Volume 47 - Issue 2

Rejecting Syncretism: Paul and the Python

By Scott D. MacDonald


Syncretism—the blending of two or more religious paradigms—threatens Christian witness around the world. And the church in Africa continues to struggle with the popularity of local religious practices. In many locales, the ng’anga (an African religious diviner) prominently features in the lives of many church-going people. In response, Paul’s mission to Philippi, recounted in Acts 16:16–18, provides needed clarity concerning Christianity’s relationship to other religious powers and to syncretism. This article outlines the religious backdrop of Philippi, Paul’s missionary method in the Greek religious context, and the consequences that arise from Paul’s exorcism of the πύθων. In sum, Paul’s reaction to the divining spirit of Philippi leaves no room for syncretistic behavior among Christians today. Accommodation and any reliance upon other religious powers compromises the quality of the gospel and the reputation of the savior.

As servants of Christ deliver the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection both near and far, ancient spiritual actors and religious competitors abound. In sub-Saharan Africa, every other urban street corner bears a sign promoting the abilities of some traditional power man from a rural or distant location, a place with charms difficult to undo by an average local witchdoctor.1 Even in supposedly secular cities in other parts of the world, vestiges of ancient paganism remain as astrologers and diviners offer their services in the public sphere without shame. Spiritual power is seemingly never beyond a human’s reach.

Depending on our cultural upbringing, such spiritual resources are our first or last resource in a time of need—an accepted and trusted form of support or a desperation-induced “last ditch” option. Occult practitioners claim to provide the knowledge we need, repair the relationships we crave, hinder the people we hate, and empower the economic endeavors on which we rely. They are the so-called “way-makers” and “problem-solvers” of the spiritually attuned.

How should the Christian relate to the ng’anga (i.e., the sangoma, the witchdoctor)?2 Sadly, the testimony from too many Christians in many places is mixed. In a moment of need, one might recite the Bemba proverb “Ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa,” meaning “Charms are mixed with God for them to work.”3 Believers may easily justify a quick visit to the witchdoctor or use charms if they believe that God works in and through them!

Martin Mwamba, a pastor and talk show host with Faith Radio in Kitwe, Zambia, recounts an experience:

One day a woman texted me during the program. She said she had been working, and after retiring she had gotten her pension money, and now when going back home she was robbed. She continued, “I will take off my church uniform as a Christian and go kuli shi in’anga (‘to the witchdoctor’) and bewitch them.” Then her question was, “Is it right for a Christian to visit the witchdoctor?” The phone response from other listeners was interesting and shocking. Some suggested that she should go because God takes too much time to respond, and others said it was fine because witchdoctors give fast solutions, adding that they (witchdoctors) are also used by the same God.4

Hearing this kind of urgency-based decision making, Mwamba’s assertion is reasonable: “Even people in churches today in Africa would prefer to consult diviners and witchdoctors … to receive a quick solution to their daily problems.”5 After all, no one wants to wait for God!6

Occultists easily capture Christian customers. Surprisingly enough, many “witchdoctor shrines” are veritable havens of Christian objects like Bibles and practices like singing praise songs.7 And witchdoctors readily play along with the cultural idea that God empowers their work, offering to pray to God for effectiveness with charms and reciting a Scripture verse or two.8 Confusion abounds, and Christians readily step into the confusion by seeking their desired results despite the syncretism.

Syncretism is the “blending of one idea, practice, or attitude with another. Traditionally among Christians it has been used of the replacement or dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements.”9 The ng’anga has played a central role in the African’s religious life throughout Africans’ collective memories. Despite Christianity’s inroads throughout Africa over the past century, the role and importance of the ng’anga has not evaporated. Many Christians sadly still find a need for them, and witchdoctors adjust and modify their practices to suit the Christian environment. Syncretism, the blending of African and Christian religious concepts, persists.

The irony is that many pulpits resound with sermons against syncretism. Preachers unflinchingly expound Jesus’s statement from John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” “Jesus alone” is declared, yet the cultural norm remains firm: witchdoctors have a place in the life of Christians.

