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The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics Paperback – April 30, 1996

3.9 out of 5 stars 164 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

. . . ground-breaking . . . Many times in the course of reading her explications I found myself saying, "Of course, why hasn't someone said this before?" By showing how the sectarian demonization of the "intimate enemies"--Jews and heretics--shaped early Christianity, the book helps us to understand the power of irrational forces that still need to be confronted in contemporary society. -- S. David Sperling, professor of Bible, Hebrew Union College --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Pagels, whose Gnostic Gospels (LJ 1/15/79) was a best seller and a major award winner, here examines the New Testament tendency to associate the Devil with Jews resistant to the teachings of Christianity.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 214 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (April 30, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679731180
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679731184
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (164 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #266,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Elaine Pagels is an exceptional author and skilled interpreter of Christian history. The "Origin of Satan" is an excellent book for laypeople trying to understand the evolution of one piece of the Christian paradigm, namely the cosmic battle between good and evil, and the vilification of the Jews in the gospels.
The book is organized in three principal sections. The first part dissects the four gospels in the order they were written, and delineates the relationships between the authors, their social context, and their thinking with regard to Satan and all things/people evil. Among the most helpful recognitions in this part of the book is that as the gospels evolved, Pilate and the Romans grew more and more "innocent" (the Christians were trying to make a distinction between themselves and the troublesome dissidents of Palestine), and the Jews grew more and more "responsible" for Jesus' crucifixion, thus "under the influence of Satan." Much of this awareness is found in the recognition that Jews in the Roman Empire were torn between the social elite who were for the most part the priesthood and the wealthy, and the poor fundamentalists who saw the privileges of the empire in opposition to the covenants with God.
The second section of the book describes the growing rift between the pagans of the Roman empire and the growing Christian sect. What is most helpful in this section is comparing the writings of such pagan minds as Celsus and Marcus Arelius with the early writings of Justin, Origen and others. In the Roman Empire, there was no greater virtue than that of "citizenship" in the empire, and the strength of the empire was assured by performing the ritual obligations to the Gods.
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Format: Paperback
This a book about the early Christian movement. Contrary to the Hebrew Bible, writes Pagles, where "a satan" is an agent of God, sent to obstruct foolish human actions, Christianity follows the Essenes by expanding autonomy of "Satan" as the king of Evil. As Essenes broke from mainstream Judaism their view raised morality to polarizing levels of cosmic conflict between good and evil, God and Satan. Over time this trend continued in polemic terms, strengthening group solidarity. According to Pagles this type of vilification is unique in the ancient world. Ultimately to Pagels, Satan is a tool for, and invention of politics, drawing lines simple and stark. "We" are on the side of God, dissenters are agents of Satan to be disposed. Handing Rome (notably Pilate) a pass, the Christian movement eventually turns the Jews into Satan's allies who do not follow the new movement.

To Rome, Christianity was a radical threat, notes Pagels. Not because it was different from the State religion (more interested in taxes), but because Christianity demanded discarding old ways. For Rome their religion was synonymous with tradition, community, Pax Romana and peace in the Empire. While Jews associated Judaism to a certain people, the Christian movement encouraged adherents to abandon ancestral customs and connections. No doubt one of Christianity's appeal for some, it also accelerated individualization (see Marcel Gauchet) as each must choose between the two for themselves. Pagels notes Rome also had a sense of an "almighty," leading the pagan apologist, Celsus, to write it was blasphemy for Christians to invent a power (Satan) that could constrain an infinite God.
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Format: Paperback
This book is a historical study of early Christians and their relations with opposing groups. Pagel starts with a detailed interpretation of the Gospel according to Mark as a historical document, juxtaposed with a description of the rebellion that was raging amongst the Jews in Palestine at the time the account was written. She then goes on to some Old Testament interpretations of the word and concept of Satan. Following this, she takes up the remaining gospels in turn, interpreting their historical content in the political context of the times when they were written. She also considers lesser known Christian religious writings, such as the Gnostic scriptures.
Reading this book made me a lot more familiar with some of the political issues that were of concern to early Christians, and how these issues may have been reflected in the writing of the Gospels. But I was a little disappointed in the book because I felt that most of the focus was on general Christian history and politics and not on the central questions posed on the back cover concerning the origin of Satan. It seemed that the idea of using the question of the invention of Satan as the central theme of the book was almost pasted onto individual articles as an afterthought. In reading each chapter, it often felt like the chapter was meant to be a self-standing entity, and details concerning the conception of Satan were added simply to glue the book together. Many times, Pagel's comments touched on how the early Christians related to opposition, and how they might even demonize opposing groups, but how this led to the invention of the concept of Satan is still unclear to me after reading this book.
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