dianoigo blog

Monday, 15 February 2021

The Burke-Buzzard Devil Debate

I watched with interest the recent online debate on the topic, Are Satan & Demons Personal Beings? between Sir Anthony Buzzard (Restoration Fellowship) and Jonathan Burke (Christadelphian). The topic has been a primary interest of mine over the past two decades—largely due to my Christadelphian background—and the question itself is one on which I have changed my mind (from 'No' to 'Yes') during that period. Sir Anthony (henceforth AB) has been an important influence, as it was his essay, Satan, the Personal Devil that led me to first think critically about the Christadelphian view that I had hitherto been taught. Jonathan (henceforth JB) has been an interlocutor of mine over the years, mainly in online correspondence, Facebook discussions, and blog articles, but also in a published exchange in the journal Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok.1

In this article I am not going to give an exhaustive commentary on the debate, but offer some impressions based on notes I jotted down while watching the debate live. First, I must heartily commend the participants—the moderator, Tracy (whose surname is unfortunately unknown to me), and the two debaters—for a civil and amicable discussion. It was, in fact, a model of decorum: no interrupting, talking over each other, snide remarks, bickering, etc. Both debaters expressed their personal respect for the other and emphasised the common ground they hold on other theological topics (being both unitarian restorationists).

The format of the debate consisted of a brief opening statement from each side, followed by a 40-minute discussion where the two debaters would ask each other questions, followed by a brief closing statement from each side, and lastly a Q&A session where the moderator pulled up audience questions from the chat. Before getting into the content, a comment on the big picture. The question, "Are Satan & Demons Personal Beings?" is a theological one; it was not phrased at a purely exegetical level (such as, "Does the Bible Portray Satan & Demons as Personal Beings?") Nevertheless, the content of the debate was largely exegetical. AB had almost nothing to say about the theological significance of his "Yes" answer, even when pressed by JB. For his part, JB commented briefly on what he sees as some theological and ethical problems with the "Yes" view. Given that personhood is a complex philosophical concept, and that the term "personal beings" (as we moderns understand it) does not occur in Scripture, one might have expected both sides to offer, or better yet agree on, a definition of "personal beings" up front.2 Otherwise, how do we know both sides are answering the same question?

Opening Statements

In JB's opening statement, he begins by appealing for "hermeneutical consistency." What he means is that, given the unitarian belief system shared by both sides, biblical texts about Satan and demons should be interpreted in a way consistent with how unitarians interpret challenging texts on other topics, such as Christology and hell. (This is, of course, problematic for audience members who do not share the unitarian belief system, but perhaps I was the only viewer who faced that problem.) JB poses the rhetorical question whether a unitarian belief system is compatible with an "autonomously powerful evil Satan," or whether such a being would be tantamount to a second god. This challenge extends equally to Christian orthodoxy, in that an "autonomously powerful evil Satan" would equally undermine classical Trinitarian monotheism. The answer to the conundrum, of course, is that the Church does not teach, and has never taught, that Satan is "autonomously powerful." The Church has always taught that Satan is a mere creature, specifically an angel, who therefore exercises no more power than God allows him.3 Since this is also AB's well-known position, JB's opening salvo amounts to a strawman. To his credit, toward the end of the debate, JB batted down another caricature of classical Christian doctrine on the Devil, when he objected to a Q&A question suggesting that belief in the Devil could be used to excuse any sin, per "the Devil made me do it."

The rest of JB's opening statement focused on issues of "socio-cultural context," "scholarly literature," and "New Testament satan & demons." He asserted the need for consistency of interpretation across both testaments, and stated that in the Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish literature, terms like satanas/satan are used of the inclination to sin, an obedient angel, and as a common noun, while diabolos is used as a common noun and of humans, and other terms such as 'the evil one' and 'the tempter' do not occur at all. He makes the factually incorrect assertion that diabolos always occurs with the article.4

Turning to scholarship, JB claims that scholars have abandoned the idea that Satan and demons appear in the OT, claims that scholars propose various perspectives on Jesus' wilderness temptation (whether a visionary experience, symbolic description, dramatisation, or personal temptation), and claims that scholars say Jesus didn't share his contemporaries' belief in demons. This is not the place to engage at length with JB's citations; interested readers can refer to some of my writings for comprehensive engagement with scholarly literature on this subject. However, given that the scholarly literature is an area where much of the audience probably had little knowledge, it was JB's duty to mention the weight of scholarly opinion both for and against his own positions. Instead, he cited only literature that agreed with him, leaving the audience with a skewed idea of scholarly opinion. I will just comment on one instance. On a slide on "Jesus' Views," JB cites only one source (in contrast to the previous slide, which had cited about a dozen). The slide leaves the audience with the impression that JB's ideas about Jesus' views on demonology are well-supported in scholarship. In fact, not only is the opposite true,5 but the source JB cites here (Ferngren) disagrees markedly with his position.6

