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.

Satan in the New Testament (3): The Devil and his angels

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  (Matthew 25:41 ESV )

This verse could mean:

(a) “… the eternal fire which has been prepared to receive the devil and his angels”; or

(b) “… the eternal fire which has been prepared for use by the devil and his angels”

H.A Kelly  comments on this verse: “This means either that Devil and his angels are destined to be punished for their own bad deeds, or that they are to be the punishers of the bad deeds of human”. He says the idea of Satan being in charge of eschatological punishment is deducible from a passage in Enoch 53:2-5 where the angels of plague are preparing the chains of Satan “for the Kings and Potentates of this earth in order that they may be destroyed thereby”.

There is a similar statement by Jesus elsewhere in the same Gospel that angels are involved in the work of judgment [2]. In the parable of the ‘tares’ (Matt 13:39-49) the angels have a role not described elsewhere: “The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. … The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers … So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous .” We should note of course that in this story they are “his angels” i.e. the Son of Man’s. A striking similarity is the fact that in this parable the angels cast the tares into “a furnace of fire”.

The expression “the devil and his angels” implies that these angels are in submission to the devil. It is clear from other Scriptures that the devil is in submission to God, and needs God’s permission in order to test the faithful. If the devil exercises the function of God’s Tester, a kind of heavenly Prosecutor, then the angels in submission to him could be described as both “his angels” and as the Son of Man’s angels. Could Matthew 25:41 then mean that the devil and the angels under his control are given the job of disposing of those rejected at the Judgment?


[1] Kelly, H.A., Satan: A Biography (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 92

[2] Matthew records several of Jesus’ sayings about the Son of man coming with the angels (16:27; 24:31; 25:31).

Satan in the New Testament (2)

The ‘fall’ of Satan

Luke has a pericope which has Jesus sending out 70/72 disciples to the the towns and villages he was to visit. On their return these disciples reported to Jesus that “even the demons submit to us in your name”  (10:17). Jesus responded by saying “I saw Satan fall as lightning from heaven” (v18).

Was Jesus referring to an event which he witnessed in the past? If so, the big questions are “what” and “when”? In the context it would be odd if Jesus was thinking back to an event 4000 years before which gave rise to ‘demons’ (which is how the Book of Enoch interprets Genesis 6:1-8). From what we’ve seen in the Book of Job it would also be odd if Satan was allowed back in the Court of Heaven after he had “fallen”.

It appears from the context that Satan’s fall began with the mission of the disciples as it was Jesus’ immediate response to the report that “even the demons are subject to us in your name”.  If so, his words should be understood as meaning “I am seeing the defeat of Satan in this”. “Heaven” need not be a literal place, at least not in this context. It could be Jesus’ way of saying that Satan has fallen from his position of power. There are two ways we could read this:

  1. “I saw Satan fall from heaven, like lightning” or
  2. “I saw Satan fall, like lightning from heaven”.

If we follow the second reading (which is how the Greek literally reads, although unpunctuated) it would suggest that Jesus didn’t necesarily say that Satan fell from heaven, but rather that his fall was “like lightning from heaven”. There’s a difference. If this reading is correct then Jesus was comparing Satan’s fall to lightning, perhaps suggesting it was (or would be) speedy, visible or dramatic, but not necessarily saying he literally fell out of heaven. Even if a literal fall from heaven was intended, the context would almost certainly dictate that this was a vision of a future event. Jesus may have been recounting a vision where He ‘saw’ Satan’s fall, an event which would find its ultimate fulfilment in the Last Judgment. Incidentally, this was also the way John (in The Revelation) described his visions: “I saw …” In the exorcism of demons Jesus therefore saw Satan’s defeat, not a previous ‘fall’ from heaven.

It is also possible that Jesus was alluding to his second wilderness temptation (the second temptation in Luke’s account – the third temptation in Matthew), where Satan says that all the kingdoms of the world, with their authority and glory, have been given to him (Lk 4:7). Satan claimed to have “all authority”, yet in the sending out of the 70/72 Jesus gives his disciples “authority” over the “power” of the Enemy (v. 19), in anticipation of “all authority in heaven and earth” being given to Him (Matt 28:17-18).

As Jesus’ disciples exercised authority over diseases and demons, the instruments of the Tester, so Jesus was saying that the Tester’s authority would end suddenly. If so, we see here the beginning of Satan’s fall – his real power had been broken – although his final defeat would be yet future.

We also shouldn’t miss the interesting intertextual link in Luke 10:15 where Jesus said “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to hades”. This appears to be a direct quote from Isaiah 14:13-15.

13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.  (ESV)
The allusion to the Isaiah text about the fall of “Lucifer” (or, the Day Star [Isa 14:12], identified as the King of Babylon in Isa 14:3) is interesting. But if so, he was actually saying that Capernaum, not Satan, would fall like the Day Star. I would be happy for someone to explore this further and tease out this connection.

If this interpretation of the fall of Satan in Luke 10 is correct, then it confirms that Jesus understood the role of the Satan in the same way as he is presented in the Book of Job, namely as an angel who acts as the agent of God in bringing evil on people.

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