Digression: Satan in the New Testament (1)

I mentioned earlier that I would like to explore some of the ways the New Testament and other early Christian literature refer to ‘Satan’, and the extent to which the ideas and beliefs of the first Christians about this were influenced by the Book of Job and other Jewish literature.

There is some interesting terminology in the Christian Scriptures which suggests that early Christian belief about Satan was influenced by the Adversary’s role in Job, and this may add light on how Second Temple Judaism understood the role of the Adversary. Paul (a Pharisee and disciple of Rabban Gamaliel I) wrote to the church in the Greek city of Corinth and gave instructions about a Christian who had married his father’s former wife (which in Greek law and society was neither illegal nor regarded as immoral, although contrary to Jewish and Christian sensitivities). He wrote:  “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”.[1] In another letter attributed to Paul (but more likely written by one or more of his disciples) the writer refers to two opponents “whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”.[2] Contrary to the popular notion that from earliest times Christians believed that Satan is an evil, malevolent, ‘fallen’ angel, these references reveal that Paul understood Satan to be responsible for teaching people “not to blaspheme” and for ensuring their ultimate salvation. In one case this was to be done by inflicting physical ailments, and this understanding is supported in another letter where Paul says “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited”.[3]

William Ramsay argued that “delivering to the judgement of the gods” was a commonly known invocation in Greek and Roman society against enemies and criminals whose offences and crimes were not subject to punishment by a judge. “In these invocations the god was asked or tacitly expected to punish the wrongdoer by bodily disease.  … any bodily affliction which came on the accursed person was regarded, alike by the invoker and by the sufferer, as the messenger or weapon of the god.” [4] It is likely that Paul was ‘Christianising’ or ‘Judaising’ this concept by substituting “Satan” for “the gods” and by “delivering” or “handing over” someone to Satan he was leaving their judgment in the hands of the Adversary as the agent of God.

I am indebted to Deb Hurn of Vose Seminary for steering me in the direction of Ramsay’s commentary and pointing out that ‘delivering to Satan’ is equivalent to surrendering (through prayer) an intractable and problematic person to Jesus’ personal rebuke and instruction, by whatever form that may take. There is a similar example in the Hebrew Bible in  2 Samuel 24:14 (JPS) where David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his compassion is great; and let me not fall into the hands of men.”

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

[2] 1 Timothy 1:19-20

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:7

[4] Ramsay, W., Historical Commentary on First Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1996 fp 1900-1), 46f

3 comments on “Digression: Satan in the New Testament (1)

  1. Stephen, these texts unmistakably bring out the productive, positive role that Satan plays in salvation history. However, I do not think this role is inconsistent with the traditional view of Satan as a malevolent rebel who opposes the will of God. These texts do not imply that Satan is willingly bringing about positive results.

    Satan, it seems to me, is pleased to tempt, accuse, injure and punish. His ultimate purpose is to ‘devour’ human beings (1 Pet. 5:8); he does not have the greater good in mind. But all his designs are subject to the sovereignty of God, who can and does use Satan’s zeal for wreaking havoc for the greater good, e.g. a wake-up call to a wayward believer (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 1 Tim. 1:19-20), or trying the faith of the saints for their own spiritual growth (Job; 2 Cor. 12:7-9).

  2. dahurn says:

    good insights, Steve, into how being in Satan’s power was seen as ultimately a spiritually positive process… to teach to not blaspheme and to teach humility. This is not consistent with traditional views of a Satan who teaches people to sin.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      I have found this works for several New Testament texts but there are others where it doesn’t work so well. There is even a possibility that Judean Jews (and Christians) thought differently to the Galilean Jews (and Christians) about Satan. For example, it is only the Galilean-based Synoptic Gospels which mention ‘demons’, and only when Jesus was in Galilee. Paul apparently had a preference for the term ‘satan’ over ‘the devil’ (it is only the deutero-Pauline letters which use the term ‘devil’), although the Synoptics seem to use them interchangeably. The LXX, as you probably know, consistently translated the Hebrew satan (סתן) as ‘diabolos’ so the NT usage of ‘diabolos’ would be equivalent to ‘satan’ for a LXX-reading community. So why transliterate ‘satan’ at some times and translate to ‘diabolos’ at others? And why use both terms in the same context?

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