by Al Maxey

Issue #545 ------- August 31, 2012
Wherein our Saviour's birth is cele-
brated, no witch hath power to charm,
so hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Paul's Proscription of Pharmakeia
Witchcraft, Sorcery and Pharmaceuticals

There are forces of evil at work in the world about us, and one should not doubt that much of this evil is orchestrated by Satan and his demonic horde. Even in this Christian dispensation we "struggle against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12). Those who discount the "schemes of the devil" (vs. 11) face the very real possibility of falling victim to "the activity of Satan," which comes with "all power and signs and false wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9). Some regard the devil as little more than a religious fabrication, attributing claims of spirit possession to spiritual psychosis. Yet, the Bible makes it clear that such evil spirit beings exist, and that men and women have long consulted and consorted with these dark forces. Even Paul spoke of the possibility of some "sacrificing to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons" (1 Cor. 10:20-21). Nevertheless, some did indeed "provoke the Lord to jealousy" (vs. 22) by their idolatries, which activities and attitudes brought them into communion with the forces of evil rather than with the Lord God. Such persons have been known throughout history by many names: witches, wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, spiritists, mediums and charmers, just to name a few.

Both OT and NT writings speak of such persons, and never favorably. Indeed, they are almost always declared to be under the sentence of death. Moses stated, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18, KJV -- most translations use the word "sorceress"). The book of Revelation informs us that in the eternal age to come such persons will be banned from the New Jerusalem (22:15), and that "their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (21:8). God declares them to be an abomination, and makes it clear they will one day be utterly destroyed. Down through history, men have sought to "give God a hand" in this reduction of those who consort with the forces of evil. The great reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) in his Table Talk, for example, emphatically declared, "I should have no compassion on these witches; I would burn all of them!" Indeed, many were burned, as well as a good many innocent people who became the victims of the misguided passions of various religious parties. Theo B. Hyslop (1863-1933), in his 1925 work titled "The Great Abnormals," observed, "In most instances the crime of witchcraft was merely the pretext through which the Roman Church prosecuted those who would not embrace their faith. In this they were urged on by men in power who wished to rid themselves of their enemies." The reality of human nature is that men have always had their "witch hunts." If no "witches" are to be found, they will create them. When any party gains power, whether secular or religious, there will always follow a purging. In the Journal of Social History [vol. 17, 1984], in an article titled "The Medical Origins of the European Witch Craze: A Hypothesis," Leland Estes wrote, "The stereotype of the witch did not precede the hunts, but was the result of the hunts themselves. Put another way, it was the witch craze that produced the witch and not, as has been traditionally argued, the figure of the witch that stimulated hunting."

As a Psychology/Theology major and Sociology minor during my undergraduate work at the university I attended, I always found such hypotheses fascinating, especially when they also involved the religious, and the religions, of their time and place. Although we have to acknowledge that there is much of a speculative nature in such studies that seek to understand the cultural and cognitive aspects of this planet's peoples, there is also no denying the reality of a spirit realm that interacts intimately with the one you and I inhabit. John Wesley (1703-1791), the English evangelist and founder of Methodism, wrote in his Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, "To deny that there is, or ever was, any such thing (as witches/witchcraft) is, by plain consequence, to deny the authority both of the Old and New Testaments." This reality of an evil spirit realm and its demonic inhabitants, with which some in our own realm at times seek to commune and consort (as per the account of Saul and the medium at Endor -- 1 Sam. 28:7ff; Reflections #80: Samuel, Saul and the Witch), may not be subject to sensory verification or validation by the scientific method, but viewed with the eyes of faith it is easily discernable as a force with which we must each daily deal in our journey through life. Our adversary "prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8), often disguising "himself as an angel of light," as his servants do also (2 Cor. 11:13-15). Such servants of unrighteousness are not only the demonic forces of darkness, but those humans who consort with them -- the witches, wizards, warlocks, sorcerers and spiritists. It is this group of which Paul speaks specifically in Galatians 5:20 where he lists the various works of the fleshly nature. Prior to listing the fruit of the Spirit, Paul writes the following (taken from the New American Standard Bible):

Galatians 5:19-21

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are:
immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery,
enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes,
dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing,
and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as
I have forewarned you that those who practice such
things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

