How “Lucifer” became a name for the prince of darkness

One of my students needed to know how “Lucifer” became a name for Satan.  I thought there would be an easy dictionary entry somewhere, but neither she nor I could find one source that tracks the evolution of the name, so I spent a few minutes this morning pulling the facts together from various places.  It was an enjoyable time—I haven’t had many opportunities over the past decade to indulge in my specialization.

It all starts with the idolatry of the Babylonians.  They worshipped the morning star (Venus in her rising before the sun) under the name of Istar.  So when the prophet Isaiah speaks the rise and fall of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14), he refers to him metaphorically as haylayl, ben mishawmayim, literally, “shining one, son of the morning,” that is, the morning star (Isaiah 14:12).  The Septuagint translated haylayl as heosphoros, “morning bearer,” another name for the morning star, which in Greek is also called phosophoros, “light-bearer.”  The Vulgate translated the word as Lucifer, which is a Latinization of phosophoros and also names the morning star as “light bearer”.  When the Bible began to be translated into English, this word was simply carried over, so that until 1611 English Bibles also rendered the term as “Lucifer” (so says the OED).

Early Jewish traditions, which seem to pre-dating Christ, understood Isaiah 14 as speaking about the rise and fall of Satan.  We can see this interpretation reflected for example in the Apocalypse of Elijah 4:11 and in Life of Adam and Eve 12:1 and 15:3, and many other places.  While the term “Lucifer” or heosphoros occurs in the New Testament only in a positive sense (2Peter 1:19), the Jewish traditions regarding angels and demons are clearly reflected, and the general Jewish interpretation of the meaning of Babylon in Isaiah 14 comes out in Revelation (see especially 18:12, but it’s present throughout).  In the early centuries of the Church, the name “Lucifer” was not yet exclusively associated with evil, so that we even have a “Saint Lucifer” from the 3rd Century who died for the Nicene faith (celebrated in the Church’s calendar on May 20).  But Jerome passes on the traditional interpretation of Isaiah 14:12, and Augustine takes “Lucifer” as a proper name for Satan in his description of how one who was enlightened became dark.  So at least by the 4th and 5th Centuries “Lucifer” had become one of the Adversary’s proper names.

And there we have it!  There is more to the story, for sure, but that’s what came to hand from my personal library.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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