"Satan" (Σατανᾶς) is from satanas, the Greek form of the Hebrew satan ( שטן), meaning "adversary", "opponent," or "one who opposes another in purpose or act." It is also the more general idea of “adversity” and “opposition” rather than a person. This is either a positive or negative word, depending on who is opposing whom. In the old Testament, it is applied both to the Good Guys, Israelite heroes, like King David, and the Bad Guys, Israel opponents. Jesus uses it only in sixteen verses, but before we look at how Jesus used it, we must look how the Hebrew word was used in the Old Testament, and how that word was translated into Greek in the Greek Old Testament. It was never a name, but a word used to depersonalize the idea of adversity.
The argument here is not that Jesus did not use the concept of “the adversary” or “the enemy” but simply that 1) Satan is not the name of a specific being, 2) Satan is not the Zoroastrian concept of the ruler of “hell”, and 3) the idea of adversity in life is baked into Jesus’s worldview, but not its major focus.
First, let us look at some “good guy” examples. In Numbers 22:22, (KJV) “And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him.” The word translated as “adversary,” is the Hebrew satan, ( שטן) used to describe an angel of the Lord sent against Ballaam, to get Ballaam to do what God wanted. In the Greek Old Testament version of this verse, the Hebrew satan is translated into an uncommon Greek word, endiaballein (ἐνδιαβάλλειν) meaning "slander” and “denigrate.” In 1 Samuel 29:4, King David is described as an adversary of the Philistine, the Philistine princes saying, (KJV) “lest in the battle he be an adversary to us.” In the Greek version, satan is translated into the Greek, epíboulos (ἐπίβουλος), meaning “plotting against” or “treacherous.”
When referring to the Bad Guys, the Hebrew word satan ( שטן) is most commonly translated into the Greek word diabolos (διάβολος), which means "slanderer," (see this article). The word diabolos, for example, is used throughout the story of Job. In the the English NT, this word is translated as "devils" or "demons,,” but diabolos is usually translated into “adversary” in the English Old Testament because “demons” seldom works.
The Greek spelling of the Hebrew word, satanas (Σατανᾶς) appears the first time in the Greek Old Testament, where it is used only once, in 1 Kings 11:14, where it is translated into English as “adversary.” Again, this is clearly never a person’s name.
So, it isn’t until the New Testament that we see satanas magically transformed into a name of an incarnation of evil. But maybe Jesus changed the meaning of the word, right? Not so much. Somebody changed the word, but it wasn’t Jesus.
Jesus was kind enough to provide a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding how he used satanas. The Rosetta Stone is the Parable of the Sower, where three different Greek words are used to describe the same thing: the force taking away the seeds sown by the wayside. Assuming, as I do, that Jesus told the same story in three different ways, he saw all three of these words as, if not synonyms, conceptual equivalents.
In Mark 4:15, the word satanas is used to describe this force, which is helpful because that is the word we are investigating. In Matthew 13:19, this force is described by the adjective poneros, (see this article), which is Biblically translated as "the wicked one" (KJV) and “the evil one” (NIV), when that word’s meaning is "the worthless one." In the Luke version, Luke 8:12 used the term diabolos, which is usually translated as "devil" but means "slanderer," (see this article).
So, we see a remarkable consistency between what we see in the Old Testament and the words that Jesus used as equivalent to satanas.
The confusion with this word starts in Matthew 4:10, where Ὕπαγε, Σατανᾶ: is translated as (KJV) “Begone, Satan!” The good news is that this translation could be half right. The first word could be a command, in the second person, seemingly addressed to someone, meaning “go away.” The bad news is that the word “satanas” is not who is addressed. In Greek, nouns have a special form when used to address a person, called the vocative case. Here, satanas is the object of the verb, not its subject. Oh, the verb having an object creates a problem because when this verb is transitive, that is, having an object, it means something else, “to bring something under ones power.” So Jesus is saying “Bring adversity under control.” Or “withdraw opposition behind me.” He could be talking to Peter, but he was not talking to some person named “Satan.”
Then we have Mark 8:33, when Jesus is clearly addressing Peter. Again, he is translated as saying, (KJV) “Get thee behind me, Satan.” If we look at the Greek, what do you think we will find? The exact same two words, Ὕπαγε…Σατανᾶ. In exactly the same forms. Again, satanas is not a name, but something that needs to be taken under control.
