While answering a question about the words σατανᾶς (satanas, Satan – transliterated from Hebrew śāṭān) and διάβολος (diabolos, devil) in the New Testament, I ran into another question for which I have no answer: is there any distinction between these two words?

For the purposes of this question I’m going to limit this to the Synoptic Gospels, although I note that both words appear throughout the NT. A few empirical observations about their usage in the Synoptics:

  • Διάβολος appears 11 times; σατανᾶς 15 times.
  • Mark only uses σατανᾶς. Matthew and Luke use both without any clear numerical preference.

    • Matt: 6x διάβολος; 4x σατανᾶς
    • Mark: 0x διάβολος; 6x σατανᾶς
    • Luke: 5x διάβολος; 5x σατανᾶς
  • Every usage is translated by ESV "the devil" (διάβολος) or "Satan" (σατανᾶς) and, at least arguably, refers to the same being.1,2
  • Both occur almost exclusively with the article except when vocative (σατανᾶς only).3

Did the Synoptic writers intend to convey any distinction between διάβολος and σατανᾶς?

Note: If you find a mistake in the bulleted statements, please correct it.

1. As opposed to the usage of διάβολος to mean “slanderer”, as it does a few times in the epistles; διάβολος to mean “adversary”, as it does throughout the LXX; or σατανᾶ(ς) to mean “adversary”, as it does on its rare occurrence in the LXX.

2. Only, "ὕπαγε ὀπίσω μου, σατανᾶ·” ("Get behind me, Satan!” – Matt 4:10, Mark 8:33) stands out as an exception, but one imagines (well, I do) that the reference to said being is still present in the word here.

3. The exception is Luke 22:3, "Εἰσῆλθεν δὲ σατανᾶς εἰς Ἰούδαν...”

  • Have you found any examples where one of the synoptics uses one word, and another the other word in the same pericope? – fdb Jul 3 '15 at 22:03
  • @fdb I found two. In both cases, Mark uniquely uses σατανᾶς. Parable of the sower: Matt. 13:39 // Mark 4:15 // Luke 8:12. Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness: Matt. 4:1ff //Mark 1:13 // Luke 4:2ff. (Here Matt/Luke use σατανᾶς in the reported speech of Jesus only.) There's seems to be a preference for σατανᾶς in the mouth of Jesus, but he does use both in Matt. and Luke. – Susan Jul 4 '15 at 0:31
  • A weird fact, that I don't know what to make of, is that Luke doesn't really mix usage. Instead "the devil" appears exclusively in early chapters, and "Satan" in later chapters. – Noah Dec 15 '15 at 14:33

Clearly No Distinction of Being

Your core question is "Did the Synoptic writers intend to convey any distinction between διάβολος and σατανᾶς?"

If by "distinction," you mean differing personalities (i.e. persons or beings), then I believe you have already answered your own question by noting the fact that Matthew and/or Luke uses διάβολος in places where Mark used σατανᾶς to refer to the same events and therefore the same being. To quote your comment:

Parable of the sower: Matt. 13:39 // Mark 4:15 // Luke 8:12. Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness: Matt. 4:1ff //Mark 1:13 // Luke 4:2ff.

Additionally, you have already noted as well in your original question that the LXX uses διάβολος in place of σατανᾶς in its translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. So the equation of the terms as a reference for the same being was already established prior to the writing of any of the gospels.

So the question must not really be about a distinction of differing personalities, as the evidence clearly points to an equation of the one personality involved being referenced by both words.

So Distinction of What?

Instead, the question really must be why was not a single designation used in the Synoptics (or any part of NT Scripture) to refer to this being? Or to recast the main question: What distinction did the Synoptic writers intend to convey between διάβολος and σατανᾶς? That is, if not a distinction of the personality of Satan, why use a different term in some, but not necessarily all, cases?

Certainly the choice of the LXX translators to use the translation διάβολος rather than to transliterate σατανᾶς had some influence on the gospel writers, for at the least it was an earlier equation of the words used to reference the same being.

But since two of the gospel writers do interchange the usage of the terms, do they intend any distinction in the passages since they choose to use one versus the other designation?

