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

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels
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it was amazing

One of Pagels' best

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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February 4, 2006 – Finished Reading
February 11, 2015 – Shelved

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