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Why ‘sorcery’ was the fastest-growing search term on Bible Gateway in 2021

The Greek word ‘pharmakeia’ has appeared in debates over COVID-19 prevention measures, particularly opposition by some charismatic and evangelical Christians to vaccines against the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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(RNS) — The topics people search for each year on Bible Gateway are always interesting, according to Jonathan Petersen, content manager of the website.

But this year’s may be the “most intriguing,” Petersen wrote on the site.

Searches for the words “sorcery” and “sorceries” saw the biggest spike, increasing 193% over the last year on Bible Gateway, which allows users to read and search the text of multiple translations of the Bible.

And that doesn’t appear to be because witchcraft is increasingly becoming mainstream, even trendy.

Rather, Petersen wrote, curiosity over what the Bible has to say about sorcery is related to heightened interest in the Greek word “pharmakeia.” He pointed to its definition in the Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament: “employment of drugs for any purpose; sorcery, magic, enchantment.”

“Pharmakeia” appears in Galatians 5:19-21: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

The word also appears in Revelation 18:23, which reads in part, “By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.”


RELATED: The gospel of Sherri Tenpenny: COVID-19 misinformation meets Christian nationalism


More recently, it has appeared in debates over COVID-19 prevention measures, particularly opposition by some charismatic and evangelical Christians to vaccines against the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Perhaps most prominently, Sherri Tenpenny — an osteopathic doctor and longtime anti-vaccine activist who appears on the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s “Disinformation Dozen” list — used the term this past year during her Instagram Bible study “Happy Hour with Dr. T.”

Dr. Sherri Tenpenny in a March 25, 2021, Instagram Live video. Screengrab

Dr. Sherri Tenpenny in a March 25, 2021, Instagram Live video. Screengrab

In a March 25 video, Tenpenny took aim at pastors, priests and rabbis who closed their houses of worship during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and later opened them as vaccination centers, “pleasing the pharmakeia, the sorcerers, no doubt,” she said. In an April 8 video, she again mentioned church leaders opening their sanctuaries to “sorcerers” to administer COVID-19 vaccines, which she believes are “experimental genetic modification tools” that will “permanently mark” recipients.

“What about Jesus healing the sick with his hands and with prayer? Our Lord would have never turned to the pharmakeia, the sorcerers, overlooking his father’s results,” Tenpenny said.

Christian singer and former “American Idol” contestant Danny Gokey also referenced “pharmakeia” in a series of tweets earlier this week linking COVID-19 vaccines to the “mark of the beast” mentioned in the biblical book of Revelation.

“Revelations also emphasizes how the whole world will be deceived by Pharmakeia,” Gokey tweeted.

The word has come up in blog posts, podcasts and on Amazon, where it has appeared on T-shirts (alongside search terms “vax Mandate Tyrants lockdowns”) and self-published books dating back to 2018 claiming to unmask a spirit of pharmakeia controlling the pharmaceutical industry worldwide.


RELATED: Protests, pandemics and politics: The top 2020 searches for Bible passages online


It’s not unusual for people to search the Bible online to see what it has to say about major events in news and pop culture, according to Petersen of Bible Gateway.

“It seems topics that dominate the news media and social posts cause people to wonder what the Bible might have to say about them, so they search keywords and phrases on Bible Gateway to see what they can find,” he told Religion News Service in an email.

For example, Petersen said, searches for Luke 10:18 — “He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.’” — jumped this year when the verse appeared on Lil Nas X’s “Satan Shoes.”

Last year, Bible Gateway saw a spike in searches for terms such as racism, justice, equality and oppression after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the protests that followed. The site also noted a surge in searches for what the Bible has to say about such topics as disease, pestilence and plague around the emergence of COVID-19 lockdowns and for politics-related terms in the lead-up to the presidential election.

Its most-read verses have remained the same for years: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16) and “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Its top two most-searched terms have also remained unchanged: “love” and “peace.”