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The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics

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From the religious historian whose The Gnostic Gospels won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award comes a dramatic interpretation of Satan and his role on the Christian tradition. With magisterial learning and the elan of a born storyteller, Pagels turns Satan's story into an audacious exploration of Christianity's shadow side, in which the gospel of love gives way to irrational hatreds that continue to haunt Christians and non-Christians alike.

240 pages, Paperback

First published January 28, 1995

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About the author

Elaine Pagels

33 books525 followers
Elaine Pagels is a preeminent figure in the theological community whose scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, she was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim & MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years.
As a young researcher at Barnard College, she changed forever the historical landscape of the Christian religion by exploding the myth of the early Christian Church as a unified movement. Her findings were published in the bestselling book, The Gnostic Gospels, an analysis of 52 early Christian manuscripts that were unearthed in Egypt. Known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library, the manuscripts show the pluralistic nature of the early church & the role of women in the developing movement. As the early church moved toward becoming an orthodox body with a canon, rites & clergy, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were suppressed & deemed heretical. The Gnostic Gospels won both the Nat'l Book Critic’s Circle Award & the Nat'l Book Award & was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of the 20th Century.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 304 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
March 7, 2021
The Evil Among Us

The obvious but largely unrecognised advantage of writing is that it makes language visible. The not so obvious consequence of visibility is that we can see how what we mean by what we say evolves. And, least obvious of all, we can uncover our often hidden intentions, what isn’t visible at all, in what we say. So I don’t think it’s too far fetched to suggest that historians like Pagels are really conducting cultural psychotherapy.

What Pagels reveals on her psycho-linguistic couch is rather startling. An idea like Satan, which lest we forget is an idea not a thing, much less a person, doesn’t get created randomly as a kind of spontaneous revelation. Such ideas are created, adopted, and spread with intent. Broadly that intent is political, that is, to attack or defend some group, person, or other idea.

Christianity had a hard time of it in its early days. Attacked by the religionists of empire as pagan, and by its Hebrew confreres as heresy, the new religion had a number of pressing crises of identity. It claimed affinity with Judaism as its spiritual successor; yet it also had to distance itself from the seditious Jews of Palestine who were continuously challenging Roman rule. On the other hand, rocking the boat of established cults by trashing them too brutally wouldn’t have made terribly good press.

In such circumstances, accentuating the positive, the doctrines of love, peace and universal salvation (whatever they took those to mean, and it’s not clear what they did mean), is not the route to PR success. Negative messaging, establishing what Christianity was not, had to have been been the central part of any campaign to attract new members while keeping the authorities off one’s back. So Christianity is not rebellious, provincial Judaism bent on independence. Christianity is not a threat to the established cult of emperor worship. Christianity in fact claims nothing about this world as its concern: Render unto Caesar... etc.

And the Christian problem wasn’t only about external politics. The Christian Scriptures themselves testify to the variety of disagreements prevalent among ‘believers’ - from so-called Judaizers who preferred to view themselves as within the established Hebrew fold, to the mystically-minded Gnostics who saw the Judaic YHWH as an evil demigod to be overcome not worshipped. And after all, there were four approved gospel stories (as well as several others which were widespread), each with markedly different views about important religious events and their meaning.

In other words, Christianity began its life by prolifically generating its own heresies within and against itself. The new religion was open to so many interpretive possibilities that the only viable strategy for creating internal unity was more negative propaganda. Christians are not those who attend synagogue or observe Judaic ritual. Christians are not those who refuse to accept non-Jews into their congregations. Christians are not those who disrupt these congregations with doctrinal questions.

So it was clear to the early Christians that theirs was not a time to be pulling rhetorical punches. They were engaged in an intense political battle. And they did what is usual in any such conflict: they lied about, slandered, vilified, and otherwise bad-mouthed their opponents. One of the most effective ways to do this in a relatively uneducated society was through the creation of symbols which were easy to communicate and powerful in their impact. Pagels makes a very strong case that the symbol of Satan is among the most important exports of early Christianity, intended specifically to create a unified, distinct Christian community.

The gospel may emphasise Christian love. But subsequent Christian rhetoric is primarily about Christian hatred. Pagels is clear in her conclusions. Christianity was indeed a new form of religion but not for the reasons it advertised: “What may be new in Western Christian tradition... is how the use of Satan to represent one’s enemies lends to conflict a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation, in which ‘we’ are God’s people and ‘they’ are God's enemies, and ours as well.” The world has not been the same since.

Pagels diplomatically calls this paradox in primitive Christianity its ‘fault line.’ She credibly contends that these “fault lines in Christian tradition... have allowed for the demonizing of others throughout Christian history—fault lines that go back nearly two thousand years to the origins of the Christian movement.” She convincingly traces these back to each of the gospels as well as other early writings. Thus they are not later accretions but embedded in the original Christian message.

This is not good news, of course, for those Christian apologists who would like to portray their religion as inherently and uniquely one of friendly regard for one’s fellow man. On the contrary, Pagels demonstrates in her close analysis of Christian Scripture itself that the frequent violent manifestations of Christian zeal from 1st and 2nd century anti-Semitism, through the Crusades of the Middle Ages, to the Islamaphobia of the present day are the consequences of a powerful ideology built upon the idea of Satan, Evil personified.

