3.1) 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians:
Satan as tester and punisher—and rehabilitator
As an introduction to the New Testament, let me say that in spite of the fact that practically every Scriptural topic under the sun has been subjected to much critical evaluation, most exegetes are remarkably uncritical when it comes to satans and Satan. They are content to show that various sinister figures, like Belial and Beelzebub, were linked to a personal Satan in Jewish and Christian sources, never mind how late, and they assume that this Satan had become the all-evil enemy of God by the time that the Christian Scriptures were written, never mind how or when.
I hope it is clear by now that we are proceeding in a more cautious and skeptical, or agnostic, manner. We are trying to take nothing for granted, simply letting the data speak, when each datum’s turn arrives.
Now, on to St. Paul. Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, thirteen are letters that purport to be by Paul. This does not include the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is presented as anonymous. The Pauline letters are arranged not chronologically, but more or less according to length, from longer to shorter, like the chapters of the Koran—except that they are grouped into two sets. First are the letters to whole congregations: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Then come the three “pastoral” epistles and one other addressed to single persons: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
However, doubts have been cast on whether Paul actually wrote all of these letters. Many modern authorities consider some of them
to be pseudepigraphs—that is, written not by Paul but by persons pretending to be Paul. I don’t wish to argue attributions here, but “for the sake of argument” (by which I really mean that I wish to avoid the argument), I will simply accept a half-dozen of the letters as indisputably by Paul: namely, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians. The one-page-long Epistle to Philemon is probably also by Paul, but no matter, it doesn’t mention Satan (the same is true, in fact, of Galatians and Philippians). I will treat the other letters as “Deutero-Pauline,” or “Pseudo-Pauline,” and deal with them after treating the Gospels. However, I will be careful to allow for the possibility that one or more of them is, or are, actually by Paul himself.
Paul’s oldest extant letter, scholars agree, is one that he wrote to the newly established church in Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia. He founded the church there, together with Silas/Silvanus, during his second missionary journey, around 49 A.D., and he wrote his undisputed surviving letter to them a year or two later. In the course of this letter, the Thessalonians are assured that both Paul and Silas, and especially Paul, greatly desired to return to them: “We wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to, again and again—but Satan blocked our way” (1 Thess. 2.18). As is true elsewhere in the New Testament, it is not the Hebrew form, Satan, that is used, but rather the Aramaic, Satanah, rendered in Greek as Satanas and preceded by the Greek definite article, ho Satanas. As we will see below, this form was already used in the Book of Sirach.
So, how does Paul understand Satan here? What sort of obstacles did he put in his way, and how and why did he do it? He does not elaborate. But at the beginning of his letter he notes a certain dualism at play, that is, a contrast between non-existent Gods and the only real God (this corresponds to our Dualism no. 14 in the last chapter: Mixed Dualism 2). He recalls that the Thessalonians “turned to God from Idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1.9). In doing so, they had suffered much persecution (1.6), and Paul notes that he himself had been shamefully mistreated at Philippi before coming to
Thessalonica, and that, once in Thessalonica, he found great opposition (2.2). Were these difficulties of the same nature as Satan’s obstacles? Were some of them, in fact, the very obstacles that Satan actually put in the way of Paul’s return?
To begin with, there is no indication in the New Testament that Satan had any interest in promoting idolatry, even though we could easily conceive that Satan might think of it as a good way of testing people’s fidelity to the one true God. Eventually, of course, as we will see, Satan will be associated with idolatry by the early Church Fathers, after first being assimilated to the lustful Watcher Angels of the Book of Enoch. In Enoch itself at one point (99.7), the evil spawn of the Watchers, that is, the Giant-Ghosts, are said to be worshiped along with Idols.
As for the trouble at Philippi, we know from Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles that it came only from the disappointed handlers of a psychic slave-girl whom Paul “cured,” thereby putting an end to her profitability as a fortune-teller. The girl’s masters denounced Paul and Luke to the local Roman magistrates, accusing them of advocating practices unlawful for Romans. Seeing that the crowd agreed with the denouncers, the magistrates ordered the missionaries to be stripped and flogged and thrown into prison (Acts 16.16-24). Paul, like Luke, who may have been accompanying him, seems to have accepted the diagnosis of the girl’s owners that she “had a Spirit, a Python.” (A variant version of this verse, 16.16, says that she had “a Spirit of a Python,” which could mean “the Spirit of a ventriloquist”—taking ventriloquism to involve an in-dwelling Spirit.)
While she followed us, she would cry out: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the Spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out that very hour. (Acts 16.17-18).
Earlier in Acts, Luke reports that some of the cures performed by Philip included persons liberated of Unclean Spirits. He tells us that the Spirits cried out with loud shrieks as they reluctantly departed from their unwilling hosts (Acts 8.7). Later, he rehearses the speech of Peter in which he told how Jesus went about healing all who were oppressed by Devil (Acts 10.38).
So, are we to assume that there is some connection between the fortune-telling Spirit and Satan?
I doubt it. For one thing, Paul was not in the habit of healing ordinary diseases, let alone those allegedly caused by parasitic Demons. It is not clear that Paul even believed in the Demonic theory of illness, which is largely reflected only in the Galilee-based Synoptic Gospels (including Luke, of course, who also wrote Acts). In the Judea-centered Gospel of John, Demon-possession is brought up only as an insult: the hostile crowd tells Jesus that he has a Demon (7.20), perhaps alluding to his being a “hillbilly” from the North. When they repeat the insult later, they go further and accuse him of being a Samaritan outcast (8.48)
The only time that Paul speaks of Demons is to say that the Idols worshipped by the Pagans are lifeless Demons (1 Cor. 10.14-21, 12.2). Here he is using the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 32.17: “They sacrificed to Demons, not God.” In contrast, disease-causing Demons are definitely considered to be alive (by those who believe in such things), and to inhabit human beings.
