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(12) Paul on The satan
The term ‘satan’ is not a common word in the New Testament. If one counts the duplicate sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, it occurs perhaps half a dozen times, once in John, twice in Acts, twice in I Timothy and eight times in Revelation. In Paul the term ‘satan’ occurs once in Romans (16:20), twice in I Corinthians (5:5, 7:5), three times in 2nd Corinthians (2:11, 11:14, 12:7), and once in both I Thessalonians (2:18) and 2nd Thessalonians (2:9). This will make some folks unhappy but the satan is just not a major figure in the New Testament.
If one were to add in the term ‘diabolos’ (devil), there is more usage of that term: 7x Matt, 0x Mark, 5x Luke, 3x John, 2x Acts, 0 times authentic Pauline letters, 2x Ephesians, 5x I&II Timothy, 1x Hebrews, 1x James, 1x I Peter, 3x I John, 1x Jude, 5x Revelation. The Septuagint uses ‘diabolos’ for the Hebrew ‘shatan’ which means “the one who separates” (like the figure we saw in the prologue to Job) or “adversary.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, “the satan is the enemy in a specific sense, i.e., the accuser at law” (von Rad in TDNT Vol 2, 73). Other than 2 Cor. 6:15, and unlike apocalyptic Judaism or the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament does not “name” the satan (and 2 Cor. 6:15 may well be an interpolation; the entire section 6:14-7:1 reads like a piece of Qumran theology and does not fit Paul’s thinking at all).
Walter Wink (Naming the Powers) has shown that Paul’s preferred language is “principalities and powers” (Rom. 13:3, I Cor 2:6, 8:1 cf. also Eph. 2:2). This phrase is used with reference to both the governing authorities, that is the Roman Empire (Romans), and of “spiritual powers” (Corinthians). Later we shall have occasion to explore Wink’s understanding of the dual sided nature of the “principalities and powers” which manifest both physically in corporate structures (family, group, nation, government, corporation) and which has a distinct maleficent spirituality.
When it comes to the satan, Paul may implicitly reference the Genesis story (Gen. 3:15) and aver that the satan is “soon to be crushed” (notice, not already crushed, but soon to be!, and not under the heel of the promised one but under “your” feet) in the benediction of Romans 16:20. The satan figures as a figure of mimetic crisis in two different sexual situation in I Cor. 5:5 and 7:5 and again in 2 Cor. 2:11 where the accusatory function of the satan should not trump forgiveness in the community. In 2 Cor. 11:14 and 12:7 it would appear that Paul refers to the “super-apostles” (whom I take to be Peter and James, Jesus’ brother), as messengers of the satan (we may return to this in a later post). Interestingly, these usages are in contrast to the first recorded usage of Paul in I Thess. 2:18 where the satan blocked Paul’s coming to Thessalonica. I suspect that early in his ministry Paul was still working in the framework of the Henochic apocalyptic worldview (prior to the shift in his theology after he leaves Corinth for Ephesus where he likely encountered the Johannine community, a shift reflected in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians).
This linguistic foray demonstrates that nowhere, except for possibly I Thessalonians is the satan conceived of in Paul like some supernatural being as we find elaborated upon in apocalyptic Judaism (Enoch or the Dead Sea Scrolls) or in medieval Christianity or modern Hollywood. It is important to see that, for Paul, the satan in Romans and Corinthians is used, in each case, in a judicial framework, “the satan is the enemy in a specific sense, i.e., the accuser at law” (von Rad).
However, there is also another accuser that Paul must deal with in his letters and that is the Torah, for it is the Torah that accuses. Now if Paul can say that “the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy, just and good” (Rom 7:12), why then does he seem to have such a problem with it? The problem with the law is not that in itself it is evil, but that it does not stop sin from occurring but in fact brings sin forth (Rom. 7:5-7). That is, the purpose of the Torah may well have had a positive function, to stop sin from occurring but had the opposite effect. If you have raised children you know this all too well. Tell a child not to do something and they will do it! This is not only true for children but also for adults. It is the problem of the prohibition. That which is prohibited is made desirable. This is the dilemma we shall see Paul working out in Romans 7. However there is a much more sinister problem with the law and that is the way it goes from being a “guide” to righteous living (which is the best and proper Jewish interpretation) to being a vehicle of accusation. In our next post we shall examine this specific problem and then return to the problem of the law as the instigator of sin (mimetic conflict). For now, I think there is enough to chew on in this post.