In Galatians 5:20, among the deeds of the flesh, Paul lists "pharmakeia," which, as i understand, is commonly translated as sorcery or witchcraft, referring to the use or administering of drugs or poisons or spells or connection to spirits, sometimes in connection with idolatry, that may possibly lead to deceptions or enticements of the mind or body. I have also read that this is the Greek word for medicines or drugs that inhibit or alter a person's perception, personality, or behavior, aka, mind altering substances. First off, do I understand Paul's view and usage of this word correctly in this text?

Secondly, if I do, what are some examples of Paul's view of drug use in his world that would adequately describe what is pharmakiea, pharmakiea-like, and deemed as fleshly by Paul, in the spirit of the lists of Galatians 5? In his day, does Paul's view of pharmakeia and the flesh have any bearing on drug use in general and, specifically, on mind-altering drugs? Is it speaking to drug use in the general population or only those being practiced upon by certain special individuals, or, also on those dabbling in practice and use?

Lastly, do your examples include whether Paul's usage of pharmakeia had any impact on the healers' community of his day? Did it include commenting on or regulating their use of drugs? Or is what they did with drugs totally different. I understand that in 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul writes to Timothy and says, "No longer drink water exclusively, but use a "little" wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments." I've heard that this is sometimes cited as affirming biblicaly that "proper" use of medicinal treatments of potent foods or drug substances was accepted as proper and fitting in Paul's day. If this is true and is so, this type of drug use appears to refer to a different class of drug use than what Paul was saying pharmakeia was speaking against. If drugs and potent foods that are being used "appropriately" for healing, health, and well-being are taken off of the table for being examples of pharmakeia as a class of drug use independent of pharmakeia, again, what drug uses would exemplify the type of use this word is representing to Paul in his day? If this logic doesn't hold and healing uses of drugs are not totally taken off of the table by this example, my question persists, what types of examples of drug use was Paul referring to when he used the word pharmakeia/sorcery in his day and do they include comments on or regulations of healers' uses of drugs at that time?

**note regarding Paul's appropriate medicinal use of wine--Paul's use of wine is significant to me. used improperly, it could lead to enticements and deceptions of the mind and body. but, under most circumstances, it does not seem that a "little wine" would affect the proper function of the mind and body and consciousness in a way that blinds, dulls, deceives, entices, or injures their ideal states, and it doesn't seem that it would normally alter proper service and worship to God. it seems a comparison could be made with other mind-altering drugs

see L&N 53.100:

φαρμακεία: “the use of magic, often involving drugs and the casting of spells upon people – ‘to practice magic, to cast spells upon, to engage in sorcery, magic, sorcery.’

see LSJ:

φαρμᾰκ-άω, suffer from the effect of drugs or charms, D.46.16, Thphr.Fr.105, Plu.2.1016e, etc. II. require a remedy, Luc.Lex. 4.

φαρμᾰκ-είᾱ, ἡ, use of drugs, esp. of purgatives, Hp.Aph.1.24, 2.36 (both pl.), PCair.Zen.18.5 (iii B. C.), Gal.15.447, etc.; αἱ ἄνω φ., i. e. emetics, Arist.Pr.962a3; of abortifacients, Sor.1.59: generally, the use of any kind of drugs, potions, or spells, Pl.Lg.933b: pl., Id.Prt. 354a, Ti.89b, Men.535.9. 2. poisoning or witchcraft, D.40 57, Plb.6.13.4, POxy.486.21 (ii A. D.); αἱ περὶ τὰς φαρμακείας, = αἱ φαρμακίδες, Arist.HA572a22. II. metaph., remedy, παιδιὰς προσάγειν φαρμακείας χάριν Id.Pol.1337b41.

See Thayer's:

φαρμακεία (WH κια, so T (except in Galatians 5:20; cf. the Proleg., p. 88); see Iota), φαρμακείας, ἡ (φαρμακεύω); a. the use or the administering of drugs (Xenophon, mem. 4, 2, 17). b. poisoning (Plato, Polybius, others): Revelation 9:21 (here WH text Tr marginal reading φαρμακῶν; many interpretations refer the passage to the next entry). c. sorcery, magical arts, often found in connection with idolatry and fostered by it: Galatians 5:20 (where see Lightfoot) (Wis. 12:4 Wis. 18:13; for כְּשָׁפִים, Isaiah 47:9; for לָטִים, Exodus 7:22; Exodus 8:18; for לְהָטִים, Exodus 7:11); tropically, of the deceptions and seductions of idolatry, Revelation 18:23.

