Apostle Paul Life, Teaching & Theology

Paul & the Slave Girl in Philippi: A story of Liberation & the revolutionary Message of Christianity

One of the most interesting and controversial facts in Saint Paul’s Secondary Mission, took place at Philippi in Macedonia where Paul exorcised a demon-possessed slave girl. The story follows after Paul and Silas work on evangelizing and the first converts to Christianity.

"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. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 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.

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. And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks."

-Acts 16:16-24

Who, though, was this girl and what we know about this vogue "spirit of divination"?

The second woman in Paul's experience at Philippi was as different from the first as day from night. Lydia, Paul's first recorded European convert, was an independent businesswoman of honorable character and godly piety. The second woman was an unfortunate, demon-possessed slave girl exploited by her owners for their own material profit. Also, her name is unknown. The girl was most likely demented, epileptic, or emotionally unstable. Demon possession is often associated with such maladies in the gospels.

apollo killing python
Apollo Killing Python, Illustrations to Ovid's "Metamorphoses"

Luke actually writes that the slave girl had a "python" because of her association with oracle giving. It is referred to the snake that guarded the temple of Ancient Greek God Apollo on Mount Parnassus. The oracle at Delphi in Greece was reputedly guarded by a serpent or dragon, Apollo, in Greek mythology, killed the serpent and thus became the successor to the serpent's oracular power. He was thought to be embodied in the snake and to inspire 'pythonesses' - female devotees with powers as mediums and clairvoyants. Young maidens (in later times an elderly matron) transmitted these inspired oracles, in a state of frenzy or in ecstatic utterance. Questions were put to the Pythian prophetess by a male prophet. The oracles given were frequently ambiguous and, therefore, subject to more than one interpretation, two interpretations often being quite contrary. Luke in his record of the demon-possessed girl, recognized in her, phenomena that which was identical with those of the priestesses of Delphi—the wild distortions, the shrill cries, the madness of evil inspiration.

If we now stand on the content of the message of this demonic spirit, we should argue that what the slave girl was screaming about is correct. “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” indeed. Taking this fact in mind, what was Paul so annoyed about? Was he literally, annoyed with the slave girl? And if the “message” was correct according to Paul, why he was so fuss about performing this exorcism?

apollo temple delphi
Apollo Temple in Delphi, Greece

First of all, we need to clarify that the words of the slave girl were not an epiphany be the Holy Spirit. We already know that Prophecy is one of the charismas of the Holy Spirit as is discernment of spirits and mighty deeds (deliverance/exorcism) (1Cor 12:10). Satan has a counterfeit gift for every true gift of the Spirit. This slave girl had a counterfeit demonic gift at work and Paul presumably felt this spiritual discernment. When Paul performs the exorcism, he certainly did not cast out the Holy Spirit from the girl, nor deprive her of any true gifting of the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, the words of the slave girl were ambiguous. As Craig Keener explains: “Most High God” is ambiguous, a common designation for God in Jewish texts but also occurs in pagan sources for Zeus or for the Jewish God with whom pagans sometimes identified Zeus. Magical texts show that pagans respected this supreme God, often identified with the Jewish God, as the most powerful. The spirit ambiguously reduces the missionaries’ deity to a chief role in polytheism.” Eventually, while Jews, proselytes, and God-fearers would have recognized "the Most High God" as YHWH, the average Greek might not. They might think the girl was saying that Paul and the rest were representatives of Zeus. Paul could not let that confusion go unaddressed and this is the fountain of his annoyance.

At best, Paul knew this kind of association would be highly confusing to his hearers. And at worst it would be damning to his message. Outside of a Christ-soaked context, slave girl’s words, though technically true, took on a different meaning. Paul would not tolerate the gospel being co-opted by another agenda. Paul did not want Christianity to be linked in any way with paganism - with the worship of Apollo and pythonesses. Demons were always misleading and unreliable witnesses. It was the believers who had been called to testify of Christ. And so he commanded the demonic spirit to come out of the girl, and it did. Substantially, the act of exorcism itself was an act of compassion for the girl that was not an autonomous actor but an Other – possessed human being and for sure an exploited victim. Paul was not angry with the girl, but with the spirit that was oppressing her.

A similar story is helpful: The example of Christ is already to cast out the demons, even when they give a positive witness.

And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, "Ha What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent and come out of him!" And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm.

-Luke 4:33-35

But, why Paul didn't he perform the exorcism immediately upon encountering her?

That's up for debate. Perhaps to avoid making the, (what turns out to be), inevitable clash with local authorities. St. Paul, probably, realized the price he would pay for dealing with the spiritual problem. Philippi wasn't really a Judeo-Christian hotbed so Paul had to navigate the situation a bit differently.

Paul paid a price for his insist to disassociate himself and the Philippi church from paganism. Paul and Silas were very roughly handled by the owners of the slave girl, the crowd and the authorities in Philippi. They were charged with disturbing the peace and introducing customs unlawful for Roman citizens to accept. The handlers appeal to law-and-order nationalism, anti-Semitic prejudice and ethnic traditionalism. Philippi was a pure Roman town. In the Roman Republic a cult of Apollo centered on healing and prophecy, and under Augustus a magnificent temple to Apollo was erected on the Palatine. Apollo Palatinus was in some sort the equal of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Preaching the way of salvation in the Lord Jesus, in whose name the "spirit Python," inspired by Apollo, was cast out, could, certainly, be viewed as advocating customs unlawful for Romans to accept or practice.

The slave girl following him (and his company) was subject to a "status" of spiritual slavery and not merely legal slavery, and thus Paul was finally moved to act on his realization of the spiritual enslavement by relieving the spiritual problem which led to his resulting revenge imprisonment. Of course, this "revenge" had clearly to do with the fact that St. Paul, in setting the slave girl free of her demon has deprived her "owners" of the income they derived from her sad state. They were banking on her bad condition and trafficking on her trouble. His action draws deep anger from the "owners."

And that is another useful lesson to be learned by this story: the Christian message was revolutionary, disconcerting, threatening, and deeply unsettling. A threat not only to profit, but to cosmic power. In having Paul arrested, they stir up the hatred and fear of others as well indicating that Paul was not merely preaching some "strange new religion" but were advocating customs forbidden to Romans. While the Romans often overlooked the private worship of unapproved gods, to publicly proclaim new and unapproved deities was an occasion for dissension and controversy. Paul, Silas, Luke and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi. While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar and a higher King demanding first loyalty: Jesus is Lord!

the exorcism of the slave girl
The Exorcism of the Slave Girl, fresco from the basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls


Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition, Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2014

Murray Matthew, Saul of Tarsus: A Biography of the Apostle Paul, BookCaps Study Guides, 2013

Howard Books, Saints & Scoundrels of the Bible: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Dastardly, Simon and Schuster, 2008

F. Scott Spencer, Dancing Girls, Loose Ladies, and Women of the Cloth: The Women in Jesus' Life, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2004