Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

When Did Angels Become Demons?

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

When Did Angels Become Demons?

Article excerpt

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According to familiar Christian mythology, demons are or were fallen angels. Satan was an angel who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven. Other angels rebelled along with him and became his minions. These fallen angels became demons. The mythology also assumes that "demon" refers to the same being as "evil (or unclean or polluted) spirit."1 Contrary to what may be common assumptions, this mythology was not shared by most ancient Jews, including those who wrote and translated the Hebrew Bible, most writers of ancient noncanonical Jewish texts, and Jews in general before the rise of Christianity. Moreover, that myth, in its complete form, is not found in the NT, though separate aspects of it may be discerned there. The Christian myth that equated fallen angels with demons arose in the second and third centuries c.e. It was an invention of late ancient Christian writers. From a historical point of view, therefore, we should not retroject the equation of demons with fallen angels back into the minds of NT writers. Angels became demons only beginning in the second century and only then at the hands of Christians.

The term "demon" is often used to refer to any and all malevolent superhuman (or supernatural) beings.2 Thus, all sorts of beings from the Hebrew Bible, ancient Judaism, and the ancient Near East-evil angels, various "disease demons," Lilith, impure "spirits," and many more-are lumped together as "demonic beings." For this article, I do not include every nonhuman, intelligent evil being from any culture or any language in my category "demon." I ask rather, When did what the ancient Jews called "angels" (Myk)lm) become identified with what the ancient Greeks called ... or ...? When later Christians asserted that the evil or fallen angels they inherited from Judaism were to be identified with ????????, they were not choosing merely a generic word for evil beings. They were equating the fallen angels of contemporary Judaism with those beings the Greeks worshiped as gods or demigods. They were making a new identification between two species derived from two separate cultures. That identification should not be retrojected into the minds of the NT writers.

I. Greek Translations of the Hebrew Bible

To establish that ancient Jews tended not to equate the species of angels with the species of demons, the best place to begin is with Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. Jewish translators of Hebrew Scripture used Greek "daimonic" terms sparingly, but they did use them.3 Six different Hebrew words seem to be translated as ..., in almost all cases the latter.4

In Deut 32:17, ... (sedÎm) is rendered as ...: "They sacrifice to demons and not to God; to gods [...] they did not know." In Ps 105:37 (Eng. 106), there is a similar statement: "They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons [...]" (NRSV). Later, ... will come to be the most common word used by the rabbis for those beings they seem to have thought of as the same sorts of beings Christians called "demons." But we should note that in the ancient Near Eastern context, the word sedÎm is related to the Assyrian sÎdu, which referred to the great bull statues found in front of Assyrian palaces, sometimes depicted with wings. According to some modern commentators, the word d# originally meant simply "lord" and served as a divine title like "Baal" or "Adonai." It could, therefore, be taken to refer to ancient gods of Canaan and other surrounding peoples, who could have viewed them as good powers or gods.5 The Jewish translators, therefore, use the word ???????? to refer to the gods of other peoples.

We see this tendency in Isa 65:11, which the NRSV translates, "But you who forsake the Lord, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune [ynm] and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny [dg]." The ancient Jews translated ynm with ???η, and dg with ....6 The translators take Hebrew words that could be abstract nouns referring to fortune or fate and recognize that those refer also to the names of gods in surrounding cultures. …

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