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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

Saturday 2 November 2013

Were 2 Peter and Jude written to oppose the teachings of 1 Enoch?

This is the last installment of a three part series assessing the relationship between the New Testament books of 2 Peter and Jude and the Jewish pseudepigraphic work known as 1 Enoch or the Book of Enoch.

In his pamphlet The Angels that Sinned: Slandering Celestial Beings, Christadelphian writer Steven Cox claims that the main reason why 2 Peter and Jude were written was to denounce teachings from 1 Enoch. Noting the admonition, "Pay no attention to Jewish myths" (Titus 1:14) in another letter by a different author, Cox argues that "Peter and Jude wrote their letters to combat false teachers teaching (as one of these myths) the Book of Enoch" (part 2, final paragraph). The teaching from 1 Enoch that 2 Peter and Jude allegedly sought to refute was that fallen angels existed, or more specifically, "that angels rebelled, descended to earth and fathered demons" (part 3, subsection 7).

If you have read the two previous posts in this series, you will immediately detect two serious problems with Cox's view. In the first post we saw that 2 Peter and Jude both allude to an angelic rebellion as a real historical event, and do so in language borrowed from 1 Enoch. This does not imply that they endorsed every element of the Enochic account but it is certainly inconsistent with the notion that they sought to completely denounce it.

Additionally, in the second post we observed that Jude quoted from 1 Enoch, described the quotation as prophecy and attributed it to the historical person Enoch from Genesis 5. This too is wholly inconsistent with the idea that Jude was deprecating the contents of 1 Enoch as false myths. Cox himself acknowledges that "there are as many as 30 references to the Book of Enoch in 2 Peter and Jude" (part 2, subsection 3).

Introductory Description of the False Teachers

We now turn our attention to other evidence that Cox points to in support of his view of 2 Peter and Jude. Before doing so we ought to point out that, while it is obvious that 2 Peter and Jude were writing polemic against false teachers, no commentator (ancient or modern) that I know of, prior to Cox, has ever understood the contents of 1 Enoch to be the object of their invective.

Let us first examine the way in which 2 Peter and Jude introduce their main theme, namely the presence of false teachers in the church:
"But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words." (2 Peter 2:1-3 NRSV) 
"Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ." (Jude 1:3-4 NRSV)
Based on the above, we could summarize the main allegations against the false teachers as follows:
  • They brought in destructive opinions (haeresis) and deceptive words (plastois logois, literally moulded words or words of clay)
  • These words perverted the grace of God, leading to licentious behaviour
  • Through their words or conduct they denied their Master, Jesus Christ
  • There is also a hint that the false teachers were somehow profiting financially from their misconduct ("in their greed they will exploit you", cp. Jude 1:11)
Steven Cox does not mention which Bible version he quotes from, but he renders plastois logois in 2 Pet. 2:3 as "stories they have made up". The NIV also renders along these lines ("fabricated stories"), but most translations render this expression more literally as "words". The Greek certainly does not imply that these were Jewish myths; the word mythos is not used as in Titus 1:14. Thus far, we have no positive evidence to link the false teachers to 1 Enoch or anything similar.

Slandering the Glorious Ones

We next proceed to the main evidence offered in favour of Cox's view, in 2 Pet. 2:10-11/Jude 8-9:
"...the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment —especially those who indulge their flesh in depraved lust, and who despise authority. Bold and willful, they are not afraid to slander the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not bring against them a slanderous judgment from the Lord...They slander what they do not understand" (2 Peter 2:9-11, 12c NRSV)
"Yet in the same way these dreamers also defile the flesh, reject authority, and slander the glorious ones. But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” But these people slander whatever they do not understand" (Jude 1:8-10a NRSV)
The key phrase in these two parallel passages is "slander the glorious ones." According to Cox, this indicates that the false teachers defamed the angels of God by declaring (following 1 Enoch) that there were angels who had sinned.

Now, there is considerable debate among scholars as to the exact meaning of "slander the glorious ones" here. Donelson notes in his commentary on 2 Peter and Jude (p. 250ff) the three views which have gained the most support through history. The traditional view, which now has very little support, was that the "glorious ones" were human beings in authority, either within the church or outside. However, it is difficult to conceive of "glorious ones" referring to human beings in the present age, and this term is used of angels in 2 Enoch 22:7 (a work usually dated to the first century AD, but not to be confused with 1 Enoch).

