New Testament satanology & rabbinic literature

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Satan & demons: Thomas Farrar's commentary

Ex-Christadelphian Tom Farrar has written an article discussing the relevance of post-Christian rabbinic literature to the satanology of the New Testament and early Christianity. His article contains some useful information, but also contains some highly misleading statements.

How relevant is rabbinic literature to an understanding of the New Testament?

Farrar rightly notes that the relevance of post-Christian rabbinic literature to the New Testament, is a disputed issue in among scholars. It is generally agreed that the collections of rabbinic literature known as Talmud Jerusalem and Talmud Babylon, which first began to be compiled around two hundred years after the birth of Jesus, cannot be treated uncritically as an accurate representation of normative first century Judaism, or a reliable socio-religious context to the understanding of the New Testament.1

In particular, difficulties involved in the accurate dating of Jewish literature from the Second Temple Period (around 530 BCE to 70 CE), as well as the later rabbinic literature, complicate the challenge of determining whether or not a Jewish source was genuinely a part of the New Testament’s background.2 However, careful application of various criteria can provide reliable dates for rabbinic material,3 and help determine whether or not later rabbinic material illuminates the Second Temple Period background of the New Testament.

One generally reliable method of identifying relevant rabbinic material, is to search the later rabbinic literature for material found in the New Testament. When New Testament material is found in the much later Talmuds and Mishnah, it is most likely that the New Testament is reflecting Second Temple Period Judaism. Examples of this are numerous; there is indisputable evidence of Second Temple Period influence on many of Jesus’ parables,4 teachings,5 and even the questions he was asked and the answers he gave.6 This is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Talmuds (despite being very late compilations), do contain a great deal of material reflecting accurately the socio-religious context of Jesus’ own teachings.

Satanology in the Second Temple Period & rabbinic literature

However, it is a more complex task to identify the relevance to the New Testament (if any), of rabbinic commentary written or complied after the first century, when the relationship between the two is much less clear. A case in point (discussed specifically by Farrar in his article), is the satanology of the rabbinic literature. To what extent does the satanology found in the Talmuds, Targums, and Mishnah provide reliable background information on New Testament satanology? Addressing this issue, Farrar acknowledges he depends “heavily on the work of Reeg, who has recently published an essay on this very subject”.7 Farrar comments thus on the ‘satan’ of Talmud Babylon Baba Bathra 16a.

Reeg draws attention to the famous text b. B. Bat. 16a, in which the following statement is attributed to Resh Laqish: “Satan, the evil prompter, and the Angel of Death are all one.” This is indeed an important text, and a frequently misunderstood one. Whatever the original context of Resh Laqish’s saying (if indeed it is authentic), in its Talmudic literary context it is clear that Satan is to be understood as a personal being. This statement occurs in a passage about Job, where Satan is clearly a personal being.

Farrar claims that in this text “it is clear that Satan is to be understood as a personal being”. He does not tell readers that many scholars believe satan is not a personal being in this text.8

On the basis of Reeg’s statement that in the rabbinic literature “Satan is an independent figure, while the evil inclination is part of a human being”, Farrar claims that in the rabbinic literature satan is “not reduced to a mere figure of speech”.

Thus, while Satan in the rabbinic literature can represent or embody various attributes, such as sexual desire or divine justice, he is nonetheless viewed as an external, personal being and not reduced to a mere figure of speech.

However, as has already been demonstrated, many scholars view the ‘satan’ of Talmud Babylon Baba Bathra 16a as another name for the evil inclination. After four pages reviewing instances of satan in the Talmuds, Bamberger concludes “In at least some of the passages just cited, Satan is no more than a figure of speech”.9

Like many other readers of the New Testament (and many theologians), Farrar assumes the term ‘the evil one’ (ho poneros), necessarily refers to a personal supernatural evil being called Satan. He seems unaware that this usage of ho poneros has no pre-Christian witness. Summarizing the lexicographical evidence, Black notes ‘this term or designation for Satan is, outside the New Testament and dependent patristic writings, nowhere attested in classical, Hellenistic, or Jewish Greek sources’, which he gives as the reason against reading it as ‘the evil one’ even in Matthew.10 Farrar also seems unaware that several times in the Talmudic literature ‘evil one’ is used in the vocative to address the evil inclination as if it were a personal being.

Locating the New Testament Satan in Jewish literature

Farrar finds significant similarities between the New Testament satan and some of the satanological material in the Talmuds.

In summary, in spite of some obvious differences, broadly speaking there is much common ground between the picture of Satan that emerges from rabbinic literature and that which emerges from the New Testament.

However, he is rightly cautious about drawing firm conclusions about the extent to which the rabbinic literature can be said to “form part of the background to the New Testament picture of Satan”.

