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
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