Did the Concept of Satan Evolve?

By James M. Rochford

Satan is mentioned rarely in the OT. As a result, critical scholars conclude that the notion of Satan (as an enemy of God) originated in the 200’s B.C. Critical theologians after the Enlightenment developed the idea that Israel did not conceive of Satan until later in their history. For instance, Gerhard Kittel writes,

It is striking how rarely the Satan notion is expressed in the OT… The few OT references initiated further development in pre-NT Judaism, and this finally produced many combinations of the Satan concept with originally very different ideas (e.g., an identification with the evil principle or with the angel of death), and the attributing to Satan of many features which derive from such independent sources as the story of fallen angels, with no original reference to Satan. It should be stressed that the idea of Satan originally had nothing whatever to do with human impulses or with the fallen angels.[1]

Critical scholars argued that the Jews invented Satan as they contemplated the problem of evil. The invention of Satan under this view was to place the problem of evil on Satan—not God. For instance, critical scholars point to the earlier account of Israel’s history, where God moved David to take the census (2 Sam. 24:1). And yet, they notice, in the retelling of the history hundreds of years later, Jewish theologians “invented” Satan as the one responsible—not God (1 Chron. 21:1). Likewise, G. Earnest Wright argues,

In the Old Testament clear references to demons are rare… The world of Satan with his powers and principalities of darkness is a development in later Judaism… so definite is the Old Testament in its exaltation of God that all things good and bad were ascribed to him. The doctrine of Satan only gradually came into being to alleviate the difficulties inherent in this view.[2]

From this perspective, it took the Jews a thousand years to realize that God was allowing evil. To explain this, they invented Satan. While Satan is mentioned throughout the OT, critical theologians argue that this merely refers to one of God’s prosecuting attorneys—not one of his fallen enemies. For instance, Numbers states, “God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary [Hebrew satan] against him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him” (Num. 22:22). Here “Satan” appears to be on God’s side. He is even called “the angel of the Lord.”

Was Satan a late-dated evolution of Jewish theology?

While we do believe in progressive revelation, we deny the evolution of theological concepts. Progressive revelation is like the turning letters in the game show The Wheel of Fortune: The message was there from the beginning, but it was revealed over time. However, evolutionary theology is different. This implies that the being or reality of God changed or is contingent on human understanding. (To put this in philosophical terms, progressive revelation refers to epistemology, while evolutionary theology refers to ontology). There are a number of reasons for arguing against this concept for the figure of Satan in Jewish theology:

First, while the Hebrew Bible uses the term “satan” to refer to one of God’s angels in a positive sense, this doesn’t eliminate its other usage. Numbers 22:22 uses the term satan in a general sense (“an adversary”), rather than a specific sense (“the adversary”). The Hebrews only had a 3,000 word vocabulary. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that words had a broad semantic range.

Second, early references to Satan are often ignored. For instance, since Satan’s name isn’t explicitly used in Genesis 3 and Ezekiel 28, critics charge that neither passage refer to Satan. While Satan is mentioned by name in Job, critical theologians do not believe that he is a malevolent being. Like Numbers 22:22, Satan is simply one of God’s prosecuting attorneys. Of course, believers in the Bible find this completely untenable. Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 identify the Serpent of Genesis 3 with Satan, and as we have argued earlier (Ezek. 28:1ff), the king of Tyre in no way fits the description of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Instead, the “anointed cherub” in “Eden” must refer to Satan (Ezek. 28:13-14). Finally, since Satan is found torturing and murdering Job and his family, we see this as a clear indicator that he is more than just a “prosecuting angelic attorney.” He is the liar and murder whom Jesus describes (Jn. 8:44).

We might also note that when Satan appears in the biblical account, the text feels no need to explain him. This supports the notion that the Jewish people understood who he was from the beginning.

Third, early references to the demonic are undeniable. We find these in our earliest books of the Bible. For instance, Leviticus commands the people to “no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons” (Lev. 17:7), and Deuteronomy states, “They sacrificed to demons who were not God, to gods whom they have not known” (Deut. 32:17). The psalmist states that the people “even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons” (Ps. 106:37).

Fourth, God probably wanted the focus on Him—not demons. The Jewish people were surrounded by demon-obsession and magic in the ancient Near East. Rather than fueling this cultural obsession, God emphasized his authority over the demonic, rather than on the demonic itself. Today, Christian believers are indwelt with the Holy Spirit, so we are called to go out into the world. So, it makes sense why we would be given more information on this subject.

Fifth, the “evolution of Satan” contradicts the critical theory of religious Darwinism.[3] After 1859, critics began to appropriate Darwinism as the answer for everything, including religion. They claimed that monotheism developed from primitive conceptions of the supernatural:

Animism was the earliest belief, whereby natural events were explained by millions of spirit-beings.

Polytheism came later, whereby natural events were explained by many different gods.

Henotheism came next, whereby there was one God who ruled over his lesser gods (like Zeus on Mt. Olympus).

Monotheism was the final evolution, claiming that there are not many gods, but only one.

However, this entire thesis runs counter to the evolution of Satan. On this view, the more primitive faiths are fascinated with evil spirits. However, according to this critical view, they didn’t know about demons until 200 BC! This would be entirely backwards. Therefore, the critics cannot have it both ways. Either, they have to admit that monotheism is unique and early in the OT, or they have to abandon this theory about Satan being good early on.

While obsession with animism and the demonic flooded the ancient Near East, the OT keeps a stark focus on only one God. For instance, critical theologian G. Earnest Wright explains,

When we examine the world of polytheism more closely, we find beneath the surface a vast, dark, and uncomfortable world… That is the world of demons, magic, and divination. By contrast, the first and most obvious thing which we can say about Israel is that, comparatively speaking, her religious life is most astonishingly free of this sort of thing, at least in idealThe surprising thing is not that the cult of magic and divination was known in Israel, but that it should be so definitely forbidden in the law and associated by the prophets with an idolatry which destroyed rather than saved.[4]

For instance, the Bible does not contain a single text on incantations or magic. Wright continues,

So radical was the wholehearted concentration on Yahweh and so exclusive was the demand of Yahweh that loyalty and attention be directed to him alone, that the world of lesser beings simply dropped out of conscious sight… The man who possessed such fear and faith had nothing in the world to be afraid of, except his own sin and the sin of his people. That faith was an extraordinary thing in the ancient world.[5]

J.I. Durham writes,

Yahweh had not withheld his name but had freely given it to Moses and so to Israel as both a summary and an extension of the revelation of his Presence. His sovereignty is such that he was not subject to the manipulation of his worshipers… Not surprisingly, there are no incantation texts in the OT. Yahweh could not be controlled, or even altered in his set purpose, by men.[6]


Progressive revelation is certainly present throughout the biblical revelation, but evolutionary conceptions of theology are not. If we trust the biblical account, we see that Satan is alive and well from one end of the Bible to the other.

Return to “Satanology”

[1] Gerhard Kittel Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 2:74.

[2] Wright, G. Ernest. The Old Testament against Its Environment. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1950. 90-91.

[3] For more on this subject, read James L. Graham “Genesis and the Religion of Primitive Man.” or G. Earnest Wright, The Old Testament Against Its Environment.

[4] Wright, G. Ernest. The Old Testament against Its Environment. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1950. 77.

[5] Wright, G. Ernest. The Old Testament against Its Environment. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1950. 91.

[6] Durham, J. I. Vol. 3: Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus. 2002. 288.