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How to Keep the Devil From Getting More Than His Due

Historians discover that the devil in the ancient texts is not nearly as frightening as the one who gives us the shakes in movies.

The February 2011 issue of Currents in Biblical Research should have a calming effect on anyone who had to hide behind the sofa when watching the scary scenes in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

In “The Devil in the Details,” Derek R. Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, discusses the different ideas about demons and Satan in ancient religious texts.

The ideas range from the “original” concept of Satan as he is described in the Old Testament, as an adversarial angel who is a member of God’s divine council, to the “new” Satan of the New Testament Gospels, and beyond.

In the Gospels, Satan blossoms into a fully equipped supernatural villain — dedicated to defeating Jesus and his followers. But among ancient people living in the culturally turbulent Greco-Roman world, which included mystics, magicians, and cosmic philosophers, the notions of Satan didn't evolve along a simple straight line. In all his guises in the ancient texts, Satan operates under more names — Lucifer, Mastema, The Tempter, Belial, Beelzebub, for example — than a check forger on a cross-country Greyhound bus tour.

The changing “historical” Satan is much less frightening than anything you see in a movie.

Henry Ansgar Kelly, emerit distinguished professor of English at UCLA, has been studying demons and the devil for a long time and goes further than any other scholar in cutting Satan down to size. He is not impressed with the common conception of the powerful Satan because it is so different from what he finds in the ancient texts.

Picturing a powerful Satan in a contest with God, Kelly says, is a mistake that has unfortunately “turned Christianity into a dualistic religion” and encourages simplistic ideas about evil.

Of all the different kinds of dualisms — mind and body, heaven and earth, now and the end of days — God vs. Satan is one of the most enduring in the West. Almost six out of 10 respondents told a 2008 Harris poll that they believe in the devil, roughly in line with a Gallup poll, while another survey puts the number of North Americans who consider Satan to be “a living being with supernatural power” at one out of three.

In ancient religions, says Brown, dualisms pitted a God against an evil figure. But in the Roman era, Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, “even in the midst of other 'gods' of the ancient world, Yahweh is the one creator God without rival.”

The dualism at work in this later stage, says Brown, "is strictly associated with 'this age,' which will one day pass away and give way to 'the age to come' in which there will be no evil or no Satan."

“The remarkable change in Second Temple Jewish and early Christian understandings of Satan is actually that they conceive of one Satan who is the same figure who tempted David and Job, and who also opposes [Jews and early Christians] in their own lives."

What also may be new in Western Christian tradition, wrote Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, “is how the use of Satan to represent one’s enemies lends to a conflict a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation, “in which ‘we’ are God’s people and ‘they’ are God’s enemies, and ours as well.”

For a long time, study of Satan remained on the academic periphery, Brown wrote. That changed with the discovery six decades ago of the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves at Wadi Qumran, a plateau in Israel’s Judean desert.

The problem before the discovery of the scrolls, says Brown, is that there was little material to make sense of the Jewish notion of a "Satan" figure.

The Qumran Jewish community that had the scrolls basically believed that God created two spirits to rule over humanity: the Prince of Light and the Angel of Darkness, Belial.

This, in part, led to some suggesting that the Jewish notion of Satan was heavily indebted to Zoroastrian or Persian influence. Brown says the depictions of the “Angel of Darkness” in the scrolls show that the idea of Satan fit in easily in the Qumran thought world and needn't have come from outside.

Kelly, who is the author of Satan: A Biography, doesn’t see a substantial Satan depicted in the scrolls because he says Belial and the Prince of Darkness “do not seem to be celestial testers or prosecutors or persecutors working under the direction or observation of God."

“Rather we see only soulless allegorical or metaphorical figures who go about their single-minded business and then disappear.

"In other words, there is no Satan here.”

Brown, in contrast, believes Belial and the Prince of Darkness may have been conflated at Qumran, suggesting that that community conceived of Belial "as more than an internal idea or metaphorical expression of their own worst inclinations."

With the expanding profile of Satan in the New Testament Gospels and Epistles, a new phase begins. The expansion can be traced partly to the gospels of Mathew, Luke, Mark, and John, being written either during or following a period of military catastrophes in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70. Various persecutors harried the followers of the young Jesus movement during this time.

The Gospels describe Satan’s heyday and closely identify him with the Jesus movement’s enemies.

In the famous story of Jesus' temptation by Satan in the Gospel of Mathew (which appears in different versions in Mark and Luke), Jesus fasted for 40 days after which “the Tester,” Satan, tells him,

“If you are the son of God, command these stone to become loaves of Bread.”

Jesus famously answers, "People do not live by bread alone."

In Luke, Satan seems to reach, in Kelly’s words, “the high point of his career as the ruler of the world.”

The devil says the world “has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.”

From there on Satan is never as grand, enjoying glory only briefly and transiently.

Like the Old Testament, the Quran provides comparatively little power or prominence to Satan — also known as Iblis or Shaytan. In professing the most absolute expression of monotheism, Muhammed also sought to integrate Islam into the Abrahamic tradition.

But at one point he may have lapsed, albeit briefly and uncharacteristically.

According to a tradition, after verse 20 of sura 53 of the Quran, Muhammed spoke of three “sublime” goddesses whose intercession would be welcomed. Realizing his error, Muhammed later decided that the words were inspired by Satan and had these so-called “Satanic Verses” expunged — an editorial decision, if true, unique in religious history.

A practicing Catholic who attends Mass every week, Kelly wants people to see Satan as actually depicted in the ancient texts, as more of a bureaucratic loose cannon than "a convicted Cosmic Outlaw," as numerous Biblical exegetes and historians have argued.

Over the generations, Satan has been inserted through retrospective interpretation into numerous places where he isn’t even named, such as the book of Genesis, where he has been interpreted to be the Serpent of the Garden of Eden who caused Adam to sin.

In the Middle Ages, Satan was portrayed as the “person” responsible for the downfall of the human race, Kelly writes, active in the world as a constant force to secure the damnation of as many human souls as possible after they had been redeemed by Christ.

With industrial-scale soul damnation as a goal, you may wonder why Satan takes time to bedevil ordinary people and shake them like a venetian blind, as he did to Emily Rose in the movie. Such theatrics don't seem to fit Satan’s job description or character.

Kelly’s Satan redux is much less interested in terrifying you and is limited, pesty — a nudge.

And hardly the kind of being capable of overseeing all the evil in the world, which also is Kelly’s point.

“There’s no such thing as general evil,” says Kelly. “Only evil people and evil deeds.”

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