Review: “The Origin of Satan” by Elaine Pagels

originWhat I expected here was a book about the early development of the concept of Satan and Hell from the Jewish and early Christian perspectives. What I got was a long description of how early Christians broke up into different groups and saw each other as evil. While there was a running thread about how opposing groups blamed each other’s misguidance on demons, there really was not much on “the origin of Satan.”

Pagels sums up what I perceive as her thesis when she says that the concept of Satan is what began a “cultural legacy” of perceiving “social and political conflict in terms of the forces of good contending against the forces of evil in the world.” In other words, when a disagreement about a social or political issue arises, your side is the “good” side and your opponent is “evil.”

One reviewer on Goodreads, who calls herself simply “Rebecca,” reflects my thoughts perfectly:

What this [the book] actually turned out to be is a description of how the Christians rallied themselves again and again by uniting against an exterior enemy, whether that be fellow Jews at first, then pagans, and finally fellow Christians. She maps this Othering by using the occasional touchstone of who it is the writing in question says has been motivated by Satan…The real point is how different generations of Christians retold Christ’s life and teachings through the lens of their own experiences, and how that influenced both the way the four gospels were each written and also which gospels ended up being canonical and which became heretical.

I had some more problems while reading the book’s conclusion. Pagels makes some broad generalizations about the way people think today. She writes:

Those who participate in this comic drama [God vs. Satan] cannot lose. Those who die as martyrs win the victory even more gloriously and are assured that they will celebrate victory along with all of God’s people and the angels in heaven. Throughout the history of Christianity, this vision has inspired countless people to take a stand against insuperable odds in behalf of what they believe is right…This apocalyptic vision has taught even secular-minded people to interpret the history of Western culture as a moral history in which the forces of good contend against the forces of evil in the world. [Emphasis added]

I most definitely do not interpret the history of Western culture as a battle of good against evil. How absurd and small-minded. I see the history of Western culture as a battle for power and survival, and not much more.

On a side note, both Goodreads and Amazon list this book with the subtitle How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics. For some reason, this subtitle appears nowhere on the book – not on the front cover, and nowhere inside the book. It’s just as well; it’s quite a condemnatory subtitle, while the book itself certainly is not condemnatory.

Verdict:

I can’t recommend this to anyone. I’ll look elsewhere for a history of the character of Satan. However, if you’re intrigued, it looks like you can get a used hardcover copy on Amazon for $0.01.

Amazon | Goodreads

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