I am not competent in Greek nor Hebrew as used in Biblical texts. The two common English words for evil spirits have a lot of overlap in modern/current English usage. I am curious as to whether or not there is a distinction between a demon and a devil in the OT and NT texts that mention them, or if they are two equivalent terms for the same thing -- that thing being an evil spirit.

Are these two terms -- demon and devil -- in the original texts, referring to the same thing, or to two different things, in the original languages of Christian scripture?

What I have come up with so far:

Strong's concordance for the KJV finds "devil" 59 times and "devils" 55 times.

This article shows some issues in translation with the terms "devil" and "demon" from original texts into English, whereas Hebrew had different terms that seem to mean equivalent things, sort of.

strange or foreign gods (זרים, zariym); abhorrent things (תועבת, to‘eybot); demons (לשּׁדים, lashshediym); gods [they did not know] (אלהים, elohiym); new ones [recently come {of whom} your fathers were not afraid] (חדשים, chadashim,)

In the interests of scoping this question, I am interested in answers that address the Old Testament. While my guess is that this may be an issue that got introduced by the Septuagint that carried over into later translations into other tongues, I am very much at sea on this "lost in translation" matter.

In Leviticus 17:7 (borrowing an example from the linked article) שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) seems to have a contextual meaning that goes beyond goat and into evil spirits, idols, or foreign gods.

  • Probably best to narrow this to either Hebrew or Greek. (Off hand, I can't even think of the Hebrew word that "demon" might reflect. What translation uses that and where?) Even so, it may be considered a "word study" question which some may consider off topic. If so, you could narrow it to a particular book or author and probably be fine. The answer for Greek (at least so far as this is a lexical question) is pretty straightforward. – Susan Jan 22 '18 at 14:58
  • @Susan The reason that I am asking is that in the English language bibles there seems to be a use of both words for reasons that I can't parse. I think I'll leave demon and Greek in the NT, but the Septuagint rendering of one term (From OT/Torah) into a Greek term may be involved here. Not a word search question, but a "what meaning was in the original texts" and is there a distinction in the original tongues? (I suspect that isn't but I am not educated enough to support that). Do you want me to confine this to OT? That might be a way to narrow the scope. – KorvinStarmast Jan 22 '18 at 15:36
  • 1
    A similar question was just asked on Christianity SE. I transferred my answer here. I didn't address "demon" in Hebrew much, though. Perhaps my answer is still useful. Note the relation of שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) to "satyr", which is how it is translated in Isaiah 13:21 KJV. – user33515 Jan 22 '18 at 18:26

This is the text of an answer I posted to a similar question on Christianity SE:

From the perspective of the Greek New Testament, demon could be said to represent δαίμων (daimōn, from which the corresponding English word is derived) and devil could be said to represent διάβολος (diabolos; viz. "diabolical"). A variant of the word δαίμων - δαιμόνιον (daimonion) - is more often used.

Daimon and daimonion together appear 82 times in Scripture (17 times in the Septuagint, 65 in the New Testament). Diabolos appears 60 times (22 times in the Septuagint, 38 in the New Testament).

The word diabolos can also mean "slanderer", as in:

Esther 8:1 LXX

Καὶ ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ὁ βασιλεὺς Ἀρταξέρξης ἐδωρήσατο Εσθηρ ὅσα ὑπῆρχεν Αμαν τῷ διαβόλῳ

And in that day king Artaxerxes gave to Esther all that belonged to Aman the slanderer

In the "diabolical" sense it seems always to refer to a single individual - the devil. In the Septuagint, for example, Job refers continually to ό διάβολος (the devil). This is also the case in the New Testament:

Matthew 4:1

Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνήχθη εἰς τὴν ἔρημον ὑπὸ τοῦ Πνεύματος πειρασθῆναι ὑπὸ τοῦ διαβόλου

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

Acts 10:38

Ἰησοῦν τὸν ἀπὸ Ναζαρέτ, ὡς ἔχρισεν αὐτὸν ὁ Θεὸς Πνεύματι Ἁγίῳ καὶ δυνάμει, ὃς διῆλθεν εὐεργετῶν καὶ ἰώμενος πάντας τοὺς καταδυναστευομένους ὑπὸ τοῦ διαβόλου

how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil

Ephesians 4:27

μηδὲ δίδοτε τόπον τῷ διαβόλῳ

and give no opportunity to the devil.

