For many years now I have seen people in the Pagan/Wiccan community offering an interpretation of a particular verse in the bible that talks about Witches. The verse is Exodus 22:18 and it says: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (King James Version) The popular counter argument is that this was a mistranslation, put in there specifically by King James because he was terrified of witches. The claim then circulated is that in the Greek text which was translated into English, the original [note the italics… I’ll explain the emphasis in a moment] word was pharmakeia a word which is said to mean “poisoner”.
This is one of those things that is partly true and partly false, and therefore, is entirely false when you look at the big picture. Pharmakeia means ‘witch’ in this context, not ‘poisoner’.
The True Part:
King James was scared of Witches. Click the highlighted link for more detailed information about this.
The word pharmakeia was used in Greek translations of the bible and for recording the New Testament, and was most likely the word that King James’ translators had in front of them when they were putting the bible into English. Pharmakeia does have a translation that means ‘poisoner’. It’s linked to the idea of someone (female in this case as pharmakeia is the feminine spelling of the word) who brews deadly mixtures to harm other people. Kind of like the way the classical version of the witch stirring her cauldron to concoct potions that put princesses to sleep works.
But, in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) Galatians 5:19-20 we see the word Witchcraft identified by similar contextual words often associated with witches and used to describe forbidden practices:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies…
In this context, the word pharmakos (as it was in the original Greek) would not have been put in to mean a poisoner or one who brews potions, but would have been one who worships other gods or spirits and invokes those powers in spell work — a Witch.
Words often have several definitions that are linked, but still have a bit of wiggle room available for people to pick and choose between them. One of the other definitions of pharmakeia is sorcery or magical arts, and also idolatry — not ‘poisoner’.
The False Part:
Using the word original to imply that the verse first meant poisoner and then was changed to mean witch is wrong. This is because the original language of the Old Testament is not Greek. Greek was not used to write the bible until the New Testament when Jesus’ disciples went out and began his ministry. Exodus is Old Testament and the language was Hebrew. After several millennia it then went to Aramaic — the language spoken by Jesus and his followers — and then it went to Greek. So if you’re going to look for the original word, you have to look at what the Hebrew word was and what it means.
The original word in Hebrew was witch, as in a practitioner of magical or sorcerous arts, not a poisoner who brewed potions.
In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the word for an evil person who secretly uses spoken curses to intentionally harm others is m’khashepah or m’khaseph (depending upon gender).
When considering the argument that the verse in question is mistranslated, here’s the truth of it:
The Hebrew scriptural verse (Exodus 22:17) M’KHSHEYFAH LO T’CHIYEH or ‘M’khashephah lo tichayyah’ for example, has for centuries been haphazardly mistranslated as “you shall not suffer a witch to live,” when literally it translates:
“You should not SUSTAIN a witch.”
Meaning don’t get into the habit of supporting the livelihood of the village magician; don’t let some woman with a lot of supernatural power drain you of your savings through fear and intimidation. Let her get a job like everybody else, and perform her magic out of the “goodness” of her heart and in recognition of the sacred gift she possesses. Another translation of the exact same Hebrew wording would be:
“From sorcery you should not live.”
As in don’t base your entire life and all of your affairs on the powers of sorcery, or, don’t make a living from it.” (From: MAGIC OF THE ORDINARY by Rabbi Gershon Winkler (C).)
Then, the scripture was translated from Hebrew into Aramaic.
The Targum Onkelos is a very ancient translation of the Torah into Aramaic. The Targum translates the verse in question as, Charasha la tachei — A ‘charasha’ you shall not let live.
So what is a charasha? It means witch.
Charasha (fem.) or charash (masc.) come from the Aramaic charshei which means magic, witchcraft, or sorcery. The root of charshei means literally “to build,” though it can also mean “to entangle.” If the Torah had meant poisoner it could have simply said so. Hir’il is “to poison” in Hebrew, and it bears no etymological relationship to kishuf “witchcraft.”
So now the question becomes, “Why was this argument that the original meaning was ‘poisoner’ ever even presented in the first place?”
To be honest, that’s a large part of what led me to researching this. I have only ever seen the ‘poisoner translation’ given among those in the Pagan community, never among Jewish people or Christians. It pops up in our books and in conversations (likely because it’s in the books) but I don’t know where it actually started. I haven’t been able to track down who it was that first said, “It’s supposed to be poisoner, not witch.” I don’t know if I’ll keep digging or not. My own purposes have been satisfied. I have disagreed with the “witch = poisoner” argument for a very long time.
I think that this argument originated as part of the movement several generations ago to try and move Wicca more into the mainstream. So, pulling up the definition of pharmakeia as poisoner, which isn’t wrong — it does translate as poisoner, was one way to say, “Look how many people were killed in the witchcraft trials and afterwards by people saying the bible said this. It wasn’t supposed to mean that. It was a poisoner who was supposed to not be kept among the people. Witches are nice!” Or even for those who want to find some kind of biblical justification for saying they can practice magic and still hang on to being Christian without being a ‘bad guy’ to the monotheists because it was a poisoner that is condemned by God, not a Witch.
Both of these arguments bother me because I personally believe that if you are going to practice Witchcraft, you need to just practice Witchcraft and not be concerned about fitting in with the ‘terms and conditions’ set by a religious belief that is not aligned with that. Witchcraft is forbidden because it seeks to take attention and focus off of the Judeo-Christian God and put it elsewhere — either other gods, spirits, or the Witches themselves. You don’t get to have it both ways without pushing one out for the other.
The bible says in several places that Witchcraft is forbidden.
To which I reply, “Yep… Sure does… And your point is?”