Lucifer Is Not Satan’s Original Name

“Back before the creation of the earth, Satan used to be a beautiful cherub named Lucifer. But after he rebelled against God, he was cast out of Heaven and his name was changed to Satan…”

If you were like me, you may have grown up hearing a similar narrative and accepted it at face value. The problem with this narrative is that 1) Satan’s name has never been Lucifer and 2) there is no clear cut text in the Bible detailing Satan’s fall. Giving the name Lucifer to Satan is an interpretive tradition that made its way into English Bible translations.

The traditional understanding of Satan’s fall derives from two passages of Scripture: Isaiah 14:3-23 and Ezekiel 28:1-19. While I find the interpretation of these texts to be on shaky hermeneutical ground, the interpretive tradition goes back at least to the late second/early third century, being seen in both Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240), who attributes the words of Isaiah 14:14 to Satan,[1] in Origen, who directly linked the passage with the fall of Satan[2]. In time, this interpretation led the Latin speaking West to attribute the name “Lucifer” to Satan, and we in the English world are heirs of the Western tradition, and so this found its way into the earliest English Bible translations.

The passage where we derive the name Lucifer is from Isaiah 14:12 in the KJV:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

The translators of the KJV (1611) did not introduce the name Lucifer into the text here. The earlier translations of the Bishop’s Bible (1568), Geneva Bible (1560), Great Bible (1539), Matthews Bible (1537), and Coverdale Bible (1535) all used Lucifer. We find it in English Bibles as far back as the Wycliffe Bible in the 1380s. 

The problem, however, with these translations is the fact that Hebrew contains no such word or name as “Lucifer.” The Hebrew word rendered “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12 passage is actually haylel (הֵילֵל), which roughly translated means “shining one” or “morning star.” Haylel is what is known as a hapax legomena, that is, it is a word that appears only one time in the entire Old Testament. Words like this can be hard to translate because we don’t have another point of reference to compare them against.

In the Greek Septuagint—the translation of the Old Testament into Greek which the New Testament writers used—the word haylel was rendered as heosphoros (ἑωσφόρος), which could be translated as “dawn-bearer” or “morning star.” The Latin of the Vulgate renders haylel along the same lines, using the word lucifer, a term which referred to the planet Venus, which was commonly known as the morning star:

Quomodo cecidisti de caelo, lucifer, qui mane oriebaris? corruisti in terram, qui vulnerabas gentes?

The word lucifer in Latin was originally simply a noun, not a proper name. It was only later that the word came to be understood as a name for Satan. Even then, it was still used as a noun elsewhere, as we see in 2 Peter 1:19:

Et habemus firmiorem propheticum sermonem: cui benefacitis attendentes quasi lucernae lucenti in caliginoso loco donec dies elucescat, et lucifer oriatur in cordibus vestris…

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…

The presence of the name Lucifer in English translations is thus the result of interpretation playing a role in how the text was rendered. Since all of the earliest English translations up to the time of the KJV had Lucifer in the text, it seems reasonable to conclude that each successive round of translators and revisers  believed that Isaiah 14:3–23 was best interpreted as referring to Satan, as well as assuming that Lucifer was indeed a name for the devil.

This is not the case when it comes to Martin Luther. In his opinion, what was contained in the text “is not said of the angel who once was thrown out of heaven but of the king of Babylon, and it is figurative language.”[3] His translation reflects this, as there is no sign of Lucifer in his translation, and he thus rendered haylel as Morgenstern, which is German for morning star. 

Most modern translations follow in the tradition of the original intent of the Latin, of the Septuagint, and of Luther, in that they translate haylel for the best equivalent of its meaning, usually “shining one” or “day star,” rather than understanding it as a proper name. The ESV does something interesting at this point, however. It translates the words, but it also capitalizes them as a proper name, taking something of a middle-ground approach to the text:

“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!”

Whatever stance one takes on the interpretation of Isaiah 14, Lucifer cannot properly be understood as the original name for the devil. If we were to make a case for the text referring to a proper name, we would have to make a case for Haylel being his alternate name, rather than the later Latin translation of Lucifer. Only if Lucifer is understood as a title, with the additional clarification that this title comes through Latin, could we have a valid argument for the continued use of Lucifer. Translation and interpretation are inseparable, and often there are good reasons for a translation, even if you disagree with the decisions that led to it. In this case, however, there is no real compelling reason to present Lucifer as a name for Satan within the text of Scripture itself, as the name only comes through the Latin translation and is not native to the text.

[1] Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.11,17

[2] Origen, On First Principles 1.5.5.

[3] Martin Luther, Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, vol. 16, Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia, 1969), 140.

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