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The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels
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The Origin of Satan (original 1995; edition 1995)

by Elaine Pagels

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1,854206,743 (3.74)15
Who is Satan in the New Testament, and what is the evil that he represents? In this groundbreaking book, Elaine Pagels, Princeton's distinguished historian of religion, traces the evolution of Satan from its origins in the Hebrew Bible, where Satan is at first merely obstructive, to the New Testament, where Satan becomes the Prince of Darkness, the bitter enemy of God and man, evil incarnate. In The Origin of Satan, Pagels shows that the four Christian gospels tell two very different stories. The first is the story of Jesus' moral genius: his lessons of love, forgiveness, and redemption. The second tells of the bitter conflict between the followers of Jesus and their fellow Jews, a conflict in which the writers of the four gospels condemned as creatures of Satan those Jews who refused to worship Jesus as the Messiah. Writing during and just after the Jewish war against Rome, the evangelists invoked Satan to portray their Jewish enemies as God's enemies too. As Pagels then shows, the church later turned this satanic indictment against its Roman enemies, declaring that pagans and infidels were also creatures of Satan, and against its own dissenters, calling them heretics and ascribing their heterodox views to satanic influences.… (more)
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Title:The Origin of Satan
Authors:Elaine Pagels
Info:Random House (1995), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 214 pages
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The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics by Elaine Pagels (1995)

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Who is Satan in the New Testament, and what is the evil that he represents? The author traces the evolution of Satan from its origins in the Hebrew Bible, where Satan is at first merely obstructive, to the New Testament, where Satan becomes the Prince of Darkness. Pagels shows that the gospels tell two very different stories. The first is the story of Jesus' moral genius: his lessons of love, forgiveness, and redemption. The second tells of the bitter conflict between the followers of Jesus and their fellow Jews. The evangelists invoked Satan to portray their Jewish enemies as God's enemies too. The church later turned this satanic indictment against its Roman enemies, declaring that pagans and infidels were also creatures of Satan, and against its own dissenters, calling them heretics and ascribing their heterodox views to satanic influences.
1 vote PAFM | Oct 20, 2020 |
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.
5 vote paradoxosalpha | Aug 3, 2020 |
About the author: quoting from inside the book's back cover, "After receiving her doctorate from Harvard University in 1970, Elaine Pagels taught at Barnard College, where she chaired the Department of Religion, and at Columbia University. She is currently Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. . .[She has written four books, all dealing with Gnostic studies.] 'The Gnostic Gospels won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. . .." About the book: quoting from the book's back cover, "S. David Sperling, professor of Bible, Hebrew Union College, said of this work, 'The Origin of Satan' is indeed groundbreaking. Professor Pagels has the remarkable talent of taking primary scholarship. . . and making it accessible to intelligent non-specialists. Many times in the course of reading her explications I found myself saying, "Of course, why hasn't someone said this before?". . .But the book is much more than an articulation of ancient controversies. 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." The book has chapter notes and is well indexed.
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  uufnn | Mar 18, 2016 |
This isn't as much about Satan as it advertises. More about the story of jews blaiming jews.

Read on kindle.
( )
  idiotgirl | Dec 25, 2015 |
This book was somewhat of a disappointment. I really thought that she would write about where the idea of Satan came from. But instead, her focus was on how Satan grew, changed and evolved in conjunction with Christianity. Some of this was interesting. It appears (at least she made a good case for it) that Satan was made more evil more tempting in order to make Christ look good. The gospels went further and further away from Christ's life and became P.R. pieces in a way. Overall, though, the writing was dry, understandably so, since this book was one big research paper. ( )
1 vote AliceAnna | Oct 22, 2014 |
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TO SARAH AND DAVID
with love
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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.
Chapter I
In 66 C.E., a rebellion against Rome broke out among the Jews of Palestine.
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Who is Satan in the New Testament, and what is the evil that he represents? In this groundbreaking book, Elaine Pagels, Princeton's distinguished historian of religion, traces the evolution of Satan from its origins in the Hebrew Bible, where Satan is at first merely obstructive, to the New Testament, where Satan becomes the Prince of Darkness, the bitter enemy of God and man, evil incarnate. In The Origin of Satan, Pagels shows that the four Christian gospels tell two very different stories. The first is the story of Jesus' moral genius: his lessons of love, forgiveness, and redemption. The second tells of the bitter conflict between the followers of Jesus and their fellow Jews, a conflict in which the writers of the four gospels condemned as creatures of Satan those Jews who refused to worship Jesus as the Messiah. Writing during and just after the Jewish war against Rome, the evangelists invoked Satan to portray their Jewish enemies as God's enemies too. As Pagels then shows, the church later turned this satanic indictment against its Roman enemies, declaring that pagans and infidels were also creatures of Satan, and against its own dissenters, calling them heretics and ascribing their heterodox views to satanic influences.

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From the religious historian whose The Gnostic Gospels won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award comes a dramatic interpretation of Satan and his role on the Christian tradition. With magisterial learning and the elan of a born storyteller, Pagels turns Satan’s story into an audacious exploration of Christianity’s shadow side, in which the gospel of love gives way to irrational hatreds that continue to haunt Christians and non-Christians alike.
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