JB concludes his opening statement with a brief survey of New Testament passages on the Satan and demons. He focuses on a few texts that he believes are problematic for a personal view of the Satan, such as Matthew 16:23, Acts 5:3-4, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:20, and 2 Corinthians 12:7. In fact, none of these texts are inconsistent with a personal view of the Satan.7 JB makes much of the absence of exorcisms in the Gospel of John,8 offering an argument from silence.

In AB's opening statement, he emphasises that JB concedes that satan in the OT is external, not internal, which he regards as an important concession. He stresses the significance of the definite article in New Testament usage of the terms diabolos and satanas (the Devil and the Satan, not merely a devil or a satan). He argues that proserchomai ("to come to") is an "astonishingly clear" word in Matthew 4:3, indicating the externality of the encounter between Jesus and the Devil. He helpfully draws a contrast between this narrative and Luke 12:19, where the rich fool really does have a conversation with himself, and this is clear from the text. He also contrasts the Satan and demons, which are consistently addressed as persons, with biblical usage of personification, such as for Wisdom. He asserts that Satan/Devil is the personal name of a personal evil being. AB—rightly in my view—criticises JB's claim that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written for uninformed novice Christians and John for more mature believers who could handle the full truth that demons do not exist.9 AB also criticises JB for adducing a lot of extra-biblical quotations. On this point, I would side with JB, as the latter is not quoting these texts as authoritative but in order to describe the historical context, the thought-world, from which the New Testament emanates, which is very helpful for correctly interpreting the meaning of New Testament terminology. The problem is that I do not think JB paints an accurate picture of Second Temple Jewish thought from the texts he quotes.10

Direct Discussion

The direct discussion proceeded. It was not entirely clear to me whether the format was that the two debaters would take turn asking each other questions, or each had a certain time allocation to ask the other a battery of questions. Either way, it seemed to me as though AB asked a lot more questions of JB than the other way around. The first questions concerned the presence or absence of the yetzer hara ("evil inclination") concept in the Old and New Testaments (since JB identifies the Devil in the wilderness temptation narratives as the yetzer hara operating within Jesus). AB pressed JB for an explicit equation of the Devil/Satan with the yetzer hara in Scripture; JB argued that the equation is implicit. AB asked JB how he understood the term "demons" in James 2:19; JB replied that it is an ironic reference to foreign gods.11 There was some discussion of whether demons and their victims are distinguished in the Gospel exorcism narratives (which they are).12 AB offered another grammatical argument, namely that one who is addressed in the vocative is a person.13 JB responded that his argument does not hinge on the grammatical details, but on whether the text is to be taken literally or figuratively. As evidence of the latter, he cited a Talmudic interpretation of a text from 2 Samuel in which the yetzer hara was inferred to be a character in the story.14 AB noted that the Christadelphians' founders (John Thomas and Robert Roberts) understood Jesus' tempter to be external; JB countered that other Christadelphians of the time disagreed with them, and that their opinions are not sacrosanct. AB asked whether there is any leading commentator on Matthew who takes an internal view of the temptation. JB responded that some scholars read it as a visionary experience, dramatisation, etc.15

JB asked of AB why the New Testament does not use terminology for the Devil such as Mastema and Sammael that were used in other contemporaneous literature. AB countered that other such terms, such as Belial (2 Cor. 6:15) and Beelzebul (Matt. 10:25; 12:24-27 and parallels) are used.16 AB emphasised that there is no disagreement between the debaters on the evil in human nature; the difference is in whether the evil in human nature is the Devil. AB asked JB about the meaning of the verb proserchomai, used in Matthew 4:3 ("The tempter came and said to him," NRSV). JB was prepared with a slide showing that the verb can be used in a figurative sense, as in "a shudder came over me" (Shepherd of Hermas, Visions 3.1.5). AB insisted that it is biblical usage of the word that matters; JB responded that the Bible doesn't use a different Greek from non-canonical literature of the time. On this point, I side with JB; however, AB was right to insist on the importance of Matthew's use of the verb, especially as Matthew uses it again within the same pericope in an obviously literal fashion ("Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him," 4:11). In fact, JB's insistence on a figurative sense for proserchomai here reflects an inconsistency in his overall argument on the temptation narrative.17

