of Revelation 9:1; 11:7 etc, where ἀβύσσου is often translated “bottomless pit.” But there is at least a double meaning likely here, because ἀβύσσου is also how the LXX translates the Hebrew tehom (תְהֹ֑ום)—the great deep—in places like Genesis 1:2 and 7:11.

This in itself is an interesting connection, since tehom is possibly related etymologically to tiamat, the Mesopotamian ocean goddess of chaos—the ocean is often used in the Bible to represent the forces of darkness aligned against God; e.g. Daniel 7:2; Revelation 21:1.

In Mark’s account, most translations have Legion begging Jesus not to drive him out of the “country” or “region” (χώρα). But χώρα also simply means the land, as opposed to the sea; for example, it is used this way in Acts 27:27. Given the explicitly seaside location, this makes sense—Legion doesn’t want to leave the land, because the alternative is the water. Indeed, although I can’t imagine Pausanias was familiar with Mark, he strikingly uses the same expression to describe how, in Euthymus’ defeat of the Hero, the ghost was “was driven out of the land and disappeared, sinking into the depth of the sea” (Elis 6.6.10).

Legion’s affinity for the desert

Finally, there’s another small hint also included in Luke 8:29, which observes about the demoniac:

He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.

This connection between spirits and dry places is also drawn in other places (e.g. Matthew 12:43; Luke 11:24), further suggesting we’re on the right track in thinking that the sea is where Legion definitely does not want to go.

Putting the clues together

Combining these clues with the ancient presupposition that spirits were in some way bound or destroyed by water, it isn’t hard to see what is going on here: Jesus meets Legion by the sea, and Legion assumes Jesus is going to send him into the water to be bound or destroyed. How metaphorical this is I couldn’t say—demons don’t seem to have physical form at all to be harmed by water, yet at the same time there is clearly some connection between physical geography and the “terrain” of the spirit world (cf. territorial spirits; Daniel 10:13, 20 etc). The water here at least represents something in the cosmic geography, even if it is not directly linked with it. Legion doesn’t want to go there. So he asks Jesus to instead go into the pigs.

Why Jesus allows this seems puzzling at first, but is actually very straightforward: it serves his purpose extremely well. The demons thought the pigs were their out. After all, why should Jesus care if unclean animals were possessed? Maybe he’d just let that slide. They weren’t even in Jewish territory, after all.

But Jesus didn’t intend to let it slide; he intended to get rid of the demons permanently, and to use the pigs as physical vessels to demonstrate this. The pigs are very convenient to him, because spirits are incorporeal (or perhaps semi-corporeal; who is to say)—so if Jesus sends Legion out of the man and directly into the sea, there will be no physical evidence. No ordinary human could witness such an event because we cannot see spirits. Thus, the power of the event is diminished. The demoniac is healed—but what happened to the demons? Who could say? Perhaps they are looking for a new victim right now (cf. Matthew 12:44-45)!

By sending Legion into the pigs, and then over the cliff into the water, Jesus is able to demonstrate his power not just in expelling unclean spirits, but also in dealing to them permanently: in judging them, binding them, and destroying them. Whether the sea actually has anything to do with the place that demons are bound in the spirit-world isn’t the issue. It represents that place in the mind of the ancient audience—so by sending the demons into the sea, Jesus fully and incontrovertibly vindicates Legion’s own claim that he is the son of the Most High God.


  1. Jeremiah

    I think this exposition is generally spot on. Nice work.

    Quick question,

    “In Judaism, the widely-accepted view of demons was that they were the spirits of dead Nephilim”

    What is your source for this statement? And in which Judaism? I would assume you mean at the time of Jesus. This seems a bit too sweeping given my own reading in the primary sources. But I’m hardly an expert. I’d love to read more.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Jeremiah, I’m speaking of Second Temple Judaism. My statement was admittedly a generalization—I imagine there was probably some diversity of opinion on this topic, but the major literary pieces we have point this way. The most important texts, I believe, are 1 Enoch 15:8ff and Jubilees 10:1-11.

    1 Enoch 15:11 states that, “the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble: they take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst, and cause offences. And these spirits shall rise up against the children of men and against the women, because they have proceeded from them.”

    Jubilees 10:1-11 speaks of the spirits of the Nephilim, the sons of the Watchers, of whom a tenth are given to a rather unpleasant spirit named Mastêmâ, to remain on the earth under the jurisdiction of Satan.

  3. Jeremiah

    Now that I located the reference I wanted, I also thought I’d mention (though it is really tangential to your post here), that we need to be careful when talking about an etymological relationship between BH tehom and Akkadian Ti’amat. If one means that tehom came into BH as a loan word directly from Ti’amat (as proposed by Gunkel and simply asserted by many), then this is almost impossible given what we know about the two languages and how consonants and sounds carry over.

    Saying they are related to the same proposed root (proto-semitic *thm) is an entirely different type of claim and would not automatically establish a conceptual connection between the BH term and the goddess (i.e., tehom signified the same or similar things that the goddess signifies). Hebrew developed tehom and its semantic domain on its own, totally independent of how the root came to be used in Akkadian. For example, the Akkadian term that the name comes from (tiamatum) normally has the ordinary meaning “ocean” or “sea.” In some contexts that has been personified into the deity, Ti’amat. Therefore, to say that tehom is related to Ti’amat etymologically only means that they have a common history, not that they have any conceptual overlap as we know them in those forms or that tehom comes from Ti’amat.

