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Sunday, 11 May 2014

More Satanic Statistics and Diabolical Data

I wrote a blog post a few months back which made a statistical argument that the frequency with which Satan or the devil is mentioned basically remains constant across the New Testament writings (once the length of individual books by word count is taken into account). This runs counter to the claims of some Christadelphians that references to Satan or the devil peter out as one moves from the narrative portions of the New Testament (the Gospels and Acts) to the epistles and Revelation.

In parts of the Western church, the devil has become conspicuous by his absence in recent years. For instance, the Church of England made headlines a few months ago when they removed any reference to the devil from the liturgy of the christening service. A journalist writing before Pope Francis' accession noted that Pope John Paul II only mentioned Satan twice during his 27 year papacy and that his successor Benedict XVI was similarly reluctant to mention the devil in public.

By contrast, Pope Francis' first year in office has seen a shift of emphasis, with the pope having apparently performed an exorcism and emphasizing in a homily that the devil exists.

Christians have different ways of bridging the gap between the pre-scientific worldview of the biblical writers and the modern scientific worldview. Very often the literal devil which the New Testament speaks about doesn't make it across the gap but is de-mythologized into a vague symbol of evil, and ultimately dispensed with altogether, being remembered only through a few pithy sayings like "Speak of the devil" or "The devil's in the details."

It is fair to ask whether the marginalization and disappearance of Satan from the teaching of some parts of the church is something of which Jesus and the earliest Christians would have approved. Some simple New Testament statistics make such a claim difficult to affirm. By my own count, the devil is mentioned explicitly by a name or title 102 times in the New Testament in 67 distinct passages. This count excludes terms which symbolically represent the devil rather than referring to him directly, such as strong man, birds, enemy that sowed the tares, serpent, and dragon. It also excludes references to demons, evil spirits, etc. I think this frequency is enough to show that Satan is an important theological theme within the New Testament -- much more so than in the Old Testament.

I also think that the number one impetus for the prominence of Satan within the New Testament is the frequency with which Jesus referred to him. The Gospels record 23 sayings of Jesus which mention Satan. If we remove duplicates (those sayings recorded in more than one Gospel) and one in which he is merely referring to what the Pharisees said, we still have 17 distinct sayings of Jesus which mention Satan. This is roughly equal to the number of distinct sayings of Jesus which explicitly mention 'resurrection' or rising from the dead. Jesus told three parables involving Satan. He also mentioned Satan in the context of moral teaching, prayer, and prophetic discourse. His vocabulary across the Gospels includes five distinct terms for Satan: Satan, the devil, the evil one, the ruler of this world, and the enemy. We can also add that Satan is mentioned in four of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. The author describes these letters as dictated to him by Jesus, so on this basis one could arguably add four more sayings of Jesus about Satan, bringing the total to 21. Even if we are reluctant to attribute all the sayings ascribed Jesus in the New Testament to the historical Jesus (which I am not), there is little doubt that Satan formed an important part of Jesus' worldview. This should give pause to any church which is in a hurry to jettison Satan from its teaching and liturgy.

Christians who seek to demythologize the New Testament worldview often look to Paul as their model, because they believe that Paul himself was a demythologizing influence on the early church. Bultmann1 and Phipps2 are two writers who have taken such an approach. However, two recent studies on Paul's view of Satan by Williams3 and Becker4 have challenged this reading of Paul and reminded us that his worldview was not that of a modern rationalist but that of an ancient Jew. If we accept the historicity of Acts and take Paul as the author of all the epistles from Romans to Philemon, then we from Paul's lips or pen 22 distinct references to Satan. Paul's vocabulary for Satan is even more diverse than Jesus' within the New Testament. He uses eight distinct terms for Satan: Satan, the devil, the evil one, the god of this age/world, Beliar, the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the children of disobedience, and the tempter. It is unlikely that Paul would be so colourful in his vocabulary if he viewed Satan as an obsolete tradition.

In summary, while some might think that the church risks losing touch with today's culture by maintaining its traditional teaching that Satan is real, the alternative is surely to lose touch with the priorities and practices of Jesus, Paul and the early church. The statistics bear this out.


1 Bultmann, R. (1984). New Testament Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
2 Phipps, W. E. (2008). Supernaturalism in Christianity: Its Growth and Cure. Macon: Mercer University Press.
3 Williams, G. (2009). The spirit world in the letters of Paul the Apostle: a critical examination of the role of spiritual beings in the authentic Pauline epistles. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
4 Becker, M. (2013). Paul and the Evil One. In Koskenniemi, E. & Fröhlich, I. (Eds.), Evil and the Devil (127-141). London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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