Pharmakeia in Galatians 5:20. What does it mean?

I have a question for any Christian who reads the bible, as well as any non-christian who has at least some rudimentary knowledge of the Greek language. What does Paul mean by “sorcery” in Galatians 5:20? The Greek word is “pharmakeia”. Here is the verse:

What would Paul have meant by the word “pharmakeia” which most English versions translate as “sorcery”?

What say ye Christians and scholars. What would the word “pharmakeia” have meant to a first century Christian, Jew or Pagan?

I believe it means manipulation or deception.

Why do you think it means that? Is there a lexicon, for example, that says that? How did you arrive at that conclusion?

Because sorcery is about trickery, to fool some one, its a lie.

I wonder if you could cite some sources so as to offer an explanation as to how you reached your conclusion. Are you quoting from a Greek lexicon? Is that how other Greek literature from that period defines the word pharmakeia? Are you just guessing? Explain your answer, please.

I looked up the meaning of sorcery and came to a logical conclusion, didn’t seem that cryptic to me. The explanation either fits and makes sense in context or it doesn’t, to me it does so there is a good chance it’s correct in my mind.

Did you really think it was such a difficult written passage? Do you disagree, if so why?

The book of Galatians was written about 50 A.D. An early Christian document called The Didache, written about 100 A.D., also has the word “pharmakeia”:

This quote is from Kurt Niederwimmer’s commentary on the Didache. He translates “pharmakeia” as “mixing poisons”. It is in the same context with “murder” so it must mean trying to kill someone with poison, such as a political assassination. So perhaps that’s what Paul meant in Galatians 5:20.

I think it means drugs.

Hallucinogens, opium, etc. Seems to fit with the second quote, “mixing poisons.”

Also, I’d be willing to bet we get the word “pharmacy” from the greek root “pharmakeia.”

Knox is basically right. There’s no need to guess or speculate on this. Pharmakeia means the usage of drugs, and drugs were quite often a part of oracular predictions at the time, hence the translation as sorcery- the root word literally means druggist, but the purpose of a druggist back then was not to heal you, but as tools in sorcery. Just Google pharmakeia, you’ll see my sources.

Our English word “pnuematic” as in air tools comes from the Greek word “pnuema”. However, I don’t think Jesus meant “God is an impact wrench” when he said “God is spirit (pnuema)”

Nevertheless, your assumption is a reasonable “assumption”. Many of our English words have roots in the Greek language. Here’s a few excerpts from Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon on Greek words having the root “pharma”:

“poisoner, sorcerer, surgery, to be purged, mild remedy, a ring containing poison, title of a lost work by Hippocrates, season in cookery, preservatives, prepare dyes or colors, preparation of drugs, medicines for cattle, a medicine to restore or maintain health, enchanted poison, one who grinds drugs or colours, drinking of medicine, drinking of poison, treatment of metals, to be poisoned, medicines applied outwardly, of the oil applied to wrestlers, rich in medicinal herbs, enchant or bewitch by potions, bewitch by flattery, to be bewitched”

And that’s not all the definitions listed in Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon. That’s a very broad definition of Greek words having the root pharma. Which one do you think Paul means in Galatians 5:20?

Here’s another excerpt from Liddell and Scott:

pharmakeia- use of drugs, especially of purgatives; emetics; of abortifacients.

Do you think Paul means abortion?

Here’s another excerpt from Liddell and Scott:

pharmakos- one sacrificed or executed as an atonement or purification for others, scapegoat.

Or do you think Paul might mean scapegoating?

I think he means drugs, since that seems to be major theme of the definitions you listed.

To get more precise than that is overanalysis, IMO. Kind of like asking whether a BJ counts as “adultery.”

So all drugs are bad and you wont inherit the kingdom of heaven if you use drugs in any manor?

I don’t think this works, if you reverse engineer it by replacing the word in question with its modern meaning then the paragraph does not make sense.

I’ll stick with what I said, I think the translation of sorcery was done purposely to mean what it was taken to mean in that time and context, going back to the original words does not always work since those words don’t have the same meaning anymore and the scholars of the time knew it so they used the word sorcery, otherwise they could have just used the word pharmaceuticals, no?

This is one area where I think that the idea of ‘expediency’ becomes very important.

Everybody thinks doctors still swear the Hippocratic Oath – they don’t, they swear an oath that was created at the Geneva Convention. Why? Because one of the things you have to swear not to do in the Hippocratic Oath is surgery. Which makes sense, because in Ancient Greece, surgery wasn’t such a great idea (though the Egyptians did perform it with, understandably, limited results).

