In this post I want to offer a few comments on a recent article by Shawna Dolansky entitled How the Serpent became Satan from Biblical Archaeology magazine. In this article, Prof. Dolansky puts forth two main theses to a popular audience. First, she argues from a history of religions point of view that the serpent of Genesis 3 cannot be identified as Satan, 'for the simple reason that when the story was written, the concept of the devil had not yet been invented'.
She proceeds to describe in outline the development of the concept of Satan, beginning with the noun satan in the Hebrew Bible, and proceeding through intertestamental Judaism and early Christianity. She then arrives at her second thesis, that 'there is no clear link anywhere in the Bible between Satan and Eden’s talking snake'. She does not suggest a theory on when a 'clear link' was first made, but does note that Justin Martyr (died 160s C.E.) assumed this association.
While some Christian readers may find Dolansky's article startling (or even offensive, judging from some of the comments), from a biblical studies point of view she is for the most part stating the obvious. Few biblical scholars today would defend an identification of the serpent with Satan using historical-critical exegesis of Genesis 3.
Dolansky's overview of the development of the Satan concept begins with the Hebrew Bible. She acknowledges, as is widely agreed among Old Testament scholars, that there are numerous passages where the Hebrew word satan simply means a human adversary, but that in four passages the word denotes a divine being. In particular, she acknowledges that in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3:1-2, the satan is a member of YHWH's heavenly council, and also notes the debate around whether satan functions as a proper name in 1 Chronicles 21:1 (the weight of scholarly opinion today probably favours a 'no').
Hence, she rightly and uncontroversially asserts that 'the idea of an evil prince of darkness' was not in the consciousness of the Israelites in the Old Testament period. Referring to a handful of intertestamental texts, she traces out the development of the 'devil' concept. Dolansky is willing to allow that the serpent is linked with an angel in 1 Enoch and possibly with the devil in Wisdom of Solomon (though the meaning of diabolos in this text is very much debated). Her only contention is that the serpent is not yet linked with Satan.
Again, her summary of the 'adoption' of the Satan/devil concept by the early church is brief but uncontroversial (though I would give the early church, and the historical Jesus in particular, more credit in founding a distinctly Christian concept of Satan than the word 'adopt' suggests).
Coming to Dolansky's second thesis, the statement that there is no 'clear link' between the serpent and Satan even in the New Testament turns on the qualifier 'clear'. Certainly there is no explicit assertion that the serpent of Eden was Satan or was used by Satan. However, there are a number of New Testament texts in which some link between the two seems to be presupposed. Of these, Dolansky mentions only Revelation 12:9 and 20:2, where the great red dragon of the apocalyptic vision is identified as 'the ancient serpent, called Devil and Satan'. While it is true that divine combat myths lie in the background of the dragon/serpent imagery, there is good reason to think that an allusion to the serpent of Eden is also in view. The picture of eternity in Revelation draws heavily on allusions to the Garden of Eden (Revelation 2:7; 22:1-2, 14, 19). The immediate context of the vision in which the dragon/serpent is introduced, moreover, is fairly laced with allusions to Genesis 3. The antagonists are a woman and a dragon/serpent. The serpent is identified as 'the one that deceives the whole world'; deceit is of course the serpent's modus operandi in the Garden of Eden ('the serpent deceived me', Genesis 3:13). Then, of course, there is the conflict between the dragon/serpent and the seed of the woman (the singular, male child and 'the rest of her seed', Rev. 12:5, 17), which can hardly be other than an allusion to Genesis 3:15. Hence, Dolansky's assertion that 'the reference in Revelation 12:9 to Satan as “the ancient serpent” probably reflects mythical monsters like Leviathan rather than the clever, legged, talking creature in Eden' (emphasis added) is a false dilemma. Both form part of the background. Hence, while it is debatable whether in Revelation the author seeks to actually identify the serpent of Eden with Satan, there certainly is a 'clear link' between the two.
There are a number of other passages in which a link is arguably presupposed between the serpent and Satan. Scholars debate the source of Paul's allusion in Romans 16:20 ('The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet'), but Genesis 3:15 is one of the primary candidates, along with Psalm 110 and Psalm 8 (the options may again not be mutually exclusive). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul may reflect a Jewish tradition in which Satan disguised himself as an angel of light in the Garden of Eden (though the age of this tradition is debatable, since it is attested only in the later Life of Adam and Eve, which may be of Christian provenance). In John 8:44, the reference to the devil as the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning seems to implicate the devil in the events of Genesis 3 (the deceit of Eve) and possibly Genesis 4 (Cain's murder of Abel). Indeed, in 1 John 3:12 the same writer describes Cain as having been 'of that evil one', which clearly assumes the devil's existence in the primeval world. By ignoring the allusions to Genesis 3 in Revelation 12 and failing to take note of these other texts, Dolansky understates the evidence for a link between Satan and the serpent of Eden in the New Testament.
While Dolansky does not say so explicitly, her conclusion gives the impression that she thinks the direct identification of the Edenic serpent with Satan was a post-New Testament, Christian innovation. This is problematic not only because of the New Testament evidence summarized above, but also because such an identification can be found in rabbinic literature. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 3:6 describes an encounter between Eve and the serpent and then with Sammael, the angel of death (although no explicit link is made between the serpent and Sammael). In later rabbinic tradition, Sammael is closely associated or even identified with Satan. The ninth-century rabbinic work Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer clearly identifies the serpent with Samael, a satanic angel figure. Tracing out the tradition-history behind this identification, Dulkin writes that 'there exists sufficient cumulative evidence to prove that Samael/Satan is a known, recognizable figure in rabbinic sources generally and in the case of Gen. Rab. 20:5 is represented in early rabbinic depictions of Genesis 2–3'.1 The Jewish pseudepigraphon 2 Enoch, dated by some scholars to the first century C.E. (and by others much, much later), identifies a fallen angel named Satanail as the seducer of Eve. Hence, either an identification between Satan and the serpent developed separately in Judaism and Christianity, or this idea was present before the 'parting of the ways'. The evidence of the New Testament suggests that the latter is a more likely scenario.
Hence, it is plausible that later Church Fathers who place Satan in the Garden of Eden were not merely making a conflation that 'seemed natural', but were handing down a tradition received from the first century Church.
Returning to Dolansky's first thesis, if it is untenable for biblical scholars using modern exegetical methods to read Satan into Genesis 3, and if the early church nevertheless did read Satan into Genesis 3, where does that leave today's church? Enter theological interpretation. The Church does not limit her reading of Scripture to historical-critical interpretation, but reads Scripture through the lens of Christian faith. An analogy may help. There is a long and venerable tradition in the Church of reading Genesis 3:15 as a veiled Messianic prophecy. Yet if someone were to stand up at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting and suggest that the 'seed of the woman' refers to Jesus Christ, they would be met with disbelief and probably loud laughter - and rightly so, from a history-of-religions point of view. This interpretation is every bit as anachronistic as the interpretation that identifies or associates the serpent with Satan. The same is true of many other alleged Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 7:14. One must read the Old Testament with the eyes of Christian faith in order to find Christ there. The same is true (albeit on a far lesser scale) with Satan.
- 1 Dulkin, Ryan S. (2014). The Devil Within: A Rabbinic Traditions-History of the Samael Story in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 21(2), 153-175. Here p. 174.