dianoigo blog

Friday 27 December 2013

The devil's demand of worship from Jesus

In the previous two posts we looked at the setting of the third of Jesus' wilderness temptations (second in Luke's ordering) and then more specifically at the devil's offer of world power to Jesus. We now turn our attention to what the devil tempted Jesus to do. Our main objective is again to assess the Christadelphian interpretation that the temptation narratives are figurative representations of an internal struggle, in which ho diabolos (the devil) is a personification of the evil inclination (Hebrew yetzer hara) within Jesus' heart.

Our focus is again on the third temptation (second in Luke's ordering) because it is the most problematic for Christadelphians:
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Matthew 4:8-10 NRSV)
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Luke 4:5-8 NRSV)
Anthony Buzzard succinctly stated the difficulty that the Christadelphian interpretation faces here: "It is most unnatural to think that Jesus invited himself to fall down before himself and worship himself!".1 To this, Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke responded:
It is not argued that Jesus 'invited himself to fall down before himself and worship himself'. It is argued that the narrative represents the internal struggle in Christ using the language of personification.2
In this response, Burke does not say what Jesus was actually tempted to do. Following on the precedent of the other two temptations, it stands to reason that Jesus was actually tempted to do something concrete, and the text tells us what it was: to fall down and worship the devil (ho diabolos). Burke, however, proposes a figurative interpretation of what Jesus was tempted to do:
"The temptation represents Christ as the one having power to elevate himself, and self-worship, rather than the worship of God, is both the requirement and result."3
Thus, although Burke denies that Jesus was tempted to fall down before himself and worship himself, he affirms that Jesus was tempted to self-worship (i.e. worship himself!) The only difference between what he denies and what he affirms is the 'falling down' part. Thus it appears that Burke believes Jesus was tempted to worship himself in mental attitude and not in a physical act of obeisance. The problem is that the text of Matthew says "fall down and worship me". That this is a demand for a physical act of worship is even clearer in the Greek than in the English.

The Greek verb translated "worship" in both Matt. 4:9 and Luke 4:7 is proskuneo. The most respected lexicon of ancient Greek defines this verb thus: "to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure, (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully".4 While Christadelphians might seize on the words "in attitude", it is plain from the list of synonyms that even this refers to an outwardly expressed attitude and not merely a mental state.5

There is no known evidence that proskuneo was ever used as a reflexive verb (i.e. in relation to oneself) in ancient Greek. The only known use of this verb with an abstract direct object is a reference to worship of wealth by Philo, in which he explicitly stated he was using "figurative language".6

Greeven further emphasizes the "concreteness" of the term, observing that, as used in the New Testament, "Proskynesis demands visible majesty before which the worshipper bows".7Thus, in order to take proskuneo in the sense of figurative self-worship instead of physical other-worship, one must give it an unprecedented meaning.

Furthermore, although the mere use of the word proskuneo virtually settles the matter, both Matthew and Luke qualify it with another word which makes the physicality of the worship even more explicit. In Matthew, the qualifier is the participial form of the verb pipto, which means "to move with relative rapidity in a downward direction, fall".8 It usually has a literal sense, and one of the lexical meanings is "fall down, throw oneself to the groundas a sign of devotion or humility, before high-ranking persons or divine beings".

There are also figurative meanings of pipto which include to fall in a transcendent or moral sense. It might be argued that Jesus' evil impulse tempted him to fall (morally) and elevate himself in self-worship. However, this would again be an utterly unprecedented meaning. The words proskuneo and pipto modify each other in two passages of the LXX and eleven other passages in the New Testament, and in every single instance they clearly denote a physical act of worship (2 Chr. 20:18 LXX; Dan. 3:4-15 LXX; Matt. 2:11; Matt. 18:26; Acts 10:25; 1 Cor. 14:25; Rev. 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4; 19:10; 22:8). Particularly noteworthy are the two other Matthean texts:
"On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down (pipto) and paid him homage (proskuneo). Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." (Matt. 2:11)
"So the slave fell to the ground (pipto) and prostrated himself (proskuneo) before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’" (Matt. 18:26)
Thus, when used together, pipto and proskuneo depict a physical act of homage. It is all but certain that this is what the devil demanded of Jesus in Matt. 4:9; this is undoubtedly how most readers in the first century would have understood the narrative. To take this text as a temptation to figuratively worship oneself requires abandoning the usual lexical and syntactical meaning of these words and giving them a sense which is foreign to Matthew, to the New Testament, and to the ancient Greek language!

The verb pipto does not appear in Luke's parallel account. Nevertheless, while most Bible translations render the key phrase in Luke 4:7 simply as "if you worship me", there is also a qualifying word in the Greek here which makes the physical nature of the temptation explicit. This is the adverb/preposition enopion, which primarily means "before; in the sight of; in the presence of".9 Thus a more literal translation of this phrase in Luke 4:7 is, as the NASB has it, "if you worship before me" (the NASB has 'bow down before me' as a marginal rendering; Young's Literal Translation also translates 'bow before me'). This makes it clear that the worship was to take place in front of or in the presence of some external party. This word is superfluous if the temptation refers to self-worship.

Once again, if we look at other occurrences of proskuneo with enopion in Scripture, we find that it always denotes a physical act of worship (2 Kings 18:22 LXX; Ps. 22:27-29 LXX; Ps. 86:9 LXX; Isa. 66:23 LXX; Rev. 3:9; 15:4). Typical is Rev. 15:4b: "All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed".

Responding to Buzzard's analysis of the verb proserchomai in Matthew 4:3 (also problematic for Christadelphians), Burke writes that Buzzard
"deliberately over translates the Greek...in order to create the sense of a greater distinction between Christ and the satan, giving the false impression that the text wishes us to understand that Christ and the satan are two separate individual beings".10
Regardless of whether or not Burke's statement is accurate with regard to Matt. 4:3, we have seen that the Greek text of Matt. 4:9 and Luke 4:7 unmistakably create a distinction between Christ and the devil/Satan, demonstrating that they are two separate individual beings. Given that Matthew and Luke use the language of physical worship, it simply is not plausible that Jesus was tempted to engage in an act of obeisance either to himself, or to his personified 'evil inclination'.

