Three Greek Lessons About God — Part Two: Delphi

Left: Delphi is high up in the Pindus mountains and included an outdoor theatre. Right: the Athenian Treasury at Delphi
Left: Delphi is high up in the Pindus mountains and included an outdoor theatre. Right: the Athenian Treasury at Delphi

After being inspired by the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey video game, guest writer Chris Flux visited Greece in October to check out some of the ancient sites in Athens, Corinth and Delphi. At each location Chris learnt more about history and the Christian faith. This three-part mini series is about how the three locations deepened Chris’ understanding of God.

Part Two – DELPHI

The False Oracle of Delphi

My first trip outside of Athens was to the archaeological site of Delphi. Whilst not mentioned explicitly in the Bible, the ancient writers would almost certainly have been aware of it. Delphi was a pagan sanctuary that was commonly seen as the literal centre of the world and a focal point for religion. Up in the Pindus mountain range a hundred miles or so east of Athens, stood a temple dedicated to Apollo accompanied with treasuries, statues and altars built by different nations from across the Greek world (and even further afield) in honour of many different gods. There was also a theatre and sports stadium where contenders from the various Greek city states would contest the Pythian Games every four years. The multinational and religious ethos of the sanctuary along with its practical purposes meant that Delphi was something like a cross between the Vatican, the United Nations, an Olympic Village, the West End and the Bank of England all in one!

“The multinational and religious ethos of the sanctuary along with its practical purposes meant that Delphi was something like a cross between the Vatican, the United Nations, an Olympic Village, the West End and the Bank of England all in one!”

Even now, Delphi is a fascinating and visually stunning location to visit. But what this trip really revealed to me is how hopeless we are without God and how empty (and dangerous) the alternatives are. Unlike the Bible, the sanctuary’s foundation story is both unhistorical and contradictory. It involves a fight between a snake (Python) and Apollo, known as the god of light and music. In some accounts Apollo kills the snake, but feels so bad about it that he turns himself into a Dolphin as self-inflicted punishment. (Some scholars believe that the name ‘Delphi’ is due to the Dolphin connection.)

This video from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gives a good overview of the ancient site, its history and its purpose: https://youtu.be/E1quAJ_AYmg

The most well-known feature of Delphi was its Oracle. An Oracle in the ancient world was a pagan prophet or prophetess, always a woman in the case of Delphi, who was supposedly able to channel messages from the divine. For the Delphic Oracle, also known as the Pythia, it was said that she channelled the god Apollo who would come to temporarily possess her whilst she was in a trance-like ecstatic state. To prepare for this the Pythia would take a ritual bath, inhale vapours and complete various superstitious rites. What the Pythia then spoke rarely made sense, so it would be ‘interpreted’ by a male Priest who would then pass on her explanation to the enquirer. Over hundreds of years many different people came to Delphi to seek the Oracle for advice, revelation and wisdom. This included farmers wanting to ensure a good harvest, individuals wishing to understand their own future and kings wanting to know whether their planned military exploits would be successful. Over the centuries this included leaders and generals from Athens, Sparta, Crete, Thebes and eventually the Roman Empire. Even Alexander the Great travelled to Delphi to demand prophetic insight into his planned invasion of Persia.

“Over hundreds of years many different people came to Delphi to seek the Oracle for advice, revelation and wisdom. This included farmers wanting to ensure a good harvest, individuals wishing to understand their own future and kings wanting to know whether their planned military exploits would be successful.”

In both history and myth, important decisions were made on the basis of the Oracle’s pronouncements. The cryptic riddle given to Deucalion and Pyrrha (the Greek myth version of Noah and his wife which I related last time) on how the earth was to be repopulated after a global flood was given by an Oracle at Delphi. (Although it was directly from a divine being, not via a prophetess, as there were no other humans alive at the time.)

Also, according to myth, Oedipus was given his weird prophecy (that he would kill his father and marry his mother) at Delphi.

Moving on from myth to the historical Greco-Persian Wars, the Spartans were said to have consulted the Oracle of Delphi before the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The Spartans were told that none of their soldiers would survive the battle, and this turned out to be exactly what happened. At around the same time, the Athenian Themistocles was told that a ‘wooden wall’ would protect Athens from an invasion from Persia. Themistocles interpreted this as meaning the fleet of warships he had been building over previous years. As it happens Athens was successfully defended by her navy (at the Battle of Salamis), although it’s suspected by some academics that Themistocles fabricated the ‘prophecy’ or at least his interpretation after the event.

