On Satan in the Book of Mormon

In January 2005 someone posed the following question to me:

How come the Book of Mormon, which traces its genesis before the Exile, mentions “Satan” and possessions by demons, and the like? The concept of a single malelovent being, Satan in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, was a post-Exilic concept, according to scholars such as Elaine Pagels and the like, and so were possessions by demons. Is there any evidence of belief in a single malevolent being and possession by demons, consistent with the Book of Mormon text, before the Exile?

The following was my quick, off-the-cuff answer. How would you have responded to this query?

You ask an excellent question. The theology reflected in the OT, at least as we have it today, reflects a monistic view prior to the Exile; that is, both good and evil come from God. (The developed view, that there is a demigod in opposition to God who is responsible for evil, probably reflects Persian thought, which was highly dualistic.) The Hebrew word satan does appear in pre-Exilic OT passages, but usually with the definite article ha-, which means it should be rendered “the satan.” It was not originally a name of a person, but a description of a role. The satan was the obstructer, the adversary, the accuser. The satan was a son of God and a part of the heavenly court, and he fulfilled a role rather like a divine prosecuting attorney.

In the BoM, some passages alluding to Satan and the devil are fairly generic, and could refer to pre-Exilic conceptions, but others do seem to posit a personalized embodiment of evil, which is the later conception.

One possibility is that we lack adequate evidence for this transformation, and that it began earlier than customarily thought. Lehi flourished just at the tale end of the pre-Exilic period, so we’re not talking about a lot of years’ difference here.

Another possibility is that Lehi came to this view by his own intuition or revelation. Again, it is not that far removed from the general development of the later view.

A third possibility is that at least some of the BoM passages have been Christianized. This could have been done either by Mormon/Moroni (except for passages in the Small Plates, which Mormon/Moroni did not edit) or by Joseph Smith. I personally accept this third possibility.

It was very common for ancient Jewish texts to be Christianized by later Christian copyists, redactors and translators. To see numerous examples, consider James Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

I realize this perhaps is not the common “sunday school” understanding of things, but it is the explanation that to me makes the most sense.


  1. Kevin, I too find the evidence for the Christianization of early sections of the Book of Mormon, particularly by Mormon and/or Moroni to be very compelling and very much in keeping with techniques employed by other ancient editors.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    I think you covered all of your bases with that answer. I think we forget sometimes how loaded “The theology reflected in the OT, at least as we have it today,” is: we have only the tip of the iceburg and can’t really say that they didn’t have a concept of Satan–only that we don’t have a record of it. And, at the risk of getting all Mormon on you, if Satan were going to remove anything from the record (or stop its entry in the first place), wouldn’t it be references to Satan?

    (But I also find your other theories equally plausible–the Christianization of the BoM deserves more attention in general.)

  3. I personally see this as coming under the penumbra of what I call Joseph Smith’s pseudo-dispensationalism. His vision was not only that he was restoring the ancient way but that there was only one ancient way, that rather than dispensations as the Protestants meant it, God exercises restorations of an unaltered core. The Book of Mormon had to be anachronistic according to modern textual scholarship because God was anachronistic by those same standards.

    Re: Zoroastrian influences back and forth, that’s such a speculative area with hopelessly misdated texts that it feels like archaeology on the moon to me sometimes. If, as most of us who accept the Zoroastrian pollination theory believe, the OT represents only a few religious traditions within 1st/2d temple Judaism, and the redactor represents just one of them, then it’s entirely possible that there were non-monist strands in early Hebrew culture long before interactions with Persia.

    I agree with your implication that Blake Ostler’s inspired exegetical translation tradition is quite liberating on points like this. One could even argue that these acts of creative exegesis fill in the holes in prior scripture. If Satan truly exists, and the Hebrews had missed that point, then JSJ’s amplification was a time to set the record straight, so to speak.