We can say with certainty, then, that the text indicates Jesus was tempted to physically bow down before the devil. In view of this, the only way to sustain the Christadelphian 'internal struggle' interpretation is to take the temptation narrative figuratively at a more fundamental level. That is, none of the temptations actually happened as such; instead, they use vivid pictures to portray Jesus' battle with his evil inclination.

The problem with this approach is that the other two temptations are clearly concrete: Jesus was literally in the wilderness, was literally hungry and was literally tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. Similarly, Jesus was literally placed atop the temple pinnacle and tempted to throw himself down to test God's providential care. Neither 'turning stones into bread' nor 'throwing himself down' can be understood metaphorically. Consistency thus dictates that we take the temptation narratives at face value as concrete events in the life of Jesus. The idea that ho diabolos refers to a personification of an abstract entity is grammatically impossible and must be rejected. Jesus was tempted to physically worship a concrete personal being external to himself.

In fact, this conclusion brings Christadelphians back to the interpretations of the founders of their movement, John Thomas and Robert Roberts, both of whom identified ho diabolos in the temptation narratives as an unknown human tempter.11 12 This earlier interpretation makes better grammatical sense, but is also fraught with difficulties. It fails to account for the definite article: the tempter as opposed to a tempter. It also fails to account for the reappearance of ho diabolos/ho satanas elsewhere in the Gospels, and indeed, the prominence of this theological term throughout the New Testament.

If we attempt to ascertain the identity of ho diabolos just from what the temptation narratives tell us, we can infer that the tempter (a) knew Jesus' identity at the outset of his ministry (as the demons also did), (b) had the supernatural power needed to place him atop the pinnacle of the temple or induce a visionary experience, and (c) could make a credible claim to absolute temporal power. As there was no human being external to Christ who met these three criteria, we are left with only one possibility: ho diabolos refers to a supernatural personal being.

1 Buzzard, Anthony F. Satan, the Personal Devil. http://focusonthekingdom.org/articles/satan.htm
2 Burke, Jonathan. 2007. Satan and Demons: A Reply to Anthony Buzzard. Can be downloaded from https://sites.google.com/a/dianoigo.com/dianoigo/Jonathan_Burke_Satan_and_Demons.pdf, p. 40.
3 Burke, Jonathan. op. cit., p. 181.
4 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. and Bauer, W. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 882.
5 See, for instance, the first definition of 'attitude' at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/attitude
6 Philo of Alexandria. Delineation of the Mosaic Legislation for non-Jews, Book 27, IV.25.
7 Greeven, H. 1968. proskuneo. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 6. ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, tr. Geoffrey Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 765.
8 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. and Bauer, W. op. cit., p. 815.
9 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. and Bauer, W. op. cit., p. 342.
10 Burke, Jonathan. op. cit., p. 37.
11 Thomas, John. 1867. Elpis Israel: Being an Exposition of the Kingdom of God; with Reference to the Time of the End, and the Age to Come. 4th edition, p. 78.
12 Roberts, Robert. 1880. Seasons of Comfort at the Table of the Lord: Being Fifty-two Addresses, Etc. Birmingham, No. 51.

Saturday 21 December 2013

The devil's offer of the world to Jesus

This is the second part of a trilogy on the wilderness temptation narrative recorded in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. More specifically the series is examining the third temptation (second in Luke's ordering) and evaluating the Christadelphian view that the temptations were an internal struggle in Jesus' mind, with ho diabolos (the devil) being a personification of the evil inclination (in Hebrew, the yetzer hara). The previous installment looked at the setting of this temptation. Now we will examine the devil's offer to Jesus. In this case we will follow Luke's account because it offers more detail:
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Luke 4:5-8 NRSV)
A key feature of the Lucan narrative that must be explained is the devil's claim to exercise power over the kingdoms of the world and give it to whomever he pleases. Under the Christadelphian interpretation this statement comes from the personified yetzer hara, representing the dark side of Jesus' thought process which is opposed to the will of God. It is attempting to persuade Jesus to take a wrong course of action. If this is really what this passage conveys, it does so in very odd language.

We discussed in the previous post how a figurative dialogue between a person and a personification is quite foreign to the genre of the Gospels. Yet even if we allow the possibility of internal temptations being narrated in this way, it makes little sense for the personified yetzer hara to base its offer on a grandiose claim to temporal power. Notice that the other two temptations begin, "If you are the Son of God..." and thus use Jesus' privileged status as their jumping-off point. Why does the narrative deviate from that formula in this case? An appeal to Jesus' Messianic prerogative would be even more persuasive here. If this temptation consists of an urge from within to usurp temporal political power, it might have been phrased something like this:
"If you are the Son of God, march into Jerusalem and declare yourself king, for that is your right, as it is written, ‘Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom.’"
Instead, the tempter makes no reference to Jesus' right to rule but instead asserts his own! Christadelphians need to provide an explanation for why the introductory formula is so different for this temptation. Furthermore, if this dialogue is strictly internal and involves no third party, then what does "I give it to anyone I please" mean? To whom might Jesus' yetzer hara even hypothetically give authority over the kingdoms of the world other than himself?

It is apparent, then, that the way the devil phrases his offer to Jesus in Luke's account presents serious difficulties for the Christadelphian view. However, Christadelphians have suggested that to be a temptation must be plausible in order to truly tempt,NUM1 and a claim to absolute political power from a fallen angel is not plausible. Let us then assume for the sake of argument that ho diabolos in this passage is an angelic being, and assess the plausibility of the claim and offer he made to Jesus.

We may first observe that, within the narrative, it is not necessarily the case that Jesus was aware from the beginning who his interlocutor was. Elsewhere in the New Testament we read that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), so it is not impossible that the devil presented himself to Jesus as an angel. The devil does not introduce himself to Jesus; it is the narrator who makes the reader of the Gospel aware who the tempter was. In Matthew's account, after the final temptation Jesus says, "Away with you, Satan!" which makes it possible that the offer of illicit political power and the demand for worship gave away the tempter's identity. However, this is only a conjecture, and perhaps not a likely one given Jesus' remarkable powers of discernment (Matt. 9:4; Luke 9:47; John 1:48; 2:24; 6:64).