Many an African Christian still feels the draw of the ng’anga. The appeal of animism is not unique to Africa. While the African Christian visits the ng’anga, a European Christian convert dabbles in astrology, and an American teenager consults a Ouija board. The pull of spiritual knowledge and power is strong in Africa, but do not think that the rest of the world is immune! Thus, syncretism arises in every culture where Christianity enters, and “church history is filled with the struggle against syncretism from political, social, religious, and economic sources.”10 And the best response to our syncretistic attachments is a fidelity to Scripture, which both rebukes and affirms aspects of our church traditions and cultural norms.

One underutilized text in countering syncretism is Acts 16:16–18. Luke records the following account from the second missionary journey:

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.11

While we could look to other missional encounters with spiritual power persons throughout Acts (e.g., Simon the Sorcerer, Elymus, the Sons of Sceva), the Philippian confrontation serves as an example to Christians throughout the world today. We must reject all forms of syncretism. Our missional testimony to non-Christians only heightens this necessity.

1. The Background of Acts 16:16–18

As we consider Acts 16:16–18, let us first locate where this episode occurs in Paul’s missional endeavors. Between leaving Antioch in Acts 15:36 and returning in 18:22, Paul’s work broke considerable new ground as the Lord turned the missionary team toward Greece.12 “Following his vision at Troas (Acts 16:8–10), the apostle Paul started the first church in ancient Greece at Philippi (c. AD 49–50, Acts 16:11–40).”13 Like Paul’s earlier ministry, which led to a confrontation with the sorcerer Elymus on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:6–12), this journey involves another spiritual challenge in the city of Philippi.

Lest we mistakenly brand Paul as a troublemaker, Paul’s missionary method does not call for the immediate confrontation of any religious figures in a particular region. On Cyprus, Barnabas and Paul are not looking for Elymus. Instead, they proclaim the word of God to those who wish to hear it, such as Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7). In Philippi, again, Paul’s priority is preaching, even after his initial meeting with the slave girl (Acts 16:16–18)! Creating religious conflict (which would ultimately result in his imprisonment) and exorcising a πύθων are not Paul’s primary objectives. Only when the situation proves intolerable, hindering his proclamation ministry in a new mission field, does Paul confront the slave girl and the spirit within her.

The Greek religious context is evident upon Paul and Silas’s entry into Philippi. As the slave girl attaches herself to their ministry, it is as if the current religious powers greet Paul at the gate and refuse to let go. While a casual reader of an English translation (e.g., “a spirit of divination” in the ESV, “a spirit by which she predicted the future” in the CSB) might mentally divorce this spirit-inhabited girl from the broader religious climate, the Greek text πνεῦμα πύθωνα at least indirectly ties the girl and her owners to the Greek oracular system.14 Keener explains that this spirit is “the same sort of spirit that stood behind the most famous of all Greek oracles, the Delphic oracle of Apollo whose priestess was called a pythoness.”15 And Herodotus confirms that oracles, inspired by a πύθων, were not limited to Delphi.16 Paul is pestered by what was considered a valued part of ancient society, an oracle treasured for guidance and insight. Leaders even consulted them before battle, for “Greeks and Romans put great stock on augury and divination.”17 The consequences Paul receives for exorcising the spirit are therefore understandable and somewhat predictable in the Greco-Roman religious context.

The word πύθων merits closer reflection, as “there appears a semantic development from the specific Delphic dragon to an oracular spirit in general.”18 While πύθων evokes the Greek religious background, the term is historically fluid in meaning, referring to the Dragon, divining spirits, and even to ventriloquists.19 In reality, this slave girl in Philippi is a “very pale reflection” of the oracle of Delphi.20 But this observation in no way means that a spirit is uninvolved, as if the girl is somehow a mere trained ventriloquist; the text explicitly identifies a spirit in the girl. Foerster asserts, “Acts 16:16 tells us that the girl was a soothsayer-ventriloquist and that she thus stood in relation to the demonic.”21 And Conzelmann points to the exorcism, diminishing the possibility of mere ventriloquism.22 Casting out the spirit reminds us of the ministry of Christ in the Synoptics. Ventriloquism is unlikely, as “Luke is trying to make it clear that a soothsaying demon is speaking from within the slave girl.”23 While having the ability to divine, this girl amounts to something like a poor copy, a “knockoff” of the more established Greek oracles.24 Paul is not in Delphi, but he encounters a local, less impressive expression of the oracular system, an accepted (or tolerated) aspect of Greek polytheism.