Besides, Paul’s intention was not to heal the girl, but to shut her up, not because she was preaching against him but rather because she was up-staging him and Luke by proclaiming them to be preachers of the gospel. It is something of a puzzle why he resented the girl’s cries. The only thing like it is in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus is on his first curing tour: “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known” (Mark 3.11-12). Jesus’s action here reflects the so-called Markan Messianic
secret.1 But whatever reason Jesus had for delaying the proclamation of himself as the Son of God, it certainly did not apply to Paul.
What about Satan’s testing function? Could the obstacles he put in Paul’s way be considered a temptation? One could argue that he found his inability to return to Thessalonica something of a trial, but if not a test of their faith in the sense of belief, at least a trial of their fidelity or perseverance. In fact, later in this epistle he tells them that he finally sent Timothy to visit them, in order to assure himself of their faith: “for I was afraid,” he says, “that the Tester had somehow put you to the test, and that our labor had been in vain” (1 Thess. 3.5).
The Tester, of course, must be Satan, doing what he did in the Book of Job, making trial of virtue and perseverance. The relevant word for “trial” in Greek is peirasmos, from which we get the word “empiric,” that is, proceeding by trial (and error). The Latin words experimentum and experientia are etymologically connected, but the word that usually translates peirasmos is tentatio (also spelled temptatio). Both peirasmos and tentatio tend to be translated into English as “test” when the testee passes the trial, and as “temptation” when he fails to pass it. In English, a “tempter” sounds malicious, whereas a “tester” is more easily thought of as having good intentions. But in Greek and Latin the same word is used in both cases. To make things more complicated, peirasmos also means “trial” in the sense of “tribulation.”
Let’s move on to the First Letter to the Corinthians.
Corinth was a major urban center, an important Roman colony straddling the isthmus between mainland Greece and the Peloponnese. In a way, it was the Australia of the Roman Empire, since it functioned as a kind of penal colony, a dumping-place for the surplus
population of Rome itself, including manumitted slaves and other landless folk. It was the first major base of operations for Paul after he moved west from Antioch in Syria. After spending a year and a half there, he back-tracked to Ephesus in Asia Minor, and, in due course, responded to some problems that had developed in Corinth.
The solution to one of these problems reveals a surprising new development in Satan’s character and function. Paul expresses his shock and disgust over hearing that one of the Christians at Corinth is living with his father’s wife or concubine, and that the congregation has tolerated his behavior. Paul pronounces a solemn judgment of excommunication upon him, and instructs them thus: “You are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1Cor. 5.5).
It is quite clear that Satan is thought of here as having a “penitentiary” function. He is in charge of punishing persons who have been handed over to him by local authorities (in this case, the leaders of the Christian community). The action that Satan takes involves corporal but not capital punishment, since it is aimed (at least by Paul and his fellow-Christians) at rehabilitation.
The same verb for “handing over” occurs in the Septuagint Book of Job: “The Lord said to Devil, ‘Behold, I am handing him over to you; but you are to protect his soul'” (Job 2.6). The last phrase, “guard his psyche,” probably means in the original context, “preserve his life.” But the interpretation that I have given it here is possible, and the verse may have been the inspiration for Satan’s role as punisher-and-rehabilitator.
(Surprisingly, many scholars—all of whom have a traditionally sour view of Satan as irredeemably evil—think that the punishment that Paul has in mind is indeed death. But such interpreters are not thinking straight, since this would mean that Paul believed in some kind of posthumous salvation for the sinner, even though he shows no trace of such a belief elsewhere.)
This episode raises the possibility that “Satan” is another way of referring to the secular machinery of justice. If so, then perhaps the
treatment that Paul and Luke received at the hands of the magistrates in Philippi would qualify as an obstacle put in their way by Satan.
Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul brings up Biblical mechanisms of punishment when he compares the sins committed by the Jews in the desert with those of the Corinthians. “God was not pleased with most of them in the wilderness, and so they were struck down,” he says. “We must not put Christ to the test (peirasmos), as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain, as some of them complained, and were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Cor. 10.5-10). Paul may think of the role of the Destroyer—translated as Exterminator in the Latin Vulgate–as being within Satan’s current range of activities.
When Paul takes up the question in 1 Corinthians of whether celibacy should be preferred over marriage, he urges most Christians to get married, because a single life leaves one open to the dangers of immorality. Once married, spouses are obliged to fulfill their marital duty to each other. It is acceptable to abstain for a while by mutual consent, in order to be freer for prayer. But then they should come together again, “lest Satan test you because of your lack of control” (1 Cor. 7.5). Now we are back to the realm of testing, outside of any official punitive capacity. We notice that overzealousness may lead us into a dangerous situation, exposing us to the risk of undergoing a trial that we may well fail.
3.1 1As we will see in chap. 4.1 below, when Jesus cures Demoniacs he forbids the Demons to reveal who he is, and he sometimes asks the witnesses of healings not to tell anyone about him. His admonitions seem to have the opposite effect, and his fame spreads quickly. Perhaps Jesus was using “reverse psychology”!