Acts 16:16-19 narrates the events that followed after the conversion of Lydia.
"Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" At that moment the spirit left her. When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities." (NIV 2011)
NIV slightly obscures the translation by rending the phrase πνεῦμα πύθωνα as "a spirit by which she predicted the future." Literally, it could mean "a spirit which is Python" or "a Pythonian spirit." In either case, a spirit of divination is intended here (cf. the translations of NRSV, NASB, KJV, ESV which rightly translate "a spirit of divination." See also NLT which generalises the phrase as "demon-possessed.")
It is interesting to note that while πύθων (Python) is a reference to soothsaying divinity, it is originally conceived as a snake or dragon who served as the guardian of the Oracle at Delphi prior to Apollo. This spirit was subsequently defeated and slain by Apollo. Priestess that uttered the oracles of Apollo were later known as Pythiai, and they were said to have been directed by this spirit to foretell the future.
What makes Paul so troubled (as in earlier translations of NIV) or annoyed by what the slave girl uttered? Wasn't she correct to say that Paul and his companions were servants of the most High God and they were the one were telling the people the way to salvation or the way to be saved? If this is the truth, why didn't Paul say that even this girl possessed by the spirit of Python acknowledged who they were and what they were proclaiming?
In other words, with the absence of an article before ὁδὸν σωτηρίας, what the slave girl was in fact suggesting is that Paul is merely preaching a way of salvation; and not the way of salvation. If Paul is proclaiming a way of salvation, he is simply announcing that the gospel of Christ is one of the many ways to salvation, and not the only path to salvation. If it is intended that Paul is proclaiming the way to salvation, the presence of an article would be expected before ὁδὸν, like this: τὴν ὁδὸν σωτηρίας. As such, the slave girl's pronouncement merely adds to the confusion among the crowd, and this would most likely drive Paul to perform exorcism on her, as she was distorting the truth proclaimed by Paul.
In this respect, NRSV has the right translation of this phrase: "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation."
To the Greco-Roman world, religious pluralism is not only tolerated but also celebrated and embraced. But for Paul, the gospel of Jesus Christ that he proclaims remains the only way to salvation (cf. Acts 16:31; Phil 2:5-11), and he would not tolerate anyone that challenges that claim. Recognising that any distortion of his gospel would have come not from the Holy Spirit but the spirit of Python, it is therefore not surprising that Paul decided to perform exorcism on the slave girl.
Perhaps this incident may also explain why Paul would have reminded the Philippians years later with these words:
"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
- Philippians 2:5-11
For further information on the absence of an article, see Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1996), 243-254.
Perhaps this article in some little way serves to demonstrate the value of learning biblical Greek. To all our students who are still hesitating to learn Greek or questioning the value of learning Greek, I hope that this article would encourage you to learn this beautiful language!