2. The Divining Spirit’s Deception

With Philippi lacking a synagogue, Paul enjoys fruitful outreach at the riverside prayer location (Acts 16:13–14), yet Luke quickly introduces the thorn in their side: “a slave girl who had a spirit of divination” (παιδίσκην τινὰ ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα πύθωνα). As he continues his ministry, Paul is ultimately annoyed. The reason for his frustration and the subsequent exorcism seemingly clash with message she repeated: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). But Paul’s reaction indicates that this message is not as helpful as it sounds.

The πύθων is not interested in merely being a repetitive pest.25 A more sinister deception lies behind its words.26 “It is more likely … that she is not taunting but relativizing their message to make it acceptable in a polytheistic framework.”27 Christianity is entering the Gentile world, but its doctrine is inflexible. The spirit slyly contorts how the Philippians would perceive the missionaries and their message. Consider the phrase “of the Most High God” (τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ὑψίστου).

“Most High God” is ambiguous, a common designation for God in Jewish texts but also occurs in pagan sources for Zeus or for the Jewish God with whom pagans sometimes identified Zeus. Magical texts show that pagans respected this supreme God, often identified with the Jewish God, as the most powerful. The spirit ambiguously reduces the missionaries’ deity to a chief role in polytheism.28

Furthermore, “the way of salvation” (ὁδὸν σωτηρίας) obscures the message. Some commentators endorse the translation “a way” (as seen in the NASB), not “the way.”29 Polhill explains, “None of this would have been very clear to Gentiles…. The Greco-Roman world was full of ‘saviors.’ Savior/deliverer, salvation/deliverance were favorite terms. The emperor dubbed himself ‘savior’ of the people.”30 This spirit is not confirming Jesus’s assertion of being “the way” (ἡ ὁδὸς)! Instead, it foists Jesus into polytheistic context, where pagans could receive him on their terms. The message of the Christ is syncretized, adjusted by the spirit to suit the religious atmosphere.

3. Paul’s Delay

The divining spirit persists, refusing to abandon Paul’s company for “many days” (πολλὰς ἡμέρας). When Paul met Elymus, the confrontation with a “son of the devil” is brief, resulting in the blinding of the religious opposition (Acts 13:11). In Ephesus, cloth that touched Paul is expelling demons, with the sons of Sceva attempting to replicate his powerful works (19:12–16). As an apostle of Christ, Paul seemingly lacks nothing for the ministry of exorcism, yet he delays for many days with this divine spirit, waiting until he is annoyed.

A couple of ideas deserve suggestion. First and least likely, Paul fails to recognize that a spirit is involved, and when he realizes the presence of the spirit, he exorcises it. Luke’s telling of the narrative points us away from this proposal. There is no moment of realization, only a girl with a divining spirit and a progressively annoyed Paul. Second and more plausibly, Paul knows what she is, but he treats her like a sideshow, unworthy of attention. Only when she persists, Paul’s ire leads to action. Third and most likely, Paul knows what she is, but he prioritizes preaching, supposing that any early confrontation with her will likely lead to great conflict and hinder his ability to preach. So, Paul delays as long as possible, but not so long as to leave the issue of syncretism unaddressed.

