Miki Slingsby/Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral

Jesus bids demons begone in both loops of this “B,” from a 12th-century illuminated Bible at Winchester Cathedral. In several gospel passages, Jesus’ detractors attribute his power to heal to “Beelzebul, the Prince of Demons” (Matthew 12:24). But who is this Beelzebul? His name appears in only a few places in the New Testament and nowhere else in ancient literature. Some gospel passages appear to associate him with Satan—as did later Christian writers—but even that is not certain.

The best clue lies in the word itself: Beelzebul contains the name of the Canaanite god Baal. Baal-names were common in the ancient Near East; the epithet zbl bl (Lord Prince Baal) is found in ancient Ugaritic texts and the name blzbl appears on an eighth-century B.C.E. Punic inscription. The gospel writers, in borrowing the name Beelzebul for a mere demon, were apparently ridiculing the impotence of the foreign god Baal.