Notes on “Lucifer” (Isaiah 14:12, KJV)

by  Doug Kutilek

[Reprinted from “As I See It,” 4:11, November 2001]


The purpose of this brief study is to assemble the materials necessary to evaluate the accuracy of the modern English versions the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version in their translation of Isaiah 14:12, namely their departure from the King James Version’s “Lucifer” for something else.  The NASB has “O star of the morning,” while the NIV has “O morning star.”  (The New King James Bible has “Lucifer” in the text, but “Literally Day Star” in the footnote). Our purpose is not to determine the identity of the person addressed in v. 12 (though perhaps that will be addressed in a later study).  Our motivation for this investigation came from a forwarded download from a website of an article “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer (and thy funny Bibles)?” by one Will Kinney, with editorial comments by one Steve Van Nattan.  Neither of these writers is otherwise known to me.  Their article vilifies all Bible versions which depart from the KJV text at Isaiah 14:12, and Van Nattan even consigns to hell with dogmatic certainty all persons who depart from the KJV’s “Lucifer.”


The Hebrew Text

In Isaiah 14:12, the word translated “O Lucifer” in the KJV  (but with the notable variant translation in the margin of the original 1611 KJV of  “O day-star”, an English word which Webster’s Third New International Dictionary says means, first of all, “morning star”) is the Hebrew word, unique in the Hebrew Bible, heylel, written with the consonants HYLL (he-yod-lamed-lamed) and pronounced so as to rhyme with the English “pay scale” [limits of a technical kind prevent us from presenting the precise pronunciation of this word in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)].  There are apparently no variants in the existing Hebrew manuscripts in either the consonants or vowels except for the minor variant in the famous Dead Sea Isaiah scroll of the insertion of a Y [yod] after the first L [lamed] as a marker of, evidently, a long “e” (or possibly “i”) vowel. 

Some scholars suggest that this Hebrew word should be rather pointed and pronounced, based on the translation in ancient Greek and Latin versions, as hillel (rhyming with “Hilldale”), the same as the name of a famous ancient rabbi, and meaning “he has praised”; while others, taking a cue from Arabic studies, propose heylal (rhyming with “play ball”), identified as “the crescent moon.”  It should be noted that the vowels were not originally written in the Hebrew OT, only the consonants; in the Middle Ages, the vowel points were added to the consonantal text by OT Jewish scholars, the Masoretes, who sought thereby to preserve the traditional pronunciation of the words as handed down to them.  The possibility therefore does exist that sometimes the added vowels may not always--especially in the case of rare words or proper names--preserve the true original pronunciation of those words.

The Hebrew word, as written and pointed by the Medieval Masoretes, is generally assumed by Hebrew lexicographers to be derived from the root HLL, which has the basic meaning “to shine” (see Brown-Driver-Briggs, and Koehler-Baumgartner).  BDB identify the word as a masculine appellative noun meaning “shining one,” which they identify as “star of the morning.”  Attention is drawn to the Akkadian word mushtilil, a term designating the planet Venus as the morning-star, though neither BDB nor KB note any word cognate to this unique Hebrew word in any other Semitic language.  Jastrow’s dictionary of rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic has no entry for heylel, nor does Payne Smith’s Syriac dictionary.


The Greek Translation

The pre-Christian Septuagint Greek version of Isaiah 14:12 renders heylel by “ho heosphoros,” a very ancient word found in Homer (8th century B.C. or earlier) and in more recent Classical Greek authors Hesiod, Pindar, etc.  It is used seven times in the Septuagint to translate four different Hebrew words, all dealing with the dawn or morning.  Liddell & Scott define the word as “bringer of the morn, the morning-star.”  This word is not found in the Greek New Testament, nor in early Christian writers, though the related word “phosphoros,” literally, light-bringing, and meaning, according to standard lexicons, “morning star, day-star, Venus (the planet),” is found once in the NT (2 Peter 1:19).  It seems therefore to be a synonym of “heosphoros.  Some commentators argue that the reference in 2 Peter is to the sun rather than Venus, though the usage outside the NT is evidently against this interpretation.