JB asked whether teaching on Satan and demons is consistent throughout Scripture. AB responded that there is development in the concept, but that by the time we get to Revelation, we have a being who is "called" (indicative of a proper name) Devil and Satan. JB pressed AB on whether the NT understanding of Satan and demons (as he sees it) is in the OT; AB responded, "No, it is not."18 JB then cited commentators on Revelation who identify the language about the dragon/Satan as referring symbolically to the actions of Rome. In effect, then, the devil is Rome; Rome is the pre-eminent manifestation of that evil power. AB disagreed that the dragon is Rome, and asked what the beast is, if we make that identification? JB noted that the Evangelical scholar Beale concedes that, in Revelation, Satan is behind Rome. There seems to be a lack of precision here about the relationship between the dragon and Rome.19

In what were probably JB's best moments of the debate, he pressed AB on the contemporary, practical significance of Satan and demons. He asked AB how he would distinguish Satanic temptation from internal temptation today, and AB responded that he had no idea, but it does not matter.20 JB asked whether first-century Jews could tell if anyone was demon-possessed; AB replied that it doesn't matter, but Jesus could. JB then observed that Jesus never diagnosed anyone with demon-possession; AB responded that if "Come out of him" is not a diagnosis, what is?21 JB asked whether there is exorcism today; AB was unsure.22

Closing Statements

In JB's closing statement, he focused strongly on empirical and ethical arguments. For instance, he asked, "When you are tempted, does Satan come up to you?"23 And, "Have you ever seen people demonically possessed?"24 Working from Jesus' teaching on good and bad fruit in Matthew 7, JB points out that belief in Satan and demons has produced plenty of bad fruit (e.g., witch hunts, injuries incurred in botched exorcisms, failure to seek medical care due to belief in a supernatural cause),25 but is unaware of any good fruit produced by these ideas.26 JB concludes that temptation is fundamentally a matter of the human heart.27

AB's closing statement quoted at length from a scholar who observed that, given the clarity and emphasis with which the Synoptic Gospels affirm the reality of demon-possession and Jesus' exorcisms, the truth of these Gospels—and thus the truth of Christianity—are jeopardised if their testimony on this subject is false.28 AB then reiterated his central claim, that if one pays close attention to the language and grammar of the biblical text, it speaks clearly about the reality of Satan and demons.


For sake of space, I will not say much about the audience questions and debaters' answers, most of which pertained to the meaning of particular biblical passages about Satan or demons. Let me just comment briefly on my question, which was directed to JB:
Septuagint translation of Job 1-2 and Zech 3 renders hassatan as ho diabolos. Is this the main source of the technical term ho diabolos that occurs dozens of times in the New Testament?
The moderator and both debaters spoke as though this question had largely been addressed by JB's observation—which AB conceded—that there is no single Satan or diabolos figure in the Old Testament. However, the point I was driving at was the following:

(1) hassatan in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3 (Hebrew Bible) is an external adversary (admitted by both sides). 
(2) hassatan in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3 is translated in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version with ho diabolos
(3) The Greek Septuagint was the version of Scripture used in most early Christian churches outside the Holy Land, including the earliest readers of the New Testament (which was also written in Greek). 
(4) Therefore, when the earliest readers of the New Testament documents encountered the term ho diabolos in the text, they were encountering a term familiar to them from Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3 LXX, and would accordingly have interpreted the figure as an external adversary.29

In post-debate correspondence, AB has acknowledged the force of this argument. Thus, I think the question still needs to be answered, because JB's view—for all his claims of consistency between the Testaments—posits a disconnect on the diabolos/Satan between Old and New Testaments, when in fact there is striking continuity.30

Overall Analysis

I have no interest in adjudicating who "won" the debate on a personal level, and probably neither do the debaters. From my own studies of the topic, I have become convinced that the Scriptures testify clearly to the "personal" reality of the Satan and demons31 (notwithstanding that belief in transcendent beings—and transcendent causes—is out of favour in the post-Enlightenment West). I believe that AB brought that clarity across successfully. 

