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The Origins of Satan

Satan is a complex figure who is popularly taken as the personification of evil which opposes Gods’ work both on a cosmic level and upon earth by inspiring human beings to work in opposition to Gods’ divine plan. Satan as a distinct figure has emerged from early Christian writings which are, in turn, based on ancient Hebraic texts. Whilst Satan is originally an agent of God, rather than an opposing power, he becomes more important and malevolent as the mythology is appropriated, firstly by dissident Jewish sects, and later, by early Christian authors.

Satan as God’s Messenger

As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. He appears in both the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants - a messenger or angel - a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (mal’ak) into Greek (angelos). In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role - it is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers occasionally introduced a supernatural character which they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The root stn means "one who opposes, obstructs or acts as adversary." The Greek diablos (later translated as devil) literally means "one who throws something across one’s path." Hebrew storytellers often attribute misfortune to human sin. Some however, also invoke this supernatural character, the satan, who by God’s own order or permission, blocks or opposes human plans and desires. But this messenger is not necessarily malevolent. In the story of Balaam (Numbers) God sends a supernatural messenger, taking on the role of the satan to prevent Balaam from disobeying God. In the Book of Job, it is the satan (who is described as one of the Beni Elohim - sons of God) who challenges God to put Job to the test. The Lord agrees, authorizing the satan to afflict Job. Here, the satan terrifies and harms a person, but remains an angel, a member of the heavenly court.

Around the time that Job was written (c. 550 B.C.E) however, other biblical writers invoked the satan to account for division within Israel. The author of 1 Chronicles suggests that it was the satan who incited King David to introduce census taking - and taxation into Israel, which aroused vehement and immediate opposition. The prophet Zachariah also depicted the satan inciting factions within Israel. Some 4 centuries later in 168 B.C.E., when Jews regained their independence from their Seleucid rulers, internal conflict became more acute. For centuries, Jews had been pressured to assimilate to the ways of the foreign nations that had ruled them. These pressures reached breaking point in 168 B.C.E., when the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes decided to eradicate every trace of the Jews’ "barbaric" culture. As told in 1 Maccabees, some Israelites determined to resist the foreign king battled on two fronts - not only against the occupiers, but also against those Jews who were inclined towards assimilation. The latter, the "Hellenizing Jews" were seen as traitors to God and Israel alike. In the decades that followed the Maccabean revolt, extreme dissident groups, bent on separating Israel from all foreign influences gained strength. These dissidents began increasingly to invoke the satan to characterize their Jewish opponents - accusing them of having been seduced by the power of evil (Satan, Beelzebub, Azazel, Belial, etc.) These dissidents also borrowed stories, and wrote their own, telling how angelic powers, swollen with lust or arrogance, fell from heaven into sin. As Satan became an increasingly important and personified figure, so stories about his origin proliferated.

The early stories of the origin of Satan characterize him as an intimate enemy - a trusted colleague or brother upon whose loyalty the well-being of family & society depend - but whom becomes unexpectedly hostile and jealous. Those who asked "How could God’s own angel become his enemy?" were asking, in effect, "How could one of us become one of them?"

The Enemy Within

This idea of Satan as the intimate enemy - the source of challenge and conflict from within a community of believers was to become a central theme in early Christian belief.

It was the sect known as the Essenes who placed the cosmic battle between angels and demons, God and Satan, at the centre of both their cosmology and politics. They saw the foreign occupation of Palestine - and the accommodation of the majority of Jews to that occupation - as evidence that the forces of evil ruled the world - and, in the form of Satan or Mastema, had infiltrated God’s chosen people, turning most of them into allies of the Evil One. Thus the war in heaven was also taking place on earth, with the Essenes casting themselves as the ‘Sons of Light’ against the ‘Sons of Darkness’. The Essenes were influenced by apocryphal texts such as The Book of the Watchers, which introduced the idea of a division in Heaven. The author combines 2 stories, describing how Semihazah, leader of the Watchers, coerced 200 other angels in violating divine order by mating with human women - producing the nephilim (fallen ones) and demonic spirits who brought violence to the earth. It is also described how Azazel sinned by giving humans the secrets of metallurgy, that inspired men to make weapons and women to adorn themselves with gold, silver and cosmetics. These stories offer a paradigm which is not restricted to one historical situation, but which can be applied whenever an analogous situation arises. The author of Watchers places moral identity at the forefront of the question of who is God’s chosen people. Thus it is not enough just to be a Jew - one must also be a Jew who acts morally. If angels could fall from grace, how much easier it will be for humans to be seduced by immorality?

