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Has the biblical figure of Satan evolved?

William Blake

Q. Our professor in our Prophets of Israel Theology Course once commented that Satan was a conflated figure, historically speaking, and had early origins wherein he had a more innocuous function. Can you enlighten me on this? And how does it stand in light of Pope Francis’s focus on Vatican exorcists? Are these evil entities in no way related to the biblical Satan?

A. The noun “satan” appears in the Hebrew Bible as a name (“Satan”) only in 1Chr 21:1. In the longest story involving him (Job 1-2), the noun has a definite article (“the satan”) and should be translated as a title (“the accuser”). In Job, the accuser is a member of God’s court (akin to a prosecuting attorney, accusing Job before the heavenly judge) and obeys God (see also Zech 3:1-2). The accuser is not responsible for evil in the Hebrew Bible; rather the Hebrew Bible generally attributes both good and evil to God (1Sam 18:10, 1Kgs 22, etc.).

By the time of the New Testament, Jews had come to understand Satan as a more independent and evil entity, opposed to God, rather than obeying God (Rom 16:20, Rev 17:7-9, Rev 20:7-10). Through time, people’s understanding of Satan’s characteristics and power continued to shift and develop. In the English-speaking world, most modern conceptions of Satan are based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) more than on biblical sources. So your professor was correct, that the image of Satan shifted over time, moving from obnoxious but obedient servant of God to being evil and opposed to God.

The New Testament includes many stories of Jesus and the disciples doing exorcisms on people who they thought were possessed by demons (Mark 3:14-15, Mark 16:17; Matt 9:32-33; Luke 8:27-33). Demons are generally understood to be servants of or in league with Satan. The idea that priests and/or individual believers can emulate the apostles and cast out demons in Jesus’ name justifies exorcisms in both Catholic and Protestant traditions. 

Pope Francis’s endorsement of the rite of exorcism is controversial because many Catholics, influenced by a modernist, scientific world-view, don’t believe in demons or even Satan.
They may feel embarrassed by the Pope endorsing a rite they perceive to be a throwback to the Middle Ages. But many other Catholics do believe in demons and they may see Pope Francis’s decision as a long-overdue recognition of the importance of exorcisms.

  • Adam Porter

    Adam Porter is the Dean of Faculty and Professor of Religion at Illinois College, in Jacksonville IL. Trained in biblical Studies and Second Temple Judaism, his primary research focus for the last few years has been studying representations of Satan in movies, fiction, and comic books.