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).

16 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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  9. It is quite fascinating to think about the fact 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” (Phil Long). To connect this to modern-day though, you could compare to born-again believers today that have issues with alcohol, drugs, any sexual addiction, etc. I think when we read about the magicians in Ephesus we get so surprised by their action, but to be honest I have seen quite a few born-again believers that fall back into their old sinful ways years down the road. So, yes it is interesting to think about it in that sense but also not as shocking because it still happens today, but instead, it looks different.
    I also want to touch on the last thing that Phil Long said, “ 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.” We can also connect this back to modern evangelism today with the areas I listed above. I personally know people who have issues with those areas, and in no sense do I agree with them, but I do have to show Christ’s love. We aren’t going to be able to effectively reach people for Christ through bitterness, anger, frustration, etc. Instead, we need to show patience, kindness, self-control, and most importantly speaking the truth in love!!

  10. This whole story is rather odd and somewhat humorous as well. I did not realize how much magic and superstition was engrained into the ancient Ephesian culture. The words idols and demons do not bring up quite the same imagery in our culture today. This blog post helped me better picture the Ephesian world. The exorcists and casting out of demons (or in this case, the attempt) seem to be more of the rule and not the exception.
    Paul and the Christians who were not practicing magic seem to be the few exceptions.
    While it is clearly demonstrated that they are not to use the name of Jesus and Paul in their exorcisms, it would make sense since from a human perspective because they were the some of the most powerful names they knew. The events around the sons of Sceva demonstrate this powerfully. The name of Jesus (and that of Paul) is powerful – so much so that it should be treated with upmost respect.
    It is notable that those who witnessed or heard of what happened greatly revered the apostles and the name of the Lord but did not believe in Jesus as often seen in Acts after miracles. Perhaps this was simply seen as a stronger being in the occult?
    The disciples seem to also struggle with this as noted in the book burning. This could be seen as an outflow of the limited knowledge they had. Just as though they did not know there was a Holy Spirit, did they not know about the power of the name of Jesus – and not just for magic and exorcism purposes?
    What does this mean for Christians involving ministry work? I’m not entirely sure. Yet one key observation is how Paul interacts with the people. He does not yell at them, ask why they still haven’t learned yet or anything of that sort. Instead he corrects their faulty thinking and brings them to true belief.

  11. I find this story in Acts to be very intriguing. I think that it is interesting to hear that the magicians are Christians. Despite doing this sinful act, they were still Christians and were saved. I think that, though this may sound surprising at first to hear that these magicians can still be Christians, it makes a lot of sense. This is similar to when we as Christians sin even though we are still saved. We may not perform magical rituals or do spells like the magicians, but we still sin in other ways. None of us are perfect, yet we are still saved. I think this can teach us a lot because even though people make mistakes, there is still time for them to make things right. The magicians decided to burn their scrolls and confess the sins that they were committing. I think that it was the right thing to do when they burned their scrolls because it not only got rid of the temptation to go back to doing spells, but if the magicians were dependent on the scrolls in order to perform magic, then they would not be able to anymore if they did not have the scrolls available to them anymore. This story makes me very happy because the magicians got rid of something that was making them sin in order to live a better life for Christ. This is something that I think a lot of people today can relate to because there are so many things that we enjoy doing that causes us to sin. It can be very hard to get rid of these things, but like the magicians getting rid of their scrolls, we can too.

  12. To be entirely honest, I had never read of magic in the Bible. On the other hand, I am aware of exorcists and the expelling of demons. In this particular passage, I did find it intriguing that the demons overcame the exorcists and humiliated them in front of the community and igniting fear within the people. The fact that this fear drove people to confess and give up on their magical practices is so crazy to me. I mean, I cannot imagine seeing seven people possessed by a demon and move on like nothing happened. However, while these magicians may have confessed and given up their practices, I do understand how it would not rid them of this paganism that they were practicing (Long). With this chaos happening and the knew understanding emerging from the people, it makes sense that riots followed this instance. Something else that I find interesting is that these “itenerant Jewish exorcists” used the name of Jesus to expel these demons but they were still overcome by the demons (Acts 19:13). Maybe I need to read into that some more, but it seemed to me that these Jews knew of Jesus, and were exercising in His name. Finally, the burning of the scripts and other magic-related literature came so suddenly, people might have felt more driven to believe. There are so many questions by Christians about magic (mostly about Harry Potter – yes, I went there), challenging the realism of magic in society today. Mostly because I have not noticed any evidence to this continued pagan magic, I have yet to believe that it continues in the modern world, resulting in the lack of realistic application of this specific concern.