To what extent rabbinic literature can be said to form part of the background to the New Testament picture of Satan, I would not want to speculate. However, it appears that rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity followed similar trajectories in their views of Satan based on their shared background in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism. Importantly, both bodies of writings reflect a belief that Satan is a real personal being and not merely an abstraction. In neither case is the interpreter justified in taking the correlation between Satan and the yetzer hara to mean that Satan has no independent existence.

It is of interest that Farrar has attempted to locate the New Testament satan in Jewish literature by starting in the rabbinic commentary of the second century and later, and moving back to the New Testament in a simple process of comparison, to see if the roles assigned to satan in the rabbinic commentary and New Testament are sufficiently similar to draw conclusions about New Testament satanology. The results, as he acknowledges, are an inadequate basis on which to establish a reliable understanding of the Second Temple Period background to New Testament satanology.

What Farrar has failed to do is start his examination with the earliest available Second Temple Period Jewish literature, and moved forward first to the New Testament and then to the later rabbinic commentary. Such a method is essential in order to gain a proper understanding of the relevant background to satan in the New Testament. Importantly, he has failed to take note of the use within Second Temple Period literature of terms such as satanas and diabolos with non-supernatural referents.

A Second Temple Period background to New Testament satanology

It is well known that various forms of supernatural evil (including angels and demons), are part of the Second Temple Period literature constituting the socio-religious background of New Testament satanology. However, considerably less well recognized and understood (at least outside the arena of scholarship), is the strong evidence for a non-supernatural satanology with a continuity from the second century BCE through to the Talmudic literature of the second to fifth centuries CE.

1. The term ‘satan’ is used in Sirach 21:27 of the evil inclination. In the Qumran literature it is used in 11Q5 xix 13-16 (the ‘Prayer for Deliverance’), as a reference to the evil inclination,11 and 4Q Barkhi Nafshi interprets the satan of Zechariah 3 as the evil inclination.12 In the Talmuds, satan is identified as the evil inclination at least once, and used in some places as a figure of speech.

2. The term ‘the devil’ is used in the Old Greek in 1 Chronicles 21:1 (of the adversary which attacks Israel, prompting David’s census), Esther 7:4; 8:1 (of Haman), Psalm 108:6 (of a human slanderer), Job 1:6-9, 12; 2:1-4, 6-7 (of Job’s adversary), and Zechariah 3:1-2 (of the accuser of Joshua). It is found in Wisdom of Solomon (2:24), where it most likely refers to Cain,13 and 1 Maccabees (1:36), used of human adversaries. Significantly, in all these texts it is always found in the form of ‘the devil’ (ho diabolos), even though the term clearly does not have the same referent in each passage. This is evidence that the term was not understood at this time of a unique referent, certainly not an established term for a specific supernatural being, evil or otherwise.

3. The term ‘the evil one’ has no Second Temple pre-Christian witness, prompting many scholars to argue that ton ponērou should not even be read as ‘the evil one’ in Matthew; several times in the Talmudic literature ‘evil one’ is used in the vocative to address the evil inclination as if it was a personal being.

4. The term ‘the tempter’ has no Second Temple pre-Christian witness; it is also absent from the Apostolic Fathers.

This body of evidence demonstrates that a non-supernatural satanology forms a significant part of the New Testament background.

