Acts 19:13-20 – 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 anEphesian Amulet 1cient 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).

Ephesian Amulet 2The 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).

8 thoughts on “Acts 19:13-20 – The Magicians of Ephesus

  1. Clinton Arnold lays out some application pointed out in his recent article, ‘Sceva, Solomon, and Shamanism’. Some of his examples include understanding, “Christ alone is your answer,” “Christ is sufficiently powerful,” “You have a direct and immediate connection now with the Lord of the universe who will gladly fight for you as Divine Warrior,” and many more (Arnold, 11).

    Something Arnold did not hit on in his article (nor I, in my paper) was God using this specific miracle to get his point across to reach the people of Ephesus. The miracles talked about in Acts 19:12, “so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick…” may have left the public open for misunderstandings. Schnabel states, “they [the miracles] caused a serious misunderstanding among the population in the context of their traditional magical views” (Early Christian Mission, 1220). The people of Ephesus did not quite seem to understand the difference between “magic” and a miracle from the most powerful God. But what happens to the sons of Sceva clears up any confession and “the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled” (Acts 19:17). God reaches the hearts of these people in ways they could understand. This is essential for modern evangelism. To be a most effective tool of God, we must make the gospel personal and understandable for the non-believers. For example, if you tell someone with an abusive father, that God is also his or her father, it could potentially have a negative effect.

    We live in a world of melting-pot religion, in some ways like the city of Ephesus. Just this weekend I went to see the movie, ‘Life of Pi’. Near the beginning of the movie the main character claims to be a Hindu, Christian, Muslim. The main character states, “I came to faith through Hinduism and I found Christ. … But God wasn’t finished with me yet. He introduced himself to me again, this time through the name of Allah” Although the movie stated the mixing more plainly than we do, it is relevant in America today. As Christians, we need to be aware of what God’s commands are, so that we can LOVEINGLY oppose anything else because Christ is the only way to live. “No one comes to the Father except through me” John 14:6.

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  2. Well, I definitely think that because as Christians we consider ourselves as already there and we don’t stop to remember that we struggle but we are quick to point out others that aren’t Christians who are struggling with the same things. In Acts 19, when Paul approaches the “disciples” he found that they had heard that the good news was coming but had not arrived yet. Paul explained the coming of the Messiah and they savior who died for them and they believed. sometimes this is what happens for people who hear that there is something better, many Americans know there is a savior they just haven’t understood yet. In chapters 11-20, sums up believers who are stuck in their sin. Unlike those who hadn’t heard, these church goers believed and still practiced Magic and other forms of witchcraft When the Power of the Lord came upon the seven sons of Sceva, these people saw what they were doing was wrong and they repented. This gives me hope and also can be a powerful ministry tool when speaking to someone who is drowning in sin or doesn’t think that anything can overcome their sin, in other parts of the world were witchcraft is practiced, this could be used to show them that their ways are wrong and that the Lord will bring consequences for those who are not willing to give up their ways for him.
    The last paragraph and section of Acts 19, talks about the riot and the disciples that held Paul back from going into the crowd and how a regular person could stand up to the crowd using reason to calm them. this inst the verse being talked about in the discussion theorem but the context is always important. This part of the passage is about how so many people were worshiping a false God like was the traditions and customs of the culture and they were in fear of being told they were wrong by Paul.

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  3. “Many Jews found a lucrative trade selling incantations and amulets in Ephesus.” I find it interesting that Jews in this time period found selling mystic objects as a way not only to make money but as a career. Especially if it was lucrative there had to be numerous Jews who did this regularly for no other reason than to make money.
    Acts 8:1-25 describes a man named Simon who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from Jesus and this made Jesus angry at him. I can sympathize with Simon a little bit considering the culture he grew up in involved purchasing all sorts of mystic things. His offer to Jesus to buy the Holy Spirit seems less offensive when looked at through the lenses of he probably had people try to sell him other magical objects and when he found one actually worth buying he made the purchase offer.
    Another point, “This humorous scene shows that the God of Paul is not to be manipulated like the other gods of the ancient world.” To me demons coming at someone is not very funny. It is funny that the people think they could use Jesus as a way of power without actually believing in Jesus as their savior. However, when I play the scene in my mind, especially if I was one of the sons, I would be scared out of my mind and probably run the fastest 40 time I would have ever run.
    I like April Lorenz’s connection to the movie the Life of Pi. There is really no power unless you claim Jesus Christ in the power that is found in the Bible. It is no wonder that these sons were laughed at when they tried to claim something that they themselves did not even believe in.

