5.5) Ecumenical Epistles: 1 Peter and James:
Devil as lion, Devil as coward
The First Epistle of Peter claims to be by the Apostle Peter, writing from “Babylon”—a code-name for Rome. The author, whom we can call Pseudo-Peter I (to distinguish him from Pseudo-Peter II, author of the Second Epistle of Peter), says that he is a “Co-Elder” or Sym-Presbyter there, and he addresses himself to the Elders of the churches of Asia Minor. He says that they are protected by the power (dunamis) of God through faith; they are to rejoice in their ultimate salvation, though grieving at the present time because of undergoing many tests (peirasmoi). These tests are to prove their faith, as gold is proved by fire (1 Peter 1.5-7). What tests? Well, maybe the war against the soul waged by fleshly lusts (1 Peter 2.11).
Slaves among the Christians are urged to bear patiently not only deserved punishments meted out by their masters, but also unjust punishments, following the example of Christ (1 Peter 2.18-21). They are told not to be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is to take place among them, as a peirasmos (1 Peter 4.12). They are to rejoice that they are sharing Christ’s sufferings.
All this turns out to be the work of Devil. When he addresses the younger people specifically, “Peter” tells them to be subject to the Elders, and humble themselves under the mighty hand of God. Then he says:
Keep sober and alert, because Devil, your Accuser, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand against him, strong in faith and in the knowledge that the same things are suffered by your brothers throughout the world. (1 Peter 5.8-9)
The word for “Accuser,” Antidikos, indicates how the lion-metaphor is meant to work. Devil “devours” his prey by making accusations against them in the Court of Divine Law, urging punishment against those who faltered in the trials and tribulations that Devil himself organized against them.
How are Christians to overcome this noisy lion? In real life, “standing firm” against a carnivorous beast would not be good advice. A strategic retreat or armed attack would be more like it. But Pseudo-Peter is in effect saying how to arm yourself, with faith, which gives strength, and with knowledge that fellow-sufferers are doing the same thing. This corporate resistance will win the day.
Speaking of corporate resistance, does Devil have any help of his own?
We get a few glimpses of the spirit world elsewhere in 1 Peter. The Holy Spirit has revealed to Christians what even Angels are unaware of and what Angels long to know (1 Peter 1.12), and they have been called out of Darkness into God’s wondrous Light (2.9). When Jesus ascended to Heaven, Angels, Powers (Exousiai) and Forces
(Dunameis) were subjected to Him (3.22). But whether any of this can be connected to Devil is dubious.
There is one more unusual feature of the spirit world in 1 Peter. He says that after Christ was put to death, he went to make a proclamation to spirits in prison, specifically, those who did not obey in the time of Noah (1 Peter 3.19-20). Who are these spirits? The Watchers of Enoch and Jubilees? No, they are the dead, nekroi, something that cannot be said of Angels. As Peter explains later: “The Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does” (1 Peter 4.6).
This is pretty strange, but it doesn’t concern Devil, who won’t take over the Underworld until a later phase in his Biography (see chap. 10.3).
Getting back to Devil as a lion and how to stand up to him. Let’s look at another “Catholic” or “Ecumenical” Epistle—that is, a letter addressed to a plurality of Christian communities, rather than to one specific church. I refer to the Epistle of James, which is addressed to “the Twelve Tribes of the Diaspora,” that is, Jewish Christians, as opposed to Christians converted from Paganism.
The first thing that “James” talks about is the tests, peirasmoi, that they endure: “My brothers, consider it a great joy when peirasmoi of many kinds come upon you, because you well know that the trial of your faith produces perseverance (James 1.2-3). He soon returns to the point:
Blessed is anyone who endures a peirasmos, for such a one has been proved by trial, and will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
Let no one say that when he undergoes peirasmoi, “This peirasmos is from God.” For God cannot be put to peirasmos by bad persons [kakoi], and He Himself inflicts peirasmoi upon no one.
Peirasmoi are caused by one’s own desires, as each one is lured and enticed by them.
Then, when Desire has conceived, She gives birth to Sin, and Sin in turn, when She is fully grown, gives birth to Death. (James 1.12-15)
Since the author is so intent on not blaming tests on God, we might expect him to blame them on Devil, since, traditionally, testing is Devil’s main raison d’etre. But instead he resorts to the Jewish tradition of the Evil Inclination, the Yetser ha-Ra, here personified as Desire (Epithumia), which gives birth to a daughter, Sin, who produces a grandson, Death.
We recall that St. Paul uses the personifications of Sin and Death, but differently: Adam opens the door to Sin, and Death follows in Her wake (Rom. 5.12). Milton will combine the figures by having Sin spring out of Satan’s head and Satan beget Death on her (Paradise Lost, Book 2).