As far as the exegetical part of the argument, I found AB's arguments to be simple yet forceful, and JB's to be convoluted and unconvincing. What stood out for me was that AB argued directly from the details of the text, from lexical meaning and from syntax. By contrast, JB's arguments tended to focus more on broader issues such as genre and alleged extra-biblical parallels from the "socio-cultural context," and less on what the biblical text actually says. JB's hermeneutical method features a willingness to infer figurative or ironic meanings when there is little or no warrant within the text for doing so. Consequently, his arguments run afoul of Ockham's Razor. For me, one of the most telling statements in the debate from JB was the following (beginning c. 43:27 in the YouTube video). After AB offered syntactic arguments for interpreting the demons as persons in the text (e.g., masculine participles), JB responded,
Well the point is of course I'm not making my argument from grammar; I believe that it means what it says, that people actually understood that to be, for example, a demon being addressed...
Thus, when demons are depicted in the Gospels as though persons, this apparently is the authors' meaning, and it is how their readers understood them. Yet, it is not the meaning we should draw, because the writers did not actually believe their own meaning, but merely accommodated their readers' ignorance. This is a startlingly bold claim to make, and it needs to be backed by compelling positive evidence, but it is not. 

The same is true of JB's interpretation of the wilderness temptation accounts. I did not actually hear any point in the debate when JB defended his view exegetically. He asserted that the Devil here is the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, and that the genre of these accounts is not narrative, but something else that is figurative. Since the genre within the Synoptic Gospels as a whole is narrative, and since all three transition into and out of this pericope just as they do so many other episodes in the life of Jesus, and since they use the same kind of language that they use elsewhere to describe actual interpersonal encounters and dialogue, why should we conclude that these particular accounts follow a completely different genre? Something much more weighty is needed than centuries-later rabbinic parallels in which the yetzer hara is mentioned explicitly (rather than needing to be introduced as a gloss for ho diabolos). What is needed is positive evidence from the text itself. Yet not only is this evidence not forthcoming, but in my own experience, when JB is presented with evidence from the text that contradicts his position, he dismisses it as irrelevant, because his argument is not about what the text says.32

Perhaps not all Christadelphians will agree with JB's interpretations of key passages about the Devil and demons. However, Christadelphians should take note that JB has probably studied this topic more, and written about it more, than any other Christadelphian. He is an intelligent man, an able logician, and he has plumbed the depths for the best possible defence of the Christadelphian position. This has led him to move away from what the text actually says; and that should be concerning to any "Berean"-minded student of Scripture.