I think Cale's answer, while severely deficient in argument, is on the correct track. The term διάβολος, besides being a native Greek term (rather than a transliteration of a Hebrew term and thus a term that may have to be explained to Gentile Greek speakers), conveyed a specific type of adversarial relation, a slanderer. Now here we need to look at an English definition to help know what the Greek lexicons mean in their English definition of the Greek term. The Oxford dictionary definition of slander is:

The action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation

So διάβολος is an adversary that works by means of not merely accusing (or generally opposing), but while accusing is also lying about the one accused. Why did the LXX translators choose this term? Because of the Hebrew Scripture context and the desire to be more explicit.1

The book of Job uses the term the most (which book I and many others take as one of the oldest of the writings found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but its dating is debated). Note the context of use in that book:

  1. Job is already declared righteous by the writer 1:1) and this is declared to be YHWH's opinion of him (1:8), even after the first round of testing (2:3).
  2. But Satan says otherwise than God of Job (1:9-10, 2:4-5).

We are even told in 2:3 that God rebukes Satan, stating "although you [Satan] incited Me against him [Job], to destroy him without cause" (NKJV; emphasis added). From God's perspective, Satan was slanderously accusing Job, not just factually accusing him. So for the LXX translators here, διάβολος was an excellent choice for a contextual translation of the Hebrew שָׂטָן.

The context in Zech 3:1-5 also shows that Satan's opposition was unfounded against Joshua the high priest, for Satan was rebuked for his opposition (v.2).

The use of διάβολος in 1 Chr 21:1 would be a forgone conclusion by the LXX translators since the more detailed passages mentioning Satan they had already determined διάβολος was a good translation. Arguably, the idea of slander is much further in the background of 1 Chr 21:1, and so the context there alone would not have lent itself as well to choosing διάβολος if that verse were in isolation.

Yet even so, the context still suggests an idea of slander. Joab's reaction to David was this in 1 Chr 21:3 (NKJV):

And Joab answered, “May the LORD make His people a hundred times more than they are. But, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? Why then does my lord require this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt in Israel?”

Joab's reply clues the reader in that part of the apparent reasoning that David called for the census was to find out who was really his servants. That is, David had likely been recipient of some type of slanderous reports about the people of Israel (i.e., the moving of Satan), and wanted an accounting of who was really on his side. Joab tried to assure him all the people were, but David insisted on continuing. So even in this passage, Satan's work is hinted to have a slanderous aspect in making David doubt the congregation of Israel.2

So back to the question of what may be intended by the distinction for the gospel writers. Three main ideas come to mind, but I lean toward the last the most:

  1. Obviously, it could be purely stylistic—for variety. Matthew and Luke may simply have chose to switch between terms to help with the monotony of using one term. In this case, no real "distinction" at all is intended; διάβολος is purely a translation of שָׂטָן when they desired to put the translation rather than the σατανᾶς transliteration. I consider this to be the least likely option.
  2. Building on #1, they may have chosen to use both terms with the idea that two audiences were in view: those more familiar with Hebrew and those more familiar with Greek, or at least more familiar with Hebrew scripture or the LXX translation thereof. The interchange of the usage would broadly help each group to key to the fact that this is the same creature being discussed. It both maintains the Hebrew term via transliteration, while continuing the LXX tradition of using the more explicit διάβολος to correctly note the idea of slander in the adversarial role of this being.
  3. Building on #2, it may be that Matthew and Luke switch between the two terms intentionally to more specifically emphasize (rather than broadly, as #2 holds) a distinction between the adversarial role more generally (σατανᾶς; Satan) and the slanderous role in that adversarial role more explicitly (διάβολος; Devil) in the particular passages. However, closer examination indicates this may have a nuanced purpose, and so...
  4. Building on #3, there is a definite preference (not 100%) in Matthew and Luke to use διάβολος in their own narration and σατανᾶς when Christ is speaking. This indicates that σατανᾶς was primarily what Christ used and they are simply reporting that, whereas διάβολος is their own preferred way to refer to Satan. Note the evidence:


    • Satan (σατανᾶς) used only in Christ's speech: 4:10; 12:26; 16:23.
    • Devil (διάβολος) used in author narration: 4:1, 5, 8, 11 (the only use of Satan in chapter 4 is in the direct address spoken by Christ in v.10). Christ
    • Devil used in Christ's speech: 13:39; 25:41.


    • Satan used in Christ's speech: 4:8; 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:31.
    • Satan used in author narration: 22:3.
    • Devil used in author narration: 4:2, 3, 5, 6, 13 (again, Satan used in this passage only in the quotation of Christ's direct address).
    • Devil used in Christ's speech: 8:12.


    • Satan used in Christ's speech: 3:23; 3:26; 4:15; 8:33.
    • Satan used in author narration: 1:13.