    It would be kind of like if there was another language that had a similar word for “bat” as English: both words deriving from the same root. This does not mean that whenever the corresponding term is used in the other language, that the author wants the reader to think of the detective prowess of Bruce Wayne or that the other word derives from Batman.

    The hypothetical relationship between two does not in any way signify that the Hebrews had an conceptual parallel between tehom and what Ti’amat was in Akkadian literature. Therefore, using literature about Ti’amat, to inform our understanding of tehom, is suspect. I’d say that the meanings and associations of tehom are most safely established based on their BH usages.

    For the details see the discussion in chapter 3 of David Toshio Tsumura’s book, “The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation” (especially 45-47).

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Thanks Jeremiah. I actually thought I’d removed this aside about Ti’amat, because I had learned that the link was not nearly as certain as has been made out by some—but now I realize it was in a talk I gave where I borrowed from the material I wrote here.

    I would assume that Hebrews in exile would have seen a conceptual link between tehowm and ti’amat in the early pages of Genesis, supposing that they became familiar with Babylonian creation myths (which is surely probable). And that link would probably have been more obvious because of the similarity between the words, regardless of whether they knew of an etymological connection.

    I don’t actually think much rides on this either way; it’s just interesting trying to get into the heads of Hebrew readers.


  5. Jeremiah

    Hmm, I didn’t get my usual email notification, so I didn’t see this until just now.

    I don’t know . . . I remain openly cautious at this point about many of the proposed polemical aspects of Genesis 1 (and I do believe there are polemical aspects to Genesis 1 and certainly conceptual links to other ANE myths). I absolutely agree that the Hebrews would have become familiar with Babylonian myths.

    My current thinking is shaped by a few things:

    Tehom is a specialized term, that clearly has a different (though related) semantic range to “sea” (yam). It refers to a specific thing. It is often positive and sometimes negative, as with water throughout scripture (life-giving vs destructive/uncontrollable). I’d have to double check, but I think the positive uses outnumber the negative. It generally seems to be a neutral thing in that sense.

    So I guess the question is, what do you (or others) mean by “a conceptual link?” In the circles I run in, that usually works out to, “Genesis 1 represents a depersonification of Ti’amat.” The Hebrews took the concept of Ti’amat and then “purified” her/it to work with their religion. The results are Genesis 1. This one word (tehom) is why many scholars argue that Genesis 1 presents a battle to create, since in Babylonian myth (at least some of them), Ti’amat had to be battled.

    I am hesitant to say that because of familiarity with Babylonian creation myths that Hebrews would then naturally see (or be forced to see) such a connection between tehom and Ti’amat, to the point where Tiamat myth informs their understanding of tehom. I guess my question would be, given that tehom is a specialized term that is clearly native to Hebrew, how could the author (assuming hypothetically for a moment, that he specifically did not want the audience to think of Tiamat) still refer to the same reality denoted by tehom without evoking Tiamat? As a linguist I am uncomfortable with the idea that Hebrews would “lose” ability to use the “pure Hebraic” sense of tehom.

    However, if the question is would the Hebrews be prone to see a connection not in terms of informing what Genesis means by tehom, but how they conceive of tehom vs how the Babylonians did, then I absolutely think so. As in, “Hey, that’s what you Babylonians think of the deep? Uh, way off base.” I think the relevant material is naturally ripe for comparisons between the two.

    I also freely admit that I believe at least the traditions and substance of Gen 1 far predate the exile. So my thinking is that the Hebrews (at least the religiously reflective ones would) had their own fully formed conception of “the deep” and how God relates to it. My understanding of that conception is generally formed by tehom’s use in Scripture, and secondarily by the etymological/comparative studies that have informed my beliefs that tehom is a native word, old in form, refers to subterranean waters usually, etc.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    The second sense is what I had in mind. I share your reservations that tehom would essentially lose its pure meaning and come to be simply a Hebrew way of saying Ti’amat.

    The polemical angle is an interesting one, because there’s a kind of circularity between what one sees as polemic, and what one takes the history of the text to be. Like you, I think the substance of Genesis 1-6 must have been known well prior to the exile (I’m not even sure why there would be any presumption against it being Mosaic). However, it does seem to me that some redaction must have taken place in exile, given that no obvious digs are taken against Egypt, while there is at least a pretty notable dig taken against Mesopotamia in Genesis 6:1-4 (viz the apkallu).

  7. Jeremiah

    Have you read anything interesting/well-done about apkallu that you would recommend? I am familiar with Anne Kilmer’s essay (I think she was the first to propose the connection to nephilim? I may be wrong) in the Festschrift for Francis I. Andersen (I spent a lot of time reading Andersen for my MA thesis, though on purely linguistic issues).

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Aside from snippets here and there, and Wikipedia (:P), the main source I have read is Amar Annus’ “On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions” which was published in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha. Here’s a link to the full paper:

  9. Jeremiah


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