Perhaps one of the most widely recognizable and debatable characters of Christianity is one who is not the central focus at all—an angel fallen from Heaven for the sin of pride, who has been around since the Jewish beginnings of the religion. He has been known by many names through the years, each with its own slightly different association. He was Satan the adversary, Mastema the accusing angel, Duma meaning “silence”, Beelzebub who is the god of the flies, Lucifer the Morning Star, Sammael, and many other names (Davidson, 185, 99, 72). Yet though he has been around for centuries, the concept of what exactly Satan is and what ideas he embodies has changed greatly, influenced by linguistics, politics, culture, and art.
In the beginning there was the Adversary. In the books of Numbers and Job, satan is far from the character an average modern Christian would recognize. Instead, he is an obedient servant of God; an angel who acts as messenger and does God’s bidding. Satan is not a name; it is a role, or office (Davidson, 261). Nor is the satan (at this point, not capitalized) one single character, but any angel who fills that position. Even the root of the term, śtn, reflects this in its meaning of “one who opposes”. (Pagels, 39) In the Pagles’ translation of the book of Numbers, satan stands in the way of Balaam on the road, causing his ass to turn away. (40) In my own translation, the term “Angel of the Lord” is used instead, reflecting possibly both translational changes, and modern Christian editing (Num. 22:23-27).
In the book of Job, Satan takes on a slightly less likable character. When Satan says that Job would likely be less pious if he had fewer blessings, it is God’s permission to act which allowed Satan to inflict suffering on him: “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person,” (Job 2:12). Later Satan is granted further power over Job, yet he still must get the permission of God before he can act. In this essence, Satan seems to refer to an adversary of mankind, especially of a specific Jew, rather than of God. Satan slowly is becoming a reference for an opponent, mostly at this point, a Jewish one.
It is in this time period also that the mythology of Satan begins to evolve. Stories of a fallen angel who was too prideful to be kept in Heaven with God begin to show up in the culture, some borrowed from other cultures, others created from the culture itself (Pagels, 49). Apocryphal stories tell of a commanding angel in Heaven who overstepped his bounds and wanted to command as though he was God Himself, and therefore was cast out. In Genesis there is the story of the sons of heaven coming to earth to mate with the daughters of man. “…The sons of heaven saw how beautiful the daughters of man were, and so they took for their wives as many of them as they chose,” (Gen. 6:2). A more Islamic reading of the Fall is one in which all of the angels of God are assembled to observe God’s newest creation, man. When told to bow before him, Satan refuses, saying that he will not worship any a creature made of dust (Koran.007.11-18).
These stories were used to illustrate how an insider to Heaven could turn against God: a metaphor for those Jews who were going against their Jewish brothers. “Whichever version of his origin one chooses, then, and there are many, all depict Satan as an intimate [emphasis in original] enemy—the attribute that qualifies him so well to express conflict among Jewish groups,” (Pagels, 49). Those intimate enemies, depending on one’s point of view, could be those Jews who were becoming Hellenized, or could speak of sects of the Priesthood. The Essenes likened the Maccabean war to the war which raged between God and Satan. Either way, it seems that more than a religious ideal, Satan was a satirical subject, specifically used to protest conditions within the Jewish population (Pagels, 50-51, 56).
Another transition in the Satan character can be seen in relation to the Babylonian Exile. There are two accounts of the census taking done by King David. The first is in an account written before the Exile. In this account, “The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again, and he incited David against the Israelites by prompting him to number Israel and Judah, (2 Sam. 24: 1).” Later, after the Exile, and subsequent contact with the Zoroastrians who believed in both a good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Ahriman) deity, (Bunson, 304) the cause of the survey changed. “A satan rose up against Israel, and he enticed David into taking a census of Israel,” (1 Chr. 21:1). The footnote on this passage speaks of the exile, and evil no longer being attributed to God, but to an angelic being.
In early Christianity, Satan is used both as somewhat of a political symbol, and as a force casing humans to do evil. In Matthew’s account of the testing of Jesus in the desert, he makes Satan out to be a crafty character who is quite able in the field of debate, and knowledgeable of the scriptures. In this way, he is casting Satan in much the same light as Christians viewed the Pharisees (Pagels, 81). It is in the accounts of Matthew that Jesus accuses his opposition of being satans, and more than that, of being possessed by demons, or by the spirit of Satan himself (Pagels, 83). Most of Jesus’ opposition at this time comes from the Jews, especially those in power such as the Pharisees, and so Jesus’ associating them with Satan follows along with what the Jews had been doing with their enemies for generations. Luke goes farther than either Mark or Matthew had dared go, and actually writes that Satan had intervened in Jesus’ capture, by entering into Judas and conferring with the Priests while in that physical form (Luke, 22:3-6).
