Matthew is the only New Testament writer to use the verb selēniazomai. Twice he used it to describe the situation of a person under the influence of demons. Literally it means “to be moonstruck” or “affected by the moon in some fashion.” The Greek word for moon is selēnē. Whatever the verb’s precise meaning in the Matthean narrative, Jesus brings full recovery to people afflicted in this way.
In Matthew 4:24 following Jesus’ summons to the four fishermen and the narrator’s summation of Jesus’ mode of ministry – teaching, proclaiming, and healing (v.23), we learn that Jesus’ reputation was spreading quickly. Matthew indicates that “the entire region of Syria” heard about Jesus’ exploits. Whether this refers to the specific Roman Province or a small, more focused area to the north and north-east of Galilee is debated. However, it certainly defines an area where Jewish and non-Jewish populations lived. Some of those who heard the reports seized the opportunity to get help for themselves or loved ones. Matthew describes these who come as “ill with various diseases, …suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures (selēniazomenous), and the paralyzed.”1 Without exception Jesus heals every case.
After his transfiguration experience Jesus encounters a father who is pleading with his disciples to release his son from demonic influence. They have had no success. When the man sees Jesus, he pleads for a merciful response because his son “has seizures (selēniazetai) and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water” (17:15). Matthew does not expand the story at this point. Mark, however, describes the demonic attack in these terms (9:18): “it throws him to the ground, he foams at the mouth, he gnashes his teeth and he becomes rigid.” When Jesus acts to exorcise the demon in Mark 9:20, these symptoms become manifest as the boy convulses on the ground, foaming at the mouth.
I have not found earlier occurrences of this term in extant Greek literature.2 This does not mean that Matthew created the term. It may well have been part of common speech but not regarded as a literary term. Astrological texts in the second century A.D. use the term. Its use by Matthew in distinction from but connected with daimonizesthai (to be under the influence of a demon) may suggest to some that people who manifest these symptoms were not necessarily regarded as demonized, but affected by some other force, presumably of a supernatural nature. However, it is clear from Matthew 17:15 and Mark 9:18-20 that the authors considered the boy demonized and his symptoms arose from this demon’s activity. Note that in Matthew 17:18 Jesus commands to daimonion, i.e. the demon, to leave. So this verb describes some kind of demonization, at least as perceived by people in the first century.
The description of the demonized boy in Mark 9:18-20 has many symptoms comparable to the condition we term epilepsy. In materials contemporary with Matthew’s Gospel or a century later selēniazomai is linked with the term epilēpsis, a term in ancient Greek medical treatises that describes an epileptic fit. And epilepsy was traced by many in antiquity to the influence of the moon. In modern Greek selēniasmos means epilepsy.3 However, we are not sure that selēniazomai carried this medical connotation when Matthew was composing his narrative (probably sometime 70-80AD). Nor should we draw the conclusion that all epileptic seizures were considered in the first century Jewish context as demonically inspired. What we can say is that in some cases demonic activity manifested itself in the form of seizures that were comparable to epileptic attacks.
Perhaps Matthew intends by using this term in these two contexts to make quite clear that this kind of behaviour, however its origins might be explained, was dealt with by Jesus. If Matthew’s contemporaries considered the cause to be some kind of spiritual force, Jesus was equal to the task. Not even the power of the heavenly bodies, astrologically speaking, could stand against the authority of the Son of God. Just as the Magi discovered that the heavenly bodies were in the service of God and pointed to his son Jesus, in the ministry of Jesus the heavenly forces continue to be subservient to him.
The astounding mosaic on the floor of the 3rd century synagogue discovered at Dura-Europus, Syria, featured a fully developed zodiac. This is not unique. Six synagogues excavated in Palestine, dated to the fifth-sixth centuries also have zodiac mosaics incorporated into their designs. We must not carelessly extrapolate Jewish religious perspectives from the 3rd to 6th centuries back to the 1st century. The only point I want to make is that astrological interests were alive and well, even in the first century. If Matthew’s Gospel, as many think, was written in Syria, then this might also indicate that some particular local interest in astrology, particularly within Jewish communities, motivated the author to deal with these religious ideas in some subtle ways within his narrative.
Zodiac mosaic on the floor of the 3rd Century A.D. synagogue at Tiberius
Whatever motivated Matthew to use this terminology, he wants to make it absolutely clear that Jesus had complete power over all of these forces – demons, heavenly bodies, illnesses and death. As he demonstrates God’s powerful reign, Jesus liberates humans from these terrible calamities and burdens.
- in our western cultural milieu we tend to tolerate only medical explanations for illness. We discount the possibility that ‘spiritual’ forces could create such symptoms. However, we need to pray for discernment about these matters;
- both Paul and Peter affirm that Jesus is Lord of all – including the principalities and powers. Matthew affirms this same reality. Fresh from his encounter with Satan Jesus heals all. Perhaps some of our spiritual impotence arises from our failure to claim Jesus’ lordly power in our spiritual endeavours;
- countless people in our culture believe that spiritual forces do affect their lives for good and ill. To what degree do elements such as illegal drugs and alcohol become vehicles for demonic forces to control people is debated. The Gospels make it clear that more of this is occurring among us than we probably realize or desire to admit.
- 1This is the New International Version translation. There is a textual issue as to whether the conjunction “and” (kai) comes before “the demon-possessed.” If the conjunction is original then Matthew describes two kinds of people – those having bodily illness or pain and those whose symptoms have a supernatural origin. If the conjunction is omitted, then Matthew provides three examples of bodily illnesses and pain. The textual evidence is evenly divided.
- 2J.M.Ross, “Epileptic or Moonstruck?” The Bible Translator 29(1978), 126-128 says that it occurs only in “a treatise by the astrologer Vettius Valens who wrote in the second century A.D….In Vettius Valens some specific disease seems to be referred to, but it is not described” (126). Note that Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13 Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 33A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1993), 79 mis-states the pagination for Ross’ article as 121-128.
- 3Ross, op.cit.