    So if Matthew and Luke prefer Devil in narration, and Christ apparently preferred Satan in his speech, any clue to the distinctive use would reside in the atypical uses.

    Let us start with Luke. Why would Luke choose Satan over Devil in narration at 22:3? I think the answer goes back to the base distinction of #3, that when Satan enters Judas, it is not for purposes directly related to slandering, but directly opposing Christ through betrayal. So διάβολος does not fit the context.

    Both Luke (8:12) and Matthew (13:39) report Christ in his explanation of the parable of the sower as using "devil," rather than Satan; while Mark still uses Satan (4:15). This is the only place in Luke Christ is said to use the term, and one of only two in Matthew. Context shows that #3 idea likely holds, for the word of God is what is sown, and the use of "devil" strongly hints that the removal of the word from the hearts of the hearers is by means of slander. Mark's use of Satan is either because he preferred only that term (arguably the case) and so changed it, or that Christ had perhaps said something like "that devil, Satan, comes and...," so Mark chose one word, Matthew and Luke another.

    Matthew's other place where Christ uses devil is in 25:41, where Christ says "the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." Context again warrants Christ's switch based on the #3 proposition, for the punishment is linked to the activity (slander) by using "devil," which activity also relates to "his angels" (i.e. his messengers... those who carry his slander abroad).

So #4 appears the most likely explanation to me. Christ normally used Satan as the designation, as a name, but occasionally wished to focus on his activity of slandering. Narrators that did use devil normally were focused on his activity (the bulk in the temptation passage of Christ, where Satan is slandering God's ways and word), but Luke also used the term in the one place where slander was not the main form of opposition.


It is evident that no distinction of being is present in the exchange of terms. If the variation is not simply a variation for stylistic purposes between using translation and transliteration, then the distinction is either

  1. intended to help the audience broadly to equate the Greek idea of διάβολος to the Hebrew שָׂטָן based on the contextual evidence from the Hebrew scriptures that such is a good translation for his activities, i.e. that the Satan is a slanderer, or
  2. intended to specifically emphasize slander in the passages where διάβολος is used, without meaning to lose the adversarial idea (since slander is that) and yet without meaning to indicate a different being is in view either, or
  3. intended to reveal Christ's preference for using Satan and those narrators preference for using the descriptive devil, but still with sensitivity to switching as appropriate for context as #2 postulates.

Having analyzed the passages more carefully, I think #3 is very sustainable as to what the distinction intended was for Matthew and Luke.


1 The word שָׂטָן does not of itself carry the idea of slander as the Greek διάβολος does, for YHWH Himself is the satan, the adversary, in Num 22:22, 32. Nor does שָׂטָן necessarily carry the idea of a verbal opposition, like διάβολος, also seen in the Num 22 passage, but as well from the Philistines fear of David becoming so in the midst of battle in 1 Sam 29:4. So διάβολος ends up being a very specific Greek word that functions well to refer to the lying nature of Satan's verbal opposition, which is what the Hebrew scripture context so clearly reveals (as noted above in the main argument following this footnote).

2 I will relegate to the footnotes the fact that the non-explicit equation of Satan with the serpent in Genesis 3 by the Hebrew Scriptures is made explicit in the NT (Rev 12:9, 20:2), albeit also by the non-synoptic writer John (another reason to just footnote it).

However, if one holds, as I do, the unity of the Scriptures and that they are all given by God (i.e. dual authorship of man and God via inspiration), then the equation is unquestionable. Context, however, in Genesis 3 shows that the serpent acts in a διάβολος and σατανᾶς role, slandering God's character by refuting God's statement (the end of 3:4 is directly a lie from what God had said in 2:17). So the NT equation to the serpent by John is justified not only from being inspired by God, but also in the contextual match to what the serpent did. Again, this relates to the synoptics simply in that John in Revelation makes a clear statement that equates διάβολος, σατανᾶς, ὄφις (serpent), and δράκων (dragon).

John's gospel also shows Christ emphasizing the lying aspect of the devil (Jn 8:44 NKJV):

You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.

  • A few of us in one of the chat rooms for Christianity.SE noticed this answer and were impressed. We also noticed that you've been here for a while and have a M.Div, concentrating in Systematic Theology, which makes us wonder why you don't also participate on Christianity.SE too. – fredsbend Dec 17 '15 at 9:24
  • @fredsbend Answered your question here – ScottS Dec 17 '15 at 14:18

Note: The context of the following argument is confined to the NT. The use of διαβολος in the LXX is another matter, entirely.

