Pastoral Q & A: Does Revelation 18:23 Refer to Pharmaceutical Products?

14 December 2021 by Wes Bredenhof

close up shot of syringes on a red surface
close up shot of syringes on a red surface

In the last week, I’ve been asked a couple of times about Revelation 18:23 and whether it refers to modern pharmaceuticals like vaccines.  Of course, this is of interest because of discussions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines.  Let’s look closer at this. 

This section of Revelation 18 is addressed to “Babylon.”  For our purposes, the identification of “Babylon” doesn’t really matter.  Our interest is narrower.  We’re interested in verse 23:

“…and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more, for your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.”  (ESV)

The word translated as “sorcery” is pharmakeia in Greek.  This word is obviously at the root of our English word “pharmaceutical.”  It’s this link which leads some to argue that Revelation 18:23 is referring to pharmaceutical products.  If that’s true, then “Babylon” deceived the nations with pharmaceuticals, maybe even vaccines. 

However, things are not that simple.  Our first clue that something is amiss with this interpretation is the multitude of Bible translations which don’t support it.  Some translations render pharmakeia as “sorcery” (ESV, ASV, KJV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV), others as “magic spell” (NIV, NET) or “witchcraft” (NASB, CEV).  I have yet to discover a single translation which uses “pharmaceuticals” or “drugs,” or something to that effect.  That should immediately be a warning that we may be dealing with a highly idiosyncratic and unlikely translation of this word.

A standard NT Greek-English Lexicon is Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker, usually abbreviated as BAGD.  The entry for pharmakeia lists these possible meanings:  sorcery, magic, magic arts.  Outside of New Testament Greek, the word can refer to poisons or potions.  It is therefore listed with that meaning in other Greek lexicons.  It is via classical Greek and Latin, not New Testament Koine Greek, that this word developed into our English word “pharmaceutical.”

We have to be careful with English words and Greek roots.  The classic example is the English word “dynamite.”  It developed from the Greek word dunamis, which means “power.”  The word is used in 2 Corinthians 10:4, where Paul writes that the weapons of our warfare have “divine power to destroy strongholds.”  It’d be inappropriate for a preacher or anyone else to translate that or interpret as referring to dynamite.  It’s not referring to an explosive or even comparing God’s power to an explosive.

When it comes to the usage of Greek in the New Testament, many times we can be helped by looking back to the way this language is used in the Old Testament translation known as the Septuagint.  In the Septuagint, pharmakeia always refers to sorcery. Importantly, this word is also used in the Septuagint of Isaiah 47 to describe the sorcery of Babylon. And the context of Revelation 18:23 doesn’t give any reason to believe that this word here is referring to anything other than sorcery either.

One has also to take into account the history of interpretation. I don’t believe you’ll find any serious commentary which interprets pharmakeia in Revelation 18:23 as referring to anything other than sorcery, magic, and witchcraft.  A good representative is Simon Kistemaker:  “John paints a picture in which idolatry and immorality go together with violence and vice.”  Disregarding the history of interpretation and a consensus which may exist about a passage is a dangerous move. If I reach a conclusion about a passage with which no one else seems to agree, the humble thing to do would be to reconsider. Am I really the only one in the history of the Christian church who has reached the correct understanding? In my preparation for preaching, I always do my own exegesis first, but then I check my work against other commentators. If I’m plotting a completely different course than everyone else, I re-examine my position.

Over the years, I’ve encountered all kinds of far-fetched claims about the Bible online.  From the “true meaning” of “he anoints my head with oil” in Psalm 23, to the folded napkin in the empty tomb in John 20, to the supposed central verse of the Bible – believers aren’t nearly skeptical enough about these kinds of things.  It’s rather ironic that this particular claim about pharmakeia is usually coming from people who are, at best, skeptical about vaccines.  They ought to transfer some of their skepticism to fanciful, idiosyncratic Bible interpretations.