JB's strongest point in the debate was pressing AB on the contemporary significance and value of belief in Satan and demons. AB effectively shrugged off all such questions, and they are valid questions. The other important take-away from this debate was that both debaters were a model of decorum, setting a fine example for the rest of us on how Christians ought to conduct themselves when arguing matters of the faith.
  • 1 Jonathan Burke, 'Satan and Demons in the Apostolic Fathers: A Minority Report,' Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 81 (2016): 127-68; Thomas J. Farrar, 'Satanology and Demonology in the Apostolic Fathers: A Response to Jonathan Burke,' Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 83 (2018): 156-91.
  • 2 This is true of other theological subjects, too. I am always amazed at how lengthy theological debates on the Trinity or the ontology of the Holy Spirit can run their course without either side ever giving a philosophically precise definition of the term "person."
  • 3 For scriptural passages showing that the Satan requires God's permission to act, and is aware of this, see, e.g., Job 1-2, Luke 4:6, Luke 22:31.
  • 4 JB states that the word always occurs in the form the diabolos. In fact, diabolos is anarthrous in 1 Chr. 21:1 LXX, Ps. 108:6 LXX, 1 Macc. 1:36, and Wis. 2:24. Within the LXX corpus, it occurs with the article only in Esther 7:4, 8:1, Job 1-2, and Zech. 3:1-2. All of these latter instances refer to the personal transcendent being that eventually became "the Devil," with the exception of those in Esther, where it refers to Haman. In grammatical terms, the uses of the article with diabolos in Esther 7:4, 8:1 LXX are cataphoric and anaphoric, respectively. Esther tells the king that her people are to be destroyed, but that she has hitherto kept silent, "For the slanderer (ho diabolos) is not worthy of the court of the king" (7:4). This creates dramatic effect, for the reader immediately wants to know who she is referring to, and this is precisely what the king asks in 7:5 ("Who is this who dared to do this deed?") Esther then identifies Haman as "this wicked one"; hence the article in 7:4 is cataphoric, with "the" slanderer referring to the specific slanderer that is to be identified in 7:6. Similarly, the article in 8:1 ("King Artaxerxes granted to Esther all that belonged to Haman the slanderer [ho diabolos]") is anaphoric, referring back to the slanderer introduced in 7:4 and identified in 7:6. Thus, far from being a precedent for applying ho diabolos to various referents in the NT despite the use of the article, this text represents a contrast. The occurrence of ho diabolos in the NT never elicits the question, "Who?" because it is assumed that the reader knows who is meant. By this time, ho diabolos had become a technical term for a specific personal being, probably by reading Job 1-2 LXX and Zech. 3:1-2 LXX together and inferring that the same being is in view.
  • 5 There is a scholarly consensus that Jesus and the Synoptic Evangelists believed in demons and in the efficacy of exorcism. For numerous quotations from scholarly literature, see pp. 11-16 of my online article, 'When an unclean spirit goes out of a person': An Assessment of the Accommodation Theory of Demon Possession and Exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels.
  • 6 JB summarises as Ferngren stating that "Jesus didn't share first century Palestinian demonology" and that "Gospels don't record either Jesus' or the gospel writers' explanation of demon possession." The level of support for JB's position conveyed by these statements is unremarkable. Ferngren does state, "The evidence...does not suggest that Jesus shared the demonology of his Palestinian contemporaries" (Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009], 45), but this is very different from stating that Jesus had no demonology. In fact, the main differences that Ferngren highlights between Jesus and his contemporaries are (i) his method of exorcism, (ii) his personal authority over demons, and (iii) the careful distinction that Jesus and the Evangelists make between healings and exorcisms, and thus between disease and demon-possession. That the Gospels do not record Jesus' or the gospel writers' explanation of demon-possession in no way favours the view that Jesus or the gospel writers disbelieved in demon-possession. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus, not of demons. We would therefore not expect the Evangelists to explain the phenomenon of demon-possession, unless they believed that their readers needed such an explanation. Thus, the absence of such an explanation actually suggests that the Evangelists assumed that their readers knew what demon-possession was, and saw no need to correct or supplement their readers' understanding. Finally, Ferngren clearly affirms that the Evangelists believed in Satan and demons: "The frequency with which demons appear on the pages of the Gospels reflects the Evangelists' belief that the advent of Jesus's kingdom brought about a spiritual conflict with the forces of Satan. Jesus' exorcism of demons was one dimension of this conflict, which they viewed as 'a cosmic struggle in history to inaugurate the eschatological reign of God.'" (Medicine and Health Care, 45). Again, "Chapters 1 through 8 [of Mark] picture Jesus as a powerful miracle worker, through whom God, the Great Warrior, is undoing the evil brought about by Satan's control of the world. Hence in his frequent confrontations with demons Jesus repeatedly challenges the powers of darkness... there are several indications that neither Jesus nor the Evangelists believed that disease was ordinarily caused by demons... while the Gospel writers speak of Jesus's healing and exorcism as related aspects of his messiahship, they routinely distingiush between them... Exorcism and healing denoted different aspects of Jesus's messianic ministry, not a single act." (Medicine and Health Care, 45-46). Thus, Ferngren's view is broadly consistent with the scholarly consensus that Jesus and the Evangelists believed in demons.
