Elaine Pagels | Critical Review by Norman Cohn

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Elaine Pagels.
This section contains 3,253 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Norman Cohn

SOURCE: "Le Diable au Coeur," in The New York Review, Vol. XLII, No. 14, September 21, 1995, pp. 18-20.

In the review below, Cohn calls The Origin of Satan an important, original, and adventurous work.

Whereas in the nineteenth century Satan seldom attracted the attention of serious historians—Gustave Roskoff's two-volume Geschichte des Teufels (1869) stands almost alone—of late he has done so repeatedly, and to excellent effect. The collection of essays published in 1948 under the auspices of the French Carmelites, and entitled simply Satan, heralded what became in the 1970s and 1980s a flood of scholarly studies. The five-hundred-page Teufelsglaube by Herbert Haag and others (1974), Jeffrey Russell's trilogy, The Devil, Satan, Lucifer (1977–1984), Henry Ansgar Kelly's The Devil at Baptism, Bernard Teyssèdre's Naissance du Diable and Le Diable et l'Enfer (all 1985), Neil Forsyth's The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (1987)—all these make up a large contribution to our knowledge and (more importantly) to our understanding. So is there anything left to say? Indeed there is—and Elaine Pagels has made a commendable attempt at saying it.

Hitherto studies of Satan have concentrated on the history of the idea (or concept, or symbol, or myth, or whatever), rather than on its function in society. To learn about that one had to turn to works of a different kind—for instance, to studies of the great European witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notably Robert Muchembled's Culture populaire et culture des élites (1978) and Christina Larner's Enemies of God: The Witchhunt in Scotland (1981). There one could learn how certain human beings could come to be perceived as servants of the Devil. In its approach Pagels's book belongs with such works, rather than with histories of demonology.

Pagels calls her book [The Origin of Satan] "a social history of Satan." To produce such a history would be beyond the capacities of any one person, however gifted, and what one finds here is in fact a more modest work of scholarship: an account of how, in the first three centuries CE, Christians defamed rival or hostile groups by labeling them servants or allies or worshipers of Satan.

For this purpose the earliest Christian sources are the four canonical gospels. It is true that we have no idea who wrote them (except that it was certainly not the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to whom they are ascribed). It is also true that they were granted canonical status only around 200 CE. Nevertheless, as guides to the mentality of at least some early Christian communities these documents are reliable. For all the differences between them, they embody a characteristic world view, and one which has remained potent down to the present day.

As Pagels sees it, a vision of the world as a battleground where the forces of good contend with the forces of evil is integral to all the canonical gospels. All four deal with conflicts between Jesus' followers and groups hostile to them—and in all four those conflicts are interpreted as manifestations of a cosmic struggle between God's spirit and the power of Satan.

Pagels accepts unquestioningly the conventional dating of the gospels. She takes it for granted that all these writings were composed in the wake of the catastrophic Jewish rising against Roman rule in Palestine, 66-70 CE, and builds the first part of her argument around that rather questionable assumption. "We cannot fully understand the New Testament gospels," she writes, "until we recognize that they are, in this sense, wartime literature." Not that they are anti-Roman propaganda. After all, Jesus' followers had taken no part in the war—how could they have done so, since they were convinced that they were living during the last days, when God was about to shatter and transform the existing world? For them, the war against Rome was incidental to the infinitely greater war between God and Satan.

That greater war had moved into its final stage with the appearance of Jesus, whose life and death could be understood in no other terms. Satan had striven to frustrate God's plan by destroying Jesus—but Jesus had struck back, defeating Satan at every turn; and his crucifixion, which superficially seemed to signal the victory of the forces of evil, in reality heralded their ultimate annihilation. In this way the gospels strove to show how a seemingly unsuccessful prophet, who had been betrayed by one of his own fllowers and brutally executed by the Romans, had been, and still was, God's appointed Messiah.

In combating Jesus, Satan had human allies, who were themselves the embodiment of the transcendent forces of evil—and these monstrous beings were above all Jews. In reality, Jesus' chief enemies seem to have been the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his soldiers, who, after all, in that same century arrested and crucified thousands of Jews charged with sedition. But Jesus also had enemies among his fellow Jews, especially the Jerusalem priests, and the gospel writers concentrate on them.