Of course, we also have the “Get behind me, Satan” (KJV) in Luke 4:8, but in this case, the problem is with the Greek source the KJV which added the same words as above. The Greek sources that we use today do not have this phrase and modern Bibles to not offer it.
Jesus also connects “the adversary” to Beelzebub, which is a personification. He refers to the personalization of a controller of demons using the term Beelzebub. This is not based upon any Greek word. The word "Ba'al Zebub" ("Lord of the Flies" or "Lord of the Flyers") which is a mockery of the Hebrew ba‘al zbûl, "Lord Prince” and "Lord of the Manor." Jesus refers to this pun in Matthew 10:25 using the Greek word "master of the estate" to introduce it. However, in Matthew 12:27, Luke 11:18, and Luke 11:19, Jesus uses this term to refer to the refer this person as the controller of demons. However, he does this all in humorous ways.
As I said, Jesus only used the Hebrew word, satan, in sixteen verses, I could examine every occurrence, but that would be boring. Instead, we will look at a few verses that personalize the word to a large degree. I am not saying the the word is not used to personalize adversity. In the story of Job, for example, “the adversary” is clearly a major character. People of his era tended to personalize the invisible forces of nature and only understood the vagaries of nature in those terms. My point is simply that the word, satanas, has a broader, more practical meaning in the discussion of adversity and human suffering.
First, let us look at Matthew 12:26, “And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?” Jesus says this in response to an accusation that he is Beelzebub, the head of demons, from Ba’al, meaning simply “lord,” used as a prefix for the name of many pagan gods. Clearly, in the philosophy of the Pharisees, this lord is in charge of people’s personal demons. Jesus responds by saying a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and then, in a literal translation:
Also, if this adversary that adversity tosses out, from himself, he is split. How really will it stand that καὶ εἰ ὁ Σατανᾶς τὸν Σατανᾶν ἐκβάλλει, ἐφ᾽ ἑαυτὸν ἐμερίσθη: πῶς οὖν σταθήσεται ἡ realm of his? βασιλεία αὐτοῦ;
Since Jesus refers to Beelzebub by name in the next verse, Matthew 12:27, he is clearly not using satanas as a different name in this verse. He is offering a general lesson about adversity. However, he is doing it in terms that the people of his era understood. By using satanas and not Beelzubub, he is trying to depersonalize the forces of nature. Jesus suggests that adversity has a "realm" or "kingdom" that it controls. We can think of this as the "house of pain." Anyone who has ever gone through a long, painful illness, themselves or with a family member, knows what living in the realm of adversity is like.
We see something similar in the verse offering the best evidence connecting satanas to the Lucifer of the Old Testament is Luke 10:18, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.” Jesus’s Greek here loosely parallels the Greek of Isa 14:12, which describes the fall of Lucifer. But how did Jesus change this verse? He eliminated the personal name, Lucifer, replacing it again with the generic term, of “the adversary.”
Ἐθεώρουν τὸν Σατανᾶν ὡς ἀστραπὴν ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ πεσόντα. I observed the adversary like lightening from the sky falling
The context here is critical. Jesus is addressing his students, empowering them, in the next verse giving them the control over serpents and scorpions, and in the verse following that, power of spirits. So this line is a form of extravagant praise for his students, saying they have control over the adversary of the realm of the skies.
Jesus references to satanas make perfect sense when we take the persona out of the equation and think of his references as being simply to "adversity". Christ personalizes the idea of suffering, but all suffering is personal.
There is a lot more I could say here, for example discussing the connection between adversity and slander and lies, which is a theme of Jesus’s but that work will have to wait.
In this earlier article on “evil,” I discussed how poneros is used to manufacture references to the “devil” by translating it as “the evil one” instead of “the worthless.” Such translation gives Jesus's teaching the feeling of Zoroastrian cosmology, the universe as a battle between good and evil when what he is really saying is that he wants to the best for us, not what is second-rate.
Here, we can see that in his use of satanas, “the adversary,” Jesus was actually working against the ideas, prevalent in his time, that evil forces were cosmic entities. He was not saying that adversity is not part of life, but rather than it is nothing personal.
Interesting, because before I read your site I saw as evidence against Satan being a named character the passage of Isaiah 14:12. In it, they described that Lucifer was not a name, only the word for morning star that didn't get translated from the vulgate for some reason. It was claimed to allude to the King of Babylon and not Satan.