The Origins of Demons

Contents


Introduction

There is a popular story within Christianity on where ‘the devil’ and his ‘demons’ came from. In this pop theology account, God created the angels in the very beginning, before he created the earth or its inhabitants. The best and greatest of all these angels was a cherub named Lucifer. One day, for whatever the reason, Lucifer became corrupt and led a full third of the angels in rebellion against God; Lucifer wanted to take his place. Instead, after a massive war Lucifer and his angels were thrown out of heaven. The fallen angels became demons, and Lucifer was given the pejorative name ‘Satan’, and they gained the ability to possess humans against their will. Almost none of this is found in the Bible.


The Lucifer Myth

There are a few elements of the traditional story that are easy to explain.

Isaiah 13–14 contains a prophecy denouncing the city Babylon and its king. The Babylonian king’s self-deifying arrogance is likened to the shining Morning Star attempting to seize God’s throne atop Mount Zaphon (roughly analogous to Mount Olympus). Instead, the boastful star is thrown into the underworld, with imagery reminiscent of Enkidu’s vision of the realm of the dead in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The whole point of the hyperbolic prophecy is to remind Babylon’s king that he is merely human, and is fated to die. ‘Lucifer’ is merely the Latin translation of the Hebrew word used to describe the king, hêlêl, which comes from a verb root that can mean ‘shine’, ‘praise’, or ‘boast’.

A cherub is not an angel. This is a straightforward issue: cherubim show up often in the Hebrew Bible, but not once are they called ‘angels’. Angels and cherubim are entirely different ‘species’, with angels being human-looking creatures who act as agents of God’s will, while cherubim are chimeric guardians of God’s throne.

A full third of the angels rebelling is a misinterpretation of Rev 12.3–4. John’s Revelation is heavily dependent on the symbolism of the Book of Daniel. In the latter book, terrifying beasts vie for control of the world. Dan 8.10 shows one such wild beast throw ‘some of the [heavenly] host and some of the stars’ down to the earth, which Dan 8.24 explains is symbolism for a Greek king persecuting ‘the powerful and the people of the holy ones’. The ‘stars’ thrown to the earth in Rev 12.3–4 symbolize humans suffering persecution.


Gods & Angels

The theology in the bulk of the Hebrew Bible is best described as monolatrist or henotheistic. The Israelites lived in a polytheistic world, and were polytheists themselves. From the late seventh century BCE and after, a growing movement insisted the god Yahweh should alone be worshiped. Part of this theological development included the conflation of Yahweh with the pantheon chief El. Yahweh was identified as the creator god, which meant all the other gods were his offspring or creations. The Canaanite pantheon had previously been called the ‘sons of El’, were now the ‘sons of God’.

Within this mode of thought, it was claimed that although God required that Israel worship only him, he had assigned gods to other nations, and those nations were permitted to worship those gods (Deut 4.19–20; 32.8–9; Sirach 17.17). The Bible, in many places, criticizes Israel not for believing these gods exist, but for worshiping them. Some of these gods acted as Yahweh’s agents. They would appear in the material world with the appearance of humans, delivering messages from God or killing his enemies. The word ‘messenger’ is in fact just the literal meaning of ‘angel’ (Hebrew mălʾâk, Greek αγγελος). Angels were just lesser gods who served God.

As mentioned, Israelite worship of these gods was forbidden, and in this negative context they are identified by three particular terms. The first is ĕlîl, ‘worthless’, a derogatory word for man-made objects which represent the gods (that is, idols). The second word is śāʿîr, which literally means ‘goat’, but is often used to describe the ‘hairy’ texture of a person or thing. In this context, śāʿîrîm appear to be wilderness deities. (There is some speculation that śāʿîr is a distant cognate of σατυρος, ‘satyr’, goat-like wilderness deities in Greek mythology.)

The third term is šēdîm, used only twice in the Hebrew Bible. Deut 32.17 is the telling example, since it identifies these šēdîm as ‘gods’ who are not the supreme God.

