Acts 19:13-20 – Sons of Sceva and the Magicians of Ephesus

Most people in the ancient world believed in the power of protective magic.  According to Clint Arnold, Jewish magic was famous in the ancient world (Acts, 193).  In his monograph Magic in Ephesus he details magical practices in the Ephesus as well as Jewish use of magic and talismans to ward off evil.  It is no surprise to find people in Ephesus who are not only using magical items, but that Jews functioned as exorcists and magicians may come as a shock.  Many Jews found a lucrative trade selling incantations and amulets in Ephesus.

Jewish exorcists are well known in the ancient world, especially in Ephesus (see for example, Josephus Antiq. 8.42-49) and Jews were especially famous for magic. Jewish names were especially thought to have magical powers, as is illustrated by Paris Papyri 574, “I abjure you by Jesus the God of the Hebrews,” and “hail God of Abraham, Hail God of Isaac, hail God of Jacob, Jesus Chrestus, Holy Spirit, Son of the Father.”

Some of these Jewish exorcists have begun to use the names of both Jesus and Paul as “power words” to cast out demons. This is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek ἐξορκιστής (exorcist) is used.  Sceva is identified as a chief priest (not the high priest), although it is his sons who are attempting to cast out this demon.  When commanded, the demon reverses the usual process and “exorcizes” the exorcists! This humorous scene shows that the God of Paul is not to be manipulated like the other gods of the ancient world.

The news of beating of the sons of Sceva spreads quickly.  The text says that the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor (μεγαλύνω).  This does not necessarily mean people became believers. The word appears in Acts 5:13 to refer to the reputation the apostles gained in Jerusalem (“held in high regard by the people”), but certainly in that context  people were not converted to Christianity.

Luke reports that many who were already believers openly confessed their sin of magic and publicly burned their scrolls. Luke uses the perfect tense to describe these magicians – they have already believed in Jesus and were saved, but they had not given up their magical practices quite yet.  Perhaps burning their scrolls is an act of “self preservation,” as Witherington puts it.  Other magicians and exorcists had to be amazed at what had happened to the sons of Sceva, even if they were not willing to have a saving faith in the Lord Jesus (Acts, 582).

The people public confess their evil deeds.  This likely means they made public spells and magical words which were kept in secret.  Public confession would render them ineffective (Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, 412).  In addition to the public confession of guilt, many others bring magic texts to voluntarily burn. Public book burnings are common in the Greco-Roman world, subversive or dangerous texts were destroyed.  The best example is Augustus himself, who collected Greek Sibylline oracles and had them destroyed since they could be used to foment rebellion against the empire.

This points out that the new converts in Ephesus were not yet “de-paganized.”  Like the Corinthians, the converts in Ephesus struggled to integrate Christ and their culture.  What strikes me as odd is that the disciples of John the Baptist were not Christians because they had not yet received the Holy Spirit, but these magicians were in fact Christians (having received the Spirit), despite the fact they continued in a pagan practice after becoming “in Christ.”  I seriously doubt that Paul and the other missionaries approved of the practice, but there must have been some toleration at first since it took some time before the magicians renounced their trade.

What are the implications for modern evangelism, either in America or in other missions work?

Further reading in Magical Papyri: H. D. Betz, “Introduction to the Magical Papyri,” in The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

18 thoughts on “Acts 19:13-20 – Sons of Sceva and the Magicians of Ephesus

  1. That’s a tough question. In 1 Cor. Paul wrote, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” If a prostitute is saved, is she required to stop this specific sin immediately? It seems like it is commanded, but many people caught in a sin will continue to struggle with it (at least for some time) after being saved. I think it might be an understanding of God’s grace more than a toleration of sin that matters in these situations.

  2. I do agree that Paul and his disciples more than likely did not condone this behavior; but I do think, as Joe said, it is not like they are just going to completely give up “cold turkey” and turn from their old ways. It is going to take some time to fully change and be able to live a life that is free from those sins that had a strong hold on their lives. It is interesting to me that they openly confessed and then burned all their scrolls and books they had. To me it kind of resembles accountability. It is like they were openly admitting they had this problem and now everyone knows and the other believers can help them through it. The burning of the scrolls reminded me of when Jesus taught, “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 18:7-9) These scrolls and books were a huge part of their practice in magic…so they got rid of them, so that they would no longer tempt them to practice the sin of magic.

    • I feel that Jessica pretty much hit it right on the nose. I think that all of us at some point have made the joke towards someone that the first step is admittance. All though it is a terrible joke and is barrley ever funny it is the truth in many cases. We all have problems and we are all sinner, this we know, but what it comes down to is admitting that you have this problem and begin to repent against whatever the problem may be and like Jessica has said the burning of the scrolls is their exact attempt at admitting they have a problem and trying to go straight to the biggest part of their problem and the source of it and destroy it so that they do not have as much of a temptation to continue what they are doing.