Postscript 31Jan19: A still useful meme for the faithful: https://www.mediapost.com/publication...
Profile Image for Rebecca.
1,214 reviews107 followers
June 9, 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.
Profile Image for [Name Redacted].
785 reviews390 followers
May 5, 2021
Too many assumptions, too much guesswork, too many leaps of faith, too much specious reasoning, especially from an author who wishes to be taken seriously.

I have to admit that I'm actually biased against her as a scholar because of her shoddy work on gnosticism -- she writes about it as though it were universally empowering for women and liberating for humans as sexual beings, then ignores the numerous misogynistic depictions of women, the assertions that women cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they become men, and the widely varying approaches to sexuality within gnosticism (which ranged from orgies to absolute celibacy -- because, after all, "gnosticism" was a category invented at an academic conference in Italy in the 1960s to describe a bunch of totally unrelated sects & religions). But she brings a similar approach to this work, cherry-picking her sources to accord with the conclusions she had reached before doing her research, then ignoring or misrepresenting the evidence which contradicts her thesis. She's definitely a popular author, rather than a rigorous academic. For those looking for the religious studies equivalent of "pulp" -- this is for you! For those looking for something more incisive and insightful -- look elsewhere.
Profile Image for Chris.
341 reviews952 followers
November 14, 2010
Let me get this out of the way right up front: I can't think of the title of this book without the Church Lady from the heyday of Saturday Night Live popping into my brain. And now she's in yours, too. You're welcome.

So. Who is Satan? A fallen angel? The great adversary of God? Saddam Hussein's bitch? If nothing else, Satan is the great scapegoat, the one on whom we tend to pile all our troubles. Your church is running out of money? Satan. Your kid is doing drugs and listening to that awful hip-hop music? Satan. Queers getting married? Definitely Satan.

For some, Satan is an actual being, a true agent of evil whose purpose is to ruin all that God has made. For others, Satan is a symbolic representation of the evil inherent in the human condition, an abstract form made real in order to better understand it. In other words, there are as many versions of Satan as there are people who invoke him.

But how did the whole Satan thing get started? Where did he come from and how did we get to the Satan that we all know and loathe today? That's what Elaine Pagels was determined to find out when she wrote this book.

While most of the book focuses on the New Testament and a history of the early Christian church, it was the ancient history of Satan that I found most interesting, mainly because it concurred with a pet theory that I've had for a long time: Satan was never an enemy of God. Satan was God's quality control guy. It was his job to look for weaknesses in the system, to probe Humanity for its faults and flaws so that it could be made better. Thus the serpent in the garden (which, just as a note, was never actually revealed to be Satan), and especially the story of Job, where God allows Job's life to be ruined on a bet. My guess was that he won a nice, crisp one-dollar bill.

The Satan of Olde was an agent of God, there to make sure that things went the way they were supposed to. He caused trouble, he stirred things up, yes, but that was his job. Much like the office manager that you despise because he always harps on you for checking your Facebook account during company time, even though you both know there's nothing better to do right now, but he just enjoys watching you suffer and enforcing his stupid little rules.... That guy is, at least in his own mind, working for the greater good of the company. He may be a dick, you may wish great misfortune heaped on him and his progeny, but he's doing the job he was given to do.

Sounds great, but Satan's downfall from "annoying but necessary agent of God" to "vile and demonic enemy of god" was planted a long time ago, before Christianity was even on the horizon.

The Jewish religion, from whence our concept of Satan arose, has always been one of Otherness. Israelites and Enemies. Us and Them. From its earliest days, God made sure the Israelites knew that they were a small force against the world, with only Him to protect them. He told Abraham straight out that He would bless him and curse his enemies. Therefore, the descendants of Abraham had to be on constant guard from enemies both from without and within. With a Satan already set in their theology as a tester and troublemaker for God, it was not a far leap to look to him as the cause of the multiple troubles that the Jews had over the years. Around the time of Christ, the Essenes were a distillation of that concept. They were a small Jewish sect - a minority within a minority - which believed that they were the only true Jews and that everyone else had gone soft. The Jewish majority was corrupt, led astray from the true path to God, probably by Satan.

When the Christians showed up, a minority with an even more tenuous existence than the Essenes, they found this concept very useful. Telling their story from the point of view of an embattled minority, they found Satan to be a very useful opponent against whom their Messiah could fight. He was an excellent symbol that stood not only for the earthly conflict that was taking place between the Christians, Romans and Jews, but a greater spiritual conflict that involved all humankind in a battle between good and evil.

Pagels' basic thesis is that the concept of Satan, whatever else it may be, was used to not only encourage persecution of The Other - Jews and pagans, to be precise - but to also keep the Christians themselves in line. The book is actually a history of the early Christian movement and how that history was reflected in the writing of the Gospels. In fact, just like in the Bible, Satan doesn't really appear much in this book. Rather Pagels looks at how the early Christian movement fought for its survival against enemies without and within, and then how Satan became a spiritual catch-all for those who disagreed with them.

It's a fascinating analysis of the early days of the Church, and just how chaotic and tumultuous it was. There were so many churches with so many different interpretations of Jesus' life and death, so many Gospels being written and so many opinions on the very nature of God's universe that it's surprising the whole thing managed to come together to be the world's largest religion.

