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The Origin of Satan: How Christians…
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The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics (1995)

by Elaine Pagels

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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In this book, Pagels purports to show how the conception of Satan arose from the early Christians’ demonization of Jews, pagans and other Christians. While I had some issues with the organization and focus of the book, on the whole the analysis was interesting, detailed and insightful. Pagels does a close analysis of Biblical passages, religious accounts that were not incorporated into the Bible and lives of some Christian converts. She gives historical background and context and compares different versions and lives. I wondered if her publishers changed the name of the book because it is a bit of a stretch to say that the focus is mainly on the origin of Satan. I wouldn’t say that the organization is haphazard or superficially jumps around but when Pagels is on a subject that she finds interesting, even if it only tangentially relates to the broader theme, she goes on for awhile with the analysis. Some may find the book dry since it is pretty much in-depth analysis of short passages, but I found this fascinating. I would definitely like to read more by Pagels.

Pagels starts with the four Gospels and sets the background with the Jewish rebellion against the Romans which culminated in 70 C.E. with the burning of the Temple, a traumatic event. The rifts between Jewish groups – some who supported the rebellion, others who wanted to make peace with the Romans – influenced the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Pagels describes reasons for the negative depiction of Jews in the Gospels and the more conciliatory portrait of the Romans (contrasting to contemporary accounts of Pontius Pilate, for example, which put him somewhere on the uncaring to cruel spectrum). Jews were the intimate enemies at that point, the group that stubbornly resisted Jesus’ message. Pagels notes that Romans – and other foreign enemies – were traditionally compared to animals but the demonic depictions of Jews were new. Early accounts of Satan portrayed him as an agent of God, but Pagels shows that increases in satanic and demonic comparisons occurred with the rise of various breakaway Jewish sects, notably the Essenes who withdrew from Jewish society. The intra-Jewish conflict was described in stark terms of good and evil which was continued in the books of Matthew and Luke. John is notably absent of the personification of Satan, but the Jews fulfill the role of Satan in that account. Besides casting the Pharisees and the Jewish population as the instigators, the accounts also rehabilitate Jesus’ lineage and cast the story in mythical terms – relating it to the Old Testament, describing Jesus’ coming as the fulfillment of many prophesies, portraying Jesus’ life as a cosmic struggle.

In describing how demonic imagery came to apply to pagans, Pagels analyzes the lives of a number of Christian converts in the second and third century C.E. Along the way, she describes the spread of Christianity and how it moved beyond the Jews, often tearing apart families. She does a good job in contrasting that sect to the others that were fermenting at the time – for example, the Essenes were a rather exclusive group compared to Christians; not just anyone could join. I did find the analysis in this section to be interesting and well-done but sometimes it seemed like Pagels was just writing about topics that interested her and that only semi-related to the overall theme. For example, she spends time on the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius – good, but tangential.

In her section on the demonization of heretics, Pagels describes the consolidation of the church as well as some out-there takes on Christianity. She again seems to want to talk about her favored topics such as the Gnostic gospels, the subject of her best-known book. I found this to be very interesting and would like to read Pagels’ other books despite the focus/organization issues. ( )
6 vote DieFledermaus | May 10, 2012 |
A well written and researched book by a National Book Award winning author, this work chronicles the evolution of the concept of obstruction through the changes given to it and to the ultimate use of the idea of Satan as a malevolent being. The early use of the word 'satan' is followed using both biblical and first century historical writings including ancient texts found in recent years dating to the time of the chosen gospels. Ultimately, what many use today is not what the original authors intended.

Pagels may make some uncomfortable with her findings which lean on other theologians and scholars works as well, but the book is a fine addition to any library for those who still seek to find deeper understanding amidst the superficiality of popular dogma. ( )
1 vote mldavis2 | Apr 30, 2012 |
Not a new book, but since I’ve recently received a couple more to read along this topic, I dug this one out and scanned through it as a reminder.

It’s typical Pagels, opinionated and controversial, but thought-provoking. I love Pagels’ work!

You’ll read a little about the evolution of ideas regarding Satan, but this is really not the book’s focus. Her premise is that Satan evolved over time for a reason, and that reason was to demonize one’s enemies—primarily the enemies of the Christians. No, not ancient Israel; Pagels spends almost the entire book within the context of the New Testament—an appropriate focus, since in the Old Testament Satan is more of an Adversary under God’s employ. By the time of the New Testament, though, Satan has morphed into the Prince of Darkness, the leader of all that is evil in a cosmic battle against good…a battle that found the Christians caught in the middle. Satan is the natural evolution of an us-versus-them atmosphere in the arena of religion.

Like Pagels, I find the war of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem leveled, more than just a little important to understanding the development of Christianity. (In fact, I tend to go a bit overboard on this theme in my books). But Satan isn’t allied only with the Romans; he also takes the side of the Pharisees (read: Rabbinic Judaism), Herod, and pagans everywhere. Finally, in later Christian writings, Satan manages to seduce even Christians, and the war turns against heretics.

Fun book, and a different take from what the title may make you think. ( )
1 vote DubiousDisciple | Apr 13, 2012 |
7
  Aerow | Aug 15, 2011 |
A so-so interesting book about the devil in history. Definitely taught me some things I didn't know.
  Aerow | Aug 15, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elaine Pagelsprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
GiottoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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TO SARAH AND DAVID
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In 1988, when my husband of twenty years died in a hiking accident, I became aware that, like many people who grieve, I was living in the presence of an invisible being—living, that is, with a vivid sense of someone who had died. (Introduction)
In 66 C.E., a rebellion against Rome broke out among the Jews of Palestine. (Chapter I)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679731180, Paperback)

. . . ground-breaking . . . Many times in the course of reading her explications I found myself saying, "Of course, why hasn't someone said this before?" By showing how the sectarian demonization of the "intimate enemies"--Jews and heretics--shaped early Christianity, the book helps us to understand the power of irrational forces that still need to be confronted in contemporary society. -- S. David Sperling, professor of Bible, Hebrew Union College

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:43 -0400)

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