Christians encounter ideas about supernatural realities not only from the Bible, but from the cultures in which we live. In many cultures one finds the belief that misfortunes are caused by human third parties acting malevolently through evil occult means. The misfortunes these people are believed to cause range from infertility or economic ruin to sickness and death.

The way in which these individuals are thought to cause harm (whether through psychic power, learned magical technique, or compacts with evil supernatural spirits) historically has varied culturally. However the idea that misfortunes are caused by human third parties acting through evil occult powers has existed in every continent of the world, although not in every culture.

As a child of missionaries, I grew up with the Siriono in Bolivia, where people believed in a variety of spirits and practiced various forms of magic. But no Siriono attributed misfortune to some other person thought to have exercised supernatural occult power to bring harm. Later I lived with the Aguaruna of Peru, who believed every single death was caused by another person.

Who it is that is accused of witchcraft varies. For example, among the Aguaruna of Peru, only men are accused of being witches. By contrast, among several nearby Arawakan groups (such as the Ashaninka), it is young children, usually female and usually orphans, that are often accused of having caused the sickness and death of others. Among the Sukuma of Tanzania accusations are typically directed against elderly women. The elderly, women, widows, and sometimes children and especially orphans would appear to be among the people most often accused of murdering others through witchcraft.

The results of being thought of as a witch-murderer are usually consequential, as is evident in seminary student surveys in both Kenya (see my April 27 blog) and Congo (see Tim Stabell’s May 25 blog ). Among the Ashaninka of Peru if a child is blamed for the death of another, historically this child would be killed in any of a variety of ways: bludgeoned, garroted, drowned, stoned, shot with arrows, burned alive, buried headfirst in an armadillo hole, left in the forest tied to a tree for a jaguar to eat, or covered with honey and tied to a tree near an ant hole.[1]

Because the charges against these individuals are serious (typically including murder), and because the consequences of these charges to the accused are also serious (such as being lynched), it matters a great deal how Christians come to understand such charges, especially in settings where Christianity has a strong social presence and influence.  Furthermore, it has historically been the case that both Christianity and witchcraft accusations have often thrived simultaneously in the same societies.  Thus it becomes doubly important that Christian leaders develop a sustained effort at thinking through our understandings and practices related to this pervasive reality of witchcraft and/or witchcraft accusations.

Christians have historically insisted that our knowledge of supernatural realities comes through God’s revelation – and especially through the special revelation of Scripture. In this blog I invite us to begin reflecting on how the Bible lines up with the ideas and practices we encounter in societies where witch ideas, accusations, and practices are pervasive. I leave for another occasion consideration of extra-biblical ways of knowing and assessing witch accusations.

Because Christians learn from Scripture that people are depraved sinners, Christians do not dismiss out of hand the idea that some people might be deeply motivated by evil desires to harm and kill others.  Because Christians learn from the Bible to believe in supernatural realities, including belief in evil supernatural powers, Christians usually do not dismiss out of hand the idea that some people might actually be able, by means of evil supernatural power, to cause harm to others.

But it is also true that there are significant differences between what one finds in the Bible and what one finds in societies where witch accusations flourish – differences raising difficult issues for how to assess ideas about witches.

In societies where witch accusations flourish, misfortunes of all kinds (infertility, impotence, affliction, economic problems, soccer losses, car accidents, drownings, sickness, and death) immediately trigger witch discourses which attribute such misfortunes to the evil agency of a neighbor, relative, or colleague. In other societies the exact same misfortunes may be attributed to astro-physical causes – to the arrangements of planets, moon and stars, and to auspicious and inauspicious periods of time. In yet other societies, those exact same misfortunes may be attributed to moral causes — that is, where the sufferer’s own sin, perhaps even in a prior life, is said to be the cause of their current affliction.

If the afflictions which happened to Job were to occur in communities where witch discourses flourish (such as among the Aguaruna or Sukuma), then the wise men and women of the culture would unite in identifying some other person (perhaps a less fortunate neighbor of Job, someone believed to envy his wealth or family, or who had expressed resentment or a grudge against him) as the most likely explanation of his afflictions. But the cultural assumptions about causal ontologies in the culture of Job’s community centered on moral causes – on the belief that affliction comes purely as a result of one’s own sin. One finds not the slightest whiff of an idea that Job’s misfortunes could be caused by a human third party, a witch, acting through evil occult means.

Had the Bible been given in cultural contexts where the “wise counselors” of the culture attributed misfortunes to human third parties acting through evil occult means, then we would have a text which directly addresses our concerns. But while the Bible is filled with stories of infertility, affliction, and death, the very subject matter which in many cultures triggers witch discourses, the Bible makes no reference to interpersonal causal ontologies purporting to explain misfortune. Instead numerous biblical texts involve dialog with moral causal ontologies of the culture – where cultural assumptions blamed the afflicted for their own suffering. Nowhere in Scripture do we find anyone attributing affliction or death to a human third party acting through evil occult means.

