Q. What do you think about the slave girl who was able to foretell the future? The easy answer is that she had some form of mental illness, but this doesn’t seem to fit with the way it reads given that her owners were able to make profit from her illness… it seems to be quite a consistent illness. The text seems to alude to Greek mythology, ‘spirit of Python’?
This is an ‘advanced’ question, and the answer assumes you have already read other Q&As on demons on this site. If you have not, please first read these answers on demons.
The event takes place in Philippi:
Acts 16:16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.
In Greek, as the question notes, the text introduces a girl “having a spirit of Python” (ekhousan pnuema Pythonos, ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα Πύθωνος). Here the ESV is more accurate than KJV in saying “had” a spirit rather than “possessed by”, but there are several other NT verses where “had an unclean spirit” is not greatly different from “possessed by” (Luke 4:33 has a man who “had the spirit of an unclean demon” who also cried out similar comments).
What was Python?
So who or what is the Python? Originally in Greek legend the demi-god Python guarded the oracle at Delphi, and was killed by Apollo, thereby establishing Apollo’s control over the oracle. But by the time of Paul the name Python had become a generic term for any spirit of prophesy in the Apollo religion, and a related meaning python (pythonist) came into use for human oracles of a python spirit (plural. Πύθωνες, ventriloquists, in Plutarch Vol.II 414e, also in the Lexicon of Hesychius, 5thC CE).
The best documented late example of a python oracle is Alexander of Abonoteichus (c.105-170 CE) who formed a new branch of Apollo religion around his own pet serpent, whom he proclaimed the snake god Glycon, through whom Alexander performed prophecies. We know far more about Alexander of Abonoteichus than any other pythonist since he was the subject of an investigation by the sceptic Lucian of Samosata (125-180 CE), who wrote a revealing and humorous account of Alexander’s scams, such as how Lucian caught Alexander steaming open and resealing the sealed questions of the questioners. However, from what we see in Acts 16:16-17 it seems that the slave girl was as much the victim of her owners’ use of her as herself deliberately deceiving anyone. In this she resembles more the oracles, at Delphi and later elsewhere, where traditionally a woman oracle made obscure prophecies which were interpreted (for a fee) by the custodians of the shrine. A few years later than this event in Philippi the high priest of Apollo at nearby Delphi, Plutarch (c.46-122 CE), wrote an apology for why the oracle no longer prophesied in tongues or verse but in his day now gave mundane commerical advice. But the rather staid formal prophecies at the main Apollo temple are not necessarily much of a guide to the prophesies of a slave girl who was out on the streets of Philippi for many days, to the point of eventually “greatly annoying” Paul. But we should note that even what was annoying to Paul “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” was an example of a lucid oracle, and the fact that “she kept doing for many days” probably indicates that when she started doing this Paul did not find the endorsement of a known local oracle a great embarrassment, at least Paul did not at first, since otherwise it is reasonable to assume that he would have silenced her immediately. This suggests that, as the question has it, it was indeed a consistent behaviour on the part of the slave-girl, one which, if she had been about her owners’ business would indeed have enabled them to earn money in the way that a completely insane person (such as “Legion” of Mark 5:9 raving and cutting himself among the tombs) would not have been.
So what conclusions can we draw from Luke’s description of the girl? That a physician like Luke seriously believed that a minor Greek god was possessing the girl? Clearly not, Greek doctors had varying ideas about spirits, some believed, some did not, but as a disciple of Paul and as an inspired writer Luke is simply using the language of the day, like Matthew twice uses the phrase “moonstruck” (KJV lunatick, Greek selēniazomenos) for what is probably a form of mental illness or perhaps epilepsy. There is no reason to think that Luke literally believed that Python gave the girl oracles, any more than Matthew necessarily believed that the moon really caused illness. We know this since Exodus 4:11 and other OT teaching is very clear in ascribing all illness to God. We can also probably conclude that the New Testament writers were not squeamish about “demons” reflecting local geography. So in 1st Century Galilee Jewish people suffered Jewish demons, from “Beelzebub” (according to the OT a god which does not exist and cannot make ill or cure), while in Greek Philippi a Greek servant girl suffered a Greek demon “Python”.
As a final comment it is a possibility that the girl in Philippi may not have been the only worshipper of the Pythonist religion who entered the early church (assuming that she herself did become a Christian, which is not recorded), since in 1Co12:2 Paul says to some in Corinth “You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led.” which probably has some relation to the problems with tongues and prophecy in Corinth, yet the point is that the Python cult was one of the idols which was not mute, since the whole religion was built around the mystical oracles of the Python, through the pythonists. Paul’s comment, far from being immediately obvious fact recognised by all pagans – was the exact opposite of what worshippers of Apollo believed. Which is why the religion of Apollo was in crisis and decline 30 years after Paul wrote 1Corinthians when Plutarch was moved to explain the apparent failing of Python.
For further interesting commentary on the healing of the slave girl in Acts 16 see The Slave Girl with a Demonic Spirit (16:16-24) IVP New Testament Commentary.