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.

Witch, Purim costume: Person with thick mane of curly black hair wearing a witch whole-face mask, with black circles around the eyeholes, a painted nose and cheek contours and a broad red-[ainted grinning mouth.
Witch Nir Shmul

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” - Exodus 22:18 (22:17 in Hebrew)

This quote, found in the King James Version of the Bible, has been widely held responsible for the witch burnings that plagued Europe, and later America, in the Early Modern Period (1450 C.E. – 1750 C.E.). But the murderous practice may have all been the result of a Biblical mistranslation.

The original Hebrew word used in Exodus, translated as "witch," is mekhashepha. But what that word actually meant when Exodus was written thousands of years ago, we cannot know, leaving us with only modern interpretations.

The word mekhashepha was translated as "witch" in the Ben Yehuda Hebrew Dictionary. The dictionary was written by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who is considered by many to be the father of modern Hebrew and who established the Academy of the Hebrew language.

The root of the word, kashaph, is translated as “mutterings” by the late Merrill F. Unger, Biblical scholar and theologian, in his book Biblical Demonology.  He too essentially interpreted mekhasheph as "witch," specifically, "one who practices magic by using occult formulas, incantations, and mystic mutterings."

A member of the Waldkircher Kandelhexen witches' club celebrates the witches' sabbath in Waldkirch, Germany, February 25, 2017.
AP / Michael Probst

However, Kenneth Kitchen a bible scholar at the University of Liverpool, translates the root as “to cut” and thinks it might refer to cutting herbs (Kenneth Kitchen, Magic and Sorcery, 723).

That interpretation of mekhashepha comes closer to what is said in the Septuagint, the translation of Hebraic traditions into Greek that was written by Jewish sages in around the 3rd century B.C.E.

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.

Rebecca Nurse was one of five women hanged as witches 325 years ago,on July 19, 1692, at Proctor's Ledge during the Salem witch trials
Stephan Savoia, AP

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.