  4. Interesting thoughts, but I am confused. There are many references to the devil/Satan in the Small Plates, so if they were Christianized it could only have been done by Joseph Smith. It’s easy to read most of those passages as referring to a generic “devil force” rather than an actual being who is The Devil, but a few of them don’t read that way so easily, in addition to the uses of the term “Satan” (see 1 Nephi 13 and 22, 2 Nephi 9:8-9). I can understand the Christianization effect of Joseph’s translation process on some verses, but not on all of them.

    A couple questions: Why don’t you lean toward two of your possibilities, namely your second and third?

    What doctrines, taught in the Americas but NOT in the brass plates, would Mormon/Moroni have relied upon to get their concept of Satan as a person? (ie. Why would their understanding differ from Nephi’s?)

  5. I thought there might be enough representation of the devil/Satan in the OT to make out his role. Maybe not.

    My impression, from PoGP (where Satan confronts Moses), is that there probably should be more information about Satan in the OT than there is.

  6. The problem with looking at the BOM this way is that we don’t have the Brass Plates. Just like the Brass Plates contain more information on the nature of Christ (e.g. writings of Zenoc and Zenos), they likely contain more information on the true nature of Satan.

    We also must remember that Israel at the time of Jesus to now were in a state of Apostasy. Therefore, the Bible likely contains inaccurate inclusions and exclusions. An example of several excusions are several verses in the book of 2Samuel and the entire Book of Jasher now translated by Donald Perry from Dead Sea Scroll Papyrus. Consequently, we don’t know if OT teaching about Satan really reflect what those people understood about the nature of the advesary.

    And, we shouldn’t forget that Israel rebelled against Moses and refused the higher law, which the patriarchs like Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Melchesidek enjoyed. Consequently, they were given a prepatory law (the Law of Moses) to prepare them to receive the higher law of Christ at his coming. According to the Pearl of Great Price Book of Moses, we understand that the Patiarchs were the first Christians and had revealed to them the true nature of both Christ and Satan.

  7. Also, I think modern Christianity is guilty of being kinda arrogant. We assume we know so much more about the nature of God than the ancients. I think we errently conclude that since the Israelites were under the preparatory Law of Moses that the Patriarchs like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Melchesidek new even less about the God than Israel. Unfortunately, we don’t know what they believed because the Bible starts with Moses.

    According to the Pearl of Great Price book of Moses and Abraham, we realize that Adam was the first Christian. Adam was taught about the mission of Jesus Christ, was baptized, and was able to receive the blessings of the Atonement of Jesus Christ even before it had happened (Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world). The Book of Mormon also teaches that the people could have a hope in Christ as if he had already come.

    Also, we must remember that Christ is called a High Priest after the order of Melchesidek. This points out that the priesthood of the patriarchs like Adam, Seth, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Melchesidek is of a higher and “more excellent” order than the Priesthood of Aaron (of John the Baptist) which was in general opperation to administer the Law of Moses. The Priesthood of Aaron has the authority to baptise with water, but the Melchesidek priesthood has the power to baptise with fire and the Holy Ghost. Accordingly, Jesus Christ didn’t establish a new order of priesthood but restored the higher priesthood and knowledge as it existed anciently.

  8. From my Jewish perspective here: I remember reading the Book of Job, which is where I first encountered “ha-satan,” the adversary. (I don’t recall seeing it up until that point.) It really threw me off because, as Jews, we believe that all things are of G-d, including good and evil. For instance, in Deuteronomy 30:19, G-d says “…I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…” It is always clear that good and evil are created by G-d but are choices we humans make, albeit sometimes difficult ones, and at times we humans have trouble discerning where the line is. While I have heard some of the most orthodox, Haredi Jews refer to “the adversary” and “ha-satan” on rare occasions, among the non-Haredi Jews I’ve encountered in my life and literature I’ve read, including those of the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist movements and the vast majority of orthodox Jews, I’ve never heard the term used. I think Kevin Barney is correct, that the idea of Satan as separate from G-d probably came about from outside influences. That has happened a lot in Judaism, and things come and go, but a separate Satan, while the idea was introduced fairly early in our history, never seems to have “stuck.” I’m talking, of course, from a non-theological point of view but from a historical one, as far as I know it. I don’t know how an LDS non-belief in Satan as currently taught would change things, though — it seems to me that Mormonism’s emphasis is already on good works and good hearts; whether or not there is a belief in Satan (as currently believed) may not make much of a difference to the Church, though as a Gentile that’s probably a bit presumptuous for me to say. But I’ve attended quite a few LDS sacrament meetings and have never heard the “hellfire and brimstone” of some faiths.