I'm sure we have all heard sermons and classes on most of the traits specified here, although I have a feeling some are stressed more than others. Perhaps one of the least discussed, or even defined, is "sorcery." Just what is this? What did the apostle Paul mean by this term? What did his readers in Galatia understand it to signify? Does it perhaps suggest something to us that is quite different from what it would have suggested to them? These are important questions, and they deserve a reasoned and reasonable response. As one examines the various versions of the biblical text, one will quickly discover a wide variety in how this term is rendered. Notice the following:

  1. sorcery -- American Standard Version ... Amplified Bible ... Darby Translation ... English Standard Version ... Holman Christian Standard Bible ... Lexham English Bible ... New American Standard Bible ... New King James Version ... New Living Translation ... New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition ... Hugo McCord's NT Translation of the Everlasting Gospel ... Charles B. Williams' NT in the Language of the People
  2. witchcraft -- King James Version ... J. B. Phillips' NT in Modern English ... New Century Version ... New International Version ... New Life Version ... Young's Literal Translation ... Lamsa's Translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta
  3. practice witchcraft -- Contemporary English Version
  4. witchcrafts -- Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition ... Wycliffe Bible
  5. taking part in witchcraft -- Easy-to-Read Version
  6. spiritism (that is, encouraging the activity of demons) -- The Living Bible
  7. practice of spiritism -- New World Translation
  8. magic-show religion -- The Message
  9. involvement with the occult and with drugs -- Complete Jewish Bible
  10. drug use and casting spells -- Common English Bible

The Greek word in question here is pharmakeia, which, outside of the book of Revelation, appears only here in all the NT writings. It appears twice in Revelation (9:21 and 18:23) -- the form pharmakeus appears in Rev. 21:8, and the form pharmakos is used in Rev. 22:15. "Primarily, pharmakeia signified the use of medicine, drugs, spells; then, poisoning; then, witchcraft. In sorcery, the use of drugs, whether simple or potent, was generally accompanied by incantations and appeals to occult powers" [The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 1436]. Such common words today as "pharmacist," "pharmacy" and "pharmaceuticals" come from this Greek word. The word's primary reference was to drugs, and to those who employed them for whatever reason (in this case: for godless purposes). The sorcerers would often take the drugs themselves to aid them in "seeing visions," but it was also not uncommon to give them to those who sought their services. They were the original "drug dealers," but with a religious/magical veneer. In reality, the Scriptures indicate that such persons and their practices were tapping into the power of the demonic realm, and that is always a dangerous and even deadly proposition, one Paul warns Christians against in the strongest of terms. During OT times, the pagan nations frequently employed such devices, and this Greek word is used in the Septuagint (LXX) to speak of the Egyptians who contested with Moses prior to the exodus of the Jews from their bondage (Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7, 18), and of the Canaanites (Wisdom 12:4), and of the Babylonians (Isaiah 47:9, 12). "Pharmakeia speaks in general of the use of drugs, whether helpfully by a physician or harmfully by someone whose purpose it is to inflict injury. In the LXX, the word is uniformly used in a bad sense" [Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, Galatians, p. 157]. Aristotle and Polybius also frequently used the word in this negative sense.

Most scholars accept the general meaning of this Greek term as signifying "witchcrafts by means of drugs" [Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1554]. The word also carried various other significations and applications, however. "Pharmakon means a drug which can be given to a person, or used magically by one person on another to produce an effect hurtful or the reverse. Pharmakeia is the practice of this art, and pharmakos is the practitioner. In the apostolic writings these are used in a bad sense" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 519]. One of the purposes of giving such drugs was to murder the person to whom they were given. In this sense, the term signified "to poison." Thus, those who were "sorcerers" were at times also "those who practiced poisoning" [ibid, p. 520]. "Sometimes the word pharmakon means 'to poison,' as in the Jewish prayer from the first century B.C. -- 'I call upon and pray the Most High, the Lord of the spirits and of all flesh, against those who with guile murdered or poisoned (pharmakon) the wretched, untimely lost Heraclea, shedding her innocent blood wickedly'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 495]. Such drugs were also used to loosen the moral restraints on one's behavior, thus "freeing" them to experience the pleasures of the flesh in an uninhibited manner. Thus, the Greek term is often used "in the special sense of magic spells inciting to illicit lust, a prevalent Asiatic vice" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 5, p. 410]. Such excesses were very common during the time of Paul, as can be seen, for example, in the dramatic response to his preaching in Ephesus -- "A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas" (Acts 19:19). "If the silver drachma is meant, the value would have been the equivalent of about 138 years' pay for a rural worker" [Ryrie Study Bible, p. 1704], and this total represented only a portion of the industry in that one city! Sorcery was a booming business. "The practice of sorcery was extensive, and its powers great, in many places visited by Paul" [David Lipscomb, A Commentary on the NT Epistles, vol. 3, p. 267].

