The Origin of Satan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics by Elaine Pagels.

Pagels The Origin of Satan

Elaine Pagels’ Origin of Satan has surprisingly little to say about Satan as such. She notes in her introduction that she doesn’t intend to enter the crowded field of existing scholarship regarding the cultural, symbolic, literary and psychological genealogies of Satan (xviii). Her ambition instead is to examine the social motives and consequences of the Satan figure in the formation of ideas in early Christianity and related movements. The way she pursues this goal is by using Satan’s appearance in Hebrew apocalypses and apocrypha, Christian gospels, and patriarchal writings as an index of enmity. The identification of Satan with particular figures in these literatures allows Pagels to trace the self-definition of Christianity by its opposition to Jews, pagans, and heretics.

She starts with the context of the imperial war in Palestine at the start of the Christian era, highlighting the objectively surprising fact that the Romans do not appear as the chief villains in the Gospel of Mark. Her interpretive work on the four canonical gospels accounts for about half of the book, and serves to adumbrate the development of Christian identities within, against, and in lieu of Judaism. Naturally, these same scriptural facts account for the intractability of anti-Semitism in subsequent Christian history.

Pagels writes of the four gospels that “everyone who interprets the texts has to sort out the tradition to some extent, and to reconstruct, however provisionally, what may have happened, and correspondingly, what each evangelist added, and for what reasons” (94). She’s wrong here. It’s not at all necessary to identify a factual model when interpreting and evaluating parallel (or reiterated) narratives. Pagels is obviously comfortable with the notion that the Christian Satan is a product of mythopoeia. Why wouldn’t this be the case of his opponent Jesus, who is defined within the same literature–and who, in the earliest texts, appears just as vaporous and metaphysical as Satan or the Essene Prince of Light? Pagels is quite evidently a Liberal Christian, who needs a “real Jesus” to buttress her interpretations, and she demonstrates this shortcoming in the conclusion of the book, where she invokes this character as a teacher of reconciliation and an explicit and overriding alternative to a champion in the fight against evil powers.

The sections of the book that I found most rewarding were the chapters on paganism and Gnosticism. Despite my familiarity with the subject matter, there were any number of new details and realizations prompted by viewing the material through this lens. These two sets of enemies are the stigmata of key developments in Christianity: the shift from radicalism to establishment and the formation of orthodoxy. The account of Tertullian’s promotion of mental heat death is as mortifying as the picture of Valentinian heresiarchy is inspiring.

The Origin of Satan is a short book in a popular style (albeit with scholarly end-notes and references to more academic works). I enjoyed it, but I learned less from it than I had from the author’s earlier work Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Both books have similar scopes and concerns in the effort to relate early Christian teachings to social problems at a profound historical level. Considering how quickly they read, they are both worth the bother.