You believe in one God? Good, so do the other gods.

I recently read an interesting article by Dale Martin in the Journal of Biblical Literature which asked the question “When Did Angels Become Demons?” (JBL 129, no. 4 [2010]: 657-677). Martin analysed six different words in the Hebrew Bible which were translated into δαίμων  or δαιμόνιον in the Greek translations (and then into ‘demon’ or ‘evil spirit’ in English). Martin argues that “Ancient Jews used δαιμόνιον to translate five or six different Hebrew words.  In the ancient Near Eastern context, those words referred to different kinds of beings … What they have in common, nonetheless, is that they all were thought of as gods – in fact, as the gods other people falsely worship: the gods of the nations” (662). He analysed other relevant material including 1 Enoch, Jubilees and the Qumran documents and made the point that in these materials “we find no equation of fallen angels with Greek daimons” (670).

Martin commented on Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 (105 in the Hebrew Bible) where the Hebrew שדים shedim (from the same root as shaddai) is translated “demons” in many English versions. The writer noted that ‘in the ancient Near Eastern context, the word sedim is related to the Assyrian sidu, which referred to the great bull statues in front of the Assyrian palaces, sometimes depicted with wings. According to some modern commentators, the word שד originally meant simply “lord” and served as a divine title like “Baal” or “Adonai”. It could, therefore, be taken to refer to ancient gods of Canaan and other surrounding people, who could have viewed them as good powers or gods.’

As an aside, on the connection between shedim and shaddai it’s possible then that when God said to Moses “I was known in the past as אל שדי El Shaddai, but now …” (Exodus 6:3) he was in fact putting an end to the common use of a term for him which could easily be confused with Canaanite gods, and was substituting this for a distinctive name (the tetragrammaton). Poetical books like Job and Psalms (where shaddai occurs again) tend to use archaic language (in the same way that in English archaic terms might be used in poetry but not in conversation), so it’s really not surprising that the writers might employ an archaic name for God like El Shaddai, for no other reason than that it’s “old” and therefore sounds “nice” in poetry. For similar reasons some people tend to use the King James Version because they like the niceness of the archaic language, rather than for its accuracy.

So, coming back to the shedim as ‘demons’, the Greek words occur fairly frequently in the synoptic Gospels and a handful of times in the Fourth Gospel, but rarely elsewhere in the New Testament. There is a small cluster of occurences in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 where Paul argues “that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (ESV). The context is a Paul’s answer to a question about “food offered to idols” and it seems pretty clear that he is using δαιμόνιον in the same way the Septuagint translators did as the equivalent of שדים shedim, that is, as a reference to a pagan god.

This brings me to a really interesting use of the word in James 2:19 “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” (ESV. The NIV has “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.”) James quotes the shema – the creed of Israel and the foundation of Jewish monotheism – “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). But his next statement is puzzling: “it is good that you believe that, but the demons also believe, and shudder”. Christian commentators sometimes interpret James as meaning that the demoniacs, or demon-possessed, also believe but this doesn’t work for the simple reason that there is a perfectly good word for “demon-possessed” in Greek (δαιμονίζομαι) and Mark and Matthew both use it.

But what if James is using “demon” in the same way that Paul and the Septuagint translators did? His meaning would then be “You believe that there is one God. Good! But even the pagan gods believe that!” In other words James is playing a clever trick with the shema and saying that even the gods of the nations believe the creed of Israel, that there is one god, and therefore doctrinal distinctives are not enough to make believers stand out from the crowd. He introduced this line by saying ‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ For James it is not what one believes (faith) that matters but what one does (works) that makes them distinctive.

But doesn’t this make James contradict himself? “You believe that there is one God – even the pagan gods believe that.” Exactly! James is using humour, an ironic twist, to make his point. Much of this letter seems to be commentary or reworking of Jesus’ sermon on the mount so it’s not surprising that James used the same kind of humour which was also typical of many of Jesus’ sayings and stories. However, it would be odd if this was the only use of humour in the book. Indeed, I think we find confirmation of it in a smattering of other places in the letter of James where we find a kind of humorous irony. For example:

  • “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (1:23-24)
  • ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?’ (2:15-16)

I might be wrong, but I think it’s worth further exploration.

One comment on “You believe in one God? Good, so do the other gods.

  1. Liz says:

    Hi Steve,why did translators of the Bible kept the word ‘devil’ instead of ‘slanderer’ or ‘false accuser’…The majority of Christians believe in the devil as literally, a being…searching for answers…

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