  9. Mike, I don’t know that we Mormons could easily disconnect from a literal Satan, as our Book of Mormon states that one of Satan’s great deceits is to say to man that he does not exist. He is also important to our view of Christ, as he was, to us, another son of God, and in opposition to our Father.

    Even if we are wrong and there is no physical being of Satan, and he is only an embodiment of a concept (like Santa Claus) I do not think that is an available reconceptualization.

  10. Truth has always existed. Since Adam Satan has always been known and understood by members of the church. (Proof: Book of Enoch, dead sea scrolls…ect) The Book of Mormon was not just translated, it was transliterated. Meaning, when Joseph translated the text there was probably a word reffering to satan that we wouldn’t have recognized so he translated the refrence to what we understood, “Devil”. Need proof? How could Job used the word “book” when such word or concept did not exist for hundreds if years? (Job 31:35) If the word devil should not be in the BOM because of tranliteration than we must dismiss the bible too.

  11. P.s. Evil does not come from God, because Jewish faith does not look past the old testament I don’t know how to prove this to them; However to the Christian, James 1:17 “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”
    Let’s not accuse God of running both sides of the coin and give him variableness.

  12. Shane, I’m not sure that I am following how you are using the term transliteration. As it stands you are not using it in a way that makes sense, or I am grossly misreading you.

  13. David Brosnahan says:

    There is pre-exile-OT teaching that supports the NT concept of Satan. Isaiah prophesies of the future destruction of Babylon by comparing it’s fall to the Fall of Lucifer from the heavenly council to Earth (who became Satan) and the eventual fall of Satan from Earth to Outer Darkness. Satan and the angels that follow him will not be joined with their mortal followers because through Christ, even the wicked will be resurrected (resurrection of just and unjust of those who kept their first estate).

    Isa. 14: 16

    John the Revelator continues the vision of Lucifer fall from Heaven during the Great War in Heaven, which continues on the Earth in which he draws “a third part” of our brothers and sisters with him.

    Rev. 12: 4

    I recognize that all this may be difficult to follow because there are quite a number of new concepts for non-LDS including: anti-mortal existance, heavenly council, Lucifer->Satan, War in Heaven, literal physical resurrection, ect.

  14. David, I take it that you mean “ante-mortal” existence. Is that right?

  15. Also, David, your reading of the Isaiah texts is heavily eisegetical (e.g. your reference to “outer darkness”) while I think Kevin is grappling with a more thoroughly exegetical problem in his original post.

  16. David Brosnahan says:

    I’m not sure what you are objecting too. Thank you for correcting my typo. Yes, I ment “ante-”

    Matt. 8: 12
    But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

  17. David Brosnahan says:

    Joseph Smith did not Christianize the first part of the Book of Mormon

  18. David Brosnahan says:

    nor did Mormon or Moroni. Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob all had visions of Jesus Christ. I think their understandings of spiritual things far surpasses what they were permitted to write.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    If you go to the Blue Letter Bible at blueletterbible.org, then to Job 1:6, then click on the box next to the verse with a C in it, then click on the Strong’s Number 07854 for the Hebrew word satan, you’ll see an entry from an old Hebrew lexicon. I’ll give a direct link here, but I’m not sure it will work, which is why I’ve explained how to find it.

    This old Hebrew Lexicon is Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, translated into English by Samuel P. Tregelles. This is a translation of Wilhelm (William) Gesenius’ Lexicon Manuale Hebraicum et Chaldaicum in Veteris Testamenti Libros, originally written in Latin in the 1830s. I also have a print copy of the English version on my shelf.

