Rebecca's Reviews > The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels
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's review
Jun 09, 2012

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bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in June, 2012

My senior year of college, I actually took a class with Professor Pagels on the history of early Christianity. We started with other break-away Jewish sects at the same time as the beginning of Christianity (such as the Essenes), continued through each gospel as they were written longer and longer after Jesus' death, and ended soon after the defeat of the Gnostic movement. It was a great class--Pagels is both brilliant and warm, and while she has some fairly sophisticated thoughts she wants to share, she does so in a way that is both interesting and easy to grasp.

This book is essentially a Cliff's Notes of that class.

Which would be great, except that isn't at all what the title or cover synopsis promised. There's almost nothing about Satan here at all, really. I think I'd been expecting a more detailed description of the early Hebrews' thoughts on hell and angelology, and how that morphed into the very detailed imagery that modern Christians have of Satan, his history, and his motivations.

What this 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. So there's a thread of Satan running through the book, but it really isn't the point. 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.

Which is interesting, but a little disjointed. In the class, we spent a substantial amount of time discussing Marcus Aurelius and his philosophy, the differences between the gospels of Mary, Thomas, Philip, and others, the Q document, and more. So to me, at least, her ten page diversions on each made some sense in context. But I'm not sure they would to someone coming to this cold. We were supposed to be talking about Satan--how did we meander over to a Stoic Roman emperor? Why are we discussing the details of Pilate's career? Most of the Nag Hammadi texts don't even mention Satan--why is there a whole chapter on them?

In the introduction, Pagels mentions that the bulk of the text originated as academic papers that were repurposed for a general audience. The repurposing works fine--on a page-by-page level, this is perfectly clear. However, I think where the seams show is the fact that the overarching theme appears to have been grafted on, possibly because the publisher thought the title was sexy. There are a bunch of interesting discussions in this book--but I can't help but feel that it's mostly shortened versions of some of Pagel's other books, trimmed down and crammed into one work, with a fragile thread failing to hold them all together.
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message 1: by Anne (new)

Anne Thank you for sharing. I actually was checking on here to see if Pagels did actually write about Satan, considering the last book I read by her, the Adam & Eve one, didn't have anything in it refering to the title. I was hoping to read up on what you mention you thought would be here too: early Hebrew thoughts on hell and angelology: if you have a text like that, I'd love to hear it recommended. Thats what I'm looking for & figured Pagels would be a good resource. Oh well.

Rebecca 'Fraid I can't help there--sorry. :(

Gordon I couldn't agree more--your review is "dead on."

Darren Anne, I was hoping for the same thing. The book was still fascinating, but maybe try The History of Hell by Turner or The Prince of Darkness by Russell. I haven't read either yet, but they're next on my shelf to try and satisfy that curiosity for what the title of this book hinted.

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