What's more, it shed some light on something that's always annoyed me: the persecution complex that so many Christians have. The best time to catch this is in December, when pundits in the States start going off about the War on Christmas as though the last twelve Christians in the country were holed up inside the Topeka Christmas Shanty with shotguns and eggnog. Every time a judge tells a town that they can't have the Ten Commandments on the lawn of their town hall, or a Wal-Mart tells employees to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" there is always a vocal group of Christians who claim that they're being persecuted and that they're on the edge of extinction. All this despite the fact that Christianity is the most popular religion in the world, that there are more Christians in Congress than any other religion, and that every single President in US history has been Christian. Despite all that, there seems to be a knee-jerk need to feel persecuted.

This book offered a very good reason why this is: because that was how the religion was founded, and it is the fundamental narrative of Jesus' story. If Jesus had been part of the Jewish majority, his story would have ended very differently, no matter how radical his ideas. The early church was born of persecution, first from the Jews and Romans, and when they were no longer a danger, from pagans and heretics. And under all that, the hand that is always set against them, is Satan. As long as Satan is there, the Christians will always have someone there to persecute them. Without that cosmic, deathless opponent, Jesus becomes just another political rabblerouser executed by Rome. Certainly no Messiah would have allowed himself to die unless it was a gambit in a much greater game against a much more powerful opponent. Without Satan and the relentless threat attributed to him (and, by extension, those who are seen to ally with him), Jesus's sacrifice becomes meaningless, and the whole religion follows with it.

It's a fascinating book and a great look at the early days of the Church. If you're into that kind of thing, go pick it up.Many thanks to my mom and stepdad, who pointed my attention towards it.

"How, after all, could anyone claim that a man betrayed by one of his own followers, and brutally executed on charges of treason against Rome, not only was but still is God's appointed Messiah, unless his capture and death were, as the gospels insist, not a final defeat but only a preliminary skirmish in a vast cosmic conflict now enveloping the universe?"
- Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,063 reviews697 followers
February 20, 2022
This book provides a concise summary history of the Hebrew/Christian religion. But rather than focus on the evolution of the perception of God, this book follows the changes in the perception and use of the concept of Satan.

Many people assume that since Satan appears in the Genesis origin story that he must be the major anti-protagonist in the story conveyed by the Hebrew Scriptures. But that's not the case.
… while angels often appear in the Hebrew Bible, Satan, along with other fallen angels or demonic beings, is virtually absent. (p. xvi)

Among the examples provided in this book of angels in the Hebrew Scriptures, I was reminded of the biblical story about a talking donkey in the Book of Numbers. The tricks played by the angel in this story—appearing to the donkey, but not its master—impresses me as being demonic trickster in style.

As the chronology of the Hebrew Scriptures continue, Satan isn’t mentioned with much frequency. True, he shows up in the Book of Job, this time placing bets with God. The Devil did a number of bad things to Job, but elsewhere in the Biblical stories of the patriarchs and ancient Israel when bad things happened they’re blamed on lack of faithfulness to God, not shenanigans of the Devil.

One of the starkest contrasts between the Old Testament and the New Testament is the frequency of demon possession (i.e. living body occupied by another spirit). There are no explicit cases of demon possession mentioned in the Old Testament. In contrast, the New Testament Synoptic Gospels portray a virtual epidemic of demon possession in need of exorcism.

It’s worth noting that there are no exorcisms in the Gospel of John, however Jesus himself is accused by his enemies of being demon-possessed. The book of John depicts Satan acting in opposition to Jesus through the actions of people, "first in Judas Iscariot, then in the Jewish authorities ..., and finally in those John calls 'the Jews' ... ."

The Epistles of the New Testament don’t refer to demon possession, but do make reference to demons and demonic powers. The Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament describes horrific and ecstatic visions identified with the devil and Satan who in the end are destroyed.

The Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus’ ministry as involving continual struggle between God’s spirit and the demons, who belong, apparently, to Satan’s “kingdom” (Mark 3:23-27). Certain first-century Jewish groups (Essenes in particular) in addition to the followers of Jesus developed a vernacular of words to refer to this evil spirt—Satan, Beelzebub, or Belial.

Early Christian writings first attributed Satanic presence to other unbelieving Jews, but as Christianity became largely a Gentile movement the charge of Satanic influence was directed more toward pagans. Then later when Christianity had become dominant in the Roman Empire it was directed toward dissident Christians (a.k.a. heretics). At times it appears that the primary definition of orthodoxy was to identify those who were not Christian. This shifting of the demonization of others from Jews to Pagans to heretics represents the core message of this book.

At the very end of the book the author acknowledges that there have been a few Christians who picked up on the message of loving your your enemy as well as your neighbor, but labeling enemies as being of the devil has always been a more popular view.
Many Christians, then from the first century through Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the twentieth, have believed that they stood on God’s side without demonizing their opponents. Their religious vision inspired them to oppose policies and powers they regarded as evil, often risking their well-being and their lives, while praying for the reconciliation—not the damnation—of those who opposed them.

For the most part, however, Christians have taught— and acted upon—the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption. Concluding this book, I hope that this research may illuminate for others, as it has for me, the struggle within Christian tradition between the profoundly human view that “otherness” is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine. (p. 184)
Profile Image for William2.
737 reviews2,883 followers
April 10, 2021
Quite good. 2nd reading.

