In two biblical passages, namely Galatians 5:20 and Revelation 18:23, the term pharmakeia is mentioned. Similarly, other terms derived from the same root word can be found in Revelation 9:21, Revelation 21:8, and Revelation 22:15. These terms are usually translated as "sorcery," "witchcraft," or "sorcerer" in English. Interestingly, in ancient Greek, pharmakeia has a similar meaning to the more generic modern English term "drugs." In fact, the same Greek root word is responsible for producing English words like "pharmacy" and "pharmacist."
The contemporary meaning of sorcery is often associated with the use of supernatural abilities and casting spells. However, the biblical concept of pharmakeia does not align with these connotations. Instead, it refers to the misuse of drugs in different forms, such as during pagan rituals, as an addictive substance, or as a means of manipulating and dominating others.
The English language has specific terms for medicines, chemicals, and illicit substances such as drugs (https://www.gotquestions.org/sin-drugs.html). While both a "pharmacist" and a "drug dealer" distribute chemicals, they do so for different purposes and with different types of substances. Due to the use of different vocabulary in English, phrases like "selling drugs" have a negative connotation, whereas terms like "taking meds" or "prescription drugs" (https://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-prescription-drugs.html) do not imply any wrongdoing. The ancient Greeks used the term "pharmakeia" to encompass a wide range of substances, including medicines, psychoactives, and poisons. Therefore, understanding the cultural and biblical context is crucial when interpreting terms related to "pharmakeia".
Mind-altering chemicals were common in ancient societies. Archaeologists have found evidence of substances like opium and hemp in cultures during biblical times. While not as potent as modern drugs, these compounds still had strong effects. For instance, carfentanyl, a synthetic drug, is a hundred thousand times more powerful than natural opium, making it possible to tranquilize an elephant with a small dart. However, opium itself is still a potent substance.
In ancient times, substances that could change one’s mood were utilized in conjunction with religious rituals. For example, temples in Greece may have employed mind-altering drugs for divination and prophecy. These could have been made from natural vapors or intentionally created mixtures. During the period when Paul wrote Galatians and John documented Revelation, these methods were likely associated with idolatrous practices of paganism.
According to 1 Timothy 4:4, substances that change a person’s perceptions can have both medicinal and recreational uses. However, they can also be misused for predatory purposes, manipulating others who are under their influence. The biblical idea of "sorcery" appears to align with this negative end of the spectrum. It can be seen as similar to a modern-day "drug dealer" or someone who spikes a woman’s drink with chemicals to exploit her.
In the book of Galatians, Paul includes Galatians 5:20 in a list of contrasts to the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This list, known as the works of the flesh, (Galatians 5:19-21) appears to have some structure. The references are categorized into groups based on similar offenses. Paul first mentions sexual sin, followed by idolatry, then "sorcery" or pharmakeia, and then division. He then moves on to mention drunkenness and debauchery. Interestingly, Paul’s mention of pharmakeia is grouped closer to idolatry and sexual sins rather than drunkenness, indicating its association with the use of illicit drugs in ungodly spiritual practices.
John’s allusions could potentially be linked to pagan rituals, as seen in Revelation 9:21 which is preceded by a denunciation of idolatry. However, this reference is also situated between mentions of murder and sexual immorality. In Revelation 18:23, Babylon is condemned for its deceitful ways, a language that closely resembles Nahum 3:4 where "charms" are mentioned. The Hebrew term used in Nahum, kesheph, is often associated with idolatry and frequently translated as "sorcery." This can also be observed in 2 Kings 9:22, Isaiah 47:9, 12, and Micah 5:12.
When considering all aspects, the precise definition of pharmakeia may not be entirely transparent, but it is not entirely ambiguous either. It is not implied in the Bible that words like pharmakeia are used to describe supernatural abilities. Instead, the term "sorcery" in biblical context appears to refer to the misuse of drugs for purposes such as idol worship, leisure, or mistreatment of others.