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Delving Deep Into Research on Christian Demonology

  • Christian demonology research
  • Franklin & Marshall College senior Nathan Gill followed his research into 4th- and 5th-century texts to understand the complexities of the Christian faithfuls' belief in demons. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

While researching his independent study project on Christian demonology, Franklin & Marshall College senior Nathan Gill came across an incident that occurred at an Egyptian monastery in the 4th century.

A tax collector had showed up at the monastery door one day making general inquiries. Alarmed by the man's questioning, the abbot believed the man to be a demon and chased him away.

"Even though to a lot of us this seems absurd, to people at that moment in time, the idea of demons posing as men was very real," Gill said.

Gill said he decided to major in religious studies after taking a course on Christianity in his first year. "I think it had something to do with not growing up in a religious household and not having a religious background," said Gill, who is heading to law school in the fall.

For his project, Gill based his research on Boston University religious scholar David Frankfurter's acclaimed 2006 book, "Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History." It catalogues ways cultures and religious movements envision evil as an active, personified force.

As he delved deeper into the research, studying the Hebrew Bible, the fall of the Roman Empire, and texts on life in 4th and 5th century Egyptian Christian monasteries, Gill said he became convinced that Frankfurter's explanations were lacking in details about the complexity of ancient beliefs in demons.

"I found that Frankfurter's cataloguing of folk and literary demonology are not descriptive enough," Gill said.

As faculty adviser, F&M Professor of Religious Studies Stephen Cooper, chair of the Religious Studies Department, met with Gill weekly and had him write brief, two- to four-page papers on each step of his research.

"I suggested to Nate that he gather bibliography about demons in the ancient Near East and study how they figured in the Hebrew Bible, in the Judaism of the Greco-Roman period, in the New Testament, and then in the early church," Cooper said.  "He's a fantastic and self-motivated student; he's deeply curious and intrigued."

Scribes who wrote the religious texts thought about demons in an intellectual sense, not necessarily viewing them as malevolent while uneducated, common folk looked at demons in a practical sense, to give them answers to unanswerable questions. If someone was sick, for example, a demon made him or her so, Gill said.

"It serves the function of explaining why bad things happen, and it at least, in some way, absolves God of that," he said.  "Meanwhile, you have intellectuals struggling with the issue of why there are these problems in the world and who believe God is all good, all knowing."

Gill said he plans to make the argument in his honors thesis that, "When we think about demonology we have to think beyond their folk and literary framework and think about the human complexities. Folk ideas influenced literary ideas and the literary ideas trickled down to the folk ideas."