The Evolution of Satan

In my last post, "Can Rational People Believe in the Devil?" I put Rudolf Bultmann's comment against Peter Berger's comment, and concluded that yes, rational people can believe in the devil.

In this post, I want to try to trace the picture of Satan as it unfolds through the Bible.

In the beginning of the story there is, of course, a serpent who entices Eve to taste the fruit that she was told not to taste. That text (Genesis 3) does not actually claim that the serpent has been co-opted by Satan, but a later text (Revelation 20:2) brings them together. In fact Thom Stark, a scholar of Christian origins, says, "It is not until the Second Temple period that Satan becomes an enemy of Yahweh, and only then is he identified by some apocalyptic thinkers as the serpent in Genesis 3" [1].

In total, the Old Testament has only 3 references to Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1 cf. 2 Samuel 24:1; Zech. 3:1-5; Job 1-2). None of these stories present Satan as an arch-enemy of God's people. Instead, biblical scholar Walter Wink notes, "Satan is not a fallen angel but a fully credentialed member of the heavenly court...His role is somewhat like that of a district attorney, zealously seeking out law-breakers to bring before the bar of divine justice" [2]. At this stage in the biblical record, Satan is simply doing God's bidding. He might be over-reaching a bit, but it's still God's bidding that he is doing.

Old Testament scholar John Goldingay explains the linguistics behind the figure we call Satan in this period. He says, "The word for adversary/accuser is satan...The word is not a name but a common noun; it has the article the. The earliest otherwise-known occurrences of Satan as a proper name come in Jewish writings from the second century..." (italics his) [3].

But the exile was the crucible in which the identity of Satan was ironed out. It was in exile that Jews were exposed to Babylonian religion, and subsequently Persian religion. That, according to T. J. Wray, explains Satan's evolution from chief prosecutor to public enemy number one: "Satan as a divine opponent of the LORD and as author of evil does not appear until the second century B.C.E., by which time Jews in Babylon and Persia had been exposed to the dualism of Zoroastrianism and to its evil deity Ahriman for generations" [4].

Anyone who attempts to read straight across from Malachi to Matthew will be in for a shock, especially if they read straight through the Gospel of Mark where demonic activity is around every corner and in almost every person with whom Jesus comes in contact.

Where did all these demons come from?
They arose from the cultural climate of the times.

They were prevalent in many of the writings found in the Apocrypha, so New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III observes, "whereas the Old Testament says precious little about [demons and Satan], the so-called intertestamental Jewish literature (also known as the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) has a good deal to say about them" [5]. He also says, "the person and work and thought world of Jesus cannot properly be understood without an understanding of early Jewish thinking about such subnets, and early Jewish history for that matter" [6].

According to Witherington, if you really want to understand Jesus and what Jesus was up to, then these writings are not optional material.

Finally, N. T. Wright brings the picture to its final form. He explains, "The biblical picture of the satan is...of a nonhuman and non divine quasi-personal force which seems bent on attacking and destroying creation in general and humankind in particular and above all on thwarting God's project of remaking the world and human beings in and through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit" [7]. That is the picture that aligns more closely with how most Christians know it today.

Satan will continue to weigh on people's minds because the world doesn't operate as we sense it should. We can claim to be modern, contemporary, and beyond all of that "superstition." But too often we find ourselves backed up into a corner with no explanation that is as adequate as the one Jesus offered: "This an enemy has done" (Matthew 13:28).

What do you think?

[1] Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God, 82.
[2] Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers, 13.
[3] John Goldingay, Israel's Faith, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2, 54-55
[4] T. J. Wray, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots, 166.
[5] Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image, volume 1, 68.
[6] Ibid., 68.
[7] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, 109.

Related Posts:
Can Rational People Believe in the Devil?
Lesson Learned: Norwegian Gunman & 9/11


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