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Critical Review by Rockwell Gray
SOURCE: "A Social History of Satan," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 30, 1995, pp. 6-7.
In the review below, Gray writes that Pagels's efforts in The Origin of Satan to link early Christian ideas to the present are hampered by her failure to include cultural history and psychology in her analysis.
In what she terms the social history of Satan, Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, finds the roots of the need to demonize one's enemies. The practice of explaining adversity or conflict by reference to demons reaches back, Pagels notes, into Old Testament history. But she argues [in The Origin of Satan] that it entered a radical phase when the small sect of 1st Century Jews who declared Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah proceeded to demonize their enemies.
In claiming that Satan inspired their opponents—largely the Temple authorities and other established Jewish leaders—those proto-Christians confirmed the truth and solidified the ranks of their new faith. This strategy, while not exactly new, says Pagels, was an intensification of earlier practice. In Old Testament Hebrew, "the Satan" originally designated an adversary and came to refer to a messenger from God who would oppose human design or test human resolution, as with Job. Over time, a more personified figure emerged in the form of a powerful fallen angel—fallen either because his lust for women had drawn him to Earth or because prideful struggle with his Creator had brought expulsion from Heaven. Thus was born the figure of Satan as a great demon or spirit who contended with God and the faithful.
While the earlier Jewish practice of demonizing one's enemies antedated the appearance of Christianity, a crucial turn was given the story between 70 and 100 A.D. by the authors of the New Testament Gospels. Pagels argues that while both Mark and Matthew downplay the role of the Romans and accentuate that of the Jewish authorities in their account of Jesus' arrest and persecution, Luke explicitly links Jewish leaders who were enemies of Jesus to the designs of an evil spirit. John, in turn, implicates "the Jews" in general in the Savior's crucifixion, thus laying the groundwork for Christian anti-Semitism. By the late 2nd Century, when the originally Jewish "Jesus movement" had become the increasingly Gentile religion of Christianity, the practice of demonization had become deeply rooted as a strategy for social and credal cohesion.
Pagels notes that from very early, and across cultures, human groups have divided the world between insiders and outsiders, using the dichotomies human/non-human and us/them. But, she adds, "What may be new in Western Christian tradition … is how the use of Satan to represent one's enemies lends to conflict a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation, in which 'we' are God's people and 'they' are God's enemies, and ours as well."
The Israelites had already established the idea of a "chosen people" in covenant with their Lord, and later Christians would universalize this concept to include all believers. The genius of Judaic monotheism had been to replace the many lesser gods, goddesses and demons of the ancient world with a single all-powerful deity. But Jehovah could not stand alone. As the Hebrew adversarial concept of "the Satan" evolved, through internal divisions within the Jewish world, into that of the arch-devil Satan, the scattered emonology of paganism was simplified. Though Pagels does not explicitly say so, the revolutionary advance to monotheism eventually brought with it the counterinvention of what might be called "monodiabolism," setting the stage for strife between the Creator and His powerful rebel angel.
Dissenting Jewish sects before Jesus—notably the Essenes—were already demonizing their enemies, but Pagels argues that the first followers of Jesus used the tactic to defend their precarious place in the larger Jewish community. Historians of religion cite earlier pagan and pre-Christian instances of demonic figures loosely comparable to Satan, but nowhere else, she suggests, has the demonic been as central as in the evolution of Christianity.
If Satan was a Jewish creation, his greatly enlarged role in the Christian church would become fundamental to its dramatic expansion across Europe and, in time, to other continents. The proselytizing thrust of Christendom was much indebted to the dark Tempter whose earthly power must be resisted and overcome.
By late in the 2nd entury, Christians were linking Satan to their new enemies—first, Roman magistrates and pagan worshippers of graven images, and then heretics who threatened the solidarity of nascent orthodoxy. The vigorous Gnostic and Manichean heresies that sprang up in the 3rd Century accorded the realm of darkness an existence independent from divine light. Unlike Satan as conceptualized by orthodox believers, the Gnostic Demiurge, or "creator god" (as distinct from an unknowable higher Being), had actually fashioned a fallen world at odds with the truly spiritual. Seeing in this challenge a limitation on God's omnipotence, early church fathers ruthlessly, if only gradually, suppressed it. The eventually victorious doctrine held that evil, baseless in itself, was merely an absence of good. As an estranged and lapsed angel, then, the devil was only negatively derived from an all-powerful God.