  • 7 On Mark 8:33 (parallel to Matt. 16:23), see Thomas J. Farrar and Guy J. Williams, 'Diabolical Data: A Critical Inventory of New Testament Satanology,' Journal for the Study of the New Testament 39(1) (2016): 49-50 (preprint accessible here). On 2 Corinthians 12:7 (where the phrase in question should be translated, 'angel of Satan'), see sources cited in Farrar and Williams, 'Diabolical Data,' 48 n. 35. On 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 1 Timothy 1:20, there is no difficulty once we appreciate that punishment is one of the Satan's God-given roles. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 5:5, given the Passover allusion, Paul is probably identifying the Satan with "the Destroyer" from the Passover narrative (Ex. 12:23; cf. 1 Cor. 10:10; further discussion in Farrar and Williams, 'Diabolical Data,' 54-56). On Acts 5:3-4, JB makes much in the debate on the parallelism between vv. 3 and 4. There is indeed a parallelism, whereby Ananias' act is described in v. 3 as "Why has the Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?" and restated in v. 4 as "Why did you contrive this deed in your heart?" Both statements identify Ananias' heart as the locus of the temptation. One says that the Satan filled his heart, the other that Ananias contrived the deed in his heart. JB's inference is that "the Satan" = "contrived"; thus, the Satan is an internal impulse. However, it is equally plausible that the two statements are describing the same event from two different angles and at two different levels of causality. Ananias allowed the Satan to infiltrate his heart, and Ananias contrived the plan to lie about his donation. Not only is this latter explanation plausible, but it is much more consistent with the wider context of Luke-Acts, in which the Satan is depicted as an external being who converses with Jesus and departs from him (Luke 4:1-13), "falls from heaven" (Luke 10:18), "comes" and takes away God's Word from people's hearts (Luke 8:12), "enters into" Judas so as to tempt him (Luke 22:3), and "demands" (of God) to sift the disciples (Luke 22:31).
  • 8 On this, see Thomas J. Farrar, 'New Testament Satanology and Leading Suprahuman Opponents in Second Temple Jewish Literature: A Religio-Historical Analysis,' Journal of Theological Studies 70(1) (2019): 66-67. Preprint can be accessed here.
  • 9 On this point, see my ‘When an unclean spirit goes out of a person,’ 25-28.
  • 10 For a detailed alternative account, see Farrar, 'New Testament Satanology and Leading Suprahuman Opponents,' 31-57. Preprint can be accessed here.
  • 11 For a detailed analysis of this text, including a refutation of JB's view, see my article, Even the Demons Believe and Shudder: Demonology in the Epistle of James.
  • 12 See ‘When an unclean spirit goes out of a person,’ 19-20.
  • 13 The vocative case indicates direct, second-person address. In modern English it does not come through in translation, but in the KJV is often conveyed by the word "O." Since it requires intelligence to understand speech, being addressed in the vocative is ordinarily an indication that the one addressed is a person. However, this is not universally the case. For instance, in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), impersonal objects such as mountains and hills are often addressed poetically in the vocative in the psalms and prophets (e.g., 2 Kingdoms [2 Samuel] 1:21; Ps. 67:16-17[68:15-16]).
  • 14 As a contextual argument, citing rabbinic literature is not particularly weighty. The Talmuds date from several centuries after Christ, so citing the Talmud in New Testament exegesis is roughly the chronological equivalent of citing Augustine of Hippo or other Church Fathers. Moreover, while the Talmuds contain many attributions to earlier rabbis, eminent Jewish scholars like Jacob Neusner have warned that it is methodologically invalid to accept these attributions uncritically.
  • 15 Reading the temptation story as a visionary experience is no help to the "internal yetzer hara" view of the Devil. Matthew describes the Transfiguration event as a "vision" (horama, 17:9), but this does not mean that Moses and Elijah were projections of the apostles' inner psyches! Similarly, Luke refers to encounters with angels as visions (1:22; 24:23), and Acts describes "visions" in which people engage in dialogue with supernatural persons (angels or the Lord, e.g., Acts 9:10-16, 10:3-7, 10:10-17). "Dramatisation" is an unclear term; what is clear is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all weave this incident into their narrative like any other pericope, using similar transitions, pronouns, and verbs. They give the reader no indication whatsoever that this incident is of an entirely different genre and nature than all of the other incidents they record about Jesus.
  • 16 The broader point is that terminological parallels are less important than conceptual parallels. The NT writers show a clear consolidation toward using ho diabolos and ho satanas as the normative names or designations of the transcendent opponent, but there are striking conceptual parallels with other Second Temple Jewish texts that use other terminology. This is a central thesis of my JTS article, 'New Testament Satanology and Leading Suprahuman Opponents' (see esp. pp. 57-62). Preprint can be accessed here.
  • 17 JB's overall argument seems to be that the temptation story is figurative as a whole, at the level of genre—hence his insistence, when confronted by the argument from the vocative, that his argument is not a grammatical one. In fact, when I made the argument from Matthew's use of proserchomai previously on my blog, JB insisted in his response that this argument was irrelevant because of the genre of the passage ("such arguments hold no weight with the consensus of scholars who believe the temptation accounts are not historical narrative, and that the temptation itself was indeed figurative, symbolic, or visionary"). Yet now, in the debate, JB appears to be hedging his bets by insisting that the passage is figurative at the level of individual words—even if this means ignoring a consistent pattern of Matthean usage.
  • 18 I would agree, and it should come as no surprise, given the development from Old to New Testaments on so many other doctrines (Messiah, resurrection, Holy Spirit, angelology, etc.) The pithy saying attributed to St. Augustine is à propos here: "The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed."
  • 19 Most commentators, ancient and modern, would agree that "the beast" in Revelation is Rome, given the precedent in Daniel whereby beasts represent earthly kingdoms (Dan. 7:23), and the political reality of Rome's ascendancy at the time Revelation was written. However, the beast and the dragon are clearly distinguished in Revelation, and their relationship is indicated in 13:2: "To [the beast] the dragon gave its own power and throne, along with great authority." Thus, the dragon—explicitly identified as the Devil and Satan in 12:9 and 20:2—is an entity that empowers Rome, and not Rome itself. Further evidence that we cannot make the equation Satan = Rome in Revelation is found in 2:9 and 3:9, where we find the expression "the synagogue of Satan." The synagogue of Rome? Obviously not; thus Satan is a power behind both Roman and Jewish opposition to the faithful. The best indication of the dragon's literal identity in Revelation (besides the names "Devil" and "Satan," which would already have been plenty clear to the original audience) is the description of war in heaven between "Michael and his angels" and "the dragon and its angels." Michael is not a symbol, but the name of an archangel (Jude 9), and thus his angels are also not symbols, but are actual angels. This implies that the dragon's angels are also actual angels, and that the dragon/serpent/Devil/Satan is also an angel.