Targum Jonathan

The ancient Jewish interpretive translation/paraphrase of Isaiah, the Targum Jonathan (dating to perhaps the fifth century A.D.), according to Stenning’s translation, reads, quoting the whole first clause of the verse, “How hast thou been cast down from the height, who was resplendent among the sons of men AS THE BRIGHT STAR (VENUS) AMONG THE STARS” (emphasis added).  There is clearly here no interpreting the Hebrew word HYLL as a proper name, but as a descriptive term referring to the planet Venus, the “morning star.”



This early Christian translation from Hebrew into Syriac, reads (again quoting the whole first clause), “How you have fallen from heaven.  Wail (or, lament) in the morning.”  The Hebrew HYLL is understood, not as a noun, either proper or common, but as a verb, from the Syriac root YLL.  This seems to be only a guess by the translator, chosen, I suspect, because of a similarity in spelling between HYLL and YLL.


The Latin Vulgate Version

Jerome’s translation of the OT, made directly from the Hebrew text of his day, and dating to ca. A.D. 400, translates HYLL in Isaiah 14:12, by “lucifer.” Cassell’s Latin dictionary identifies this word as an adjective, meaning “light-bearing, light-bringing.”  When used as a substantive, it means ‘Lucifer, the morning star, the planet Venus;” when used in mythology, it is “the son of Aurora and father of Ceyx.”  In this latter regard, William Smith’s Smaller Classical Dictionary notes that “Lucifer” (Latin) and “Phosphoros” (Greek) are both epithets given the planet Venus in antiquity, along with other designations such as “Hesperus” [cf. the LXX of Isaiah 14:12, heosphoros], “Vesperugo,” “Vesper,” “Noctifer,” and “Nocturnus” when, appearing in the evening sky rather than the morning sky, it introduces the darkness of night, rather than the light of day (see more below on the celestial position of Venus).  “Lucifer” was also used as a designation in mythology of several goddesses of light, including Artemis, Aurora, and Hecate, and others.

If Jerome intended “lucifer” here to be a proper name, ordinary Latin usage in his day (ca. A.D. 400) might suggest that he was thereby signifying the planet Venus, but evidence from his writings (in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. VI) indicates that he interpreted Isaiah 14:12 as referring to Satan’s fall, and thereby, apparently, meant Lucifer as a designation of the Devil.  Those who insist on retaining “lucifer” from the Vulgate in the English Bible are in essence affirming Jerome’s interpretation of the text, and the accuracy of the Latin Vulgate version.


English Bibles

Jerome’s use of “lucifer” to translate HYLL had a strong influence on Bible translations into the languages of Western Europe.  This comes as no surprise since the Vulgate was the Bible of Western Europe for most of a millennium, from after A.D. 500 until after A.D. 1500.  All during the period of the Reformation, every Bible translator in Europe had the Vulgate in hand as an indispensable aid to the work of translating the Scriptures.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the entry “lucifer,” all English Bibles from Wycliffe (ca. 1384; his version was based directly on the Vulgate) to the KJV had “Lucifer” at Isaiah 14:12, apparently as a proper name, though possibly as a borrowed Latin adjective (of these English Bibles, I personally have access only to the Geneva Bible of 1560 and the KJV of 1611).  Likewise the Reina-Valera Spanish version of 1602 had “lucero,” which Cassell’s, a standard Spanish dictionary, indicates as meaning “morning-star, Venus, day-star, Lucifer.”  (By comparison, Luther’s German version had “schoener Morgenstern,” that is, “beautiful morning star” as the translation of the Hebrew phrase heylel ben-shachar.  It is just possible that he read the Hebrew as hillel rather than heylel).

We will note particularly the Geneva Bible of 1560 at Isaiah 14:12.  (This version had, by the way, the greatest influence of any single English version, on the translators of the KJV).  While merely following the precedent of earlier English versions (Wycliffe, Coverdale) and indeed of the Latin Vulgate, by giving “o Lucifer” in the text, in the margin is a lengthy note, which reads in part: “for the morning starre, that goeth before the sun, is called lucifer.”  Clearly, these translators did understand “lucifer” as a synonym for “morning star” and did not understand it as a proper name of Satan.

