The Devil’s Progress

I remarked that Satan is difficult to trace in the canonical Old Testament, but that he becomes prominent in later centuries, in the so-called Inter-Testamental period (a phrase I hate, but let that pass).

Moving the diabolical story forward to 200BC, we are clearly entering a different world, and the volume of material is impressive. Probably in the late third century, the Book of the Watchers (now part of 1 Enoch) describes the evil angels who descended to earth to mate with human women, and here we find such later infamous names as Azazel. These are clearly associated with the coming of evil to the earth, a curse cured only by the Great Flood. Also in the late third century, the Book of Tobit features the evil and destructive angel Asmodeus, who was defeated by one of God’s own archangels, Raphael.

A few decades later, the Enochian mythology also appears in the Book of Jubilees, where Mastema (Hostility) fills a role very close to that of the later Satan. Mastema, in fact, is a transitional figure between the divine servant found in Job and the cosmic adversary of New Testament times. I quote the summary of R. H. Charles:

The demons are the spirits which went forth from the souls of the giants who were the children of the fallen angels, Jub. v. 7, 9. These demons attacked men and ruled over them (x. 3, 6). Their purpose is to corrupt and lead astray and destroy the wicked (x. 8). They are subject to the prince Mastema (x. 9), or Satan. Men sacrifice to them as gods (xxii. 17). They are to pursue their work of moral ruin till the judgment of Mastema (x. 8) or the setting up of the Messianic kingdom, when Satan will be no longer able to injure mankind (xxiii. 29).

That is a fairly comprehensive summary of the concepts of Devil and devils known to subsequent Christianity. Jubilees also suggests that a whole category of humans, namely uncircumcised Gentiles, were sons of Belial.

Somewhere in the third century also, the translators who created the Greek Septuagint named Satan diabolos, the slanderer, in a way that distinguished between the “diabolical” figure and those humans who had attracted similar language in the original Hebrew.

In the mid-second century, the community associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls was obsessed with the destructive work of evil forces and dark angels. The Angel of Darkness is Belial, who is the absolute enemy of the Sons of Light. One of the Qumran finds was the Vision of Amram, credited to Moses’s father. This thoroughly Dualistic text describes the Watcher Belial as Lord of Darkness, whose followers war with the Sons of Light. Not surprisingly, the Qumran community had a special fondness for books like 1 Enoch and Jubilees.

Significantly, though, the Qumran sect differed from earlier works in one major way, namely that Belial was licensed by God to launch his war against the Sons of Light, an idea that reflected the group’s rigid determinism. Unlike in 1 Enoch, this is not part of a spontaneous angelic mutiny. This enmity, however, was circumscribed by time, and had a divinely decreed ending.

This complex theme is discussed in several recent works on Qumran. See for example Bilha Nitzan, “Evil and Its Symbols in the Qumran Scrolls,” in Henning Graf Reventlow and Yair Hoffman, eds., The Problem of Evil and its Symbols in Jewish and Christian Tradition (2004). I’ll discuss these ideas more in a future post.

Satan, or one of the dark angels, becomes a familiar character in writings of the first century BC and first AD, in texts like the Assumption of Moses, where evil is usually counterposed by a good angel such as Michael. Around 100BC, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs not only describe the power of Belial, but present him in Dualistic form as an opponent of God rather than a wayward servant. In the Ascension of Isaiah, Beliar is “the angel of lawlessness, who is the ruler of this world.” In 2 Enoch – first century AD? – the leader of the Watchers has acquired the name Satanael.

We have arrived at the New Testament world-view, in which Jesus often speaks of the power of the Devil, who tempts him in the wilderness, and Satan is a mighty adversary in the Book of Revelation. In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul seems to be channeling his inner Essene when he warns his readers, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial?”

Probably during the first century AD, the incredibly influential Life of Adam and Eve created much of the Devil mythology we know today, including the idea that this once-gorgeous angel rebelled because he could not obey God’s command to bow before the newly created Adam. As I remarked earlier, it did so by deploying texts like Ezekiel 28.

In the Book of Wisdom (50BC-50AD?), we read what seems like a quite natural and unexceptionable remark about Satan, namely (2.23-24) “For God created man to be immortal [aphtharsía, not-corruptible], and made him to be an image of his own eternity. Nevertheless, through envy of the devil [phthono de diabolou] came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it” (KJV) – alternatively, “they who are allied with him experience it.”

But however familiar that interpretation sounds, it was historically novel, and cannot be traced back into the era of the Hebrew Bible. As so often, Christians are reading the Old Testament through the lens of later commentary and interpretation, and especially through understandings developed in the non-canonical literature of the immediate pre-Christian era.

 

 

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  • Randolph Bragg

    Nobody who believes in Satan should ever call themselves a monotheist. Christian theology is imperceptible now from a pagan system of a chief god in the Pantheon, with minor gods of the trinity, satan, angels, etc.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “As so often, Christians are reading the Old Testament through the lens
    of later commentary and interpretation, and especially through
    understandings developed in the non-canonical literature of the
    immediate pre-Christian era”

    I find this topic so fascinating, and only wish more Christians understood the above.

  • Jack

    The Devil is Christianity’s chief recruiting officer, and fear of falling into his hands keeps the pews full.