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  4. Tolerance in missions is a conversation that is sometimes confused with acceptance. To be tolerant in a mission experience is not to accept the practices of those surround but to see them and realize the threat and learn how to address it in a way in which the culture will respond to in a non aggressive way. It never says that Paul acted as the Ephesians, but it does imply that he spent some time in Ephesus surrounded by this magic. He did not follow or approve of the methods of the Ephesians but he saw and witnessed the practices and was then educated enough when it was the perfect time to fully express the Gospel.
    In a missions situation now, we should act in a similar way. We should not be accepting of the practices that are not biblical but tolerant so that we can have the information and heart for those we need to reach out to. Therefore, we are able to be on a greater level with the people we are proclaiming the gospel to without throwing ourselves into the behaviors that we as Christians do not believe are right.

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  5. This is an interesting post as it ties into the previous post about Corinth and its sexual immorality. Much like Corinth, believers in Ephesus struggled to adapt certain aspects of their culture to the Christian faith. The biggest difference in the situation at Ephesus is that, “many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices (19:18).” Followers of Christianity were just as guilty of practicing magic and forms of exorcism as were the general population of Jew and Greeks (19:17). What this shows is that, although these believers had recieved the Holy Spirit and were Christiants, there was always going to be a struggle to stay true to their faith. This is often a part of modern evangelism that is missed, but is important. When sharing hte Gospel, there is a fine line between displaying the beauty and peace of Christ’s redemptive work, and the new life that will be more fulfilling that the previous one, and communicating that hardship will still exist. This is what appears to be on display in this passage. What astounds me even more is that these believers were not convicted by a governing authority, such as Paul, but, “Fear fell on all of them, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified (19:17).” Seeing this incident showed Christians just how powerful God is, and that, as the post said, “the God of Paul is not to be manipulated like the other gods of the ancient world.” This is to show the Jews and Greeks that the power to exorcise demons, and the power of salvation cannot be used for personal gain, as the Sons of Sceva attempted, but only to glorify God and enforce the Gospel. This is what the believers in Ephesus realized, and when their eyes were opened to this, they immidiantly set about destroying the things that hindered them from full devotion to their faith.

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  6. People in the ancient world believed in magic and potions because they believed that the magic incantations would protect them and the potions used were suppose to make their life better. In the ancient world there weren’t doctors like today so people relied on magicians and “witch doctors”, who would cure their illnesses in various ways. the Greco-Roman people were spiritual people who believed in many gods and other supernatural forces. They would do sacrifices to the different gods for different reasons. One reason people would do these sacrifices is to please the gods so they wouldn’t destroy cities or cause disasters.
    Because of their spiritual view of the world it lead them to believe in these magic rituals and potions. In the ancient world people didn’t live as long as people do in our modern time. And they could go to a magician for a potion to live longer. There were a lot of love potions and spells as well. There were also charm spells that people believed that if they had a certain charm it would protect them from a number of things like bears and thieves. The belief in magic in Ephesus was so much a part of the culture even the Jewish people living in Ephesus practiced magic and sold magical items and spells.
    Magic was such a major part of their culture that even after those who received Christ and heard the preaching and teaching of Paul, still practiced magic. So of those who practiced burned their scrolls and books voluntarily in public and confessed their spells in public because they believed that if they did so it would make them useless.

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  7. Other gods and idols are mentioned frequently throughout Acts, so the fact that our God cannot be manipulated like them speaks to his sovereignty (Long 2019). Jipp talks about how Paul displayed God’s power in such a dramatic way that it was recognizable by the Pagans and showed them the inferiority of the gods they were previously worshiping (100).We often talk about these gods in ways that make them seem like real deities, even though we are monotheistic and only accept Yahweh as the one true God. As we have continued in our studies, I am often confused by the language used to describe the actions of pagans because there is such detail and explanation behind their belief system or practice that it seems practical. It seems like Christians will stereotype people who are categorized as magicians as evil and against God. Which makes vs 18 so interesting because the magicians had already believed in Jesus Christ, yet they were still practicing magic (Long 125). I think this speaks to the continuous theme of the Gospel reaching the outcasts, as well as the ability for our heart to be drawn towards God even though our actions might not resemble that yet.

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  8. Even though I have read through this passage of Scripture before, I never understood that it was the Jews that were also participating in these practices. I knew that it was common in this time period to have practices like these, however I figured that it was pagans that were doing these kinds of things and not the Jews. But, with the understanding that this was a highly lucrative form of income does make it more understandable that this would be something that some Jews might want to be practicing as well because it would bring in a lot of money. In this particular instance the practice of exorcism does not quite go as planned for the sons of Sceva. These men are questioned by the demon. They know who Jesus is, and who Paul is but because they have never heard of them, the demons beat and chase them off. This is a really powerful scene showing that the name of God is not to be taken lightly, and it should not just be thrown around to be used as a profitable gain. In this passage, it is reported that many who are believes and practiced magic brought their scrolls together, burned them, and repented of their sin. This is an instance that reminds me of the passage in Matthew 6: 24-25 that states you cannot serve two masters, you must choose God or money, there is no in between, and you cannot have both. Those who believe in God have to chose to stand out and be counter cultural, even though magic at the time was acceptable, it was still sinful and should not have been something that they were participating in.

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