If we judge that Jesus knew who stood before him, would this then render the temptation a "sham" as Christadelphian writer Thomas Williams put it?2 Scholars have identified the devil's statement in Luke 4:6 as an allusion to God’s claims in Jeremiah 34(27E):5 LXX and Daniel 4:31LXX, and as such “Luke pictures Satan as usurping God’s prerogative to confer authority on whomever God wishes.”3 Does this mean the devil's offer was implausible? Yamazaki-Ransom provides useful insights on this point:
“In the Lukan temptation narrative, Satan claims to be the lord of the world. Is he telling the truth? The answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, although Satan is not a reliable character in the narrative, the implied reader is expected to take Satan’s claim at face value. First, Jesus does not deny Satan’s claim. Second, Paul later describes his ministry as opening the eyes of the people ‘so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power (exousia) of Satan to God’ (Acts 26.18). This assumes the reality of Satan’s exousia over people, although it is undermined by God through Paul’s ministry. Thus Satan’s power over the world is a real, not an illusory, one. On the other hand, as was just shown, he is not the true lord who deserves worship. For Luke the true Lord is God and Jesus, but not Satan. Thus Satan’s lordship over the world is a real but illegitimate one, one that is to be dismantled. The reality of diabolic authority over the world, and Jesus’ refusal to receive this authority from Satan, has great significance in Luke’s narrative.”4
Indeed, there are numerous New Testament passages which state or imply that the devil or Satan possesses power. Importantly, some of these texts are in Luke's writings (Luke 10:19; Acts 26:18). In John's Gospel, Jesus himself refers to the devil as "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11),5 and in John's first epistle he writes that "the whole world lies in the power of the evil one" (1 John 5:19).6 Paul too describes Satan as a powerful ruler (Eph. 2:2; 6:11-12). Finally, in Revelation the dragon (symbolic of the devil) gives power and authority to the beast (symbolic of an earthly empire) (Rev. 13:2 cf. 12:9). In this last case the devil's power is explicitly political in nature.7 Hence, as one commentator writes concerning the devil's claim to Jesus, “In a way clearly parallel to the scenario painted in Revelation 13, we discover that the world of humanity is actually ruled by the devil.”8

Where did this notion of the devil possessing political power come from? Behind it lies "the idea of angelic beings ruling over earthly kingdoms" which "has a long tradition, both before and after the New Testament."9 Several Old Testament texts develop this idea, most notably Daniel 10, and while it is not prominent in the New Testament, it is found in Revelation 12-17 and may be presupposed in other New Testament texts such as Luke 10:1, Acts 16:9, 1 Cor. 4:9, 6:3 and 1 Tim. 3:16.10

Therefore, far from being preposterous we find that the devil's claim here is consistent with the overall testimony of the New Testament. The devil did have some basis for claiming to wield great political power, and as such his offer to confer this power on Jesus in exchange for worship was at least plausible. It is to this demand for worship that we shall turn our attention in the next post.

1 See the entry on the temptations of Jesus in the Wrested Scripture resource at http://www.wrestedscriptures.com/b07satan/matthew4v1-11.html
2 Williams, Thomas. The Devil: His Origin and End. See under The Devil that Tempted Christ at http://www.republic-christadelphians.org/files/The_Devil_-_His_Origin_and_End.htm
3 Carroll, John T. 2012. Luke: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, p. 103.
4 Yamazaki-Ransom, Kazuhiko. 2010. The Roman Empire in Luke’s Narrative. Continuum, pp. 95-96.
5 For an important study of this title in John, see Kovacs, Judith L. 1995. "Now shall the Ruler of this world be driven out": Jesus' death as cosmic battle in John 12:20-36. Journal of Biblical Literature 114(2): 227-247.
6 That 'the evil one', 'the devil' and 'Satan' are synonyms can be seen by comparing the three parallel accounts of the parable of the sower in Matt. 13:19, Mark 4:15 and Luke 8:12; cf. Matt. 13:38-39. That John also uses the term in this way is apparent from comparing the similar language in 1 John 3:12 and John 8:44.
7 See comments in Morris, Leon. 1988. Luke: An Introduction and Commentary. Eerdmans, p. 113.
8 Green, Joel B. 1997. The Gospel of Luke. Eerdmans, p. 194.
9 Yamazaki-Ransom. op. cit., p. 93.
10 Wink, Walter. 1984. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. Fortress Press, pp. 34-35.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Was Jesus tempted atop a mental mountain?

Christadelphians have a unique understanding of the accounts of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness found in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. While these passages read like a dialogue between Jesus and a personal being called the devil (ho diabolos in Greek), Christadelphians believe that the Gospel writers were figuratively describing an internal struggle within Jesus' mind. According to this interpretation no external being was present; 'the devil' is a personification of the evil impulse, the carnal mind (known in Judaism as the yetzer hara).

One of the main exegetical arguments put forward by Christadelphians in support of their interpretation concerns the "very high mountain" referred to by Matthew in his account of the third temptation:
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Matt. 4:8-10 NRSV)
Christadelphians have observed that there exists no very high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. Thus Jesus didn't really ascend a mountain; he imagined himself atop a mountain looking at the kingdoms of the world. This indicates that the whole account is not literal but figurative. Christadelphian resource Wrested Scripture makes this argument, as does Christadelphian apologist Duncan Heaster. The same argument was made by Phipps, the only modern, non-Christadelphian biblical scholar (as far as I know) who has defended the 'internal struggle' interpretation in print.1 But is the argument convincing?

Read in its historical context, it is likely that 'all the kingdoms of the world' refers only to the then-known world, i.e. the Roman Empire. However, even if we reduce the scope of this phrase to the limits of the Roman Empire, the premise still holds that there is no mountain from which the entire Roman Empire can be seen with the natural sense of sight. Yet this does not necessarily mean that the mountain is figurative. Let us consider two alternatives:
  • The statement "showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor" could be hyperbolic. That is, Jesus was literally looking out from the top of a high mountain in all directions but didn't literally see the entire Roman Empire.
  • Jesus may been taken up a literal mountain and then experienced a supernatural vision which enabled him to see all the kingdoms of the world.
Which of these possibilities is most plausible?