    Gesenius was one of the, if not the, greatest Semiticists of modern times. But an interesting thing about this translation is that Tregelles, who was a conservatively religious Christian, often disagreed with Gesenius and undertook to correct him with bracketed material in his translation of the Gesenius lexicon. We find one such case in this entry on the word satan:

    After reporting that the basic meaning of the word is “adversary,” Gesenius goes on to write:

    With the art. ha-satan (adversary kat’ ezochEn) it assumes the nature of a pr. n. … and is Satan, the devil, the evil genius in the later theology of the Jews [rather, in the true revelation of God from the beginning]….”

    The first part of the paragraph is a translation from Gesenius’ Latin, but the bracketed text is Tregelles’ interposition where he disagrees with Gesenius.

    It seems to me that what we are seeing in this thread are similarly variant ways of viewing things. Some (including myself) view things through a lens similar to that of the Hebraist Gesenius, while others view them through a lens similar to that of the Christian churchman Tregelles.

  20. I address the issue of the development of the idea of a devil here: http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/dialogue&CISOPTR=16228&REC=15



    I am of course largely in agreement with Kevin — as I usually am.

  21. FWIW, while LDS religion definitely clearly does have a theological place for Satan as the rebelling son of God, it also has a larger place for Evil, which is eternal and is not connected to some sort of physical existance. For example, Joseph (Or so the McIntire Minute Book records) notes that before the Council in Heaven, we (as spirits) were in bondage to “darkness”, and this is part of the reason we were given bodies, to help us overcome this bondage. As “Lucifer” rebelled at the Council of Heaven, we can note there is definitely a greater evil, not an embodiment, which matches the characteristics of ha-satan without throwing out our theology which includes the literal being we call “Satan”. I think this Satan can then become like Adam and Eve, Symbols for something greater than themselves. Satan can thus comfortably be seen as a symbolic embodiment of evil, just as Wisdom is presented as a physical being in proverbs.

  22. Kevin,

    What is your email address?

    This is from a discussion while back but I want to send you three accounts of the “mantle of Joseph” falling on BY in his “debate” with Sidney Rigdon from my family history files. One is interesting and contains a detail that I have never heard before.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    My e-mail is klbarney at yahoo dot com.

  24. Hey, comment/question

    The gospel was being preached from Adam on up – including knowledge of Satan / evil / demons – and this may be very simplistic but – of course it would appear in pre-exilic concept. Right?
    (Looking at Shane’s comment I’d say yes.)

  25. Shane (10 & 11): First, my comments were primarily written as, I guess, a seconding of the fourth paragraph of Kevin Barney’s post which begins “You ask an excellent question…” Second, while the mechanically printed and bound book as we know it today was not around at the time of Job, that does not mean that the word “book” did not exist. Merriam-Webster’s lists many, many definitions for the word “book,” including “a set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory” and “something that yields knowledge or understanding.” Third, the whole idea of revelation is that things come to be known over time. Just because something didn’t appear in the OT doesn’t mean that counters its appearance in the BoM. I am not an expert on the BoM or the NT (or, for that matter, the OT). I wasn’t writing “I’m right and you’re wrong” — I was saying that (a) I agree with what Kevin said in the 4th para, and (b) from my point of total ignorance on the BoM and a fair ignorance on Mormonism in general, I thought that Mormonism would not suffer a loss of integrity if it were “proved” that Satan was not a physically separate being because there is enough substance left that it was my belief that this would not be a major change, but others, like Matt W., have shown me that I was wrong in that belief — that Satan as a separate being is, in fact, integral to Mormonism and, I guess, Christianity. Revelation is delivered with a whisper, not a hammer, Shane — I’m content with being corrected but it goes down easier when I hear love and thought in the lesson.

  26. Can there be a valid concept of Satan in Mormonism without its having existed ever in OT times? Must we assert that there was something lost if it exists in modern revelation? (Especially in the face of a dearth of evidence of outright tampering with the text? In fact, much of the evidence points toward a great respect for the OT text by copyists and even redactors in the face of ideas that the copyists/redactors didn’t understand or agree with.) This question is in response to danithew (5) and Broz (6).

