The original rebel of Eden is a recurring focus in New Testament theology. New Testament writers follow the Second Temple Jewish understanding of Satan’s character, authority, domain, and final destiny in transparent ways, embracing the theological mosaic assembled from disparate data points in the Old Testament.
The lead villain of the New Testament went by several names, some of which are interpretive (i.e., labels extending from his perceived character) and others that have Old Testament roots. Several are found only a handful of times, such as “the tempter” (ho peirazōn, Matt 4:3) and “the enemy” (ho echthros, Matt 13:39; Luke 10:19). Both labels are generic and reflect the portrayal of the original rebel in both the Old Testament and Second Temple texts. Others require more attention here and in other parts of this chapter.
The proper personal name “Satan,” a transliteration of the Hebrew noun śāṭān, occurs thirty-six times in the New Testament, just under half of which are found in the four Gospels. Satan is said to have a kingdom (Matt 12:26; Luke 11:18), a detail which presumes an exalted ruling status. The term suggests some of the Old Testament noun’s meaning in passages like Mark 4:15 and Luke 22:31, where Satan acts in an adversarial way toward believers. The name is used interchangeably with “devil” three times (Rev 12:9; 20:2; compare Rev 12:7, 10).
The other frequently employed term for God’s great enemy is diabolos (“devil”), a title that means “slanderer.” John’s use of the term (John 8:44) followed by the epithet “father of lies” captures the slanderous, accusatory tone. The designation is apparently drawn from the Septuagint, which utilizes diabolos as the translation of the supernatural śāṭān in Job 1:6, 7, 9, 12; 2:1–4, 6–7; Zechariah 3:1–2; and 1 Chronicles 21:1. True to the contexts of these Old Testament passages, in the Gospels the devil is “portrayed as the adversary of Jesus (Mt 4:1–11; par. Lk 4:1–13) and the enemy of his work (Mt 13:39).” In Matthew 25:41 the devil is cast as the leader of other evil spirits (“angels”) in much the same manner as Second Temple Jewish literature describes Satan.
Beelzebul or Beelzebub (beelzeboul)
The term “Beelzebul” occurs in several places in the New Testament (Matt 10:25; 12:24 [cp. Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15]; Matt 12:27 [cp. Luke 11:18, 19]). Twelftree notes, “The Vulgate and Syriac versions have attempted to explain the term by correcting it to beelzebub, the god of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2–3, 6, 16; Josephus Ant. 9.19).” Many other scholars hold the the opinion that beelzebub is almost certainly secondary … and probably represents an attempt to replace some honorific title by some disgraceful one just as in the O.T. Ba’al is sometimes replaced by bosheth.
There is general consensus that the initial part of the name (beel-) represents Semitic baʿal (“lord, master”) and perhaps the divine name Baal (Baal). However, some scholars believe that zeboul reflects Hebrew zebul (“exalted dwelling”; 1 Kgs 18:33), producing a meaning akin to “lord of heaven” (i.e., ruler in the heavenly realm), a title that would make its bearer the “prince of demons” (archonti tōn daimoniōn; Matt 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15). This association of the title with an “exalted dwelling” (whether the temple or heaven) is most likely not the case, for reasons suggested by the usage of zbl in Ugaritic where the word means “prince” and never seems to be used for a temple. In Ugaritic texts, we sometimes find zbl baʾ al (“prince Baʾal”), but in other “cases we find a proper name followed by the title, as in N.T. Beelzeboul, where Beel is the equivalent of a proper name.” This suggests that the name Beelzebul means “Baʾal prince/ruler” and the word archonti in Matthew 12:24 (and parallels) was a Greek translation of the Semitic title zbl. The phrase baʿal zebul would have been well known in the Semitic world as meaning “prince Baal” or “ruler Baal.” Attributing such a title to the original rebel of Eden, cast to earth/the underworld after his deception led to the loss of immortality (death) for humanity, makes good sense, as “Baʾal was ruler of the gods the earth and the underworld” in ancient Semitic religion. Beelzebul is therefore best understood as a Greek transliteration of a title of Baal.
“The Evil One” (ho ponēros)
This descriptive title occurs nearly a dozen times if one includes the ambiguous references in Matthew 5:37, 6:13, and 13:19 (genitive: ponē rou), which may also be rendered abstractly (“evil”). It is interesting that this designation occasionally shows up paired with the generic satan in Second Temple material. For example:
- In the glorious eschatological future, “there will be no satan and no evil (one) who will destroy” (Jub 23:29).
- When Israel is purified in the future, “it will not have any satan or evil (one)” (Jub 50:5).
- “The evil one placed this oath in Michael’s hand” (1 En 69:15).
The last example is noteworthy due to the context of swearing an oath—the context of the ambiguous Gospel references. While this wider context is not conclusive, it adds weight to the perspective that ponē rou in Matthew may rightly be understood as referring to Satan.
What’s with the horns and tail?
The Jewish pseudepigraphical work known as 3 Baruch, likely composed in the late first or early second century ad, provides evidence that early Jewish and Christian writer-editors associated these features with the “goat demons” (śĕ ʿı̂rı̂m) of the Old Testament. The devil’s horns and tail therefore (in theory) derived from the original enemy’s association with a Canaanite underworld deity and the motif of the demonic wilderness with its preternatural creatures. More secure, at least for Christian imagery, is the relationship of the devil to the Greco-Roman deity Pan:
The worship and the different functions of Pan are derived from the mythology of the ancient Egyptians. This god was one of the eight great gods of the Egyptians, who ranked before the other twelve gods, whom the Romans called Consentes. He was worshipped with the greatest solemnity all over Egypt. His statues represented him as a goat, not because he was really such, but this was done for mysterious reasons. He was the emblem of fecundity, and they looked upon him as the principle of all things. His horns, as some observe, represented the rays of the sun, and the brightness of the heavens was expressed by the vivacity and the ruddiness of his complexion. The star which he wore on his breast was the symbol of the firmament, and his hairy legs and feet denoted the inferior parts of the earth, such as the woods and plants. Some suppose that he appeared as a goat because when the gods fled into Egypt, in their war against the giants, Pan transformed himself into a goat, an example which was immediately followed by all the deities. When, after the establishment of Christianity, the heathen deities were degraded by the Church into fallen angels, the characteristics of Pan—viz. the horns, the goat’s beard, the pointed ears, the crooked nose, the tail, and the goat’s feet—were transferred to the devil himself.John M’Clintock and James Strong, “Pan (2),” Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894), 7:608.
We can safely conclude that the grotesque imagery with which Satan was described in early Christian tradition (and Hollywood) is the product of imagination. This should not be interpreted too harshly. The association of Satan/the devil with the underworld, death, disease, and preternatural cosmic geography make good sense in light of the Old Testament conceptions of the effect on humanity of the original rebel’s transgression (death) and domicile. Use of pagan imagery to communicate these ideas embedded these theological points in the minds of believers.
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This post is adapted from Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness by Michael S. Heiser (Lexham Press, 2020).