Pagels comments, "Had Jesus' followers identified themselves with the majority of Jews rather than with a particular minority, they might have told his story differently—and with considerably more historical plausibility." They could, she suggests, have presented him, in traditional patriotic style, as a Jewish holy man martyred by a foreign oppressor. But that was not to be: in the gospels the ultimate blame for Jesus' death is placed squarely on his Jewish enemies, and it is also made plain that in engineering that death the Jews were consciously serving Satan. Indeed, the link between Satan and the Jews was even closer than that: Mark and Matthew imply, and Luke states explicitly, that in Judas Iscariot Satan returned in person to betray Jesus and cause his arrest and execution. Pagels even suggests that it was because Jesus himself was persuaded of the Satanic nature of the forces arrayed against him that he organized a leadership group of his own—the twelve disciples—as potential leaders of the original twelve tribes of Israel. In giving these men "power to cast out demons," he was declaring war on the Satanic host, including its Jewish wing.

Pagels tries to relate all four gospels to the situations in which she believes them to have been composed, and she gives particular attention to what each gospel in turn has to say about Jews. In her opinion the first gospel, Mark, was probably written in the last year of the war, which was some thirty years after Jesus' death. Even at that tragic moment Mark can insist that Jesus' followers had no quarrel with the Romans, only with the Jewish leaders—the Sanhedrin (council of elders), the Jerusalem priests and scribes. Clearly intent on allaying Roman suspicions, he strives to show that neither Jesus himself nor his followers ever dreamed of undermining Roman order. Matthew and Luke, who wrote some ten to twenty years after Mark, carry this argument further: now Pilate himself is favorably portrayed. This is a large distortion of the facts, for other historical and political sources, both Jewish and Roman, agree in showing Pilate to have been a particularly brutal governor.

In Matthew and Luke the Jewish enemy is also redefined. The Roman victory, with the destruction of the Temple, had deprived the high-priestly dynasty and its aristocratic allies in the Sanhedrin of all power. Leadership of the Jewish community in Judea, and eventually of Jewish communities throughout the world, had passed to a body of teachers and rabbis, most of them Pharisees. These were the people with whom Matthew found himself in competition; for they aimed to set the Torah at the center of Jewish life, as a replacement for the destroyed Temple. It was their intention that a practical interpretation of Jewish law should preserve Jewish groups everywhere as a separate and holy people—which is indeed what happened. Matthew was bound to see this interpretation as a rival to his teachings about Jesus. He responded by presenting the Pharisees of Jesus' time, half a century earlier, as Jesus' main antagonists. Now it is they who are Satan's allies. If Satan tries to seduce Jesus by offering him "all the kingdoms of this world," that means that political success and power are themselves Satanic—and the Pharisees, under Roman patronage, were enjoying political success and power.

Spiritual warfare between God and Satan has a still more important place in the only gospel of Gentile origin, John, which was probably composed around 100 CE. According to John, Jesus sent out seventy apostles to preach the coming of the kingdom and to cast out demons (i.e., to heal the sick, especially the mentally sick). They returned triumphant, claiming that even the demons were subject to them in Jesus' name. This was enough to convince Jesus that the final defeat of Satan was imminent: "I saw Satan fall like lighting from heaven. Behold, I have given you power to tread on snakes and scorpions, upon every power of the enemy."

Pagels argues that, in the gospel of John, Satan is shown to have been incarnate first in the Jewish authorities who organized opposition to Jesus, and finally in all Jews—the overwhelming majority who refused to become Jesus' followers. Jesus is portrayed as fully aware of this, and aware also of what it would lead to. When Jews who had previously believed in him deserted him, he identified them as Satan's brood: "You are of your father, the devil; and you want to accomplish your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning." The implication is obvious: it was because they were the spiritual children of the murderer Satan that the Jews killed Jesus.

