Glossary of Terms

magic, divination, necromancy, spiritualism


Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

magic. Widely practiced among the ancient nations, forbidden to the Israelites. In Deut. 18:10-14 there is a list of the forbidden practices, and the reason they are not to be followed is given. Gen. 41:8; Ex. 7:11; Isa. 3:3; Ezek.13:18; Acts 13:6-8.

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words

by W.E. Vine (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1981)


A. Verb.

PERIERGAZOMAI (Strong's #4020), lit., to be working round about, instead of at one’s own business (peri, around, ergon, work), signifies to take more pains than enough about a thing, to waste one’s labour, to be meddling with, or bustling about, other people’s matters. This is found in 2 Thess. 3:11, where, following the verb ergazomai, to work, it forms a paronomasia. This may be produced in a free rendering: ‘some who are not busied in their own business, but are overbusied in that of others.'

B. Adjective.

PERIERGOS (Strong's #4021), akin to PERIERGAZOMAI, denoting taken up with trifles,... busy about trifles...; “busybodies” in 1 Tim. 5:13, where the meaning is “inquisitive,” prying into other people’s affairs, meddling in other persons’ affairs... It is used of magic arts in Acts 19:19 (lit., ‘things that are around work,’ and thus superfluous), i.e., the arts of those who pry into forbidden things, with the aid of evil spirits.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

magic and divination, means by which humans attempt to secure for themselves some action or information from superhuman powers. Magic is an attempt by human beings to compel a divinity, by the use of physical means, to do what they wish that divinity to do. Divination is an attempt to secure information, also by the use of physical means, about matters and events that are currently hidden or that lie in the future. The word ‘magus,’ from which the word ‘magic’ is derived, came originally from Persia, where it designated a priestly class. From there, it spread to all nations in the Mediterranean world. Magical practices are as old as the written records of humanity, and, in the world of the Bible, they can be found in ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greek documents. Although a systematic presentation of the theory of magic did not appear in the Greco-Roman literature until the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era, the general principles upon which the practice of magic was based were more or less accepted by all. These principles may be summarized briefly as follows:

A host of intermediary beings called demons exist between gods and humans. Depending on their proximity to the gods, demons possess divine power in diminishing measures. Those closest to the gods have bodies of air; those closest to humans, bodies of steam or water. Because of this descending order, the unity of the cosmos can be preserved. Otherwise, human and divine would be irreparably separated and no communication between the two would be possible. Everything is connected through the demons who mediate between the divine and the material. Magic rests upon the belief that by getting hold of demons in physical objects, the divinity can be influenced. The magician’s art is to find out which material (metal, herb, animal, etc.) contains which divinity and to what degree. By using the element or combinations of elements containing a particular divinity in its purest form, a sympathetic relationship with the divinity will be established. If, however, elements offensive to a divinity are used, the result will be antipathetic. Thus magic can achieve either blessing or curse. The magician knows the secret and knows how to use it in the correct way with the best results.

Magic and the Biblical World: Because of the pervasive presence in the biblical world of magical beliefs and practices, one should not be surprised that such practices seeped into the lives of the Israelites and the early Christians. Even where magic was not intended, the need to speak about divine-human contact inevitably made use of the same vocabulary and concepts used in magic.

The most awesome power seemed to rest in the name of a divinity, because the name and its bearer were in the closest relationship to each other. The name of God, YHWH, was, therefore, never pronounced (Exod. 3:13-15). Jesus ‘has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself’ (Rev. 19:12). The divine name could invoke blessing and drive away evil, so baptism in the early church was administered ‘in the name’ of God and Jesus (Matt. 28:19), and healings were accomplished in Jesus’ name (Acts 3:6).

It was believed that great power rested in those holy men who were in close proximity to God. Physical contact with such a person would have beneficial consequences. Thus Elijah could heal the son of the widow of Zarephath by stretching ‘himself upon the child three times’ (1 Kings 17:17-24). The same miracle was repeated by Elisha with the son of the Shunamite (2 Kings 4:31-37). Jesus touched the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and she was healed (Matt. 8:14-15); he touched the eyes of the blind men and they received their sight (Matt. 9:29). The Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands; this was the secret the magician Simon wished to learn (Acts 8:9-24). Anything in connection with such holy men absorbed and transmitted a portion of their power. Elijah’s mantle parted the waters of the Jordan, and when Elisha put it on, Elijah’s spirit rested on him (2 Kings 2:8-15). The garment of Jesus radiated and transmitted healing power (Mark 5:28-29), as did the handkerchiefs and aprons that people carried away from the body of Paul (Acts 19:11-12). Some believers even attributed beneficial properties to the shadow of Peter (Acts 5:15).