Most recent commentators are agreed that "the glorious ones" are angelic beings. Some, such as Bauckham and Witherington, view "the glorious ones" as evil cosmic powers. Witherington describes his interpretation of "slander the glorious ones" thus:
"In view of the background in Jude, this likely means that they were deriding or dismissing the dangers of the devil or demons; ‘the glorious ones’ thus is a reference to fallen angels. This is a quite vague allusion to Jude’s citation of 1 Enoch, but presumably the audience understands our author’s drift. Second Peter 2:11 then follows Jude 9, suggesting in a more general way that even the good angels had a healthy respect for the powers of darkness, even though they had more power and might than these dark powers…These good angels do pronounce judgment on the bad, but do not use invective or insults in the process." (Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Volume 2, p. 356)
Other commentators (Green; Knight) understand "the glorious ones" to refer to holy angels. Knight's interpretation is typical of this view:
"A variety of interpretations has been proposed to explain this phrase but the one which seems most likely is a view of the angels as guardians of the law and of the created order. This view of the angels was common in early Christianity, as we know from Gal. 3:19 and Heb. 2:2, and behaviour which went against the Torah might easily have been construed as slander of its guardians...On this interpretation the teachers' slander of the angels must have lain in their refusal to accept moral standards, undoubtedly those enshrined in the Jewish Law, which they contravened (and encouraged others to contravene) through their belief that licence was permissible" (Jonathan Knight, 2 Peter and Jude, p. 45)
It is not easy to decide between these two viewpoints. Knight's seems more likely based on the fact that there is nothing in the phrase that explicitly describes "the glorious ones" as evil or fallen. It also agrees well with the context in which licentiousness or antinomianism was one of the false teachers' main vices. However, Witherington's viewpoint is difficult to rule out in light of Jude's supporting argument involving Michael and the devil.

The Dispute between Michael and the Devil over Moses' Body

The allusion in Jude 1:9 is puzzling as it refers to an episode nowhere described in the Old Testament. However, Clement and two other early Christian writers from Alexandria (Origen and Didymus) asserted that Jude was alluding to an apocryphal work called the Assumption of Moses. Most modern scholars believe Jude was alluding either to this or another apocryphal work called the Testament of Moses, the ending of which is lost. Richard Bauckham attempted to reconstruct the story in his book Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church. The hypothesized account is described thus by Knight:
"After Moses’ death, God sent Michael to remove his body for burial. The devil opposed this and denied that Moses could receive a decent burial because he had killed the Egyptian in the way recorded by Exod. 2:12. The devil then brought a charge of murder against Moses but this was simply slander and Michael rebuffed him by saying, ‘the Lord rebuke you!’ The devil then departed and Michael buried the body in the secret place described by Deut. 34:6" (Knight, Ibid., pp. 45-46)
There is likely some literary dependence between this account and Zechariah 3:1-2, which also features a dispute involving "the satan" (ho diabolos in the Septuagint) and an angel, in which the satan is told, "The Lord rebuke you!" Most scholars are agreed that "the satan" is an angel in this text. Jude's argument thus runs like this: if even Michael the archangel was not prepared to curse the devil, the very prince of evil, but deferred to the Lord's judgment, how much more should mere human beings refrain from cursing fallen angels?

Of course, this argument is also consistent with the "holy angels" interpretation of the glorious ones; Jude could be saying, if even Michael the archangel was not prepared to curse the devil, the very prince of evil, but deferred to the Lord's judgment, how much more should mere human beings refrain from cursing holy angels?

In summary, both of these interpretations are plausible but the "holy angels" one seems more likely to me. Either way, Jude's version of this argument depends on the premise that the devil exists as a personal angelic being. It could be in this case that Jude's allusion is merely hypothetical, but he could hardly make such an allusion if he believed the very idea of a fallen angel to be heretical!

Hence, we may infer from 2 Pet. 2:10-11 and Jude 1:8-9 that the false teachers were in some way slandering angels, and their opposition to moral commandments originating in the Law of Moses may help to explain how. There is no evidence that "slander the glorious ones" refers to a belief in the existence of fallen angels (a belief which 2 Peter and Jude had already endorsed!)

Do angels slander one another in 1 Enoch?

One of the claims made by Cox is that the book of 1 Enoch contains the kind of slander of glorious ones that Jude and 2 Peter identify in the false teachers. With reference to 1 Enoch 9:1-10 Cox writes, "Thus according to Enoch it was Michael and three other archangels, who accused Shemihazah and Azazel, but according to Peter angels (specifically Michael, Uriel, Raphael and Gabriel) 'do not bring slanderous accusations against such beings in the presence of the Lord'."

This portion of 1 Enoch (as translated by R.H. Charles) reads as follows:
"1 And then Michael, Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel looked down from heaven and saw much blood being 2 shed upon the earth, and all lawlessness being wrought upon the earth. And they said one to another: 'The earth made without inhabitant cries the voice of their cryingst up to the gates of heaven. 3 And now to you, the holy ones of heaven, the souls of men make their suit, saying, "Bring our cause 4 before the Most High."' And they said to the Lord of the ages: 'Lord of lords, God of gods, King of kings, and God of the ages, the throne of Thy glory (standeth) unto all the generations of the 5 ages, and Thy name holy and glorious and blessed unto all the ages! Thou hast made all things, and power over all things hast Thou: and all things are naked and open in Thy sight, and Thou seest all 6 things, and nothing can hide itself from Thee. Thou seest what Azazel hath done...11 And Thou knowest all things before they come to pass, and Thou seest these things and Thou dost suffer them, and Thou dost not say to us what we are to do to them in regard to these.'"
As can be seen, the good angels in 1 Enoch 9 bring the cause of mankind and the sins of the angels before the Most High. They acknowledge his majesty and eternal power and ask him for a ruling concerning the sinful angels. Their conduct is comparable to Michael's in the dispute with the devil, when he said "The Lord rebuke you!" In both cases angels are deferring judgment to God rather than pronouncing judgment themselves. Thus in 1 Enoch 9 the holy angels do not bring slanderous accusations against the rebellious angels, and we observe harmony rather than disharmony between 1 Enoch, Jude and 2 Peter on this point.

