“By Your Pharmakeia Were All the Nations Misled”

[See Part II]

In Scripture, as in all literature, a word takes on meaning only in its specific context. But sometimes the immediate context (sentence, paragraph) does not shed enough light to provide precise meaning. In such instances, broadening the scope by viewing the entire Biblical book, or the New Testament (NT) as a whole, may further illuminate. However, there are cases which require a more panoramic lens. The untranslated pharmakeia in the title to this article provides such an example.1

As the reader can readily perceive, the modern words pharmacy, pharmacist, pharmaceutical, and pharmacology are derived from this Greek word. But it would be wrong to automatically (and anachronistically) impose modern definitions upon the NT era.

This article’s title is taken from the final clause in Revelation 18:23. The noun pharmakeia and its related noun forms occur only five times in the entire NT. Four are in Revelation (Apocalypse of Jesus Christ).2 The remaining instance finds itself in Paul’s description of living by the flesh (as opposed to the Spirit) in Galatians:

5:19 Now the works [ergon] of the flesh are obvious, which are: sexual immorality, moral impurity, lewdness, 20 idolatry, pharmakeia, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, rivalries, dissensions, discriminations, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousals, and such things similar to these. All these I tell you to forewarn you as before: All those who engage in such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

In this context, pharmakeia clearly carries a negative connotation.  English versions translate it either “sorcery” (ESV, NASB, NET, HCSB, ERV) or “witchcraft” (KJV, NIV, ISV, YLT). But what do these English words mean exactly?

F. W. Danker’s The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament will assist here.3 As its title suggests, Danker’s concise lexicon focuses strictly on the NT. Following are the relevant words (transliterated), with corresponding Scripture references:4

pharmakeia: [{from} pharmakeus ‘specialist in mixing drugs/potions’] ‘manipulation through incantations, spells, substances, or combinations thereof’, sorcery, magic Gal 5:20; Rv 9:21 [variant]; 18:23.

pharmakon: ‘a mixture of various items designed to manipulate’, magic potion, charm Rv 9:21.

pharmakos: [= pharmakeus see pharmakeia] ‘an expert in manipulation through occult means’, sorcerer, magician Rv 21:8; 22:15.

So, from the above definitions we see what these nouns pertain to: pharmakos is the person who manipulates, pharmakon is the method or mixture of methods used for manipulation, and pharmakeia is the word used for this type of manipulation. Thus, the practice of pharmakeia (manipulation) is performed by a pharmakos (manipulator), who uses a pharmakon (manipulating method or mixture) for such manipulative purposes. This manipulation is occultic, as in sorcery or magic (witchcraft), and may or may not involve substances (drugs or potions).

The contexts in Revelation follow, in chronological order.

9:20 And the rest of humankind—those who were not been killed by these plagues—did not repent of the works [ergon] of their hands, so that they would not worship demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which cannot see, hear, or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders, their pharmakon[pl], their sexual immorality, or their thefts.

The subscripted “pl” indicates plural (pharmakōn) instead of singular. The “they” in 9:21 refers to “the rest of humankind—those who were not killed by these plagues” (9:20). Observe in Danker’s definitions above there is the note in brackets “variant”. Some manuscripts have pharmakeia instead of pharmakon here in 9:21. In the case of the text as it stands (pharmakon), this refers to the methods or mixtures; the variant (pharmakeia), the practices of it. Whatever the case, the context does not assist in determining specific meaning.

Moving on to the next context, which contains our subject verse:

18:21 Then a mighty angel lifted up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “In similar fashion, with violence shall Babylon the megalopolis5 be thrown, and she shall never be found again! 22 The sound of singing harpists and of musicians, flautists, trumpeters shall never be heard in you again. And never shall any kind of craftsman of any trade be found in you again. Noise from a mill shall never be heard in you again. 23 Lamplight shall never shine in you again. And the voice of bridegroom and bride shall never be heard in you again. For your merchants were the distinguished persons of the earth, because by your pharmakeia were all the nations/peoples misled. 24 And in her, blood of prophets and holy ones/saints was found, and all those who had been slain upon the earth.”

