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Bible Q

Are there any historical accounts of what the ancient Christians taught about the devil/satan?

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

7 Replies to “Are there any historical accounts of what the ancient Christians taught about the devil/satan?”

  1. Here are some examples (To answer your question):

    Shepard of Hermas
    3[31]:4 To those then that were called before these days the Lord has appointed repentance. For the Lord, being a discerner of hearts and foreknowing all things, perceived the weakness of men and the manifold wiles of the devil, how that he will be doing some mischief to the servants of God, and will deal wickedly with them.
    1[33]:3 But if any angry temper approach, forthwith the Holy Spirit, being delicate, is straitened, not having [the] place clear, and seeketh to retire from the place; for he is being choked by the evil spirit, and has no room to minister unto the Lord, as he desireth, being polluted by angry temper. For the Lord dwelleth in long-suffering, but the devil in angry temper.
    1[37]:2 But fear not the devil; for, if thou fear the Lord, thou shalt be master over the devil, for there is no power in him. [For] in whom is no power, neither is there fear of him; but in whom power is glorious, of him is fear likewise. For every one that hath power hath fear, whereas he that hath no power is despised of all.
    1[37]:3 But fear thou the works of the devil, for they are evil. While then thou fearest the Lord, thou wilt fear the works of the devil, and wilt not do them, but abstain from them.
    1[37]:4 Fear therefore is of two kinds. If thou desire to do evil, fear the Lord, and thou shalt not do it. If again thou desire to do good, fear the Lord and thou shalt do it. Therefore the fear of the Lord is powerful and great and glorious. Fear the Lord then, and thou shalt live unto Him; yea, and as many of them that keep His commandments as shall fear Him, shall live unto God.”

    Justin Martyr – Dialog with Trypho
    “Be well assured, then, Trypho,” I continued, “that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which he who is called the devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah’s days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by[Jupiter’s] intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that[the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? And when they tell that Hercules was strong, and travelled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scripture which speaks of Christ, ‘strong as a giant to run his race,’ has been in like manner imitated? And when he[the devil] brings forward sculapius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ? But since I have not quoted to you such Scripture as tells that Christ will do these things, I must necessarily remind you of one such: from which you can understand, how that to those destitute of a knowledge of God, I mean the Gentiles, who, ‘having eyes, saw not, and having a heart, understood not,’ worshipping the images of wood,[how even to them] Scripture prophesied that they would renounce these[vanities], and hope in this Christ. It is thus written: ‘Rejoice, thirsty wilderness: let the wilderness be glad, and blossom as the lily: the deserts of the Jordan shall both blossom and be glad: and the glory of Lebanon was given to it, and the honour of Carmel. And my people shall see the exaltation of the Lord, and the glory of God. Be strong, ye careless hands and enfeebled knees. Be comforted, ye faint in soul: be strong, fear not. Behold, our God gives, and will give, retributive judgment. He shall come and save us. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear. Then the lame shall leap as an hart, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be distinct: for water has broken forth in the wilderness, and a valley in the thirsty land; and the parched ground shall become pools, and a spring of water shall[rise up] in the thirsty land.’ The spring of living water which gushed forth from God in the land destitute of the knowledge of God, namely the land of the Gentiles, was this Christ, who also appeared in your nation, and healed those who were maimed, and deaf, and lame in body from their birth, causing them to leap, to hear, and to see, by His word. And having raised the dead, and causing them to live, by His deeds He compelled the men who lived at that time to recognise Him. But though they saw such works, they asserted it was magical art. For they dared to call Him a magician, and a deceiver of the people. Yet He wrought such works, and persuaded those who were[destined to] believe on Him; for even if any one be labouring under a defect of body, yet be an observer of the doctrines delivered by Him, He shall raise him up at His second advent perfectly sound, after He has made him immortal, and incorruptible, and free from grief.

  2. To say that the Devil is already destroyed is to ignore Hebrew grammer; the “Perfective of Confidence”. The writers of the New Testament were Hebrew after all.

    From the standard grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (section 106n, pp. 312-313):

    More particularly the uses of the perfect may be distinguished as follows: — …To express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and, therefore in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), e.g., Nu. 17:27, behold, we perish ,we are undone, we are all undone. Gn. 30:13, Is. 6:5 (I am undone), Pr. 4:2….This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum). The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him, e.g. Is. 5:13 therefore my people are gone into captivity; 9:1ff.,10:28,11:9…; 19:7, Jb. 5:20, 2 Ch. 20:37. Not infrequently the imperfect interchanges with such perfects either in the parallel member or further on in the narrative.

