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

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  5,828 ratings  ·  225 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published April 30th 1996 by Vintage (first published 1995)
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The Evil Among Us

The obvious 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 r
Jun 09, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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 s ...more
Nov 13, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, religion
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 aw
[Name Redacted]
Feb 15, 2011 rated it did not like it
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 u
ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos)
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.
Erik Graff
Feb 12, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Christians
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: religion
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.
Apr 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Miles Zarathustra
Mar 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 thr
Peter Mcloughlin
Ideological movements may or may not have a God or Gods, but all ideological movements have a devil. Us vs. them dynamics is a hallmark of all movements that require costly commitments. Such movements need an othering symbol of evil. Zoroastrians were the first to employ this dynamic so effectively to discipline followers. This is a really good thing to keep followers in line. This is exactly the kind of things that helped grow a countercultural movement and help consolidate its power and disci ...more
Oct 03, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
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,/>
Jun 09, 2012 rated it it was ok
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 th
Robert Mitchell
Aug 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Edward Taylor
Jul 20, 2019 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Mike  Davis
Apr 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 in ...more
Michael Huang
Jan 05, 2019 marked it as to-read
[BlackOxford keeps on making these books sound like a must-read]
Kurt Pankau
Jun 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 b
Lee Harmon
Apr 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 04, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People down with rethinking religious belief
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.
Jun 05, 2007 rated it liked it
I kind of feel like all Elaine Pagels books tread essentially the same ground. But I keep reading them. Anyone know better books about the Gnostic Gospels? It's an interesting subject.
Re-read this. Quite good.
B. Rule
Aug 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a perfectly serviceable short history of early Christianity that does a good job laying out the diversity of voices in the early movement as documented in the Gospels and other textual sources. Christianity succeeded as a movement in large part by creating group cohesion and self-definition in opposition to a contrasting enemy. Pagels traces the evolution of Christianity through the shifting nature of that opposition as early Christians moved from defining themselves as a Jewish cult wit ...more
Sep 18, 2019 rated it liked it
This book was a bit of a let down as it only described very early Christian instances of demonization of enemies. I had hoped to see more about demonization in the middle ages, Renaissance, ect. But if early Christianity is your area of interest, this is good.
John Nelson
Sep 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Most people presume would presume that Satan is one of the key figures of the Bible, ranking after only Jesus Christ and God himself. However, Satan is almost entirely absent in the Old Testament, though he becomes more prominent as the New Testament moves along.

This book seeks to answer the question of why. The author places the answer in the dislocation and upheaval afflicting Israel at the time of Christ. Prior to that time, Israel was a united nation, and its enemies were externa
Kevin K
Jul 14, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: religion
Originally, "satan" was a Hebrew word that simply meant "adversary" or "enemy." For example, in the King James, we have: "And the LORD stirred up an adversary (=satan) unto Solomon, Hadad the Edomite..."(1 Kings 11:14). Satan as the supernatural demigod we know today appears only a few times in the Old Testament, and there he's a shadowy figure whose status isn't very clear. I got curious about how "Satan" evolved through history into his current form, so I picked up this book. It does have some ...more
Ron Tenney
Aug 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book is one that I recommend for one simple reason: As long as we choose to apply labels to our opponents, we can more easily justify disregarding them without considering our own fallibility and their right to an opposing point of view.
From the early times of the New Testament, the group in the cross-hairs of the Christians has changed. But there is always someone to fill the role of Satan's spawn. Pharisees, Jews, Romans, other Christians, Mormons, Muslims, atheists, and communists have
Jul 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Pagels gives an overview about how the concept of Satan, demons and evil more generally was used by the Jewish and then the Christian community. Rather than a detail of how the concept of Satan in particular evolved (though she does sketch this, just not in the hoped for detail) it's more an exploration of how Satan went from being one of God's employees, to associated with someone errant in the community, then being associated with Jews by Christians, and then Christians associating him with th ...more
Eric Wurm
Apr 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
Pagels is a renowned Biblical scholar. In this study, she analyzes both the canonically accepted writings and the apocrypha to study the history of the Christian adversary.

The leader of the "fallen angels" is largely absent from the theology of Judaism from which Christianity claims to derive its veracity from antiquity and also to fulfill its prophecies. How then did Satan become such a prominent figure in the war of good versus evil in Christianity? Pagels attempts to give an answer in this b
John de' Medici
May 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
The reasons I'm giving this a 5 is the sheer amount of Information I gathered from this book.

Especially appreciated gaining a new approach at the Four Gospels' authors through a brief History of the Times in which they wrote, and the early, specific Christian churches they wrote for.
Found her preview of a few select Nag Hammadi Texts quite fascinating too, so was learning a bit about various factions of the time, The Essenes come to mind.

She does however, I found, spend quite
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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 Chris
“Research for this book has made me aware of aspects of Christianity I find disturbing.” 1 likes
“The prophets Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, for example, often used the metaphors of adultery and prostitution to indict those they accused of being “unfaithful” to God’s covenant.” 1 likes
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