It may be observed that in at least two other texts (Ezek. 40:2 and Rev. 21:10), a prophet of God is taken up to a very high mountain to be shown places. In both cases the text states that this was a visionary experience and not a physical trip. Ezekiel says, "In visions of God he brought me to the land of Israel, and set me down on a very high mountain", and John says, "And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain." Furthermore, in both texts the place seen by the prophet did not literally exist in space-time (the future temple in Ezekiel's case, and new Jerusalem in John's case).

These texts provide a possible template for understanding the third temptation account (in Matthew's ordering) as a visionary experience. However, important differences should be noted: the temptation account does not explicitly describe the mountain trip as visionary, and the places shown to Jesus did literally exist in space-time. Besides this, it should be noted that both Ezekiel and John's mountain visions were initiated by external beings (God in Ezekiel, and an angel in Revelation). Thus we do not have a precedent for understanding the third temptation as something Jesus conjured up in his own mind (as the Christadelphians' internal interpretation of the devil requires).

Besides this, even if we take the 'mountain' as part of a visionary experience, there is no justification for taking the whole temptation account figuratively. These passages are found in the Gospels, whose genre is narrative. There is no other event in the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels which the writers intended to be taken figuratively (and the temptations cannot be parables, since they involve Jesus rather than being spoken by Jesus). By way of comparison, other events involving mountains in Matthew are obviously literal: the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:1ff), the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1ff) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). The transfiguration is especially noteworthy since, like the temptations, it involved a visionary experience atop an unspecified "high mountain" but in which the mountain is obviously literal (cf. Mark 9:1; 2 Peter 1:18).

Furthermore, the reference to the devil taking Jesus up follows (or, in Luke, is followed by) a reference to the devil 'taking' Jesus to Jerusalem and 'placing' him on the pinnacle of the temple. This location must be taken literally, since it is very specific and the temptation itself involved throwing himself down from a great height, which is possible only if Jesus was physically located at a great height! Thus we have a precedent in the immediate context for Jesus being literally relocated by the devil for the purpose of temptation.

Additional light is shed on the temptation accounts when they are read against their literary-historical background. Scholars widely agree that Deuteronomy 34 lies behind Matthew's and Luke's accounts.2 This text reads as follows:
"1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” (Deut. 34:1-4 NRSV)
The similarities are obvious between this narrative (which itself likely draws on Genesis 13:14-15) and the temptation narratives. Indeed, the temptation accounts as a whole draw extensive typology from Deuteronomy, showing Jesus to be the true Israel. Jesus' forty days in the wilderness are typified by Israel's forty years in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-2 cp. Deut. 8:2). Jesus' three responses to the temptations all quote from Deuteronomy (Deut. 8:3; 6:16; 6:13-14).

In Deuteronomy 34 it is clear that Moses was shown the whole land by God from atop a literal mountain. However, commentators have pointed out that several of the places mentioned (such as the Mediterranean Sea, Dan and Zoar) cannot be seen from the mountain believed to be Mt. Nebo.4 5 6 While liberal scholars might take this as a geographical inaccuracy, some commentators have interpreted it as hyperbole.7 8 Others have understood it in terms of a "supernatural vision" which nonetheless involved Moses literally climbing the mountain.9

That the account was read in ancient times as a supernatural vision is apparent from the tendency of later Jewish writers to expand the scope of Moses' view to include the land of Egypt, or "all the regions from Egypt to the Euphrates".10 Moreover, the Jewish apocalyptic work 2 Baruch (probably written in the late first or early second century) likely draws on Deut. 34 when it depicts Baruch as instructed by God to go to the top of a mountain, "and there shall pass before you all the regions of that land, and the figure of the inhabited world" (2 Baruch 76:3).

Thus Deuteronomy 34 and its treatment in later Judaism supports the plausibility of understanding the third temptation to be a supernatural visionary experience atop a literal mountain. The notion of a supernatural vision receives further support from Luke's temptation account, which omits any reference to a mountain and adds the phrase "in an instant." As Yamazaki-Ransom points out, this serves to emphasise the "supernatural character of the event".11

In summary, the third temptation begins with a supernatural visionary experience in which Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. Stein writes that this temptation is "visionary in nature" but that "It is unclear whether a specific mountain is meant or whether this is to be understood as part of the vision".12 Whether Jesus was literally taken up a mountain is of no great importance to the account, since Matthew neglects to name the mountain and Luke omits it altogether. However, the key insight is that the impossibility of seeing all the kingdoms of the world with natural vision from atop a literal mountain in no way undermines the natural reading of Matthew 4 and Luke 4 as a dialogue and series of events which actually, objectively took place. As Stein writes:
"Were the temptations primarily psychological or visionary in nature? Were they entirely subjective? To understand the temptations in this manner would not make them any less real. Yet the general impression from reading the accounts is that they were objective and involved external events: a real place (the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem) and real, if symbolic, time (forty days and forty nights)...This argues against seeing the temptations as entirely subjective visions or experiences."13
The crucial question in evaluating the Christadelphian view of the temptation accounts is whether the whole account (and particularly the devil, ho diabolos) is literal. What is apparent from this brief study is that the reference to the "very high mountain", whether literal or figurative, does not justify a figurative approach to the entire narrative. In the next post we will consider whether the devil's offer of absolute political power had any credibility.

1 Phipps, William E. 1993. The Wisdom and Wit of Rabbi Jesus, p. 38
2 Pao & Schnabel. 2007. Luke. In Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, p. 287
3 Yamazaki-Ransom, Kazuhiko. 2010. The Roman Empire in Luke's Narrative, p. 88
4 Lundbom, Jack R. 2013. Deuteronomy: A Commentary, pp. 943-945
5 Walton, John H. et al. 2000. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, p. 208
6 Work, Telford. 2009. Deuteronomy. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, digital version (not paginated)
7 Driver, Samuel R. 1902. Deuteronomy: a critical and exegetical commentary, p. 419
8 Smith, George A. 1918. The Book of Deuteronomy, p. 379
9 Work, Telford. op. cit.
10 Yamazaki-Ransom, op. cit., p. 89
11 Yamazaki-Ransom, op. cit., p. 90
12 Stein, Robert H. 1996. Jesus the Messiah: a Survey of the Life of Christ, pp. 106-108
13 Stein, Robert H. op. cit., p. 104

Monday 18 November 2013

The Devil as Personification

Modern Western Christians have a difficult time believing in the devil as a literal, personal being. This has become apparent in population research among American Christians which shows that belief in a personal Satan is now a minority viewpoint. More and more Christians, it seems, see Satan as merely a symbol of evil. Christadelphians welcome this shift in thinking, because it is what they have been preaching for the past 165 years.

