In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Satan

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Ancient Near Eastern Influence
  • Hellenistic and Earlier Greek Influences
  • The Problem of Evil

Biblical Studies Satan
Lynn R. Huber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0056


The Satan of popular imagination, God’s cosmic archenemy and the source of evil, has a long and complex history. Although scholars typically locate this history within the context of ancient Jewish and Christian imaginations, these origins are complicated by a number of factors. Among these are the various uses of the Hebrew noun satan to describe both earthly and cosmic figures and the multiple aliases referring to God’s cosmic opponent in Jewish and Christian literature, including Belial or Beliar, Mastema, Beelzebul, Lucifer, and the Devil, and others. The roots of the character Satan are typically discussed in relation to the Hebrew Bible, although the image of the cosmic opponent emerges most clearly within the writings of early Judaism, in the literature of the Second Temple period (c. 515 BCE–70 CE). Many scholars associate the emergence of this figure with ancient Near Eastern influence on early Judaism. Others highlight it as a response to the problem of evil; Satan and his retinue effectively distance God from acts difficult to reconcile with beliefs about God’s nature. Still others locate the emergence of Satan and satan figures within the context of social movements, arguing that the character of Satan serves as a tool for constructing communal identity and defining opposition. Satan, or the Devil or Beelzebul, as a cosmic opponent also plays an important role within the literature of the emerging Christian movement, especially the New Testament texts. In the Gospels the cosmic battle between God and Satan imagined in early Judaism is interpreted in relation to Jesus, whose defeat of Satan is evidenced through exorcism, healing, and resurrection. Although some interpreters contend that the depiction of Jesus as exorcist reflects the historical Jesus’ understanding of his ministry as the eschatological defeat of Satan, others maintain that Jesus’ conflict with Satan should be viewed in terms of his opposition to the Roman Empire. The question of whether or to what extent references to Satan and evil powers should be read as describing political, social, and other human forces permeates scholarship on Paul and Revelation as well. Scholarship on Satan appears in a variety of forms, including wide-ranging treatments of the character of Satan across literary and historical contexts; exegetical examinations of specific texts using the terms satan, Belial, and so on; and discussions of Satan in relation to demons, the problem of evil, serpent imagery, and other elements. Many of the latter are intertwined explicitly with theological concerns and questions.

Introductory Works

A number of introductory essays, primarily dictionary and encyclopedia entries, orient the researcher to the various primary texts (Hebrew Bible, early Jewish and Christian) relevant to the study of Satan and related entities. Hamilton 1992 discusses both terrestrial and cosmic uses of the term across biblical and noncanonical traditions, and Breytenbach and Day 1999 offers a detailed introduction to the cosmic Satan in biblical and early Jewish traditions. Pierce 2010 provides a helpful delineation between figures associated or equated with Satan, such as Belial, Mastema, and others. Among these introductions, Riley 1999 is outstanding in its attention to the ancient Near Eastern traditions that undergird the early Jewish and Christian conceptions of Satan. Achenbach, et al. 2008, an article from the English version of Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, includes discrete discussions of Satan in the Hebrew Bible, early Judaism, early and medieval Christianity, art and literature, and other contexts. This article is a valuable resource for researching the history of interpretation regarding Satan. Although not a dictionary article, Fortinoy 1984 offers a helpful introduction to the study of Satan by focusing upon the etymology of the name Satan and the names of related figures. Finally, Brown 2011 is a helpful discussion of the academic study of Satan and the Devil. The thorough bibliography makes it a good starting point for those doing research on the topic.

  • Achenbach, Reinhard, Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, David E. Aune, Joseph Dan, Annelies Felber, Manfred Hutter, et al. “Devil.” In Religion Past and Present. Vol. 4. Edited by Hans Dieter Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski, and Eberhard Jüngel, 6–16. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

    A multipart and multiauthor entry on the Devil. Entries include “Names/Terms,” “Ancient Near East and Old Testament,” “New Testament,” and “Church History.” This is an English translation of “Teufel,” in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 4th ed., edited by Hans Dieter Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski, and Eberhard Jüngel, 179–195 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2005).

  • Breytenbach, Cilliers, and Peggy L. Day. “Satan.” In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2d ed. Edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 726–732. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 1999.

    A detailed introduction to Satan as a cosmic figure within Hebrew Bible, Second Temple, and New Testament texts. Includes helpful discussions of etymology. Often cited in other works.

  • Brown, Derek R. “The Devil in the Details: A Survey of Research on Satan in Biblical Studies.” Currents in Biblical Research 9.2 (2011): 200–227.

    DOI: 10.1177/1476993X10363030

    A thorough history of scholarship on Satan and the Devil in Hebrew Bible, early Jewish, and New Testament traditions. Excellent bibliography. Available online through purchase.

  • Fortinoy, Charles. “Les noms du diable et leur etymologie.” In Orientalia: J. Duschene-Guillemin emerito oblata. Edited by Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, 157–170. Acta Iranica 23. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 1984.

    An etymological and literary discussion of the names associated with Satan. Includes attention to “secondary figures,” such as Azazel, Beelzebub, Asmodee, and Belial. Very thorough.

  • Hamilton, Victor P. “Satan.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 5. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 985–989. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    A detailed introduction to the use of the noun satan, generally understood as “accuser,” in Old Testament, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Rabbinic, and New Testament texts. Hamilton categorizes usage into “terrestrial satans” and “celestial satans,” a helpful heuristic for understanding the range of ways the term is used.

  • Pierce, Chad T. “Satan and Related Figures.” In The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, 1196–1200. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

    A clear introduction to Satan, Belial, Mastema, and the Devil in Hebrew Bible, early Jewish, and Christian traditions.

  • Riley, G. J. “Devil.” In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2d ed. Edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 245–249. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 1999.

    Discusses the biblical idea of a “great spiritual enemy” who stands in opposition to God within the context of Greek, ancient Near Eastern, and Zoroastrian traditions. Offers a discussion of the shift in meaning that occurs when the Hebrew satan is translated with the Greek diabolos in the Septuagint.

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