Satan has best tune but the worst PR

August 18, 2006

The Bible's notorious fallen angel has fallen a great deal further than he deserves thanks to a smear campaign by the early fathers of the Church, argues Henry Kelly.

The Hebrew word " satan " means "adversary". Its Greek translation, " diabolos " (from which we get "devil") has a touch of "slanderer" about it. But no person has been more slandered than Satan himself. He has received the worst press in history, and the media - ancient and modern - have a lot to answer for.

In the Old Testament, angels called "Satans" serve as important members of the divine cabinet. This is most evident in the Book of Job, where the angel known as "the Satan" is in charge of overseeing the Earth and checking out humans.

Satan urges God to test Job's virtue, and when he passes the trials that Satan arranges, God tells him: "You incited me against him, to destroy him, for no reason." Nevertheless, he agrees to further tests.

God does not seem disturbed by the collateral damage that has been caused: Job's sons and daughters have been killed, not to mention his servants. No matter, fresh ones are supplied at the end. It is noteworthy that Satan characterises the tests as God's doing: "Stretch out your hand and touch all that he has." But God tells Satan that it is up to him to do the hand-stretching, though within limits: "Only spare his life."

A similar Satanic member of the Heavenly Court can be seen in Zechariah, chapter three, where he functions as chief prosecutor or attorney-general.

He accuses the high priest Joshua of offences of which he is obviously guilty but subsequently absolved. Another supernatural Satan makes an appearance in the field, in opposition to the freelance prophet Balaam (Numbers xxii).

There is a consensus among biblical scholars that these Satans are in the employ of God. But they are also in general agreement that the Satan of the New Testament has become "evil" and is now functioning as God's enemy, even though they are at a loss to explain how and when this happened. In my view, these scholars, like the generality of readers of the Bible, are victims of the smear campaign that was successfully launched by the early fathers of the Church.

The chief culprit in this conspiracy was the good Samaritan Justin Martyr (he came from Samaria, and died as a martyr around AD165; ergo, a good Samaritan). He was a philosopher and, like many theoreticians, he could run roughshod over the letter in order to seize upon an inner meaning.

According to Genesis iii, the Serpent was "the most intelligent of all the animals that the Lord God had created". On the contrary, Justin said, he was Satan. By inducing Eve and Adam to sin, Satan ruined God's plan for humanity and became his enemy. Other Church fathers, specifically Tertullian, Irenaeus and Cyprian, picked up on Justin's insight and elaborated on it (as did Mohammed later on in the Koran).

The Christian philosopher Origen of Alexandria (who died c 255) came up with another idea. Satan did not become God's enemy when he opposed Adam and Eve but earlier, when he rebelled against God out of pride, as recounted by Isaiah xiv, in the tirade that he sets forth against the King of Babylon.

Isaiah seems to liken the king to Lucifer (the planet Venus as Morning Star), but Origen says, no, this cannot be a reference to a human being.

Ergo, it's Satan.

The web of slander was complete. It constitutes what I call the new biography of Satan, which was systematically retrofitted to the passages of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, that dealt with Satan as God's minister.

The challenge for us is to peel away this spurious layer and to determine what was really thought about Satan by the authors of the various books of the New Testament.

What we find, I hold, is not the total blackening of his character that was sponsored by later writers, but a relative denigration only.

He is characterised as a powerful and unscrupulous supernatural agent of the divine government who is unfair and brutal in his dealings with mankind. He is the mainstay of the ministerial Old Guard, cynical, suspicious and implacable.

The best analogies I can come up with for the ways in which Satan is regarded in the Bible are US Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, long-time director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the latter case, let's think of John F. Kennedy as God and Robert Kennedy, his Attorney-General, as the Messiah preaching the new Gospel of Civil Rights; Hoover, as the Satan figure, has no interest in this movement, being more concerned about the dangers of Communism, and suspicious of moral delinquents such as Martin Luther King.

I leave it to others to think of further apt examples of Satanic bureaucrats in more recent governments, both in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

Henry Angsar Kelly is emerit distinguished professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His book, Satan: A Biography , is published by Cambridge University Press, £12.99.

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