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. But whatever reason Jesus had for delaying the proclamation of himself as the Son of God, it certainly did not apply to Paul.