Whilst in Philippi during his second missionary journey, Paul and his group run into a slave girl who has a spirit of divination (lit. a “python” spirit, Acts 16:16). She follows them, crying out “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation”. After a few days of this,Paul is fed up, rebukes the spirit, and casts it out of her in the name of Jesus.
This passage has always left me with questions. While I understand Paul wanting to cast out a demonic spirit, I never understood why the spirit appeared to be supporting Paul’s mission, rather than opposing or subverting it. And why was Paul so angered by the spirit’s endorsement?
Reading through Charles Quarles’ Illustrated Life of Paul (p89-90), he argued that upon a closer reading of the text it appears that the spirit is certainly not supporting Paul, but subtly attempting to subvert him. Here are the reasons:
- While “Most High” is a common name for the Lord in Luke’s writings (Luke 1:32, 35, 37, 76; 6:35; Acts 7:48), interestingly, “Most High God” is only used by demons. So what’s the difference? Most High God implies polytheism, as in “He’s the most high, amongst other gods, that is”. In a polytheistic culture, Most High God supports the status quo.
- The woman claims that they present “the way of salvation” but the Greek is actually missing the definite article, so it could be better to translate it “a way of salvation”. Again, the woman appears to endorse these men, but in an inclusivistic context!
So if Quarles is correct on these two points, then this demon-possessed woman is certainly not supporting these men, but subversively opposing them by presenting Christ as “a way” rather than “the way”.
I’m unsure if I’m fully convinced, simply because both arguments are very subtle. However, it makes good sense of the facts that the woman would oppose the men and that Paul was so angry with what she was saying. The two arguments simply make that a more natural assumption work, so in that light they are quite compelling.
So what do you think?