Historical Culture Context
Spirits, Travel & Hospitality
Jesus gathers his faction (the Twelve) and sends them out with authority over unclean spirits. This is an astonishing authorization which moves these Twelve up a notch in their honor status.
People in the ancient Mediterranean world not only held a strong belief in the existence of spirits but also ranked them according to power. At the top of the list was “our” God, then “other” gods, sons of god, or archangels. In third place were still less powerful nonhuman persons: angels, spirits, and demons. Humans were in fourth place, and creatures lower than humans in last place.
By giving the Twelve power over unclean spirits, Jesus moves them up from level four at least into level three. Greeks called hostile spirits “demons,” while Semites called them “unclean spirits.” When Jesus expels an unclean spirit (Mk 5:2, 8) out of a possessed man in pagan territory, the people of that region call the man a demoniac (Mk 5:15-16).
The authority over unclean spirits also extends to conditions believed to be caused by these spirits, namely, sickness. That the distinction between possession and sickness is fuzzy in the ancient world is evident in the story of Peter’s mother-in-law. In Mark (1:30) she is “sick with a fever,” but the context of Luke (4:38-39) indicates that the “high fever” that grips her is actually a demon named “Fever” whom Jesus “rebukes” and expels.
Travel and Hospitality
In the ancient world, travel was deviant and dangerous. It was deviant because there was little reason to leave one’s ancestral dwelling where one was normally surrounded by extended family network. Everything one needed or desired was here. It was dangerous because robbers waited to ambush travellers, particularly those travelling alone (Lk 10:30). For this reason, Jesus tells his newly authorized faction members to travel in pairs. Very likely these pairs joined larger caravans for greater safety.
The instruction to travel lightly (no bread, no money, etc.) is not unusual. The needs of travellers (lodging and food) were to be provided chiefly through hospitality. Jesus continues his instruction with special attention to hospitality (e.g., “receiving” or “welcoming”).
In the Middle Eastern world, hospitality is a value extended exclusively to strangers. (Relatives and friends are extended steadfast loving kindness.) The process involves three steps: the stranger is taken under the protection of a host for a given time, transformed into a temporary guest, with hopes that the two will part friends (but parting as enemies is also possible).
The host provides lodging, food, and especially a safe haven or protection from the suspicions and possible attacks of villagers. After all, strangers are always suspected of being up to no good and plotting damage to the village.
Failure to extend hospitality in the Middle East is a serious breach of honor. Jesus’ advice to “shake off the dust on your feet as a testimony against those who would not extend hospitality” is a major insult. It effectively writes these people out of the human community. The gesture implied total rejection, hostility, and an unwillingness to be touched by anything the others have touched.
These culturally different understandings of spirits, travel, and hospitality challenge Western believers to gain a well-founded grasp of Middle Eastern culture. Contemporary books about angels and other spirits tend to reflect modern Western theological or spiritual concepts that sometimes have slim foundation in the Middle Eastern biblical texts. A sound, cross-cultural approach to reading and understanding the Bible can lay a much stronger foundation for the commendable exploration of these traditional topics.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University