The Hyperbolic, Yet Parabolic, History of the Diabolic

28 Oct
As you might have been able to tell from the title of this post (and the title of my blog), “dia” in Greek is a prefix, just like “para” and “hyper”. This means that the root word “-bolic” must mean the same thing. Our basic English has some examples that show us what the prefixes “hyper” and “para” mean (like paranormal contrasted with the normal, or a hypothesis contrasted with a thesis; paralegal, parallel, paramilitary, paraphyly; hypertention, hypergamy, hyperinflation, hypergyny).
If you happened to be a music major or have studied music theory a bit, you might be familiar with the term diatonic. In music theory, there is something called a diatonic scale. This comes from the Greek word διατονικός::diatonikos meaning [passing] through tones. As such, “dia” means “through” (in this instance). Then again, if you knew music theory you would already know that diapente means “through five”.
Now that we know what “dia” means, what does “-bolic” derive from? The word “-βολος” is the noun form of the Greek verb βαλλω::ballo which means to throw. For example, Jesus literally “throws out” demons when he exorcises them in the gospel narratives:
Matthew 12.27
και ει εγω εν βεελζεβουλ εκ βαλλω τα δαιμονια οι υιοι υμων εν τινι εκ βαλλουσιν δια τουτο αυτοι κριται εσονται υμων
And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.
So hyperbolic could be superficially translated as “over-throw”, parabolic to “throw-next-to” and diabolic to “throw-through”. Now we arrive at a seeming connundrum: How did the modern usage of “diabolic” come from its original Greek meaning of “throw-through”? Let's look at some examples of “throw-through” or “diabolic” being used in antiquity:
Plato, Seventh Epistle:
On my arrival — I must not be tedious — I found Dionysius's kingdom all full of civil strife and of slanderous stories brought to the court concerning Dion
ἐλθὼν δέ — οὐ γὰρ δεῖ μηκύνειν — ηὗρον στάσεως τὰ περὶ Διονύσιον μεστὰ σύμπαντα καὶ διαβολῶν πρὸς τὴν τυραννίδα Δίωνος πέρι:
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.146: But Herod now fell into a distemper, and made his will, and bequeathed his kingdom to [Antipas], his youngest son; and this out of that hatred to Archclaus and Philip, which the calumnies of Antipater (των Αντιπατρου διαβολων:: ton Antipatrou diabolon) had raised against them.
Plutarch, Caius Marcius Coriolanus 16: For they surely will not say that they are getting these as a grateful return for the military services which they omitted, and the secessions by which they renounced their country, and the calumnies (των διαβολων) against the senate which they have countenanced
So if διάβoλος means “throw-through”, how did it come to mean lies or slander? That's actually pretty easy if we think of certain turns of phrases in modern English. We can talk about hurling accusations against someone; this concept of hurling accusations has a long history and goes back at least to the time of Plato, as shown above. It comes from ancient courtroom dramas where the prosecution would “throw accusations through” the courtroom. 
So how did it become that a word that simply meant lies or slander transformed into the devil? It just so happens that the Hebrew word “satan” means the same thing that the Greek word “diabol[os]” means. Look at a sort of courtroom setup in Zechariah 3.1:
English: And he showed me Jesus the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him
Greek: και εδειξεν μοι ιησουν τον ιερεα τον μεγαν εστωτα προ προσωπου αγγελου κυριου και ο διαβολος ειστηκει εκ δεξιων αυτου του αντικεισθαι αυτω
Hebrew: וַיַּרְאֵנִי, אֶת-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, עֹמֵד, לִפְנֵי מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה; וְהַשָּׂטָן עֹמֵד עַל-יְמִינוֹ, לְשִׂטְנוֹ.
In this case, in Hebrew, we have both the personification “Satan” and the verb form “accuse him”. There are earlier examples of the Hebrew “accuser”. Look at Job 1.6:
English: Now it fell upon a day, that the sons of God came to present themselves before [the Lord] (YHWH), and [the] Satan came also among them.
Hebrew: וַיְהִי הַיּוֹם–וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, לְהִתְיַצֵּב עַל (יְהוָה); וַיָּבוֹא גַם הַשָּׂטָן, בְּתוֹכָם.
Greek: και ως εγενετο η ημερα αυτη και ιδου ηλθον οι αγγελοι* του θεου παραστηναι ενωπιον [του κυριου] και ο διαβολος ηλθεν μετ' αυτων
As can be seen reading Job, “the accuser” had a responsibility in YHWH's service: to test people to see how worthy they are. As time progressed and Judaism comes into more influence from the Greeks, this accusing angel morphs into gods enemy. This can be seen in the NT, where the authors talk about Satan but spelling it Σατανας::Satanas in Greek; changing the Hebrew word into a Greek proper name. However, the Greek form of diabolos was still in common use among the Greeks. This word was ported over into Latin by way of Jerome's Latin Vulgate, where he translated “sons of belial” (many think this means lawless men or uncircumcised men; the LXX translates sons of belial to υιοι παρανόμων::huioi paranomon, literally sons of 'those besides the law') to “filiis diaboli”.
*While the English and Hebrew say “sons of god” (b'nei elohim), the Greek says “angels/messengers of god”.
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Posted by on October 28, 2011 in greek


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