“Biblical scholar Luke Johnson shows that philosophic groups in antiquity often attacked their rivals in strong terms. But philosophers did not engage, as Matthew does here, in demonic vilification of their opponents. Within the ancient world, so far as I know, it is only Essenes and Christians who actually escalate conflict with their opponents to the level of cosmic war.”
(page 84)
Profile Image for withdrawn.
263 reviews259 followers
January 4, 2014
Elaine Pagels does a wonderful job of tracing her theme through the period before Christ into the period of the rise and fall of gnosticism. Her arguments are precise and clearly explained, not falling into academic jargon. I will certainly read more of her books in the future.

While others have done a fine job of explaining the theme of the book, (see Robert Mitchell's matter-of-fact review), I would like to go off on a bit of a tangent about what the book can tell us about humanity. Pagels tells how first Jews, them Christians, developed the idea of Satan and the concept of demonization in order to create an identity for themselves distinct from the "others". This basic idea of "us/them" is, of course, nothing new invented by the Jews and Christians in the first centuries CE. There's every possibility that 'we' exterminated 'them', the neanderthals with much the same thing in mind. And, of course, our known history is largely made up of struggles between 'us' and 'them': Greeks and barbarians; Jews and Gentiles; "aryans" and non-aryans; communists and capitalists (whatever that is); democracy against dictatorships; British against heathen; cowboys and Indians; and good guys and bad guys.

Identity, distinguishing ourselves from others, is obviously part of our genetic makeup. It was necessary for survival at one time. Perhaps it still is. What we need to understand, and this is clear in Pagels' book, is that we create these differences. They are not real and we cannot use them to justify our actions. When Shi'ite kills Sunni or when Christian kills Muslim in the name of some invented division, we are still playing out the game that Pagels describes. When one looks at American politics with its vehement distinctions between 'liberals' and 'conservatives', Democrats and Republicans, wherein the other side is described in terms that are little different from those of the 2nd century, it becomes clear that we are not moving in an evolutionary sense. And there is no reason to believe that we will. The world is still populated by demons.

Of course, I have no sense of 'we/them'. It's just 'me' and 'all the rest of you'. (Not to be mistaken for 'I and Thou'.) I wish you would all get your act together. You're driving me crazy. (Perhaps it is time to re-read "I and Thou".)
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,995 reviews1,104 followers
October 8, 2014
This is another of Elaine Pagels' popular books about early Christianity. The topic of this one is what Jungians refer to as "the Shadow" and how the figure of Satan, "the adversary", came to be converted from a member of the divine court to the archetypal opponent and opposite of God and how his spirit came to be projected and seen as animating all opponents, including fellow Christians, in the context of political and cultural conflicts.
Profile Image for Liz.
645 reviews89 followers
May 9, 2013
Elaine Pagels has a way of presenting the history of the early Christian community that makes it accessible to non-scholars. She presents a "whole picture" of the political, cultural, religious and sociological climates of the first 2 centuries after Jesus' death. Her insights come from much research into all the literature of the time which was immensely augmented upon the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls found in the 40's.

In this volume, she carefully reviews the writings of the 4 gospels with an eye to the use of the figure of Satan. In the intro she writes: "What interests me..are specifically social implications of the figure of Satan: how he is invoked to express human conflict and to characterize human enemies within our own religious traditions." Whereas fallen angels and demons are virtually absent in the Hebrew Bible, the devil as we think of him makes a strong showing in new Testament literature. She makes a case that the early Christians saw themselves as victims and so needed to 'dehumanize' enemies by portraying themselves as part of a cosmic battle between light and darkness; (John's gospel) or God and the devil. I have to agree that this almost paranoid aspect of Christianity is not only built in, but disturbing.

However, she points out that Christianity has also produced those that oppose the paranoid viewpoint that 'the other' is evil.
"Many Christians, then, from the first century through Francis of Assisi in the 13th century and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the twentieth, have believed that they stood on God's side without demonizing their opponents. Their religious vision inspired them to oppose policies and powers they regarded as evil, often risking their well-being and their lives, while praying for the reconciliation-not the damnation-of those who opposed them." (I would add Nelson Mandela and John Lewis to that list.)

I really liked the chapters about 'Satan's Earthly Kingdom' and 'The Enemy Within' which enlightened me about Justin Martyr's, and Irenaeus', and Valentinus' influences on the early church.
If you are interested in some of the writings left out of the official canon of the church that have come to light, this would be a good book to read. Or any of her books really.
Profile Image for Miles Zarathustra.
155 reviews6 followers
March 29, 2011
To fully understand a way of thinking, one must study what it abhors.

The word "Satan" originally (in the book of Job) meant simply "adversary," and was only presented as a literary foil, (with the article "ha", i.e. "the adversary") not a deity. It was only after the exile in Babylon that the Jews misinterpreted the Zoroastrian teachings to deify the force of evil... which is another story.

In this book, Ms. Pagels follows the evolution of the word "satan" by its usage throughout the New Testament, as a way to illustrate the story of how Christianity transformed from being a Jewish, messianic cult into the mainstream of Roman culture.

The word Satan at first referred to the Romans, who persecuted early Christians, who were largely Jewish. After the Romans had slaughtered all of the Jews in the years 60-70 CE, the word Satan came to refer to Jews themselves, who the Romans (quite ridiculously) chose to blame for the death of Jesus. Still later, the word came to condemn those who diverged from mainstream views into "heresy."