  • 20 I would basically agree, and an analogy could be made to divine providence. How do we distinguish between providential vs. natural causes of events in our lives? If I asked God for wisdom, and I subsequently became wiser, how would I differentiate between my own efforts (e.g., study and meditation) vs. divine help? Clearly, we humans cannot—under ordinary circumstances—recognize and differentiate supernatural causes from natural ones.
  • 21 In fact, it is the narrators who diagnose individuals in the narrative as demon-possessed, just as they diagnose other individuals with leprosy, blindness, etc. Yet AB is correct, in that by performing exorcisms on persons identified by the narrator as demon-possessed, Jesus is clearly depicted as agreeing with the diagnosis.
  • 22 In fact, there is well-documented evidence of exorcisms today, and the Catholic Church to this day has priests who perform exorcisms, just as the apostles did. However, demon-possession is relatively rare, and the Church resorts to exorcism only when there is strong evidence of demonic possession and all ordinary psychiatric treatment methods have been exhausted.
  • 23 One might as well ask, "When you were baptized, did the Holy Spirit descend on you like a dove and a voice speak from heaven?" or, "When the Lord answers your prayers, does he do so by sending an angel to visit you?" If the answers are "No," does this imply that baptism is of no benefit, that the Lord does not answer prayer, or that his angels no longer minister to his people?
  • 24 Since when has having personally seen something been a valid precondition for belief? Christianity is a religion of faith! Moreover, there is ample evidence that spirit-possession is a real phenomenon even today, though many of the anthropologists and psychologists who document it do not regard it as actual spirit-possession, due to their materialistic assumptions precluding this possibility.
  • 25 Witch hunts do not follow from belief in Satan and demons, but from other false and superstitious ideas. No well-informed ecclesiastical tradition or individual Christian today condones witch hunts. It is technically true that witch hunts would never have happened without belief in supernatural evil. However, it does not therefore follow that non-belief in supernatural evil is correct. If that argument were valid, then atrocities committed by people who believed they were doing God's will would be sufficient to justify atheism. Similarly, if one refrained from seeking medical care due to a belief in demons, this would reflect a false belief that medical care and exorcism are competing, mutually exclusive alternatives. In fact, the Church has always been at the forefront of medical care, and (as was mentioned in a previous footnote) resorts to exorcism only as a last resort. As for a severe injury received during an exorcism, I believe this is very rare. I would add that there are plenty of phony exorcists. I would further add that demon-possession is a dangerous phenomenon, as the biblical testimony itself describes spirits inducing their victims to injure or destroy themselves (Mark 5:5; 9:22). There is, consequently, some risk associated with an exorcism. There is also some risk associated with most medical treatments, so this is not exceptional.
  • 26 If people really do suffer from demon-possession and can be helped by exorcism, this is a clear and substantial "good fruit." For JB to dismiss this good fruit, he must first show that demon-possession is not real and thus that exorcism has no efficacy. But this is the very point under debate. Looking more broadly, most Christians would agree that having a sound theology of evil is helpful in the spiritual life, even if one cannot point to obvious instances where correctly believing in the Devil's existence brings concrete, practical benefit. However, this is true of many other theological ideas. What are the good fruit of belief in angels, for instance? It is not obvious; but we trust in God that every truth that he has revealed is beneficial to know. JB's "fruit" argument seems to be a misapplication of Jesus' message in Matthew 7:15-20 (which is actually about prophets, not their teachings). One might add that a "bad fruit" of non-belief in supernatural evil is that it requires very shoddy exegesis and hermeneutics to sustain, and once one begins to practice such, it may lead to errors in more fundamental areas of theology.
  • 27 Absolutely; and the human heart is by nature morally compromised. However, it can also be infiltrated by the Devil (e.g., Luke 8:12; Acts 5:3-4), which is not the same thing.
  • 28 This, I think, indirectly answers JB's question by identifying a "good fruit" of belief in Satan and demons: it reflects fidelity to the testimony of Scripture in an age where belief in the supernatural is dismissed by the dominant culture.
  • 29 Adding weight to this argument is the testimony of Justin Martyr. Writing around the 150s, Justin is the earliest extant Christian writer to quote directly from Job 1-2 and Zech. 3:1-2. When he does, he makes it clear that these passages are key source texts for the Christian idea of the devil (Dialogue with Trypho 79.4, 103.5, 115-116). For further discussion of Justin's views, see Thomas J. Farrar, 'The Intimate and Ultimate Adversary: Satanology in Early Second-Century Christian Literature,' Journal of Early Christian Studies 26 (2018): 543-44 (preprint accessible here).
  • 30 This continuity is not removed by the concession that, from a grammatical-historical point of view, "the satan" in Job and Zechariah is not yet understood as a wicked being. Christian theological interpretation of the Old Testament moves beyond the grammatical-historical sense in light of the fuller revelation received through Christ.
  • 31 I put "personal" in quotation marks to defer to the terminology of the debate question while acknowledging the complexity of "personhood." I would say that Satan and demons are as personal as angels, except for the extent to which "personhood," being a good attribute, is compromised by evil.
  • 32 For an example of this, see his response to my ten-point argument concerning the wilderness temptation accounts. After arguing that the genre of the accounts is "haggadic midrash, not narrative," he summarily dismisses most of my other arguments on that basis, without even interacting with what the text says.