Paul ensures the healthy entry of the gospel into Philippi. Yet, Paul could not let the spirit continue. Consider Chrysostom’s evaluation:

Why did the demon utter these words, and why did Paul forbid him? The one acted maliciously, the other wisely. For [Paul] did not want to make him believable. If Paul had admitted his testimony, the demon would have deceived many of the believers, since he was accepted by Paul…. The demon uses agreement for the purpose of destruction.31

If Paul said nothing, letting the spirit continue to speak and endlessly associate with him in Philippi, the damage to the fledgling Christian community could be incalculable. These new believers could simultaneously accept Paul and the spirit’s testimony as authorized witnesses! Thus, according to his missional priorities, Paul delays, but he does not endlessly ignore and compromise the content of his mission.

4. The Exorcism and Its Consequences

The matter can wait no longer. Paul is “greatly annoyed” because the attachment and testimony of the slave girl threatens his witness in Philippi. Yet a public confrontation with a πύθων would surely elicit some consequences. The child is owned. Greek paganism saturates the city. As foreigners, causing any sort of disturbance is dangerous enough! But for the sake of the gospel, an exorcism is necessary.

The entire exorcism is less than a verse, only amounting to the last two sentences of verse 18: “Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.” Luke’s framing of this exorcism portrays the apostle as a picture of his master. Jesus, like Paul, silenced and cast out demons with but a few words (e.g., Luke 4:35).

The consequences of this exorcism of the slave girl are swift. First, the πύθων releases its grip on the girl. New Testament exorcisms normally involve compassion upon the inhabited. For instance, Matthew records that Jesus exorcised a demon from a mute man (Matt 9:32–34), and this little narrative lies between the cries for mercy from two blind men (9:27) and Jesus’s compassion upon the crowds (9:36). In other words, an exorcism demonstrates God’s compassion on the oppressed. But Acts 16:16–18 does not describe mercy upon the oppressed as a motivation behind the exorcism. Instead, Paul acts out of hostility toward the spirit and its strategic actions to undermine his ministry. Yes, the girl is free from the spirit, yet she is still enslaved to her owners and the text emphasizes the spirit’s exit—“it came out that very hour” (ἐξῆλθεν αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ).

Second, the exorcism exalts Christ. Paul’s exorcism command clearly proclaims the superior power—“the name of Jesus Christ.” The conflict with the πύθων shakes accepted religious powers and practices, while simultaneously presenting Jesus as the Savior from such entanglements. Keener says,

A pagan hearer of Luke’s narrative, for whom python spirits were positive or, at worst, neutral, would find baffling the exorcism recounted here in Acts…. But the exorcism made perfect sense on monotheistic Jewish and Christian presuppositions. It is not surprising that John Chrysostom read the narrative as a confrontation with Apollo, here recognized as a demon (Hom. Acts 35).32

Paul and his mission team are preaching in the lands associated with the Greek gods, and this exorcism demonstrates that Christ has entered not a colleague, but as a rival who would expose the gods as “no gods” (Gal 4:8). The power of the Christ routs the πύθων, and it is not long before Gentiles flock to his salvation banner (Acts 16:29–34).

Third, local outcry arises. In some respects, the reaction of the community is overblown thanks to the spurious and ethnically-based adjurations of the slave girls’ owners (16:20–21). In Greek circles, “The exploitation of such diviners for commercial gain regularly drew criticism.”33 Pervo adds, “To put such individuals out of business will be a community service.”34 Yet money matters, and so the owners drag Paul and Silas to court and press the issue through the magistrates, while a mob joins in the attack.

Fourth, the Philippians physically persecute Paul and Silas. The meeting with the magistrates is a complete sham, aiming to appease public consensus rather than pursuing the cause of justice.

In practically less time than it takes to tell, [the owners of the slave girl] arraigned the missionaries on their foul charges, supported by the testimony of the urban mob. The panicked magistrates caved in to this threat and, without inquiry or examination, had the alleged perpetrators viciously whipped and slapped into firm custody. Those who had loosened the bonds of a demon found themselves in shackles.35

Dragged through the streets, beaten with rods, locked and immobilized in a Philippian prison, the persecution is harsh. But Paul and Silas have planted the gospel in the city. A demonized girl is free. And Christ is distinct from the polytheistic system of the day.

