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Showing posts with label serpent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label serpent. Show all posts

Monday 16 May 2016

Shawna Dolansky on 'How the Serpent Became Satan'

In this post I want to offer a few comments on a recent article by Shawna Dolansky entitled How the Serpent became Satan from Biblical Archaeology magazine. In this article, Prof. Dolansky puts forth two main theses to a popular audience. First, she argues from a history of religions point of view that the serpent of Genesis 3 cannot be identified as Satan, 'for the simple reason that when the story was written, the concept of the devil had not yet been invented'.

She proceeds to describe in outline the development of the concept of Satan, beginning with the noun satan in the Hebrew Bible, and proceeding through intertestamental Judaism and early Christianity. She then arrives at her second thesis, that 'there is no clear link anywhere in the Bible between Satan and Eden’s talking snake'. She does not suggest a theory on when a 'clear link' was first made, but does note that Justin Martyr (died 160s C.E.) assumed this association. 

While some Christian readers may find Dolansky's article startling (or even offensive, judging from some of the comments), from a biblical studies point of view she is for the most part stating the obvious. Few biblical scholars today would defend an identification of the serpent with Satan using historical-critical exegesis of Genesis 3.

Dolansky's overview of the development of the Satan concept begins with the Hebrew Bible. She acknowledges, as is widely agreed among Old Testament scholars, that there are numerous passages where the Hebrew word satan simply means a human adversary, but that in four passages the word denotes a divine being. In particular, she acknowledges that in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3:1-2, the satan is a member of YHWH's heavenly council, and also notes the debate around whether satan functions as a proper name in 1 Chronicles 21:1 (the weight of scholarly opinion today probably favours a 'no').

Hence, she rightly and uncontroversially asserts that 'the idea of an evil prince of darkness' was not in the consciousness of the Israelites in the Old Testament period. Referring to a handful of intertestamental texts, she traces out the development of the 'devil' concept. Dolansky is willing to allow that the serpent is linked with an angel in 1 Enoch and possibly with the devil in Wisdom of Solomon (though the meaning of diabolos in this text is very much debated). Her only contention is that the serpent is not yet linked with Satan. 

Again, her summary of the 'adoption' of the Satan/devil concept by the early church is brief but uncontroversial (though I would give the early church, and the historical Jesus in particular, more credit in founding a distinctly Christian concept of Satan than the word 'adopt' suggests).

Coming to Dolansky's second thesis, the statement that there is no 'clear link' between the serpent and Satan even in the New Testament turns on the qualifier 'clear'. Certainly there is no explicit assertion that the serpent of Eden was Satan or was used by Satan. However, there are a number of New Testament texts in which some link between the two seems to be presupposed. Of these, Dolansky mentions only Revelation 12:9 and 20:2, where the great red dragon of the apocalyptic vision is identified as 'the ancient serpent, called Devil and Satan'. While it is true that divine combat myths lie in the background of the dragon/serpent imagery, there is good reason to think that an allusion to the serpent of Eden is also in view. The picture of eternity in Revelation draws heavily on allusions to the Garden of Eden (Revelation 2:7; 22:1-2, 14, 19). The immediate context of the vision in which the dragon/serpent is introduced, moreover, is fairly laced with allusions to Genesis 3. The antagonists are a woman and a dragon/serpent. The serpent is identified as 'the one that deceives the whole world'; deceit is of course the serpent's modus operandi in the Garden of Eden ('the serpent deceived me', Genesis 3:13). Then, of course, there is the conflict between the dragon/serpent and the seed of the woman (the singular, male child and 'the rest of her seed', Rev. 12:5, 17), which can hardly be other than an allusion to Genesis 3:15. Hence, Dolansky's assertion that 'the reference in Revelation 12:9 to Satan as “the ancient serpent” probably reflects mythical monsters like Leviathan rather than the clever, legged, talking creature in Eden' (emphasis added) is a false dilemma. Both form part of the background. Hence, while it is debatable whether in Revelation the author seeks to actually identify the serpent of Eden with Satan, there certainly is a 'clear link' between the two.

There are a number of other passages in which a link is arguably presupposed between the serpent and Satan. Scholars debate the source of Paul's allusion in Romans 16:20 ('The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet'), but Genesis 3:15 is one of the primary candidates, along with Psalm 110 and Psalm 8 (the options may again not be mutually exclusive). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul may reflect a Jewish tradition in which Satan disguised himself as an angel of light in the Garden of Eden (though the age of this tradition is debatable, since it is attested only in the later Life of Adam and Eve, which may be of Christian provenance). In John 8:44, the reference to the devil as the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning seems to implicate the devil in the events of Genesis 3 (the deceit of Eve) and possibly Genesis 4 (Cain's murder of Abel). Indeed, in 1 John 3:12 the same writer describes Cain as having been 'of that evil one', which clearly assumes the devil's existence in the primeval world. By ignoring the allusions to Genesis 3 in Revelation 12 and failing to take note of these other texts, Dolansky understates the evidence for a link between Satan and the serpent of Eden in the New Testament.

