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Sorcery, or Use of Drugs?

The word pharmakeia is the word from which we get our word “pharmacy.” It is one of the sins on Paul’s list of the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20, and for which Babylon the Great is condemned in Revelation 18:23, as well as the list of serious sins from which apocalyptic plague victims refuse to repent (Revelation 9:21). Pharmakeia also appears on three of the earliest sin lists from the early church: Didachē 2:2 and 5:1, and Barnabas 20:1, while the people who practice it (pharmakoi) are excluded from the Holy City in Revelation 21:8 and 22:15.

Whatever it is, pharmakeia sounds like a moral felony that we certainly want to know more about, since Paul warns, “Those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Could pharmakeia in Galatians 5:20 be Biblical grounds to forbid the use of mind-altering drugs? If not, then what exactly is this sin? Let’s take a closer look at this word!

In pagan Greek literature, pharmakeia is the use of pharmaka, “drugs,” “potions,” or “poisons.” The verb pharmakoō means “to medicate.” However, in Jewish literature, pharmakeia is almost always translated “sorcery” or “witchcraft.” In the Greek Old Testament, the word pharmaka translates the Hebrew keshaphīm for the “sorceries” of Jezebel in 2 Kings 9:22 and the lehaṭīm or “secret arts” in Exodus 7:11, 7:22, 8:3, and 8:14, while pharmakoi is used for the Egyptian magicians in Exodus 7:11 and pharmakeia is used for Babylonian sorcery in Isaiah 47:9 and 47:12.

But pharmakeia was not the only word available for sorcery or witchcraft. There was also mageia, “magic” (the Magi as a social class were commonly thought of as “magicians”). Indeed, mageia is listed right next to pharmakeia on the sin lists in the Didachē and Barnabas, and magoi appear right next to the pharmakoi in the Greek version of Daniel 2:2. Perhaps we can see the magoi as specialists in divination, while the pharmakoi practiced witchcraft with a chemistry set.

The use of pharmakeia (drugs or potions) was not always viewed negatively. Sirach 6:16 says, “A faithful friend is a pharmakon of life.” Testament of Joseph 2:7 says, “Patience is a great pharmakon.” Ignatius (Ephesians 20:1) calls the bread of the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality.” Sirach 38:4 says that “The Lord has created medicines (pharmaka) out of the earth, and those who are sensible will not despise them.” Even the Jewish philosopher Philo (Sacrifices 19:70-71) backhandedly concedes that drugs can be used for healing, but he thinks that people wrongfully resort to drugs instead of to God.

Drugs were sometimes used for persuasion. In Testament of Reuben 4:9, we are told that Potiphar’s wife “summoned magicians and brought drugs (pharmaka)” to try to persuade Joseph to sleep with her. The historian Josephus tells us that Cleopatra tried to persuade Marc Antony to do her bidding, not only with conversation, but also with pharmaka (Antiquities 15.93), while at the same time she used a pharmakon to murder her brother (15:89).

There’s where the potential evil of pharmakeia lay in the mind of most Greeks and Romans: the risk of being secretly poisoned by an enemy. Pharmakeia (Latin veneficium) was a capital crime, whether it involved poisoning victims, or any messing around with the powers of the underworld. Yet pharmakeia reached all the way up to Caesar’s palace. Rest assured, a Roman court could tell the difference between the use of pharmaka by a doctor to bring healing, and the use of poisons to murder unsuspecting victims.

Opium and kannabis would have been the two mind-altering pharmaka that were best known to the Biblical world. I have written more about this in chapter 5 of my first book, What’s on God’s Sin List for Today? Whether Paul and John had witchcraft, poisoning, or the abuse of drugs in mind when they used the term pharmakeia on their sin lists is hard to say; we do well to avoid all three. Within the central root meaning of pharmakeia and its related words, I see a huge potential connection between drugs and the occult. But let me share with you what I see to be the Biblical basis against the use of mind-altering drugs.

First, there is Paul’s teaching “Do not be drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5:18), which we discussed in chapter 5 of this book. Paul is not singling out wine, as if it were OK to be drunk with beer, liquor, marijuana, or other mind-altering drugs. No, Paul is forbidding the use of any mind-altering substance to get high. Notice that Paul contrasts drunkenness with being controlled by the Holy Spirit. We endanger ourselves any time we open our minds to forces that are not from God. Doing so is akin to witchcraft, which is why the word pharmakeia might fit well as a term for the dangers of abusing mind-altering drugs.

Second, we have the example of Jesus on the cross. In Matthew 27:34, Jesus was offered pain-killer (“gall”) mixed with wine, which may have been either opium or absinthe, although Mark 15:23 says it was “myrrh.” Whichever pain-killer he was offered, Jesus refused to endure the pain of hell for a world full of sinners while being drugged out of his mind. Yes, there is a place for the legitimate use of drugs to kill physical pain (Proverbs 31:6-7 hints at it), but we must avoid drugs as an escape from the emotional pain of life.

Which leads to the final part of our Biblical basis against the abuse of drugs: 1 Corinthians 6:12, “I will not be enslaved by anything.” This teaching can be applied to any addictive substance, including alcohol and tobacco, to drugs that needlessly alter our consciousness, and even good gifts of God such as food and sex. God wants to set us free from all that enslaves us!