Bible, Occultism in the
The Bible, the holy book revered by Jews and with the addition
of the New Testament, by Christians worldwide, has been
interpreted in the modern world, generally, as hostile to the occult.
This has especially been the case in the wake of the late
medieval trials in which witchcraft was reinterpreted as the
work of Satan. In the post-Enlightenment world, in which many
occult practices have disappeared, readers of the Bible may
miss the occult element in the text, as for example the casting
of lots, a popular divinatory practice, to choose the successor
of the Apostle Judas in the first chapter of the Book of the Act
of the Apostles.
The Bible versus Popular Occultism
Among the major themes of the history of Israel was its
struggle to institute the exclusive worship of Yahweh, the god
of Abraham. This effort involved them in separating Jewish life
from that of their Pagan neighbors, especially those who practiced
human sacrifice, keeping to a minimum the influences of
the steady stream of merchants who traveled through their
land, and surviving during the Babylonian Captivity. As a result,
the biblical text is replete with admonitions to abstain from
following the religiousoccult practices of Israel’s neighbors.
The most cited cases having to do with occultism concern King
Saul’s interaction with the woman of Endor and the encounter
of Daniel with the Babylonian sorcerers and astrologers.
To understand the role of the occult in the biblical literature,
however, it is necessary to recall that the Bible was written
in pre-scientific times in which all people operated as if what
came to be known as the supernatural or the psychic was a fact
of life. Visions and dreams were a common means of receiving
direction in one’s life, and dream interpretation was a most valued
skill, among the more famous incidents being those of Joseph
interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh and of Daniel in Babylon
(Gen. 41; Dan. 2). For many years Israel was ruled by
psychic seers or judges, who regularly received extrasensory information,
a word from the Eternal, and to whom the people
could turn for guidance. Decisions were commonly made by the
casting of lots. The role of judge was vividly illustrated in the
incident in which the future king David met Israel’s most renowned
seerjudge Samuel and asked him to help find a herd
of lost donkeys. (1 Sam. 9) It would be Samuel’s duty to oversee
the transition of Israel from the rule of the judges to that of a
king and to choose the first king, Saul.
As the Jewish priesthood developed, a method of divining
God’s will for the nation revolved around the use of some
stones known as the Urim and Thummin. These stones, worn
as a breastplate by the high priest, have been lost to history,
and there is much speculation as to their exact nature. However,
it is agreed that they functioned as oracle stones and were
used to answer questions (Deut. 338).
In possibly the single most famous account with occult implications
in the Bible (1 Sam. 28), Saul had lost favor with God
for his disobedience and had been cut off from the common
means of divination used by the Jews—the Urim and Thummin
and dreams. Samuel, from whom Saul had always sought advice,
was dead. In desperation, Saul turned to an ‘‘ob,’’ translated
‘‘witch’’ in many Bibles, but more properly translated ‘‘medium’’
or ‘‘oracle.’’ The use of obs had been forbidden in the
law (Deut. 1810–12; Lev. 2027). Saul had banished the obs
from the land, but one resided near Endor where he was encamped.
He asked her to call forth the spirit of Samuel. Instead
of getting the advice he sought, Saul found that Samuel merely
emphasized his abandonment by God. Saul lost the battle to
the Philistines the next day. He and his sons were killed and as
a result David emerged as the new undisputed king and God’s
favorite.
The most intense confrontation between the Israelites and
their forms of divination and the magical practices of their
neighbors occurred in the Babylonian court where Daniel had
found some favor. He stood out as he followed the strict dietary
regulations of Jewish law. When the king’s advisors were unable
to interpret King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel succeeded.
He later had a number of dreams and visions which were recounted
in the book that bears his name, including some of his
most famous apocalyptic visions of the endtime. At one point
in his confrontations with the Babylonian psychic advisors,
their plotting against him led to his being cast in the famous
den of lions. It appears that the Babylonian kings employed a
wide variety of advisors, including astrologers, and the harshest
words concerning astrology in the Bible come from this period
(Dan. 227; 57–11).
Christianity
The New Testament opens with a more positive view of astrology,
as three Magi (Zoroastrian astrologers) have discerned
the new star in the heavens as a sign of Christ’s birth and travel
to Palestine to offer their worship and acknowledgement. Jesus,
as an adult, emerges as a worker of signs and wonders who is
able to heal, tell people things of which he had no normal
knowledge, render accurate prophecies, and do amazing
things such as walk on water. In the theology of the church, especially
as the distinction between the natural and supernatural
world is delineated, Jesus was seen as a worker of miracles, as
someone possessed of supernatural power by which he was able
to do things not normally possible in the natural order of
things.