It may be assumed that some of these Christians are simply ignorant of what the Bible says about Satan. However, other proponents of the symbolic view of Satan have been brilliant Bible scholars. These have often arrived at their conclusion through a method of biblical interpretation most widely associated with the influential New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, known as "demythologization." Bultmann acknowledged that Paul makes mythological statements about demonic powers, including Satan. However, he argues that it is valid for us to give these powers an "ultimately unmythological meaning", which he expresses thus:
"The spirit powers represent the reality into which man is placed as one full of conflicts and struggle, a reality which threatens and tempts. Thus, through these mythological conceptions the insight is indirectly expressed that man does not have his life in his hand as if he were his own lord but that he is constantly confronted with the decision of choosing his lord."1
In short, Bultmann's point is that in light of modern science we cannot accept the letter of the New Testament writers' mythological teachings about Satan and demons. However, we can re-conceptualize them in a way that is true to the writers' ultimate purpose and so be faithful to the spirit of their writings.

Bultmann's conclusions probably would not resonate with many Christadelphians. Because Christadelphians generally have a high view of biblical authority, most of them would object to his method of interpretation. Christadelphians believe that the New Testament writers themselves conceived of Satan as merely a symbol of evil and not as a personal being. Thus no 'demythologization' is necessary.

Christadelphians frequently use the term 'personification' to describe how the New Testament presents the devil or Satan. This term needs a bit of unpacking, especially for those of us who are a few years removed from high school English classes. Most dictionaries list two definitions for the word personification. The following is typical:
1) the attribution of human characteristics to things, abstract ideas, etc., as for literary or artistic effect: Hunger sat shivering on the road
2) a person or thing regarded as an embodiment of a quality: he is the personification of optimism
It is important to distinguish between these two meanings. Many scholars would be prepared to describe the devil as a personification of evil in the second sense, the embodiment of the quality of evil in a person. For instance, historical theologian J.B. Russell writes, "The Devil is the personification of the principle of evil", which sounds very Christadelphian, but he adds that the devil is "sentient", and "willing and directing evil."This shows that he has the second meaning in mind.

In light of their use of the title "the Evil One" it is plausible that the New Testament writers viewed the devil as the personification of evil in this second sense. However, when Christadelphians say that the devil is the personification of evil, they have the first meaning in mind. The devil is not really a person but an abstract idea: fallen human nature or (to put it in a more Jewish way) the yetzer hara, the evil impulse in man. Personal characteristics are attributed to this impersonal idea as a literary device. (Some Christadelphians might nuance this definition by saying that the devil is not simply another word for the yetzer hara, but specifically a term for the personified yetzer hara).

In the next few blogs I want to highlight some reasons why I think this view of the devil as merely a literary device is unsound. The first reason is what I call constant personification. According to the first Christadelphian explanation above, the devil is actually an abstract idea; an 'it'. If this were the case, it would not be surprising to find that the devil were occasionally personified in the New Testament; after all, the word 'sin' is also personified in Scripture (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16; 7:9-13; James 1:15). How do we know that 'sin' is personified, rather than actually being a person? The answer is that there are plenty of other passages which clearly identify sin as an abstract idea. For instance, sin is defined as 'lawlessness' in 1 John 3:4. Even in the contexts in which sin is personified, it is also treated as impersonal: in John 8:34 and James 2:9 sin is "committed", which makes no sense if sin is a person. Paul in Romans refers to sin being "reckoned" (Rom. 5:13), and "increasing" in juxtaposition with grace (Rom. 5:20), which again shows he did not literally see sin as a person.

We find the same with other things and ideas which are personified in Scripture. Wisdom, wine, Jerusalem, death and wealth are all personified in the Bible, but there are plenty of other passages which treat them as impersonal, which is why no one views any of these entities as actual persons.

Similarly, if the New Testament writers actually saw Satan/the devil as an abstract idea, it would not be surprising for them to personify this idea on occasion. However, we would expect to find other passages which clearly express that Satan/the devil is an impersonal entity. In fact, there is not a single such passage in the New Testament. While there are some texts in which it is possible to take the devil/Satan as an impersonal entity, there is not a single text in which it is grammatically or contextually necessary to do so.

The devil/Satan is referred to in personal terms constantly, across the different genres and authors within the New Testament. The titles themselves are personal, meaning 'the slanderous one' and 'the adversary'. As the subject of verbs the devil/Satan is depicted as coming and going, speaking, tempting, taking away, murdering, lying, putting ideas in people's hearts, oppressing, scheming, capturing, working, disputing, throwing into prison, deceiving, binding, demanding, entering into people, destroying, outwitting, disguising himself, harassing, hindering, leading astray and dwelling.

As the object of verbs he receives opportunities, is condemned, destroyed, cast out, seized, bound, released, tormented, he falls from heaven, is crushed, and has people delivered to him. His other attributes include having angels, having messengers, having children and being a father, having a self, having a will, having power, having wrath, having designs, setting traps, having operations, having a throne, and having a synagogue.

Where is the evidence that the New Testament writers regarded the devil/Satan as an impersonal entity? If there is none, the only way one could possibly claim that they regarded the devil/Satan as impersonal is if it could be proven from sources outside the New Testament that first century Christian readers from a Jewish background could be expected to know that the devil/Satan was an impersonal entity.