  • Regarding wine, "Paul" may have in mind 2 Maccabees 15:39: "...For as it is hurtful to drink wine or water alone; and as wine mingled with water is pleasant, and delighteth the taste: even so speech finely framed delighteth the ears of them that read the story. And here shall be an end..." bibledex.com/verses/maccabees_ending.html This is because water could not be trusted without the alcohol of wine to sanitize it, and vice versa.
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    Jun 28, 2016 at 1:07
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1 Answer 1


BDAG has the following for the word in question from Galatians 5:20:

φαρμακεία, ας, ἡ (also-κία; X., Pla. et al.; Vett. Val., pap, LXX; En, AscIs; Philo, Spec. Leg. 3, 94; 98; Ar. 13, 7; Tat. 18, 1) sorcery, magic (φάρμακον; Polyb. 38, 16, 7; Ex 7:11, 22; 8:14; Is 47:9, 12; Wsd 12:4; 18:13; En 7:1; SibOr 5, 165) Rv 18:23. Pl. magic arts 9:21 (v.l. φαρμάκων). In a list of vices Gal 5:20; B 20:1 (AscIs 2:5 ἐπλήθυνεν [ἡ] φαρμακία καὶ ἡ μαγία καὶ ἡ μαντία … καὶ ἡ πορνία … ); pl. D 5:1.—B. 1495. DELG s.v. φάρμακον. M-M.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 1049). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Notice that it says nothing about drugs.

This word has several cognates that do deal with formulae/potions (they didn't really do chemistry per se back then), notably this one:

φάρμακον, ου, τό (s. three prec. entries; Hom. et al.; ins, pap, LXX; TestAbr A, Test12Patr; Philo; Jos., Vi. 150). Prim. ‘a drug’, ordinarily contexts indicate whether salubrious or noxious. ① a harmful drug, poison (Hom. et al.; Jos., Ant. 16, 253; 17, 62; TestAbr A 17 p. 99, 28 [Stone p. 46]; TestJos 5:1; Hippol., Ref. 4, 30, 2) Hv 3, 9, 7a (w. φαρμακός); in imagery of the ‘poisoned’ heart, ibid. 7b. θανάσιμον φάρμ. (s. θανάσιμος) ITr 6:2. δηλητήριον φάρμ. lethal poison Papias (2:9). ② a drug used as a controlling medium, magic potion, charm (Hom.+; PSI 64, 20 [I B.C.]; 4 Km 9:22; TestReub 4:9; Jos., Ant. 15, 93; 19, 193; Hippol., Ref. 6, 39, 3) φαρμάκων Rv 9:21 (v.l. φαρμακειῶν). ③ a healing remedy, medicine, remedy, drug (Hom. et al.; SIG 1168, 40; 77; 119; PRyl 62, 22 [I B.C.]; PTebt 117, 22 [I B.C.]; PGM 5, 247; TestJos 2:7; Philo; Jos., Bell. 4, 573; Ar. 10, 5; Tat. 20, 1; λογικὸν φ. Orig., C. Cels. 5, 1, 11; Did., Gen. 72, 8) in trans. sense of means of attaining someth., w. gen. of the thing desired (Eur., Phoen. 893 φ. σωτηρίας; likew. the teaching of Epicurus: CJensen, GGAbh III/5, ’33, 81; Cleopatra ln. 45; 130 φ. τῆς ζωῆς; Sir 6:16), the Eucharist as φάρμακον ἀθανασίας the medicine of (i.e. means of attaining) immortality IEph 20:2 (φ. ἀθαν. Antiphanes Com. 86, 6; Diod S 1, 25, 6; Herm. Wr. 460, 13 Sc. The remedy, widely designated by the t.t. φ. ἀθαν., whose origin was credited to Isis, was prescribed for the most varied diseases. TSchermann, TQ 92, 1910, 6ff; Rtzst., Mysterienrel. 400).—TAllbutt, Greek Medicine in Rome 1921; other lit. OCD, s.v. ‘Medicine’.—B. 310f. Schmidt, Syn. IV 106–16. DELG. M-M. Sv.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 1050). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I define "confusion" as "treating two or more different things as if they were the same thing". The OP seems to have read Paul's usage of a word that means "magic" with a very, very similar cognate that refers to "potions" which may or may not be used as part of magic.

So to make a long story short, Galatians 5:20 has nothing to say about the use of potions, except in the context of sorcery.