Ms Pagels has a way of introducing clarity into the dizzying tangle of groups and subgroups which all seem to be at each other's throats in the name of "Love." She lets us know what we should find surprising about the stories in the New Testament, given the cultural context in which they were written, important clues to understanding how the stories were re-written to bolster a particular political view.

Once again excellent scholarship concisely presented. A great read.

Profile Image for Benjamin Fasching-Gray.
703 reviews14 followers
January 15, 2021
There is a lot to think about in this amazing book and I'd rather not write a long review full of my Jewish or perhaps blasphemous takes on it. I do think the Christians are right that most of the Roman Empire was demonic, and I think that the Romans were right when they say that the Christians are disturbing the divine order. Maybe tossing Christians to the lions wasn't the most humane or even the best tactic to resolve spiritual tension, but it sure was demonic as hell. On the Christian side, the idea that your death is a victory in a spiritual battle I find a bit hard to swallow. I also think asking questions is good, and not heresy, even if the root of the word heresy turns out to mean asking questions. The first chapters, about ancient Jews following Jesus at the time of the destruction of the Temple, floored me. I have never read Mark, Matthew, Luke or John. Crazy stuff in there.

I expect a lot of people are going to be basing their arguments on biblical verses in the coming years, and it might be fun to engage with them in spiritual combat when I disagree. So long as no one gets burnt at the stake or fed to the lions. It's all fun and games until someone is fed to the lions... Seriously, that is the final message in this book... Pagels writes, "I hope that this research may illuminate for others, as it has for me, the struggle within Christian tradition between the profoundly human view that "otherness" is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine."

I would also recommend this book to fans of ancient Rome, fans of Geezer Butler, and Christians who are beginning to question their loyalty to a certain ex-President.

Profile Image for Edward Taylor.
512 reviews16 followers
July 21, 2019
I thought I would try this book, as a history or origin of the mythological character of Satan, and how he was portrayed by early Christians, sounded interesting to me, but unfortunately I largely lost interest halfway through it, as it, in fact, does not primarily, or really even marginally, pertain to a history or origin of Satan, at least in any percentage of words written down, but primarily, and misleadingly, deals with very general controversies and disputes among Jews and Christians after Christ's death.

I'm not certain if the misleading title was the author simply being misguided or that she thought giving it the title of "The Origin of Satan" would boost sales, but either way the title is way off from the body of the work--naming this book The Origin of Satan makes about much sense as writing a very general history of the Roman Empire and then giving it the title of A History of Emperor Vespasian.

I will say that this book is well written, and if you're primarily interested in early biblical writings and controversies then you may find this interesting, but if, like me, you want what the bloody title of the book is describing then you should look elsewhere.
55 reviews6 followers
July 28, 2016
Book Lust

What I expected here was a book about the early development of the concept of Satan and Hell from the Jewish and early Christian perspectives. What I got was a long description of how early Christians broke up into different groups and saw each other as evil. While there was a running thread about how opposing groups blamed each other's misguidance on demons, there really was not much on "the origin of Satan."

Pagels sums up what I perceive as her thesis when she says that the concept of Satan is what began a "cultural legacy" of perceiving "social and political conflict in terms of the forces of good contending against the forces of evil in the world." In other words, when a disagreement about a social or political issue arises, your side is the "good" side and your opponent is "evil."

Rebecca's review below reflects my thoughts perfectly:

What this [the book] 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...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.

I had some more problems while reading the book's conclusion. Pagels makes some broad generalizations about the way people think today. She writes:

Those who participate in this comic drama [God vs. Satan] cannot lose. Those who die as martyrs win the victory even more gloriously and are assured that they will celebrate victory along with all of God's people and the angels in heaven. Throughout the history of Christianity, this vision has inspired countless people to take a stand against insuperable odds in behalf of what they believe is right...This apocalyptic vision has taught even secular-minded people to interpret the history of Western culture as a moral history in which the forces of good contend against the forces of evil in the world. [Emphasis added]

I most definitely do not interpret the history of Western culture as a battle of good against evil. How absurd and small-minded. I see the history of Western culture as a battle for power and survival, and not much more.

On a side note, both Goodreads and Amazon list this book with the subtitle How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics. For some reason, this subtitle appears nowhere on the book - not on the front cover, and nowhere inside the book. It's just as well; it's quite a condemnatory subtitle, while the book itself certainly is not condemnatory.


I can't recommend this to anyone. I'll look elsewhere for a history of the character of Satan. However, if you're intrigued, it looks like you can get a used hardcover copy on Amazon for $0.01.
Profile Image for Ian Beardsell.
224 reviews24 followers
September 10, 2019
Although I take an interest in religion and philosophy, I am by no means a religious scholar, so I'm afraid much of Pagels arguments went over my head.

My key takeaways, which may or may not be wholly accurate:

The traditional gospel writers made careful writing decisions to point the blame for Jesus' crucifixion on the Jews, more so than their Roman occupiers. They strove to infer that the Jewish society of those times who questioned Jesus (such as the Pharisees) were infiltrated by evil, and this became symbolized by "Satan" himself.