  3. I like Jessica’s use of the word accountability. The burning of the scrolls is a way for all the believers to say, “I used to do this, but i wont anymore.” We can see what these believers did as an open act in front of everybody. They understood Paul’s message and took immediate action upon it. They were not secretive about their sin, but, “openly confess their sin”. We do not often see this in today’s culture, and even when we do, it is not often as specific as it was in this story. The Scrolls and books were a direct line of contact to this sin and so they had to be removed from the situation, and so they were removed publicly by the body of Christ.

  4. I found this passage to be very intriguing and wrote about it a little in my paper.Some questions that I researched and found very contradicting answers to , were: was excorcism (outside of chrisitanity) and magic actually effective, and if it was, by what power?… Acts 19:13, seems to imply that there really were exorcists outside of Christianity. This would mean that demons were excorcised by another power outside of God’s. I wish I knew what vs 13 said in the original text,but it seems here that the sons of Sceva had effectively drawn out evil spirits through the power of (Satan?) in the past. If it is not God’s, then it must be Satan’s. When they tried to “tap” into the power that Paul was given, by using the names of Jesus and Paul, they failed,as there seems to be no actual faith in Jesus Christ…They failed to exorcise the “Christian way”, but they had actually exorcised effectively in the past by some other means?

    • “magic actually effective, and if it was, by what power?” This is always an issue, but sometimes it works because people think it will work – psychosomatic illness, power of positive thinking, etc. Exorcism is different, but how much of that was mental illness? Hard to tell on a historical level.

  5. Last Summer a co worker of mine at the camp i was volunteering at shared a personal experience he had dealing with someone who was demon possessed. based on what he shared with me and some of the other stories i have heard leads me to believe that Satan is very much still present now than he ever has before. As i was reading this section thoughts of all the blocks Satan has been putting up at least in my life were coming to mind. I think in today’s culture the practices of magic to keep evil away, or for anything is not really a way to handle anything if you believe in that sort of behavior. If we are trying to fend off the evil works that are holding us back we should always be pushing full force and honoring God through our actions.

  6. Addressing P.Long’s question of what the implications are for modern evangelism in America and in the missions field, I automatically thought of the movie that we had to watch multiple times in first year theology and our CE classes. I thought of the movie documentary “Eetow.” In this movie we saw the way two missionaries approached a tribe who knew nothing of Jesus. They learned the tribes culture, what they ate, how the hunted, where and in what they lived in and upon this submersion into this culture they found that there was a lot of fear and witchcraft going on. These missionaries started with the beginning of scripture from creation through the exodus to the judges and kings and the prophets up to the point of Christ and his death and Paul’s ministry and final Revelation and the end times.
    These people were practicing witch craft and doing things that were awful. Just like these Spirit indwell believers in Acts 19, Satan was hard at work trying to misrepresent the name of Christ. It reminds me of Pharaoh’s priests who used magic to match what Moses was doing in the name of the Lord. They could complete some of the same stunts but I have to think that Satan was behind that magic as well. Satan can and will use anything he can to prevent people from turning to Christ for salvation and sanctification. If Christ wins then Satan loses.
    Another verse I thought of was Paul talking about our flesh and spirit always being at war with one another.
    “So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t by doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions.” Galatians 5:16-17

  7. i find this passage very interesting. Paul needed to be very patient with the new beleivers and keep directing them towards the way they should go. I think this can be applyed to modern eveangelism. People have their ways of life and most of them are not pleasing to God. We as Christians need to be patient with new beleivers and keep directing them in the way that is pleasing to God.

  8. I was on the same page as Chrissy, thinking about Ee Taow! Those people were very steeped in their witchcraft. I do think that the situation with the magicians of Ephesus is pretty similar. It would make sense in Ee Taow because those people had never heard of the Bible, but the fact that the Jews were practicing exorcism and magic is pretty shocking. It also shocks me that they would use Jesus and Paul as “power words.” Obviously they are living in opposition to the Law that they claim to believe and follow. At the end, after they receive the Holy Spirit, but continue their practice, I feel like yes, they were Christians, but like so many of us they just fell back into their past sins. Obviously as Christians, we still sin, but we have to keep pursuing God and have others hold us accountable to keep us from those sins. The ones that we struggled with before becoming a Christian are clearly the ones that will be easy for us to fall back into, and that’s where faith and truly living your life with and for God comes into play.