While Dolansky does not say so explicitly, her conclusion gives the impression that she thinks the direct identification of the Edenic serpent with Satan was a post-New Testament, Christian innovation. This is problematic not only because of the New Testament evidence summarized above, but also because such an identification can be found in rabbinic literature. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 3:6 describes an encounter between Eve and the serpent and then with Sammael, the angel of death (although no explicit link is made between the serpent and Sammael). In later rabbinic tradition, Sammael is closely associated or even identified with Satan. The ninth-century rabbinic work Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer clearly identifies the serpent with Samael, a satanic angel figure. Tracing out the tradition-history behind this identification, Dulkin writes that 'there exists sufficient cumulative evidence to prove that Samael/Satan is a known, recognizable figure in rabbinic sources generally and in the case of Gen. Rab. 20:5 is represented in early rabbinic depictions of Genesis 2–3'.1 The Jewish pseudepigraphon 2 Enoch, dated by some scholars to the first century C.E. (and by others much, much later), identifies a fallen angel named Satanail as the seducer of Eve. Hence, either an identification between Satan and the serpent developed separately in Judaism and Christianity, or this idea was present before the 'parting of the ways'. The evidence of the New Testament suggests that the latter is a more likely scenario.

Hence, it is plausible that later Church Fathers who place Satan in the Garden of Eden were not merely making a conflation that 'seemed natural', but were handing down a tradition received from the first century Church.

Returning to Dolansky's first thesis, if it is untenable for biblical scholars using modern exegetical methods to read Satan into Genesis 3, and if the early church nevertheless did read Satan into Genesis 3, where does that leave today's church? Enter theological interpretation. The Church does not limit her reading of Scripture to historical-critical interpretation, but reads Scripture through the lens of Christian faith. An analogy may help. There is a long and venerable tradition in the Church of reading Genesis 3:15 as a veiled Messianic prophecy. Yet if someone were to stand up at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting and suggest that the 'seed of the woman' refers to Jesus Christ, they would be met with disbelief and probably loud laughter - and rightly so, from a history-of-religions point of view. This interpretation is every bit as anachronistic as the interpretation that identifies or associates the serpent with Satan. The same is true of many other alleged Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 7:14. One must read the Old Testament with the eyes of Christian faith in order to find Christ there. The same is true (albeit on a far lesser scale) with Satan.


  • 1 Dulkin, Ryan S. (2014). The Devil Within: A Rabbinic Traditions-History of the Samael Story in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 21(2), 153-175. Here p. 174.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Supernatural Evil in the Apostolic Fathers (10): Epistle to Diognetus

The so-called 'Epistle to Diognetus' (henceforth just Diognetus) is an anonymous text addressed to one Diognetus. It is not really an epistle in the sense of Paul's epistles. In fact, it is generally regarded as a composite work consisting of two sections: an apology aimed at non-Christians (chapters 1-10) and a homily aimed at Christians (chapters 11-12).1 Furthermore, it is probably the latest writing included in the (admittedly artificial) Apostolic Fathers corpus: 'The majority of scholars date it to 200'.2 With such a late date being probable, it is not as valuable for reconstructing early post-apostolic Christian thought as other Apostolic Fathers writings usually dated from the late first to mid second century (e.g. 1 Clement, Ignatius, Barnabas, Didache, etc.) Numerous other proto-orthodox Christian writings from the late second century survive which are not classified among the Apostolic Fathers, such as the works of Irenaeus, Athenagoras, and Theophilus of Antioch. Nevertheless, for sake of completeness let us proceed to investigate supernatural evil in Diognetus.

The apologetic portion of Diognetus (chapters 1-10) contains no reference to Satan, demons or other supernatural evil, in its extant form. However, it would be inadvisable to make arguments from silence about the author's views on this basis because, in addition to the copy break that occurs apparently at the end of the apologetic portion, there is a lacuna (a missing section of text) at Diognetus 7.6 and 'there is no way to know how much of the intervening text has been lost, whether just a few words or a page or more.'3 The lacuna occurs in an eschatological section,4 and since Satan is often mentioned in eschatological contexts in early Christianity,5 it is not impossible that the missing text referred to him. Of course it would be pure speculation to positively claim that the lost portion of text mentioned Satan; very likely it did not. The point is that the possibility cannot be completely discounted, which is yet another reason why arguments from silence carry little weight.

