If asked “Who is Satan?” most of us might give an answer something like this: Satan or the Devil is the fallen angel who persuaded Adam and Eve to commit the “original sin.” Also known as the Antichrist and Lucifer, he now presides over hell and entices people on earth to sin. This is what Henry Ansgar Kelly, professor emeritus in the department of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, calls the “new biography of Satan.” His goal is to show that none of this is really in the Bible, and he suggests that we need to reconstitute and return to the “original biography of Satan” found in the Bible.
Kelly describes his monograph as a “serial and incremental biography” of Satan. By that he means that it works through, in chronological order, all the relevant texts about Satan from the early parts of the Old Testament to modern times. He contends that the deterioration in the character of Satan in the Bible and especially in postbiblical writings is the natural result of “unfavorable media attention,” the kind of thing that often happens to unpopular characters.
After treating the figure of Satan in the Old Testament and later Jewish writings, he examines under the heading “Satan comes into his own” the pertinent texts in Paul’s letters, the Gospels, the later epistles and Revelation. Then he treats postbiblical developments under three major headings: Satan and Adam, the rise of the fallen Lucifer and Satan and the modern world.
Kelly contends that Satan in the New Testament is basically the same character as the one whom we meet in the book of Job (the “tester”), and that he should be regarded as the equivalent of those who hold positions like attorney general or director of the F.B.I. Satan’s main task is to investigate and test people, and to reveal their true character. While serving under God’s control, he sometimes grows impatient with his boss’s patient and merciful attitude toward humans and oversteps his commission.
According to Kelly, the original (biblical) biography of Satan was gradually supplanted by the “new biography” from patristic times onward. Satan became identified with the serpent of Genesis 3 and as a fallen angel (see Gen 6:1-4), given the titles “Antichrist” (applied to heretics in 1-3 John) and Lucifer (applied to Jesus in Revelation) and made superintendent of Hell. These developments were often based on misreadings of biblical texts, and have turned Christianity into a kind of neo-Zoroastrian (that is, dualistic) religion in which Satan exercises independent and quasi-divine power.
Of course, the history of the concept of Satan does not solve the problem of evil. And there is abundant evidence of evil all around us today. Kelly hopes that his historical study might draw attention away from an invisible Prince of Evil or an abstract personification of evil and help us focus more on the real causes of the evil actions that humans commit.
Kelly shows himself to be a masterful teacher. He is not only adept at interpreting biblical texts but also ranges with equal skill into patristics, canon law, hagiography, philosophical theology, early English poetry, Schleiermacher and rituals of exorcism. He places the texts in their proper literary and historical contexts, is careful to show what they say and do not say, guides the reader systematically through them, provides helpful summaries and repetitions, and does all this with a gentle and amiable tone. While relentlessly developing his thesis, he manages also to inform and entertain.
By adopting the format of a serial and incremental biography, Kelly illustrates nicely a sound approach in historical theology. He has traced the trajectory of the idea of Satan from the earliest sources to the present. He refuses to read later concepts and developments into the earlier texts. Rather, he wants to let each text speak for itself. The result is a series of fresh and insightful readings of some familiar biblical and other texts. His enemy is what he calls “retro-smugglers,” that is, those who smuggle elements of the “new biography of Satan” into texts that represent the original (biblical) presentation of Satan. He shows that our popular concept of Satan owes more to John Milton than to the Bible.
Nevertheless, I wonder whether Kelly gives enough weight to the exotic and somewhat haunted world of Jewish apocalyptic and to the early influence of Persian dualism upon it. While they do not mention Satan by name, the description of the angelic rebellion in 1 Enoch 6-16 and the instruction on the two spirits (the Prince of Light and the Angel of Darkness) in the Qumran Rule of the Community 3-4 are probably more representative of the thinking that shaped the New Testament writers than Job 1-2 is. Moreover, those writers assumed that their readers knew about Satan/Devil and seemed to regard him as more than an ultimately benign (if rigorous) tester.
Kelly’s “biography” of Satan is both challenging and delightful. It raises serious questions about an aspect of Christian theology that even recent popes have admitted needs further study and clarification. It is also a model of effective literary and historical scholarship, carried out by a skilled and engaging pedagogue.