Define “Devil”

Been teaching a very fun introductory course on the Gospels, which in turn has provoked some excellent questions from the class.  This one came up the other day – after an examination of Jesus’ ministry of casting out demons – and I thought I’d share.

And I would like to begin my answer by thanking the questioner for offering my inner geek the opportunity to fully express himself!

So here’s the deal:  The word  Matthew uses (as does Luke) in the temptation narrative is:  diabolos (from which you can easily discern the Latin, Spanish, etc.).  The noun diabolos is derived from the verb diaballo, which itself is a compound word from the preposition dia (= through) and ballo (= to throw).  Pretty exciting, eh????

Diabollo (verb) literally means “to throw across” or “to divide, separate from,” but used in the sense of “to oppose” or “to accuse.”  Can also be used in the context of deception (e.g., “to misrepresent”).

The reason one cares that the noun is derived from the verb is that it’s a pretty good indication that the noun is meant to objectify the qualities of the verb.  That is to say, there isn’t a “thing” that gets named by the noun.  Rather, there is a quality of being that – when expressed – is denoted by the noun.  In short:  there is no “thing” out there called a “devil” that you can put in the zoo.  Rather, there is a thing that has the qualities of opposing, separating, speaking falsehood that can be seen as having substance.  So you are very much correct with your suggestion that the label is being applied to something that cannot be otherwise understood.  In the temptation story, “devil” is something of a placeholder for whatever it was that tempted Jesus.

If we choose to get even more geeky (and why wouldn’t we????), we can examine how the word evolved over time (there is a really great set of reference books that is very helpful with this – not like it’s something carry in my brain; I’m not THAT geeky!…please….).

First place we’d want to look is Classic Greek (the stuff Plato, Aristotle et al used).  This allows us to see what words meant before they were invested with meaning that derived from Hebrew and Christian ideas.  And it turns out that diabolos is very rarely used.  Helps us understand that the NT usage is based in Hebrew ideas.

I was curious how the original Greek Bible described “the devil” that  tempted Jesus in Matthew 4 (and parallel texts).  Is Matthew intending to describe a distinct entity – some creature you could find at  a (spiritual?) zoo?  Or is the language of “the devil/ Satan” used simply to label the indescribable?

Next place to look is the Septuagint (the Gk. translation of the Hebrew OT – known in shorthand as the LXX; it’s the “Bible” most in Jesus’ day would have read).

In the LXX diabolos is used to translate the Hebrew word satan (which means…”opponent” or “adversary” and was not a proper name – no capital “S”).  Diabolos is found a grand total of 21 times in the LXX, 13 of them in Job 1-2.  But before we get too comfortable with our imaginations of a clearly spiritual being who likes to torment people, we must keep in mind that Job is a highly stylized book and in it, the satan is not an opponent of God, but a member of his court).  Furthermore, diabolos/satan  is also used in places like 1 Sam. 29:4 where it is used to describe King David.  The context here is very important as  David is being regarded as an adversary not of God or of Israel, but of the by the Philistines (one who’s side he is supposed to fight).

Side note:  Interesting that Matthew (writing to a very Jewish audience) uses the word diabolos, whereas Mark (writing to a very Gentile audience) uses the word “satan.”

If one were writing their PhD dissertation on this (and that would be rad!), the central place to focus would be the inter-testamental period, which is where the idea of “devil” and “Satan” (as a proper name) become vastly more important figures.  This is a fascinating study from an historical perspective, but a little more difficult on the religious front, in that the ideas that develop in late-2nd Temple Judaism (say 200 BC – 70 AD) depart a bit from the OT.  What Israel does with the concept of Satan in say 50 BC does not line up very well with the theology of the OT.

We see this especially in the theology of the Essenes.  In the Dead Sea Scrolls they describe God as having created two spirits – an Angel of Light and an Angel of Darkness who were fighting it out for power in this age.  Those who were pure (i.e., the Essenes) were Sons of Light.  Those who were apostate or enemies of righteousness were Sons of Darkness.  (BTW, the name of this Angel of Darkness was Belial.)

So there’s the short version of the basic data….  And yet with all of it, the question remains:  “So what did the NT authors intend to communicate with their use of words like ‘satan’ and ‘devil’?”

No obvious answer.

But  here’s what I think is the really cool about this manner of reflection:  When we enter into a debate in this manner, we step into the world of the great Christian thinkers – past and present.  Our ability to wrestle with these issues in the way we just did places us alongside  Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Merton, Nouwen (insert any other great biblical scholar, theologian or spiritual guide of your choice).

These did not occupy themselves with the easy questions, but with the hard ones.  Only simple questions lend themselves to simple answers.  And a hallmark of true maturity is the ability to live with tension and ambiguity.  When we can allow all the data to speak,  make our best sense of things, and accept a degree of not-knowing  as part of the life of faith, we step into the realm in which deep growth can occur.   And I think that is really cool!  🙂



  1. Don
    October 28, 2011

    So when Jesus tells Peter (sorry, I’m not a chapter-and-verse guy) “get behind me satan,” we don’t need to make quite such a big deal about it because he’s not really calling Peter the devil, but rather an accuser? Still bad, of course, but not quite AS bad.

  2. Dan
    October 13, 2012

    In fact, diabolos is NOT a noun, it is an adjective.


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