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.
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.