One observes in Diognetus 2.4 that, similar to what we found in the Didache, the author describes idols as 'lifeless.' Since other early Christian writers saw a demonic dimension to idolatry (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:19-21; Rev. 9:20; Justin, 1 Apology 9), does this suggest that the author of Diognetus rejected such a view? Not necessarily. As we pointed out in our discussion of the Didache, there were two traditional Jewish polemics against idolatry. One (found especially in Hellenistic Jewish literature), 'contrasts lifeless idols (along with the "ignorance" in which idolatry is based) with the one, true, creating and redeeming God (along with "knowledge of Him").'6 The other tradition, 'although it agreed that idols are "nothings" and lifeless human products, saw in idolatry the service or the influence of demons (Jub. 2.4-6; 22.16-22; 1 En. 19; 99.6-10; T.Naph. 3.3-4).'7 Thus both polemical strategies agreed on the lifelessness of idols, so the declaration in Diognetus that idols are 'lifeless and dead' is actually compatible with both. Meecham commenting specifically on this passage in Diognetus, states, 'That both views could be held in the mind without a sense of conflict may be seen in Paul.'8 This can also be seen in Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 9, who uses the same language as Diognetus for idols ('lifeless and dead') but also states that they 'have not the form of God...but have the names and shapes of those evil demons which have appeared'.9 Is there any plausible explanation for why the author of Diognetus might have omitted the polemic that linked idols to demons? Perhaps: at the end of his polemic against idolatry, he concludes:
I could say many other things about why Christians do not serve such gods, but if someone supposes that these comments are not enough, I imagine saying anything more would be superfluous. (Diog 2.10)10
Thus, the author explicitly tells us that he is omitting some of his polemic against idolatry. In view of this, it would be inadvisable to make an argument from silence that the writer did not consider idolatry to have a demonic dimension or did not believe in demons.11

Turning to the homily portion of Diognetus (chapters 11-12), there is again no clear reference to supernatural evil, but there are three references to 'the serpent' (ho ophis) in Diognetus 12.3-8 which may refer to Satan. The passage reads as follows:
3 Nor is that which is written obscure, how at the beginning God planted "a tree of knowledge and a tree of life in the middle of paradise," thereby revealing life through knowledge. But those who were there at the beginning made use of it in an impure way, and became naked through the deceit of the serpent. 4 For life cannot exist apart from knowledge nor secure knowledge apart from true life. 5 When the apostle considered this marvel he criticized knowledge that is exercised apart from the true command that leads to life, saying "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up." 6 For the one who thinks he knows anything apart from the knowledge that is true and attested by life does not know; he is deceived by the serpent and does not love life. But the one who has come to know with reverential fear, and who seeks life, plants in hope and expects to receive fruit. 7 Let your heart be knowledge and your life be the true, comprehensible word. 8 If you bear this tree and pluck its fruit, you will always harvest what God desires. The serpent cannot touch such things nor can deceit defile them. Nor is Eve corrupted, but a virgin is trusted [Or: but is believed on as a virgin]. (Diognetus 12.3-8)12
Jefford notes that the writer of Diognetus does not explicitly identify the serpent as Satan in this passage.13 However, he elsewhere states that the serpent seems allegorical and that the writer appears to assume a link between the serpent of Genesis and the great dragon of Revelation (which is explicitly identified as Satan).14

Gokey notes that while the 'deceit of the serpent' in 12.3 (referring to the events in Eden) does not require an active interpretation, the deceit by the serpent in 12.6 'would favour an active interpretation.'15 Similarly 'the serpent cannot touch such things nor can deceit defile them' (12.8) suggests an active meaning. Among lexical authorities, BDAG regards the serpent in v. 6 as 'clearly the devil,'16 while Lampe also identifies the serpent here with the devil.17 Such an interpretation of the serpent of Genesis 3 was already a well-established tradition in the church by the time this text was written (Rom. 16:20;18 2 Cor. 11:3 cp. v. 14;19 Rev. 12:9; 20:2; 1 Apology 28).

It should be stressed, however, that the identification of the serpent with Satan here seems to be allegorical rather than literal. The writer is not necessarily implicating Satan in the events of Eden; rather, he refers historically to the serpent of Eden (12.3), and then proceeds to use Edenic imagery (serpent, tree, Eve) allegorically to describe the present circumstances of the church. Whatever the serpent denotes in the present, it is an active force which can deceive the ignorant (12.6) but cannot touch the knowledgeable and reverent (12.8). It is impossible to be certain about the referent, but the only active force identified with the serpent elsewhere in early Christian writings is Satan, and he is therefore the most likely candidate.