Deut 32.17 ‘They sacrificed to šēdîm—not God—to gods they had never known.’

Though it is not certain, šēdîm may be a cognate of the Assyrian word šîdu, a type of divine creature from Mesopotamian religion with the body parts of bulls, lions, eagles, and humans. The description of the cherubim (kerūvîm) in Ezek 1 closely resembles these šîdu, and in fact šîdu are called kāribu, ‘intercessor’, a cognate of ‘cherub’. However, the Hebrew Bible does not identify cherubim as šēdîm, ‘gods’, or ‘angels’.

As time went on the term ‘god’ began to take on the more narrow meaning as a synonym for the unique, supreme creator. When that happens, then we begin to see biblical literature denying the existence of other ‘gods’, such as Isaiah 45.5, because they are denying the existence of other supreme creators.

We see the earlier idea of gods/angels being assigned to the nations lingering in later literature. For example, Dan 10.13, 20–21 and 12.1 depict the rise and fall of three nations (Persia, Greece, Israel) as corresponding to the heavenly ‘princes’ allotted to those regions.


Watchers & Evil Spirits

In the Book of Daniel, an angel (3.28) is identified by as ‘a son of the gods’ (3.25), and later as a ‘watcher’ (4.13). Outside of the canonical Hebrew scriptures, ‘watcher’ became a common term for angels.

Gen 6.1–4 became hugely important in talking about these watchers. Here, the gods (‘sons of God’) are said to have mated with humans, and their offspring were warriors. There is some dispute whether these ‘warriors’ are the same as the ‘Nephilim’ also mentioned in the text. The earliest known interpretation of this passage is its Greek translation, which translates ‘sons of God’ as αγγελος, ‘angels’, and translates both ‘Nephilim’ and ‘warriors’ as γιγαντες, ‘giants’.

By the third century BCE, when the Greek translation was produced, this small episode in Genesis became hugely important in apocalyptic Judaism, used to explain the origin of many of the world’s evils. In Enoch’s Book of the Watchers (circa 300 BCE), a crowd of two hundred watchers abandoned their heavenly home to marry human women, and taught humanity many forbidden skills and ideas. Ultimately, these fallen watchers were condemned to eternal imprisonment, waiting until the day of the final judgment. This elaborate mythology propounded by Enoch’s Book of the Watchers is referenced in 1 Pet 3.19–20; Judah 6–7, 14–15; and 2 Pet 2.4.

Judah 6–7 And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day. [They] indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, [and] serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

What is not reiterated in 1 Pet, Judah, or 2 Pet is the fate of the watchers’ offspring. According to Enoch’s Book of the Watchers, their children were the giants, bloodthirsty and evil. God determined that the violence which the giants wrought needed to end, so he fated them to die in a war that would be punctuated by a worldwide flood (1 Enoch 10.9–10,15–22). However, when the giants died their ‘evil spirits’ would be cursed to wander the earth causing havoc for humanity until the final judgment (15.8–16.1).

1 Enoch 15.8,12; 16.1 ‘But now the giants who were begotten by the spirits and flesh—they will call them evil spirits upon the earth, for their dwelling will be upon the earth. […] And these spirits will rise up against the sons of men and against the women, from whom they have come forth. […] the spirits that come forth from the soul of their flesh will continue to cause desolation, uncondemned.’

The Satan in the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, ‘Satan’ is not the name of an angel, but the role an angel takes. The Hebrew word śātān means ‘accuser’, and is actually used on different occasions for humans, angels, and even for God, describing their adversarial role in certain contexts. When the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek, śāṭān became the equivalent διαβολος (slanderer) which is usually translated into English as ‘devil’.

Only three times in the Hebrew Bible do we find ‘the satan’ referring to a specific angelic figure who tempts, antagonizes, or accuses humans.

