The name of the archenemy of God and the personification of evil, particularly in Christian tradition. The name may derive from a Semitic root śṭn, but the primitive meaning is still debated, the most popular suggestions being “to be remote” and “to obstruct.” Some alternative roots include śwṭ (cf. Hebr. “to rove”) and śyṭ (cf. Arabic “to burn,” especially of food).

In the Hebrew Bible śāṭān could refer to any human being who played the role of an accuser or enemy (1 Sam. 29.4; 2 Sam. 19.22; 1 Kings 5.4; 1 Kings 11.14). In Numbers 22.32 śāṭān refers to a divine messenger who was sent to obstruct Balaam's rash journey.

Job 1–2, Zechariah 3, and 1 Chronicles 21.1 have been central in past efforts to chart an evolution of the concept of śāṭān that culminates in a single archenemy of God. However, such evolutionary views have not gained general acceptance because śāṭān in these passages does not necessarily refer to a single archenemy of God and because the relative dating of the texts remains problematic. In Job 1–2, the śāṭān seems to be a legitimate member of God's council. In Zechariah 3.1–7 śāṭān may refer to a member of God's council who objected to the appointment of Joshua as chief priest. The mention of śāṭān without the definite article in 1 Chronicles 21.1 has led some scholars to interpret it as a proper name, but one could also interpret it as “an adversary” or “an accuser” acting on God's behalf.

Most scholars agree that in the writings of the third/second centuries BCE are the first examples of a character who is the archenemy of Yahweh and humankind. Nonetheless, the flexibility of the tradition is still apparent in the variety of figures who, although not necessarily identical with each other, are each apparently regarded as the principal archenemy of God and humankind in Second Temple literature. Such figures include Mastemah (Jubilees 10.8), Semyaz (1 Enoch 6.3), and Belial at Qumran (Zadokite Document 4.13). Still undetermined is the extent to which the concept of the Hebrew śāṭān was influenced by Persian dualism, which posited the existence of two primal and independent personifications of good and evil.

Although it shares with contemporaneous Jewish literature many of its ideas about demonology, the New Testament is probably more responsible for standardizing “Satan” (Greek satanas) as the name for the archenemy of God in Western culture. However, the devil (the usual translation of “Satan” in the Septuagint), Beelzebul (“the prince of demons,” Matt. 12.24; see Baal‐zebub), “the tempter” (Matt. 4.3), Beliar (2 Cor. 6.15), “the evil one” (1 John 5.18), and Apollyon (Rev. 9.11) are other names for Satan in the New Testament. Lucifer, a name for Satan popularized in the Middle Ages, derives ultimately from the merging of the New Testament tradition of the fall of Satan from heaven (Luke 10.18) with an originally separate biblical tradition concerning the Morning Star (cf. Isa. 14.12).

According to the New Testament, Satan and his demons may enter human beings in order to incite evil deeds (Luke 22.3) and to cause illness (Matt. 15.22; Luke 11.14). Satan can imitate “an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11.14), has command of the air (Eph. 2.2), and accuses the faithful day and night before God (Rev. 12.10). Jude 9 mentions the struggle between Satan and the archangel Michael for the body of Moses. Revelation 20.2, among other texts, equates “the Devil and Satan” with “the dragon,” thus reflecting the merging of ancient myths concerning gigantic primordial beasts that wreak havoc on God's creation with the traditions concerning Satan. Satan's destiny is to be cast into a lake of fire (Rev. 20.10–15).

In 563 CE the Council of Braga helped to define the official Christian view of Satan that, in contrast to dualism, denied his independent origin and his creation of the material universe. As J. B. Russell (Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, 1984) notes, writers and theologians of the medieval period popularized many of the characteristics of Satan that remain standard today and that have roots in, among other sources, Greek, Roman, and Teutonic mythology. Although the Enlightenment produced explanations of evil that do not refer to a mythological being, the imagery and concept of Satan continues to thrive within many religious traditions.

See also Exorcism


Hector Ignacio Avalos