Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book Review - The Origin of Satan

Title: The Origin of Satan
Author: Elaine Pagels
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0679731184

Satan is a familiar character to Christians and non-Christians alike. He's the Prince of Darkness, a fallen angel doomed to walk the earth, the lord of a diabolical army dedicated to the overthrow of God's throne. Unfortunately, such images are largely the product of John Milton's Paradise Lost and have nothing to do with the Satan of the Bible.

In the Old Testament, Satan is a forbidding but ultimately obedient member of Jehovah's pantheon. He's no more evil than a prosecuting attorney. But by the New Testament era, Satan has become a convenient placeholder for Christians to identify their enemies--first Jews, then the pagan Romans, and finally heretics within the Christian faith itself.

Pagels began her research for this book assuming that the purpose of the doctrine of Satan was to spiritualize the natural universe and explain the persecution of a breakaway Jewish sect called Christianity. To her surprise, she learned that Satan evolved into an evil force reserved for one's most intimate enemies. Pagels carefully compares the four gospel accounts, identifying obvious trends to demonize Jews and exonerate the Romans for the death of Jesus--even to the point of absurdity.

For example, the gentle Pontius Pilate of the gospels has nothing to do with the brutal Pilate of history. Even sympathetic Roman historians portrayed Pilate from negative to bitterly hostile. Yet the gospel writers portray him as weak and compassionate in order to exonerate him and the Romans of the death of Jesus. Pagels quotes historian Paul Winters who writes: "...the stern Pilate grows more mellow from gospel to gospel . . . the more removed from history, the more sympathetic a character he becomes."

The opposite effect occurred with regard to the Jews, as each gospel (read chronologically) portrays the Jews acting more and more culpable for Jesus' death. This is exactly what we would expect as the growing Christian movement tried to distinguish itself from the Jewish religion from which it sprung.

Over time, Christians used a growing vocabulary to identify their list of enemies as "sons of hell" or "forces of darkness." But this was not confined to first-century Christians; Martin Luther in the sixteenth century denounced as "agents of Satan" all Christians who remained loyal Roman Catholics, all Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, all who challenged wealthy landowners in the Peasant's War, and even all Protestant Christians who were not specifically Lutheran.

Pagels has written a marvelous book here, stripping Satan of his unearthly power, and presenting "The Evil One" as the nameless, faceless force that lies behind one's own paranoia and persecutors.

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