  13. A transformation of worldview doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. It would seem likely that this would be especially true of a change of worldview that also requires a change of vocation. Today, and likely so in the past, it can be difficult to change employers, but it is another thing altogether to change one’s entire trade. With these individuals coming into the faith it is likely that they didn’t have a full education of what it is they were believing yet, and even if they had, an entire life transformation isn’t something that happens immediately to most people. A person it seems can have genuine faith, but not have a robust understanding of the way they should walk thereafter. Like how one may feel a genuine call to ministry, but have no clear vision for what that may look like. What I think has happened here is very similar to this, they had believed that their sins were forgiven by Christ, but had yet to understand entirely what those sins were and whether or not to continue practicing them.

  14. I find it very interesting that the issue in biblical times, as seen here, is still an issue today. This is a common theme I feel occurs throughout the Bible a lot of things can be applicable to today even though they were written about things that happened a very long time ago. Something that we can learn from ask 19 in regard to The biblical issue of finding a healthy balance between culture and faith is evident here because magic was apart of their culture even though it was evil, and they were having a hard time realizing what they were doing was wrong. We often see this kind of problem in today’s society with our twisted culture, people claim to be Christians but hypocritically engage in an evil culture that goes against biblical teachings. I think the lesson that is taught and ask 19 is a lesson that we need to be more aware of as we to live in a society that needs to differentiate between culture and faith and put faith above culture when we need to. After all, we are called to be different than those around us because our faith will set us apart.

  15. I find the topic of magic in the ancient world so fascinating. As I was doing research for my paper on Simon the Magician, I found it very interesting how intertwined magic was with the culture of the day. For modern day Christians, there’s a pretty firm “line” between what we consider acceptable or not re: magic. For the Jews in the first century, that line was much blurrier. From the belief in the “evil eye” to the belief that amulets could protect you, to aphrodisiacs to other spells, some magic practices were so intertwined with the religion of the day that I’m sure it would be difficult for those Jews to “unlearn” their culture. For the true “believers” who continued their pagan magic even after they converted, I have to wonder if, prior to the Sons of Sceva incident in Acts 19, they even realized that continuing to practice magic *was* wrong. I could be wrong, but just a thought.

    Regardless of whether they were simply being disobedient or did not realize, they “openly confessed their sin of magic and publicly burned their scrolls (Long notes p. 125). The fact that they were willing to burn books worth (in total) fifty thousand pieces of silver or “$6 million in today’s currency” is a testament to their realization that to continue their pagan ways would be wrong (Polhill, p. 2127).

    In terms of the implication for evangelicalism today, that’s a tough one. On the one hand, if we realize that we are participating in sinful practices, the hope is that we are so driven to repentance that we too would (figuratively) burn our scrolls. However, I do find that it’s a slippery slope, and see some christians so terrified to participate in something that even remotely has pagan roots (somewhere, at some point in history), that they get pushed to the point of legalism (doing yoga, as one example). Ultimately we should not be driven to confess out sin out of some sense of pridefulness (“I’m better than that person), but because we recognize that we have been participating in practices that are dishonoring to God, and driving us further away from him.

  16. After reading Acts 19, it was quite clear that magicians, and evil spirits were in fact very real things. In this chapter it gives us a glimpse of just how powerful the dark evil spirits were, and how Magicians, and exorcists tried to control these evil forces to some extent. In this chapter it was interesting to see how the magicians and Jewish exorcists (Scevas sons) actually tried to cast out demons using Jesus’s name, and ultimately failed miserably. This goes to show that although Jesus has the ability to cast out demons, and evil spirits, he will not always do so, and this was especially apparent in this situation, where the exorcist clearly seemed to be trying to use Jesus as a way to gain fame. In the world today, magic, and evil spirits are seen as more of just rumors, and not actually that significant to many people, although I personally do believe that demons and dark spirits certainly still do still exist. However, Exorcism and the casting out of spirits is not something that is very common in the world today, and overall does not seem to be so common as it used to be during Paul’s time. Today I think many people turn to prayer, and worship as a way to fight off dark feelings, as opposed to literally getting demons casted out of them. Prayer and worship certainly allow us to grow closer to God, and build our relationship with him as Christians.

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