In fact, the available evidence points in the opposite direction. sathan (diabolos in the Septuagint) always refers to personal beings in the Old Testament, and as the Second Temple period progressed, the concept underwent considerable development. Although the Jewish idea of Satan remained diverse, it is clear that by the end of the intertestamental period, Satan was widely believed to be a specific angelic being.3

However, there was also a current of Jewish thought in the intertestamental period which denied or at least marginalized Satan's personal existence. Sacchi summarizes these two competing notions as follows:
"The figure of the devil is presented in Second Temple Judaism with two basic aspects. 1) The devil can be the principle of evil and explains its origin, its arche, but is no longer active. 2) The devil can be understood, on the contrary, as a will continuously active in history, rebelling against God and harmful to humans...The formation of this way of understanding the devil was favored by the existence, attested only in canonical texts, of an angel of God called 'satan' because of its function."4
Instances of the first view cited by Sacchi include Sirach and the epistle of Enoch, both dated to the second century BC. Sacchi translates Sirach 21:27 thus: 'When the impious curses the satan, he only curses himself'. He comments, "For Sirach, therefore, the devil does not exist: Satan is only a metaphor to indicate our worst instincts."5 The epistle of Enoch (now part of 1 Enoch) affirms human responsibility for sin while omitting any reference to Satan, which for Sacchi indicates a conscious effort to eliminate Satan.6

Writings of Second Temple Judaism which affirm the second view, i.e. the existence of a personal Satan/devil, include the Book of Dreams (now part of 1 Enoch), Wisdom of Solomon, Book of Jubilees, Testament of Moses, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Apocalypse of Abraham and Testament of Job (note that some of these may post-date part or all of the New Testament).

The first view came to dominate post-70 AD Rabbinic Judaism; as Sacchi notes, "in Jewish writings at the end of the first century the devil suddenly disappears".7

Thus, it is apparent that much diversity and debate existed about the nature and existence of Satan in Judaism leading up to and during the apostolic period. It is widely accepted by scholars that the New Testament writers were heavily influenced by apocalyptic Judaism. A typical statement is Branden's: "The influence of apocalyptic eschatology on the New Testament is clear."8 Thus the writers of the New Testament and their Jewish readers were almost certainly aware of the different viewpoints. In view of this, the question we must ask is, which side of the fence were the New Testament writers on: metaphorical Satan or personal Satan?

This is where the constant personal language hits home. In the absence of explicit indications otherwise, personal language about Satan/the devil in the New Testament would have most naturally been read as referring to a personal being. The writers would have known this, and thus, had they intended to convey that Satan/the devil was not a person, they would surely have said so to avoid misleading their readers.

Said another way, it is very unlikely that the New Testament writers would have used the literary device of personification, without qualification, to liken Satan to the very kind of external personal being whose existence they rejected! In view of this, the only plausible explanation for the constant, unqualified personal language about the devil/Satan in the New Testament is that its writers held the devil/Satan to be a personal being.

1 Bultmann, R. 1951. Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1. Baylor University Press, pp. 257-259. 
2 Russell, J.B. 1987. Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Cornell University Press, p. 23.
3 See summary of intertestamental views in Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., and Bromiley, G., eds. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1. Eerdmans, p. 151.
4 Sacchi, P. 1996. Jewish Apocalyptic and its History. Continuum, p. 211.
5 Sacchi, P. op. cit., p. 223.
6 Sacchi, P. op. cit., p. 114.
7 Sacchi, P. op. cit., p. 231.
8 Branden, R.C. 2006. Satanic Conflict and the Plot of Matthew. Peter Lang, p. 17.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

I have decided to know nothing

In Paul's first epistle to the church at Corinth, the apostle made the following astounding statement:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. (1 Cor. 2:1-3 NRSV)
Why do I say these words are astounding? There are two main reasons. The first concerns the preaching of a crucified Saviour. Earlier in the epistle, Paul had described the message of the cross as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. The Jews did not expect that the Messiah would die, and their Law stated that "anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse" (Deut. 21:23). Likewise, it was foolishness to the Roman world to teach that a crucified man had more honour than Caesar. Crucifixion was reserved mainly for slaves and vile criminals, with slaves were sometimes sarcastically referred to as cross bearers. The famous Roman lawyer Cicero argued that no Roman citizen should be crucified (F.T. Zugibe, The Crucifixion of Jesus, p. 55). L.L. Welborn writes, "The cultured elite of the Roman world wanted nothing to do with crucifixion, and as a rule kept silent about it" (Paul, the Fool of Christ, p. 131).

Yet Paul and the other Christians did anything but keep silent about it; they went around proclaiming Jesus Christ, and him crucified! From the point of view of contemporary human wisdom, this gospel was offensive and nonsensical. Nevertheless, instead of trying to cover up the fact of the cross, the early church made it central to their message of redemption. John used extreme irony by teaching that in the very act of being "lifted up" on the cross, Jesus was "lifted up" in the sense of being exalted (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34 cf. Isa. 52:13).

It was integral to the purpose of God that the message of salvation should not be plausible and tolerable from the standpoint of human wisdom, but should be implausible and offensive. This was so that God might be glorified and no human might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:29). This brings us to the second astounding statement Paul made in this text: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ."

When we as Christians preach, teach, debate and discuss, more often than not we aim to convince others that we are wise, that we understand the Scriptures, that we have all the answers. Paul was a brilliant and well-educated man (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:4-6). He could have taken this approach and excelled at it. Instead, he pruned the gospel down to its bare essentials: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul used his Spirit-filled erudition, not to impress his readers with elaborate doctrines, but to preach the gospel in all its simplicity and all its power. He did the same in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. These letters are theological masterpieces with weighty methods of argumentation, but their aim was very simple: to show that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ.

Now I personally enjoy studying the Bible. I love delving deeply into the richness of the divine mysteries revealed in this book. However, I often need to remind myself that "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1b). In seeking to unlock these mysteries we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, like Paul did. In the first ten verses of 1 Corinthians Paul referred to Jesus Christ by name ten times! For him, it really was all about Jesus. Biblical exposition and theology is vain if it leads its audience away from the cross of Christ rather than towards it.

And so, to Christians of any stripe with whom I have had disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture, I pose this question: can we lay aside our differences and decide to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified?

Tuesday 5 November 2013

The Statistics of Satan

Two Christadelphian friends with whom I have discussed the biblical doctrine of the devil and Satan (Jonathan Burke and Kenneth Gilmore) recently made a surprising claim to me in correspondence. They hold that within the New Testament one observes the marginalization of the terms ‘devil’ (Greek: diabolos) and ‘Satan’ (Greek: satanas). More specifically, they maintain that these terms are prominent in books written for preaching purposes but virtually disappear in the rest of the New Testament which was written for mature Christians. (The same assertion was made regarding demons, but we will not discuss that here). Burke listed Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts as the books written for preaching purposes while Gilmore included all four Gospels and Acts.