  • 1 Foster states, 'It can be seen that whereas the first ten chapters have an apologetic focus, the final two have inner ecclesial concerns' (Foster, P. (2006). The Epistle to Diognetus. The Expository Times, 118(4), 162-168, here p. 164). See also Jefford, C.N. (2013). The Epistle to Diognetus (with the Fragment of Quadratus): Introduction and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 12. Foster also observes, 'These sections appear to represent two distinct sources that have been combined during the process of transmission. The identification of this seam is supported by a marginal note in the manuscript at the end of chapter 10 which reads "and here the copy has a break"' (op. cit., p. 163).
  • 2 Williams, H.H.D., III. (2015). [Review of the book The Epistle to Diognetus (with the Fragment of Quadratus): Introduction, Text, and Commentary, by C.N. Jefford]. Themelios 39(3), 567-569, here p. 568. Others propose dates in 'the late second century or early third' (Grant, R.M. (1988). Greek Apologists of the Second Century. London: SCM Press, p. 178) or 'to some moment during the 2nd century, with a preference for the latter decades of that period' (Jefford, op. cit., p. 28).
  • 3 Ehrman, B. (2003). (Ed. & trans.). The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. 2). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 124.
  • 4 Jefford states that 'the textual lacuna complicates any interpretation of the eschatological context. One thus cannot know what further materials on this topic may have originally been here or reconstruct the missing words that may once have served to explain what now appears as a sudden turn of theme' (op. cit., p. 232).
  • 5 E.g. Matt. 12:24-32; 25:41; Luke 10:18-19; John 12:31; Romans 16:20; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 20:2-7.
  • 6 Horsley, R.A. (2004). Gnosis in Corinth: I Corinthians 8.1-6. In E. Adams & D.G. Horrell (Eds.), Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church (pp. 119-128). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 127.
  • 7 ibid.
  • 8 Meecham, H.G. (1949). The Epistle to Diognetus: Greek Text with Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 33.
  • 9 trans. Barnard, L.W. (1997). The First and Second Apologies. Mahwah: Paulist Press, p. 27.
  • 10 trans. Ehrman, op. cit., p. 135.
  • 11 Having noted that most of the Apologists believed in the malignant influence of demons, Meecham adds, 'The author of Diognetus gives no hint that he held the general view, though we may not, e silentio, conclude the contrary' (op. cit., p. 22).
  • 12 trans. Ehrman, op. cit., pp. 157, 159.
  • 13 Jefford, op. cit., p. 102; cf. Russell, J.B. (1981). Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 46 n. 49.
  • 14 Jefford, op. cit., pp. 254-255.
  • 15 Gokey, F.X. (1961). The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, pp. 118-119 n. 12.
  • 16 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 744.
  • 17 Lampe, G.W.H. (1961). A Patristic Greek Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 989.
  • 18 Those who regard Rom. 16:20 as an allusion to Gen. 3:15 include: Foerster, W. (1967). 'ὄφις', in TDNT V.566-582, here p. 581; Wolff, C. (1989). Der zweite Brief des Paulus an die Korinther. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, pp. 212-213; Mounce, R.H. (1995). Romans. Nashville: B&H Publishing, p. 280; Schreiner, T.R. (1998). Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 804; Dochhorn, J. (2007). Paulus und die polyglotte Schriftgelehrsamkeit seiner Zeit. Eine Studie zu den exegetischen Hintergründen von Röm 16, 20a. Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und Kunde der Älteren Kirche, 98(3-4), 189-212, here p. 195; Williams, G.J. (2009). The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle: A Critical Examination of the Role of Spiritual Beings in the Authentic Pauline Epistles. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp. 93-94. Regarding Rom. 16:20 rather as an allusion to Ps. 110:1 are Forsyth, N. (2003). The Satanic Epic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 305; Brown, D.R. (2011). The God of This Age: Satan in the Churches and Letters of the Apostle Paul. PhD dissertation, University of Edinburgh, pp. 119-124. Undecided between these two options is Löfstedt, T. (2010) Paul, Sin and Satan: The Root of Evil according to Romans. Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok, 75, 109-134, here p. 122.
  • 19 Those who think Paul implicitly identifies the serpent with Satan here include Malherbe, A.J. (1961). Through the Eye of the Needle: Simplicity or Singleness? Restoration Quarterly, 5, 119-29, here pp. 127-128; Furnish, V.P. (1975). 2 Corinthians: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, p. 158; Wolff, op. cit., pp. 212-213; Garrett, S.R. (1991). "Lest the Light in You be Darkness": Luke 11:33-36 and the Question of Commitment. Journal of Biblical Literature, 110(1), 93-105, here p. 99; Garland, D.E. (1999). Second Corinthians. Nashville: B&H Publishing, p. 462; Lambrecht, J. (1999). Second Corinthians. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, p. 173; Harris, M.J. (2005). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 741; Williams, op. cit., pp. 94-95; Collins, R.F. (2013). Second Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Baker, p. 213; Seifrid, M.A. (2014). The Second Letter to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 405 n. 281. For counterarguments, see Brown, op. cit., pp. 197-199.