Of course, contact with ‘unclean’ objects would have a negative effect; hence the many purificatory rites. Purification was achieved by the use of the correct rites and materials, among which particular power was attributed to blood (Lev. 14:25), water (Lev. 15:5), fire (Num. 31:23), but also to hyssop, scarlet thread, and many other agents (Ps. 51:7; Num. 19:18; Lev. 14:4). Since demonology is an integral part of the theory of magic, the biblical references to demons and exorcisms will reflect this kind of understanding.

Magic could be practiced on various levels. Accordingly, the Bible uses several words to refer to this occupation. On the highest level were the ‘Magi,’ the ‘wise men,’ of Matthew 2 and the ‘Chaldeans’ of Daniel 1 and 2 who had priestly functions. Daniel was made ‘chief of the magicians’ because ‘the spirit of the holy gods…light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him…’ (Dan. 5:11). On the lowest level were the ‘imposters’ (2 Tim. 3:13) who played their tricks as do circus magicians today. Between these were the sorcerers, enchanters, and charmers who could cast spells and knew how to use herbs, potions, and drugs.

One of the earliest references to magic is the confrontation between Moses and the Egyptian magicians (Exod. 8:5-9:12). In the plains of Moab, Balak offered a great amount of money to Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites (Num. 22); curse and blessing are also in Deborah’s song (Judg. 5). In the scapegoat ritual, by laying his hands upon the head of the goat, Aaron transmitted the people’s sins to the animal (Lev. 16:2-22). Near the land of Edom, a bronze serpent made by Moses and placed on a pole was instrumental in saving the lives of the people (Num. 21:4-9; 2 Kings 18:4; cf. John 3:14-15).

Methods of Divination: With divination, in contrast to magic, one does not seek to alter the course of events, only to learn about them. The ancient world developed many devices by which the veil of secrecy covering future events could be lifted. Oracles, such as the Pythia in Delphi, the oak trees of Dodona, or the Memnon of Thebes, were media chosen by the gods through which direct messages came. The future could also be divined by interpreting the signs that the gods sent, such as the flight of birds, eating habits of chickens, and the condition of the entrails, especially the liver, of sacrificial animals (such divination was practiced in the recently excavated city of Mari on the upper Euphrates, but see also Ezek. 21:21). Calling up the dead (necromancy) has survived to our day, as has the interpretation of dreams, which were believed to be major vehicles by which the gods sent messages. The casting of lots to determine the will of the gods was practiced all through the recorded history of humankind. So we read that God appeared to Abraham at the oak tree of Moreh (Gen. 12:6-7) and that the flight of arrows foretold a victory to King Joash (2 Kings 13:14-19). Saul resorted to necromancy when ‘the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets,’ and he had to consult the medium of Endor to bring up Samuel for him (1 Sam. 28). Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh (Gen. 41); Daniel those of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2, 4). Joseph, husband of Mary, received messages in dreams (Matt. 1:20-21; 2:13), as did the wise men (Matt. 2:12), and Pilate’s wife (Matt. 27:13).

This selection of references does not exhaust the importance of dreams, to which we may add visions (e.g., the vision of Samuel in the Temple, 1 Sam. 3; Peter’s vision in Acts 10) which were so widespread that the word is used in the rsv more than one hundred times. During the early history of Israel, it was an accepted practice to ‘inquire of the Lord’ (Judg. 1:1-2; 1 Sam. 10:22). This expression implies an oracle (similar to Delphi in Greece) where a question could be asked and a reply given by God through a medium. The Urim and Thummim (or ephod) were also oracular media, but answers were restricted to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (1 Sam. 23:9-12; 30:7-8; Num. 27:21). The same results could be gained by casting lots (Lev. 16:8; Num. 26:55-56), and the ot preserves stories that show the same thing was done by Phoenicians (Jon. 1:7), Persians (Esther 9:24-26), and Romans (Matt. 27:35). The last reference to this sort of divination in the nt comes from the time when the eleven apostles replaced Judas with Matthias by praying and casting lots (Acts 1:26).

In spite of this seeming popularity, however, both magic and divination were strongly opposed in both ot and nt (Isa. 8:19; 44:25; 47:12-15; Deut. 18:10-12; Acts 8:9-24; 13:6-11; 19:13-20; Rev. 21:8; 22:15). The Bible teaches that humans have direct access to God, and the nt especially emphasizes that the role of demons and other intermediaries was made superfluous by Jesus Christ.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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