The Origins of Satan in Judaism

by Jason Silverman

Scholars looking to understand from where the figure of Satan derives have long appealed to Iranian influence, particularly in the form of the Zoroastrian Angra Mainyu (Ahriman). I argue instead that the first appearance of the term as a noun in the Hebrew Bible ought to be understood as an administrative official of the Achaemenid Empire. This continues a working hypothesis of mine that various aspects of the divine realm was envisioned as similar to the Achaemenid Empire by some in Second Temple Judaism. 

The biblical passage on which this claim is based is Zechariah 3. The chapter opens with the Satan standing at the right hand of Joshua “the great priest” before the Angel of YHWH. YHWH’s angel rebukes the Satan in v. 2, repeating the rebuking twice, and giving the reasons as the choice of Jerusalem and that Joshua is a “brand plucked from the fire.” The Satan then disappears from the scene, and Joshua has his scatologically filthy clothes removed and replaced with robes and a turban. This is followed by a condition, a promise, and a sign. The language of this passage belongs to a legal court setting. This is followed by a conditional verdict based on obedience to YHWH (v. 7). The chapter concludes with (a likely garbled) sign. While the chapter clearly concerns the suitability of Joshua for temple service, it is otherwise rather obscure, and the figure of the Satan even more so.

At stake in this passage is the office of high priest. There is no doubt that holding office within the empire was predicated on loyalty to the king, and this likely involved declarations of loyalty, at appointment and perhaps also periodically confirmed. No certain attestations for a ceremony currently exist. Better attested for the Achaemenid era is another phenomenon that implies at least a modicum of ceremonial setting: the king gave gifts, often luxurious clothing and jewelry, as marks of honor, status, and loyalty. The known evidence for Achaemenid structures of oversight provide a new way to read Zech 3.

In pre-exilic times the (Davidic) king chose the (high) priest. In the Achaemenid era, that would mean the priest would be chosen by the Great King. In practical terms, however, most of such kingly duties were fulfilled by royal surrogates, the satraps. That the satraps represented the king and even attempted to replicate the Great King’s court in miniature is well-known. It was noted above that in Zech 3 Joshua stands before the Angel of YHWH rather than before YHWH himself (unlike in Isaiah). The temporal authority which the satrap had to install and confirm priests as a royal proxy is in Zechariah transferred to the heavenly realm, where the Angel of YHWH fulfills the same role vis-à-vis YHWH himself. In other words, Zech 3 would represent a court of a lower scale than in the pre-exilic period; the king is now only involved by proxy, and so is YHWH.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the central character of John Milton's Paradise Lost, c. 1866. Public Domain.
Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, c. 1866. Public Domain.

Often the vision in Zech 3 is described as an investiture or consecration ceremony for Joshua. Yet the terminology argues against this. Indeed, Joshua is described as already “Great Priest,” and the scene appears to be dealing with an accusation. Surely these are abnormal for a priestly consecration. If, however, the scene is understood as a “confirmation hearing” of Joshua before the satrap, several features fit better than if understood as consecration. First, the scene does not correspond with the biblical literature on consecration. There is no oil, nor sacrifice, nor priestly regalia (see below). Second, Joshua is before the Angel of YHWH instead of YHWH himself, and this parallels the place of the satrap in the empire. Further, the ceremony involves elite rather than priestly clothing. This makes a priestly ordination unlikely. Rather, it fits in with known antecedents for being honored by the Achaemenid king. The terms here ought to be understood, therefore, as emblems of honor and victory rather than in terms of royal coronation. If the scene in Zech 3 is understood as a satrapal appointment to office, then the robe and turban make sense as marks of royal favor rather than of a priesthood usurping royal rights. As noted above, both elite robes and jewelry were well-known markers of royal Persian favor.

If Zech 3 is read as a scene of satrapal confirmation, then the figure of the Satan would correspond to the accusers who read the written accusation against Tiribazus in Diodorus. They were separate individuals who nevertheless had the role of both reading the accusation and commenting on its legal force. At a sub-satrapal level such as Yehud, the satrap represented the king. One can, however, still understand a process whereby the satrap consulted other officials for objections to new appointments be-fore confirming them and acquiring their oaths of loyalty. Indeed, the Pherendates correspondence included a list of criteria for priestly candidates, a number of which were based on the individuals’ social standing and career record. Such criteria would need some form of interrogation to be established. In this understanding, the Zech 3 passage depicts the moment where Joshua was vetted by the satrap and then had to profess loyalty to the king and in return was allowed to set-up and/or run a recognized civil cult, regardless of how he had been chosen for the priestly position by the Judaeans. This was then in the Zechariah chapter given a theological interpretation wherein the priest did the same towards YHWH’s angel. The political reality was the mirror of the theological reality.

In summary, the Satan in Zech 3 corresponds to the satrap’s officers who leveled legal objections against official nominees within the satrapal administration, when one combines the picture of the mechanisms portrayed in Tiribazus’s trial with the logistical necessities implied by Pheredates and the hints of such offices in the Bactrian archives. Joshua is depicted as receiving royal favor predicated on loyalty, but does so before YHWH’s royal proxy, the Angel of YHWH, paralleling the satrap as the Great King’s proxy. The demonstration of loyalty likely involved some sort of loyalty oath and possibly even a specific ceremony.

If the above is accepted, then from this beginning context it is easy to see how the Satan became a celestial figure as the scene itself was transposed heavenwards in line with the older heavenly assembly tradition. The Satan as a reflex of an administrative role would help explain why the term became a class rather than a proper name at first, a phenomenon more difficult to explain if the origins are postulated as Angra Mainyu. This does not exclude, of course, later interaction with Angra Mainyu traditions by later Jews and Christians during the Parthian and Sasanian eras.

The above is a summary of Jason Silverman’s research article ‘Vetting the Priest in Zechariah 3: The Satan between Divine and Achaemenid Administrations’, which was published in October 2014 in the open-access Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

4 thoughts on “The Origins of Satan in Judaism”

  1. Dr. Silverman,

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating research. I see that you’ve published a journal article on the topic. Is this part of a larger overall project and can we expect more later on the subject of Satan?

    1. It is part of an overall research project on Iranian influence, but not on angel- or demonology per se.

  2. Have you considered writing an aside on Mastema, chief of the fallen-angels? I understand that Mastema is important for Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ‘Enochian’ texts (as Boccaccini labels them). Belial is I think the same character (it’s been awhile since I last looked into this). Mastema seems a much likelier parallel to angra-mainyu.

    1 Enoch and Jubilees postdate Zechariah 1-8 by a lot. But I do recall that some traditions in there are considered to be Babylonian-era, like parts of the Astronomical Book, and also the bit about fallen-angels in 1 Enoch 5-11(ish). This is the part that matters.

    IMO, your argument would be stronger if it also explained the origins of Mastema (/Belial), and showed how this figure is *not* the Satan. If you prove that Mastema is Late Persian or even Hellenistic in origin then so much the better.

    1. Someday I will get around to the DSS beyond 1 Enoch. At the moment I’m working on the Achaemenid era itself.

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