    I think Kevin’s is the only understanding that makes sense of the evidence without collapsing history and disregarding contrary evidence.

    Shane (10): Job didn’t use the word “Book” any more than Jacob used “adieu” (Jacob 7:27). “Book” was the word chosen by KJV translators in 1611 to render the Hebrew “sepher”, a word which definitely does not mean “book” in our understanding. It can mean many things, such as “document” “letter”, in general, any kind of written record. Citing a translation into English does not constitute proof of anything except that the translators of the KJV associated Hebrew “sepher” with English “book” as they understood “book”.

    And on the same comment, 1 Enoch and the conglomerate “Dead Sea Scrolls” don’t prove anything about what the “members of the church” believed. Aside from the fact that 1 Enoch is very late and should not be read back into the Hebrew Bible, how do we know that members of the church read it, let alone believed it? And to what “Church” are you referring?

    This also applies to Broz’s comment (6) on 2 Samuel and the Book of Jasher. The “exclusions” in 2 Samuel are almost all results of either variant texts in circulation or (even more commonly) errors in copying (the scribe’s eye jumped from one word down to another and thereby eliminated a verse or two). The verses that are missing are not theologically significant and cannot be attributed to deliberate omission or exclusion.

    The Book of Jasher, furthermore, is not the one mentioned in Josh 10:13 or 2 Samuel 1:18. It is likely a composition whose title reflects the desire to add legitimacy to the content of an author’s message, or to fill in the interpretive gaps left by the OT. This is why there is so much speculation concerning Enoch and Melchizedek in antiquity–we only have scant evidence of these figures, so all kinds of interpreters have tried to fill in the gaps.

    Finally, David B (13): Your reading of Isaiah 14 supplies much information that isn’t in the text of the chapter itself, and should not be used to prove the pre-exilic concept of Satan. Most scholars, incidentally, debate whether or not this section of Isaiah is authentically pre-exilic, (and, for that matter, the book of Job is problematic when it comes to dating). The chapter clearly states that it deals with the King of Babylon, and there is no indication of a connection between Satan and “Lucifer” (which is helel, probably ‘shining one’). In fact, there is no obstacle to understanding this being as an earthly one. In any case, there’s no indication here of outer darkness or of a pre-mortal council. All this has been supplied by LDS interpretation. We have to be aware of what is in the text and what we bring to it in the way of interpretation/assumption.

    The bottom line is that there is no evidence in the Hebrew Bible of a single entity who is the source of all evil, especially not one called Satan.

    Two helpful books that address these issues are:

    Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, and Hugh Page The myth of cosmic rebellion: a study of its reflexes in Ugaritic and biblical literature.

  27. The bottom line is that there is no evidence in the Hebrew Bible of a single entity who is the source of all evil, especially not one called Satan.

    And Mormonism definitely does not teach, IMO, that a single entity is the source of all evil, but Holds the Evil is eternal. Are you basing this refutation on “good cometh from god and bad cometh from the devil.” type scriptures in the BOM, or what?

  28. David Brosnahan says:

    Good arguments. However, I don’t know how you can say that there existed “a great respect for OT text by copyist” and then say that Isaiah 14 is not authentic.

    Yes, Jasher is most likely an example of an attempted addition to the OT text. It is both apocraphal and pseudopigraphal in nature. Yet another example of disrespect by someone for the OT text.

    My point is that Israel has gone through several cycles of true belief and apostasy. It is a miracle that the OT made it to this day at all thanks to great respect by the Jews. I think there are suggestions in the NT that the patriarchs had a correct view of the nature of God and Satan. However, I think there just isn’t enough in the OT to know just what they did or didn’t believe on this issue from the OT alone.

    Deut. 4: 2 and Deut. 12: 32 command to not add nor deminish from the law. This is probably as good of proof that a great many things were since added and diminished from scripture since, else why would have God commanded not to do it. Is there a commandment of God that man has not broken?

  29. I think this article would be a good addition to the FAIR wiki.

  30. Matt W.-
    Thanks for the question. I was making perhaps too general a statement. What I should have said is that there is no evidence for an entity who is the opposite of God, there is no Lucifer figure as we envision him.