This presents the Christian theologian with a distinct challenge when encountering what Richard Shweder[2] calls “interpersonal causal ontologies” – ontologies assuming that misfortunes are caused by other human parties acting through evil occult means. When Christians encounter moral causal ontologies in various cultures, they find rich biblical passages helping them provide assessment and correctives. But when they encounter interpersonal causal ontologies, they find no biblical passages which directly address such a cultural logic.

Both in the book of Job, and throughout the New Testament, one finds the idea that nonhuman evil spiritual beings play a role in afflictions of various kinds. But nowhere in Scripture is this linked to the idea of human agency being exercised to harm others. While Pentecostal exorcisms in Ghana are typically grounded in “witch demonologies,” to use Onyinah’s[3] apt phrase, this involves a merger of 1.) biblical ideas about demons and exorcism (which in the biblical texts have no explicit link to witch ontologies) with 2.) Ghanaian ideas about human witches being the cause of afflictions into 3.) a new synthesis. The theological and pastoral implications of this synthesis merit the sustained attention which Onyinah has given it, and merit sustained attention by a wider community of Christian theologians, missiologists, and church leaders.

But even if it is true that nowhere in Scripture do we find anyone attributing affliction or death to a human third party acting through evil occult means, our contemporary Bible translations do “seem” to point to the witch idea in other ways. And yet this may be misleading.

For example, in I Samuel 28, English Bibles, at least in the section headings, will sometimes use the term “witch” for the woman at Endor that was asked to make contact with the deceased Prophet Samuel. But in fact this woman was similar to the Korean Moodang – a female magico-religious professional believed to have the power to interact with and call up the dead. Anthropologists typically translate Moodang as shaman, not as witch or sorceress.  The Moodang are not believed to cause harm to others. Like the Korean Moodang or the South African Sangoma or Inyanga, this woman from Endor was thought to have powers to engage the dead for divinatory purposes.  But nothing in the Hebrew text suggests that this woman was thought to be the cause of affliction and death in the lives of others. In that sense, this woman was not a witch/sorceress.  If anything, she was closer to the diviner/witchdoctor/shaman idea.

Again, some translations of Acts 8 and 13 into English will use the term sorcery or sorcerer for Simon and Elymas. And some translations into African languages (Kimeru, Yoruba, Malagasy, Kikamba, Kalenjin) also use indigenous terms for witch-killers to translate magos – indigenous terms that anthropologists usually translate into English as witch/sorcerer. In such languages Christians read a Bible that seems to imply that the reason Simon and Elymas were bad is because they were really murderers. In such communities culturally informed fear of human occult murderers is seemingly endorsed as a legitimate fear – one even present in biblical contexts. But I raise the question of whether such translations are accurate. Simon, for example, had a public identity as wonder worker (not unlike those studied by Siegel[4]). What he wished to purchase from Peter was not the power to harm others (as a witch/sorcerer might), but the ability to publicly impress and amaze others with his power. The Greek term here being translated as witch/sorcerer, is the same Greek term used for the Magi bringing gifts to Jesus in Matthew 2.  Not surprisingly, no translation, whether English or Kimeru, Yoruba, Malagasy, Kikamba, or Kalenjin translates this Greek term in Matthew 2 as witches/sorcerers bringing gifts to Jesus – even when that is the translation used for Acts 8 and 13. Bible translations of Matthew 2 sometimes evade the translational problem simply by transliterating the Greek word Magi into other languages, as in Malagasy, Swahili, or some English translations. Some Bible translations of Matthew 2 translate Magi as a “wise or educated person” (as in Mandarin, Kimeru, Moore, Twi, Yoruba, Kalenjin, Kikamba), or as those “knowledgeable about the stars” (Nuer, Sango, other versions of Mandarin and Swahili). But few translations follow the Greek in using the same term in Acts 8 and Acts 13 that is used in Matthew 2 (Bambara being an exception). Some translations of Acts 8 and 13 use indigenous terms for magico-religious professionals having unusual powers and claims to special knowledge (Nuer, Aguaruna, Amharic, Cambodian) – which is almost certainly a better translational move than to use the term for witch-killer. When people of a given culture operate with an interpersonal causal ontology, assuming that afflictions and deaths are caused by human neighbors, relatives, and colleagues acting through evil occult means, and then when they read a Bible where Acts 8 and 13 use the exact indigenous term for such a person, they are encouraged to think that the Bible itself endorses their concerns about such occult murderers.