5. Acts’ Rebuke of Syncretism Today

Imagine the state of the Philippian church had Paul declined to exorcize the πύθων. A lack of persecution would have ensured the free movement of the missionaries. The church might have grown rapidly, with many people who subscribe to the diviner’s “ministry” accepting this “Christ.” The number of “converts” would swell, yet in times of need or desperation, these so-called “Christians” might see no issue with consulting the local diviners. They might say, “God uses the πύθων too, since one introduced this Jesus to us when Paul arrived.” This syncretized state of the Philippian church is exactly what Paul intended to avoid. Instead, Paul’s courage leads to a partner church, confident in the gospel (Phil 1:5).

How then shall we respond to the present syncretism of our time, captivating hearts and corrupting Christian communities? First, in the words of Byang Kato, let us remember, “non-Christian religions prove man has a concept of God, but they also show man’s rebellion against God (Rom. 1:18–23).”36 When Christian missionaries enter a new place or people (like Paul and Silas in Philippi), the existing non-Christian religion needs far more than accommodation and adjustment. Rather, the entrance of the Lord of Lords necessitates a spiritual conflict with human and demonic rebels.

Second, let us prepare to suffer for a gospel that refuses the notion that other gods and religious systems are equals with Jesus Christ. In many places of Africa and the West, the zeitgeist calls for equality, peaceful dialogue, and mutual affirmation.37 Conventional wisdom discourages or even derides evangelism, much less exorcism. Direct conflict with other religious powers is often verboten. But when the gospel is in peril as it was in Philippi, we need “Polycarps, Athanasiuses, and Martin Luthers, ready to contend for the faith at any cost.”38 Imitating the early missionaries singing in a Philippian prison (Acts 16:25), may Paul’s joy in suffering for Christ be our own.

Third, let us expose the frailty of these powers. As Psalm 89:6 asks, “For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord?” The divining spirit in Philippi is pathetically weak compared to Christ. Yes, it holds sway for a moment, but the spirit did not foresee or prevent its own defeat!39 People look to the ng’anga, but their demonic “solutions” are so temporary and insignificant compared to work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

People in the church who dabble with witchdoctors and occultism are ultimately deceived; they find no true, lasting solution. “To believe ‘Ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa’ is to believe a lie. We must choose to trust and wait on God in every circumstance, and His Word must be our final authority as we encounter conflict with our African traditional proverbs and beliefs.”40 Jesus alone is our savior, and as Paul demonstrates in Philippi, the Christ did not come to work with the ng’anga. He came to set us free.

[1] One common statement in Zambia is “I will go to Kaputa,” and it is used as a threat. Because Kaputa lies at the furthest reaches of Zambian territory, many people consider the village’s charms effective.

[2] Some people may balk at the use of the term “witchdoctor,” preferring to opt for a less pejorative phrase “African religious practitioner” or “traditional healer.” However, this article largely retains the use of the English “witchdoctor” to reflect the overwhelming norm of English-speaking Zambian Christians. Ng’anga is the ChiChewa word for witchdoctor (a language indigenous to Zambia and Malawi), and sangoma is the Zulu term for diviners in South Africa.

[3] Martin Mwamba, “‘God Empowers African Charms’ (Ukwimba Kati Kusansha na Lesa): A Biblical Response to an African Proverb,” Kērussōmen 2.2 (2016): 39.

[4] Mwamba, “God Empowers African Charms,” 41. The caller uses the Bemba term in’anga. Mwamba helpfully provides the translation.

[5] Mwamba, “God Empowers African Charms,” 41.

[6] Speaking of animistic humanity’s relationship to divination, Steyne argues, “Man believes that if he can enter the world of mystery, he may be able to change circumstances…. God’s providence is not sufficient for life. Man must determine his own destiny.” Philip M. Steyne, Gods of Power: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Animists (Houston: Touch Publications, 1989), 220–21.

[7] Mwamba, “God Empowers African Charms,” 42.

[8] “It is not surprising that when these witchdoctors lose their market, they may even start to masquerade as ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’” adds Mwamba, “God Empowers African Charms,” 42.

