We all know what demons are. They are fallen angels which seek to corrupt humanity, but how have we come to understand the word demon to mean this? There is no biblical description of a demon which supports the idea that they are fallen angels, and yet this claim is made consistently within Christianity. So what are the demons of the Bible? Did Jesus cast out fallen angels which had possessed human bodies, or is the text telling us something else?
To Divide Man
The best place to begin is to examine the potential etymology and construction of the word itself. What do the core components of the word daimon mean in their original language?
Da – To divide. Oldest form *deh2‑, colored to *dah2‑, becoming *dā‑. Derivatives include democracy, epidemic, demon, and time.
Man – Also mon-, ManFrom The American Heritage Dictionary
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, our noun demon, or daimon in Greek, is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root da-, which means to divide. The remainder of the word, mon, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means man. Together, the construction of the word demon means to divide man. What I find interesting here is that the meaning almost implies that demons were created for this specific cause, or at least, they were named because of it.
Old Testament Demons
Next, it makes sense to examine how the Old Testament, originally written in Hebrew, was translated to Greek. There are very few uses of the word demon in the English translation, however, in the Greek Septuagint we see that there are many more uses. Perhaps the differences between the Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew Old Testament will provide us with some context. The Septuagint is the Koine Greek version of the Old Testament, originally translated around the 3rd century before Christ. In the Septuagint, we find five occurrences where a word has been translated as demon. It is important to note that each of these instances occurs with a different Hebrew word.
They sacrificed to demons, not to God, to gods they had not known, to newly arrived gods, which your fathers did not fear.Deuteronomy 32:17
The word demons, found in many English translations of Deuteronomy 32:17, which is used in the above passage, is translated from the Hebrew word šê·ḏîm. According to Brown-Driver-Briggs šê·ḏîm is a loan word (a word for which there is no Hebrew equivalent) from the Assyrian word šêdu, which refers to an Assyrian winged-bull diety. When the Rabbi’s translated this word to Greek they chose to use the word daimonia, a derivative of daimon or demon, to represent šêdu. According to Strong’s Concordance, daimonia equates to heathen god. This same example can be found in Psalm 105.
They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons.Psalm 105:37 BSB
Here again, we find that šê·ḏîm is translated as daimonia in the Greek.
Ever wonder why the words Fortune and Destiny are capitalized in Isaiah 65? Fortune in the original Hebrew is written as gaḏ and refers to the Babylonian god of fortune, named Gad. However, when it was translated to Greek in the Septuagint, the translator chose to use the word daimonion, another derivative of daimon or demon. It would appear that this was done in order to associate the two gods referenced in the verse, fortune and destiny, with other heathen, foreign gods or idols.
But you who forsake the LORD, who forget My holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny,Isaiah 65:11
From these examples, it would appear that when early translators of the Old Testament came across something that represented an idol, or false god, they would translate it as daimonia or daimonion. Unfortunately, not all of the examples are quite so clear.
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the calamity that destroys at noon.Psalm 91:6 BSB
In Psalm 91, we see that pestilence and destruction are also translated to Greek as daimonion. I believe that these two examples provide a bit more clarity as to what the translators from Hebrew to Greek were thinking. De·ḇer is translated to English as pestilence, plague, and disease in various translations. Qe·ṭeḇ is translated to English as calamity, disaster, destruction, and even as plague. It is clear that both of these words signify disease, but Qeteb signifies destruction or death resulting from disease according to Brown-Driver-Briggs. While qe·ṭeḇ and de·ḇer are associated with disease in Hebrew, they also represent names of Babylonian deities.
In each example so far, we are presented with two concepts. We have the Hebrew understanding of a word, and we also have a foreign god associated with the idea. We can see that humanity had indeed been divided by demons, divided according to our understanding of what they represent. To one culture, the idea of fortune, destiny, and disease are mere concepts created by humans. Fortune is an idea created to represent why two people performing the same actions might achieve different results, destiny is an idea which explains how someone may not be able to avoid a situation even if they are actively trying to avoid it, and disease is an idea which explains ill health and even death. To another culture, particularly the Greek culture to which the Old Testament was being translated, these ideas were anthropomorphized and represented by a god. The Old Testament is adamant, however, that there is only one true God (Deuteronomy 4:35), given this, it is unlikely that the translators of the Septuagint would truly think of these concepts as anything more than human ideas, concepts only and certainly not gods. They had a word for false gods, they were called idols.
For all the gods of the nations are idols, but it is the LORD who made the heavens.Psalm 96:5
In Hebrew, the word ĕ·lil is translated to English as idols. Here in Psalm 95, we see that all of the gods of the nations are idols. All of them, including each example that we just discussed. They are not demons, they are idols. Or, to state it the way that the Greek translators of the Septuagint did, demons are idols. As I stated earlier, ĕ·lil is translated to English as idols, but it is also translated to Greek, in the Septuagint, as daimonia. The Hebrew word for idol is translated to a derivative of the Greek word for demon.
At this point, I feel it is imperative to point out the plain English meaning of ĕ·lil, or idol. According to Strong’s Concordance, ĕ·lil means idol, no value, thing of nothing. As translated by Rabbinic scholars in the 3rd century BC, demons are idols, and idols are nothing. Therefore, demons are nothing.
You are My witnesses! Is there any God but Me? There is no other Rock; I know not one. All makers of idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless.Isaiah 44:8-9
According to the Septuagint, which is the version of scripture that Jesus and His disciples would have been familiar with, all of the gods of the nations are demons (idols), and the false gods they treasure are worthless.
I’ve provided this level of focus on the Old Testament with one goal in mind, using the Old Testament to understand the New Testament. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all scripture is breathed by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training. That is exactly what we are attempting to do here, correct something that may be wrong and teach that which is right. The Old Testament does not have the kind of demons that we think of today. It doesn’t describe fallen angels tempting people and luring them away from God, it describes humanity following its own desires. Even the New Testament tells us that our own evil desires tempt us and lure us away (James 1:14). No, the Old Testament doesn’t describe horned supernatural agents of chaos, it describes useless idols and “things of nothing”.
MARTIN, DALE BASIL. “When Did Angels Become Demons?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 129, no. 4, 2010, pp. 657–677. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25765960. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
Smith, Wesley D. “So-Called Possession in Pre-Christian Greece.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 96, 1965, pp. 403–426. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/283740. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.