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.
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 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.
Data
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 NestleAland 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’ (MatthewActs), ‘epistles’
(RomansJude) 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.
Model
(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 y_{i} is the
number of occurrences of the words diabolos
and satanas in the i^{th} book and the x variables are the independent
variables (predictors).
Results
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


Parameter

DF

Estimate

Standard Error

Wald 95% Confidence Limits

Wald ChiSquare

Pr > ChiSq


Intercept

1

0.4754

0.1644

0.1532

0.7976

8.36

0.0038

preachingpurposes

1

1.4705

0.2505

0.9796

1.9614

34.46

<.0001

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 pvalue. 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
pvalue tells us whether the relationship is statistically significant. The
most widely used ‘rule of thumb’ states that if the pvalue is less than 0.05,
the relationship is statistically significant. If the pvalue 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 pvalue (< .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
e^{1.4705} 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


Parameter

DF

Estimate

Standard Error

Wald 95% Confidence Limits

Wald ChiSquare

Pr > ChiSq


Intercept

1

6.4054

1.3975

9.1444

3.6663

21.01

<.0001

ln(word count)

1

0.8650

0.1646

0.5423

1.1877

27.60

<.0001

preachingpurposes

1

0.0673

0.3317

0.7174

0.5828

0.04

0.8392

In the output above, we can see that log(word
count) is significant (pvalue < .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 (pvalue = 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 (pvalue = 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.
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 nonpreaching 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


Parameter

DF

Estimate

Standard Error

Wald 95% Confidence Limits

Wald ChiSquare

Pr > ChiSq


Intercept

1

6.9092

1.1667

9.1958

4.6226

35.07

<.0001

ln(word count)

1

0.8131

0.1229

0.5722

1.0541

43.75

<.0001

likely_date

1

0.0138

0.0075

0.0010

0.0285

3.33

0.0679

Here, we see that the date of composition
has a positive sign which is not quite statistically significant (pvalue =
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 (pvalue = 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 deuteroPauline 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.
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.
Conclusion
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
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