One could argue that the story of Christ’s expelling of the demon from a man (see Matthew 9:32-34 and Luke 11:14-23) has a weighty historical probability given that it is attested to in early and independent sources. According to Matthew’s account one reads that,
“While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons” (9:32-34).
Luke’s account is similar,
“Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.”
Luke’s author goes on to include a bit more to this story than one finds in Matthew’s as suggested in Luke’s inclusion of an engagement between Christ and his accusers. But putting the discussion between Christ and his accusers aside, this story is found within Q (1), a material that predates all four gospels and has been dated to the 40s or 50s AD (2). Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke’s story of the exorcism comes from Q, and therefore they are dealing with an early tradition.
This case is made stronger given that Mark’s gospel (which does not use Q or show an awareness of Q) also includes the story. According to Mark the “teachers of the law” also accused Christ of being “possessed by Beelzebul!” for “By the prince of demons he is driving out demons” (3:22-23).
What this means is that the exorcism is attested in two of the most authoritative and widely sought after materials on the historical Jesus in the form of Q and Mark. Historians hold Q and Mark to be more valuable than most of the other New Testament texts given their earliness in comparison. Thus, the story of Christ’s casting out of the demon satisfies the criterion of early and independent attestation. Both Mark and Q are independent of one another, and both date to within a single generation of Christ’s death by crucifixion.
I further argue that this story passes the criterion of embarrassment. According to the criterion of embarrassment S/E (a statement and/or event) is is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S/E. If S/E passes one or more of these criteria then it is deemed historically likely to have occurred. It seems unlikely that the gospel author of Mark would invent a story in which Christ is accused as wielding demonic power unless it really happened. If this story was merely a fabrication one would not expect such a detail to be invented, rather the author would go to lengths (greater or lesser depending on the author) to show his revered figure in a positive light, and that would likely not have his leader being accused of wielding demonic forces when he is meant to represent God’s kingdom. One might also argue that the accusations satisfy the criterion of coherence for they are consistent with already established facts about Christ, especially that he made enemies with the Jewish religious authorities at the time, and was eventually condemned for blasphemy.
A strong historical case can be made for this being an event of history. It is independently attested in two authoritative sources, satisfies the criterion of embarrassment, and therefore should be accepted as historical in the absence of reasonable doubt.
1. Bock, D. 2010. Who Is Jesus? Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith. p. 16.
2. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making Volume.