Anonymous said...

Great review.

I asked the question on Jude 9 and was disappointed by JB's response.

I would love to see JB debate you on the topic of supernatural evil like he did with AB someday.

Tom said...

Thank you for the comment. I was also dissatisfied with JB's answer on Jude 9. He wants to interpret Jude 9 through the lens of Zechariah 3, or rather through the lens of his interpretation of Zechariah 3, as he said Jude 9 makes clear reference to Zechariah 3, and the alleged "Assumption of Moses" source has not been found. I discuss Jude 9's source on pp. 48-49 of my JTS article, which you can find a link to on my homepage. In short, there is universal consensus amongst biblical scholars that Jude 9 is quoting from some extrabiblical source, and not directly from Zechariah 3. The phrase "the body of Moses" is not found in Zechariah 3, and such an odd and distinctive designation for the people of Israel or their high priest (not otherwise known) would hardly be introduced within an allusion to a text that does not use that designation! Furthermore, Jude 9 identifies the speaker as Michael the archangel, while in Zechariah 3 MT it is the (unnamed) "angel of the LORD," and in Zechariah 3 LXX, the Lord himself. Moreover, Jude has another known quotation from an extrabiblical source in Jude 14-15 (a direct quotation from 1 Enoch 1). Thus, Jude 9 quotes from some extrabiblical source, which in turn had borrowed language from Zechariah 3:2.

Now, it is true that the exact passage from which Jude 9 quotes is lost, and thus that the source work is not known with certainty. However, there is reasonably good strong evidence that the source is a work known to some Church Fathers under the name Assumption of Moses, and furthermore that this work partially survives in a Latin manuscript known to scholars as the Moses Fragment. In particular, the Church Father Gelasius quotes from the Assumption of Moses, and his quotation corresponds to a passage in the Moses Fragment. The fragment does mention the devil once, but breaks off before Moses' death and assumption, which is presumably the point at which an event involving Moses' body would have been recounted.

However, all of these technical points aside, Sir Anthony addressed the issue at hand very concisely when he said that what we do know is that Jude was alluding to an account of a quarrel between Michael and the Devil over the body of Moses, meaning the body of Moses. And, even without knowing Jude's source, this establishes that Jude could not have understood the Devil as an internal inclination.

I am not sure that oral debates are my strong point—for instance, I would have been tempted to go off on a long tangent on the question about Jude 9, as I have done above in print, rather than hitting on the main point in one sentence, as Sir Anthony did.

Tom said...

You may also be interested in this previous blog post, where I address JB's claim that the Targum version of Zechariah 3 reflects an interpretation identifying hassatan with sin:


There is a hymnal text from Qumran, 4QBarkhi Nafshi, that praises God for having rebuked the evil inclination (yetzer ra) in language borrowed from Zechariah 3. This does not necessarily mean that the author(s) of this text equated hassatan in Zechariah 3 with yetzer ra, but this is certainly a possibility, and it is clear that this author's theology has replaced the external Satan with the internal evil inclination.

Nevertheless, the reason why it is clear that 4QBarkhi Nafshi makes this theological move is because the Satan has been explicitly replaced with the evil inclination. So it is hardly a precedent or a parallel for what JB claims is happening in the New Testament—namely, that these authors continue using personal terms like satanas and diabolos without replacing them with terms like "evil inclination," and yet that they actually mean "evil inclination" by these terms! It is quite an extraordinary line of interpretation.