According to the angel Raphael, the secret to exorcising the demon Asmodeus is to burn a particular fish’s heart and liver in the presence of the malevolent Asmodeus. The foul smell apparently repels this finicky demon. At least, that’s what the author of the Book of Tobit believed. Demons are weird. Demonic exorcisms are weirder still. And yet to dismiss them as simply weird is to miss out on the important social and theological work that demons do in both ancient and modern societies. Thus, I decided to devote a day to demonic possession and exorcism in a new course I was teaching on Second Temple Judaism. But how to teach this subject?
Sometimes a pedagogical activity is the result of thoughtfully reading scholarship of “Teaching and Learning,” aligning activities with learning objectives, and workshopping partially formed ideas with colleagues. Sometimes a pedagogical activity is the result of realizing the day before class that students had a major course assignment due and so the likelihood of students coming into class energized having done the reading in advance was slim to none. This activity is one of the latter.
In this particular course the students had a major multi-step, multi-media assignment as the main mode of assessment this semester. The biggest piece of that assignment was due right before class on the day which, according to the syllabus, was meant to cover demonic possession and exorcism in the second half of the Second Temple period. A day on which I had also assigned large parts of the book of Tobit and the Gospel of Mark. Demons are of particular scholarly interest to me, but I am a realist and knew that it was realistically doubtful that students would have also taken the time to read these strange texts thoroughly.
I decided to create an activity in class that would allow students to creatively engage with the texts in smaller groups before entering class-wide analysis. My goals for the activity were threefold: for students to have the time to read the texts carefully; for students to develop the building blocks for our wider conversation about exorcism as a form of religious competition in this period; and for students to have some fun after a lot of hard work on a major assessment. I’ve also been interested in integrated more role-playing and performance in class and decided that this pedagogical activity was the perfect way to achieve these goals.
Why role playing? As Barkley et al have noted, “the word role indicates that students must actively apply knowledge, skills, and understanding to successfully speak and act from a different, assigned perspective. The term play indicates that students use their imaginations and have fun, acting out their parts in a non-threatening environment.” It can be hard for students to read texts that are entirely unfamiliar, that come from a time and place that seem very distant, where lived experience included a world filled with demons, angels, and other largely invisible beings. John C. Bean has argued that “tasks requiring role-playing or “what if” thinking encourage…getting students outside of the assumptions of their own worldview. By asking students to adopt an unfamiliar perspective or a “what if” situation, we stretch their thinking in productive ways.”
I divided my thirty-six students into four groups and assigned each group a different Second Temple text about exorcism: Tobit, Josephus, 11QApocrPs, and the Gospel of Mark (which I recognize is written slightly after the Second Temple period). I gave them fifteen minutes to prepare a three-minute skit depicting an exorcism according to their assigned text. Each group then presented their exorcism, with the class following along in the readings to much laughter and riotous applause. (The group who was assigned Tobit, for example, had a student perform the role of fish and flail around dramatically while being eviscerated). Finally, I led the students in a discussion of which of these exorcisms would seem the most credible and effective to a public audience in the first century CE, given what we had already learned about Second Temple Judaism.
As intended, the discussion led to a broader discussion about religious competition within the ancient world. We discussed the ways that demons and exorcisms were key modes of religious competition across religious groups and within religious groups. We were able to explore about how demons functioned not only theologically but also socially. The in-class activity successfully achieved the learning outcomes I had set, as well as allowing the students to have some fun and “reset” after handing in the major project for the semester.
This pedagogical activity is absolutely one that I will continue to use in the classroom. Next time, however, I will be more explicit in setting the scene for my students. As a professor at a Catholic school where the vast majority of students are Christian, I could see some of my students struggle to imagine a world in which Jesus wasn’t the globally-renowned exorcist par excellence. They had difficulty understanding why some ancient Jews would have found other exorcistic models more compelling. Being more intentional in the images and narration I provide would have better reminded students of the moment in history we were meant to simulate. After all, as Bean notes, role playing is a productive way to stretch students’ thinking, but only if we are effectively “getting students outside of the assumptions of their own worldview.”
Before this course, most of my students had never encountered the Second Temple period beyond the gospels. They knew almost nothing about ancient Judaism, the Maccabees, Hasmoneans, and Herodians, or Jewish sectarianism. Those few who came in with knowledge about the Pharisees and messianism came in with perspectives shaped historically by supersessionism and antisemitism. Through their own hard work and commitment to engaging with the material, these students learned a tremendous amount. Role-playing makes the ancient world come alive, while forcing students to recognize the interpretive choices that they have to make given the limitations of our sources. In its own way, when it comes to making sense of demons, it is as effective as the smell and the fish in the Tigris River.
Sara Ronis is an Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.
 My thanks to Meredith Warren for her advice and inspiration in integrating podcasting into my modes of assessment.
 Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. P. Cross, and Claire H. Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (Jossey-Bass, 2005), 150.
 John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, second edition (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 156, discussing the work of Jean Piaget.
 Ibid, ibid.