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About Satan

Early history: 300 BCE to 100 CE

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Topics covered in this essay:

bullet Before 300 BCE in Ancient Israel
bullet Before 300 BCE in Ancient Iran
bullet Between 300 BCE and 100 CE

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Development of the Concept of Satan prior to 300 BCE in Israel:

Traditionally, Christians have believed that the Pentateuch [the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament] were written by Moses under the inspiration of God circa 1450 BCE during the nation's exodus from Egypt. The book of Daniel was seen as having been written by Daniel himself, in the 6th century CE, etc. Conservative Christians still believe this today, largely because the Bible mentions the identity of its authors in many locations, and conservatives believe the Bible to be inerrant. However, analysis of the Bible as a historical document since the late 19th century has convinced essentially all non-Evangelical Old Testament scholars that most of the Pentateuch was not written by Moses. It is rather made up of a mixture of writings and editing by three individuals or groups: in 950 BCE by "J", 750 BCE for "E" and 539 BCE for "P". Deuteronomy was written in the 7th century BCE, and Daniel was written in the 2nd century BCE. In the following material, we will assume that the liberal interpretation is correct.

Among those books of the Hebrew Scriptures written before 300 BCE, the term "satan" (root word "s'tn") appears often. The word is derived from the original Hebrew verb "satan" which means "to oppose." The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek was widely used in the early Christian church. They translated "satan" as "diaboloc" from which we derive our English term "devil" and "diabolic."

The word is used to refer to:

bullet Any person acting as an accuser or enemy. For example:
bullet 1 Samuel 29:4: The Philistines were distrustful of David, fearing that he would be a satan. (translated "adversary" or "someone who will turn against us").
bullet 2 Samuel 19:22: Shime-i apologizes to King David. The King rejects the apology, saying that they should not be a satan to each other (translated "adversary" or "opponent").
bullet 1 Kings 5:4: King Solomon is talking to Hiram, the King of Tyre. He says that now that there is neither satan nor bad luck to stop him, he can build the Temple. (translated as "adversary", "enemy", or "one who opposes").
bullet 1 Kings 11:14: God raised up Hadad the Edomite as a satan against Solomon. (translated as "adversary," or "opponent").
bullet A divine messenger sent by God as an adversary:
bullet Numbers 22:22 & 32: God appears in a dream, telling Balaam to go with the princes of Moab to meet Balak. But when Balaam sets out the next morning on his donkey, God is angry with him for some reason, and sent an angel/messenger to kill him. The donkey saw the angel and took evasive actions. The angel was invisible to Balaam, who beat the animal. The donkey asked Balaam why he had beat her three times. Balaam, who doesn't seem to realize that a talking donkey is an unusual occurrence, replies. The angel then appears and explains that he has come as a satan to kill him. (translated as "one who opposes, "withstand," "adversary")
bullet a member of God's inner council; a type of chief prosecutor of Heaven:
bullet 1 Chronicles 21:1: Satan, "a supernatural evil emissary," acting on God's behalf, has influenced David to hold a census. The census is taken, and God is angry for an unknown reason. Perhaps God does not want humans to be aware of the strength of the army. God then offers David his choice of one of three punishments: a 3 year famine, 3 months of fleeing before his enemies' armies, or a plague throughout Israel. David selects the plague and God killed  70,000 men (and presumably a similar number of women and many tens of thousands of children). In 2 Samuel 24, the identical event is described. However, this time, the text states that God influenced David to hold the census. Even though God had incited David to enumerate the men of Israel and Judah, he was still angry that it was done and punished the Israelites with a plague. The writings in 2 Samuel are believed to be the original account; 1 Chronicles came later. It is believed that when Samuel was finally edited (circa 560 BCE), the editors thought that all supernatural actions (good and bad) came from God. When Chronicles was written over a century later, (circa 400 BCE) the author viewed God as operating indirectly through his helpers.
bullet Job 1 and 2: Satan is described as one of the members of the court of heaven. God mentions that he is impressed at the behavior of Job, a blameless man who has lived an upright life. Satan attributes Job's commendable behavior to his good fortune and says that Job would soon curse God if he had a string of really bad luck. God decides to conduct an experiment with Job; he instructs Satan to destroy all that Job has: kill his animals, murder his employees, and murder his innocent children. But, even after these disasters, Job still does not curse God. So God instructs Satan to up the ante by returning to earth and destroying Job's health. Here, Satan is portrayed as a servant of God whose task it  is to dutifully carry out evil deeds at God's instruction.
bullet Zechariah 3:1-7: Satan is again portrayed as a member of God's council. Here he objects to the selection of Joshua as the high priest.

