Early Christians after the 1st century AD typically understood the devil/satan as a supernatural evil being, either a fallen angel or a demon. However, some early Jewish interpreters held a very different view.

The famous 18th century Baptist commentator John Gill acknowledged that early Jewish teachers interpreted ‘satan’ as a reference to the natural inclination people have to sin, the ‘evil imagination’:

‘’…they {a} often say, “Satan, he is the evil imagination”, or corruption of nature…’

John Gill (1748), ‘Commentary On the Bible’, note on 2 Corinthians 12:7.

Jewish understanding of Satan

Current Jewish groups confirm this is a historic understanding of ‘satan’ within Judaism:

‘Rather, Satan is a force or adversary, according to rabbinic sources, equal to the serpent-tempter of Genesis, and the yetzer ha’ra, the evil inclination that Judaism says exists within all of us alongside our better impulses.’

‘Judaism teaches that these images “are different manifestations of the same [force of evil],” Kahn says. “Not that there is a physical person or an angel out there doing things, but that it’s the way in which we hold or characterize the destructive or negative forces that exist in ourselves or in the world.”’

Jewish News Weekly, Leslie Katz, ‘Never underestimate the power of evil, say scholars’, January 19, 1996

This phrase comes from the Hebrew Bible : “the imagination of the heart of man [is] evil” (יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע‎, yetzer lev-ha-adam ra), and occurs twice in the Hebrew Bible, at Genesis 6:5 and 8:21. The Hebrew noun ‘yetzer’ means inclination, while the adjective ‘ra’ means ‘evil’. The following is a list of Jewish expositors who held to this same view of ‘satan’, along with the passages of Scripture they interpreted according to this understanding.

  • 1344 (d):  Levi ben Gershon (1 Samuel 24:1)
  • 1160 (b):  David Kimchi (1 Samuel 24:1, Zechariah 3:1)
  • 892-942:  Saadia Ben Joseph (Job 1:6)
  • 400s (?):  Judah, (Micah 7:5, compare Deuteronomy 15:9 LXX)
  • 330-360:  Ben Isaac (Micah 7:5, compare Deuteronomy 15:9 LXX)
  • 230-270:  Simeon Ben Lakish (said that satan/the heart/angel of death are all one)
  • 135-160:  Joshua Ben Kar’ha (Deuteronomy 15:9)
  • 100s AD: Jonathan Ben Uzziel (Zechariah 3:1)

New Testament understanding

This understanding of ‘satan’ is found in the New Testament. In the following the apostle Peter places two statements in parallel to show that ‘satan filled your heart’ is another way to say ‘you thought this deed up in your heart’:

Acts 5:3-4 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!”

The ‘devil’ is also sometimes used of evil rulers or kingdoms: 1 Peter 5:8 (quoting Proverbs 20:2; 28:15); Revelation 12:9 (quoting Daniel 7:7, 19-23).  The Bible says the devil has been destroyed by Jesus:  Jesus, by his death, destroyed the devil (Hebrews 2:14-18), and the devil is that which has the power of death, which is sin (Romans 7:8-11, 1 Corinthians 15:56-57).  This shows us that ‘the devil’ is a term used for the natural tendency of men to sin.

Christian teachers of a non-literal Satan

As noted previously, this understanding of ‘satan’ is not new.  It has been a historic interpretation among Jewish commentators, and for centuries it has also been believed by various Christian commentators.  It is not a new doctrine which has been invented recently.

The following is a list of Christian expositors who held to this same view of ‘satan’, preceded by their date:

  • 1858:  Horace Bushnell
  • 1854:  Hosea Ballou
  • 1842:  John Epps
  • 1842:  William Balfour
  • 1836:  Amos Alcott
  • 1819:  ‘Philalethes’
  • 1804:  John Simpson
  • 1799:  ‘AN’
  • 1791:  William Ashdowne
  • 1772:  Thomas Barker
  • 1761:  Hugh Farmer
  • 1737:  Arthur Sykes
  • 1727:  Sir Isaac Newton
  • 1699:  Ludowick Muggleton
  • 1695:  Balthassar Bekker
  • 1651:  Thomas Hobbes
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