Gilmore produced the bar graph below in support of his claim:

It was pointed out to great effect that nine [sic] New Testament books contain no reference to the devil or Satan.

Now, as a professional statistician I was immediately skeptical of the conclusions being drawn from these figures. My suspicion was that the variations seen in the graph above could be largely explained on the basis of variations in word count. After all, the Gospels and Acts are long books, comprising over 60% of the New Testament by word count. Thus, if references to the devil/Satan were distributed uniformly across the New Testament, we would expect about 60% of these references to be in the Gospels and Acts. If the devil/Satan receives relatively more attention in these books than in other books, we would expect them to contain well over 60% of the occurrences of the words diabolos and satanas. In fact, they contain just under 50%.

I drew Kenneth Gilmore's attention to these figures, but he held steadfastly to his theory, so I decided that a more thorough analysis was in order, the results of which follow.


I first counted the number of occurrences of the Greek nouns diabolos (devil) and satanas (Satan) in each New Testament book. The New Testament totals are 32 and 33 respectively. These counts omit three plural uses of diabolos to describe gossipy women in the pastoral epistles (1 Tim. 3:11; 2 Tim. 3:3; Titus 2:3), in which diabolos functions as an adjective (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 224).

I also counted 15 references to the devil and Satan by other titles: "the god of this world" (2 Cor. 4:4), "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11); Beliar (2 Cor.6:14); "the ruler of the power of the air" (Eph. 2:2); and "the evil one" (Matt. 13:19; 13:38; John 17:15; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 John 2:13; 1John 2:14; 1 John 3:12; 1 John 5:18; 1 John 5:19). Some translations render "the evil one" in other passages (including the Lord's Prayer!) but I have limited myself to these nine instances which are unanimously so rendered in six translations I consulted (NRSV, ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV and NLT).

Titles for the devil/Satan which are in the immediate context of an explicit reference to the devil/Satan were not counted. By the method of counting described above, the total number of references to the devil/Satan in the New Testament is 81. However, only the words satanas and diabolos were included in my initial analysis in case anyone might contest that the other terms refer to the devil.

I considered other variables to use in a statistical model to assess the claims made by Burke and Gilmore. The first of these is the word count per New Testament book. These were taken from the Nestle-Aland Greek text, and ranged from a low of 219 (3 John) to a high of 19 482 (Luke). Obviously these figures would vary slightly if a different text were used. The second is a categorical variable, 'purpose', given a value of '1' if the book was written for preaching purposes (according to Burke's classification) and '0' if written for mature Christians. This will allow us to check for differences between these two groups of books. I also considered a second, more objective way of classifying the books: genre. In this case, books were classified as ‘narrative’ (Matthew-Acts), ‘epistles’ (Romans-Jude) or ‘apocalyptic’ (Revelation). In practice the classification is nearly the same as Burke’s; only John and Revelation would need reclassification.

The final variable is the most likely date of composition for each book. These dates were taken from this resource, which provides published sources for its estimates. Where the most likely date provided was a range of years, I used the midpoint of the range.


(Note: if you’re not mathematically inclined you may wish to skip down to the ‘Rate of Occurrence Graphs’ section).

The occurrences of words within a text are count data which would typically be modeled using the Poisson probability distribution. A Poisson regression model allows us to model the relationship between this dependent variable (the diabolos+satanas count) and certain predictor variables. The advantage to using such a statistical model is that it enables us to measure the effects of several different factors on the diabolos+satanas count simultaneously. This will help us determine whether the variations in counts in different New Testament books are a result of differing ‘purpose’ (as classified by Burke and Gilmore), or differing word counts, or both.

The general equation of the model is given below, where yi is the number of occurrences of the words diabolos and satanas in the ith book and the x variables are the independent variables (predictors).


I first considered a simplistic model where Burke’s ‘purpose’ classification is the only predictor. Estimating the model in SAS produced the following output:

Analysis Of Maximum Likelihood Parameter Estimates
Standard Error
Wald 95% Confidence Limits
Wald Chi-Square
Pr > ChiSq

To interpret the output of such a model the two key quantities to look at are the sign of the number in the ‘Estimate’ column and the value in the ‘Pr > ChiSq’ column, known as the p-value. If the ‘Estimate’ for a particular variable is positive, this indicates a positive relationship with the dependent variable (satanas+diabolos count). If the ‘Estimate’ is negative, this indicates a negative relationship. The p-value tells us whether the relationship is statistically significant. The most widely used ‘rule of thumb’ states that if the p-value is less than 0.05, the relationship is statistically significant. If the p-value is greater than 0.05, statistically speaking we cannot affirm that such a relationship exists as it is not strong enough relative to the standard error of the estimate.

Applying this to the table above, we observe that the coefficient of the ‘purpose’ variable is statistically significant since the p-value (< .0001) is less than 0.05. Since the sign of the estimate is positive, this means that the rate of occurrences of satanas+diabolos per book in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts is higher than in the rest of the New Testament. By taking e1.4705 we estimate that the rate is more than 4 times as much in these four books as in the rest of the New Testament. This is no surprise; it is basically the same information that is communicated visually in the bar graph above.

However, what happens in the model when we control for the differing lengths of New Testament books? To find out we add a second independent variable, log(word count). Because the total word counts per book are large numbers with a lot of variation, a better fit in the model is obtained by taking the natural logarithm.

Analysis Of Maximum Likelihood Parameter Estimates
Standard Error
Wald 95% Confidence Limits
Wald Chi-Square
Pr > ChiSq
ln(word count)

In the output above, we can see that log(word count) is significant (p-value < .0001), with a positive coefficient estimate. This indicates that as the length of a book increases, the number of occurrences of satanas and diabolos tends to increase (no surprise here!) Even more importantly, we see that the ‘purpose’ variable is no longer statistically significant (p-value = 0.8392). This means that once we control for word count, there is no longer any difference in the rate of occurrence of satanas and diabolos between these two categories of books. Indeed, if we add an interaction term to the model, it is also not significant (p-value = 0.9353). This implies that the rate at which satanas + diabolos occurrences increase with word count is the same in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts as in the rest of the New Testament.

