Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: A Murderous Mistranslation?
Not everybody agrees that the biblical reference in Exodus is to 'witches' as we understand them. The Septuagint was written by Jewish scholars in ancient Egypt, who were fluent in both Greek and Hebrew. that lends credence to the theory that the Hebrew word really did refer more to herbalists or poisoners, not maleficent spell-casters.
The Greek poisoners
In the Septuagint, mekhashepha was translated into pharmakeia. Ann Jeffers, lecturer in Biblical Studies at Heythrop College, translates "pharmakeia" to "herbalist".
However, Reginald Scott, a British Member of Parliament in the 16th century, witchcraft skeptic and one time student at Oxford, translated pharmakia to mean "poisoner" in his book The Discoverie of Witchcraft.
Might Exodus refer to herbalists or poisoners, instead of witches?
The Septuagint was written by Jewish scholars in ancient Egypt, who were fluent in both Greek and Hebrew. that lends credence to the theory that the Hebrew word really did refer more to herbalists or poisoners, not maleficent spell-casters.
But that does not close the argument. Prof. Yitshak Sefati, senior lecturer of Bible and Assyriology at Bar-Ilan University, points out that in Deuteronomy 18:9-10, mekhashepha are mentioned in a list of those whose practices Yahweh considers to be abominations. This list includes necromancers, those who cast spells, those who summon spirits, and practitioners of divination, among others. While this does not make them sorcerers, it puts them in the same category.
This could be because they were associated with pagan practices, not because they practiced magic, Prof. Jeffers rebuts, adding that the political situation when Deuteronomy was written was different than at the time Exodus was written. It was during the period that Deuteronomy was written that prophets such as Josiah were actively attempting religious reforms, such as eliminating "God's wife," Asherah. It was during that period that the meaning could have changed.
Also, magic could not have been a total anathema to the Jewish people for the entirety of their history, because Jewish magical texts existed during the Palestinian, Babylonian and Cairo Genizah periods, as Prof Yuval Harari of Ben Gurion University of the Negev has noted.
Exorcised in Mesopotamia
Be that as it may, by the time we get to the Latin Vulgate Bible, mekhasheph was definitively translated as maleficos. This translation inspired the title of the witch-hunting manual Malleus Malificarum, "The Hammer of Witches."
Even then, the question of supernatural power is not put to rest. The late Rev. Donald J. Bretherton, an Anglican Vicar, cautions that the term "maleficius" merely means evildoers, and should not be translated as "witch" or "sorcerer". "Maleficius" would only refer to a witch or sorcerer if the individual used magic for evil.
That brings us full circle to how witchcraft was viewed by the ancient Mesopotamians. They divided practitioners between evil and good, according to Prof. Sefati: "White magic" practiced by baru (diviner) or an asipu or masmassu (exorcist); and "black magic" performed by a kassapu or kassaptu (sorcerer).
For sure the ancients abhorred witchcraft too. The Code of Hammurabi, an 18th century B.C.E. Babylonian code of law from Mesopotamia, placed a death sentence on anyone who used magic to harm another: "If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death."
Thousands of years down the line, without a Rosetta stone of ancient evils and a definitive translation of mekashaph, we cannot know if the authors of Exodus meant poisoners, herbalists, or people who used magic for evil.
Even without a definitive translation, is unlikely that the King James Bible quote, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" is a wholly accurate translation. This means that the witch-hunts that Europe suffered were based on superstitious nonsense with no basis in the Bible or in reality.
-- Sent from my Linux system.
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