Saints were also seen to possess such powers but to a lesser
extent. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles recounted numerous
miraculous experiences of the Apostles and other church
members, none more extensively than Paul, whose Christian
life begins with a visionary encounter with the risen Christ. He
later speaks of being caught up into the Third Heaven. The
Bible closes with the visionary experiences of the Apostle John,
the Revelation.
Paul spelled out the church’s early understanding of its encounter
with what today would be considered the psychic world
(1 Cor. 12). Psychic gifts were seen as ‘‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’’
and included the words of wisdom and knowledge (clairvoyance
and telepathy), prophecy, working miracles (psychokinesis),
discerning spirits, and speaking in tongues (xenoglossia).
The operation of the gifts was placed under the prime directive
Bianchi, P. Benigno Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
182
of love (I Cor. 13). However, these gifts operated in the early
church and especially gifted people traveled among the congregations
exercising their gifts. False prophets became a
problem and by the second century had to be strictly dealt with.
Later generations, especially after the church became a mass
movement, had to contend with the demise of the gifts as commonplace
phenomena. Thus did the church come to see the
gifts as necessary to the establishment of the church, but as confined
to the saints and occasional miracles in the present.
In the Middle Ages, as the world was viewed as divided into
natural and supernatural realms, the church assumed a position
as the focus of the miraculous realm on Earth. The supernatural
was integral to the Roman Catholic Church’s worldview
(as was also true of the Eastern Orthodox Churches). That
worldview was challenged by Protestantism, which called into
question a variety of the more outrageous elements in the
Roman Church’s understanding of sainthood and the use of
relics it encouraged.
The challenge of Protestantism was reinforced by the Enlightenment
and the rise of science, and by the eighteenth century,
voices arose decrying the whole division of the world into
natural and supernatural. They looked for a claiming of the
heretofore supernatural by the understanding of science. Many
saw no need for either God or the miraculous.
The Modern World
In the wake of the early successes of science and its application
to technological advances throughout the nineteenth century,
new movements that were built around what had earlier
been seen as miraculous experiences were launched by people
such as Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Anton Mesmer. They
led to the most successful of these movements, Spiritualism,
which emerged in the 1840s around the primary experience of
mediums communicating with the spirits of the deceased. By
the 1860s Spiritualism had spread across Europe and became
a significant cultural force through the last quarter of the nineteenth
century. Spiritualism claimed to reproduce the ‘‘miracles’’
of the Bible in a demonstrable manner. In England, in response
to its appearance, a new science, psychical research,
emerged and a new language developed to understand the
phenomena.
Spiritualism presented a broad challenge to the church.
Present within the movement were all of the biblical ‘‘gifts of
the Spirit’’ but in a non-church setting. Church leaders responded
that Spiritualism merely reproduced the Pagan phenomena
forbidden in the Jewish Old Testament and cited the
story of the woman of Endor as a clear prohibition of spirit contact.
This interpretation still dominates the more conservative
segments of Christianity. Spiritualists countered with a biblical
exposition centered upon the New Testament, the encounter
of the Apostles with the long-dead Moses and Elijah at the
Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17), and the appearances of
the resurrected Jesus.
In the twentieth century, Spiritualism as a movement withered
as many mediums became involved in efforts to fake extraordinary
events in spirit contact, materialization, and psychokinesis.
The continued exposures to which it was subjected
pushed it to the fringe, led to the replacement of psychical research
by parapsychology, and gave credence to the skeptical
movement that disparaged the existence of all psychic phenomena.
In the last half of the twentieth century, while the mainstream
of biblical interpretation has moved in other directions,
a number of biblical interpreters have emerged who understand
the Bible stories of miraculous events in the light of the
more limited findings of parapsychology. Several church-based
movements such as Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship and the
Churches Fellowship for Spiritual and Psychical Studies (in
the United Kingdom) have emerged to embody such perspective.
However, they remain a minority voice within Christendom,
and have themselves had to compete with a reborn Gnosticism
as represented in the New Age Movement that has
developed quite apart from traditional Christianity.
Sources
Bretherton, Donald. ‘‘Psychical Research and the Biblical
Prohibitions.’’ In J. D. Pearce-Higgins and G. Stanley Whitby,
eds. Life, Death and Psychical Research. London Rider, 1973.
Sutphin, John E., Jr. The Bible and Spirit Communication.
Starkville, Miss. Metamental Missions, 1971.
Thurston, Herbert. The Church and Spiritualism. Milwaukee
Bruce Publishing, 1933.
Wallis, E. W., and M. H. Wallis. Spiritualism and the Bible.
London The Authors, n.d.

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