Daimon and daimonion, on the other hand, are almost always used in the plural, and when not, the context implies that the word refers to one of many. For example:

Matthew 10:8

ἀσθενοῦντας θεραπεύετε, λεπροὺς καθαρίζετε, νεκροὺς ἐγείρετε, δαιμόνια ἐκβάλλετε·

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.

John 10:21

ἄλλοι ἔλεγον· ταῦτα τὰ ῥήματα οὐκ ἔστι δαιμονιζομένου· μὴ δαιμόνιον δύναται τυφλῶν ὀφθαλμοὺς ἀνοίγειν;

Others said, “These are not the sayings of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

James 2:19

σὺ πιστεύεις ὅτι ὁ Θεὸς εἷς ἐστι· καλῶς ποιεῖς· καὶ τὰ δαιμόνια πιστεύουσι καὶ φρίσσουσι.

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.

In the Septuagint, diabolos translates the Hebrew שָׂטָן (śā·ṭān) - obviously the origin of our English word, "Satan". On 36 occasions, the New Testament transliterates שָׂטָן into Greek (Σατανᾶς - Satanas); as in:

Matthew 16:23

ὁ δὲ στραφεὶς εἶπε τῷ Πέτρῳ· ὕπαγε ὀπίσω μου, σατανᾶ·

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!"

In the Septuagint daimonion often translates שֵׁד (šēḏ), which means "evil spirit" - usually of the sort that is worshipped as a god.

Ambiguity between the two terms is in the English language, but not necessarily the Greek or Hebrew Scriptures. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines demon as "an evil spirit or devil" and devil as "an evil spirit; a demon". Some English Bible translations use the two terms somewhat interchangeably. The King James Bible, for example, translates all three Greek words (diabolos, daimon, daimonion) as "devil". The RSV (and I presume the Catholic Edition RSV), on the other hand, seems to preserve the distinction and translate(s) diabolos as "devil" and daimon/daimonion as "demon".

The origin of and distinction between the devil (diabolos) and demons (daimonia) according to first millennium Chalcedonian Christian theology is explained in John of Damascus' (676-749) The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith in Book II, ch.4, "Concerning the devil and demons", written sometime in the early 8th (or perhaps late 7th) century:

He who from among these angelic powers was set over the earthly realm, and into whose hands God committed the guardianship of the earth, was not made wicked in nature but was good, and made for good ends, and received from his Creator no trace whatever of evil in himself. But he did not sustain the brightness and the honour which the Creator had bestowed on him, and of his free choice was changed from what was in harmony to what was at variance with his nature, and became roused against God Who created him, and determined to rise in rebellion against Him: and he was the first to depart from good and become evil. For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness, just as darkness also is absence of light. For goodness is the light of the mind, and, similarly, evil is the darkness of the mind. Light, therefore, being the work of the Creator and being made good (for God saw all that He made, and behold they were exceeding good) produced darkness at His free-will. But along with him an innumerable host of angels subject to him were torn away and followed him and shared in his fall. Wherefore, being of the same nature as the angels, they became wicked, turning away at their own free choice from good to evil.

(John of Damascus is considered a "Doctor of the Church" by the Roman Catholic Church and an authoritative Church Father by Eastern Orthodox).

The Scriptural basis for these beliefs is summarized in one Orthodox dogmatic theology:

According to the testimony of the word of God, the origin of sin comes from the devil: He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning (I John 3: 8). The word “devil” means “slanderer.” Bringing together the evidence of Sacred Scripture, we see that the devil is one of the rational spirits or angels who deviated into the path of evil. Possessing, like all rational creatures, the freedom which was given him for becoming perfect in the good, he “abode not in the truth” and fell away from God. The Saviour said of him: He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar and the father of it (John 8: 44). He drew the other angels after himself into the fall. In the epistles of the Apostle Jude and the Apostle Peter, we read of the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation (Jude, v. 6; compare with II Peter 2: 4).*

* M. Pomazanski, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.; St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2005), p.153

  • Lots of goodness in this reply, and in particular the two doctrinal citations at the end. – KorvinStarmast Jan 22 '18 at 19:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.