Because Pagels' account is confined to origins, she says nothing of representations of Satan in his later career and full regalia. His highly theatrical incarnations have fascinated visual artists from Hieronymus Bosch to Gustave Dore, great poets like Dante, Milton and Goethe, and many generations of ordinary believers. If, as Tolstoy remarked in favor of suffering and tragedy, "the story of all happy families is the same," then the cosmic struggle of Satan's rebellion and fall is surely the most interesting and original chapter in the family romance of Heaven. Little wonder that popular lore and artistic imagination have been inspired more by the tortures of the damned than by the bliss of those who sit on the Lord's right hand.
One wishes at times in these lucid and closely reasoned pages that Pagels had given us an awesome, full-fledged "prince of this world." But, in fairness, the most dramatic iconography of Satan flourished mainly after the period that concerns her. Moreover, she advises at the outset that she will not duplicate the work of other scholars who have focused on the literary, cultural, theological and psychological implications of the devil. Nonetheless, her repeated references to the social uses of demonization cry out for fuller recognition of its psychological aspects, not least because she begins by tracing the genesis of this book to her husband's death in a hiking accident and her subsequent experience of "living … with a vivid sense of someone who had died." In turn, this brought reflection on how many religions invoke forces from an invisible world to explain and cope with misfortune and loss.
Pagels remains always a lively writer who discerns the human implications of esoteric texts and scholarly disputes. And this book, like her earlier The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and Adam and Eve and the Serpent (1988), is modest in scale and stays close to materials she knows well. But if her clearly schematized stages in the social history of Satan—Jews against Jews, Christians against pagans and then against heretics—is generally sound, her argument for a progressive demonization of the Jews in the four Gospels seems tendentious and fails to register significant differences in evangelistic references to Satan.
Notwithstanding her larger concern with the dark side of the faith is of great interest. Although restricting herself to the first two centuries of the Christian Era, Pagels makes clear that the original division between Jesus' advocates and his enemies became in time a "supernatural drama" that has allowed believers for "some two thousand years … [to identify] their opponents, whether Jews, pagans, or heretics, with forces of evil, and so with Satan." Thus have apostasy, dissent and heresy been met, and holy war and mass conversion justified.
It requires little extrapolation to see that a similar pattern of demonized opposition infests the extremist rhetoric of our public discourse and moral vocabulary. Still given to absolutist, virtually Manichean dramas of Good versus Evil, contemporary American imaginations teem with paranoid visions and prophecies of apocalypse. Rational distinctions and disciplined passions are swallowed up in invective and counterinvective, while lip service paid to a bloodless political correctness only masks our obsession with divisive labels and categories. The intoxicating vision of the other as Antichrist is all too easily adapted to modern uses, both secular and religious.
While the author suggests a link between the early history of Christianity and our present world, her exclusion of cultural history and psychology finally limits her book. Nor does she have much to say for the loving, forgiving face of Christian doctrine. Noting briefly in her closing paragraphs that many Christians have sought reconciliation with rather than damnation of their opponents—one thinks immediately of Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail"—she concludes, "For the most part … Christians have taught—and acted upon—the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption."
Pagels' dramatic sense of the tangled social context of early Christianity will constitute her primary appeal to a nonscholarly public, and one does come away from this book with troubling questions about the moral legacy of Christianity. Yet, risking a bit more, Pagels might have delivered more.
After all, the two millennia of Christian history are soaked in the blod shed by crusades, religious wars, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms and holocaust. And Satan has had a hand in it all. But the author's cool, cogent account only tersely refers to "certain fault lines in Christian tradition that have allowed for the demonizing of others throughout Christian history." It's as though The Origin of Satan throws open a window on a vast ideological landscape, only to close it abruptly for the sake of a tighter, closer story.
This section contains 1,609 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)