There are no passages within the older parts of the Hebrew Scriptures where Satan is portrayed as an evil devil - the arch enemy of God and of humanity. At most, he is described as a henchman who carries out God's evil instructions. There is no dualism here between two powerful supernatural entities: an all-good God and an all-evil Satan. God is portrayed as performing, directly and indirectly, both kind and evil deeds. When:

bullet plagues are to be sent, or
bullet a great genocidal flood is created to kill off almost all of humanity, except for Noah and his family, or
bullet Onan was killed because he practiced an elementary form of birth control, in violation of a cultural tradition, or
bullet Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed because its residents were abusive to the needy and to strangers, or
bullet Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt because she looked the wrong way,

it is God who does it. In essence, the ancient writers of the early Hebrew Scriptures looked upon Jehovah as performing both good and evil deeds. A good indication of this is found in:

bullet Isaiah 45:6-7:

"...I am the LORD and there is none else. I form the light and create darkness. I make peace an create evil. I the LORD do all these things." (KJV)

bullet or in Job 9:22-23:

"...[God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When a scourge brings sudden death, he mocks the despair of the innocent." (i.e. laughs at the suffering of the victim)

bullet or in Lamentations 3:37-38:

"Who has commanded and it came to pass, unless the Lord has ordained it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come?"

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Development of the Concept of Satan prior to 300 BCE in Ancient Iran:

Historians have traced the foundations for the concept of Satan to the Indo-European invasion circa 2000 BCE. This migration of what are now called the Kurgan people, emigrated from what is now southern Russia into the Near East, Middle East and Europe. They were polytheists, and worshiped at least one Mother Goddess and one male God. Their religious beliefs were based on the Hindu sacred writings of the Vedas. Those who settled in western Europe became the Celtic people with their religion of Druidism and perhaps what is now called Wicca. Those Kurgans who settled in the Middle East developed religious belief along different lines. They developed the twin concepts of salvation and damnation after death. Upon dying, they believed that soul of the deceased must pass over a narrow bridge on horseback. It was called the "Bridge of the Petitioner." Rashu, a god, judged each soul and decides who is sufficiently righteous to cross the bridge and who will fall into a type of Hell with "flames and terrible smells." 1 Once salvation and Heaven, (and damnation and Hell) were created, then the stage was set for the next logical concept: that of a Devil.

Zoroaster (a.k.a. Zarathrustra, Zarthosht) is believed by some to have lived circa 628 to 551 BCE. (Other estimates run from 600 to 6,000 BCE) He was a Persian prophet in what is now Iran. Like Jesus, he was recorded as having been tempted by Satan; he performed many miracles and healings and was considered a supernatural being by his followers. He introduced a major spiritual reform and created what is generally regarded as the first established monotheistic religion in the world. He rejected the worship of the established trinity of Varuna, Mithra and Indra. The new religion, to be called Zoroastrianism, involved the worship of a single male god, Ahura Mazda, the "sovereign, lawmaker, supreme judge, master of day and night, the center of nature and inventor of moral law." He created the heavens and the earth. In short, he had all of the attributes attributed to Jehovah by the ancient Israelites, but with a different name. Zoroaster also recognized Ahura Mazda's twin brother: Angra Manyu, (a.k.a. Ahriman) the God of Evil. The only things that he created were snakes, demons, and all of the world's evil. 2 The old gods of the previous polytheistic religion became the demons of the new faith. Thus, Ahriman became the first Devil that the world has seen, and his assistants became the first cohort of demons under the control of a all-evil deity

Zoroaster taught that Ahura Mazda and Ahriman would continually battle each other until the God of Evil is finally defeated. At this time, the dead will be resurrected, a Last Judgement will divide all the people that have ever lived into two groups; the bad go to Hell for all eternity; the good go to Paradise. As author Gerald. Messandé so eloquently wrote: "The framework of the three monotheisms [Judaism, Christianity, Islam] had been erected. The Devil's birth certificate was filled out by an Iranian prophet."