Likewise, the use of medicinal drugs (especially in the ancient world) was intimately linked with witch doctoring of all sorts. All healing was faith healing, some of it just happened to involve herbs that contained chemicals that worked. But there is no way for people to have known this at the time, all they knew was that these herbs were blessed by a priest of Asclepios (or insert native-god-of-medicine-here).

So, I think that Christians not consuming herbs blessed by pagan gods falls under the same category as Christians not consuming meat from a sacrifice to said pagan gods. The idea is the same.

Since we now have medicines that are divorced from pagan gods, I’d wager the prosciption has passed; though I suppose acupuncture, though recognized by the NIH, and other practices like reiki, are probably streng verboten.

Christians can eat meat after all, just not pagan-god meat. Since there were no non-pagan god medicines at the time, the proscription was created. Now that there are non-pagan god medicines (unless you count science as a religion, in which case you probably shouldn’t use medicine, just to be on the safe-side), it makes sense that they would be usable.

After all, if you translate pharmakeia from the ancient greek you get, “the use or the administering of drugs”.

Then how come there is no English bible that ever uses the word “drugs” in Galatians 5:20?

I looked at 11 different English versions. None of them use the word “drug” in Galatians 5:20. The older King James Version and the more recent New International Version use “witchcraft” for pharmakeia in Galatians 5:20. All other English versions such as the Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible, Revised English Bible, New American Standard Bible, etc. all use the word “sorcery” for pharmakeia in Galatians 5:20. The New King James Version also translates pharmakeia as “sorcery”. No English Bible I have ever seen translates the Greek word pharmakeia in Galatians 5:20 as drugs, or drug use, or any thing even suggesting drugs in any fashion. Not even a footnote in the margin or at the bottom of the page.

And yet, if you Google search the word “pharmakeia” you will find a whole bunch of Christian websites that tell us Paul meant “mind altering drugs” or “illicit drug use” or something similar in Galatians 5:20. Now either the scholars on the committee’s of those boards that translated the bible into the English language didn’t do their homework, or else the Christian’s that made those websites didn’t do their homework. Which do you think it is?


I was using an ancient Greek-english dictionary.

I am guessing that ‘sorcery’ is used there because, if you check out the hermeneutical explanation I gave, the problem with ‘drugs’ wasn’t their action but rather their method of action. Since medicine and witchcraft are no longer conjoined, the original meaning of ‘drugs’ would be misleading.

As I said before, "So, I think that Christians not consuming herbs blessed by pagan gods falls under the same category as Christians not consuming meat from a sacrifice to said pagan gods. The idea is the same. " My guess is that was the problem that Paul had with drugs.

Φαρμακο in Greek means medicine or it can even mean poison.

Xunzian, your analysis sounds plausible – and I think one reason we have trouble making that connection today is because we see ‘sorcery’ or ‘magic’ as something more abstract than 1st century Jews might have. For us, sorcery is like what they use in Harry Potter: a sort of abstract ethereal power that one can tap into with talent and study. We don’t think of magical power as coming from gods anymore. But since that wasn’t the mindset in the 1st century, it seems we should understand ‘pharmakeia’ as just another example of pagan ritual which Paul wanted to divorce from the Christian community.

I can’t understand why somebody would challenge the idea that St.Paul is talking about drugs, in particular, mind-altering drugs.

He’s not being particularly deep or esoteric here, he’s just listing some of the things that commonly cause spiritual deprivation. Experience teaches us that drugs are among the more widespread causes of depression, angst, frustration with life, etc, so common sense would say that a list of worldly fixations should also include drugs. That’s all he’s saying.

I just don’t get what’s so bewildering about that.

Reading the thread and understanding the ideas therein would aid your understanding.

it is worth noting that besides opium and fly agaric (aminita mushrooms), and possibly blue lotus, were the only drugs that could be classified as entheogenic, and their availability was extremely limited. Mercury and lead would have been available too, but I sincerely doubt that either was ever used recreationally.

Furthermore, in Ancient Greece, all of those compounds would have been extremely rare, so it seems silly for Paul to spend time rejecting compounds that would have been so difficult to get their hands on that their exposure would be near nil. Especially considering that the Greeks did have a drug that was readily available that Paul didn’t condemn: alcohol. Now, there are obvious reasons for this, and that is before taking Jesus’s first miracle into account, however, it is my understanding that he doesn’t discourage alcohol-induced intoxication.

So where does ‘drug’ end and ‘everyday’ begin? What is ‘mind altering’? I mean, the classical definition (from the DARE program) of a drug is, “Something that you take into your body which alters your mood, and isn’t food” . . . so, pot brownies: drug or food? Beer (which has nutritional value): drug or food?