By the end of the first century CE the Christian movement had become largely Gentile—and now Gentiles began to see Satan at work also among other Gentiles. It was natural that they should see him at work in the Roman authorities, who really did sporadically persecute, torture, and kill Christians—but Christians did not stop there: pagans in general were held to be serving Satan. This was a natural consequence of the Christian view of the pagan gods and goddesses. Such radiant deities as Apollo and Venus were perceived as demons, vessels of Satanic power; so their worshipers, whether consciously or not, were in fact willfully adoring the great supernatural opponent of Jesus.

From the Christian point of view there were in fact only two kinds of people—those belonging to the kingdom of God, and those who were still subjects of Satan. For Christians, the entire universe was a battleground where the struggle between God and Satan was being fought out. Christian martyrs never doubted that by their agony and death they were hastening God's victory in that battle. And this was held to be supremely true of the crucifixion of Jesus himself. For Origen, in the third century CE, it was still quite natural to write that Jesus died "to destroy a great daimon—in fact, the ruler of daimones, who held in subjection the souls of humanity."

However, the Christian movement-itself was anything but monolithic. In its early days, the apostle Paul already found himself confronted with rival teachers—and he dealt with them by calling them servants of Satan. It was the beginning of a tradition: more damnable even than hostile pagans were Christians with whom one disagreed. As the Christian movement turned into an institutional church, with bishops exercising authority over their congregations, it acquired an orthodoxy. When, around 180 CE, Irenaeus, bishop of the congregation of Lyons, wrote his very influential work Against Heresies, he had no hesitation in labeling all dissidents servants of Satan. These people, he claimed, used the name of Christ as a lure; in reality they taught Satanic doctrine, "infecting the hearers with the bitter and malignant poison of the serpent, the great instigator of apostasy."

In describing what these dissidents really believed, Pagels, the author of that celebrated work The Gnostic Gospels, speaks with special authority. They did not, of course, think of themselves as servants of Satan but of the only true God. And some went further: it is good to be reminded that in the Gnostic Testimony of Truth, which probably dates from the second century CE, the God of the Hebrew Bible is presented as a demon, and his worshipers—i.e., "orthodox" Christians—as demon-worshipers.

Such, in brief, is Pagels's argument. How valid is it? The book has many shortcomings, some small, some not so small. The ones that caught my attention all belong to the earlier part of her book and concern her treatment of relations among Jews and between Jews and Christians.

Pagels's comments on the historical background of the Hebrew Bible take little account of recent scholarship. It is not the case that either the Babylonians or the Persians put pressure on the Jews to assimilate to their ways—they couldn't have cared less. Nor is it now thought that Antiochus Epiphanes rededicated the Temple to "the Greek god Olympian Zeus"; the image he installed was of the god whom he himself worshiped, the Syrian Baal Shamen. These are minor points that do not affect the central argument. More surprising is the absence of any reference to the possibility (which is beginning to look like a probability) that down to the sixth century BCE the normal, traditional religion of the Israelites was polytheistic.

Pagels's attempt to trace the figure of Satan back to the Hebrew Bible is unconvincing. In fact, the "satan" who appears from time to time in the Hebrew Bible is an angel of good standing at the heavenly court. Counselor and emissary of God, he owes his title of "satan" (meaning "adversary" or "accuser") solely to the fact that on occasion, at God's bidding, he takes on the role of prosecuting counsel against this or that human being (most famously against Job). Pagels is well aware of this, but nevertheless claims that "when Israelite writers excoriated their fellow Jews in mythological terms … most often they identified [them] with an exalted, if treacherous, member of the divine court whom they called the satan." The solitary quotation which she cites from the visions of Zechariah hardly suffices to support so large a claim.

In my view the antecedents of the being who is called by the proper name Satan in the New Testament and in subsequent Christian teachings do not lie in the Hebrew Bible at all. Where do they lie? Pagels points out that relevant material is to be found in those strange Jewish works of the second century BC, the Book of the Watchers and the Book of Jubilees, and that is true enough. In these works we do indeed meet the fallen angels—former members of the heavenly court who, in one way or another, rebelled against God, came down (or were thrown down) to earth, and there seduced innumerable human beings into sin. The leader of these fallen angels could be regarded as a Jewish prototype of Satan.