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  1. ‘New Testament scholarship places a heavy burden on rabbinic literature to portray the Judaism of the first century, the Judaism that Jesus and Paul knew. But nearly all New Testament scholars today rightly dismiss as uncritical the promiscuous citation, for that purpose, of rabbinic writings dated many centuries after the first.’, Jacob Neusner, Introduction to Rabbinic Literature (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1994), 655. []
  2. ‘The biggest problem with the targumic literature for the NT is one of dating. One must carefully compare Qumran, intertestamental, rabbinic and targumic traditions before concluding whether material was or was not a part of the first-century background to the NT.’, R. Buth, “Aramaic Language,” ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, Dictionary of New Testament Background: a Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 90. []
  3. ‘If a story refers to the destruction of the Temple, for example, then that story was made up after A.D. 70, a reasonable, if trivial, supposition.’, Jacob Neusner, Introduction to Rabbinic Literature (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1994), 655–656. []
  4. ‘Our rabbinic parables are all later than Jesus, but this should not surprise us since all rabbinic literature is later than Jesus, as are most of the sages it cites (Vermes 1993: 97; cf. Young 1989: 3).7 But because Jesus probably did not influence directly most later rabbis (pace the argument from silence in Jeremias 1972: 12), we may assume that both Jesus and these rabbis drew on and adapted standard Palestinian Jewish teaching techniques of their day (Abrahams 1917: 106; Johnston 1977b: 43). Occasionally he probably even developed traditional story lines (Taylor 1935: 104; Johnston 1977b: 635).’, Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 373; ‘The closest formal and linguistic parallels to Jesus’ parables, however, occur in Palestinian rabbinic texts, that is, later records of how Jewish teachers customarily reasoned and taught (e.g., m. Soṭa 9:15; Mek. Pisha 1.82–84; b. Ber. 61b); this seems the consensus of scholars directly familiar with both sets of parables.6 Although rabbinic parables are later and midrashic, hence more stereotyped, examination demonstrates considerable formal similarities between rabbinic and Gospel parables, especially morphological but often even extending to stock metaphors and characters (Johnston 1977b: 628–33).’, Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 373; Similar imagery also affords sometimes striking parallels with Jesus’ parables. (Cf., e.g., TB Shabbath 153a [about a king who announced an impending banquet and the division between servants who clothed themselves for the festivity and those who did not] with Mt. 22:1–14 and 25:1–10. Those who argue against the authenticity or unity of composition of these Synoptic parables might need to reconsider.)’, Craig L. Blomberg, “Parable,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. Geoffrey William. Bromiley; revised.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979-1988), 659. []
  5. ‘Hanina lived during the first century, but after the death of Jesus. Hillel, on the other hand, was a slightly older contemporary of Jesus. The Talmud relates that Hillel once was approached by a man who wanted to be taught the Torah so as to convert to Judaism quickly, while he stood on one foot. Hillel told him: “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while everything else is commentary: go and learn!” (see B. Shab. 31a). Jesus’ teaching concerning the principal of love in the Torah is an obvious analogy (see Mat. 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–26).’, Jacob Neusner, Alan Jeffery Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green, The Encyclopaedia of Judaism (Brill, 2000), 536. []
  6. ‘Hanina lived during the first century, but after the death of Jesus. Hillel, on the other hand, was a slightly older contemporary of Jesus. The Talmud relates that Hillel once was approached by a man who wanted to be taught the Torah so as to convert to Judaism quickly, while he stood on one foot. Hillel told him: “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while everything else is commentary: go and learn!” (see B. Shab. 31a). Jesus’ teaching concerning the principal of love in the Torah is an obvious analogy (see Mat. 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–26).’, Jacob Neusner, Alan Jeffery Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green, The Encyclopaedia of Judaism (Brill, 2000), 536; ‘The Pharisees now approach Jesus and question him in order to tempt him. The readers are reminded of 16:1* and have a foreboding that something sinister is going to happen. Matthew changes Mark’s question to: Is it lawful to dismiss one’s wife for any cause?19 The question probably reflects the way the issue was debated between the schools of Hillel and Shammai.’, Ulrich Luz, Matthew: a Commentary (ed. Helmut Koester; Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 488. []
  7. Gottfriend Reeg, “The Devil in Rabbinic Literature,” in Evil and the Devil, ed. Erkki Koskenniemi and Ida Fröhlich, Library of New Testament Studies (A&amp;C Black, 2013), 71–83. []
  8. ‘In the context of this statement we have the famous saying of Resh Lakish (third century): “Satan, the evil inclination and the Angel of Death are one and the same.” This highly rationalistic remark means: Satan is but the personification of sin that leads to death.’, Bernard J. Bamberger, Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm (Jewish Publication Society, 2006), 95; ‘Note that in b. Bab. Bat. 16a, the evil inclination is identified with Satan. “Resh Lakish said: Satan, the evil prompter, and the Angel of Death are one””, Richard H. Bell, No One Seeks for God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 1.18-3.20 (Mohr Siebeck, 1998), 182; ‘Zerahiah also informs us here that both Satan and Job’s wife are metaphors for the evil inclination, a motif Zerahiah seems to identify with the imagination. Zerahiah bases his view on Resh Lakish’s Talmudic dictum that Satan, the evil inclination, and the angel of death, are all one and the same, a dictum that had been central in Maimonides’ discussion of Satan as well.’, Robert Eisen, The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2004), 120; ‘Updating a psychological insight of the sages, Maimonides treated Satan as a personification of imagination. “It is their dictum in the Talmud: Rabbi Simon ben Laqish said: Satan, the evil inclination, and the angel of death are one and the same” [BT, Baba Batra, 16a] (Guide III:22; p. 489).’, David Bakan, Dan Merkur Ph.D, and Dan Merkur, David Bakan, David S. Weiss, Maimonides’ Cure of Souls: Medieval Precursor of Psychoanalysis (SUNY Press, 2009), 61; ‘Hebrews seems to reflect the same tradition as that of Resh Laqish (B. Bat. 16a), who identified Satan, the evil inclination, and the angel of death.’, Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1993), 173. []
