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I'd curious to know how and when the word diablo came to mean the Devil.

In Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought, he states:

The devil is rather one who, spiritually speaking, does everything in his power to separate us (dia-bolos in Greek meaning 'the who who divides') from the vertical link uniting true believers with God, and which alone saves them from solitude and death.

Wiktionary's trail runs via Latin ultimately to Greek where its etymology reads:

From διαβάλλω (diaballo, “I slander”), from διά (dia, “across”) and βάλλω (ballo, “I throw”)

Etymonline's entry provides a little hint:

O.E. deofol "evil spirit, a devil, the devil, false god, diabolical person," from L.L. diabolus (also the source of It. diavolo, Fr. diable, Sp. diablo; Ger. Teufel is O.H.G. tiufal, from Latin via Goth. diabaulus), from Ecclesiastical Gk. diabolos, in Jewish and Christian use, "Devil, Satan" (scriptural loan-translation of Heb. satan), in general use "accuser, slanderer," from diaballein "to slander, attack," lit. "throw across," from dia- "across, through" + ballein "to throw" (see ballistics). Jerome re-introduced Satan in Latin bibles, and English translators have used both in different measures. In Vulgate, as in Greek, diabolus and dæmon (see demon) were distinct, but they have merged in English and other Germanic languages.

But what does "from Ecclesiastical Gk. diabolos, in Jewish and Christian use" actually mean? Also, was it imported by Ecclesiastical Greek when the word meant, as Ferry suggests, "the who who divides", or the Wiktionary meaning of "slanderer". Or did the word already represent the Devil by then? Also, when did this happen?

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Would this be more appropriate in "English Use and Language" stack exchange? I'm not really sure, but I don't think History SE is about etymologies etc. –  Reliable Source Dec 19 '12 at 14:11
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@ReliableSource I'm pretty sure that this would be off-topic there. I'm not sure of LinguisticsSE. Ergo, HistorySE seemed like the best bet. I'll let the mods decide which is best, I guess :) FWIW, HistorySE has other etymology questions. –  coleopterist Dec 19 '12 at 14:13
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In that case, try etymonline.com/… –  Reliable Source Dec 19 '12 at 14:20
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Are you asking how the greek phrase diabolos came to represent the devil, or are you asking how and why the spanish word diablo is different than the english word devil? Bear in mind, both diablo and devil are derived from the latin diabolus. (The old english word wheich became devil is "deofol") –  RI Swamp Yankee Dec 19 '12 at 15:30
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@coleopterist - The origination of the greek diabolos is the question you want, then. The synonymity of devil and diablo is due to deofol being a germanic corruption of diabolus. (As is teuful, the current german word for same) Cite: etymonline.com/index.php?term=devil&allowed_in_frame=0 –  RI Swamp Yankee Dec 19 '12 at 15:43
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2 Answers

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Satan is a character from Hebrew mythology1. His most full representation found in the Tanakh is the first two chapters of Job in which הַשָּׂטָן (ha-Satan) appears along with the בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים (ben 'elohiym) before God. Job becomes the topic of conversation (on God's initiative) and Satan suggests that Job only worships God because of the blessings he has received. So God allows Satan to remove first Job's wealth (including his children) and, when that fails to make his bitter against God, his health. According to Jewish tradition, ha-satan is a sort of prosecuting attorney. The real conflict occurs between Job and his friends as they debate the meaning of suffering.

In the book of Zechariah, Satan serves a similar role before God:

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by.—Zechariah 3:1-5 (ESV)

The word translated "Satan" is the same word in Hebrew that is translated "to accuse" rendered as a noun with a definite article. In both Job and Zechariah, the word could be translated as "the accuser". Satan is a transliteration of the word. Whether to translate (put in words native to the target language) or transliterate (reproduce the sounds of the source language in the character set of the target language) can be a difficult decision for translators. Significant to the question, the earliest Greek translation of the Tanakh, the Septuagint, chose to render the word as διάβολος (diabolos). This is a direct translation from the Hebrew "accuser" to the Greek "slanderer".2

The other places the Septuagint uses diablolos for Satan3 are:

And Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.—1st Chronicles 21:1 (JPS)

Set Thou a wicked man over him; and let an adversary stand at his right hand.—Psalm 109:6 (JPS)

In both cases, the figure of Satan seems to be an agent of God who brings about destruction. Since the Septuagint is the earliest known translation of the Hebrew concept of ha-Satan into Greek (preceding the New Testament by several centuries), it's likely to be the definitive answer to the question.


Part of the confusion over the cluster of terms and their meanings arises from the way Jewish texts were reinterpreted. Second Temple Judaism constructed further mythology surrounding angels, life after death, and powers opposing God based on hints in the Tanakh. For instance, a short verse ("Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him."—Genesis 5:24 ESV) was the source of a great deal of speculative literature. It seems possible that this myth-building was influenced by or directed against dualistic belief systems such as Zoroastrianism.

Christianity tended to simplify the expanded mythology. As an example, the serpent in Genesis 3 is identified with Satan in Revelation 20:2. Over the centuries, mainline churches have rejected strict dualism embodied in Gnosticism and Manichaeism, but much popular belief has gravitated to the idea that God and Satan are engaged in a cosmic struggle over the souls of humans. Milton's Paradise Lost probably exemplifies that notion better than anything else does.


Footnotes:

1. When I mention myths, I'm not taking a stand on the historical truth of the stories. On the other hand, I don't believe that the stories are strictly false. For more on the topic, see C. S. Lewis' "Myth Became Fact" and J. R. R. Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories".

2. Well, almost direct. The Greek word introduces the idea that the charges are false. But in both Job and Zechariah it becomes clear that, at least in God's eyes, Satan's accusations turn up empty.

