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Critical Review by Leslie Houlden
SOURCE: "The Prince of Darkness," in New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, pp. 9-10.
In the following review of The Origin of Satan, Houlden states that while Pagels's arguments are single-minded and do not always have documentary support, she has written a compelling book that connects the concerns of the early church with contemporary issues.
Satan, Elaine Pagels says, has a much more tenacious grip on the world than many people suppose; his power over the human imagination has grown for 22 centuries, and in the West even people who deny his existence, or who have no religion at all, live in a culture in which he is a large presence This demon will not go away
If that sounds like a promotion for fright films, Ms. Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University and the author of several volumes on the Gnostics among the early Christians, did not write The Origin of Satan as an entertainment. By finding out where Satan came from, she thinks, we find out, at least in part, where we came from. That is not to say that some readers of her book will not be shocked, or at least offended.
In ancient Israel, as one sees in early books of the Bible, Satan is hardly a monstrous figure, the dark near-parody of God he later became. In the Book of Job he is the official "opponent" at the heavenly court, his task being to challenge God's assumptions and, with divine permission, to test the fidelity of God's people. But it is no surprise that such a critic should eventually become a subverter and a wicked tempter; that transformation was complete by the time the First Book of Chronicles took shape, two centuries before Christ.
During the final centuries B.C., divisions appeared among the Jews that were to prove fateful to them. One group demonized others some Jews might not belong. In the second century B.C. the sect called the Essenes arose, and flourished for several centuries. They taught what they considered a pure form of religious observance, which they charged the majority of Jews had abandoned. Among the Essenes, Ms Pagels thinks, Satan, as ruler of a whole demonic realm, was a necessary evil: "Had Satan not already existed in Jewish tradition, the Essenes would have invented him "She quotes one of their Scriptures, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, as saying Satan "rules in darkness, and his purpose is to bring about evil and sin" the Essenes envisioned life as a cosmic battle between "sons of light" like themselves and the spawn of darkness, between God and Satan.
The early Christians adopted that view and used much of the same language, she continues, seeing themselves as protected by God and by angels, freed from satanic manipulation while their antagonists were under diabolical control. Thus her book moves quickly from the narrow subject of its title, and indeed from Satan as the force behind wickedness and misfortune, to become an analysis of how the early Christians used this idea of a cosmic battle in their confrontations with non-Christians as well as in their own discourse; the book becomes a kind of case study of how people, defining difference between themselves and others, find it easy to abandon love and tolerance for a hostility that is licensed, even commanded, by divine decree.
Ms. Pagels concentrates first on the four Gospels in the New Testament. It is generally accepted that they were written in a certain order during the last few decades of the first century—a time when the early Christians were turning their attentions beyond their fellow Jews and beginning to convert gentiles. Ms. Pagels argues that in each succeeding Gospel the Jews are demonized with growing intensity. Increasingly, from the earliest Gospel to the latest, Roman responsibility for the death of Jesus—historically quite clear—is played down, and instead the Jews are blamed. And even though some of the Evangelists perceive widely varied responses to Jesus among the Jews, and write with real sympathy for the Jews, all agree that the community of "God's people" is no longer Israel but the followers of Jesus.
This process of achieving self-definition by opposing Christians to Jews was soon enough applied to defining the difference between Christians and all non-Christians—though, arguably, its legacy of anti-Semitism has been the most dire of its consequences for everyone. In Ms. Pagels's account, after the Jews, the next people demonized were the pagans, especially when Christianity began to spread and Christians were persecuted for refusing to participate in Roman rites (she reminds us that these, like the ceremonies of virtually all ancient religions, were patriotic rites, and that to reject them was to declare rebellion).
Then, with growing vehemence as the Christian community increased, Christians began to demonize one another, to single out certain people as heretics. After all, who is more intolerable than the traitor within the gates? In many myths, both Jewish and Christian, Satan himself started as a fallen angel, "one of us" become "one of them"—what Ms. Pagels calls "the intimate enemy." In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul, the earliest Christian writer, referred to fellow believers who disagreed with his vision of the Christian mission as agents of Satan. So did the writer of the First Epistle of St. John (whom Ms. Pagels does not cite): to describe such people, and their demonic backer, he coined the word "Antichrist," which was to have quite a future.
