What does the Bible say about superstitions?
"No matter how silly or serious, superstitions can affect decisions and behavior in daily life, and such activities as sports and gambling," writes Karen Ravn, in the Los Angeles Times (October 25, 2010).
Ravn describes such beliefs as claims that if X happens, then Y will happen, where (and this part is crucial) by all the rules of science and logic and simple common sense, X and Y have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.
A superstition is any blindly accepted belief or notion. What does the Bible teach about superstition?
What are superstitions?
The term "superstition" is from the Latin superstitio, which translates the Greek deisidaimonia. The word literally means "a standing over [in amazement]" and has come to denote any belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence or proceeding. Something that is "ominous" portends harm, hence the noun "omen".
Superstitions then are customs or acts based on such a beliefs, including irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, especially in connection with religion. More generally, religious believers of any faith tend to view other religions as superstition. Atheists and agnostics regard any religious belief as superstition.
Superstition: Paganism or Christianity?
The apostles called pagan and Jewish religion superstitions.
"Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious (lit. 'supertsitious' [deisidaimonesterous])." Acts 17:22
"Instead, they had some points of dispute with [Paul] about their own religion (lit. 'superstition' [deisidaimonias]) and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive." Acts 25:19
This is reflected in the writings of the Anti- and Post-Nicene Church Fathers:
* Tertullian mocks all pagan religion (De Pallio 4.10) and the Egyptian cults in particular (Ad Nationes 2.8.8).
* Augustine of Hippo designates the religion of the Goths as superstitio (De civitate Dei 10.9) and the faith of the Jews as superstitio (De civitate Dei 6.11).
* Legislation from the time of Constantine onwards includes Jews among the superstitiosi.
Ironically, pagan writers and legislators depicted Judaism and Christianity as superstitions. In the first three centuries C.E., superstitio designated a form of native or imported religio, “religion,” that was percieved to pose a threat to the stability of the state or to the fabric of family life.
According to Dr. Robert Hodgson, Jr., former Professor of Religious Studies at Southwest Missouri State University, pagan antiquity believed that "Christianity’s progress across large tracts of the Mediterranean world resembled nothing so much as the spread of a vana superstitio, a futile, even dangerous system of belief." Hodgson insists that superstitio was in fact an aristocratic term of contempt for forms of religion and piety that Rome’s literate upper classes found excessive, comic or dangerous.
It is a line drawing depicting a human-like figure attached to a cross and possessing the head of a donkey. To the left is a young man, presumably Alexamenos, depicted in the prayer posture with one hand raised in a gesture indicating worship.
This certainly corresponds at the visual level to what literate Romans called superstitio. Ironically it is also contended that it is among the earliest known pictorial representations of the Crucifixion of Jesus.
What does the Bible say about superstitions?
The King James Version translates the adjective deisidaimonesterous in Acts 17:22 "superstitious" and the noun deisidaimonias in Acts 25:19 "superstition". In the first text Paul confronts the Athenians as being especially superstitious. In the later text Festus told Agrippa and Bernice that the Jews had certain disputes about their "superstition" and a certain Jesus.
The verb deisidaimonia is compounded of deilos, to be afraid, and daimon, which denotes a god, a goddess, or an inferior deity, whether good or bad. In the New Testament is also used of an evil spirit. The broad meaning of the verb is in a good sense reverencing God or the gods, pious, religion; in a bad sense fear of spirits and superstitious.
Gehard Kittel in the Theological dictionary of the New Testament affirms this contention: "deisidaimonia may on the one side denote a 'pious attitude towards the gods,' i.e., 'religion,' and on the other 'excessive fear of them.' In general, however, it is not used in the non-Christian world for 'superstition,' i.e., fear of evil spirits."
Greek scholar Dr. Spiros Zodhiates describes superstitions as "piety that leads to fear instead of worship."
In classical Greek, daimon is derived from daiomai, meaning to divide. It is associated with the notion of the god of the dead as the divider of corpses and denotes superhuman power, god, goddess and demon.
