Question: "Is epilepsy mentioned in the Bible? Did the boy in Matthew 17 have a demon or epilepsy?"
Answer: An account of a boy with epileptic-like seizures is recorded in three of the four Gospels (Matthew 17:14–18; Mark 9:14–29; Luke 9:38–42). Only in Matthew’s account (in the ESV and NKJV) is the word epileptic used to describe the boy; the NASB and KJV say “lunatic,” based on the original Greek word’s meaning of “moonstruck.” The NIV says, “He has seizures.” In Mark and Luke, the father of the boy states that his son is “possessed by a spirit” and “a spirit seizes him.” Comparing the three accounts in the Gospels, the boy’s symptoms included sudden screaming, foaming at the mouth, lack of speech, falling, rigidity, and self-harm.
Matthew 17:14–18 says, “When they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.’ And Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly” (ESV).
It is important to note that epilepsy was the father’s assessment of his son’s situation. Jesus, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all call it a demon, and Jesus cast it out as He did other demons. The seeming discrepancy in the three biblical accounts is probably due to the fact that the father said a lot of things in trying to get Jesus’ attention. He was distraught, desperate for help, and at a loss to describe what was happening to his son. The fact that the father speaks of epilepsy in Matthew’s account and calls it a “spirit” in the other two Gospels does not create an irreconcilable difference. The father could easily have said all of the above as he described his son’s condition. He did not know what was wrong. He only knew that he needed help.
The term epileptic is used only twice in the New Testament, in Matthew 17:15 and Matthew 4:24. The word translated “epileptic” comes from the Greek word for “lunatic.” In those days, the term could be applied to any type of seizures or behavior that resembled insanity. In New Testament times, people had no way to differentiate between brain disorders and demonic possession. Little was known about the causes or treatment of epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, or dementia, so it is understandable that the father in Matthew 17 would describe his son’s behavior as epilepsy. But we know from Jesus’ treatment of this boy that the child was in fact demon possessed (Mark 9:26).
However, the Bible does mention epilepsy as a condition separate from demon possession. Matthew 4:24 says, “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them” (emphasis added). Here epilepsy is listed with other physical ailments, indicating that epilepsy is a medical condition that can cause symptoms similar to demonic possession. Jesus healed epileptics, and He also cast out demons. The two conditions were not synonymous.
Although many inexplicable behaviors that affect the personality can be attributed to demonic oppression, we should never rush to judgment. Demons are still active and can possess and oppress people. Prayer and spiritual warfare can enable us to help those who are oppressed (2 Corinthians 10:4; Ephesians 6:12–17). But brain abnormalities or injury can also affect human behavior and can respond to medical treatment. Jesus always treated the individual, and He rarely healed the same disease in the same way. This shows us that we should also respond to individuals with sensitivity and discernment, using everything at our disposal to help and heal any way we can.