As Halloween approaches each year, we tend to get inundated with images of ghosts, ghouls, and other ghastly apparitions. In the modern Western imagination, demons also feature among these otherworldly entities. The term “demon”—from the Greek δαιμόνιον (diamonion)—appears in Scripture, but biblical demons bear no resemblance to the costumes of eager trick-or-treaters. In ancient Israelite thought, “demon” is another word for a foreign god.
In the Hebrew of Psalm 96, the psalmist compares the inferior gods of the nations to the supreme God of Israel, saying, “all the gods (אלהים; elohim) of the peoples are nothings (אלילים; elilim), but the Lord made the heavens” (96:5). Many years later, the Jewish-Greek translator of this Hebrew verse would write that “all the gods (θεοὶ; theoì) of the nations are demons (δαιμόνια; daimónia), but the Lord made the heavens” (95:5 LXX). Based on the comparative context of the psalm, it is clear that “demons” is another way of saying “lesser gods.” A similar context emerges in the Greek translation of Deuteronomy, in which Moses declares that those who made the golden calf “sacrificed to demons (δαιμονίοις; daimoníois) and not God (θεῷ; Theo); [they worshiped] gods (θεοῖς; theois) they had not known” (32:17 LXX). The poetry of Moses’ song corroborates the assertion in Psalms; namely, that demons are foreign gods who are inferior to the God of Israel.
Paul cites this same verse from Moses’ song to prohibit the Corinthians from interacting with idols. The apostle agrees that the calf-worshipers sacrificed to “demons and not God” (δαιμονίοις καὶ οὐ θεῷ; daimoníois kaì ou Theo), and discourages believers in Corinth from being “companions of demons (δαιμονίων; daimoníon)” (1 Cor 10:20). Therefore, it is fitting that Paul would see the foreign idols in Athens and tell his onlookers, “I perceive that in every way you are respectful of [your] gods (δεισιδαιμονεστέρους; deisidaimonestérous)” (Acts 17:22). Paul uses a compound word consisting of δεισι (deisi; “respectful”) and δαιμον (daimon), demon. Unlike in today’s parlance, “demon” did not have a horrific or overtly negative connotation in the first century—Paul’s audience is not offended that he uses “demon” to describe their gods. In fact, when the Athenians overhear Paul’s discourse about Israel’s God, they assume (rightly) that this Jewish person is speaking of “foreign demons” (ξένων δαιμονίων; zénon daimoníon), i.e., non-Greek gods. According to the ancients, demons were not menacing creatures with horns and pitchforks; rather, a demon was a general term for another nation’s deity—and for Jews, a “demon” was any god who was not the God of Israel.