Perhaps the most important biblical text is Exodus 22:18 where the Israelites are not to allow kashaph to live. The exact meaning of kashaph is contestable – and will need to be considered carefully. Here I simply point out that in Exodus 7:11 the kashaph are part of Pharoah’s retinue of magico-religious professionals asked to perform power displays; and in Daniel 2:2 Nebachadnezzar’s cadre of kashaph are asked to divine his dream. That is, it would appear that in Hebrew usage kashaph are magico-religious professionals who, among other things, divine dreams and perform power displays. The LXX translated kashaph as pharmakous, a translation consistent with the idea that these were magico-religious professionals of some sort. But when the Latin Vulgate translated kashaph as maleficos, this moved things more towards the witch/sorcery idea, a translation with consequences for European history.

Some translations of the Bible render kashaph with indigenous terms for professional magico-religious practitioners (such as in Korean or Cambodian Bibles) with no necessary implication of occult harm or murder. Other translations (such as Chinese) simply translate kashaph as persons practicing “bad magic” – but with no indication of why exactly it was “bad.” But while most languages have a range of terms for magico-religious professionals called on to interpret dreams or perform power displays of various sorts, numerous Bible translations across Africa do not use those terms but rather translate kashaph with terms meaning witch/occult-killer (as in Kimeru, Lingala, Kalenjin, Yoruba, Malagasy, Twi, Swahili, Amharic, Bambara, Kikamba, Bobo, Dholuo). That is, while Kamba Christians read a Bible endorsing the traditional Kamba assumption that human third parties are to blame for misfortunes and death, third parties who are really secret serial murderers and who should thus be ferreted out and killed, Korean Christians find rather the shaman condemned, a figure in Korea not associated with killing others, but whom a jealous God insists must not be part of the people of God. That is, Korean or Cambodian or even Chinese Christians read a different Bible at this point than most African Christians, or even than many English speakers. I argue that the Exodus 7:11 and Daniel 2:2 accounts would seem to better fit the Korean translation (where kings historically did avail themselves of shamans doing exactly the sort of things being asked for here), or even the Chinese translation, than the occult killer idea of many African translations. Some African translations consistently translate kashaph in all three passages (Ex 22:18, Ex 7:11, Dan 2:2) using the same indigenous term for evil witch/sorcerer/killer (Swahili, Yoruba, Malagasy, Amharic, Kikamba), although speakers of these languages concede that traditionally no one would ever call on witches/sorcerers to interpret a dream, or would expect a king or chief to have a public cadre of witches/sorcerers at his beck and call for public power displays. Perhaps because of this lack of fit, many African translations retain the witch/sorcery idea for the Exodus 22:18 passage calling for the death of the kashaph, but use other indigenous terms for public magico-religious professionals to translate kashaph in Exodus 7:11 and/or Daniel 2:2 (as in Kimeru, Lingala, Kalenjin, Twi, Bambara, Dholuo, Bobo). While Korean Christians would not think to point to Exodus 22:18 as evidence that a cause of afflictions and deaths is the secret presence of humans who kill through witchcraft, and who must be ferreted out and dealt with, this is precisely what seems to be endorsed in many African translations, as where the Swahili warns, “You must not allow a woman-witch to live.”

The Bible was given against the backdrop of cultures, like the Siriono or Korean cultures, whose discourses did  NOT centrally feature witch ontologies — the idea of relatives and neighbors thought of as secretly causing the affliction and death of others through evil occult means.  Even where we sometimes think the Bible was referring to such beliefs, I suggest it is quite possible that we are simply misunderstanding Scripture. Scripture is thus largely silent in relation to the issues and questions raised in such a context, which is not to say that principles given in Scripture are not important to our assessments here.

Christianity today exists in contexts where witch discourses and ontologies are pervasive and consequential. And so we need a community of Christian scholars and leaders grappling with how to understand and respond to such discourses and practices. One part of this will involve careful reassessment of histories of Bible translation, and careful reflection on how current understandings match biblical teaching.


[1] Santos-Granero, Fernando. 2002. Saint Christopher in the Amazon: child sorcery, colonialism, and violence among the Southern Awawak. Ethnohistory 49 (3):507-543.

­­­­­ Santos-Granero, Fernando 2004. The enemy within: Child Sorcery, Revolution, and the evils of modernization in eastern Peru.  In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Edited by Neil L. Whitehead and Robin Wright. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 272-305.

[2] Shweder, Richard. 2003. Why do men barbecue?: Recipes for Cultural Psychology. Harvard University Press. See especially pages 74 – 86 for a summary of the prevalence of various causal ontologies across the world.

[3] Onyinah, Opoku. 2001. Deliverance as a way of confronting witchcraft in modern Africa: Ghana as a case history. Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research 10 (July).

Onyinah, Opoku. 2004. Contemporary ‘witchdemonology’ in Africa. International Review of Mission 93(3): 330-345.

Onyinah, Opoku. 2012. Pentecostal Exorcism: Witchcraft and Demonology in Ghana. Dorset, UK: Deo Publishing.

[4] Siegel, Lee. 1991. Net of magic: Wonders and deceptions in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.