Slightly later in Christian history, the early church authorities essentially played the same tactics to discredit those who interpreted Jesus' words somewhat differently, such as the Gnostics. It was the devil himself who put strange and unorthodox ideas into some church members heads in order to divide and conquer the new religion. Hence, we have some gospels that were considered heretical and never made the New Testament cut.

I suppose that even today, the "Christian right" (and Islamic extremist, and...) likes to accuse anyone who doesn't quite think like they do (Democrats, liberals, LBGTQ, etc.) as agents of Satan. Such "demonization" is very sad to see and shows that we really haven't advanced much in our social thinking, even with all of our science and rational thought of the last 2-300 years.

One thing I enjoyed about the book was Pagels foray into the gnostic gospels, and I was reminded how much of an eastern feel those writings have-- that the way to the salvation might just be inside oneself and that the organized church may not have the correct answers for everyone. I must go back and check out Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels...
Profile Image for Andy.
78 reviews
October 8, 2009
This is a wonderful read for anyone that is interested in the early history of Christianity. As other reviews have pointed out, the title of the book is a bit misleading. This book has little to do with the Satan the being, and instead focuses on Christianity's evolving idea of good vs evil. From early ideas about the Jews, through persecution by non-believers, and on to enemies from within the faith (heretics). Elaine Pagels walks us through early Christian writings, with great care and respect. She shows a very human story of what it was like for the early Christians.

Many of the ideas covered in this book echo struggles we have with today as we deal with clashes between societies both secular and theocratic; between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; and even between cultures.

Profile Image for Steve Wiggins.
Author 6 books56 followers
December 23, 2015
Although the book does contain some history of the figure of Satan, the subtitle is the actual descriptor of the contents here. This is a book looking at how Christians, and to some extent Jews, demonized their enemies within their own faith traditions as "Satan." Theologically this is an important development. Those of us who have read deeply in the background of the Hebrew Bible might find some facts to quibble over in the analysis, but the message is important and for the New Testament aspect, quite good. Some of the extended discussion among the "church fathers" was a bit drawn out, but overall a good read. See more comments here: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.
Profile Image for Hilary "Fox".
2,000 reviews53 followers
October 2, 2021
Elaine Pagels is a brilliant author, and this book is considered by many to be a modern classic.

The Origin of Satan is a deep dive into textual criticism, the likes of which perhaps Bart D. Ehrman is a bit better known for today. Rather than focusing upon the evolution of how Satan is viewed from a fundamentalist, or even occultic perspective, this book focuses upon Satan as viewed by the Jewish people and the early Christians. The Satan, in his original role, was an angel of the Lord who occasionally would be employed the block one's path. Rather than strictly negative, he was generally a rather good thing. The path he is blocking, after all, could be a path that would lead you or other's to harm.

This book compellingly tracks the evolution of Satan as a generally positive and strictly professional role to a political one. Through the evolution of Christian history, one can see how Satan and his demons became a dog whistle through which one criticized the Other - a necessary thing seeing how persecuted the Christian church was in its infancy. The evolution is not a theological one, but rather a political one, and Pagels does an excellent job documenting it in an accessible way.

The book is fascinating, as it is tracking primarily in-fighting within Jewish and Christian groups. It is easy to see, especially with the advent of the Nag Hammadi library and other heretical texts being accessible now, how little of what was written about such gnostic groups was true. It's just... fascinating, and disturbing.

More people should read this book. If you forgive the pun, it gives the reader a hell of a lot to think about.
Profile Image for Robert Mitchell.
Author 2 books25 followers
August 18, 2013
In her Introduction, Elaine Pagels reminds us that she is a historian. This isn’t surprising since her expertise is the period in which Christianity was born and there are few topics more likely to elicit an emotional reaction among some readers than Christianity and the other two members of the Abrahamic “Big Three”: Islam and Judaism.

As a historian, of course, Pagels’ job is to immerse herself in the time period, gathering and analyzing as many pieces of evidence as humanly possible. Many of us who were raised in a conservative Protestant tradition rarely read contemporary sources, focusing instead exclusively on the canon. By focusing only on what was deemed “God’s Word,” however, we missed out on a world abuzz with treatises, letters gospels, debates and conversations about existence, Jesus and God. Pagels takes us to the homes of these writers, whether it’s an urban abode in downtown Jerusalem or a desert cave. All these people were thinking and debating and talking and if we claim to care about the story of Jesus it seems imperative that we should know what the world was like before, during and after his life.

So why spend so much time on Jesus in a review of Pagels’ book on the origin of Satan? The birth of Christianity and the birth of the traditional Western view of Satan were entirely intertwined. Drawing on her expertise in the original languages of Scripture, Pagels demonstrates that the word “Satan” originally denoted a functionary of God’s retinue, one dedicated to obstructing human behavior when directed by God. For example, in the biblical story of Balaam and the Ass, it is “a satan” who prevents him from disobeying God. As the story progresses, Balaam’s donkey begins to talk and Balaam is able to see the angelic being, the “satan,” standing before him, barring the way to rebellion.

It was not until the 1st century that “Satan” became the entity we all think of when we hear the name. The story of the angels’ rebellion is a recent one and one that has been applied retroactively to previous scripture. Who tempted Eve in the Garden? According to Genesis, it wasn’t Satan, it was the serpent. “Same thing” you say? Not until much later in history. (I’ll be reading Pagels’ Adam, Eve and the Serpent next.)