In 1 Chronicles 21.1 the satan tempts David to sin, but the satan’s presence in the text is actually a revision of 2 Sam 24.1, where it is God who tempts David. When the Book of Chronicles was written, the author understood the satan as the agent of God’s decision to tempt David. In the Book of Job, the satan is just one of the many ‘sons of God’ who gather in heaven, and he merely performs the role indicated by his job-title: he offers to subject Job to immense suffering to prove whether Job’s trust in God is authentic or merely a product of his comfortable life. Yet, the satan does none of this on his own, but only because God explicitly directed his attention to Job, and only after God gave him permission to cause Job’s suffering. Only in the third appearance, Zech 3, is the satan presented in an explicitly negative context. There, the satan directly opposes God’s angel, who emphatically rebukes the satan’s attempts to drag Israel’s high priest into condemnation.

These three texts were written between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, just as the Enochian interpretations of Genesis 6.1–4 were beginning to form. As the concept of ‘fallen angels’ developed, so did the individuality of certain angels. Enoch’s Book of the Watchers identifies the twenty leaders of the rebellious angels by name; the two chief leaders are Shemihazah and Azael. Enoch’s Book of Parables (a different author’s addition to 1 Enoch) calls the fallen watchers the ‘host of Azazel’ (a misspelling of Azael; 1 Enoch 54.5) and ‘servants of the satan’ (54.6), thus identifying the satan as Azael, an explicitly evil figure.

Other apocalyptic texts also used Enoch’s Book of the Watchers as their foundation, such as the Book of Jubilees, a revision of the narrative spanning Gen 1 through Exo 20. Jubilees introduces Mastema (10.8), the leader of the spirits of the giants that were condemned to wander the earth, and he is identified as the satan (10.12). In the age leading up to Abraham, Mastema is responsible for corruption in the world (11.5, 11), and even prompts the test that Abraham sacrifice Isaac to prove his trust in God (17.16); Mastema’s role in the story is clearly inspired by the satan’s role in the Book of Job. Isaac later predicts that Mastema will fail to rule the Israelites (19.28), and when Mastema causes the Egyptians to enslave the Israelites and murder their sons, God finally imprisons Mastema (48.15–16).

Because the Book of Jubilees identifies the satan not as an angel, but as one of the spirits of the giants, this means the satan could not have been present in Eden. Hence, when we read Jubilees’ retelling of the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve (3.17–26), we do not find the serpent identified with the satan.


The Serpent in Genesis

This does not mean the serpent was never identified with an angel/watcher, or with the satan/διαβολος.

Despite Enoch’s Book of the Watchers and Enoch’s Book of Parables each depicting Aazel as the worst of the rebellious watchers, the latter book identifies a watcher named Gadreel as the one who ‘led Eve astray’ (1 Enoch 69.6). Moving to a parallel tradition, Judean wisdom texts from the same period do not share the apocalypses’ overt fascination in angels, giants, evil spirits, or other such mysterious beings. But the wisdom traditions are not entirely devoid of such concepts. The Book of Wisdom alludes to the first chapters of Genesis, suggesting the satan was involved in the death that came upon Adam and Eve through their disobedience.

Wis 2.23–24 God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.

In the late 50s CE, Paul urges his Christian students to avoid people who use ‘smooth talk and flattery’ to ‘deceive’, for ‘the God of peace will shortly crush the satan under your feet’ (Rom 16.17–20). It is not stated directly, but Paul may have had Gen 2–3 in mind, where the serpent deceives Eve with tricky words, but is rebuked by God, who proclaims that Eve’s descendants will ‘strike’ the serpent’s head. At the dawn of the second century CE, Pseudo-Paul similarly associates the satan with the serpent’s deception of Eve. First, he blames Eve for being ‘deceived’ (1 Tim 2.13–14). Later, he denigrates women in general for being gullible gossips, and hence ‘some [women] have already turned away to follow the satan’ (5.15).

Johannine literature in the New Testament twice places the satan/διαβολος at ‘the beginning’, as a ‘liar’ and ‘murderer’ (1 John 3.8; John 8.44). Neither text spells it out, but it is easy to see the implication that the satan is, in some way, attributed responsibility for the serpent’s deception of Eve and the consequent death of Eve and Adam.