Regarding wine, "Paul" may have in mind 2 Maccabees 15:39:

"...For as it is hurtful to drink wine or water alone; and as wine mingled with water is pleasant, and delighteth the taste: even so speech finely framed delighteth the ears of them that read the story. And here shall be an end..."


This is because water could not be trusted without the alcohol of wine to sanitize it, and vice versa.

Regarding "witchcraft":

...Drugs and Charms. An obscure class of soothsayers was called "mekashshefim" (comp. the "nomen abstractum" "kesha"; see Deut. xviii. 11; II Kings ix. 22; Mic. v. 12; Nah. iii. 4). W. R. Smith (l.c. p. 125) argues that the root "kashaf" means "to use magical appliances, or drugs"; and many interpreters follow him. Those who doubt the correctness of this explanation are unable to suggest an alternative. This interpretation receives some support from the facts that the Septuagint in Nah. iii. 4 gives φάρμακα, and that the belief in the use of drugs or herbs is very old, as is shown by the mention of mandrakes in Gen. xxx. 14-19. In the oldest code capital punishment is ordained for this class of sorcerers (comp. Ex. xxii. 18).

A further branch of witchcraft was "laḥash," or charming (comp. Isa. iii. 3). In Jer. viii. 17 and Eccl. x. 11 the word is used of snake-charming. Kindred in function to the "laḥash" was the "ḥober" (comp. Deut. xviii. 11), which Ps. lviii. 5 makes parallel to "laḥash." "Laḥash," curiously, does not appear in Deut. xviii. 10-11, a passage which Ewald and W. R. Smith regard as an exhaustive list of forbidden enchantments. In its place there is "naḥash" ("menaḥesh"). As ל and נ are both liquids, possibly the two roots are connected. In reality, however, "naḥash" seems to have had a different meaning. Gen. xliv. 5 says that Joseph divined ("yenaḥesh") by means of a cup, perhaps by watching the play of light in a cup of liquid. Balaam (Num. xxiv. 1) is said to have occupied himself with enchantments ("neḥashim"). Since Balaam observed omens on the hilltops, his oracles must have been deduced from some other natural phenomena. As the equivalent term in Syriac, "nāḥshā," is one which covers portents from the flight of birds as well as other natural occurrences, "laḥash" probably refers, as W. R. Smith concludes, to divination by natural omens and presages. If so, it was not always tabooed by the best men in Israel, for David once received an omen for a successful military attack from the sounds in the tops of certain trees (II Sam. v. 24).

Another term often used to describe sorcery is "ḳesem" (Num. xxiii. 23; Deut. xviii. 10; I Sam. xv. 23; II Kings xvii, 17; Isa. iii. 2; Ezek. xxi. 21). This method of divination is elucidated in Ezek. xxi., R. V., where the King of Babylon is represented as standing at the parting of the ways, and using divination to determine whether to proceed first against Rabbah of Ammon or against Jerusalem. "He shook the arrows to and fro, he consulted the teraphim, he looked in the liver." In verse 22 (Hebr.) it is declared that in "his right hand was the ḳesem for Jerusalem." It would appear, therefore, that "ḳesem" was a method of divination by arrows. Arabian analogy here throws much light upon the practise, as this system of drawing lots by means of arrows, and thus obtaining an oracle, was practised by the Arabs, and the details are quite well known (comp. W. R. Smith in "Journal of Philology," xiii. 277 et seq.). The lots were drawn with headless arrows in the presence of an idol, and were accompanied by a sacrifice. The method was thoroughly analogous to that which Ezekiel describes. The "ḳesem" was accordingly a method of casting lots. Among the Arabs judicial sentences were obtained in this way, so that it became a kind of ordeal. Such, probably, was the case in Israel, for Prov. xvi. 10 declares that "A divine sentence ["ḳesem"] is in the lips of the king: His mouth shall not transgress in judgment" (R. V.)...


  • @caleb The example from Exodus 7:11 doesn't seem to involve drugs. I guess it might require a review of more of the literature to get a good sense of what Paul meant.
    – user10231
    Jun 28, 2016 at 22:23
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    It might be worth it to include the definitions from (e.g.) LSJ and Thayer. Jun 30, 2016 at 4:47
  • It might also be worth consulting some of these resources, as Thayers is extremely old and Strong's Concordance is not a lexicon. You might have better luck finding what you are looking for with those resources. Jun 30, 2016 at 15:02

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