MAGIC. Originally the word meant the science or art of the Magi, the Persian priestly caste, who, like the Levites, were devoted to the practice of religion. With the wide extension of the term “magus,” the word magic, too, acquired broader significance. It came to mean all occult rituals or processes designed to influence or control the course of nature; to dominate men or circumstances by the alliance, aid, or use of supernatural powers; and generally to tap and to employ the forces of an unseen world. Divination, the art of forecasting the future with a view to avoiding its perils and pitfalls, might be included under the same classification. Its methods were frequently “magic.” In lands ethnologically stratified, magic was often associated with the religion of a conquered or depressed class, or with imported faiths. Therefore magic was found frequently in the hands of foreign elements, was secret in its practice, and was often under official ban as antisocial and illicit. For this reason the Bible gives stern prohibitions against all forms of “wizardry” and “sorcery” (Exod.22.18; Lev.19.26; Lev.20.27; Deut.18.10-Deut.18.11), causing security precautions like those surrounding the royal visit to “the witch of Endor” (1Sam.28.1-1Sam.28.25).

In the Mosaic Law, contact with magic and its practitioners was strictly forbidden (e.g., Deut.18.9-Deut.18.14). This is not only because it was typical of the abominations of the heathen that the people of God were to avoid and, indeed, destroy, but more particularly because it was a denial of the true function of prophecy and therefore of the way of faith. In a word, magic is man’s attempt to make the future secure, whether by trying to find out about it in advance or by casting spells so as to make things happen in a predetermined and favorable way. The Lord’s desire for his people is that they should recognize that his sovereignty has planned the future already, and that their part is, therefore, to walk trustfully into it. Furthermore, the voice of prophecy brings them all the immediate guidance and future knowledge that God thinks they need, and their task is to trust his trustworthiness.

Bibliography: M. F. Unger, Biblical Demonology, 1952, pp. 107-64; A. L. Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, 1956; D. Basham, Deliver Us From Evil, 1972.——EMB

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

maj’-ik, ma-jish’-an:



1. Magic as Impersonal

2. Margic as Personal



1. Hostility to Magic

2. Potency of Magical Words

3. Influence of Charms


1. Divination

2. Sorcery

3. Enchantment

4. Amulets

5. Incantation

6. Repeated Utterances

7. Impostors

8. Witchcraft


The word comes from a Greek adjective (magike) with which the noun techne, "art," is understood. The full phrase is "magical art" (The Wisdom of Solomon 17:10). But the Greek word is derived from the magi or Zarathustran (Zoroastrian) priests. Magic is therefore historically the art practiced in Persia by the recognized priests of the country. It is impossible in the present article, owing to exigencies of space, to give a full account of this important subject and of the leading views of it which have been put forth. The main purpose of the following treatment will be to consider the subject from the Biblical standpoint.

I. Definition.

In its modern accepted sense magic may be described as the art of bringing about results beyond man’s own power by superhuman agencies. In the wide sense of this definition divination is only a species of magic, i.e. magic used as a means of securing secret knowledge, especially a knowledge of the future. Divination and magic bear a similar relation to prophecy and miracle respectively, the first and third implying special knowledge, the second and fourth special power. But divination has to do generally with omens, and it is better for this and other reasons to notice the two subjects--magic and divination--apart as is done in the present work.

II. Division of the Subject.

1. Magic as Impersonal:

There are two kinds of magic:

(1) impersonal;

(2) personal.

In the first, magic is a species of crude science, for the underlying hypothesis is that there are forces in the world which can be utilized on certain conditions, incantations, magical acts, drugs, etc. The magician in this case connects what on a very slender induction he considers to be causes and effects, mainly on the principle of post hoc ergo propter hoc. He may not know much of the causal agency; it is enough for him to know that by performing some act or reciting some formula (see Charm) or carrying some object (see Amulet) he can secure some desired end. Frazer (Golden Bough(2), I, 61) says: "Magic is a kind of savage logic, an elementary species of reasoning based on similarity, contiguity and contrast." But why does the savage draw conclusions from association of ideas? There must be an implied belief in the uniformly of Nature or in the controlling power of intelligent beings.

2. Magic as Personal:

In personal magic, living, intelligent, spiritual beings are made the real agents which men by incantations, etc., influence and even control. The magical acts may in an advanced stage include sacrifice, the incantations become prayer.