Denying the Lord

We noted earlier that denying the Master and Lord, Jesus Christ was one of the main vices of the false teachers according to 2 Peter and Jude. Although 1 Enoch is a Jewish work and thus does not explicitly refer to Christ, wicked men denying the Lord is also a prominent theme in this book: "mine eyes saw there all the sinners being driven from thence which deny the name of the Lord of Spirits" (1 Enoch 41:2; cp. 45:1, 46:7; 67:11). Once again, rather than containing the teachings opposed by Jude and 2 Peter, the three books are united in warning against those who deny the Lord.

Coming Judgment

A prominent theme in 2 Peter is the coming day of judgment, which false teachers scoff at (cf. 2 Peter 3:3-7). Jude also warns of the coming judgment in 1:14-15 (his quotation from 1 Enoch!) The impending final judgment, and the foolish attitude of the ungodly in relation to it, is also a major theme in 1 Enoch. For instance:
"And when the day, and the power, and the punishment, and the judgement come, which the Lord of Spirits hath prepared for those who worship not the righteous law, and for those who deny the righteous judgement, and for those who take His name in vain-that day is prepared, for the elect a covenant, but for sinners an inquisition." (1 Enoch 60:6)
In fact, the word 'judgement' or 'judgements' occurs 79 times in 1 Enoch, and the "day of judgement" is referred to six times (22:11; 22:13; 81:4; 84:4; 97:3; 100:4). Thus 2 Peter could hardly have had students of 1 Enoch in mind when he warned that the false teachers would ask, "Where is the promise of his coming?"


Finally, both 2 Peter and Jude describe the false teachers as licentious, and 2 Peter calls them "lawless" (2 Peter 3:17). Calls to holiness and warnings against the lawless are again a major theme in 1 Enoch; its author(s) could not possibly be accused of licentiousness. Consider the following:
"The words of the blessing of Enoch, wherewith he blessed the elect and righteous, who will be living in the day of tribulation, when all the wicked and godless are to be removed." (1 Enoch 1:1-2)
"And their hands commit lawless deeds, And the sinners devour all whom they lawlessly oppress: Yet the sinners shall be destroyed before the face of the Lord of Spirits, And they shall be banished from off the face of His earth, And they shall perish for ever and ever." (1 Enoch 53:2) 
"Woe to you who work godlessness, And glory in lying and extol them: Ye shall perish, and no happy life shall be yours. Woe to them who pervert the words of uprightness, And transgress the eternal law, And transform themselves into what they were not [into sinners]: They shall be trodden under foot upon the earth." (1 Enoch 99:1-2) 
"Another book which Enoch wrote for his son Methuselah and for those who will come after him, and keep the law in the last days. Ye who have done good shall wait for those days till an end is made of those who work evil; and an end of the might of the transgressors." (1 Enoch 108:1-2)

In summary, we have found no positive evidence that 2 Peter and Jude were written to oppose the teachings of 1 Enoch. Much the opposite! 2 Peter and Jude contain many allusions to 1 Enoch and even one quotation in Jude's case. There is nothing incompatible between the message of 2 Peter/Jude and the view of angels found in 1 Enoch. Moreover, we find a great deal of thematic harmony between 1 Enoch and 2 Peter/Jude. 1 Enoch calls for the righteous to persevere in their walk with the Lord and not to give heed to ungodly men who walk in lawlessness and deny the Lord. The ungodly will be punished in the day of judgment, while the righteous will be rewarded. This is very similar to the message of 2 Peter and Jude, and this similarity is the most likely reason why 2 Peter and Jude contain so many allusions to 1 Enoch.

The overall purpose of this series has not been to put 1 Enoch on a pedestal. The consensus of the early church was that it is a non-canonical book, and this decision is binding upon all who, like myself, view the church fathers' deliberations on the canon as divinely mandated and authoritative.

The purpose has simply been to refute the novel but unsound interpretations of Steven Cox, according to whom 2 Peter and Jude have been totally misunderstood by nearly all their readers for the past 19 centuries. For all that has been written, our conclusion is very simple: 2 Peter and Jude teach exactly what they appear to teach. There is no hidden, ironic message behind their plain words.