Furthermore, by adding the log(word count) variable to the model, the AIC (a measure of goodness of fit which is smaller in a better model) reduces from 122.0 to 92.7, implying that our new model has much greater explanatory power.

I also ran the same model using Gilmore's way of classifying the books (which includes John in the 'preaching' group), and using my own way of classifying the books (according to three genres: narrative, epistles and apocalyptic). The conclusions are the same, except that the apocalyptic genre has a statistically significant positive effect on rate of occurrence of diabolos+satanas.

All of this draws us to the inevitable conclusion that the alleged marginalization of the devil/Satan in the non-preaching books of the New Testament is statistically unsustainable.

Date of Composition as a Predictor

What if we consider ‘Date of composition’ as a predictor variable in the model? If we consider a model with log(word count) and most likely date of composition as independent variables, the output is as follows:

Analysis Of Maximum Likelihood Parameter Estimates
Standard Error
Wald 95% Confidence Limits
Wald Chi-Square
Pr > ChiSq
ln(word count)

Here, we see that the date of composition has a positive sign which is not quite statistically significant (p-value = 0.07). This suggests that there is no significant change in rate of occurrence of satanas and diabolos as we move forward in time according to the composition of the books. If anything the rate increases slightly with time. This militates against any claim that the devil and Satan disappeared from the church’s vocabulary as time went on. (Burke and Gilmore have not made such a claim to my knowledge, but prevention is better than a cure).

Including other titles of Satan

Up to this point we excluded the other titles of Satan (the ruler of this world, the evil one, etc.) in case Christadelphians might object to these being called titles of Satan. However, since a strong case can be made that these are in fact titles of Satan, it is worth considering what effect their inclusion would have on our models.

In short, there are no major changes to the results except in the model which includes date of composition, where this variable’s coefficient is now statistically significant (p-value = 0.0009) and positive, suggesting that the rate of occurrence of references to the devil/Satan actually increase over the period of composition of the New Testament (assuming the dates accepted by scholarly consensus are accurate). This result is probably due to the inclusion of five references to ‘the evil one’ in 1 John, one of the latest books in the New Testament.

Rate of Occurrence Graphs

Graphs are often easier to understand than the output of sophisticated statistical models. Thus, having established statistically that the effect of book purpose or genre falls away once word count is taken into account, it would be useful to show this graphically. The bar graphs below are similar to Gilmore’s, but instead of showing only the counts of satanas + diabolos, they show the rates, calculated by dividing the satanas + diabolos count by the total word count of each book.
The main observation to be made about this graph is that there is no clear pattern as we look at different portions of the New Testament. It would be an oversimplification to conclude that the different rates of occurrence across different books and writers reflect different emphases on the doctrine of Satan. The frequency of references to Satan is governed by the broader purpose and themes of each book. Nevertheless, we see that Satan is mentioned fairly consistently across the New Testament. 1 John (written c. 95 AD for mature Christians) has the highest rate in the whole New Testament, and 1 Timothy (written to a Christian leader) has the highest rate when terms other than satanas and diabolos are excluded.

This rules out the idea that Satan/the devil are marginalized either as we move forward in time or as we move from ‘preaching’ books to books for ‘mature Christians’ as defined by Burke and Gilmore.

We can note further that every single New Testament writer makes mention of the devil/Satan at least once with the possible exception of the writer of 2 Peter (if we accept the critical consensus that it was not written by Peter). If Colossians was not written by Paul or by the writer of Ephesians or 2 Thessalonians, then this writer would be another exception. Those writers who do refer to the devil or Satan are Matthew, Mark, Luke (the presumed writer of Luke and Acts), John the Evangelist (writer of the Fourth Gospel and Johannine epistles), Paul, the writer(s) of the deutero-Pauline epistles if different from Paul (namely, Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians), the Pastor if different from Paul, the writer of Hebrews, James, Peter, Jude, and John the Seer (again, if we follow critical scholarship in attributing Revelation to a different author than the Gospel and epistles of John). A graph showing the rate of occurrences by author appears below:

Again, the main thing to be noted is the absence of any clear trend. Apart from the anomalies of Jude and the writer of 2 Peter (which mean little in view of their small volumes of writings), the rate of occurrence is remarkably consistent across all writers.

Books which do not mention Satan

As mentioned at the beginning, Burke and Gilmore would draw our attention to the fact that nine New Testament books omit any mention of the devil or Satan.[1] In fact, the number is eight as they have wrongly included 2 Thessalonians in the list (2 Thess. 2:9; cf. also 2 Thess. 3:3). Is this problematic for the importance of the devil in first century Christian theology?

By way of comparison, a quick search shows there are ten New Testament books in which the word basileia (kingdom) does not occur.[2] There are also nine New Testament books in which neither the word anastasis (resurrection) nor the verbs anistemi or egeiro (rise; raise up) occurs.[3] I doubt that Burke or Gilmore would claim that this proves the kingdom of God and the resurrection are marginalized within the New Testament.

Among the books in all three lists are four of the five shortest books of the New Testament (Titus, Philemon, 2 John and 3 John), which have word counts of 659, 335, 245 and 219. This is again the word count effect: a shorter book has less content in which a reference to Satan might arise. The other four books are all epistles which fall under ‘task theology’, addressing specific situations faced by the original audience. Indeed, most of the New Testament is like this; it was not written as a purely theological endeavour. Thus, the fact that 18 of the 22 New Testament books which are longer than 700 words mention Satan demonstrates that Satan was a highly relevant topic throughout the apostolic age.


We can stress again that 1 John and Revelation, two of the final books to be written according to most scholars, have among the highest rate of references to the devil/Satan. Furthermore, two books stress the importance of the devil to the redemptive work of Christ, both of which were written to mature Christians (Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8).

In conclusion, the evidence does not support the claim that the devil/Satan is marginalized within any subset of New Testament books. While far from the most important doctrine of the early church, ‘satanology’ played a consistent supporting role as the New Testament writers sought to proclaim the gospel and teach and encourage Christian believers in the face of moral and doctrinal challenges within and persecution without.  Satan is referred to repeatedly in narrative, the teachings of Jesus, pastoral advice in the epistles, and the Apocalypse.

[1] Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Titus, Philemon, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John
[2] 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude
[3] 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude