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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Satan in Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament

The New Testament was written almost entirely by Jews. Jesus is a Jew. Therefore, it goes without saying that first century Jewish religion and culture is very useful background for interpreting the New Testament. In order to better understand this background, scholars have sometimes turned to the literature of rabbinic Judaism, such as the Mishnah and the Talmud. Can rabbinic literature shed any light on our path as we seek to interpret the figure of Satan (the devil) in the New Testament?

I believe it can. However, before investigating this a caveat is needed. The relevance of rabbinic literature for New Testament exegesis is disputed by scholars:
Can the rabbinic writings, and especially the Mishnah, be used legitimately as a historical resource in New Testament interpretation? New Testament scholars have argued about these questions for centuries. Many have routinely quoted or cited rabbinic texts, while others have objected that this material is too late – something like reading Shakespeare through Dickens.1
For example, the Jerusalem Talmud was redacted around 400 A.D., while the Babylonian Talmud was redacted around 500 A.D.2 but remained a work in progress until the seventh century.3

The eminent rabbinic scholar Jacob Neusner is one of those who urges caution:
overall I do not see how the rabbinic literature, which reached closure for its first document two hundred years after the beginning of Christianity, can serve in the way people seem to want to use it, that is, as a handbook of New Testament exegesis.4
He warns against the excesses of scholars such as Billerbeck and, more recently, Lachs, who 'slavishly' appealed to rabbinic parallels at every turn to illuminate what Jesus really meant. He explains that in the composition of rabbinic literature, "Sayings and stories were made up and attributed to prior times or authorities"5, and that it is therefore necessary to read the text critically. We "cannot take at face value attribution of a saying to a first-century authority as reason to assign that saying to that time"6.  

Neusner's succinct answer to the question, "What do I have to know about rabbinic literature to study the New Testament?" is, "Not a whole lot."7

Other scholars are more optimistic. Fernandez, for instance, opines that "Rabbinic texts often provide the best context in which to understand the problematical issues and religious vision underlying the text of the New Testament." 8 He explains,
All Rabbinic texts are subsequent to the New Testament. However, they may be used whenever it may be verified that they represent the crystallization of an oral tradition that dates back to the period of the New Testament, or whenever they present the unfolding of a topic from that period.9
Instone-Brewer has proposed critical methods for determining dates of rabbinic traditions.10 Unfortunately, I'm not qualified to apply such methods. We will proceed to examine the rabbis' understanding of Satan, in the hope that it might throw some light upon the New Testament, but will be cautious about the inferences we draw from any apparent parallels.

For our treatment of Satan in rabbinic literature we will depend heavily on the work of Reeg, who has recently published an essay on this very subject. Reeg describes the rabbinic Satan as a "only a marginal figure" who is seldom mentioned.11

Reeg draws attention to the famous text b. B. Bat. 16a, in which the following statement is attributed to Resh Laqish: "Satan, the evil prompter, and the Angel of Death are all one." This is indeed an important text, and a frequently misunderstood one. Whatever the original context of Resh Laqish's saying (if indeed it is authentic), in its Talmudic literary context it is clear that Satan is to be understood as a personal being. This statement occurs in a passage about Job, where Satan is clearly a personal being. Laqish's statement is best understood as highlighting Satan's different functions: that of accusation (the sense of the word 'satan' itself), that of seduction (hence the identification with the yetzer hara, the evil prompter), and that of destruction (hence the identification with the Angel of Death). In other words, the Accuser, the yetzer hara and the Angel of Death are not three independent sources of evil and calamity but three functions for which a single being is responsible. In support of the claim that Satan and the evil prompter are one, this Talmudic text quotes Genesis 6:5 (a key text for the yetzer hara concept) together with the words, "Only upon himself put not forth thine hand" (Job 1:12). The rabbis have understood this latter clause to mean that Satan was forbidden to tempt Job using the evil prompter, as he otherwise might have done. They regard the internal yetzer hara as susceptible to external influence by Satan.

This is even more apparent from another saying in the immediate context attributed to a Tanna: "[Satan] comes down to earth and seduces, then ascends to heaven and awakens wrath; permission is granted to him and he takes away the soul." Here, the three functions of seduction, accusation and destruction are clearly spelled out, and attributed to a personal being. 

Reeg comments that this Talmudic text's equation of Satan with the accuser, the evil inclination and the Angel of Death is unique and not representative of rabbinic literature in general:
The role of accuser is common to all rabbinic sources, while that of seducer is more or less restricted to the Babylonian Talmud and the Tanhuma. Finally, the role of Satan as 'Angel of Death' does not recur in other texts.12
Hence, it is Satan's role as accuser of humans before God - a heavenly prosecutor - that features most prominently in rabbinic sources (which is unsurprising, given that this is the satan's role in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3).

Reeg notes that the description of Satan as a tempter or seducer is very common in the Babylonian Talmud and the Tanhuma, a function "known from the Bible" (1 Chronicles 21:1).13 He notes that stories about Satan in these rabbinic texts often depict Satan masquerading (e.g. as an old man, a beggar, a seductive woman, a snake, or even a river). Commenting on a story in which Satan disguises himself as a woman, Reeg makes an important observation:
He visualizes carnal desire and can therefore be equated with the evil inclination. One difference, however, cannot be ignored: Satan is an independent figure, while the evil inclination is part of a human being.14
Thus, while Satan in the rabbinic literature can represent or embody various attributes, such as sexual desire or divine justice, he is nonetheless viewed as an external, personal being and not reduced to a mere figure of speech.

On the connection between Satan and Sama'el, Reeg notes the tendency of scholars to identify Satan with another figure, Sama'el (who is a fallen angel, evicted from heaven and sometimes identified with the Angel of Death). However, Reeg himself argues that "Sama'el and Satan are two different figures"15, whose names seem only to be interchangeable in the late midrash Exodus Rabbah and in medieval literature. (Nevertheless, Encyclopedia Judaica states that from the Amoraic period (c. 200-500 A.D.) onward, Sama'el was "the major name of Satan in Judaism.")16. He notes that Sama'el can be addressed as 'wicked' and the name implies he is an angel, whereas Satan is never denoted as wicked and "We cannot be sure about the status of Satan as an angel."17 Satan "is a celestial being that can also appear on earth" and "When masquerading he resembles a demon." Nevertheless, "The sages did not speculate on the origin or the nature of Satan at length."

Finally, "The figure of Satan in rabbinic literature is not connected to, or integrated into, an apocalyptic concept like Belial in the Qumran texts or Satan in the Apocalypse of John in the New Testament."18

Based on Reeg's analysis, what comparison can we make between Satan in rabbinic literature and Satan in the New Testament? First, we can draw attention to the differences. As just noted, Satan in the New Testament is very much an apocalyptic figure and features prominently in eschatological contexts (e.g. Matthew 13:38-43; 25:41; Luke 11:17-22; John 12:31; Acts 26:18; Romans 16:20; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; Revelation 12:7-10; 20:2). Furthermore, Satan is much more prominent in the New Testament than in rabbinic literature. He is still only part of the supporting cast in the drama of salvation history, but he can be contrasted with God or Christ in a kind of cosmic dualism (John 8:41-44; Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 6:15; James 4:7; 1 John 3:10; 2 Corinthians 6:15). The relative prominence of Satan in New Testament theology can probably be attributed to the historical Jesus himself, to whom are ascribed 17 distinct sayings about Satan or the devil in the Gospels. To these we can add the wilderness temptation narrative (which must derive from an oral account given by Jesus), and the references to Satan and the devil in the letters of Jesus to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3).

Furthermore, unlike rabbinic literature, Satan in the New Testament is unmistakably wicked. This is clear enough from the epithet ho poneros (the evil one), as well as the prophecies of his impending doom (Matthew 25:41; Romans 16:20; Revelation 20:10).

What about the similarities? In the first place, the three main functions attributed to Satan in rabbinic literature (accusation, seduction and destruction) are likewise attributed to Satan in the New Testament. He accuses (Luke 22:31; Revelation 12:10), seduces (Matthew 4:1-11; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 2 Timothy 2:26), oppresses and destroys (Luke 13:16; Acts 10:38; Hebrews 2:14; 1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 2:10). Moreover, like in rabbinic literature he masquerades (2 Corinthians 11:14), and in some instances resembles a demon (Luke 22:3; John 13:27). 

As in rabbinic literature, the New Testament writers show little interest in Satan's origin or precise nature, but clearly presuppose that he is a celestial being linked closely with angels (Matthew 25:41; 2 Corinthians 11:14; 2 Corinthians 12:7; Jude 9; Revelation 12:7-9). In the association with angels, as well as his eviction from heaven (Luke 10:18; Revelation 12:7-10), the New Testament Satan more closely resembles the rabbinic Sama'el than the rabbinic Satan (assuming Reeg is correct to challenge the previous consensus that these Sama'el and Satan are two names for the same being in rabbinic Judaism).

Particularly noteworthy is the way in which the rabbis correlated Satan with the evil inclination (yetzer hara) without confounding the two. This is helpful in interpreting New Testament texts which associate Satan with the heart or evil desires (Mark 4:15; Acts 5:3-4; 1 Corinthians 7:5). It shows that such associations in no way imply that Satan does not exist as an external figure. As Dahms comments, two rabbinic texts (b. Sanh. 107a and Ex. R. xix.2) seem to imply "that temptation is by the permission of God, that the evil yetzer is its internal possibility and that Satan is the external power responsible for its onset."19 Similarly, Wilson describes the logic of James 1:14-15 and 4:5-7 thus:
the internal conflict with desire can be seen to correlate with an external conflict against the devil and his 'evils.' Failure to resist the internal, desiring impulse leaves one vulnerable to the temptations to sin that supernatural evil contrives.20
In summary, in spite of some obvious differences, broadly speaking there is much common ground between the picture of Satan that emerges from rabbinic literature and that which emerges from the New Testament. To what extent rabbinic literature can be said to form part of the background to the New Testament picture of Satan, I would not want to speculate. However, it appears that rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity followed similar trajectories in their views of Satan based on their shared background in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism. Importantly, both bodies of writings reflect a belief that Satan is a real personal being and not merely an abstraction. In neither case is the interpreter justified in taking the correlation between Satan and the yetzer hara to mean that Satan has no independent existence.


1 Harrington, D.J. (2005). Review Article: Can New Testament Interpreters use Rabbinic Literature? Sewanee Theological Review, 48(3), 335-340. p. 336.
2 Unterman, A. (2010). Historical Dictionary of the Jews. Scarecrow Press, p. 168.
3 Baskin, J.R. (Ed.) (2011). The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. Cambridge University Press, p. 582.
4 Neusner, J. (1994). Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament: What We Cannot Show, We Do Not Know. Wipf and Stock Publishers, p. 2.
5 Neusner, op. cit., p. 13.
6 Neusner, op. cit., p. 15.
7 Neusner, op. cit., p. 2.
8 Fernández, M.P. (2004). Rabbinic texts in the exegesis of the New Testament. Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 7(1), 95-120. p. 118.
9 Fernández, op. cit., p. 118.
10 Instone-Brewer, D. (2004). Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament: Prayer and agriculture, Vol. 1. Eerdmans, p. 28f.
11 Reeg, G. (2013). The devil in rabbinic literature. In I. Fröhlich & E. Koskenniemi (Eds.), Evil and the Devil (pp. 71-83). Bloomsbury T&T Clark, p. 82.
12 Reeg, op. cit., p. 73.
13 Reeg, op. cit., p. 78.
14 Reeg, op. cit., p. 79.
15 Reeg, op. cit., p. 72.
16 Scholem, G. (2008). Samael. In Encyclopedia Judaica. Accessed at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0017_0_17378.html. Keter Publishing House.
17 Reeg, op. cit., p. 82.
18 Reeg, op. cit., p. 83.
19 Dahms, J.V. (1974). Lead us not into temptation. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 17(4), 223-230. p. 228.
20 Wilson, W.T. (2002). Sin as sex and sex with sin: the anthropology of James 1:12-15. The Harvard Theological Review, 95(2), 147-168. p. 163.

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