There can be little doubt that διαβολος and σατανας are referring to the same individual. Clear support for this is given by the authors of the temptation passages in Matthew and Luke. Both authors introduce the tempter as "του διαβολου",

Matthew 4:10

τοτε ο ιησους ανηχθη εις την ερημον υπο του πνευματος πειρασθηναι υπο του διαβολου

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

Luke 4:1-2

ιησους δε πνευματος αγιου πληρης υπεστρεψεν απο του ιορδανου και ηγετο εν τω πνευματι εις την ερημον ημερας τεσσαρακοντα πειραζομενος υπο του διαβολου

And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil.

However, both authors then record Jesus' words from within the context of the temptation as addressing the tempter by name: "σατανα".

Matthew 4:10

τοτε λεγει αυτω ο ιησους υπαγε σατανα

Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan:

Luke 4:8

και αποκριθεις αυτω ειπεν ο ιησους υπαγε οπισω μου σατανα

And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan:

Did the Synoptic writers intend to convey any distinction between διαβολος and σατανα?

Yes. The various lexicons of NT Greek identify the word διαβολος as an adjective meaning "slanderous or accusative", but it almost always appears in the NT text with an article, transforming it into a noun, which thus becomes "the slanderous one" or "the accusative one". On the other hand, σατανα is simply a proper noun.

The use of διαβολος and σατανα by the synoptic writers Matthew and Luke within the temptation passages, makes it abundantly clear that they intended to convey a distinction between the two words, and that distinction is primarily determined by the function of the words in the Greek language.

διαβολος is an adjective cast as a noun for the purpose of referring to a particular being by nature, and σατανα is a proper noun used to refer to the same being, by name.


Since Mark never uses "the devil" it is impossible to know what he thought about that word.

Matthew uses "Satan" and "the devil" as synonyms in 4:10-4:11, so he certainly thought of them as interchangeable. (Though he may have preferred one to the other in some circumstances.)

There is at least one place (and possibly two) where Luke changes a passage that read "Satan" in his source to "the devil." This suggests that Luke thought both words referred to the same person (though there must be some difference since he chose to change it to "the devil"). The clear instance is in the interpretation of the parable of the sower where Mark (4:15) uses "Satan" and Luke (8:12) uses "the devil." The more ambiguous one instance is in the Temptation where Matthew (4:10) sometimes uses "Satan", while Luke (4:2) only uses "the devil". Here Matthew and Luke either had the same source or Luke's source was Matthew, but it's possible that Matthew was the one who changed the source.



The equation of Satan and the devil is a largely Christian concept that has little foundation in Judaism, so it is instructive to look at the Jewish concept of the satan (not a proper name) in the Second Temple period before considering how the Synoptics see Satan.

Zechariah 3:1-2 has Satan as an adversary who wrongly accuses Joshua, but he is certainly not evil:

Zechariah 3:1-2: And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him. And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan; even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?

In Job, Satan is the loyal assistant of God, tasked with testing the righteousness of the faithful. He commits evil against Job, but only as directed by God and only to test Job. Jeffrey B. Russell says, in The Prince of Darkness, page 37, that Satan works as the dark side of God, the destructive power wielded by God only reluctantly:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them. And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

Synoptic gospels

In the Synoptics, I perceive an evolution in thinking about Satan. Mark's Gospel was written first, and its treatment of Satan could be consistent with Satan as an adversary in the service of God, although I concede there is some ambiguity. Many critical scholars believe that in Mark, Jesus is a man who only becomes God's son at his baptism, when God adopts him with the words (Mark 1:11), "Thou art my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased" - see for example, Rhoads, Dewey and Michie, Mark as Story, page 104. Then, because Jesus is a man, God sends Satan to test him in the wilderness; a test that Jesus passes. There is no suggestion in this account that Satan is attempting to deter Jesus from his mission to save the world:

Mark 1:13: And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

We can now make sense of Mark 8:33, because when Jesus says to Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan," he is not calling Peter the devil, but simply an adversary, once again testing Jesus.

Mark only uses σατανᾶς (Satan) because by around 70 CE, the Christian concept of a devil has not yet developed. In this gospel, the demons (δαιμόνια) are evil spirits who can be defeated.

