Wise Men & Witches: Magic in the Bible

In biblical literature, the names and exploits of magicians and wise men play a prominent part–sometimes evil, sometimes learned, and sometimes just strange.

Jun 18, 2024By Allen Baird, PhD Theology, BA Biblical Studies and Philosophy

magic bible witches wise men

 

Although the ethics of the Bible condemn the use of magic, many of its stories contain references to individuals who are described as magicians. Some of these magic users are portrayed in ambiguous and even positive terms, as prophets and wise men. Others have become bywords for evil or terrifying future manifestations of it. It seems the biblical viewpoint on magic is more complex and interesting than many might assume.

 

Magical Customs, Medical Practices

The Witch of Endor from The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul, by Nikiforovich Dmitry Martynov, 1857, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The ethical code of the Old Testament condemns witchcraft (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27 etc.), and yet there are many magical practices described throughout the Bible. For example, the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel condemned women who sowed magic charms on their clothing (Ezekiel 13:18), and kings who tried to read the future by shaking arrows and examining liver (21:21). There’s also an even older story about the matriarch Rachel, who wanted to use mandrake root in an aphrodisiac potion (Genesis 30).

 

Perhaps the most famous magic user in the Bible is the so-called Witch of Endor, a medium who helped King Saul contact the dead prophet Samuel for advice (1 Samuel 28). This story is riddled with ambiguities, from what it was the witch called up, to the nature of her powers. In the New Testament, there’s another fascinating story of magic in Roman times. Paul had an encounter with a slave girl at Philippi who possessed a “Python spirit” that enabled her to tell fortunes and futures (Acts 16:16).

 

St Paul at Philippi, by William Charles Thomas Dobson, 1872, Source: The Royal Academy of Arts

 

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But beyond these accounts of folk superstition and occult practices, there are also some magicians mentioned by name in the Bible. Further, there are other magicians that are given a mysterious or indirect name that functions as more of a title. So, who are they and what did they do?

 

Jannes and Jambres: Magicians from Ancient Egypt

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family, by the Master of the Dinteville Allegory, 1537, Source: The MET Museum

 

Magic played a major role in ancient Egypt at the highest levels of government. Jannes and Jambres were the names of the court sorcerers employed by Pharaoh to mimic the miracles performed by Moses.  They are described both as wise men and magicians (Exodus 7:11). The background story is that God told Moses to act as his representative, with his brother Aaron as his prophet, to demand the release of the Hebrew slaves. God predicted that Pharaoh would ask to see a miraculous sign as proof. Aaron was then to throw down the shepherd staff of Moses on the ground, so that it would transform into a snake.

 

When this happened, Pharaoh called on his magic users to do the same. They could transmute their staffs into snakes using enchantments and secret arts, but the snake of Moses ate theirs up (Exodus 7:12), in a display of dominance. They could also repeat the first two of the ten plagues of Egypt — turning water into blood and producing a frog invasion from the Nile (7:22; 8:7). But after the first two plagues, they were unable to imitate Moses any more, and confessed that the other plagues were performed by “the finger of God” (8:18). Their names are only given in the New Testament (2 Timothy 3:8), possibly taken from an apocryphal book.

 

Balaam: Renegade Prophet or Pagan Enchanter?

Balaam and the Angel, by Gustav Jäger, 1836, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Balaam is an ambiguous character in the Old Testament who is often described as a renegade or mercenary miracle worker. We know little of his origins although we are told about his death, where he is described somewhat derisorily as a soothsayer or fortune-teller (Joshua 13:22). He was hired by the leaders of Moab and Midian to place a curse on the Israelites, to prevent the newly liberated Hebrews from conquering the land. But he was forced to pronounce a blessing instead, multiple times. He is also noted for his involvement in the only occasion in which the Bible speaks of a talking animal (Numbers 22:28)!

 

The reason for the ambiguity about Balaam is the mixed messages in the text about what exactly Balaam was and the status of his magical work. Some count him as a prophet rather than a magician, albeit a false prophet in the end. For example, Peter describes him as a mad, mercenary prophet (2 Peter 2:15-16). But there are clear indicators in the story that he was a sorcerer. The money paid to him is called “the fees of divination” (Numbers 22:7).

 

After his failure to curse Israel, Balaam admits that he could cast “no spell” or “enchantment” against them (23:23). In his final attempt at cursing, he “did not resort to sorcery as on previous occasions” (24:1). All New Testament references to Balaam are strongly negative (Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14). The Qur’an continues the Old Testament’s more nuanced perspective on Balaam’s prophethood.

 

Daniel and Manasseh: Magicians of Jewish Royalty

Belshazzar’s Feast, by Rembrandt, 1635-8, Source: The National Gallery, London

 

The prophet Daniel was a member of the royal family in Judah who was taken captive as a young man by the Babylonian god-emperor Nebuchadnezzar II. Daniel was educated in Babylon in the language, literature, and science of his day to prepare him for state service. Some might consider it unfair to place the righteous prophet Daniel in this list of magic users. But it is interesting that from the perspective of King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel—whom he called Belteshazzar—was one of a number of “the magicians, the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers” that he called to interpret his dreams (Daniel 4:9).

 

In fact, not only was Daniel a member of a governmental department, Nebuchadnezzar made him the head of this branch of royal advisors (5:11). As Chief Magician, Daniel didn’t perform magic feats, unless you count shutting the mouths of lions—an act Daniel ascribed to an angel, not to his own powers (6:22). Rather, Daniel’s specialty was “interpreting dreams, solving riddles, and explaining enigmas” (5:12). An example of this is when he interpreted the famous writing on the wall during Belshazzar’s feast (chapter 5).

 

The character of King Manasseh of Judah contrasts starkly with that of Daniel. He was the worst monarch that the southern kingdom of Judea ever had. Not only was he an idolator and devil worshiper (2 Chronicles 33:3), and sacrificed his own children by burning them alive (33:6), he also “practiced soothsaying, used witchcraft and sorcery, and consulted mediums and spiritists.” After he was taken captive by the king of Assyria, he repented and was delivered (33:10-13).

 

The Magi: Wise Men From the East

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1609, Source: Museo del Prado

 

The Magi are the famous “Three Wise Men” of Christmas nativity fame. Only they didn’t come to Christ’s birth, there is no evidence they were kings, and there probably weren’t three of them! In the New Testament, they are described as “Magi,” which can mean oriental astronomer or scientist, as well as sorcerer, magician, or wizard. Or, it could mean simply a wise man, in the sense of a scholar, teacher, or even physician. The astrological interpretation might be more accurate here, since they were led by a star (Matthew 2:1).

 

The actual Greek word is magos, the plural of which is magoi or magi. The word appears to be Persian in origin, and refers to the religious or priestly caste into which Zoroaster was born, founder of the Zoroastrian religion. It seems to be the case that this priestly caste paid particular attention to the stars in their training and rituals. Apparently, they gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science and—along with the Babylonians—laid the foundation for modern astronomy.

 

Simon and Elymas: New Testament Sorcerers

Fall of Simon Magus, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461-1462, Source: The Royal Collection Trust

 

During the period that marked the birth of the Christian church, the people of Samaria were under the spell of a sorcerer called Simon. He had used his magic arts for some time to astonish them and make them listen to his words. But he became a Christian under the preaching of Philip, mostly because he was amazed at the miracles that Philip performed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, when the apostles arrived, he offered them money for power to give others the Holy Spirit. Peter refused and rebuked him (Acts 8:20-23). His final destiny is unknown. It is from Simon that we get the word “simony:” the buying of church roles or sacred positions.

 

Later, when Saint Paul sailed to Salamis in Cyprus on one of his missionary journeys, he met and spoke with the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, described as an intelligent man, who wanted to learn more about this new faith. But Paul was opposed by Elymas the sorcerer, also called a false prophet, who tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Paul confronted him and cursed him with temporary blindness (Acts 13:9-11). The proconsul went on to become a believer.

 

Antichrist and False Prophet: Wonder Workers of the Apocalypse

Destruction of the Beast and the False Prophet, by Benjamin West, 1804, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Before the prophesied return of Christ, the New Testament speaks of the rise of an evil person known as “the Lawless One.” He will possess the power to perform counterfeit miracles and deceptive wonders. Chrisitan commentators usually identify this person as the Antichrist, or, in the words of Revelation, “the Beast.”

 

“And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved.”

2 Thessalonians 2:8-9

 

Jesus himself predicted that in the end times, many false Christs and false prophets would appear with the power to perform great signs and wonders (Matthew 24:24). But just as there would be one final Antichrist, so there would be one final False Prophet. This False Prophet (also called the Second Beast or the beast from the earth) would perform astounding miracles, “even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of the people” (Revelation 13:13). But finally, both the Beast and the False Prophet will be captured and thrown alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone (19:20), along with the devil himself (21:10), to be tormented day and night, forever and ever.

 

“The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world’s important people. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.”

Revelation 18:23

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By Allen BairdPhD Theology, BA Biblical Studies and PhilosophyAllen earned his degrees from the Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, along with a teaching qualification in adult education. His interests lie in short story writing and relating the biblical material to modern literary genres such as horror, sci-fi, and fantasy.