    David B.-
    About the copyist’s respect and the authenticity of Isa 14, they are not mutually exclusive. By the copyist, I should clarify, I mean someone much later than the author (if there was one), one who was working after the content of the text had become more or less fixed. The copyist was responsible for the transmission of the tradition, which doesn’t appear to have been tampered with greatly in such transmission, especially not via sweeping theological agendas, as we often assume. The verses missing in 2 Samuel are not a result of an inauthentic text but an error in transmission.

    The authenticity of Isa 14 has little to do with the copyist I’m referring to, who would have tried to copy Isa 14 exactly as he saw it.

    The redactor (editor), the one responsible for putting Isa 14 next to Isa 13, is the one we have to worry about. And evidence from the different documents of the Pentateuch suggests that redactors did little more than put the texts in a comprehensible order. There is little evidence of tampering with the content other than this. When it comes to prophetic literature, it is assumed that the prophet’s cadre of followers was responsible for collecting and “publishing” the prophet’s writings (like Baruch for Jeremiah). These writings, as indicated by the widely variant versions of Jeremiah, could be arranged and rearranged according to different editorial exigences. And, when it comes to Isaiah, there is the theory that people associated with Isaiah composed their own prophecies in his “vein” at later times and circulated these with the “original” Isaiah’s words–hence Deutero- and Trito- Isaiah. So the theory is that Isa 40-55 are of a hand different from Isa 1-39 and 56-66, and that Isa 1-39 is not uniformly attributable to the “First” Isaiah.

    The argument for Isa 14 is that during the First Isaiah’s time Babylonia was insignificant compared to Assyria, and wouldn’t have carried much weight with his audience. This chapter, for the most part, would have been composed during the reign of the terrible Babylonian kings, prophesying their destruction, and thus would be likely placed during some point in the exile. Then when the writings were being collected, later, Isa 14 was placed in its current context. Or so the theory goes. I’m not totally convinced of it, (which is why I invoked the “scholars say” clause), but I’m not beholden to its refutation either. For me there doesn’t have to be a single Isaiah, writing during a single period.

    That said, as Hugh Page’s book discusses, there are reflexes of this type of myth that show up elsewhere (and much earlier than the Bible) in the ancient Near East. I think what Page says (though it’s been awhile since I’ve read him) is that this type of myth was pressed into service in the “Oracle against the King of Babylon” of Isa 14. We have done what Isaiah did with this myth: shape it to accomodate our theology, to help us understand the pre-existence. For us Babylon has no specific meaning as it once did.

    This is all to say that invoking Isa 14 for evidence of a pre-exilic concept of Lucifer is problematic. Thanks for asking for clarification.

  31. According to the Book of Mormon Jesus Christ, Nephi, Jacob and Mormon give their seal of approval to its authenticity. There are minor differences in some words and phrases found in the Book of Mormon and OT similar to Dead Sea vs OT.

    The BOM also says that the prophesies and themes of Isaiah apply to multiple time periods and find multiple spiritual and literal fulfillment in world history and in our personal lives. This isn’t hard to believe if you accept the addage “history repeats itself.” Therefore it makes sense that Isaiah could describe a scene happening during the pre-moral existence and apply it to the King of Babylon during his day, as well as apply it to Christ’s day, and the Last Days.

    There is always debate about which era Isaiah is speaking about. The truth is he is speaking about all eras of history. Thats the purpose of the scriptures. The wisdom of ages applies to everyone both literally and spiritually, individually and collectively.

    An example of what I mean is the re-fulfullment of Daniel’s prophecy about the downfall of the King of Babylon (Dan 4:33). Saddam referred to himself as an incarnate of Nebuchadnezzar and was even doing excavacions of the city of Babylon. Turns out that he suffered the same fate. Daniel describes the downfall of Nebuchadnezzar:

    “He was driven from mankind; he ate grass like oxen, and his body was washed by the dew of heaven, until his hair grew like eagles’ feathers and his nails were like birds’ claws.”

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