7 January 2012


Miguel A. De La Torre and Albert Hernández. The Quest for the Historical Satan. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2011.

On the face of it, this is not quite the same as writing about, say, ‘The Quest for the Historical Arthur’, which implies that there was a historical King Arthur underlying the medieval romances, as it is rather more contentious to suggest that there was a historical Satan.
The authors begin with a chapter on ‘Satan in the Modern World’, a quick jaunt through legends that McDonald’s or Proctor and Gamble are in league with the Devil, Halloween, Satan on film (they assert that Hollywood means ‘Holy Wood’, an unlikely etymology which derives, I have been told, from a Terry Pratchett novel), the Church of Satan, alleged Satanic crime (they kindly refer to my own publication on this subject), the views of fundamentalist Christians such as Hal Lindsay (whose reputation does not seem to have been affected by the failure of his prophecy that “The decade of the 1980’s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it”), Catholics, and Liberal Christians who obviously take a milder view of the matter. After that they turn, not quite to the history of Satan, but ‘A Textual History’.

Probably the earliest references to Satan are in the opening chapters of the Book of Job, from which it appears that heaven was regarded as a celestial courtroom, in which God was the judge and Satan the prosecutor. (In those days you were not given a defence lawyer, neither on earth nor in heaven.) A prosecutor – the word Satan actually means ‘adversary’ - is not inherently evil, but, if one takes the view that we are all ‘miserable sinners’, then he is obviously someone to be feared.

Over the centuries many other concepts were added. Early in the sixth century (BC), the Hebrews were taken away to captivity in Babylonia. But in about 538 Babylon was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great, and so they came into contact with the Zoroastrian religion, whose scriptures state that: “In the beginning, there were two Spirits, Twins spontaneously active; these were the Good Spirit and the Evil, in thought, and in word, and in deed.” Eventually, Satan would become identified with the Evil Spirit. This was quite different from the earlier concept that all things, good or bad came from God, as in Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

One passage that has created considerable debate is Genesis 6:2: “the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” The ‘Sons of God’ were presumably angels, who are normally supposed to be sexless, so how could this be? The inter-testamental Book of Enoch explained that Semihazah, the leader of the Watchers (angels whose task was to watch over the universe) persuaded two hundred fellow angels to engage in sexual intercourse with human women, as a result of which they were expelled from heaven. The early church father Origen connected this story with a passage in Isaiah (14:12): “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” “He rejected the notion that the passage could be a reference to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.”

Accordingly, Lucifer became the leader of the fallen angels, and was identified with Satan, though the latter was not mentioned in the Book of Enoch; among Christians the name Semihazah became forgotten. Ironically, Lucifer, which means ‘Light-bearer’, referred to Venus as the morning star, whereas at the very end of the Bible Jesus is quoted as saying that “I am . . . the bright and morning star.” (Revelations 22:16) Also, 2 Peter 1:19, in the Latin version, “suggests that the prophets of old are a lamp for light the way until Jesus as lucifer rises within our minds”, although the Authorised Version renders ‘lucifer’, as ‘the day star’.

In the New Testament, Satan appears by name, but also translated into Greek as Diabolos, which likewise means adversary, and whence we get the English word Devil. A vision of the future in Revelation 12:9 reads: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” It may have been the phrase ‘the old serpent’ that led Satan to be identified with the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, indeed I have known people who believe that this is stated in the Bible, although in fact it is one of many features of Christian belief and theology which have no scriptural authority.

Though some Jews and Christians thought that the deities of the Pagans were simply non-existent, most held that they were real, but actually evil spirits deceiving the human race. The Greek word daimon meant a spirit, or a God. Accordingly, the word demon came to signify a devil.

The millennia from the rise of Christianity to the present day are treated in less detail, including such matters as Dante’s Inferno, the witch craze, and the justification of the colonisation of the Americas on the grounds that the indigenous people were in league with the devil, and hence engaged in cannibalism and bestiality. They date “the start of Satan’s death pangs” to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which, on an important Catholic feast day, killed four people out of five in the city, and destroyed almost every church. This made people reluctant to believe in God, and this had a ‘knock-on’ effect, since there can be few people who believe in Satan but not in God. Curiously, though, it was in the nineteenth century that versions of the Faust story became particularly popular, and the theme of the “Devil‘s Pact” is to this day common in ‘horror’ literature and film. In particular, we now have the novels of Frank E. Peretti, This Present Darkness and its sequel, Piercing the Darkness, the latter being the winner of the Evangelical Christian Publisher Association Gold Medallion Book Award in 1990 for best fiction.

Despite the book’s wide scope, there are one or two other points that I feel should have been included. According to Revelations 20:10: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Yet, in later tradition, it was the devil and his minions who were responsible for torturing sinners, and there was never any suggestion that they were suffering themselves.

Some other remarks need qualification. They say that “the deities of the former ancestral faith . . . became the demons of the new Christian religion”, citing the example of the “resemblance of the Devil to the Greek and Roman god Pan, who possessed cloven-feet, horns, and goatee”. There is some truth in this, for instance the 1723 engraving of the temptation in the wilderness by Anthony Vitre shows the Devil as a sort of female Pan, with horns, goat’s legs, and breasts. But more often he had bird’s feet, scales, and claws, not really looking like anything in Pagan art. Moreover, these images were comparatively late, perhaps thirteenth century. The mosaic on the floor of the cathedral of Otranto in south-east Italy, which dates from 1165, simply depicts Satan as a man, though with a large forked tongue.

If I may indulge in some nit-picking literary criticism, the proof-reading leaves something to be desired: they say that Satan was mentioned “three times across two verses in Zechariah (3:11-12)”. The third chapter of Zechariah has only ten verses; they meant 3:1-2. There is a reference to “Swanson 2005, 13”, but this work has been omitted from the bibliography. Also, the index could be better, there is for instance no reference to Enoch, although he is important to the story. -- Gareth J. Medway.

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