Creating Satan

Creating Satan January 9, 2015

In the last centuries before the Christian Era, the Devil enjoyed an impressive rise both in his professional status and his assigned areas of responsibility.

From being a minor official at the Heavenly Court, he rose to become a fully-fledged adversary of God, almost an anti-God, and like the deity he acquired his own institutional hierarchy of inferior angels. Many of those operatives also bore individual names and titles. Satan’s authority extended to the material world, and he could rely on the faithful service of significant numbers of the human population. As part of his professional advancement, his career history was retroactively written to build up his role in historic events, especially the Fall of Man.

Those concepts would have been barely comprehensible in the era of the Hebrew Bible, before about 400BC, but they were all highly developed no later than 200BC, and they continued to develop and mature over the following centuries.

I have already discussed some of the wider trends affecting Jewish thought in this time, mainly in the context of the rise of the concept of angels. Some of these contributed to the new and vastly more exalted view of Satan. Persian and Zoroastrian influences played some role, although we have to be careful not to back-project the strong Dualism of later centuries onto earlier periods.

Also, in the violently polarized political and religious worlds of the third and second centuries, Jews framed their struggles in cosmic terms, imagining that their enemies must serve demonic or diabolical figures, powerful counterparts of the true God. The flourishing sects literally demonized their rivals. They also had to explain the rampant evils of the pagan powers that occupied their land, especially the Seleucid Greeks. As they ransacked the scriptures to substantiate such claims, they found several passages that could be exploited to create and magnify such diabolical figures.

Another feature of this time was the speculation about divine hierarchies, and the division of the heavens into specific layers (usually seven), each with its appropriate angels. The more the Devil became an anti-God, it was natural to divide his realm likewise into multiple levels, and to name its demonic guardians.

The central fact, though, was an intense interest in the origins of evil. In an age when religious debate focused on a virtually closed canon, that meant focusing on relevant periods identified in the Bible. The story of the Watchers in Genesis 6 was the initial focus, which shifted in time to Eden and the Fall. In both cases, the narrative landscape was populated with demons and, increasingly, with one mighty Devil figure, whether that was named Belial or Satan.

By the time of the New Testament, Satan was clearly conceived as the Lord of this World, who had the power to offer Jesus command over earthly kingdoms.

Just to suggest how developed that system had become by this time , we might look at the frightening parable of the Wheat and the Tares, recounted in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus told of a man sowing good seed in a field. In the night, an enemy sows tares (weeds) among the wheat, and the two kinds of plant grow up together. The farmer tells his servants not to try purging the tares right now, or they will certainly damage the wheat in the process. “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” Jesus explains his meaning:

 The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.  The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil [diabolos]. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels….The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

As with so many such stories credited to him, Jesus used commonplace rural imagery, but framed in a world-view that made many assumptions about spiritual realities, about the universe and its hierarchies. God has a powerful adversary called the Devil, but also mobilizes legions of spiritual beings called angels. Forces of good and evil, light and darkness, contend in the world until God’s final victory.

However familiar those ideas might be today, they were largely a creation of the preceding two revolutionary centuries.




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  • Andy Vandy

    Professor Jenkins,

    I’m just wondering what your whole take is then on Satan. Did Jesus not really believe in Satan, and just used that language because it was the working jargon of that time period (which seems condescending on Jesus’ part)? It’s weird to think that the Gospel writers would have included that if Jesus himself didn’t really believe it. And if he really believed it and was simply wrong (since presumably the character Satan was a rather modern construct at that time), would that be grounds for calling into question Jesus’ divinity?

  • mjk

    Not every modern construct is by definition wrong. A salvific afterlife, and resurrection itself, are both late-blooming theologies in the Jewish theological system that Christians would all endorse.

  • philipjenkins

    This is an important question, and I hope I can do it justice.

    The doctrine of the Incarnation states that God became fully human in Christ, but that does not mean that Jesus at all times possessed all the powers and wisdom and knowledge of God. He was limited by time, place, and context.

    To be fully human, he was a specific human person, namely a Jew living in first century Palestine, who knew and thought according to the time and culture. To take an outrageous example, he did not, as a toddler, know that a European war would break out in 1914. Also, he spoke to his audiences according to what they knew, but I am sure he believed it himself. I have no doubt that Jesus believed in Satan, and expressed that belief in multiple statements and stories. If that belief was a recently arisen or discovered one, that does not for a second impugn the belief in his divinity.

    Let me add this. Christians believe that God created a people for himself, in Israel, which would bear his message to the wider world. But the knowledge and consciousness of that people did not freeze in 400 BC. Rather, it kept on developing in those last centuries before Jesus’s time. And that was the state of knowledge and belief that shaped the world view of Jesus, and Paul, and the apostles.

  • athix

    Mr. Jenkins, your article serves to undermine (attack, really) the basic orthodox Christian understanding regarding the divinity of Jesus, and what He stated about himself and his words in the Gospels and through the NT authors by the Holy Spirit.

    Further, I do not think there is any lack of OT material (beginning with the Garden) to get a reasonably comprehensive picture of the spiritual forces opposing each other in the heavenlies.

    Finally, even should the Jewish demonology have been embellished in the centuries prior to the advent of Christ, that alone is not evidence of their truth or innovation. The only final authority on whether Demonic hierarchies are accurate would be God. This is circular, but leads us back to question the point of this article in the first place, which as I stated in my opening seems to be to launch a sideways assault on the central pillar of Christianity.

    Jesus’ words are Truth (all of them), or they are not.

  • EqualTime

    Very interesting subject, which highlights the question, why would the all powerful, all good Creator, to whom we attribute Intelligent Design of the Universe, create Satan to bring evil and pain to the world He so loved?

  • philipjenkins

    I refer again to my answer below to a related question, which discusses the nature of Jesus’s knowledge in light of the Incarnation.