I was going to do a nice write-up for Halloween about Lucifer as a name for the devil, especially in relation to Isaiah 14.12. But the more I dug into the topic, the more shadowy the truth behind it all became. To put it simply, there are more lies and half-truths about Satan floating around than I care to deal with. So rather than trying to write something more comprehensive, I’m going to tell you where I’m at and move on to other things.
There are two major understandings of this topic:
- Lucifer is not the name of the devil.
Isaiah 14.12 describes the fall of a Babylonian king and calls him הֵילֵל (helel). Jerome’s Vulgate translates that Hebrew into the Latin “lucifer.” Lucifer in Latin means “the morning-star, the planet Venus.” Early English translations, such as the King James, chose not to translate “lucifer” in Isaiah 14.12, instead merely transliterating the Latin, leaving us with a proper name that isn’t present in the original text. Further highlighting this error, we find that in 2 Peter 1.19 — a verse that seems to be referring to Jesus — the Vulgate uses the word “lucifer” to translate the Greek φωσφόρος (phosphoros) but the KJV translates this into English as “morning star.” All of this is to say that “lucifer” is merely a Latin leftover that was used to describe a king, Jesus, or any “bringer of light.” Biblically speaking, it’s not a proper name, and so virtually all modern Bible translations reject the name “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14.12 and rightly translate it as as “morning star.”
- Lucifer is the name of the devil.
There’s a second narrative, advocated primarily by the King James-only crowd, that maintains that Lucifer is the proper name of the devil and that removing the term from Isaiah 14.12 sows unnecessary seeds of confusion and deception by conflating the figure in that verse with the figure of Jesus — the “morning star” of 2 Peter 1.19. On the surface, this understanding doesn’t seem to hold water, since one would have to maintain that the devil has a uniquely Latin name that was somehow revealed to Jerome. In essence, we would have to accept the Vulgate as being a divinely inspired text superseding earlier Hebrew and Greek versions.
But things are a bit more complicated than simply weighing those two options. There is a long history of understanding the figure in Isaiah 14.12 as either directly or metaphorically representing the devil or some sort of fallen angel. This tradition is found in the very earliest Christian interpretations of the passage and runs through Christian thought right up to the present day. Whether or not the king in that passage is solely a man or is a symbolic representation of a deeper mythology is open to debate, but what is not debatable is that this tradition predates the King James, predates the Vulgate and even predates Christianity.
As easy as it might seem to reject “lucifer” as a name for the devil and to reject a more mythological interpretation of Isaiah 14.12, I’m still left with a bunch of questions:
- Did Jerome believe that “lucifer” was a proper name in Isaiah 14.12?
- In our extant Latin manuscripts, is capitalization a proper measure for determining whether a word is a proper name?
- Do online transcriptions of early Latin and English texts accurately reflect the original capitalization?
- What was the first Latin version to use “Lucifer” as a proper name?
- Many (most? all?) early English translations chose to retain “lucifer” in this verse rather than translating it. Why?
- What was the usage of “lucifer” outside of the Biblical text in both Latin and Old/Middle English?
- How did the Old Latin text (pre-dating the Vulgate) translate that verse? Are there any extant copies of Old Latin Isaiah?
- What is Dante’s role in this story? Why did Dante choose Lucifer as Satan’s name?
From a strict text-critical reading of the Bible, it’s inaccurate to call the devil Lucifer. Biblically, “Lucifer” is not the proper name of the devil any more than it is the proper name of Jesus. Imagery of the morning star refers to different things in the Bible, not a single person, and the “person” of Satan certainly doesn’t bear a Latin name. But from a broader understanding that acknowledges and respects history, tradition, mythology and literature, it’s perfectly fine and even appropriate to use the name Lucifer to reference the devil.