Satan [Heb., = adversary], traditional opponent of God and humanity in Judaism and Christianity. In Scripture and literature the role of the opponent is given many names, such as Apolyon, Beelzebub, Semihazah, Azazel, Belial, and Sammael. Nicknames include the Tempter, Evil One, God of This World, Father of Lies, and Prince of Darkness. But in the New Testament it is Satan, with its Greek equivalent diabolos (the Devil), which came to dominate, displacing or demoting other names and figures.
In the Hebrew Bible, Satan plays only a minor role as an ambiguous figure in the heavenly court. In Job his function is described as a kind of public prosecutor for God, suggesting his role as adversary may have been in terms of jurisprudence. The transformation of Satan from subordinate official to independent adversary and rebellious angel occurred during the Jewish apocalyptic movement, which came under the influence of the dualistic cosmologies of the ancient Middle East. The New Testament, grown from the same soil, speaks of Satan as the author of all evil (Luke 10:19), the personal tempter of Jesus (Matt. 4), and the rebel cast to earth together with his angels (Rev. 12:7–9). But these and many other passages in the Bible said to allude to Satan were shaped into coherent theological narratives only over time, often in response to Christian heresies.
During the Middle Ages Satan acquired his familiar attributes in folktale—his hooves, his sulfurous odor, his horns, and, paradoxically, his polished, gentlemanly manners. Much of his appearance and many of his actions, however, can be traced back to the pre-Christian deities of Europe, such as the two-headed god Janus and a variety of Panlike nature and fertility deities. The Christian elaboration of the figure of Satan, fueled by the Dominicans and the papal bull of 1484, probably reached a peak during the 15th, 16th, and 17th cent.
In Islam, Satan is also known as IblĪs, the evil jinn who in refusing to bow to Adam disobeyed God and became "one of the disbelievers." The Qur'an, however, implies that even as the ruler of hell, IblĪs remains God's servant and is ultimately eligible for redemption.
In intellectual circles in the West today the tendency is to demythologize Satan. Certain scholars argue that by the time the Old Testament book of First Chronicles was completed Satan had been transformed from an angel who questioned God to a being dedicated to subverting God. It has been further argued that this changing concept of Satan paralleled a process of demonizing one's opponents and attributing evil motives them. The Essene sect in the late centuries B.C. portrayed other Jewish sects who disagreed with them as allied with the forces of darkness and themselves as "sons of light." Early Christians adopted this approach and demonized Jews who did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. In later centuries pagans and fellow Christians who had opposing beliefs were characterized by Christians as evil and to be opposed or eradicated.
See W. Woods, A History of the Devil (1974); J. B. Russell, Satan (1981); N. Forsyth, The Old Enemy (1987); E. Pagels, The Origin of Satan (1995).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.