Perhaps the greatest danger associated with sorcery, however, was its intimate association with the demonic realm, as well as with the prince of that realm (Satan). It was "a secret tampering with and at times a worship of the powers of evil," which acts constitute "offenses against God, as well as against ourselves and our neighbors" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 496]. It was "the secret tampering with the powers of evil, including especially the use of remedies of witchcraft, which sins were prevalent in the Greek cities of Asia Minor in those days" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, The NT, vol. 2, p. 254]. Such consorting and conniving did not die out in the early centuries of this dispensation. Far from it. Down through history one will continually find those who sought the aid of evil forces for their own nefarious purposes. Trickery and deceit, even in the name of religion, has always thrived, and Paul would have us know that in many such cases there are evil spirit forces at work behind the scenes, empowering those who may disguise themselves as servants of God. Adam Clarke, for example, pointed out that a number of Christians in his day believed that the "sorcery" or "witchcraft" of which Paul spoke in Gal. 5:20 was being perpetuated by the Roman Catholic Church. "Those who apply this also to the Romish Church understand by it the various tricks, sleights of hand, or legerdemain, by which they impose on the common people in causing images of Christ to bleed, and the various pretended miracles wrought at the tombs of pretended saints, holy wells, and such like" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1003].

The forces of this present darkness are powerful, and they are deadly. Some Christians dismiss them as somewhat benign, almost relegating these powers to mere fables for the feeble-minded. We dare not dismiss Satan and his forces so casually. Indeed, as the end draws near, their power will increase, as will their ability to deceive with seemingly miraculous acts. Our world is filled with men and women who have "sold out" to this darkness, and those evil forces are using them quite effectively to bring a reign of godlessness and terror to this world, one which will be especially difficult for those professing faith in Christ Jesus. Even within our own beloved nation we are seeing God pushed farther away, and His people increasingly mocked and maligned. Time is short, brethren; of that I am personally convinced. The spirit of sorcery is alive and well today. IN HIM, however, we have already won the ultimate victory. Let us not grow weary or discouraged in the face of this evil, for we are already more than conquerors!

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce & Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

(A 193 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution & Extremism

(A 230 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Immersed By One Spirit
Rethinking the Purpose and Place of
Baptism in NT Theology and Practice

(A 304 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Ohio:

I have been following your reports on Facebook concerning your wife, Shelly. She, you, and your whole family are in my prayers. Al, I can't thank you enough for your Reflections ministry! It has played a major part in freeing me and helping me to think outside the box of the legalistic dogma I had gotten myself into. I have this year rejoined the Churches of Christ, which I left in 2005. We all had a rocky start, but are now making progress toward freedom. Thank you for staying on the front lines of this battle, and more importantly for practicing what Jesus preaches.

From a Reader in Missouri:

I have enjoyed getting to know you on Facebook, and I really like all the family pics you post on there. I feel like I know you better now, even though I have been reading your Reflections for maybe eight years now. I have gradually been coming out of the legalistic, exclusivistic attitudes that I was brainwashed into embracing, and have been becoming more Grace- and Christ-centered, focusing more on having a relationship with God instead of on being in the "right church," or the "one true church," and making sure I did everything "right." For many years now God has been showing me that the members of the group I was in were not "the only Christians" -- He has other children right here in my hometown. I believe God is calling me to help knock down the walls that some "Christians" keep insisting on building between God's children. I like how you have explained why you never left the "Churches of Christ," but have sought instead to work within this group to help the members come out of the legalism to which they are chained. I'm wondering if maybe that is what God is calling me to do. Thanks for all you do, and for listening to your readers when they need to share with someone what is on their hearts.

