Mark 3.19-30 (cf. Matthew 12.22-37, Luke 11.14-23)
So far, there is nothing to connect the Unclean Spirits with Satan. That will soon change. Or will it? I am referring to the Beelzebul incident, which many readers interpret as identifying Satan with the ruler of the Demons, in the sense of Chief Demon. This, I believe, is a mistake. Let’s look at the episode in question.
Mark tells us that scribes from Jerusalem explain Jesus’s ability to expel Demons by saying that he is himself possessed by the Chief Demon: “He has Beelzebul, and by the Ruler of the Demons he casts out Demons” (Mark 3.22). This sounds like a sarcastic jibe, like that of the Judeans in John’s Gospel when they accuse Jesus of having a Demon (see 3.1 above), but Jesus takes them seriously, or at least pretends to do so. He calls them over and “speaks to them in parables.” We can count five parables, given in rapid succession:
1) “How can a satan cast out a satan?”
2) “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”
3) “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”
4) “If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”
5) “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man. Then indeed the house can be plundered.”
By failing to recognize that Jesus is making five comparisons here, to refute the notion that the Chief Demon, Beelzebul, would be interested in casting out other Demons, readers have assumed that Jesus is identifying Satan with Beelzebul, and also saying that Satan had a kingdom, that his kingdom is falling apart, that he will soon be deposed and incapacitated, and his assets confiscated.
But now that we recognize that Jesus is only making five comparisons, and that Satan is brought up in only one (or perhaps two) of them, what exactly is being said about him? Remember, we know nothing about Satan except that he put Jesus through a forty-day test in the desert.
In the first parable, Jesus refers not to the proper name of Satan, but takes it as a common noun: “a satan”—perhaps meaning “an adversary like Satan.” He is saying in effect that a satan, that is, an adversary, is not likely to act against a fellow-adversary. Because the definite article is not used here (not ho Satanas but simply satanas), it seems clear that Jesus is not speaking of Satan at this point. But he does introduce Satan himself in the fourth parable: it would make no sense, Jesus says, for Satan to rise up against himself. So we must conclude that Satan is still “standing,” still securely in his place, and that his end is nowhere in sight. At the same time we can read between the lines: it’s too bad that Satan’s end is not imminent (and also that he is not divided against hmself). This, however, tells us nothing about what Satan’s function is. Except that we already know that he is a tester.
Matthew reduces the Beelzebul parables from five to four, using the examples of satan/Satan only once, but in so doing he seemingly reveals that Satan does indeed has a kingdom: “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (Matt. 12.25-29).
After the Beelzebul discussion, Matthew adds other interesting uses of “bad” (poneros):
1) A good man takes good things out of a good treasure, and a bad person takes bad things out of a bad treasure (Matt. 12.35).
2) A bad and adulterous generation asks for a sign (Matt. 12.39).
3) The unclean spirit goes out of a person, and eventually brings back seven other spirits “badder” than itself, making the last state all the worse; so it will be with this bad generation (Matt. 12.43-45).