As she painstakingly tracks the use of the word “satan” in Scripture and contemporary sources, Pagels posits that the modern concept of Satan and the spiritual warfare inherent in the Gospels would not have developed as it did if it weren’t for Jewish internecine struggles under 1st century Roman occupation and during the war against Rome itself. Again, as a historian, Pagels looks at WHEN a Gospel was written and under what pressures and within what zeitgeist the author wrote. If you were a Jewish follower of Christ who barely survived the war against Rome and were now embroiled in struggles with the majority of Jews who did not appreciate early Christianity’s challenge of the status quo, whom would you paint to be the villains in the various “trials” of Jesus? Those motivated by none other than “Satan,” of course.
Profile Image for Rama Rao.
721 reviews102 followers
September 13, 2021
The spiritual battles with Satan

The study of the Satan in the biblical literature is fascinating. Author Elaine Pagels offers an interesting discussion largely from the point of New Testament. The crucial issue is the irreconcilable paradox: if God is benevolent and omnipotent, then why does He permit evil? Or do we live in a world made of two forces, God, and the Devil?

Satan is also called Lucifer. In Judaism, Satan is seen as an agent subservient to God, often identified as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In Christianism, he is considered as a fallen angel who rebelled against God but retained power over human beings. In the Synoptic Gospels, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert. He is identified as the cause of illness and temptation (Mark 1:12–13, Matthew 4:1–11, and Luke 4:1–13). Satan plays a role in some of the parables of Jesus, namely the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, and the Parable of the Strong Man. According to the Parable of the Sower, Satan influences those who fail to understand the gospel.

The gospel of Mark mentions angels only in the opening verse (1:13) and in the final verses of the original manuscript (Mark 16:5-7). He characterizes Jesus' ministry as involving continual struggle between God's spirit and the demons who belong to Satan's "kingdom" (Mark 3:23-27). For nearly two thousand years Christians believed that Jews killed Jesus and the Romans were merely their agents. Examination of synoptic gospels in the historical context reveals that they are theological treatise of a historical biography. The authors of Matthew and Luke based on the gospel of Mark revised in different ways. They each added their own interpretation of the source materials from earlier traditions like, oral tradition, anecdotes, and parables. The gospel of Mark was written more than a generation after Jesus' death, and the other synoptic gospels nearly two generations later. The gospel writers tended to downplay the role of Romans in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Jewish war against Rome. In fact, the Jesus' execution was imposed by the Romans for activities they considered seditious. Each author of synoptic gospels shapes a narrative to respond to circumstances that surrounded them in ancient Israel. Christians as they read the gospels have identified themselves with the apostles. They have also identified their opponents, Romans, Jews, pagans, and heretics with forces of evil.

The book is academic but numerous references are provided for readers interested in the history of gospels and the evolving idea of Satan in the New Testament. Highly recommended to those interested in the ancient history of Israel and the early Christian traditions.
Profile Image for Mike  Davis.
451 reviews22 followers
May 1, 2012
A well written and researched book by a National Book Award winning author, this work chronicles the evolution of the concept of obstruction through the changes given to it and to the ultimate use of the idea of Satan as a malevolent being. The early use of the word 'satan' is followed using both biblical and first century historical writings including ancient texts found in recent years dating to the time of the chosen gospels. Ultimately, what many use today is not what the original authors intended.

Pagels may make some uncomfortable with her findings which lean on other theologians and scholars works as well, but the book is a fine addition to any library for those who still seek to find deeper understanding amidst the superficiality of popular dogma.
Profile Image for Stephie Williams.
382 reviews35 followers
November 6, 2015
I found the book lacked any serious biblical criticism. It does not question basic historical reality. That being said, Pagels does present a fair picture of the development of the idea of Satan (the devil) and other evil spirits from the religious texts that are available. Even today you will find staunch fundamentalist who belief in this religious crap. Instead of focusing on how actually to improved themselves or society, they focus on how Satan prevents the believer from obtaining his or hers salvation. That's all I'm going to say about the issue. For a brief excursion into the realm of religious beliefs the book discusses it is a fair text.
Profile Image for Carol.
627 reviews
June 26, 2018
Not sure why anyone would read this book - really just a rehash of the many versions of early Christianity based on early writings. For those who get pulled in by the title - SPOILER ALERT - it does not really even address the issue of Satan in any significant way.
Profile Image for Michael Huang.
818 reviews35 followers
Want to read
January 5, 2019
[BlackOxford keeps on making these books sound like a must-read]
Profile Image for Kurt Pankau.
Author 7 books19 followers
July 17, 2012
This is a purely scholarly work, so it is dense and tightly-focused, giving it the feel of being both slight and overwritten. Gauge your expectations accordingly.

Pagels lays out an overview of the mythic character "Satan" and his progression through Judaism and early Christianity from a servant of God (as he appears in Numbers) to a "devil's advocate" (as he appears in Job) to a fallen angel (as he appears in Milton) to the agent of cosmic warfare depicted in the gospels. This shift in Satan's role becomes more dramatic as Christianity blossoms in the early second century, for the gospel writers, Paul, and early church father's--like Origen, Justin, and Tertullian--reframe the cosmic war as being against their particular enemies.

