Satanological terminology in the Synoptics: summary

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series The Yetzer in the Wilderness: Jesus and the Evil Inclination

The following list summarizes the lexical evidence for the Synoptics’ satanological terminology in Second Temple pre-Christian texts.

1. The term ‘satan’ (satanas in Greek), is used in Sirach 21:27 of the evil inclination. It is also used in 1 Enoch (41:9; 53:3; 54:6), Jubilees (23:29; 40:9; 46:2; 50:5), Qumran texts 1QH 4:6; 45:3; 1QSb 1:8, 4Q504 1–2 iv 12, and Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (TDan 3:6; 5:6; 6:1, TGad 4:7, TAsh 6:4),1 as a common noun, not used of a unique referent as a proper noun or name. In 1 Enoch it is used of an obedient angelic servant of God, and in 11Q5 xix 13-16 (the ‘Prayer for Deliverance’), it refers to the evil inclination.

2. The term ‘the devil’ (diabolos in Greek), 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, and 1 Maccabees (1:36), used of human adversaries. Significantly, in all these texts it is always found in the form of ‘the devil’, 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. It is found in Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (TNaph 3:1; 8:4, 6, TAsh 1:9; 3:2), and possibly Ascension of Moses, but there is no evidence these texts predate the Synoptics.

3. The term ‘the evil one’ (ton ponērou in Greek), 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 of the evil inclination.

4. The term ‘the tempter’ (ho peirazwn in Greek), has no Second Temple pre-Christian witness; it is also absent from the Apostolic Fathers.

Even more significant than the infrequency of pre-Christian uses of these terms, is the fact that so few of them are used of a supernatural evil being; the only such uses of ‘satan’ and ‘the devil’ are found in just two texts, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Ascension of Moses. However, the value of these texts for an understanding of these terms in the Synoptics is questionable, due to their uncertain date.

In the case of the Ascension of Moses, the text is typically dated near the end of the first century. In the case of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the complex textual history has not been deciphered by the few fragments at Qumran, which have failed to provide evidence of an earlier Hebrew text.2 Following de Jonge,3 many scholars accept that the text in its current form is at earliest a second century Christian product, bearing no certain witness to a pre-Christian Jewish text.4 The search for a pre-Christian original has been generally abandoned.5

The combined weight of this lexical evidence casts serious doubt on the suggestion that the original audience of the Synoptic temptation accounts would have understood the satanological terminology as a reference to a specific supernatural evil being well known within Second Temple Period Judaism and the early Judeo-Christian milieu.

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  1. Assuming these sections of the text genuinely pre-date the Christian era. []
  2. ‘No indications came to light that the Testaments, in whatever form, were written or copied at Qumran.’, Marinus De Jonge, Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament As Part of Christian Literature: The Case of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (Brill, 2003), 81.; ‘These fragments do not prove the case for a Jewish original, since they are not identical with the Greek testaments; but their discovery opens up a new perspective on the study of the transmission and compilation of this literature.’, Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 455. []
  3. ‘We shall have to admit that there is much we do not know, and will perhaps never know, about the previous history of the Testaments. What we can and should do, however, is to take them seriously in their present Christian form.’, Marinus De Jonge, Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament As Part of Christian Literature: The Case of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (Brill, 2003), 82. []
  4. ‘At best one can say with de Jonge that the extant version dates to c. 200 C.E. and likely was composed in Greek.’, Eric Mason, “You Are a Priest Forever”: Second Temple Jewish Messianism and the Priestly Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Brill, 2008), 128; ‘The caution articulated by M. de Jonge concerning the Jewish original of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is a good point of comparison: the safest perspective is to see the T. 12 Patr. as a Christian literary product.’, Kari Syreeni, “The Sermon On the Mount and the Two Ways Teaching of the Didache,” in Matthew and the Didache: Two Documents from the Same Jewish-Christian Milieu? (ed. Hubertus Waltherus Maria van de Sandt; Uitgeverij Van Gorcum, 2005), 92; ‘It should already be clear that I find de Jonge’s approach to the questions of the Testaments’ provenance, date, compositional history and purpose to be the most judicious of those surveyed here. (In this I would include his judgment that we cannot know in which Christian community of the second century CE the Testaments were completed, apart from the fact that Palestine does not seem to be a good candidate.’, Robert A. Kugler, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 37-38; ‘What shall I do with the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs? I can try to divide and conquer, exercising my source-critical as well as text-critical arguments on this complex body of materials, but I’m still left with relatively late and quite popular texts of Christian provenance, with little guarantee that significant adjustment and enhancement has not taken place in Christian hands.’, Robert A. Kraft, Exploring the Scripturesque: Jewish Texts and Their Christian Contexts (Brill, 2009), 52. []
  5. ‘Given these facts, Marinus de Jonge and his Leiden colleagues have concluded that the earliest attainable text of the Testaments is little younger than the ninth century CE. They reject the notion that textual criticism of the Testaments provides insight into their compositional history, much less abets the search for a pre-Christian, Jewish form of the work. One can say little against this view. (Likewise, one does well to trust the editio maior produced by the Leiden school; thus all Greek quotations of the Testaments in this volume are taken from de Jonge et al. 1978. English quotations, unless noted otherwise, are from the translation prepared from the editio maior, Hollander and de Jonge 1985.).’, Robert A. Kugler, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 27. []

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