I have been struggling with understanding the Greek word Pharmakeia (Strongs 5331) as found in the New Testament. What exactly is Pharmakeia? Is it really the use of medication? What was Pharmakeia in biblical times? What is modern Pharmakeia? I would like an in depth/exhaustive answer on the context and meaning of Pharmakeia in biblical times and how it relates to our time.

Asked By: 
Three points on 'pharmakeia' - translation, practice, interpretation

I think there are really three questions here: one about translation, one about the practice of medicine , and one about interpretation for today.

 First, translation: The word pharmakeia is very much like our word for ‘drugs’: that is, it can refer to many things. When I use the word “drugs” I can be referring to Tylenol (which can be purchased over the counter) or to prescription drugs (which require the oversight of a physician), but I can also be referring to illegal drugs (such as meth). Which I am referring to will depend entirely on context; generally, when someone uses the word ‘drugs’ they have a specific meaning in mind rather than all three. The word pharmakeia is much the same. It has a range of meanings. It can refer to magic, but it very often refers to the practice of medicine or what might be called healing arts (see Liddell and Scott, a Greek-English Lexicon). It does not refer to both of these things at the same time. It depends on context. In the New Testament the word pharmekeia occurs three times (Gal 5:19-21; Rev 9:21; 18:23). Each time, it is translated as ‘sorcery’ or ‘magic’ and it is something that is spoken of in negative terms. The translators have chosen this definition because of the context. This does not mean that every possible definition of the word phramekeia is condemned. It depends on context.

 Second, you ask if the practice of medicine is condemned in the New Testament. By no means. There are two verses that point to a positive view of the practice of medicine: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Matt 9:12; Mark 2:7; Luke 5:31). Why say that the sick have need of a physician if medicine is condemned? And Colossians 4:14 brings greetings from “Luke, the physician.” Why would Luke’s profession as a physician be mentioned if it were viewed as inappropriate or tantamount to sorcery? The New Testament certainly recognizes that healing can occur in other ways besides through the care of a physician: Jesus is presented as the quintessential healer. Both Mark and Luke tell a story about a woman who had been ill for many years and who had seen many physicians, none of whom were able to help here (Mark 5:26; Luke 8:43). This does not condemn the medical profession; rather it describes the desperate state of the woman.

Third: interpretation for today. Healing is a complex process. Most any physician today would agree with this and I believe such a view is present also in the New Testament. It involves individuals such as family or friends who support us (think of the four friends who carry the paralytic to Jesus); it involves treatment by physicians and licensed mental health care specialists and may include the appropriate use of specific drugs; it involves faith – that is, trust in God; it also involves our own willingness to engage in actions and activities that promote health.

Want to learn more? Get started with Bible study here. Appreciate these answers? Help us continue by donating here

Different meanings at different times . . .

On the term pharmakeia--an abstract noun meaning sorcery, magic, the practice of magic arts.

The concrete noun is pharmakon whose primary meaning is poison; its secondary meaning is magic potion or charm to achieve a desirable objective; and its tertiary meaning is medicine, remedy, or drug for healing.

The above terms were used from the time of Homer (8th century BC) down to New Testament times and known both to Greeks and Jews.  

In modern times the tertiary meaning prevails as for example the term "Pharmacy" as a place to obtain healing medicines.



Pharmakeia a vice

In ancient Greek, öáñìáêåéá = the use of drugs, potions, spells, and/or poisoning, witchcraft, magical potions.  (See, e.g., the standard ancient Greek lexicon, by Liddell & Scott).  In Koine Greek, especially in usage by ancient Jews and Christians, the word = sorcery, magic, etc.  (As, e.g., in "A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Liteature," by W. F. Arndt & F. W. Gingrich).


So, in its usage in the NT it designates this sort of vice.

Author: Larry W. Hurtado




Massachusetts Bible Society Logo

Exploring the Bible Logo