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Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (Cornell Paperbacks) Paperback – September 2, 1987
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"Russell is not only a conscientious historian, anxious to examine in texts, myths, legends, art and literature the persistence and transformation of a particular idea. He is also an introspective essayist who acknowledges his own continuing struggle to understand the nature and source of evil."―Robert Coles, New York Times Book Review
"This is a serious work by a first-rate medievalist who has turned his eyes to antiquity in order to elucidate the sources of man's experience of the evil one. The result is scholarly, readable, and comprehensive. . . . Russell's notations are copious and impressive, attesting to the vast amount of research that has gone into this study. The text is richly illustrated with some fifty well-chosen plates. . . . An exceptionally lucid study and a major contribution to the field."―Review of Books and Religion
"All readers . . . will be enriched and stimulated by this honestly presented biography of the Evil One. The Devil, in religious myth, personal vision, and mystical reality, offers invaluable material for reflection and meditation."―Studia Mystica
"This fascinating story of 'the Devil' explores the concept and personification of evil (defined as 'the infliction of pain on sentient beings') from its ancient beginnings into New Testament times."―Seventeenth Century News
This lively and learned book traces the history of the concept of evil from its beginnings in ancient times to the period of the New Testament. A remarkable work of synthesis, it draws upon a vast number of sources in addressing a major historical and philosophical problem over a broad span of time and in a number of diverse cultures, East and West. Jeffrey Burton Russell probes the roots of the idea of evil, treats the development of the idea in the Ancient Near East, and then examines the concept of the Devil as it was formed in late Judaism and early Christianity. Generously illustrated with fifty black-and-white photographs, this book will appeal to a wide range of readers, from specialists in religion, theology, sociology, history, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy to anyone with an interest in the demonic, the supernatural, and the question of good and evil.
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Top Customer Reviews
This was (to me) the most fascinating section, as it is an area I knew a little more about already. The author uses many ancient apocryphal and extra-biblical writings to show the developing mindset that seems to have eventually led to the more modern view of evil and the Devil that is believed today.
It is so hard to clear out the traditional thoughts that you have had all your life, and that made this section a bit harder, though surprisingly revealing too. If you strip away all that you know of the Devil, and simply use the few mentions in the Bible, you will find that the information is quite lacking from the whole story we hear now. Then you start to see how Hellenistic thought started coming in and influencing the text, to build the whole story we mostly now believe in the modern church.
The influence of Dante and Milton adds to the story line, and the details grow and grow to a story that is nowhere to be found in biblical text. Even the non-canonical writings add to the story, filling in many of the gaps that the Bible has in this story. How much emphasis should we put on those extra bits and pieces? Is the "Devil" a member of the heavenly council of God, doing the evil? Is he a fallen angel, and if so, did he fall for pride against God as some tell us, or was it for lust as the book of Enoch displays? Was his fall before the fall of Adam, or just prior to the flood? These and so many more topics are examined in detail, making this a fascinating, and sometimes mind boggling look at the topic.
In the end, I do not know if what I have learned is more for the better or the worse on this topic. There is much more to it that I had originally thought, and now in some ways I am a bit more confused on where I stand on certain aspects. All in all though, a good read that looks at many questions, many histories, gives many answers, and in the end just makes me wonder even more. Fortunately, there are more volumes in this series that might provide further answers; so I will refrain from making any decisions on where I stand on this whole topic.
What did I expect? A good historical and anthropological study about the role of the devil or devils in human history up to the beginnings of Christianity. In particular, I was interested in demonic legends in first millennium BCE Israel. What did I get? I guess the best way to put it is that, had the subtitle should have been "Jeffrey Russell's Perceptions of Evil..." I would have been less surprised.
The reader gets an early warning when, in the preface, Russell starts out with "This is a work of history, not of theology" and then immediately begins discussing theological and metaphysical issues. Russell's style is reminiscent of a Victorian churchman/academic, rambling from one subject to another in mid-paragraph, regularly making portentous statements that seem to have no basis in fact. In fact, one of his most unusual quirks is to state a premise, actually indicate that there is either no or conflicting evidence for it, and then go on to use it for further logical gyrations. This is an argument style better suited to politicians than academics.
Gradually it becomes clear that Russell has at least one hidden agenda. He is intent on making a case for the dualistic nature of God. This causes him to flit from one isolated fact to another, skipping over any material in between that it in conflict with this theory. The worst examples of this are in the section entitled "Hebrew Personifications of Evil." As most people know, outside of the Job and the unfortunate snake, the Old Testament makes very little mention of the demonic. There were some beliefs, but they are discussed more in sacred materials external to the Bible, dating from the Babylonian Exile onward. Russell misses that material, pays attention to Job, and then focuses entirely on several books of the Apocrypha as evidence of Hebrew dualism. In the process he skips an entire millennia or so of Jewish thinking. This is not exactly history.
I don't know quite what to make of an academic historical text which, in the end, turns out to have been a soapbox for a writer's own orations on the nature and place of evil (with a capital E). But I do know that I don't like it one bit. If the volume have been clearly labeled as philosophy or theology, I would have gone on to find something else, and this problem would not have arisen.
The book attempts to cover ancient, classical, Hebrew and early Christian civilization. As it is, regardless of Russell's qualifications as a medievalist, he seems a bit out of his depth in the fields of ancient and biblical history. There is an extensive bibliography, of which I know many of the citations. Surprisingly, it appears that Russell's sources are much less biased than he is himself. If you must buy this book, I suggest you use it to key into other authors and thinkers rather than as a conclusive resource on it's own.