Impersonal magic is regarded by most anthropologists, including E.B. Tylor and J. Frazer, as more primitive than the second and as a lower form of it. This conclusion rests on an assumption that human culture is always progressive, that the movement is uniformly onward and upward. But this law does not always hold. The religion of Israel as taught in the 8th century BC stands on a higher level ethically and intellectually than that taught in the writings of Haggai, Zechariah and Eccelesiastes centuries later. Among the ancient Indians, the Rig Veda occupies much loftier ground than the much later Atharva Veda.

III. Magic and Religion.

Personal magic in its higher forms shades off into religion, and very commonly the two exist together. It is the practice to speak of sacrifice and prayer as constituting elements of the ancient and modern religions of India. But it is doubtful whether either of these has the same connotation that it bears in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. J. Frazer (Golden Bough(2), I, 67 ff) says that where the operation of spirits is assumed (and "these cases are exceptional"), magic is "tinged and alloyed with religion." Such an assumption is, he admits, often made and the present writer thinks it is generally made, for even the operation of the laws of association implies it. But Frazer concludes from various considerations that "though magic is .... found to fuse and amalgamate with religion in many ages and in many lands, there are some grounds for thinking that this fusion is not primitive." It is of course personal magic to which religion stands in closest relations. As soon as man comes to see in the beings by whose power marvels are wrought, personalities capable of emotions like himself and susceptible to persuasion, his magical art becomes an intelligent effort to propitiate these superior beings and his incantations become hymns and prayers. In all religions, Jewish, Moslem, Christian or pagan, when the act or prayer as such is held to produce certain results or to secure certain desired boons, we have to do with a species of magic. The word "religion" is inapplicable, unless it includes the idea of personal faith in a God or gods whose favor depends on moral acts and on ritual acts only in so far as they have a voluntary and ethical character. If it be granted that magic, the lower, precedes religion, the higher, this does not necessarily negative the validity of the religious concept. Mature knowledge is preceded by elementary impressions and beliefs which are subjective without objective correspondences. But this higher knowledge is none the less valid for its antecedents. If it can be proved that the Christian or any other religion has become what it is by gradual ascent from animism, magic, etc., its validity is not by this destroyed or even impaired. Religion must be judged according to its own proper evidence. But see II, end.

IV. Magic in the Bible.

1. Hostility to Magic:

The general remarks made on the Bible and divination in DIVINATION, V, have an equal application to the attitude of the Bible toward magic. This attitude is distinctly hostile, as it could not but be in documents professing to inculcate the teaching of the ethical and spiritual religion of Israel (see De 18:10 f; 2Ki 21:6; 2Ch 33:6, etc.). Yet it is equally clear that the actual power of magic is acknowledged as clearly as its illegitimacy is pointed out. In P’s account of the plagues (Ex 7-11) it is assumed that the magicians of Egypt had real power to perform superhuman feats. They throw their rods and they become serpents; they turn the waters of the Nile into blood. It is only when they try to produce gnats that they fail, though Aaron had succeeded by Yahweh’s power in doing this and thus showed that Yahweh’s power was greatest. But that the magicians had power that was real and great is not so much as called in question.

2. Potency of Magical Words:

3. Influence of Charms:

In Isa 3:2 the qocem ("magician" or "diviner") is named along with the knight warrior, the judge, prophet and elder, among the stays and supports of the nation; no disapproval is expressed or implied with regard to any of them. Yet it is not to be denied that in its essential features pure Yahwism, which enforced personal faith in a pure spiritual being, was radically opposed to all magical beliefs and practices. The fact that the Hebrews stood apart as believers in an ethical and spiritual religion from the Semitic and other peoples by which they were surrounded suggests that they were Divinely guided, for in other respects--art, philosophy, etc.--this same Hebrew nation held a lower place than many contemporary nations.

V. Magical Terms Used in the Bible.

Many terms employed in the Old Testament in reference to divination have also a magical import. See DIVINATION, VII. For a fuller discussion of Biblical terms connected with both subjects, reference may be made to T. Witton Davies, Magic, Divination and Demonology among the Hebrews and Their Neighbours, 44 iff, 78 ff; see also articles "Divination" and "Magic" in EB, by the present writer.