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Development of the Concept of Satan, 300 BCE to 100 CE:

The Scofield reference Bible closes the Hebrew Scriptures with the book of Malachi, 397 BCE. It opens the Christian Scriptures with Matthew's gospel in 37 CE. This is a gap of over 4 centuries. This interval has traditionally been called the "intertestamental period." But modern Bible scholarship has found that reality is not quite that neat:

bullet The Book of Daniel seems to have been written circa 165 BCE, in the middle of the intertestamental period. It recounts events 4 centuries earlier and is written as if Daniel was the author.
bullet The Book of Esther was apparently written in the 1st or 2nd century BCE
bullet The Gospel of Mark was the first gospel. Most Old Testament scholars date it to about 70 CE. Matthew came along later, circa 80 CE.

Many Jewish writings have been preserved from that era. Some were collected and form the Apocrypha (Greek word meaning "hidden."). These books appear in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and in the Vulgate (early Latin translation of the Bible). They are found in Roman Catholic Bibles and some Protestant Bibles. Conservative Protestants do not accept the Apocrypha as inerrant or inspired by God.

During the last three centuries before Christ's birth, the portrayal of Satan underwent a major change. The Zoroastrian / Persian dualism concept appeared in Jewish writing: God was now looked upon as wholly good; Satan as profoundly evil. History was seen as a battle between them. No longer was Satan simply God's prosecuting attorney, helper, or lackey. Satan, and his demons, were now humanity's greatest enemies.

Author G. Messandé 1 theorizes that from the middle of the 5th century BCE until 53 BC and later, the Jews were on particularly good terms with the Persians. From the latter's religion, Zoroastrianism, the Jews picked up a number of concepts: the immortality of the soul, angels, and Satan. Of the 3 main divisions of Judaism (Essenes, Pharisees, Saducees) in the 1st century BCE, the Essenes seems to have focused the most on Satan.

Jesus and his disciples accepted the common belief of the 1st century CE that mental illness and some physical ailments were caused by indwelling demons. "Unclean spirits" are mentioned 7 times in Mark, once in Matthew, 3 times in Luke and once in Revelation. A "dumb spirit" and a "deaf spirit" are each mentioned once in Mark. Luke talks about a "spirit of infirmity" in his gospel, and, a "spirit of divination" & an "evil spirit" in Acts. The concept of "violent possession" appears for the first time in Scripture. Demons are believed to posses individuals and cause them to mutilate themselves, to collapse, to foam at the mouth, to thrash around on the ground. Demons are seen as the cause of many physical disabilities, including blindness, spinal deformities, inability to speak. Satan figures prominently throughout the Christian Scriptures: Jesus is tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-3, Luke 4:2). The Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name of "Beelzebub, the prince of the demons." (Matthew 12:24)

In the writings of Paul and the other apostles, the character and range of activities of Satan and his demons is further developed. God and Satan are seen as the two most powerful forces in the universe. The duality between an all-good God and all-evil Satan is firmly established. Examples are:

bullet 2 Corinthians 11:12-14: Satan is seen to be responsible for false teaching by "false apostles, deceitful workers."
bullet 2 Corinthians 12:7: Satan has given Paul a "thorn in the flesh" to trouble him.
bullet 1Thessalonians 2:17-18: Satan hindered Paul's travels
bullet I Timothy 1:19-20: Hymenaeus and Alexander have fallen away from the faith and blasphemed. Paul had excommunicated them and "delivered them unto Satan." Here, he is expressing the belief found also in 1 Corinthians 5:5 that once a believer is excommunicated, he will be no longer protected by God. Satan will torment him and perhaps purify him.

The author of the Book of Revelation develops the concept of a great battle between Satan and God at the end of the world as we know it:

bullet Revelation 2:8-9: Satan is portrayed as the power behind the Roman Empire's persecution of the Christians. The author apparently condemns ex-Christians who pretend that they are Jewish in order to avoid the persecution. They are referred to as the "Synagogue of Satan."
bullet Revelation 12:9: Satan, viewed as the great dragon, and his fallen angels were cast down to earth.
bullet Revelation 20:2-3: Satan is bound and sealed into an abyss for 1000 years, so that he could no longer deceive the nations.
bullet Revelation 20:7-8: Satan is released after 1000 years, deceives the nations, and gathers them together for war. He loses.

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  1. G. Messandé, "The History of the Devil", Newleaf, London, England, (1996)
  2. A.S. Mercatante, "Good and Evil in Myth & Legend," Barnes & Noble, New York, NY, (1978)

Copyright ©1998 to 2001 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2001-NOV-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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