[9] A. Scott Moreau, “Syncretism” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000): 924. Imbach defines syncretism as “the process by which elements of one religion are assimilated into another religion resulting in a change in the fundamental tenets or nature of those religions…. Syncretism of the Christian gospel occurs when critical or basic elements of the gospel are replaced by religious elements from the host culture.” S. R. Imbach, “Syncretism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984): 1062.

[10] Imbach, “Syncretism,” 1063.

[11] Biblical citations come from the ESV, unless otherwise noted.

[12] P. Trebilco, “Itineraries, Travel Plans, Journeys, Apostolic Parousia,” DPL 450.

[13] L. M. McDonald, “Philippi,” DNTB 788.

[14] A few English translations (e.g., YLT, LSV, BSB) employ the rendering “a spirit of Python” to clarify the connection. Unger also states that the girl’s “power of prognostication” as a πύθων links her to “the same evil supernaturalism that inspired the famous heathen oracles at ancient Delphi.” Merrill F. Unger, Biblical Demonology: A Study of the Spiritual Forces Behind the Present World Unrest (Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press, 1952): 80. Michael S. Heiser affirms this link in Demons: What the Bible Really Says about the Powers of Darkness (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020): 199. Keener says, “Although a ‘python’ itself would normally be a negative image, Greeks viewed it positively in any context related to prophecy. ‘Spirit of a pythoness’ would entail a spirit like the one that possessed the Pythia, Apollo’s oracular priestess, with what was considered highly reliable prophetic information.” Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012–2015): 3:2422.

[15] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014): 370–71.

[16] Herodotus states, “The Satrae, as far as we know, have never yet been subject to any man; they alone of the Thracians have continued living in freedom to this day; they dwell on high mountains covered with forests of all kinds and snow, and they are excellent warriors. It is they who possess the place of divination sacred to Dionysus. This place is in their highest mountains; the Bessi, a clan of the Satrae, are the prophets of the shrine; there is a priestess who utters the oracle, as at Delphi; it is no more complicated here than there.” Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. D. Godley (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920), 7.111.

[17] John B. Polhill, Acts, NAC 26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992): 351. He continues, “No commander would set out on a major military campaign nor would an emperor make an important decree without first consulting an oracle to see how things might turn out. A slave girl with a clairvoyant gift was thus a veritable gold mine for her owners.”

[18] J. W. van Henten, “Python,” DDD, 670. The article later clarifies: “Acts 16:16 refers to a slave-girl who was possessed by an oracular spirit. Pythōn occurs as apposition to pneuma. The passage can be interpreted against the background of the semantic development of Pythōn…. Acts 16:16 should not be necessarily understood as a reference to a female ventriloquist. The passage may refer in a more general sense to a predicting demon.”

[19] The πύθων is “the serpent or dragon that guarded the Delphic oracle; it lived at the foot of Mt. Parnassus, and was slain by Apollo. Later the word came to designate a spirit of divination, then also of ventriloquists, who were believed to have such a spirit dwelling in their belly” (BDAG 896).

[20] “[The slave girl] is described by Luke as ‘having a pythonic spirit’ or being a ‘pythoness’ that is, a person inspired by Apollo, the Greek deity specially associated with the giving of oracles, who was worshiped as the “Pythian” god at the oracular shrine of Delphi in central Greece. His priestess there was the Pythian prophet par excellence; the girl of whom Luke speaks was a very pale reflection of her.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988): 312.

[21] Werner Foerster, “πύθων,” TDNT 6:920. The early church understood the gods and the divining spirits to be demons. Asserting that the pagan gods are not actually gods, The Clementine Homilies state that their claim to divine the future “does not prove them to be gods; for it does not follow, if anything prophesies, that it is a god. For pythons prophesy, yet they are cast out by us as demons, and put to flight.” The Clementine Homilies 9.16.3 (ANF, 8:278).

[22] Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, trans. James Limburg, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1987): 131. He says, “Luke transfers the label from the ventriloquist to a spirit which speaks through the ventriloquist (in fact, Luke is probably not thinking of ventriloquism at all; the use of the verb κράζω, “to cry out,” in vs 17 is appropriate for spirit possession). In this way the account is more closely patterned after the Synoptic exorcisms.”