Reading through and hearing about many accounts of the Oracle, it seems the majority of them were vague and obscure. Like modern day horoscopes, they could be twisted to mean whatever you wanted them to mean and if it was proved false then it could be easily ‘re-interpreted’ after the fact. For example in one account, the King of Lydia was told that if he went to war against Persia, then a great empire would be destroyed. Assuming that this meant the Persian empire, the King proceeded to attack. However he lost the war and so it was his empire (Lydia) that was destroyed. The prophecy technically came true, but it would have been equally true if he had been victorious.

The surviving columns of the Temple of Apollo, from which the Oracle of Delphi operated
The surviving columns of the Temple of Apollo, from which the Oracle of Delphi operated

People can do this with the prophecies of Nostradamus as well as psychic readings and even fortune cookies. They can mean whatever you want them to mean. It also seems obvious that the ministry of the Oracle would have been open to both political and financially motivated abuse. Surely if a ruler wanted to damage an enemy state, they could simply bribe or threaten the Pythia to give the opposing king misleading advice. Given people’s blind trust in the Oracle, someone with money could use her to frighten rivals and enemies into doing virtually anything. This is actually a major plot point in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey game. The men (the Priests) who controlled the women making the prophecies, could essentially rule the world by appealing to people’s superstitious instincts.

“I believe that abuses of prophecy are still happening today, even by professing Christians. Whilst Christians should always be seeking to obey God, using prophetic ministry to demand blind obedience to any public figures is dangerous and arguably heretical.”

Sadly I believe that such abuses are still happening today, even by professing Christians. In particular I’m concerned about the prophetic ministry of the American ‘firefighter prophet’ Mark Taylor, whose prophecies about American politics often lack biblical basis and appear so overtly partisan that it’s possibly deliberately fabricated in order to fit a political agenda.  Likewise, there are people who combine false prophecy with prosperity teaching. A woman called Paula White is a ‘spiritual adviser’ to the President of the United States, despite her strange unbiblical ideas and her embrace of the prosperity gospel. Particularly concerning is when she equated saying ‘no’ to Donald Trump to saying ‘no’ to God. This isn’t a partisan point I am making. I would have the same concerns if a Christian minister said this about Barack Obama, Jeremy Corbyn or even the Queen. Whilst Christians should always be seeking to obey God, using prophetic ministry to demand blind obedience to any public figures is dangerous and arguably heretical.

As a charismatic evangelical I firmly believe in the gift of prophecy, but we must use caution when operating in it and be able to discern the voice of God from a divination. Discernment can be a challenging process and is an area where I don’t have all the answers. However I know we must remain open to the Spirit whilst anchoring myself to God’s Word (John 4:24). In the New Testament we are told not to despise prophecies but instead to test them all, and to “hold on to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21). So how do we decide what is ‘good’?

“Moses warns us in Deuteronomy 13:1-3 that, just because a prophecy comes true, it doesn’t automatically mean that that prophecy or prophet came from God.”

First it must align with God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16), so true prophecy will never encourage someone to sin.  Accuracy is obviously very important (Deuteronomy 18:22). But as Moses warns, just because a prophecy comes true it doesn’t automatically mean that that prophecy or prophet came from God (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). It could have been either a lucky guess or a demonic counterfeit (Ezekiel 13:9). A further test that scripture gives us is that the spirit behind any true prophecy cannot deny the incarnation of Christ (1 John 4:1-3). Moreover, whilst the Holy Spirit can be challenging, true prophecy must surely be rooted in love because that is God’s very nature (1 John 4:7-21), and we are commanded many times in scripture to love others (Mark 12:31; John 13:34). According to St Paul, the very purpose of prophecy is to speak to people for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3).

It also seems that modern prophecy should in most cases take place in a church setting, where people with a recognised prophetic gift are accountable to church leadership. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul lays down instructions on how to weigh prophecy by ‘subjecting’ it to the ‘controls of prophets’ and doing this in an orderly way (1 Corinthians 14:29-33). Seeking insight from a random maverick with no regard for accountability isn’t a good idea! Finally it’s important to look at the personal character of the people giving or interpreting prophecy. Of course no one is perfect, but Jesus says we shall know false prophets by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-16) and that the sheep (true believers) will ultimately know His voice (John 10:27). It goes without saying that prophecy which discourages believers or causes division in the church isn’t from God because both of these contradict God’s expressed Will for His church (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:25; Ephesians 4:29; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Psalm 133:1; John 17:23).