Finally, John’s Revelation symbolizes the satan as the leviathan-like ‘dragon’. While we saw how the earlier Hebrew scriptures were monolatrist or henotheistic, the Revelation exemplifies a firm monotheism: any worship of any god by any person (Israelite or not) is ‘idolatry’. The satan, as ‘the deceiver of the whole world’, is responsible for this erosion of worship of the one true God, for he is in fact ‘the ancient serpent’ (Rev 12.9).


‘Demons’ in the Hebrew Bible

In all of the above information, we have not yet encountered the word ‘demon’.

The English word ‘demon’ comes from the Greek words δαιμων and δαιμονιον. In the centuries before Greek culture invaded the Israelite world, the word δαιμων had a large semantic range. It referred to any supernatural being, high or low, strong or weak, good or bad. Because of its broad semantic range, the way these two words were used by Judeans varied greatly.

Philo of Alexandria, in the early first century CE, syncretized his Judean religion with Greek philosophy. He wrote prolifically in Greek about the Hebrew scriptures, and when he arrived at Gen 6.1–4 he explained that what Judeans called an ‘angel’ was the same type of creature that Greeks called a δαιμων (On the Giants 6), and hence there were both good δαιμωνs and bad δαιμωνs. In contrast, Josephus, a Judean historian writing in the second half of the first century CE, regularly applies the term δαιμων to any spiritual being, from the supreme creator God (Judean War 1.69, 613) all the way down to the ghosts of dead humans (Judean War 7.185). Josephus’ use of the word is more in keeping with how it was normally used by the Greek. Neither of these really corresponds to how the word δαιμων was used in the ‘official’ Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures, which we call the Septuagint.

In the Septuagint, δαιμων and δαιμονιον are together used only seventeen times. Five instances, δαιμονιον translates words we’ve encountered before: ʾĕlîlîm (Psa 96.5), śāʿîrîm (Isa 13.21; 34.14), and šēdîm (Deut 32.17; Psa 106.37). Additionally, δαιμων once translates the name of a foreign god, Gad (Isa 65.11), and δαιμονιον does the same for Qeṭeb (Psa 91.6). They saw δαιμων/δαιμονιον as the gods worshiped by foreign nations, but they specifically reserve the Greek words for the negative context of idolatry.

This negative perception of δαιμωνs continues in the Book of Tobit, where it appears to translate šēdîm. The book pairs together ‘δαιμονιον or evil spirit’ (6.8), suggesting δαιμονιον may be a synonym for ‘evil spirit’, or that δαιμονιον was seen as intrinsically wicked like an ‘evil spirit’. Recall that ‘evil spirit’ is the phrase used to describe the dead giants that haunt the earth.


The Satan and Evil Angels in the New Testament

We’ve already seen a few associations made of the satan and the serpent in the New Testament, and the satan’s reputation is not much better throughout the rest of the New Testament.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is ‘tempted by the satan’ when he fasts in the wilderness (1.13). Religious scribes accuse Jesus of having ‘Beelzebub’, the ‘prince of δαιμονιονs’, and Jesus identifies Beelzebub as ‘the satan’ (3.22–23). (‘Beelzebub’ was the name of a Philistine deity in 2 Kings 1. How it came to designate the satan is unknown.) When Jesus explains his parable of the sower, he identifies the satan as the referent behind the birds which ‘devour’ seeds that fall on the road. When Peter rebukes Jesus for stating that he will be killed, Jesus bluntly identifies Peter’s words with the satan (8.33). While the satan performs some the general role as ‘tempter’ found in the Book of Job, he also is also explicitly depicted as opposing God.

