Customer Reviews: The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics
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on November 18, 2002
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. The Christians saw themselves not as citizens of Rome, but of Heaven, and their rituals ran counter to those of the Pagans. Naturally, this was threatening to the pagan majority, and resulted in the wholesale slaughter of Christians who wouldn't cede to the authority of the Roman pantheon. Satan, of course, was identified with the pagans.
The last section of the book discusses the growing dissent within the early church itself, and the identification of Satan with heretics from within. For me persoanally this was the most engaging part of the book, as it was SO telling in terms of the evolution of the control paradigm so apparent in Western religion to this day. Reading the writings of Tertullian in particular, compared with the gnostic writers of the same time period, is incredibly enlightening!
In spite of the title, this book is in no way "dark." In fact, it shines light in so many dank dark corners of our history that it is truly a bright spot on my bookshelf and in my mind. This is a "Highly Recommend" book!
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on February 4, 2006
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.

Pagels offers a secular reason for deification of Jesus and the central role of Satan: "How could anyone claim a man betrayed by his own followers and brutally executed on charges of treason, not only was, but still is God's appointed Messiah, unless his capture and death were not a final defeat but only a preliminary skirmish in a cosmic conflict now enveloping the universe." There might be many ways, but she seems to be saying, create a refutation that tops accusations leveled at the time, and one so magnificent as to give hope and purpose to the death of Jesus. With such a response, Satan becomes a "narrative requirement" says Pagels, which won't win her any Christian friends.

Pagels ends with the predictably messy evolution of early Christianity, the Church, and Satan's utility when numerous Jesus writings were circulating (her forte), soon to be narrowed to four by the bishops. Credit Pagels for reviving the luminous Marcus Aurelius and Valentinus with his cerebral, internal approach to Christianity, professing that what one becomes depends upon what one loves, not as Tertullian, Irenaeus and the Essenes promoted as what one hates. Tertullian counseled against questions for it is "questions that make people heretics," like Valentinus. Of course Valentinus lost to the simpler approach of Tertullian, still largely in place, at least in America, despite the Reformation. A fun and enlightening book on the origin and development of Christianity.
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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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on August 13, 1999
Elaine Pagels is not only a respected researcher in the area of Gnosticism and Early Christian History, but she is also an excellent writer that conveys complex ideas with simplicity and eloquence. She has the ability, unlike many scholars, to explain history with a lively wit and style that helps to keep an average reader's attention while at the same time revealing scholarship and logical thought. This book explains the evolution of Satan as an idea from its beginnings in the Old Testament to the beliefs of Orthodox Christians of the early first millennia and those of the Gnostics. This is a must read for all who wish to learn about Christianity and the origins of one of its main precepts.
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on December 31, 2000
Pagels is, by far, one of the worlds best writers on early christian history. She presents, with no bias, a clear and consise picture of the usage of satan in the new testament. Though, probably not for those who are fundementally minded, it is by no means an attack on the faith( I am myself a devout Catholic). It purpose is to show how one Jewish sect( Christianity) demonized another Jewish sect (Rabbinic Judaism) which had ostacized them. This expoeses how a strictly religous argument( anti judasim) became racial( anti semitism) as the churh became more gentile. It also shows how, once the church came to power, it used these same techniques against the Pagans and Gnostics. Another good book on this subect is Who Killed Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan.
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on October 13, 1999
This is extremely good and informative. Pagels is not out to discuss the origin of the big bad spirit with horns, but the ways in which "religious" people have employed the idea of Satan to characterize their enemies or oppressors. One chapter is called "The Social History of Satan," and I almost think this would have been a better title for the whole book. Pagels also presents fascinating information on the many strains of thought in early Christianity; it made me want to read the recently (50 years ago) recovered "Gospel of Phillip" in particular.
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VINE VOICEon January 3, 1999
Overall, the book needed a subtitle.
I picked up the book expecting an overview about Satan in biblical history - his story and how he came to be where he is viewed today. Instead, I got a view of "satan" as encompassing demonization in the Bible. It was a pleasant surprise to find this though. The book does an excellent job of putting the writings of the bible into a context where the language is used in order to demonize enemies depending on when the particular piece of the bible was written. I now look at the bible when I'm reading some of the more darker passages with a new eye on what the author was trying to say in subtext as well as on the surface.
In addition, I received an overview in social history around the time of the bible books were written. The book is written fairly cleanly and kept me going through a long storm delay at the airport and some extended flights for Christmas. The bible is not all happiness and love - read the book and see if you learn something new.
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on March 5, 2004
In THE ORIGIN OF SATAN Elaine Pagels traces some of the earliest known incidents of religious groups demonizing their enemies back to Jewish apocalyptic sources and then shows how this idea was further developed by the Essenes and soon thereafter employed by the first Christian writers. The book is much more than a history of Satan. It is actually a story of the origins of Christianity told from the vantage point of how Satanic forces were described by different groups and succeeding generations of Christians.
In the beginning the enemies of the Christians are seen as other Jews such as the Pharisees. When the new movement fails to attract many Jewish converts, it instead starts to successfully recruit Gentiles. Now Satan is more likely to be seen at work orchestrating the Roman persecutions or instigating angry pagan mobs. Still later the enemy can be identified among groups of Christian heretics.
The author's strength and primary interest is the history of early Christianity. As usual her text is loaded with information on that subject. You may not agree with her conclusions but you will probably be impressed with the wealth of insights she gives to the reader on her favorite topic. Don't let the heavy-sounding title discourage you. Above all Elaine Pagels is an optimist and a message of hope can almost always be found in any of her books.
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on July 29, 1998
Ms. Pagels presents one of the few religious texts that displays a neutral look at the touchy subjects of religion and religious history. This book isn't neccissarily for the reader looking for an uplifting spiritual event; rather, it is for those truely interested in collecting facts and formulating their OWN ideas instead of being spoonfed by self-righteous religious fanatics. Excellent reading for those with an open mind.
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on January 5, 2004
Whether or not you have read other works by Elaine Pagels, you will find the book "The Origin of Satan" as a fascinating view into the time of the writings of the gospels. This is not a deep theological treatise and those familiar with her earlier books ("The Gnostic Gospels" for one) will find this book easy to read. It does not have that large a scope. Exploring the usage of the word "Satan" in the writings of new testament times, this book is really more about the Christian gospels than it is about the adversarial angel. The title is a bit misleading: the work is really about the origin of the use of the word "satan". There is a considerable amount of treatment of how Mark and each of the gospel writers used invective to refer to the other Jewish sectarian movements. And whether any of us can really pin down when a word came into usage or why, there is a clever and well articulated theory in this work. You get the sense that there is a moral behind all this, that the challenge in the church is not to survive persecution (as it was in the early days), but to stand on God's side without demonizing perceived opponents. For those who want as complete an understanding of the new testament writings as possible, this book will be a helpful teacher of one aspect of that writing. Just do not expect too much from this little study.
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