1. Divination:

Here a few brief statements are all that can be attempted. Qecem, usually rendered "divination" (see Nu 23:23), has primarily a magical reference (Fleischer), though both Wellhausen (Reste des arabischen Heidenthums 2, 133, note 5) and W. Robertson Smith (Jour. Phil., XIII, 278) hold that its first use was in connection with divination. The Arabic verb ("to exorcise") and noun ("an oath") have magical meanings. But it must be admitted that the secondary meaning ("divination") has almost driven out the other. See under I, where it is held that at bottom magic and divination are one.

2. Sorcery:

The verb kashaph, the Revised Version (British and American) "to practice sorcery," comes, as Fleischer held, from a root denoting "to have a dark appearance," to look gloomy, to be distressed, then as a suppliant to seek relief by magical means. The corresponding nouns kashshaph and mekashsheph are rendered "sorcerer" in English Versions of the Bible.

3. Enchantment:

Lachash, English Versions of the Bible "enchantment," etc. (see Isa 3:3, nebhon lachash, the Revised Version (British and American) "the skillful enchanter"), is connected etymologically with nachash, "a serpent,"’ the "n" and "l" often interchanging in Semitic Lachash is, therefore, as might have been expected from this etymology, used specifically of serpent charming (see Jer 8:17; Ec 10:11; compare melachesh in Ps 58:5 (6), English Versions of the Bible "charmer").

4. Amulets:

Chebher occurs in the plural only (Isa 47:9,12, English Versions of the Bible, "enchantments"). It comes from a root meaning "to bind," and it denotes probably amulets of some kind carried on the person to ward off evil. It seems therefore to be the Biblical equivalent of the Talmudic qemia`, literally, equals "something bound" from qama`, "to bind."

5. Incantation:

Shichar (Isa 47:11) seems to have an etymological connection with the principal Arabic word for "magic" (sichrun), and is explained by the great majority of recent commentators following J.H. Michaelis (Hitzig, Ewald, Dillmann, Whitehouse in Century Bible, etc.) as meaning "to charm away" (by incantations). So also Targum, Rashi, J H and Jastrow, Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmudim, and Midrashic Literature, Michaelis, Eichhorn, etc.

6. Repeated Utterances:

The verb battologeo in Mt 6:7 (equals "say not the same thing over and over again") refers to the superstition that the repeated utterance of a word will secure one’s wish. In India today it is thought that if an ascetic says in one month the name of Radha, Krishna, or Ro 100,000 times, he cannot fail to obtain what he wants (see 1Ki 18:26).

See Repetitions.

7. Impostors:

The term goetes, the Revised Version (British and American) "impostors," the King James Version "seducers," is used of a class of magicians who uttered certain magical formulas in a deep, low voice (compare the verb goao, which = "to sigh," "to utter low moaning tones"). Herodotus (ii.33) says that there were persons of the kind in Egypt, and they are mentioned also by Euripides and Plato.

8. Witchcraft:

Paul in Ga 5:20 classes with uncleanness, idolatry, etc., what he calls pharmakeia, the King James Version "witchcraft" the Revised Version (British and American) "sorcery." The word has reference first of all to drugs used in exercising the magical article Note the name Simon Magus, which = Simon the magician (Ac 8:9 f), and Bar-Jesus, whom Luke calls a magician (magos, English Versions of the Bible, "sorcerer") and to whom he gives also the proper name Elymas, which is really the Arabic `alim = "learned," and so one skillful in the magical article.



A Very full bibliography of the subject will be found in T. Witton Davies, Magic, Divination and Demonology among the Hebrews and Their Neighbours, xi through xvi. See also the literature under DIVINATION and in addition to the literature cited in the course of the foregoing article, note the following: A. Lehmann, Aberglaube und Zauberei2, 1908; A.C. Haddon, Magic and Fetishism, 1906; Blau, Das altjudische Zauberwesen, 1898; Smith, "Witchcraft in the Old Testament," Biblical Soc., 1902, 23-35; W.R. Halliday, Greek Divination; A Study of Its Methods and Principles, London, Macmillan (important) and the valuable article on "Magic" by Northwest Thomas in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and also the relevant articles in the Bible dictionaries.

T. Witton Davies