The popular Greek worldview was full of demons, beings between gods and men which could be appeased or controlled by magic, spells and incantations. The activity of these demons are be seen in the disasters and miseries of human fate, through natural disasters they shake the cosmos, and above all they cause sickness or madness in human beings. Even Greek philosophy was not able to free itself completely from this belief system.
Superstitions and the Old Testament
Traces of this general popular belief are found in the Old Testament. When King Saul consults a medium she says, “I see a ghostly figure coming up out of the earth” (1 Sam. 28:13). The prophet Isaiah confronts such spiritist superstitions and calls the people to obedience to Yahweh: "When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?" (Isa. 8:19).
Necromancy, that is, summoning and consulting the spirit of a dead person, was expressly forbidden in Israel:
"Let no one be found among you... who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead." (Deut. 18:10-11)
"Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God." (Lev. 19:31)
Ironically, the medium at Endor whom Saul consulted said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?” (1 Sam. 28:9).
Sacrifices to evil spirits was also forbidden in Israel: "They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols[a] to whom they prostitute themselves." (Lev. 17:7)
Demonic beings are denoted by various Hebrew terms: se’irim (satyrs, demons), sedim (demons), lilith (a class of female demons found in early Mesopotamian texts) in Isa. 13:21; 34:14; Deut. 32:17.
Demons are mentioned in connection with Israel's idolatry. Perhaps heathen gods are mockingly called demons:
"They stirred up his jealousy by worshiping foreign gods; they provoked his fury with detestable deeds. They offered sacrifices to demons, which are not God, to gods they had not known before, to new gods only recently arrived, to gods their ancestors had never feared. You neglected the Rock who had fathered you; you forgot the God who had given you birth." (NLT: Deut. 32:16-18)
"Jeroboam appointed priests of his own to serve at the pagan places of worship and to worship demons and the idols he made in the form of bull-calves" (GNB: 2 Chr. 11:15)
"They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons." (NKJV: Psa. 106:37)
The term 'aza'zel is used in Leviticus 16:8, 10, 26 to the scapegoat, which was part of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) ritual. The meaning of 'aza'zel is uncertain, but most scholars believe it refers to some kind of demon or deity.
Right: A depiction of Azazel in his familiar form of a goat-like demon, from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal (Paris,1825).
Ida Zatelli, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Florence in Italy suggests that the Yom Kippur ritual parallels a pagan practice of sending a scapegoat into the desert on the occasion of a royal wedding according to two ritual texts in the Elba archives (24th Cent. BCE). A she-goat with a silver bracelet hung from her neck is driven into the desert of Alini by the community. However; the term 'aza'zel is not used.
Judit M. Blair, Ph.D. (University of Edinburgh) challenges the common view that 'aza'zel, lilith, and other related terms refer to 'demons' in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) in De-demonising the Old Testament (2009). she claims that the generally accepted view is an argument without supporting contemporary textual evidence.
Superstitions and the New Testament
Daimon occurs only in Matt. 8:31 in the plural form. Elsewhere we find the related term daimonion (63 times) or pneuma (spirit) used. In New Testament theology angels and demons appear as opposites and fear of demons disappears because of faith in the triumph of Jesus Christ.
According to the New Testament dealings with demons lie behind sorcery or magic and therefore should be rejected:"The acts of the flesh are obvious...idolatry and witchcraft... I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Gal. 5:19-21)
"The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts." (Rev. 9:20-21)
John uses the image of the Whore Babylon, to whom he says, "By your magic spell all the nations were led astray." (Rev. 18:23). Scholars variously interpret this figure to represent the world's political, commercial, or religious systems.
He predicts the ultimate end of "those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur" (Rev. 21:8). They are listed among those "outside" the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:15).
Paul warns the Corinthian believers that practicing heathen worship brings men into contact with demons. He challenges them on their apparent syncretism of Christian and pagan rituals:
"The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons." (1 Cor. 10:20-21).