3. The two other uses of the word are translation of different Hebrew words and do not seem to be related:

'...for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold for bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my peace, for the adversary is not worthy that the king be endamaged.'—Esther 7:4 (JPS)

On that day did the king Ahasuerus give the house of Haman the Jews' enemy unto Esther the queen. And Mordecai came before the king; for Esther had told what he was unto her.—Esther 8:1 (JPS)

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Thank you for the intriguing answer! I guess that this places the first use as far back as the 3rd century BCE. –  coleopterist Jan 10 '13 at 13:01
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The earliest references I could find where Satan is called διάβολος, are in the Book of Revelation, written somewhere between 70 AD to 90 AD in Koine Greek:

(2:10) ΜΗ ΦΟΒΟΥ ΜΗΔΕΝ ΕΚ ΤΩΝ ΟΣΑ ΜΕΛΛΕΙΣ ΝΑ ΠΑΘΗΣ ΙΔΟΥ Ο ΔΙΑΒΟΛΟΣ ΜΕΛΛΕΙ ΝΑ ΒΑΛΗ ΤΙΝΑΣ ΕΞ ΥΜΩΝ ΕΙΣ ΦΥΛΑΚΗΝ ΔΙΑ ΝΑ ΔΟΚΙΜΑΣΘΗΤΕ ΚΑΙ ΘΕΛΕΤΕ ΕΧΕΙ ΘΛΙΨΙΝ ΔΕΚΑ ΗΜΕΡΩΝ ΓΙΝΟΥ ΠΙΣΤΟΣ ΜΕΧΡΙ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΘΕΛΩ ΣΟΙ ΔΩΣΕΙ ΤΟΝ ΣΤΕΦΑΝΟΝ ΤΗΣ ΖΩΗΣ

(12:9) ΚΑΙ ΕΡΡΙΦΘΗ Ο ΔΡΑΚΩΝ Ο ΜΕΓΑΣ Ο ΟΦΙΣ Ο ΑΡΧΑΙΟΣ Ο ΚΑΛΟΥΜΕΝΟΣ ΔΙΑΒΟΛΟΣ ΚΑΙ Ο ΣΑΤΑΝΑΣ Ο ΠΛΑΝΩΝ ΤΗΝ ΟΙΚΟΥΜΕΝΗΝ ΟΛΗΝ ΕΡΡΙΦΘΗ ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΓΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΟΙ ΑΓΓΕΛΟΙ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΕΡΡΙΦΘΗΣΑΝ ΜΕΤ ΑΥΤΟΥ

(12:12) ΔΙΑ ΤΟΥΤΟ ΕΥΦΡΑΙΝΕΣΘΕ ΟΙ ΟΥΡΑΝΟΙ ΚΑΙ ΟΙ ΚΑΤΟΙΚΟΥΝΤΕΣ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΟΙΣ ΟΥΑΙ ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΚΑΤΟΙΚΟΥΝΤΑΣ ΤΗΝ ΓΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΤΗΝ ΘΑΛΑΣΣΑΝ ΔΙΟΤΙ ΚΑΤΕΒΗ Ο ΔΙΑΒΟΛΟΣ ΕΙΣ ΕΣΑΣ ΕΧΩΝ ΘΥΜΟΝ ΜΕΓΑΝ ΕΠΕΙΔΗ ΓΝΩΡΙΖΕΙ ΟΤΙ ΟΛΙΓΟΝ ΚΑΙΡΟΝ ΕΧΕΙ

(20:2) ΚΑΙ ΕΠΙΑΣΕ ΤΟΝ ΔΡΑΚΟΝΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΟΦΙΝ ΤΟΝ ΑΡΧΑΙΟΝ ΟΣΤΙΣ ΕΙΝΑΙ ΔΙΑΒΟΛΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΣΑΤΑΝΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΕΔΕΣΕΝ ΑΥΤΟΝ ΧΙΛΙΑ ΕΤΗ

(20:10) ΚΑΙ Ο ΔΙΑΒΟΛΟΣ Ο ΠΛΑΝΩΝ ΑΥΤΟΥΣ ΕΡΡΙΦΘΗ ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΛΙΜΝΗΝ ΤΟΥ ΠΥΡΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΙΟΥ ΟΠΟΥ ΕΙΝΑΙ ΤΟ ΘΗΡΙΟΝ ΚΑΙ Ο ΨΕΥΔΟΠΡΟΦΗΤΗΣ ΚΑΙ ΘΕΛΟΥΣΙ ΒΑΣΑΝΙΖΕΣΘΑΙ ΗΜΕΡΑΝ ΚΑΙ ΝΥΚΤΑ ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΑΙΩΝΑΣ ΤΩΝ ΑΙΩΝΩΝ

I'm not aware of earlier associations of the word with Satan. The same goes for the word "δαίμων" (daemon), which in Ancient Greece was used to refer to benevolent spirits. The King James version of the Book of Revelation uses "devil" to translate both words, every other occurrence of the word "devil" in it except the ones I've mentioned above refers to some form of "δαίμων" in the original text.

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Thanks Yannis :) Any idea of why it was associated with Satan? While "slanderer" and "the who who divides" sound like near-synonyms, Ferry's idea of cutting off believers from God seems very unique. –  coleopterist Dec 20 '12 at 14:07
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@coleopterist The common pattern in the quotes in the answer is "διάβολος ο πλάνων", Satan will try deceive you (πλάνων == deceiver) by slandering (διάβολος == slanderer) god. And... this is all I got. –  Yannis Rizos Dec 20 '12 at 19:33
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