I might excuse writing a post on Satan on Christmas Eve by positing that I misread the title of this book as Santa. After all, as Ryan Stokes explains, the Greek form of the title is ho satanas, which clearly contains the first of the canonical tripartite “Ho, ho, ho.” The reality, however, is that work on Nightmares with the Bible continues despite the holidays, and there’s so much reading to do that not all of it can be seasonal. I’ve known about Stokes’ book for some time, even as I’ve known his name through his various articles about the Satan. This book, while not exhaustive, is certainly comprehensive for the time period covered and lays considerable groundwork for future discussions of the Devil. What becomes obvious working through it, however, is that many different ideas about the Satan are represented in the Bible and related literature.
Long ago, as far back as my dissertation, I realized that it’s a problem for modern readers to systematize what ancients viewed disparately. The Bible has no single idea of the Devil. We’re quite accustomed to saying that “Satan” (which Stokes shows may not be a name in the Bible) and “the Devil” and Lucifer are all synonyms. That’s not really the case. Ancient peoples had many names for beings that caused problems, but not all of these entities were evil. Belial, Mastema, Melchiresha, Beelzebub (and the list could go on) were designations used by different groups at different times. These entities are sometimes agents of Yahweh, doing God’s will. At other times they seem to be enemies of God, adversaries. “Executioners,” is Stokes’ emphasis in these roles. In early (and more recent) attempts at systematization, readers have tried to roll these various images into one. With but limited success.
Ancient peoples didn’t feel the necessity that more modern ones do to make everything fit “scientifically.” After all William of Ockham hadn’t shown up yet to suggest complicated ways of explaining things should be simplified. We get the sense from reading ancient texts, including the Bible, that lots of ideas were floating around as to who these nasty beings might’ve been. And their nastiness was really the result of human perceptions of who they were because often they were in league with the Almighty. Theirs was not a simple, binary world of black and white. It was more like a photo that we would still designate by that term but which is really grayscale. Grayscale shades from white to black with the chiaroscuro preventing simple explanations. Although it’s not about Santa, this book is very informative and will raise any number of questions at any time of year.