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The Origin of Satan
Elaine Pagels

The Origin of Satan
Elaine Pagels
Allen Lane
London 1996

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Although academic in its focus and detail, this is a readable and compelling work charting the evolution of our conceptions of evil against a changing backdrop of early Christian history. But this isn’t a theological so much as a social history. Pagels sifts through the religious factionalism of first century Palestine and brings together a provocative thesis about the moral evolution of the devil as the necessary condition for Christianity’s growth and dissemination, vividly relating how, originally, the satan of the Hebrew Bible stood as an agent of God, testing the faithful through obstruction and opposition. Pagel’s main focus is on the New Testament Gospels which to her mind heralded a decisive shift. Pagels is never more dispassionate and scholarly than here, bringing a chilly rational scrutiny to a subject steeped in controversy, yet ignoring the cries of consternation echiong within.

The thesis, though, is a powerful one, and cogently put: the figure of Satan, hitherto morally neutral, is appropriated into the framework of the Gospels as ‘justification’ of Christs’s life and the limitedness, even failure, of the Christian movement within His lifetime. Christ’s life would not be meaningful, Pagels argues, without a fundamental revision of the monotheism of before, a split cosmology dramatising the life and teachings of Christ in terms of a universal struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And this is where Satan, as a newly characterised foe – the Prince of Darkness – takes his cue, emerging from the woodwork in a conceptual guise more nearly resembling the one we know today. But… with one essential difference: crucially important to the purpose of this book is the idea of Satan’s intimacy and the identity of evil in the first century as one denoting conflict within the Christian tradition. The figure of Satan emerged not as an outsider or alien like the popular figure of ‘Lucifer’ conflated by Milton, but as an enemy within, a characterisation which lent itself entirely to the demonisation within the Christian movement of dissidents or factions. Whether it was the Jewish dissidents of the first century or the heretics of later times, all were identified in their ‘wrongfulness’ as allies or emissaries of Satan himself.

Pagels doesn’t balk from a confrontation of this tendency, as much instinctively human as historically Christian, to demonise opponents, to conceive of an ‘us’ and ‘them’. She addresses the troubling irony of New Testament Christianity that such human conflict is apparently the basis in the Gospels for Christ’s teachings of love and compassion.

Where Pagels’ work is at its most effective and rewarding is in bringing to the subject a deeper human desire for a resolution of this fundamental problem of reconciliation than mere academic theology can offer. Stimulating and provocative, this book is an eminently humanitarian attempt to understand the identity of evil and assimilate it into a yet deeper understanding of our historic identity and ultimately our origin. It’s recommended to anyone with an interest in these basic human issues.

Reviewed by Francesco Spagnolo


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