Pagels is at her most engaging when she elaborates on Satan's role in the Gospels and giving this a historical context. For example, the author of Mark uses Satan to tell Jesus's story in the context of an internal conflict within Judaism--even though Jesus was executed by the Romans. This was important because that Gospel was written shortly after the Jewish revolt of 70 CE, and the author wanted to make sure the Romans didn't target Christianity as seditious. Pagels goes into great depth arguing her thesis.

She goes into perhaps too much depth in later chapters. In explaining the conflict between Tertullian and the Gnostics, Pagels gives a tremendous amount of coverage to the specifics of the Gnostics's beliefs, even though they rejected belief in "Satan" as being anti-monotheistic. It's interesting, but not on point.

Lastly, here's what you won't find: Even though Pagels talks about how Pagan "daimones" evolved into Christian "demons", she doesn't talk at all about how Pagan iconography informed our current depictions of Satan. Similarly, there is practically no mention of Hell and how that concept developed over time and in tandem with the development of Satan. I say this not to criticize, but again, gauge your expectations accordingly.

Overall, I found this to be very academic, but also quite readable and thorouhgly engaging.
Profile Image for Sugarpop.
26 reviews2 followers
March 7, 2011
I have never read any of her other books. Let me first state why I bought it. There is a book by Michael Gaddis (There Is No Crime For Those That Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire) that I really want but I can't afford it. I happened across a syllubus from a course he teaches or taught in the past. This was one of the books. I am trying to zero in on the violence in early Christianity and keeping it in context in the Roman empire.

Much of what I have read begins the demonizing in about the 4th/5th century with the councils. This is, where I think, there is this full development of Satan (as the other) kicks in and antiSemiticism IS John Chrysostom. It has a face in the dictionary.

Pagels backs that up to the Jewish Wars in 66CE and admits that there is one source. She tells you in the beginning that she is looking at it in the social context. She does not go into late antiquity. She takes the gospels and places them with the Jewish Wars as the back drop. The conflict is within the Jewish community. 240 pages is not really going to be that in-depth but it was good for that.

What I do not like about this book is that the approach seems to be as if there was this mass conversion to Christianity from the bottom up. I disagree with this. But, most importantly-for me, is that it presents as if there were more martyrs then there actually were. These are two strands of thinking that I (am not reading) do not think are very accurate.

Outside of that, it was worth it. Really cool snippets on Irenaeus and

Profile Image for Lee Harmon.
Author 4 books107 followers
April 13, 2012
Not a new book, but since I’ve recently received a couple more to read along this topic, I dug this one out and scanned through it as a reminder.

It’s typical Pagels, opinionated and controversial, but thought-provoking. I love Pagels’ work!

You’ll read a little about the evolution of ideas regarding Satan, but this is really not the book’s focus. Her premise is that Satan evolved over time for a reason, and that reason was to demonize one’s enemies—primarily the enemies of the Christians. No, not ancient Israel; Pagels spends almost the entire book within the context of the New Testament—an appropriate focus, since in the Old Testament Satan is more of an Adversary under God’s employ. By the time of the New Testament, though, Satan has morphed into the Prince of Darkness, the leader of all that is evil in a cosmic battle against good…a battle that found the Christians caught in the middle. Satan is the natural evolution of an us-versus-them atmosphere in the arena of religion.

Like Pagels, I find the war of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem leveled, more than just a little important to understanding the development of Christianity. (In fact, I tend to go a bit overboard on this theme in my books). But Satan isn’t allied only with the Romans; he also takes the side of the Pharisees (read: Rabbinic Judaism), Herod, and pagans everywhere. Finally, in later Christian writings, Satan manages to seduce even Christians, and the war turns against heretics.

Fun book, and a different take from what the title may make you think.
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books196 followers
May 9, 2015
If you're shopping around for some background on Satan because you're thinking of joining the ranks of the followers of the Dark One or if you're just curious about that ol' asshole devil, this might not be the book for you. I'm neither (well-ensconced on a cult centering around the 80s TV show A.L.F.) but I am curious about all evil forces and about as religious as my shoe, so, why not read about Satan and disturb my peers and co-workers?
This book is not about Satan. Satan is hardly discussed. Satan is a peripheral figure. What this book is about is how the IDEA of Satan was used in early Christian (and Judaic) polemics to first talk shit about dissident Jewish groups by Jews, then Jews by proto-Christians, then Rome by Christians, and then Christians by Christians. In that regard, it's pretty fascinating if you like biblical exegesis and using words like exegesis. But no Satan! Best to read Bulgakov or something.
96 reviews
July 26, 2018
While the information was interesting enough, the writing was just awful. First of all, the title is misleading, this is not a book about the origin of Satan, but more how early Christianity used the idea of good and evil to vilify their enemies. Second of all, it was scattered all over the place, and just really hard to follow. It felt like each chapter was just a wall of text with no introduction and no conclusion, the book could really have benefited from some headings to break things up. Sadly it felt like such a chore to read, even though the subject was quite interesting. I don't feel like I walked away with much.
48 reviews1 follower
April 5, 2007
Great religious analysis of the origins of anti-semitism, primarily in terms of blaming Christ's execution on the Jews, and tying their identity to the devil himself. Pagels' work on religious history is fantastic, and amazingly readable.
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