I recently discovered that the Greek word “pharmakeia” was used in
Galatians 5:19, the main definition of which is “the use or the
administering of drugs”. And yet the NIV translated it as “witchcraft”.
What do you think could be the reason for that? Also, which Bible
translation do you find to be the most true to the original language?


You are correct. The Greek word pharmakeia is used in Galatians 5:19.
However, if you were told that this word means “the use of or the
administrating of drugs” then you were misinformed. The word is a fairly
general one. My Greek dictionary defines it as: “witchcraft, magic, the
use of spells and potions of magic, often involving drugs–a magic
spell. It is a fact that witchcraft and magic in the Greek world often
involved the use of drugs–either by the witch or the one on whom the
magic is worked. I have heard the same thing taught that you quote. It
is not absolutely false, but it is not good use of the Greek. Probably,
whoever gave you this bogus definition also told you that we get the word
pharmacy from this Greek root word. That, of course, is true, but this
does not mean that the meaning of the word has not changed! Put it this
way, if one were to use and administer drugs for the sole purpose of
creating a mind-altered state, then one could probably be judged to have
violated the commandment not to be involved in pharmakiea. Probably
whoever told you this got the definition second hand and did not bother to
look up the Greek. I see this as an attempt to make the stricture in
Galatians 5:19 practical for a modern, particularly an American crowd.
This is a good thing to do, but in making the scripture practical,
we should always begin with good exegesis. If you lived in parts of
Africa, the definition given above would apply in all its meanings. I
have visited churches in third world countries where the sin of magic
spells and relying on witch doctors is very much prevelant; even among

On Bible translations, I use a few different translations. There are some
translations which I do not recommend (New World Translation–very biased
by the JW’s, KJ Version–to archaic and based on relatively poor Greek
manuscripts, The Living Bible, a too-loose and somewhat biased
paraphrase). There are almost too many good translations to recommend.
My suggestion is that if you want to do careful, deep and thorough study,
you use three or four translations. I use the Jerusalem Bible, the NIV,
the Holman Christian Standard and the Revised Standard. I also suggest
you avoid the mistake made by the one who taught you somewhat inaccurately
from Galatians 5:19 by getting a Greek Dictionary. Best is to get a copy
of the Zondervan Exhaustive Concordance.

John Oakes, PhD

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