  3. Jeff, the New Testament was written in Greek. The grammar is not an issue. Every standard modern English translation renders the destruction of the devil in the past tense.

  4. Here are some more “past tense” (actually the same Perfective of Confidence:

    Eph 2:6 And hath raised [us] up together, and made [us] sit together in heavenly [places] in Christ Jesus:

    I don’t know about you but I am still on the earth waiting to be seated in the heavenlies.

    1Pe 2:24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.

    Then why pray for healing it is “past tense”.

  5. That’s right, the grammar there is past tense. That’s why it’s translated as past tense. By the way, there’s no ‘perfective of confidence’ in 1 Peter 2:24. The healing spoken of there is redemption in Christ, which has already taken place for those in Christ.

    You’re not actually addressing the text in Hebrews.

  6. I have not found any “past tense” references to the destruction of the devil, I did find these though:

    [If he isn’t here then how can anyone give him “place”?]
    Eph 4:27 Neither give place to the devil.

    [If he isn’t here then how do we stand against his wiles?]
    Eph 6:11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

    [If he isn’t here then how can be condemed?]
    1Ti 3:6 Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.

    [If he isn’t here then how can he make a snare?]
    1Ti 3:7 Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

    [If he isn’t here then how can he take anyone captive?]
    2Ti 2:26 And [that] they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.

    [If he isn’t here then how can he flee? and how do we resist?]
    Jam 4:7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

    [If he is not here then how can he seek and roar?]
    1Pe 5:8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:

    [The context is easily understood to mean that the Devil has not already been destroyed, but will be in the future. The destruction occurring as detailed in the Book of Revelations]
    Hbr 2:14 Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
    Hbr 2:15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
    Hbr 2:16 For verily he took not on [him the nature of] angels; but he took on [him] the seed of Abraham.

    [When did/does this casting out occur?]
    Rev 12:9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
    Rev 12:12 Therefore rejoice, [ye] heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

    [How can he be bound when he is already destoryed]
    Rev 20:2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,

    [How can he be loosed when he has already been destoryed?]
    Rev 20:7 And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,

    [How can he be cast into a lake of fire when he has already been destroyed? The events leading up to this have not yet occurred!]
    Rev 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.

  7. If you haven’t found any past tense references to the destruction of the devil, then you’ve overlooked the passage in Hebrews. If you read the original answer to the question on this page, you will find the answer to all of your questions.

    * If he isn’t here then how can anyone give him “place”?
    * If he isn’t here then how do we stand against his wiles?

    There is no ‘he’. Giving place to the devil means submitting to our natural temptations. Standing against his wiles means resisting our natural temptations They are certainly ‘here’.

    * If he isn’t here then how can be condemed?
    * If he isn’t here then how can he make a snare?

    If you read 1 Timothy 3:1-7 you will find that the devil isn’t the subject of ‘condemned’. The subject of ‘condemnation’ is the one who wishes to become an overseer. Verses 6-7 are saying that it’s important that the one wishing to be an overseer isn’t a novice, and has a good reputation with those outside the church, so he doesn’t submit to his own temptations and doesn’t fall into the reproach of the adversary of the church (the ruling authorities).

    * If he isn’t here then how can he take anyone captive?
    * If he isn’t here then how can he flee? and how do we resist?

    These are speaking of being captive to our natural temptations.

    * If he is not here then how can he seek and roar?

    This is speaking of the Roman authorities. This passage is specifically addressed in the answer given above (please read it). You will note of course that this verse cannot possibly describe the ‘devil’ of popular belief because the ‘devil’ of popular of belief doesn’t go around seeking and roaring, the devil of popular belief is silent, invisible, and completely undetectable.

    * The context is easily understood to mean that the Devil has not already been destroyed, but will be in the future. The destruction occurring as detailed in the Book of Revelations

    The verse tells us exactly when and how the devil was destroyed. It was destroyed by Christ, at his death, on the cross. If you want to say that this really means ‘Christ didn’t destroy the devil by his death on the cross, but may get around to doing so some time in the future’, then you need to provide evidence for your interpretation. Otherwise this is mere guesswork.

    * When did/does this casting out occur?

    It already occurred. See

    * How can he be bound when he is already destoryed
    * How can he be loosed when he has already been destoryed?
    * How can he be cast into a lake of fire when he has already been destroyed? The events leading up to this have not yet occurred!

    This is speaking of the restraint of human sin and rulership in the Kingdom era, then its release and eventual destruction.