Early Christianity after Christ’s death portray Satan in a very different form from what any of the previous generations had. Here, as opposed to an angel who does God’s work, or an internal force of opposition within the state, Satan is a character who influences individual people directly, and who impersonates God to other nations, leading them away from the One True God. The idea of early Christianity, and one which has lasted even through today, is such that either you are with the God of the Christians, or you are against Him, and therefore a worshiper of His great enemy, Satan (Pagels, 116). This harkens back to Jubilees where God assigned to each nation a ruling spirit which will lead them astray from worship of Himself, allowing only Israel to have the true God (Pagels, 54). It is from pagan gods that Satan gets the appearance which he sports today; the figure with goat’s hooves horns is the figure of Pan. As often as early Christians assimilated pagan holidays to help gain converts, they just as often changed the gods those rituals praised into demons and objects to be feared or hated.
Even with the great worry of Satan attacking Christians from the outside through the acts of violent pagans whom early Christians tried to placate by assuming the same rituals and holidays, it was the attacks from within that the Christians came to fear the most. Satan spoke through some who claimed to be Christian, causing them to say Heretical things (Pagels, 155). Pagels cites Irenaeus’ Against Heresies saying “There are those, Irenaeus declares, who claim to be Christians, and are taken by all to be such, who actually teach ‘an abyss of madness and blasphemy against Christ’,” (155). This idea of Satan working through people has followed through to modern times, with such phrases as “the devil made me do it.”
As the character of Satan evolved in Judaism and early Christianity as a very political figure, it evolved in later Christianity mostly through the works of literature. In both works by the religious and those by more secular authors, a great series of myth has been generated about the figure of Satan. He was once a great angel, one of God’s finest. According to Davidson, a misreading of Isaiah causes Satan to be identified with Lucifer, whom he says is a separate fallen angel (261). In reality, this statement was referring to Nebuchadnezzar, a king of Babylon, and used a term for Venus, the Morning Star, as a metaphor (Bunson, 171). The name was first use to represent Satan by St. Jerome (Davidson, 176). Most Christians take that association as though it were truth, and use the two names interchangeably. Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas disagree as to the angelic choir that Satan headed, with the former referring to him as a seraphim and virtue, and the latter citing him as cherubim. Much of our lore also comes from more modern authors’ works, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dryden’s State of Innocence, and Goethe’s Faust. Perhaps one of the most famous accounts of Satan and his eternal abode is that of Dante in his Divine Comedy (Bunson, 259). All of these works add to the body of “fact” that we have about Satan.
In reference to many of the other names of Satan, each as its specific origin and connotation. I would like to touch on a few of the more interesting ones, especially those with unusual links and connotations. The Gnostics have a character called Iadalbaoth who was the creation of Sophia, and who then created the elohim, and with them worked to create the flawed world in which we exist (Davidson, 147). One of the other names for Lucifer (but not for Satan) as cited in Davidson is Los, of whom he says “Since his fall (he is one of the fallen angels), he as spent 6,000 years trying to give from to this world,” (176).
Another quite well known name for Satan is Beelzebub. Originally this name was one of a Syrian God, or as Bunson writes, an offshoot of the god Baal, a god of the Canaanites (36). Yet like Lucifer, Beelzebub is falsely associated with Satan. “In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Christ, during his 3 days in Hell, gives Beelzebub dominion over the underworld in gratitude for permitting him (Christ), over Satan’s objections, to take dam and the other ‘saints in prison’ to Heaven,” (Davidson, 72).
Sammael is also often associated with Satan, in this case, correctly. His name is a compound word meaning “poison angel”, which seems quite appropriate to the character. In this namesake he is said to be ruler of the 5th Heaven (in Christian lore), and the 7th (in Jewish). He is an Angel of Death, and the angel who tempted Eve in the garden as the serpent (one of several accounts of him in serpent form), as well as the one who caused David to take the census (225).
Satan is one of the most interesting figures of both Old and New Testament study. The many roles he assumes, both as an angel in an office and a spirit, who can intervene without consent, create possibly one of the most intriguing characters in all of religious and literary history. Certainly he has been the subject of much investigation and reflection, both from clergy and secular authors. He, of all aspects of Christianity, seems to be a character who is allowed to evolve in a theology which has tended in recent years to be more stagnant than previously in the rest of its history.
Bunson, Matthew, Angels A to Z. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1996.
Davidson, Gustav, A Dictionary of Angels Including the Fallen Angels. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
New American Bible, The. Wichita: Catholic Bible Publishers, 1988.
Pagels, Elaine, The Origin of Satan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Shakir, M. H. Holy Qur'an. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/koran.html. 4-25-04.