“After reflecting on all this at Delphi, I asked myself the question: ‘Are people who are false prophets deliberately fraudulent, demonically influenced, mentally unwell or merely misguided?’ My answer to that question is that all of these can be true depending on the individual and circumstance concerned.”

After reflecting on all this at Delphi, I asked myself the question: “Are people who are false prophets deliberately fraudulent, demonically influenced, mentally unwell or merely misguided?” My answer to that question is that all of these can be true depending on the individual and circumstance concerned. There can be a mixture of motives behind bad prophecy, some even well meaning. For example, I’ve read about mediums in the modern era being convicted of fraud, but I also personally know mediums who are very sincere in their intentions and genuinely believe they are helping people. Before I was a Christian, I was loosely involved with spiritualism and I can honestly say that most practitioners and adherents I came across were kind, honest and decent people. Looking back now I think they were misguided, but only as I too was misguided and have only seen the light because God has chosen to show it to me.

Getting back to the Oracle of Delphi again: There are now credible scientific explanations for the Pythia’s ecstatic trances. The ancient writer Plutarch noted that the Pythia appeared to be greatly affected by fumes from underneath the Temple of Apollo. For many years this was thought of as myth, but in the late 1980s evidence was found of a natural gas source in the area, which if inhaled, could lead to hallucinations. The people of the ancient world probably wouldn’t have understood this natural explanation, and therefore would have interpreted the unusual behaviour as evidence of a divine encounter. Back then it would have been hard to prove otherwise.

“The Bible states that the slave girl in Acts 16 was ‘fortune-telling’ in order to make money for her owners. But the passage also describes a very real spirit as being the source of her power.”

From a Christian perspective, it’s also plausible that the Pythia were influenced by demons, given how the Bible talks so directly about the fact of demon possession (Matthew 12:22; Mark 5:1-20). In chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles there is an explicit example of a slave girl with a spirit of clairvoyance who after an encounter with St Paul was set free by Jesus Christ (Acts 16:16-19). The Bible states that the slave girl was ‘fortune-telling’ in order to make money for her owners. But the passage also describes a very real spirit as being the source of her power. So here we have the greed and manipulation of her owners combining with an actual ‘evil spirit’ as all being factors behind the slave girl’s fortune-telling.

Given the high stakes involved, it seems almost certain that Pythias were sometimes threatened or bribed in order to comply with the demands of the Priests, who, as with the slave girl in Acts, were essentially her ‘owners’. The unbalanced relationship between the Priests and the Pythia seems like just the sort of situation where abuse could thrive. It would have been virtually impossible for the Pythia to resist such political agendas. If she refused, she would surely suffer a violent fate and it would have probably been hard to run away. The slave girl in Acts would have been in a similar position, yet she was only set free (both physically and spiritually) because of the intervention of Christ (Acts 16:18).

Pagan idols found at Delphi dating between 800 BC and 600 BC
Pagan idols found at Delphi dating between 800 BC and 600 BC

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Words of Jesus, in John 8:36

Whether people ‘willingly’ comply with the occult or are motivated by money, and whether it’s a literal spirit or a figment of the imagination: the good news is that in Jesus Christ they can be liberated from the occult, false teaching and superstition. This is exactly what happened in Ephesus when many people decided to leave their occult practices behind (Acts 19:18-20). Whether or not the occult was ever our thing, however, the truth is that without Christ we are all “slaves to sin” (John 8:34; Romans 6:17-18) and are all in need redemption through the cross (Romans 3:23; Ephesians 1:7; Galatians 3:13; Colossians 1:20-22). The fantastic news of the Gospel is that if we turn to follow Christ, He will set us free from whatever sin we are enslaved to (Colossians 1:20-22). This is not just good news for us when we die. It’s good news for us right NOW! In his letter to the church in Galatia, St Paul told the believers there that the reason Christ has “set us free” is for our freedom (Galatians 5:1). And as Jesus said Himself, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

 

 

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