  9. After speed-reading through the comments, I am wondering why I haven’t heard a particular objection to this idea of “quitting as the spirit leads” or as you become more able, or as it gets easier, or however it has been termed. I feel like this is all roughly the same thing if more and less aggressive terminology.
    At any rate. I agree with this idea to a point, but I feel it needs to be heavily tempered with the idea Paul states in II Corinthians 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come. This doesn’t sound very slow and progressive. Even given the context I find it difficult to discover what specifically Paul is talking about here when he says that the old has gone and the new has come. But I tend to think it applies to this idea of evolutionary change over time in our habits and actions when we convert to Christianity.
    I have trouble reconciling these two ideas, the one implied in Acts, and the other seemingly overtly stated in II Corinthians, but I believe both to be true, and each in need of the other to be properly applied. So I return to my earlier statement. I am prone to agree with this idea that our sinful habits don’t always disappear at the moment of conversion, and even perhaps that it may be poor strategy to attempt to fix all of them at once, but I feel this idea needs to be heavily tempered with this idea of the old being gone and the new having come.

  10. What are the implications to modern evangelism? As PLong said, “there must have been some toleration at first since it took some time before the magicians renounced their trade.” This example in acts give us reason to believe that our legalistic style of, fix yourself before you come to Christ is very flawed. Now I know this is not true for all churches but there is a problem within the church of turning away some people on account of past or present actions; and if it’s not turning them away it is definitely trying to fix them as soon as possible once they are saved. Here, in Acts 19, there is a sensitivity from Paul that does not justify their actions but he does realize that their past way of life will take time to get over. We, today, must have the same sensitivity. Not sensitivity that results in allowing Christians to live in sin but to realize that the world has had a tremendous influence over the non-believers and when they become saved there are going to be remnants of that influence. Why rebuke someone for traveling on the road that leads to Christ? Why put someone down for trying to be like Christ even if they are quite a ways behind him? We all are quite a ways behind him and can only hope to come even close to Him one day.

  11. I find this passage, along with the comments to be intriguing. Paul does in fact warns us about sexual immorality. That is surely not the only sin that we have to worry about. there are many sins out there that we all face such as greed, anger, idolotry, etc. when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior,that does not make our sin go away. Yes we are saved and very much forgiven, but still that desire is going to eat at us more and more but it is with God’s love and mercy that we can fight that temptation. In fact, when we become children of God, Satan will eat us even more just for the sake of getting us to follow him. THis is just another fine indication that we need to be under God’s grace and not under law. We need to remain steadfast to the faiith and truth that God has put out there for us.

  12. What comes to mind first when I read this is Christ telling us to get rid of what makes you sin. The magic and sorcery cause these people to sin. The weird thing is that, they did not know they were doing anything wrong until they were confronted. Luke also says that most of the magicians were already Christians, this symbolizes forgiveness that is poured out to us even when we make mistakes.

    The discussion above really has some good points. When Cam talked about tolerance of the magic or sorcery. This si really suprising to me, due to the fact that this was accepted sometime while Jesus was on earth. The population back then was not that large so I am sure that Jesus did hear about the magicians and they have heard about them. I just think it is amazing how opposites these beliefs are.

    I also agree with Cam about the chruch not accepting people because of their past. In this chapter of acts, we see a lot of forgiveness here. Although they were already Christians, they have re committed themselves to Christ. This is where the chruch can care for people that already do know Christ but have falled off the straight an narrow.

  13. I see both extremes here. It seemed in a sense that the people of Ephesus did in fact understand what faith in Jesus Christ meant. According to my ESV footnotes, the scrolls that the people burned would have amounted to about $6million. So, these people at least appear to have received a great level of understanding with regards to the dramatic differences that a life in Christ requires. However, for the rest of the people, Demetrius for example, this demand brought much more fear. Is this a classic difference between Type B/Type A personalities? It seems in many ways like this is possible, yet at the same time, I can’t help but sympathize with the men who, in giving up occupations that run contrary to the Gospel, also let go of the very means by which they provide for their families. For them far more than we experience, obedience carries a massive burden.

  14. I think it is interesting on how the people who were disciples of John the Baptist weren’t Christians and the magicians were. That is kind of weird. You would think the people doing magic wouldn’t but if they were then they were. As far as the disciples of John the Baptist, they did eventually become Christians because of when Paul talks to them.

  15. I like where Leslie was going with her comment. When she is talking about Christ telling us to rid ourselves of what causes us to sin. In their situation they struggle with magic and sorcery, but as she also pointed out they do not know it is wrong until it was pointed out to them. I feel like today as Christians the Bible tells us specific things we ought not to do. However, we sometimes try to take these things and twist them so we can find ways “around” sin. I know there are some people who always say “they drank wine in the Bible so its fine to drink!” Well those people don’t look at the passage about not getting drunk. I know that I too sometimes will twist things the way I feel I want them to be, but the Holy Spirit convicts me when it is wrong!

Leave a Reply