So Babylon misled—or will mislead—all the nations/peoples by her pharmakeia. There appears to be a causal relationship between Babylon’s pharmakeia misleading the nations and Babylon’s merchants being “the distinguished persons of the earth”. In other words, Babylon’s merchants were “distinguished persons” seemingly as a result of her pharmakeia misleading “all the nations”. The NET Bible explicitly interprets it that way: For your merchants were the tycoons of the world, because all the nations were deceived by your [pharmakeia]! Stated another way, by Babylon’s manipulative deception (pharmakeia) her merchants were “the distinguished persons of the earth” (became wealthy?).

The next occurrence is in Revelation 21:8. The larger context describes the forthcoming new heaven and new earth, the Holy City and the New Jerusalem (21:1–2). A “voice from the Throne” relates how God’s dwelling place will then be with His people (21:3–4):

21:5 Then the One sitting on the Throne said, “Take note! I make all things new.” Adding, He said, “Write, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And then He said to me, “These things6 have come to fruition! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last. To the thirsty I will freely give from the spring of the water of life. 7 The one who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son7 (or daughter). 8 But to those who are cowardly and unbelieving, to the abominable, to murderers, the sexually immoral, pharmakos[pl], idolaters, and all falsifiers, their portion shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

In the above, the term (in its plural pharmakoi) occurs in a list (like 9:21), making it impossible to determine precise meaning. The final instance is also in a list and is thematically similar. As an aside, note that the immediately preceding section has “the One sitting on the Throne” as speaker, while below it is the glorified Jesus:

22:12 Behold! I am coming soon. And with Me is My rewards, to repay each one according to his own work [ergon]. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have their right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the ‘dogs’, the pharmakos[pl], the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone loving and practicing falsehood.

So, once again, the context of this term here (again in its plural form pharmakoi) is insufficient to help us determine anything more than a general idea as to its meaning.

Summarizing all the above, the context of Rev 18:23 does not provide enough illumination to resolve the question of the precise definition of pharmakeia. Disappointingly, the other occurrences of pharmakeia/kon/kos in the NT, though thematically similar (carrying negative connotations within lists), fail to shed any additional light on our subject verse.

Part II will widen the scope. This additional survey will certainly prove beneficial, illuminating. But will it be enough to solidify the meaning of pharmakeia in Revelation 18:23? More pointedly, will we be able to determine with any confidence whether or not the term implies that drugs or potions are included in its meaning here?

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1 A synchronic study would be strictly NT, though could include some extra-biblical works of the NT era. A broader approach, to include pre- and/or post-NT literature, would be a diachronic study. By necessity, we will venture a bit into diachrony here.

2 The Inscriptio, the “title” of Revelation, is Apokalypsis Iōannou, “Apocalypse of John” (with manuscript variations), but it is doubtful this was present originally. It was probably added by later copyists. The first three words of the book begin with Apokalypsis Iēsou Christou, Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. This is more likely the ‘title’ of the Book—or, better, the beginning of its longer title. According to, e.g., David Aune (Revelation 1–5, Word Biblical Commentary, 52A [Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997]): “[W]hether the author gave his work a title originally is uncertain; titles were often regarded as superfluous for works intended for oral recitation (such as Revelation [ED: see 1:3: Blessed is the one who reads and those who hear . . .]), for their ‘titles’ were inherent in the opening lines. It is therefore relatively certain that the first sentence of the book in 1:1–2 was intended by the author to function as a title” (pp 3–4). Nevertheless, for our purposes here we will retain the more common “Revelation” as the title.

3 F. W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 2009). Danker is the “D” in “BDAG” (The letters correlate to the first letter in each of the last names of those involved in the project: Walter Bauer, Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich), considered the standard lexicon for NT Greek studies, namely, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 2000). The late Rodney Decker wrote: “. . . [Danker’s] Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [is] a 400 page lexicon published in 2009. (A 400 page lexicon can only be called “concise” by comparison with the 1,100 pages of BDAG!) This was not an abridgment of BDAG, but a new work (though obviously dependent in many ways on the larger lexicon).”

4 All definitions are taken from Danker, Concise Lexicon, p 370.

5 English versions typically render hē megalē polis as “the great city”, but I prefer “the megalopolis”, for this leaves room to mean either ‘one large city’ or ‘an urban region consisting of several adjoining cities and suburbs’. I think the latter makes better sense.

6 I interpret the implied subject in the 3rd person plural gegonan here to be either hoitoi hoi logoi (“these words”) or panta kaina (“all things new”).

7 This is a paraphrase of the Davidic covenant in 2Samuel 7:14: I will be his Father, and he will be My son.

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