We tend in English to use the words “witch” or “witchcraft” in ways that fail to reflect analytic distinctions widely present in other cultures and languages.

One class of persons practice divination or contact the dead on behalf of the living in a culturally acceptable and open way. For example, in South Africa the Sangoma and Inyanga are thought to have such powers, as is the Iwishin among the Aguaruna of Peru, the Mganga of Tanzania, or the Mufumu of Congo. These people advertise their identities and services and seek customers. People seek them out in times of crisis or need, both to divine the root causes of their afflictions and to help resolve them. But in these same cultures there is another category of person that is thought to operate secretly and malevolently to harm others, the Tagati/Mthakathi of South Africa, the Mchawi of Tanzania, the Mulozi of Congo and the Tunchi of Northern Peru. These persons are thought to cause harm to others, and are not consulted by others for purposes of healing, divination, or to resolve problems with the dead.

A Translation Issue

When anthropologists have tried to translate these words into English, they have often translated the first group of terms as “diviner” or “traditional healer,” and have only used the terms “witch” and “witchcraft” for the second group of terms—the ones implying secret malevolent killers. “Witchcraft” thus becomes an English translation for the set of ideas and identities associated with named categories of persons and practices oriented to trying secretly to harm other people.

But notice how confusing this becomes (for English-speakers) in a biblical context. As I was sitting in church a couple weeks ago I opened my Bible (Today’s New International Version—published by Zondervan) to the Dictionary at the end, and it had an entry for “Witchcraft” (p. 1167), which said:

Witchcraft: A title linked with the practice of predicting the future by interpreting omens, examining the livers of sacrificed animals, and contacting the dead—among other techniques. The Old Testament law prohibited these occultic and magical practices (Deut 18:9-12).

On this meaning of “witchcraft,” it is the diviners and traditional healers—the Sangoma, Inyanga, Mufumu, Mganga, and Iwishin—that are practicing “witchcraft.” On this meaning of the term witchcraft, there is no reference to secret occult killers, to those who are thought to malevolently produce sickness, infertility, poverty and death in neighbors and relatives. On this meaning of witchcraft, there appears to be no concept corresponding to the ideas associated with the hostile harm-causing witch—the  Mchawi, Mulozi, Tagati/Mthakathi, or Tunchi. And yet it is the latter terms that anthropologists have historically used for witchcraft, reserving terms like “diviner” or “traditional healer” for the first category of terms. And in much of Africa, the English terms witch and witchcraft are associated with this second set of categories, not with the diviners or traditional healers.

Part of the reason for this confusion is doubtless because most English speakers in America and Europe do not live in contexts where there is a strong social belief in the presence of malevolent neighbors and relatives who are secretly killing and harming others through occult supernatural powers. That is, this meaning  does not exist clearly in the minds of most Americans or Europeans who use the English term witchcraft, which is why a definition in an English Bible could read as the above does.

A Biblical Issue

But there is another, biblical, reason that the TNIV’s definition does not reference the ideas associated with the second group of terms. The ideas associated with the first set of terms are often clearly addressed in the Bible, but the ideas associated with the second set of terms listed above never explicitly appear anywhere in the Bible. On the one hand you find references to people who are diviners and mediums—sometimes wrongly labeled witches (as with the “witch of Endor” in I Samuel 28). But even though the Bible is full of stories about afflictions, infertility, poverty, sickness, and death, there is not one place where anyone in the Bible ever claims that the reason for their afflictions was a nearby secret witch, a malevolent relative or neighbor causing harm to others through evil occult means. Although the Bible is full of the prayers of believers, not one time is a believer’s prayer recorded asking that God would protect them from the power of hostile witches. In short, the Hebrew people did not live in a context where there was a strong social belief in the presence of malevolent neighbors and relatives that were secretly killing and harming others through evil occult supernatural powers.

Most Bible scholars are simply not aware that the witch idea does not exist equally in diverse cultures. Many societies with robust ideas about magic, consulting the dead, and divination nonetheless lack any clear verbalized idea that afflictions are to be explained as due to neighbors and relatives supernaturally causing harm. Many societies are like that of Job’s comforters who rehearsed every possible explanation they could think of for Job’s puzzling afflicions, but never once suggested witchcraft.

Korea, for example, has shamans (Moodang, Baksoo) involved in divinations, power displays, and interventions with the dead, but does not elaborate a witch ideology. However, in societies with robust witch ideologies, people explain afflictions such as those Job experienced by referencing envious malevolent relatives or neighbors who are believed to cause harm through evil occult means. In such societies people pray for protection from witches. In such societies people regularly accuse others of having caused their afflictions through witchcraft. In such societies, it is common for people to use mob violence to lynch anybody thought to have caused the afflictions of others through witchcraft. And yet there does not appear to be any of these patterns present in the culture of the ancient Jews.

This  may partly explain why the Bible does not explicitly reference the witch idea—the idea that one person’s afflictions have actually been caused by another malevolent person acting secretly through supernatural evil powers to cause the harm. In short, I wonder whether the words Mchawi, Mulozi, Tatathi/Mthakathi, or Tunchi should ever legitimately be used to translate any biblical term. By contrast, contemporary words that reference diviners, wonder workers, or those who contact the dead (such as Mganga, Mufumu, Inyanga, Sangoma, Moodang, Baksoo, Iwishin) do have significant overlap with realities directly referenced in Scripture, and may well be appropriate terms to use in Bible translation.

Exactly what we may infer from this is not easy to determine. But at minimum, we need to recognize and consider the realities discussed here as we attempt to grapple with the implications for Christians today in contexts where there is strong belief in the presence and efficacy of witches—of neighbors and relatives thought to be the hostile cause of affliction, infertility, impotence, poverty, sickness, and death.