Yet he is a very imperfect prototype. If in the Book of Jubilees he and some of his followers have God's permission to go on roaming the earth and doing harm, in the Book of the Watchers he is quite impotent—buried under-ground, pending the Last Judgment, when he and his followers will be still more grievously punished by being cast into the pit of fire, there to burn forever and ever. There is no denying that the myth of the fallen angels has proved a very enduring one—where would Paradise Lost be without it?—but the true origin of Satan, as the mighty and ever-active opponent of God, can hardly be found there.

This conclusion has implications for Pagels's book. If the origins of Satan are not after all to be found in the leader of the fallen angels, one of its central themes collapses: Satan ceases to be an "intimate enemy." An "intimate enemy" Pagels defines as "one's trusted colleague, close associate, brother … who turns unexpectedly jealous and hostile." I'm not sure whether it is invariably true even of first-century Jews and Christians that Satan is perceived not as a hostile foreign power, as Pagels writes, but as "the source and representation of conflict within the community," i.e., an "intimate enemy." What of the Book of Revelation, where the dragon-Devil who persecutes the Church is doubtless Rome? Certainly the concept of the "intimate enemy" throws little light on the subsequent history of demonization. If Christians have at various times cast near-neighbors—Jews, religious dissidents, "witches"—as servants of Satan, they have done exactly the same to many foreign peoples—the Muslims whom they fought, the pagan peoples whom they colonized throughout the world.

There are other objections to the concept of the "intimate enemy." Satan has always performed a vast number of quite humble, one might say domestic; functions. At various times he has been accused of tempting Christians to fornication, gluttony, vanity, using cosmetics, dressing luxuriously, going to the theater, gambling, avarice, quarreling, spiritual sloth, and much, much more. This side of the Devil's nature, too, can be traced back to early Christianity—and the notion of an "intimate enemy" does nothing to explain it.

Pagels comes near to what I believe to be the true origin of Satan when she turns to the Essenes, some of whom made up the Qûmran community, otherwise known as the Dead Sea Sect. Of them she writes:

… the Essenes go much further [than the Book of the Watchers] and place at the center of their religious understanding the cosmic war between God and his allies, both angelic and human, against Satan, or Beliar, along with his demonic and human allies. The Essenes place themselves at the very center of this battle between heaven and hell…. They invoke Satan—or Beliar—to characterize the irreconcilable opposition between themselves and the "sons of darkness" in the war taking place simultaneously in heaven and on earth. They expect that soon God will come in power, with his holy angels, and finally overthrow the forces of evil and inaugurate the Kingdom of God.

Here, surely, lies the true Jewish origin of the Satan with whom Pagels is concerned. But that said, one must hasten to add that his Jewish origin is not, in all probability, his true origin. On the grounds that others have already "attempted to investigate cross-cultural parallels," and that her own interest is in the social implication of the figure of Satan, Pagels eschews any mention of Zoroastrianism. But it is not a question of mere parallels. Would the members of the Qumran community, or the early Christian movement, ever have imagined themselves as involved in a cosmic struggle between God and Devil—a struggle just nearing its triumphant world-transforming conclusion—if they had not come under strong Zoroastrian influence? For just such a struggle has always been central to the Zoroastrian world view—and current research is showing more and more clearly how close Zoroastrian-Jewish relations were at the relevant time. What has long been suspected is now almost certain: that Satan originated as a Judaized version of the Zoroastrian spirit of evil, Ahriman. In a book entitled The Origins of Satan one might reasonably expect to find more awareness of that research.

These are serious reservations. Despite them, it seems to me that Pagels has achieved something important. She has demonstrated, more fully and convincingly than has been done before, how ancient the demonizing tradition in Christianity is. In particular, she has demonstrated how the authors of the canonical gospels helped—unintentionally and unwittingly, to be sure—to create the stereo-type of the demonic Jew. Thoughtful, scholarly works that are also original and adventurous are not common. The Origin of Satan is such a work, and we should be correspondingly grateful.

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