The Rise of Satan

The story of Satan is one of remarkable upward mobility. Let me tell that story in barebones form here, and then discuss it in more detail in subsequent posts.

Most people have a sense of the Devil’s biography, which owes a great deal to John Milton. In this popular vision, Satan was once a bright angel, who fell through pride. In particular, he resented being ordered to bow before God’s new human creation. Satan and his rebel angels then became deadly enemies of God. Through tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden, he inflicted a massive defeat on God’s cause. That continuing enmity was manifested during the time of Christ, whom Satan tempted in the Wilderness. Nevertheless, Christ’s victory decisively defeated the forces of darkness.

By definition, it is very difficult to prove a negative, but we can say with fair confidence that the writers of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament were wholly unfamiliar with a Devil in anything like the modern concept. But if the figure of Satan is very difficult to trace in the Old Testament, he is a mighty force indeed in the New. Somewhere in Jewish history, the Devil evolved from being a marginal concept to the titanic Lord of Evil that we know through much of Christian history, with his legions of evil angels. As with so much else that I have been discussing, the third and second centuries BC mark the critical turning point. The rise of the Devil was one part of a wider religious revolution.

My initial remark about the Old Testament may seem odd if we take the serpent in Eden as the Devil, but we have no justification for doing so, beyond much later commentaries.

Nor is it obvious that many later texts subsequently applied to Satan were so intended at the time. I am thinking of passages like “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn!” in Isaiah 14.12, or the denunciation of the King of Tyre in Ezekiel 28.

The Ezekiel passage is especially significant, because Christians used it much later to shape theories of the Devil. In other words, we see the Devil in that passage because it meshes with our later ideas. Jews, meanwhile, understood the text to refer to Adam, not Satan. To understand how the passage was read in antiquity, see Hector M. Patmore, Adam, Satan, and the King of Tyre (Leiden: Brill, 2012)

A couple of references suggest the work of a tempter, though not necessarily in the form of an independent entity. In 1 Chronicles, Satan inspires David to undertake a census (although 2 Samuel blames the decision of God). Satan also appears in the undateable Book of Job, but as a member of the divine court, rather than anything like his later “Devilish” guise. A similar concept appears in Zechariah 3.

If Satan really had been a major figure in Hebrew thought during the First Temple era, it is astounding that he features scarcely at all in the quite extensive surviving writings of the Prophets. Never, for instance, do they denounce Edomites or Egyptians as “Sons of Satan.”

If we just had the canonical Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament (Protestant or Catholic versions), without subsequent writing and commentary, our religious heritage would be Devil-free. With a few exceptions, those texts cover the period up to 400BC or so. Matters then changed very rapidly, to create the Devil-haunted world of early Christianity

What had changed in the intervening centuries?

 

This theme is the subject of a substantial literature, and for a recent work see Harry A. Kelly, Satan: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2006). I note the review that describes the author’s writing style as, and I quote, diabolical, and not in a good sense.

I have also through the years made much use of the books of Jeffrey Burton Russell, including Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (1977); Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (1981); Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (1984); and Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (1986).

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  • Randolph Bragg

    Satan and God are the same agent with the same agenda. Bible tells me so.

    ● II Sam. 24:1 And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.
    ● I Chron. 21:1 And SATAN stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.

    >morning star, son of the dawn!

    It’s rather difficult to differentiate Satan from Jesus, if Revelation 22:16 is correct: “I Jesus…the bright and morning star.” [Lucifer in Latin Vulgate]

    > What had changed in the intervening centuries?

    Concocting different make-believe stories.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Most Bible-believing evangelicals in the western world tend to make too much of Satan/the Devil these days, and not nearly enough of demons (of which there are huge numbers). Much activity that should actually be attributed to demons (and there is such) is mistakenly attributed to Satan. Satan is not God, he is not omnipotent or omniscient or omnipresent. But he does have a lot of demons working with him, and they are all over the place.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    What about the allegory of Satan in the first chapter of Job?

  • philipjenkins

    As I mentioned, Satan is there as a member of the divine court, together with other divine beings, and he is still under God’s orders, or at least not able to act without divine consent.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    OK, I see that reference now. Sorry. The divine court is described as “the sons of God,” which is of interest in context with the fallen-angel concept.

  • philipjenkins

    I am also highly capable of reading things and missing references.

  • Kerk Crotchlickmeoff

    As Augustin put it, the Good is being and the Evil is non-being. Since God is the Good, and he sustains existence, it stands to reason that Satan’s nature would be non-existence. In other words, his goal would be not to rule the world, but to kill God and ensure that nothing exists.

    But that inference has hardly anything to do with the Bible.