What Is a Familiar Spirit? [Does the Bible Say?]


The Bible teaches that a spiritual dimension lies behind the physical realm. It also says spiritual beings inhabit the non-material realm like angels and demons. The Bible also uses different words to distinguish between spiritual beings. For example, some angels are seraphim, and others are cherubim. Some people have heard of “familiar spirits” and wonder if Scripture mentions them.

Familiar spirits, rooted in medieval European tales and legends, are non-material beings that inhabit an animal or person as an evil twin, sinister doppelganger, personalized demon, or something similar. While the KJV mentions the phrase, most scholars believe there is a more accurate translation.

Why does the King James Version refer to “familiar spirits”? What word do modern translations use to render the Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “familiar spirits”? What Jewish tradition relates a familiar spirit to Jesus Christ? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also see What is Spiritual Warfare? to learn more.

Christian Bible
What is a medium? See below

Why does the King James Version refer to familiar spirits?

Though the King James Version of the Bible translates a Hebrew word as “familiar spirit” in certain verses (e.g., Lev. 19:31, 2 Chron. 33:6, 1 Sam. 28:7), modern translations, including the New King James Version, have abandoned the phrase. This rendering may be because the translators of the KJV lived in 16th and 17th-century England when belief in familiar spirits, according to their definition in folklore, was common.

TranslationLeviticus 19:31
KJVRegard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.
NKJVGive no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.
NIVDo not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.
NASBDo not turn to mediums or spiritists; do not seek them out to be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.
ESVDo not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.

In other verses where the KJV reads “familiar spirits,” other translations say “mediums.” Modern Bible translations opt for the English word “medium” because its definition best describes the meaning of the Hebrew word (obe). For example, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a medium as “an individual held to be a channel of communication between the earthly world and a world of spirits.” [1]

How are mediums different than familiar spirits?

In medieval European folklore, familiar spirits assisted witches and similar practitioners with sinister forms of magic. They could manifest as ghosts, animals, or people. In many stories about familiar spirits, the being uniquely attached itself to a person. Sometimes, people blamed familiar spirits for sin, crimes, and other forms of wrongdoing.

The concept of the familiar spirits in European folklore doesn’t necessarily imply that they are communication channels between the living and the dead. However, the Hebrew word (obe) clearly expresses this idea. Commenting on Leviticus 19:31, one scholar writes, “In many places in the Ancient Near East, communication with the dead was sought through mediums and spirits.”

He continues to explain that the verse “intimates that these seekers are endeavoring to inquire of Yahweh through contact with departed spirits. The practice of turning to departed spirits in order to find special knowledge is witnessed to in the account of Saul’s seeking out a witch in order that he might speak with the deceased Samuel (1 Sam. 28). Yahweh abhors such practices, for death is directly opposed to his very being as the living God.” [2]

Also see What Is Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit? to learn more.

Holy Bible
Did Jesus send demons into pigs? See below

Does the Bible refer to familiar spirits?

While the KJV reads “familiar spirits,” most scholars don’t believe that the Bible teaches the concept. Nevertheless, advocates point to specific passages that seem to reflect ideas related to familiar spirits in relation to European folklore. For instance, some say that the story of the Gerasene man who had demons inside him is an example of familiar spirits.

Right before Jesus is about to exorcise them, Luke reports that they “begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned” (Luk 8:31-33).

To some, this is an example of a demon manifesting in a pig. According to some, it’s not much different than the concept in European folklore of evil spirits manifesting in cats, dogs, birds, and other animals. However, upon closer examination, there are differences between the concepts:

  • The demons ask Jesus’ permission to go into the pigs. They exert no free will in the scene. Many scholars believe Jesus allowed the request to demonstrate their defeat visibly.
  • The demons are under Jesus’ control before and after they are in the pigs. They aren’t helping witches or other people with black magic.
  • The passage doesn’t suggest that the Gerasene man had a personalized demon, evil twin, or any other experience that European folklore reflects about familiar spirits.

Also see What Is a Jezebel Spirit? to learn more.

Christian cross
Did some Jews believe Jesus had a familiar spirit? See below

A Jewish tradition relates familiar spirits to Jesus

Matthew recorded a story in which Jesus heals a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute (12:21). While some people marveled at it, the Pharisees credited Satan: “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (12:24). Jesus’ response was to point out their lack of logic. “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (12:26).

According to one Matthew scholar, there is evidence of belief in familiar spirits among the Jews in the first century. R.T. France writes, “Supernatural power demands a supernatural source, and if they are not prepared to admit that it is divine, there is only one alternative. There is clear evidence of popular belief that sorcerers operated through a ‘familiar spirit,’ but to identify that spirit as no less than the chief demon himself was to raise the charge to an ominous level.” [3]

In the centuries after Jesus lived, some Jewish traditions attributed his miracles and teachings to demons, which explains how he led the nation of Israel astray.

A Christian tradition relates familiar spirits to Jesus

Familiar spirits played a role in the Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600s. Some people who accused women of being witches cited evidence related to familiar spirits. For example, the enslaved person, Tituba, was charged with seeing strange animals, including pigs, dogs, and cats, that enticed her to hurt children.

Also see How to Receive the Holy Spirit? to learn more.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Leviticus by John Hartley. WBC. p. 321.
[3] The Gospel According to Matthew by R.T. France. p. 478.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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