Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE ORIGIN OF SATAN by Elaine Pagels

THE ORIGIN OF SATAN

By Elaine Pagels

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-40140-7
Publisher: Random House

 An NBCC and National Book Awardwinning scholar of Gnosticism and early Christianity argues that the concept of Satan was central to the way apocalyptic Jews and the Christian Church saw--and treated--their enemies. When St. Paul declared that Christians were struggling with the powers of darkness and not with common flesh and blood, he was expressing an essentially cosmic attitude. Pagels (Religion/Princeton; The Gnostic Gospels, 1979, etc.) believes that this attitude led to a demonizing of human opponents and opened the door to a new kind of fanaticism and hatred. She argues that this dualistic cosmology originated with the Jewish Essene sect who pitted the ``sons of Light'' against the ``sons of Darkness.'' Pagels argues that the Gospels invoke this apocalyptic scenario against the Jews who opposed Jesus. As the Christian movement became increasingly Gentile, this demonizing came to be directed against pagan magistrates and, finally, dissident Christians. Fundamental to Pagels's argument is the thesis of many scholars that the Gospel accounts of Jesus' trial and execution, by seeming to place blame on the Jews rather than the Romans, actually reflect the situation of later decades when Christians were completely separated from Judaism and anxious not to provoke the Romans. Pagels sees the whole demonizing tendency as continuing down the centuries in anti-Semitism and in sectarian hatred generally. Her case is not entirely convincing. For instance, she seems to have forgotten that mass slaughter of enemies, e.g., the Canaanites, had already been advocated in the early Hebrew scriptures without any reference to Satan. Furthermore, her powerful quotations of Gnostic sources and the Pagan philosopher Celsus cause her to introduce theological questions that she fails to address in any depth, e.g., her assumption that orthodox Christianity was essentially dualistic and that the proscription of heresy was merely an issue of control. An attractive and scholarly, if not entirely satisfying, presentation of a stimulating thesis.