From a Reader in California:

Great article in New Wineskins this month, Al (Soaring Beyond Our Shibboleths). As our friend Leroy Garrett says, "Soldier on!" As for the comments of one of your critics on there with respect to your article, I have read Kenneth Sublett's "stuff" over the years, and he has never made a lick of sense to me. His style of responding to everyone and everything is just beyond my comprehension!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Thank you for saying in your article in New Wineskins this month many of the things that were on my mind for 36 years as a Church of Christ member! Now that I am free of the bondage of the traditions of an "institutionalized church" I am living joyously free in Christ: free to walk as my Shepherd leads; led by the Spirit. Free to be a blessing to those I meet up with in everyday life, and free to fellowship and worship with His saints in peace and joy wherever they may be. I have been in a few legalistic congregations, and have found that legalism kills joy and makes it impossible to truly live in Christ. My heart goes out to those still in bondage. They don't know how bad they really have it, or how much joy could be theirs if they would choose to let go, walk away from man's governance of their lives, and let the Lord have a go at it for a while. My prayers are with all who don't yet have eyes to see this, and they are also with you, Al, as you help open those eyes. Thanks again, brother.

From an Elder in Florida:

I need to get a copy of your baptism book -- Immersed By One Spirit -- ASAP, as we are doing some very serious restudy of that topic here at our congregation. I am very close to the conclusion that our Stone-Campbell view of water baptism is much more "sacramental" than "symbolic" (although "we" would deny it to the wall). The greatest danger of the sacramental view is that it focuses salvation confidence in "our obedience" rather than letting Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, "plunge" us into the cleansing of His blood, raising us up to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Your latest article "Lions, Leopards and Lambs" is the type of Reflections that I like best. They help me understand difficult passages, and give me renewed hope when I need it most. Thank you!

From a Reader in Vienna, Austria:

Genesis 3:14, where God said to the serpent after the fall, "Cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life," sheds an interesting light on the passage from Isaiah which you dealt with in your last Reflections: "The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food" (Isaiah 65:25). While the whole creation will be restored to its peaceful state at the beginning (though incorruptible), there is no restoration for the serpent -- i.e., Satan won't be forgiven, and therefore won't be restored.

From a New Reader in Nigeria:

I just read Reflections #73 -- The Nicolaitans: A Case Study in Compromise. Your thoughts on this subject are profound and very revealing. You may add me to your mailing list. God bless you.

From a College Professor in Texas:

Al, thank you so much for your contribution to much needed dialogue on many important issues! Have you come across the Reasons To Believe web site? If not, check it out. I think you would enjoy it. You'll find that they take a very reasoned, gentle approach to all issues involving science and faith. I wish you God's continued blessings!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, I think you need to do some more research!! I'm quite certain that lions and lambs getting along at some future date surely is speaking about Elders and Preachers!! (LOL) Have a great week, brother.

From a Reader in Kansas:

Lions, leopards, lambs ... literal or non-literal ... that's all part of the problem. I have a hard time believing that lions could survive on grain when their dentition is not that of a herbivore and they don't have the compound stomach to break down cellulose. Yet in Genesis we are told that seeds and green plants were to be for food for every living creature. It won't work!! It is often said that God is not the author of confusion. Sometimes that's hard for me to believe.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

I came across your web site while doing an Internet search to determine why in the world the translators of the NASB added the word "daughter" to 1 Cor. 7:36. Although you and I differ pretty widely on doctrinal issues (the main one being "original sin," I think), nevertheless I wanted to thank you for the work you did on the strengths and weaknesses of the various English translations and versions (A View of the Versions). I primarily use the NASB, but enjoy the KJV as well, and have been blessed by my Lord to have many other English versions in the house. I was, therefore, really blessed by your discussion of the many mistakes in the KJV. Your above studies were very insightful, and I just wanted to write and tell you how much I appreciated them. I have sent your links to my grown kiddos, and also to my sister. May the Lord richly bless you and those you love.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

I appreciate your efforts to open the eyes of those who are blinded by their preconceived notions. Humanity still has a tendency to strain gnats and swallow camels, and most theologians, it appears to me, spend way too much time trying to speak for God and arguing over things that don't relate to our salvation.

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