Mark’s moderately negative portrayal of the satan is amplified in Matthew and Luke. His temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is described in detail, repeatedly attempting to turn Jesus away from God (Matt 4.1–11 / Luke 4.1–13). Matthew introduces a new parable, where the satan is expressly identified as ‘the enemy’ who mixes bad people among good people (Matt 13.39). When Jesus’ disciples return to him with the good news that they are able to exorcise δαιμωνs, Jesus replies that he saw ‘the satan fall from heaven like lightning’ (10.18). The satan is also responsible for a woman’s injury (Luke 13.16). Matthew also contains a passage that sounds like something straight out of Enoch’s Book of Parables, stating that the ‘eternal fire’ was ‘prepared for the διαβολος and his angels’ (Matt 25.41). Lastly, the satan ‘entered’ Judah Iscariot (Luke 22.3), and likewise tempted Peter to deny Jesus (22.31–34). Luke’s highly negative depiction continues into Acts (5.3; 10.38; 13.10; 26.18).

The Fourth Gospel has much less to say about the satan, but it’s even more negative than what we see in the three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus directly calls Judah Iscariot ‘a διαβολος’ (John 6.70–71), he replies to his critics by claiming their father is not God but the διαβολος (8.44), and as in Luke the satan ‘entered’ Judah Iscariot (13.2,27). The satan is mentioned indirectly a few times in apocalyptic contexts, such as when Jesus says he came to ‘judge’ the ‘prince of this world’, whom he will ‘cast out’ through his crucifixion (12.31–32; 16.11).

The satan/διαβολος is only mentioned a few times in each of Paul’s authentic letters, but it quickly becomes apparent that Paul, as an apocalyptic thinker, sees the satan as the chief enemy of God’s people: he delays Paul’s travels (1 Thess 2.18), he is a force who ‘destroys’ and ‘tempts’ (1 Cor 5.5; 7.5), seeks to overpower Christians (2 Cor 2.11). Pseudo-Pauline letters also identify the satan as a master-worker of lies (2 Thess 2.9), a thief (Eph 4.27) to be defended against (Eph 6.11).

At this point, the satan is solidly identified as a force of evil who seeks to destroy Christians and humanity.

Mentioned above, ‘angel’ comes from αγγελος. While this Greek word can refer to human ‘messengers’, the vast majority of the time it refers to the ‘sons of God’, those gods which are creations of the supreme God. Of these dozens and dozens of references to angels, evil angels are mentioned no more than seven times in the New Testament (Matt 25.41; 1 Cor 6.3; 2 Cor 11.14; 1 Pet 3.19; Jude 6; 2 Pet 2.4; Rev 12.7,9).


‘Demons’ in the New Testament

In the New Testament, we see the satan as the prime evil of the world, and aligned with the satan we see evil angels. Along with them, δαιμωνs/δαιμονιονs are mentioned often, as are ‘evil’ or ‘unclean spirits’.

Multiple times in the Gospel of Mark, curing physical or mental illnesses and injuries are mentioned right alongside the exorcism of δαιμωνs; the two acts are both expressions of Jesus’ work as a healer. Sometimes, δαιμωνs speak (1.34; 5.1–13). Mark initially flips back and forth between talking about δαιμωνs or ‘unclean spirits’, but it does eventually become clear they are synonyms (e.g. 5.12–13)

Matthew and Luke expand on Mark, and while they do also show δαιμωνs speaking and displaying supernatural knowledge, sometimes the text implies that δαιμωνs are the illnesses and injuries which Jesus heals (e.g. Matt 9.32–33; 12.22; 15.22,28). Some people even have many δαιμωνs possessing them (Luke 8.2,30). The latter Synoptics also bring in an intriguing saying from Jesus:

Matt 12.43 ‘When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none.’

Almost certainly, this comes from the idea of δαιμωνs (šēdîm and śāʿîrîm) being wilderness deities in the Septuagint. The Book of Tobit also depicts the δαιμων Ashmedai, an ‘evil spirit’, flee into the ‘remotest parts of Egypt’.

As with the satan, the Fourth Gospel doesn’t discuss δαιμωνs as often as the Synoptics do, and when it does, it is only when Jesus’ opponents accuse him of being possessed (John 7.20; 8.48–52; 10.20–21).