[23] EDNT 196.

[24] Pervo further denigrates the standing of the oracular slave girl. “The woman’s advertising might seem like a good thing, but Paul had absolutely no use for this kind of vulgar religion, which resembled the superstitions hawked in public squares by unscrupulous quacks.” Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009): 404.

[25] While not intended as a direct response to Parsons, the argument of this article does oppose his claim that the spirit performed a somewhat “positive” role, as such “external validation was necessary” for the entrance of Christianity into that region. Mikeal C. Parsons, Acts, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 231.

[26] For more on the demonic activity of deception, see Scott D. MacDonald, Demonology for the Global Church: A Biblical Approach in a Multicultural Age (Carlisle, Cumbria: Langham Global Library, 2021), 43–46.

[27] Keener, Acts, 3:2457.

[28] Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, 371. Beyond the numerous historical and archeological references to Zeus being the “Most High” recorded by Paul Trebilco in his article “Paul and Silas—‘Servants of the Most High God’ (Acts 16.16–18),” JSNT 36 (1989): 51–52, an overt example is seen in the title and content of Homeric Hymn 23: “To the Son of Chronos, Most High.”

[29] Newman and Nida prefer “the way” by appealing to the author Luke. “Luke certainly intends for his readers to understand that there is but one way of salvation; and for this reason ‘way of salvation’ must be understood in the sense that Luke himself would have taken it, ‘the way of salvation.’” Barclay M. Newman and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Acts of the Apostles, UBS Translator’s Handbooks (New York: United Bible Societies, 1972), 318. However, what if Luke’s intention is to reflect the syncretistic deception of the spirit and the necessity of the exorcism? The argument from Luke’s intention is not as strong as it appears.

[30] Polhill, Acts, 351. He continues, “These acclamations may have been true enough, but they were open to too much misunderstanding for pagan hearers. The truth could not be so easily condensed for those from a polytheistic background. Jesus might be seen as just another savior in the bulging pantheon of Greek gods.”

[31] Francis Martin, ed., Acts, ACCSNT 5 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 203. The quote is originally from Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles 35.

[32] Keener, Acts, 3:2429. Keener also notes that Bede “favored the Apollo connection” in his comments on Acts 16:16.

[33] Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 131. Conzelmann specifically points to Lucian of Samasota for this argument.

[34] Pervo, Acts, 405. Pervo argues that putting the slave girl out of business would be a “public service” because, “in this instance, the majestic god Apollo is represented by a street person of the lowest status, whose advertisement is far from Apollonian and whose career collapses at a single pronouncement by Paul. Her fate resembles that of the alleged sons of a high priest of the God of Israel in 19:13–17.” However, this argument understands the exorcism as the exposing of the slave girl’s weakness, when it would be better to predominantly see the exorcism as a reflection of Christ’s power. The simplicity of the exorcism is remarkable in comparison to the elaborate systems and tools which were common then and now.

[35] Pervo, Acts, 406.

[36] Byang H. Kato, Theological Pitfalls in Africa (Kisumu: Evangel, 1975), 181.

[37] I vividly remember an oral examination with my missiology professor at Stellenbosch University (South Africa). He posed a scenario in which I was a pastor in a town where there was also an imam. He asked if I would proselytize the imam. When I responded that I would, he coldly responded, “I would disagree with you on that.”

[38] Kato, Theological Pitfalls, 184.

[39] Lenski observes, “The spirit in this girl accomplished no more by means of his divining than our fortunetellers do today. Why, this spirit could not and did not know what was awaiting him, namely that in a few days he would be driven out of the girl by the power of Jesus!” R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 663.

[40] Mwamba, “God Empowers African Charms,” 44.

Scott D. MacDonald

Formerly a missionary instructor with the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zambia, Scott D. MacDonald serves as associate professor of theology with the Canadian Baptist Theological Seminary and College in Cochrane, Alberta.

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