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Does Revelation's 'Pharmakia' Refer to Vaccines and Modern Medicine?

A few snippets from my Facebook feed. Anti-vaxx friends claiming you can't get sick with COVID if you celebrate Passover. Others saying all vaccines are evil sorcery, and that getting vaccinated will result in capital punishment. Still others suggest believing in Jesus prevents COVID. All of these are great misinterpretations of the Bible. The resulting damage is palpable: COVID deaths of many believers including 4 Messianic leaders in the last 4 months.

Many believers on the fringes of Christianity and the Messianic movement push the idea that vaccines are not only harmful, but evil. Some claim the Bible itself is anti-vaccine and anti-modern medicine.

How so?

They point to the Greek text of Revelation 18:23, how it uses the word ‘pharmakia’ to describe an evil characteristic of Babylon the Great.

Here’s the verse in context:

Then a mighty angel picked up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying:

“So shall Babylon, the great city,
be thrown down with violence,
never to be found again!
And the sound of harpists and musicians,
flautists and trumpeters,
shall never be heard in you again
And the sound of a mill
shall never be heard in you again!
And the light of a lamp
shall never shine in you again!
And the voice of the bridegroom and bride
shall never be heard in you again
For your businessmen were the tycoons of the world,
for all the nations were deceived by your sorcery [Greek: pharmakia]
And in her was found the blood of the prophets and kedoshim
and all those slaughtered on the earth.”

- Revelation 18:21-24

These folks point out that ‘pharmakia’ is where we get our modern English words “pharmacy” and “pharmaceutical”, so, they argue, Revelation is stating Babylon the Great is evil because it is pushing pharmaceutical drugs like vaccines. And thus, the Bible is anti-vaccine and anti-modern medicine.

Messianic Jewish apologist, author, and Biblical languages expert Dr. Michael Brown refutes this argument in his latest post. He writes,

Speaking of the fall of “Babylon the Great” in the 18th chapter of the Book of Revelation, verse 23 states that “all nations were deceived by your sorcery,” but the Greek word for “sorcery” here is pharmakia. Was it possible, a caller asked me on Friday, that this was speaking of the large pharmaceutical companies? My answer was absolutely, categorically not. […] To argue that Revelation 18:23 is speaking of modern pharmaceutical companies — in particular, with regard to vaccines and the like — is completely untenable from the viewpoint of sound Greek scholarship. Not the slightest chance."

Here’s the clip in question, where a caller on Dr. Brown’s show, The Line of Fire, suggested that ‘pharmakia’ refers to drugs, specifically modern medicine:

Dr. Brown notes if we interpreted the Bible by this method, we would have to resort to all kinds of Scriptural acrobatics. He gives an example: the Gospels record Yeshua healed the sick with dunamis, the Greek word from which we get the modern ‘dynamite’. Jesus didn’t explode the sick with dynamite, but rather, healed the sick with divine power.

The ancient word in the Greek text doesn’t mean the same thing as the modern English word.

So it is with ‘pharmakia’.

Dr. Brown rightly notes that ‘pharmakia’ refers not to vaccines or modern pharmaceuticals, but to idolatry and sorcery. Enchantment with (all-natural!) drugs for the purpose of inducing idolatrous trances. Ancient pagan sorcery.

Dr. Brown demonstrates this truth by showing how the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, translates the Hebrew text of the Book of Exodus, where it speaks of the Egyptian sorcerers and “secret arts”, translating these as “pharmakia”. Likewise, the Septuagint translates Nahum 3:4, speaking of sorcery and idolatry, as pharmakia.

Clearly, the Biblical ‘pharmakia’ – whether in the Old Testament Septuagint or in the Greek New Testament – refers to pagan magic, spellcasting, sorcery, and divination. Not modern medicine or vaccines.

“But modern medicine is magic sorcery and divination!”, some protest.

This too is faulty thinking. Dr. Brown points out,

There is nothing in the context of Revelation 18 that connects directly to Big Pharma, which, despite its great wealth and influence, is not casting spells all over the world. And, to be perfectly candid, to read Big Pharma back into the Bible is like reading Elvis back into the Bible because, after all, David sung songs, and Elvis sang too.

From the viewpoint of someone who has worked with the biblical languages and engaged in serious biblical study for close to 50 years, interpretations like this can be very frustrating, especially when people then base whole theologies on impossible readings of the Hebrew and Greek predicted fall of Babylon.

That being said, the simple takeaway from this article is this: Revelation 18 is not the place to go if you want to launch an attack on Big Pharma. Nor is it the place to go to decide whether to be vaccinated.

Believers can disagree about vaccine mandates and even vaccines. It’s OK to differ on these issues; there is room for both views in the body of Messiah.

But if we are people of truth, we must not claim the Bible is anti-vaxx, or that its use of ‘pharmakia’ refers to vaccines or modern medicine.

Playing word games like this to read modern ideas into the ancient text is a bad way to go about understanding the Bible.

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