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.