  9. Bernard J. Bamberger, Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm (Jewish Publication Society, 2010), 98 []
  10. ‘One reason given for rejecting the masculine, ‘the Evil One’, is that this term or designation for Satan is, outside the New Testament and dependent patristic writings, nowhere attested in classical, Hellenistic, or Jewish Greek sources. In the monumental and invaluable Concordance Grecque des Pseudépigraphes d’Ancien Testament of Père Albert-Marie Denis (Louvain, 1987), no single instance of ὁ πονηρός in this sense is cited; an apparent exception occurs in inferior manuscripts of the Testament of Job 7:1, but this is almost certainly a correction of Σατανᾶς, the usual term in the Testament, introduced by a Christian redactor. he situation is no different when we turn to Hebrew or Aramaic sources, which have their own distinctive terms for the devil, ‘Belial’, ‘Beelzebul’, ‘Mastema’, etc., not to mention ‘Satan’ itself (Greek ὁ διάβολος, ‘the slanderer’, a noun based on one of Satan’s classic roles). Dalman rendered ὁ πονηρός in the Pater Noster back into Heb. הרע, Aram. בישא, but stated that ‘The designation “the Evil One” (der Böse) for Satan never appears in Jewish literature (Heb. hā-rā‘)’. ’, Matthew Black, “The Doxology to the Pater Noster with a Note on Matthew 6:13b,” in A Tribute to Geza Vermes: Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History (ed. Richard T. Davies, Philip R. White; vol. 100; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), 333. []
  11. ‘In addition, Tigchelaar considers the juxtaposition of a satan and an “evil inclination” in the Plea for Deliverance to be parallel to the identification of Satan with the evil inclination in the Babylonian Talmud (b. B.B. 16a).’, Miryam Brand, Evil Within and Without: The Source of Sin and Its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Literature (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 21. []
  12. ‘For example, instead of the defiled clothes of the priest that are removed and replaced with pure garments, the speaker in the Barkhi Nafshi text exults that God has removed his sinful ways and “clothed” him in the spirit of salvation (4Q438 4a ii 6: ורוח ישועות הלבשתני ), paraphrasing Isa 61:10b “for he has clothed me with garments of salvation”107F כִּי הִלְבִּישַׁניִ בִּגדְֵי ישֶַׁע) 37). Consequently, this prayer cannot be described as “demonizing” sin, but rather as creating an abstraction based on the idea of the śātān. The non-human, external, and demonic role played by the śātān does not suit the author’s focus, which is wholly on the internal change that has been effected within the human being and the conversion of his innermost parts. For these purposes, the śātān is transformed into a wholly internal evil inclination that is the abstract personification of the human desire to sin. This evil inclination, like the heart of stone, is removed entirely and replaced with a positive counterpart.’, Miryam T Brand, Evil within and without: The Source of Sin and Its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Literature (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 48; ‘It seems, however, that the context points indeed to yetzer’s identification with an evil tendency rather than a demonic being.’, Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Demonic Desires: “Yetzer Hara” and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 47. []
  13. ‘Cf. Wisdom 2.24; ‘it was through the devil’s envy that Death entered into the cosmic order’ has been taken by many interpreters to refer to Cain (cf. D. Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon [AB], 121 for discussion). The interpretation gains some support from Wisdom 10.1-3, which contrasts Adam with Cain, ‘the wicked man… on whose account the earth was flooded.’, Philip R. Davies, “Sons of Cain,” in A Word in Season: Essays in Honour of William McKane (ed. Philip R. Davies and James D. Martin; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 42; Bloomsbury Publishing, 1987), 56.; ‘It is in fact likely that Clement interpreted Wisdom correctly in identifying the diaboloV of 2.24 as Cain and not as Adam or anyone connected with the sin of Adam.’, Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 78; ‘In Wisdom 10:1-2, the author does not consider the sin of Adam as particularly grievous, but in 10:3-4 blames Cain for three instances of death: the death of Abel, Cain’s own spiritual death of exile, and the death of almost the entire human race by flood. It is likely therefore that death entered the world through Cain’s murder of Abel.’, Richard J. Clifford, Wisdom (New Collegeville Bible Commentary; Liturgical Press, 2013), 21; ‘So while it is possible that Wis 2:24 is referring to the serpent/devil’s deception of Eve, it is not certain. If this is an allusion to Eve’s deception in Gen 3:4 then it is one of the earliest extant Jewish documents to equate the serpent with the devil. But if diaboloV is translated as “of the enemy,” then it is possible that 2:24 constitutes an allusion to Cain’s murder of Abel.’, John Byron, Cain and Abel in Text and Tradition: Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the First Sibling Rivalry (Brill, 2011), 220; ‘Levison’s theory is that “the enemy” (for this is how he translates this instance of diaboloV) is actually Cain, as is more explicitly the case in 10:3-4.’, Peter Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Baker Academic, 2008), 19. []

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