The word “Lucifer” in English has an interesting history.  The OED notes that the word has two usages, both of which date from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon period (ca. A.D. 1000) and continue up through Middle English and on into the modern English period.  The first is the use of “Lucifer” as a designation of the planet Venus, the morning star.  Both Chaucer (ca. 1374) and Wycliffe (in his translation at Job 38:32, following the Vulgate) use Lucifer in this sense, as also does Milton in 1629.  The other usage, as a name of Satan, is found, among others places, in the writings of Wycliffe, Shakespeare, and Milton.  Both usages were current in the time of Wycliffe and Milton, and apparently during the nearly three centuries in between, that is the period from the first English Bible version through and beyond the period of the KJV.  Therefore to assume that the KJV translators necessarily were indicating Satan by their adoption of the Vulgate’s translation “lucifer” at Isaiah 14:12, is indeed little more than assumption without additional proof. 

This is especially evident in light of the fact that the KJV translators themselves, in their margin, give an alternate rendering, namely “O day-starre,” by which they surely did mean to indicate the planet Venus (Kinney and Van Nattan in their article NEVER note the reading of the KJV margin at Isaiah 14:12; it would prove fatal to their thesis).  Let us quote the King James translators themselves in their noteworthy preface to the original 1611 KJV, “The Translators to the Readers,”--“Now in such a case doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily?  For as it is a fault of incredulity to doubt of those things that are evident, so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. . . . They that are wise had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one when it may be the other” [10th unnumbered page of this preface].  In short, the KJV translators themselves would rebuke those who anathematize all who would depart from the KJV text (“Lucifer”) and adopt the KJV margin (“day-star”) or its equivalent, “morning star.”  Those who condemn the NASB and NIV at Isaiah 14:12 are condemned by the very translators of the KJV, whose version they profess to venerate.

As regards the identity of the “morning-star” (so translated) of Isaiah 14:12: if indeed it is correctly identified as Satan addressed through the person of the king of Babylon (whoever that historic individual was), it is no legitimate objection that the term “morning-star” is also a title of Christ (as indeed it is, Revelation 22:16).  It is to be noted that the term “lion” is one also applied in Scripture to both Satan (I Peter 5:8) and Jesus (Revelation 5:5).  As with “lion,” so with “morning star,” the terms are metaphors used to characterize the individuals in question, and it is not unsuitable to use both descriptive metaphors for radically differing individuals.

Note: regarding the appearance and position of the planet Venus in the night sky.  First, because of its very high albido (reflective factor) and close proximity to earth, Venus is the third brightest regular object in the sky, behind only the sun and moon (on occasion an exceptionally bright comet, and more rarely, a super-nova--exploding star--will temporarily exceed Venus in brightness).  It is no surprise that this bright celestial object attracted the attention of ancient observers whose night sky was not obscured with artificial lighting as ours is.  And as the sun and moon were deified in pagan religion, so was Venus. 

Because Venus has an orbit around the sun inside the earth’s solar orbit, Venus is not infrequently not visible at all from earth, being hidden either on the side of the sun opposite from earth, or being lost in the glare of the daytime sun.  Venus is visible from earth only when it is off to one side or the other of a direct path from earth to the sun, and even then, it does not rise high in the sky as do the visible outer planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (is this the source of the imagery, “How are you fallen from heaven!”--unlike the other planets--?).  This means that Venus when visible appears three hours or less either before sunrise or, visible at sunset, relatively low on the horizon, sets three hours or less thereafter.  Hence, when visible as a pre-dawn star, it serves as a herald of the soon approach of sunrise; when it is an evening star, it marks the termination of day and the onset of night (by the way, in antiquity, the “planets” visible with the naked eye were regularly called “stars” albeit “wandering” ones, hence “planets,” from the Greek word, planao, meaning, “to wander