Matthew copies and expands on references to Satan four times from Mark, but now Satan (σατανᾶς) is identified with the devil (διάβολος) and his evil nature is becoming evident, as we see here:

Matthew 4:1-11: Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

Matthew identifies Satan as the devil, but Satan does not yet seem wholly evil, as we will see in Luke.

Luke's Gospel is the last of the Synoptics to be written. Luke 4:2-13, also from the hypothetical 'Q' document, is the detailed temptation in the wilderness that equates Satan with the devil, much as in Matthew.

Luke 10:18 is an early reference to Satan as the fallen angel, Lucifer, now being identified in Isaiah 14:12:

Luke 10:18: And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.

Luke 22:3 has Satan enter into Judas Iscariot in order to cause him to perform the most evil act in history:

Luke 22:3: Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve.

For Luke, there is no difference between Satan and the devil. Satan is the devil, and the devil is evil personified.

  • Interesting ideas, thanks! Since it would support your point, you may as well note that “the satan” in Zechariah and Job isn’t a proper name (although it looks like even Jewish translations stick with Satan, not sure what to make of that). I don’t know how plausible it is that the concept of Satan as the devil had not yet developed by the writing of Mark, but I don’t have a better idea. :-) – Susan Dec 14 '15 at 7:06
  • Actually... the LXX makes the equation consistently, in Job, Zech., and 1 Chr.: Heb. satan--> Gr. diabolos. Unless that’s secondary, but Rahlf’s apparatus gives no such hint. (But of course the Greek diabolos can also mean adversary/slanderer NOS, see fn. 1 above.) – Susan Dec 14 '15 at 7:07
  • @Susan Yes, I had noticed that the LXX has diabolos, where the MT has Satan, and I note that diabolos need not have meant 'devil', although I would not rely on that. Far too technical and detailed to have included in my answer: there is some evidence that, at least briefly, the Jews has dabbled with 'devil' but abandoned the concept, which is why I said "has little [rather than no] foundation in Judaism." It may be (?) that diaspora Jews, users of the LXX, retained that idea of the devil when the Palestinian Jews discarded it. – Dick Harfield Dec 14 '15 at 7:32
  • Since both terms can, in their respective languages, refer to something other than a particular transcendent evil being, it’s hard for me to think that the choice between them can be relied on as a theological one. (The presence of the article in Hebrew, on the other hand, is helpful -- missing (i.e. a proper name) in 1 Chronicles only, as David has pointed out.) Clearly there is a theological transition going on at some point between Job and Luke, and you’ve made an interesting case for the distinction being represented in these two terms within the Greek language. (+1, by the way.) – Susan Dec 14 '15 at 9:03

In view of the fact that διάβολος and σατανᾶς have different basic meanings (i.e. "slanderer" and "adversary"), it appears that the NT authors were choosing terms that emphasized those different characteristics of the one creature we know as Satan. Note that a number of other appellations, some of which are proper nouns, are ascribed to the person of Satan in the NT, emphasizing in each case certain of his characteristics.

  • Ἀβαδδών - Abaddon [destroyer] (Rev 9:11)
  • Ἀπολλύων - Apollyon [destroyer] (Rev 9:11)
  • κατήγορος τῶν ἀδελφῶν ἡμῶν - accuser of our brothers (Rev 12:10)
  • ἀντίδικος ὑμῶν - your adversary (1 Pet 5:8)
  • Βεελζεβοὺλ - Beelzebub [baal (lord) of flies] (Mat 12:24)
  • Βελιάρ - Belial [worthlessness] (2 Cor 6:15)
  • πειράζων - tempter (Mat 4:3)
  • κλέπτης - thief (Joh 10:10)
  • πονηροῦ - evil one (Eph 6:16)
  • Hello, thanks for your thoughts. In order to to show this to be valid, I think we would need to see it worked out in usage of the words in question. Especially given that satanas is from Hebrew and that diabolos was frequently used to translate it in the LXX (most relevantly, 1 Chr 21:1), it’s not obvious to me that either word would necessarily carry its “basic meaning” when being applied as a name/title. – Susan Jul 4 '15 at 0:43
  • The point about other appellations is interesting. Only the two Matt. examples are relevant here. Πειράζων is especially interesting as it appears to be used interchangeablely with διάβολος in the temptation story, but if there’s a distinction in meaning there I’m not seeing it. Tangentially relevant regarding Βεελζεβοὺλ (also Mark 3:22): this explanation of the word’s derivation. – Susan Jul 4 '15 at 0:49

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