There are a bare handful of references to δαιμωνs, or ‘evil’ or ‘unclean spirits’, in the rest of the New Testament, but they are quite varied. Paul follows the Septuagint and identifies δαιμονιονs with the gods/idols worshiped by non-Israelites (1 Cor 10.20–21). Jacob the Just states that even δαιμονιονs acknowledge the one true God (James 2.19), and describes worldly wisdom as δαιμονιωδης. While the Gospel of Luke follows its source in preferring δαιμων/δαιμονιον, Acts instead prefers ‘evil’ and ‘unclean spirits’. When Acts does use δαιμων it is in its original sense; Greek philosophers recognize that Paul is trying to tell them about a ‘foreign deity’.

John’s Revelation also draws on older Judean uses of δαιμονιον, identifying idols (9.20, similar to the ĕlîlîm) and evil spirits (16.14, as Ashmedai in the Book of Tobit). John’s Revelation identifies ‘unclean spirits’ as ‘spirits of δαιμωνs’ (16.13), and also pairs them together as wilderness creatures (18.2, like the śāʿîrîm).


Conclusion

No biblical or extra-biblical author actually uses the word ‘demon’ (δαιμων or δαιμονιον) as a translation of, or synonym for, ‘angels’. Not even in the New Testament. While there is a series of ideas that may enable us to identify the satan and fallen angels as ‘demons’, the actual texts completely, and conveniently, avoid doing that. The satan is said to be the ‘ruler of δαιμωνs’, but he is not himself said to be one (cf. Jesus is ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ in Rev 1.5, but he is not one of them). At this point, any identification of angels as ‘demons’ must be inferred by the reader; it is not found in the text.

If the ‘demons’ mentioned in the New Testament are not evil angels as is commonly supposed, what are they?

What we see in all the above are three threads, which do not necessarily overlap with one another. The first: gods are called šēdîm and translated as δαιμων. The second: gods are identified as ‘angels’, and later as ‘watchers’, and either both good angels and bad angels are called δαιμων (Philo), or neither are (Septuagint, New Testament). And the third thread: bad angels produced giant offspring, and the ghosts of those giants became the ‘unclean spirits’ that wander the earth and haunt humanity.

Could the ‘demons’ in the New Testament — or at least in the Synoptic Gospels, the texts that discuss them the most — in fact be the ghosts of the giants from the Book of Enoch? Some scholars think the Enochian traditions do stand in the background. Their activity is the same (oppressing humans), and they both wander the earth. Matthew’s account of ‘Legion’ (8.28–34; cf. Mark 5.1–17) has the demons not merely afraid of Jesus, but surprised at his arrival:

Matt 8.29 Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’

The demons seem to be under the impression they have a designated period of time to carry out their activity, and that Jesus is early. This may have parallels in the Essene literature, whose community highly valued the Book of Enoch.

4Q510 And I, the Master [of the community], proclaim the majesty of his [God’s] beauty to frighten and terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels and the spirits of the bastards, the demons […] in the age of the domination of wickedness and the appointed times for their humiliation of the sons of light1

It’s possible the ghosts of the giants are the ‘demons’ of the Synoptics. While 1 Enoch is used by 1 Peter, Judah, 2 Peter, Matthew, and possibly Luke, there are no direct references to the Enochian myth of the giants. The connection is compelling, but not clear.

The bare fact is that the New Testament authors don’t identify what ‘demons’ are. It appears to me that for us to make either identification — fallen angels, or cursed giants — with any confidence is to draw out of the text far more than we are able at the current time. If the authors had any ideas, they are scarce to the point of invisibility. Their concern, instead, is that Jesus had incontrovertible power over the demons whenever he came across them, and this power was given to him by God to demonstrate his identity as Israel’s messiah.


Sources

Archie Wright, ‘Demonology of 1 Enoch and the Gospels’, Enoch and the Synoptic Gospels (ed. Stuckenbruck, Boccaccini), 215–243.

Dale Martin, ‘When Did Angels Become Demons?’, Journal of Biblical Literature 129.4, 657–677.

Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (ed. van der Toorn, Becking, van der Horst).


Footnotes

1 Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English.

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