Satan v Jesus

The first Christian gospel, attributed to Mark, was written during the last year of the rebellion against Rome, as chronicled by Josephus. Mark describes how the spirit of God descends on Jesus at his baptism, driving him into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan. Even after his return from the wilderness, the powers of evil continue to attack him. Jesus’ execution is the culmination of the struggle between God and Satan that began at his baptism. But his death is not a final defeat, but actually heralds God’s ultimate victory. The cosmic war serves primarily to interpret human relationships in supernatural form. The figure of Satan becomes a way of characterizing the enemy as the embodiment of transcendent forces.

Luke, the only Gentile author among the gospel writers, makes explicit the connection between Jesus’ Jewish enemies and the "evil one." Luke also states that Satan "entered into Judas Iscariot" who went and conferred with the chief priest to arrange the betrayal of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel provides many details that contribute to the later Christian perception that Pontius Pilate was a well-meaning weakling and that it was the Jews who were ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death.

In the Gospel according to John, the accusation against Jesus’ intimate enemies - his fellow Jews is reiterated. When Jesus predicts his crucifixion, he declares that instead of showing a judgement against him, it shows God’s judgement against "this world"; instead of destroying Jesus, it will destroy the diabolic "ruler of the world" (John 12:31-32). John likewise terms the Jews as "Satan’s Allies."

Christians v Pagans

Between 70 and 100 C.E., the Christian movement became largely Gentile. As earlier Christians had claimed to see Satan among their fellow Jews, the new Gentile converts now saw Satan and his demonic allies at work in other Gentiles. Many converts found that they were threatened not by Jews but by pagans - Roman officers and city mobs who feared that Christian "atheism" could bring the wrath of the gods down on whole communities. One follower of Paul, in a letter attributed to him called the Letter to the Ephesians, writes:

Our contest is not against flesh and blood but against powers, against principalities, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places (6:12).

This sense of spiritual warfare was felt by many Christians facing persecution for their beliefs. The Gentile converts believed that worshipers of the pagan gods were driven by Satan to attack God’s people. The movement which was rejected by the majority of Jews, whom it repudiated in turn, now appealed to people of every tribe and nation to break all former bonds of kinship and affiliation. For Christians, there were only two kinds of people - those who belong to God’s kingdom (Heb. 12:22-24;13-14) and those who were ruled by Satan. Not only did Christians teach converts that these bonds were not sacred, but that they were of a diabolic character.


The apostle Paul, when confronted by rival teachers, dismissed them as Satan’s servants:

Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants disguise themselves as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13-15).

Christians dreaded Satan’s attacks from outside - from hostile pagans - but many of them believed that even more dangerous were Satan’s forays among the most intimate enemies of all - other Christians, or, as most said of those with whom they disagreed, among heretics.

Around 180 C.E., Irenaeus wrote a massive attack on deviant Christians - calling them heretics and "servants of Satan." This enormously influential work, titled Against Heresies, states that false believers use the name of Christ only as a "lure" in order to teach doctrines inspired by Satan and are themselves driven by lusts of the flesh. The Greek word ‘heresy’ (from hairesis) literally means ‘choice’. Irenaeus, and his followers such as Tertullian insist that making such a choice is evil, since choice destroys unity. For Tertullian, asking questions and discussion is in itself suspect as the true Christian should have faith alone.


So powerful is the vision of cosmic struggle that Christians have used it time and time again over the last two thousand years to interpret opposition and persecution - against "pagans", "heretics", unbelievers and atheists. Even among non-Christians, there is a tendency to portray social and political movements as being forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil. Anything which is seen as in opposition to the beliefs of an individual can be castigated with the label ‘Satanic’ - as has been the case in the twentieth century with Rock Music, Communism, and The United States of America. Satan not only represents the enemy without - but also the enemy within - and in the latter is seen as more dangerous and diabolic.