The devil

By Julia Itel – Published on 21/06/2022

The devil embodies the spirit of evil, the tempter, the one who opposes or who destroys. Sometimes called Satan, Lucifer or Beelzebub, the devil is a Judeo-Christian invention, which appeared in the two centuries BC. Back to this very mysterious character…

The Devil in the Old Testament

The devil is almost absent from the Hebrew Bible. It appears three times under the common name stn, which gave Satan which means “adversary” or “accuser” in Hebrew.

It is found in the First Book of Chronicles (26, 1), in the Book of Job (1, 6) and in the Book of Zechariah (3, 1-2). Appearing as a member of God’s entourage, he presents himself as an enemy of man and seeks to cause him his downfall.

For example, Satan pushes King David to take a census of the people of Israel, something that was only within the power of God and which provoked his anger. To punish Israel, God sends the plague and threatens to exterminate the people – which he avoids at the last moment.

We do not really know the reasons that lead Satan to set himself up against humanity in this way. This will be the subject of later theological debates.


What is the etymology of the word “devil”?

In the 4th century BC, the Bible was translated into Greek and the term satan was replaced by diaboloswhich means “the one who opposes, who separates” or “the one who is thrown through, who obstructs”.

Diabolos is the antonym of symbolon, “what gathers”, “what unites”. He is therefore the one who divides reality and who holds destructive forces.

The first sources: apocalyptic literature

The apocalyptic literary genre

During the 2nd century BC, Judea was under the control of the Hellenistic dynasty. Tensions emerge within the Jewish people who separate into several groups. Deprived of their political autonomy and their religion by Antiochos IV, the Jews produced a new literary genre that served to illuminate the present, made up of uncertainty and suffering: the apocalyptic literature.

This allows them to project themselves into a future time when God’s promises will come true. The present, led by the spirit of evilwill nevertheless soon give way to a milder weather, where the spirit of Good will triumph.

A fight between evil and good

the Book of Daniel, written around 164 BC, is one of the first to openly mention the existence of an evil spirit incarnated in the form of a beast. It also introduces the idea of ​​a possible damnation for some at the end of time.

The idea of ​​a final fight between the forces of evil and those of light are also present among the Qumran manuscripts, attributed to the sect of the Essenes. There is an open reference to the “Prince of Darkness”, also referred to as Belial and who would be in command of a legion of angels.

The Army of Fallen Angels

the Book of Enoch, which is a pseudepigraphical account and supposedly attributed to Noah’s great-grandfather, establishes the origin of Satan and the demons. According to the author, the latter are angels – therefore creatures of God – who sinned by desiring to sexually possess women, descendants of Eve. They would have taught them sorcery and engendered giants spreading terror on Earth.

An army of angels, including the three most famous Michel, Raphael and Gabriel, then intercedes with humans and a great battle ensues where light ends up defeating evil. The rebel angels are punished and those who oppose God are said to have become stars falling from heaven (hence the name Lucifer” Light bearer “).

This vision of the origin of evil was ratified by councils, including that of Lateran in 1215, and inspired the first Christians.

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The Serpent of Genesis

Until the 1st century BC, the genesis serpent who tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit is not yet assimilated to the devil. We find this correspondence in the Book of Wisdom which attributes to Satan the role of the tempter, the seducer using trickery to introduce mistrust in man.

The Devil in the New Testament

The first Christians are therefore strongly impregnated with the themes present in apocalyptic literature, especially since they live at a time when persecutions are commonplace.

In the New Testament, the devil (and his names) appears 188 times. He becomes the enemy par excellence, the one against whom Jesus must fight. Having relatively little importance in the Old Testament, Satan takes a prominent place here because it responds to the need to present Christ as the Savior of humanity. It therefore plays a role eschatological.

Jesus, Conqueror of Evil

In the episode of temptation of christ, as well as in several cases of exorcism with which Jesus is confronted, the evangelists want to show him as the winner of Evil. In the New Testament, the devil is constantly presented as responsible for all the sins that exist on Earth. He is the one who opposes the divine plan, the one who darkens and weakens the consciousness.

By the symbol of the Cross, Jesus liberates humanity by showing them that another way is possible: that of freely disposing of themselves. Therein lies the Good News of the Gospel, that of the triumph of life over darkness.

The Devil in Revelation

The representation of the devil was also very marked by the imagination of the book of Revelation, which closes the New Testament, and which would be a revelation made by Jesus to the author, John.

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Through his accounts of visions, the author narrates the eschatological struggle pitting God, the Lamb (Jesus, redeemer) and the early persecuted Christians against Satan and his earthly manifestations. First defeating the Dragon (reminiscent of the serpent of Genesis), the Lamb will confront the two Beasts which represent, according to historians and exegetes, the Emperor Nero and the city of Rome.

Both Beasts are monstrous. One has ten horns and seven heads; the other has two horns. This representation of the horned devil will remain in the following centuries and seems inspired by the Greek god Banggod of sexual desire, also horned, hairy and goat-headed.

Evolution of the figure of the devil in history

Among the Fathers of the Church

At the beginning of the Church, the place held by the devil in the Christian tradition posed a problem. Is he the negative side of God, therefore his equal? the First Council of Braga, held around 560, slice: the devil is a creature of God, an angel who has sinned. His powers are therefore not commensurate with those of the divine.

But why did he fail? This question animates the debates much earlier, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. For Irénée de Lyon, the devil and the fallen angels are jealous of men because although created before them by God, humanity has received more favors from the Lord. For Tatien, a disciple of Justin, it is thepride who caused the devil to make men idolize him.

Demonize Heresies

In the first centuries AD, the young Christian Church had to face many competitors. The first theologians then came to associate the heretical currents and the survival of paganism to the action of the devil who opposes missionaries and evangelizers. Anything that’s not Christian is evil.

In the Middle Ages, the devil goes beyond the theological concept alone: ​​he becomes a reality. From the 12th century, the idea of ​​educating through fear emerged. Anything transgressive becomes associated with the work of the devil. The notion of purgatory was created, in the 13th century the demonologymultiple heresies (like the Cathars) and diseases (like the plague) are the work of demonic forces… From the 16th century onwards, the trials for witchcraft and The inquisition amplify the existence of an evil power on earth.


Survival and Decline of Belief in the Devil

The Age of Enlightenment and the progressive establishment of the primacy of reason over superstitions demystified the figure of devil. From now on, it is perceived as a clerical invention.

Nevertheless, it does not disappear completely: from the end of the 18th century, it becomes the archetype of the man who breaks against the established order and, therefore, who frees himself. Seducing romantic circles, he was thus transformed into a literary figure and would later inspire the psychoanalysis which will internalize the function of the devil to the instinct to which man remains subject.


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The devil

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