Paul reminds the believers in Galatia that "we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world." (Gal 4:3) He uses the Greek term stoicheion denoting natural substances, the materials of the universe (as in 2 Pet. 3:10-12).
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, stoicheion denotes the four basic and essential elements of which the universe consisted, namely, earth, air, fire and water. For Paul, it is the stoichia that are behind the superstitions and deceptive belief systems and thus denote supernatural powers:
"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ." (Col. 2:8).
According to Kittel, Paul uses this term as "a comprehensive judgment on all pre-Christian religion." The Apostle also points to Christ as the liberator from the superstitions of the stoichia.
"You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world." (NLT, Col. 2:20).
Superstitions and church tradition
Traditionally the Roman Catholic Church regards superstitions as sinful in so far as they indicate a lack of trust in the providence of God. This is seen as a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exod. 20:3).
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church superstition "in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion."
The Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, described the papacy as the "fountain and source of all superstitions." In his Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther levels a blistering accusation:
"For there was scarce another of the celebrated bishoprics that had so few learned pontiffs; only in violence, intrigue, and superstition has it hitherto surpassed the rest. For the men who occupied the Roman See a thousand years ago differ so vastly from those who have since come into power, that one is compelled to refuse the name of Roman pontiff either to the former or to the latter.”
The Catholic Catechism addresses such preconceptions and misconceptions about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:
"Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition. Cf. Matthew 23:16–22."
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In my home country of Great Britain, black cats are a symbol of good luck. According to Scottish folklore the arrival of a strange black cat signifies prosperity. A woman who owns a black cat will have many suitors.
European tradition regarded black cats as a symbol of evil omens, even being the familiars of witches. In Medieval folklore the black cat was able to change into human shape to act as a spy or courier for witches or demons. These superstitions led people to kill black cats, which increased the rat population and the spread rodent-borne diseases such as the Black Death (bubonic plague).
Walking under a ladder is popularly regarded as bad luck. In the Middle Ages, a leaning ladder was thought to resemble a gallows, so to walk under a ladder may have been construed as guarantee of one’s own death by hanging.
A variation of this idea is that a ladder was placed against the gallows so that after a public hanging, the body could be cut down. Walking under the ladder as this was happening could result in one being hit by a dead body being cut down.
The ancient Egyptians believed that a special power was held by the triangle, because it was the shape of the pyramid. Walking under a ladder breaks the power of the shape.
This popular superstition can be traced back to the Romans, who were the first to create glass mirrors. The Romans, along with other ancient cultures, believed that a mirror had the power to affect part of the user’s soul. If the user’s reflection became distorted, this could mean a corruption of his or her soul.
If the user should break a mirror his or her soul would become trapped inside the world the mirror represented. The broken mirror created a fractured soul, which leads to the broken health of the user. The Romans believed that a person’s physical body renewed itself every seven years. Thus it would take seven years for the broken soul to be fully restored, during which time the mirror breaker would experience one misfortune after another.
In the Gregorian calendar Friday the 13th occurs at least once, but no more than three times a year. A month's 13th day will fall on a Friday when the month starts on a Sunday.
The fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskevidekatriaphobia from the Greek words Paraskeue meaning Friday and dekatreís meaning thirteen attached to phobia meaning fear.
There is no written evidence of The Friday the 13th superstition before the 19th century. However, it may be a modern combination of two older superstitions.
Traditionally the number twelve is considered the number of completeness (12 months of the year, 12 gods of Olympus, 12tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles of Jesus, etc.) and the number thirteen was considered irregular, transgressing this completeness. There is also a superstition possibly derived from the Last Supper that having thirteen people seated at a table will result in the death of one of the diners.
As early as the 14th century in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales Friday was considered an unlucky day. According to Christian tradition Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Since the 1800s the idea of “Black Friday” has been associated with stock market crashes and other disasters.