The Rise of Satan

The Rise of Satan January 2, 2015

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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