The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels

The Origin of Satan

My first reaction to The Origin of Satan is that while I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile book, it isn’t what I expected from the title. Rather than focusing on the origin of the concept of Satan, it’s more a history of the early Christians, including their tendency to demonize their enemies even more than most groups do, which sometimes involved using the concept of Satan when doing so.

The book is well-written and about as much a “page turner” as you can realistically expect from a work of religious history that’s on the borderline between the scholarly and the popular.

The concept of Satan was not literally invented by the Christians, but evidently what preceded the Christian version of it only vaguely resembled what it was eventually to become.

Prior to the founding of Christianity, the Jews had the concept of a “satan,” but they didn’t mean by that some specific leader of evil forces or overseer of Hell. It wasn’t someone’s name at all.

The word was used to describe any angel, messenger, assistant, etc. that God used to somehow hinder the plans and projects of people, to put obstacles in their present path. The Book of Job is an example of the use of a satan. God tests Job by sending a satan down to mess with his life in various ways.

A satan isn’t always even blocking people in bad ways. Sometimes a person is on a wrong path. In that case, when God sends a satan down to interfere, in effect the satan’s task is to put obstacles in the way of continued wrongdoing—quite the opposite of tempting someone into evil.

But as I say, the bulk of the book is not about Satan per se, but about the early Church’s practice of demonizing its opponents, whether it chose to use some sort of personified evil like what we now think of as Satan or not.

The author contends that the early Christians (and she also mentions other radical Jewish sects of the time, most notably the Essenes) took the natural human tendency to think in terms of “us” versus “them” to much greater and more fanatical extremes than earlier groups had.

Certainly throughout history people had encouraged loyalty to their group and willingness to fight for it by emphasizing how good, innocent, civilized and just altogether awesome their group was, and how opposite of all that the people they opposed were. The Jews’ very own doctrine of a “chosen people” is a glaring example of this.

But Christians, she says, were a lot more vicious about it. They were the ones who raised it all to a metaphysical level of pure good versus pure evil, where any people who opposed them were not just kind of bad, or mistaken, or misguided, or dangerous, or inferior, but were quite literally agents of a supernatural being who represented a sort of mirror image of God’s absolute goodness.

When it came to people who opposed whatever the dogma of the Church happened to be at any given time, to have mercy on them, acknowledge that they may be partly right, or even just tolerate them was to unjustifiably inhibit your opposition to Satan, i.e., to evil. If you were inclined to go easy on such folks, then you were the type who would coddle Satan himself.

While there are sections of the book dealing with conflicts between Christians and Romans (or pagans in general) and between doctrinaire Christians and heretic Christians, most of the emphasis is on the Christians’ demonizing of their fellow Jews who didn’t split off with them.

They were an easier target after all. After the Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion a few decades after Jesus’ life, it was pretty clear you didn’t want to mess with them. Not yet anyway.

So instead an internal theological dispute was raised to the level of a supernatural fight between good and evil, with the Jews’ refusal to become Christians explained in terms of their doing the bidding of Satan, now an evil being much different from the satans of centuries earlier. The Romans ended up largely absolved of the guilt of executing Jesus, on the (historically highly unlikely) grounds that really they were just going along with what the Jews wanted.

In some ways The Origin of Anti-Semitism would have been equally or more accurate a title than The Origin of Satan. The book is largely about the fury directed at Jews for not recognizing their own messiah.

It doesn’t then proceed to tell the history of all the bloodshed caused by that anti-Semitism, a tale depressingly familiar. Except for scattered mentions of later events, it pretty much sticks to the origin of that demonization.

No doubt there are many claims in the book about the early history of Christianity that are not universally agreed upon. I would think that those who dislike the book mostly are people who believe in one or more key religious doctrines that rest on historical claims inconsistent with the author’s account.

As a non-expert in the field, I find all she says quite plausible. She doesn’t come across as claiming certainty where such is unwarranted; she just gives the best account she can based on the limited evidence of the small amount of relevant writings from the period that survive. I suspect that where she’s wrong, she’s not off by a whole lot.

It’s a very hazy area though. I’ve read arguments that Jesus is not a historical figure at all. I wouldn’t say I found them persuasive, but I would say it is enough of an open question that it wouldn’t shock me if that were true. (Though a lot of that is a matter of semantics. How closely does the character in the New Testament have to have resembled some real person for it to count as being him?)

If the mere existence of Jesus is open to at least some reasonable doubt, then imagine how tentatively and humbly one needs to put forth claims about the specific words and deeds of Jesus and related folks of that time period.

But even if a lot of the particulars rest on a lot less historical evidence than one would ideally like to have, as I say in broad terms the story told here of the early Christians’ egregious demonization of all who didn’t go along with their often ludicrous dogma is convincing.

Convincing and important, since religious bigotry and us versus them thinking in general, and anti-Semitism in particular, are far from absent in the modern world. We are surrounded by people who believe that it is not only OK but obligatory to hate and kill those who aren’t followers of the one true religion, since in so doing they are siding with God against Satan.


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