Nevertheless, James does “give a place” to Devil later on, in the midst of an exhortation against envy. At first, he resorts to a “Psychomachia,” a war of personifications within the person, picking up on the “desires” and “Desire” of Chapter 1. Then he moves to the World, and finally to Devil:
Where do these wars (polemoi) and fights (machai) among you come from? Do they not come from your Lusts (Hedonai) that do battle (strateia) in your Members?
You desire something, and do not have it. You are envious (ph[th]oneuete) and jealous (zeloute), but are not able to get what you want. You make war and you fight for something, but do not get it because you fail to ask for it. Or you ask for it and fail to obtain it, because you ask badly, wanting to waste it on your lusts.
You Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the World (Kosmos) is enmity with God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the World becomes an enemy (echthros) of God.
Do not think that this Scripture is meaningless: “The spirit that has been placed within us has a hankering after envy (phthonos).”
But God gives us even greater grace. For, as Scripture says: “God resists the proud, but to the humble He gives grace.”
Therefore, submit yourselves to God.
Stand against Devil, and he will flee from you.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
I accept here the idea of changing of phoneuete, “you kill,” to phthoneuete, “you envy,” suggested by the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam in his edition of the Greek New Testament in the sixteenth century. But it is possible to accept the textual reading of phoneuete, thus: You desire something and do not get it, [so] you kill.” This reading fits with the connection between envy, phthonos, and Death, which we saw in the Book of Wisdom (see chap. 3.4).
In this long passage, Devil comes out of nowhere, and disappears just as quickly. I have put the passage in bold letters, to emphasize its isolation. Is the action of Devil meant to refer to what has gone before—envious quarreling and pleasure-seeking acquisitiveness? The verb used for resisting Devil is the same as in 1 Peter, Antistete. In 1 Peter, the implication is that strong faith will do the trick. What is the meaning here? A tie-in is doubtless intended with the idea of being humble. The exhortation ends, after another verse or two, thus: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4.10).
But there is also the clear meaning that Devil will be frightened off, for he will “seek safety in flight.” What does Devil have to be afraid of? Some sort of punishment when he fails to accomplish his goal of breaching the fidelity or virtue of his “victims”? That doesn’t make much sense, from what we have seen so far. But there you have it—it’s a mystery.
One more point. James’s campaign against envy starts back in his third chapter:
If you have bitter jealousy and rivalry in your heart, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come from above, but is of the earth, of the soul (psyche), and Demonic (daimoniodes). (James 3.14-15)
The NRSV and other translations make a bad mistake in rendering daimoniodes as “devilish,” as if what is connected to Demons automatically referred to Devil. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Each passage has to be read in context. In the present case, in the Epistle of James, we are fortunate to have another reference to Demons. Our author is speaking to those who think that mere faith is enough, without the need to act upon one’s faith. He says sarcastically,
You believe in the one God. Good for you! But even the Demons (ta Daimonia) believe, and they tremble. (James 2.19)
James may be thinking of the sort of Daimonia we meet with in the Gospel of Mark, who know who Jesus is (Mark 1.34), or Legion and his fellow Filthy Spirits, who are afraid that the Son of the Most High God has come to torment them (Mark 5.1-9). Or James may have in mind the Daimonia of the Septuagint, like the Demons who will dance with the Sirens in the Desert (Isaiah 13.21), or the Noonday Demon of LXX Psalm 90.6. (This is the Psalm that Devil quotes to Jesus when he takes him to the Temple-top.) Whoever the Demons are, their faith does them no good, but leaves them trembling, for awe or for fear. This does not appear to be the sort of fear that Devil seems to have when faithful and virtuous Christians stand up to him.
But there may be another reference to Devil in James, in his final chapter, when he says:
Brothers, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. Look! The Judge (ho Krites) is standing at the doors! Brothers, take the Prophets . . . as examples of suffering bad things (kaka), and of patient perseverance. Remember, those who showed endurance are blessed. You have heard about the endurance of Job. (James 5.9-11)
Who is “the Judge”? Is it God? Or could it be Devil?
Devil certainly played a role as adviser to God in the case of Job. God asked him his opinion of Job, and Devil gave it. In Devil’s view, there was insufficient evidence to confirm Job’s reputation as a man who turns away from everything bad (pan poneron). And God approved of the plan of action that Devil devised to put Job through his paces. Thanks to Devil, Job became the supreme example of endurance that James praises so highly. So it is hard to avoid thinking of Devil when Job’s endurance is commended.
As we recall, there is no return to the satan (in the Hebrew text) or Devil (in the Greek text) at the end of the Book of Job, so we cannot tell whether he could be said to “flee” in the face of Job’s resistance. But he would certainly have had to admit that the evidence of Job’s uprightness was now overwhelming. The jury was in, and even Devil could not deny the facts.