“Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.” Acts 16:16-18
With the usage of the plural pronoun, ‘we’, the reader discovers that Luke has joined Paul and his companions in Philippi. Only a handful of passages in the book of Acts indicate Luke’s presence amongst the other men. Since the plural pronoun usage is so slight, Dr. Witherington has concluded that Luke was Paul’s sometime companion and not a constant one. This stance is in opposition to the second century Christian apologist and Greek cleric, Irenaeus, who favors the notion that Luke was Paul’s inseparable companion.
Paul and his companions have continued to meet with the believers at Philippi. On their way to the place of prayer, they encounter a young slave woman. She is described as having “a spirit by which she predicted the future…. by fortune-telling.” Other bible translations use the phrase, “a spirit of divination.” In the original Greek, the word for divination is “Python.” I feel certain that you instantly read that word and pictured a certain type of snake in your mind. The designation of “a pythoness spirit” refers back to the Greek mythological story of Apollo’s defeat of the giant serpent Python. Apollo, allegedly, established the Pythian Games to celebrate the event. To have the spirit of a pythoness was to have a spirit like the oracle at Delphi. “The specific title “Pythia” referred to Pythian Apollo’s priestess and mouthpiece at Delphi… Only a virgin from Delphi qualified for the role… The Pythia’s pronouncements were widely regarded as accurate.” (Keener)
Pronouncing prophecy of the sort associated with Delphi as well as being a slave leads us as readers to understand that this girl was not of Roman heritage but rather of Greek origin. Educated Diaspora Jews would have had a basic working knowledge surrounding Greek religion and therefore would have understood Luke’s association. Greeks viewed having a python spirit in a positive context as the spirit possession related to prophecy. Luke presents a view that shows a close connection between magic, pagan or false religion, and the profit motive of humans. And though this young slave girl earns her owners’ money by soothsaying, the irony is that they do not believe her message.
Plutarch describes these Pythian spirits “by a term that came to mean acting as a “ventriloquist,” making one’s voice seem to come from elsewhere but probably originally meant “pregnant with the deity, perhaps at least implying speech with a strange voice.”(Keener) The slave girl’s words were intelligible and not ecstatic. “Ancients had a stereotype of bad servant girls as gossipy revealers of secrets. Jewish people believed that demons or fallen angels sought to reveal divine secrets.”(Keener) She definitely revealed the truth of Paul and his companions as she followed them but her testimony was unwelcome. Greeks and Romans believed that mantic ecstasy often involved possession by a deity. Jewish people believed that demons would enter people forcing them to do what the demons desired. This belief of demonology came to fruition in the third century A.D. and has continued into modern times. The outward appearance of spirit possession has been described as viewing a major change in one’s personality, a sudden shift in one’s behavior, and a change in the timbre and pitch of the person’s voice.
Her use of the term “Most High God” would not have been understood as Yahweh. At this time, Jewish influence was minimal in the area. The Greek for “Most High” was a pagan term that would have meant any deity the person considered supreme. Her utterance was polytheistic and pluralistic in context. The text also does not clearly state that she suggested that Paul and Silas proclaimed the way of salvation. No definite article is used with the noun in the original Greek so the translation could be “a way” or “the way.” She declared their mission in a way that was ambiguous. To the hearers of the day, salvation meant deliverance but did not communicate monotheism.
In my words, Paul finally reached the end of his rope and commanded the spirit out of her in the name of Jesus. He was not troubled by the content of what she said nor the girl herself. He spoke through her to the spirit within her. “A pagan hearer of Luke’s narrative, for whom python spirits were positive or, at worst, neutral, would find baffling the exorcism recounted here in Acts…the exorcism made perfect sense on monotheistic Jewish and Christian presuppositions.”(Keener) Paul might have felt that the attention she drew was dangerous to their mission or would provoke a confrontation that led to trouble. Philippians viewed spirits as benevolent. Paul and his companions, therefore, would have received little sympathy from those who didn’t share their spiritual worldview. Most importantly, Paul probably felt her words would be misleading and give the wrong impression of the christian message. Yes, they were slaves of God and, yes, they were embodied by the Spirit of God but not in the way the spirit within her presented.
Paul spiritually liberated this young slave girl but he may not have physically liberated her. Without her unique abilities, she would now be less valuable to her owners. Any favored treatment by them that the girl had received most likely ended. We don’t know what happened to her but we are led to presume that she recognized God as more powerful than her Pythian spirit.
Questions to Consider
- Do I believe people can be possessed? Why or why not?
- Have I ever encountered a possessed person? What was the experience like?
- Why did Paul wait so long to confront and exorcise the spirit within the girl? What reasons did he have for the delay?
- Contrast Lydia with the slave girl. What do I discover about these two women?
- What do I think happened to the young slave girl?
- What do I learn about God from this passage?