Rhetorical functions of Satan: From Babylon the whore to devilish super-apostles (Satan 7)

As a Jewish apocalyptic movement, the early Jesus movement (“Christianity”) inherited a worldview in which Satan played an important role as the ultimate adversary or opponent of God and his agents. Plenty could be said of the centrality of Satan’s (or his demons’) opposition to Jesus in the synoptic gospels, for instance, where the temptation in the desert at the start of Jesus’ mission draws clear attention to an ongoing struggle (further illustrated in the many exorcisms) that seemingly threatens to undo that very mission. Jesus is often presented, as in the gospel of Mark, as the beginning of the end for the evil powers that are active in the world. Most early Christians took Satan and his demons seriously and felt evil powers could be active in the real-life settings of Christians and others. So this was more than just thoughts in peoples’ heads, and Satan played an important role in real-life social and political interactions and in polemical discourses.

Here I want briefly to draw attention to two main rhetorical functions of Satan in polemical discourses or discourses of the “other”. Moreover, the ultimate Opponent (Satan) could make his appearance (discursively) in struggles with (1) opponents outside of one’s group and (2) opponents within (or on the fringes of) Judaism or the Jesus movement that were nonetheless categorized as “other”, as demonic outsiders. The “demonization” of either external enemies or internal adversaries continued in various ways throughout the history of Christianity (and was characteristic of earlier polemical discourses within the context of early Judaism as well).

(1) First of all, Satan and the language of evil play an important role in the “demonization” of outsiders or other peoples, including ruling powers. John’s Apocalypse (Revelation) provides an excellent example of this (written some time in the years following Rome’s destruction of the temple in 70 CE, perhaps in the 90s). The author of these visions thinks in terms of an ongoing struggle between God and his Lamb (Jesus), on the one hand, and the dragon, Satan, and his Beast, on the other. More importantly here, the dragon here is quite clearly in league with the Roman imperial power, which is portrayed as a seven-headed, chaotic beast arising from the sea in chapter 13 (with the emperor Nero in particular — as the mortally wounded head who “was, and is not, and is to ascend” [17:7-14] — on the top of the author’s mind). The “dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” to this beast, and the people worshipped both the dragon (Satan) and the beast (the emperor), according to these visions (13:2). The rhetorical attack on the external Roman imperial power continues in chapters 17-18, where the author speaks of Babylon (= Rome — both had destroyed God’s temple in Jerusalem) as a whore who rides on the seven-headed beast and drinks the blood of the saints. For more on the imperial dimensions of the Apocalypse, see my earlier post on Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor.

The use of the language of evil and Satan in relating to outsiders or external opponents would continue long after John wrote down these visions. One particularly prominent example is the way in which subsequent Christians (e.g. Justin Martyr) spoke of the gods of the Greeks and Romans as “demons” (compare Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Corinth at 10:14-22).

(2) Second, in the internal debates and struggles within Christianity, Satan was frequently called on to combat those within or on the margins of one’s own cultural group who held different views on what following Jesus meant. Thus, for instance, when Paul attempted to convince some Christians at Corinth that they should take him as authoritative rather than some other eloquent “super-apostles”, he employed the language of evil and Satan to describe these (Jewish-Christian) opponents:

“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 [RSV]).

These leaders of the Jesus movement with whom Paul strongly disagrees become servants of Satan who will share the evil one’s fate, in this discourse.

One more example will suffice here. The Johannine epistles (1-3 John) reflect a particular group of Jesus-followers (likely living in western Asia Minor) which had recently had difficulties that led to a schism. The author portrays those that had left the group, who held differing views on Jesus, as “antichrists” in the service of the devil:

“Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come . . . They went out from us, but they were not of us . . . Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:18-23 [RSV]; compare 2 John 7-11).

This is the earliest known occurence of the term “antichrist”, by the way, which would soon develop its own history in reference to a primary earthly assistant of Satan that would precede the final battle between evil and good. Among later interpreters, the beasts in John’s Apocalypse, or in the book of Daniel before it, were sometimes identified with this developing antichrist figure.

2 thoughts on “Rhetorical functions of Satan: From Babylon the whore to devilish super-apostles (Satan 7)

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