Ms. Pagels states her argument—that all four canonical Gospels depict the career of Jesus as a battle between Him as God's agent and the Devil in the visible shape of the Jews or Jewish authorities—with excessive single-mindedness. Such an approach will surely make the book controversial and draw attention to her underlying thesis: that the way in which early Christianity developed is a very troubled heritage. But it also requires one to state some reservations. A minor one is that her adding noncanonical material about Jesus—from Gnostic documents and other writings rejected when the canon of the Bible was formed around the end of the second century A.D.—to what she finds in the New Testament is tendentious with regard to dating, and distracting to readers who are not specialists.
More materially, her theory about demonizing imbalances her reading of the Gospels. It fits the Gospel of St. John, the last one written, fairly well, but the others much less so. Satan is an important presence at both the beginning and the end of Luke, and even Matthew provides a satanic backdrop to the life of Jesus; but there are considerable differences in their treatment of Satan, and of the Jews. In Mark, the earliest Gospel, although Satan's presence makes clear the cosmic significance of Jesus' work, Jesus is involved with devils chiefly as sources of madness: His miraculous power is shown by His exorcisms, done to cure people. Furthermore, in Mark the story of the death of Jesus is told without any reference to invisible evil powers. He is a passive victim and there is virtually no note of a cosmic battle behind His death. Even in the Gospel of Luke, the business of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus is much less clear-cut than Ms. Pagels makes it seem. Satan instigates the abandonment of Jesus by His disciples at the critical moment, and inspires the assault on Him by the authorities. But the Jews divide over Jesus, some reacting with compassion. Even their leaders act "in ignorance," and Jesus prays they will be forgiven. Demonizing is far from complete here: if this Gospel blames Jews, it also seems to reach out to them.
Altogether, if Ms. Pagels had widened her consideration of how the evangelists account for the death of Jesus, she would have seen that Mark tells the story principally in terms of the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and that those prophecies are equally prominent in the other Gospels. In a word, testimony from the Bible and cosmic conflict were twin ways in which early Christians could see the death of Jesus as being no mere tragic accident but the climax of God's saving purpose.
Nonetheless, this brief book is thought-provoking—especially effective when it vividly portrays the faith of individual early Christians and of noble pagans. The problem of evil vexed them as it does us; indeed, Ms. Pagels says she was led by the accidental death seven years ago of her husband, Heinz, to search the Scriptures for a clue about how people throughout history have dealt with evil. And that led her to ponder the human tendency to populate the world with invisible presences: controllers, initiators, helpers, hinderers—unseen but all the more potent because they are mysterious. "I began to reflect," she says, "on the ways that various religious traditions give shape to the invisible world, and … on the various ways that people from Greek, Jewish and Christian traditions deal with misfortune and loss."
It is when she takes up some of the early Christian fathers and pagans like the Emperor Marcus Aurelius that she writes with greatest feeling about the issues at stake, such as our proper response to the complexities of experience. Should we school ourselves to accept whatever an impersonal fate gives us (as Marcus Aurelius, and some Christian writers, thought we should)? Or should we see ourselves as engaged in a supernatural struggle between good and evil, God and Satan, in which (despite St. Paul's command in the Epistle to the Romans to obey the authorities) even governments and other earthly powers may be on the side of the Devil? Without a strategy of demonization could Christians have seen—as clearly as some did by the third century—that the highest powers in a nation, its legitimate leaders, might be wicked, people to be resisted and even overthrown?
Ms. Pagels also excels in depicting both the strengths and the weaknesses of orthodoxy: how are Christian leaders to resist travesty and mere foolishness by members of their community without stifling vitality of mind and spirit? She gives some samples of both wild speculation and sublime spirituality from Gnostics in the second century, and notes that the church father Tertullian would not discriminate between the two, since the Gnostics were simply heretical to him: good Christians must not ask questions but accept what they are taught by their leaders. One recalls that a great fault of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost is that he insists on asking questions.
There is no lack of sympathetic understanding in [The Origin of Satan] of the acute dilemmas that led early Christians to reach so readily for the weapon of demonization. It gave them impetus and assurance, especially when they were new and up against great opposition. But Ms. Pagels believes that demonization of other people tended to accumulate through the centuries, at a terrible cost. It seems almost an afterthought that in the last six pages she points to a powerful tradition in Christianity—represented in the Gospels themselves and by people like St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King Jr.—that rejects a division of the world into followers of light and of darkness. There is a "struggle within Christian tradition," she concludes, "between the profoundly human view that 'otherness' is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine."
This section contains 1,877 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)