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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.


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Published: VintageAnchor an imprint of Random House Publishing Group on
ISBN: 9780307807366
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In this book, Pagels purports to show how the conception of Satan arose from the early Christians’ demonization of Jews, pagans and other Christians. While I had some issues with the organization and focus of the book, on the whole the analysis was interesting, detailed and insightful. Pagels does a close analysis of Biblical passages, religious accounts that were not incorporated into the Bible and lives of some Christian converts. She gives historical background and context and compares different versions and lives. I wondered if her publishers changed the name of the book because it is a bit of a stretch to say that the focus is mainly on the origin of Satan. I wouldn’t say that the organization is haphazard or superficially jumps around but when Pagels is on a subject that she finds interesting, even if it only tangentially relates to the broader theme, she goes on for awhile with the analysis. Some may find the book dry since it is pretty much in-depth analysis of short passages, but I found this fascinating. I would definitely like to read more by Pagels.Pagels starts with the four Gospels and sets the background with the Jewish rebellion against the Romans which culminated in 70 C.E. with the burning of the Temple, a traumatic event. The rifts between Jewish groups – some who supported the rebellion, others who wanted to make peace with the Romans – influenced the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Pagels describes reasons for the negative depiction of Jews in the Gospels and the more conciliatory portrait of the Romans (contrasting to contemporary accounts of Pontius Pilate, for example, which put him somewhere on the uncaring to cruel spectrum). Jews were the intimate enemies at that point, the group that stubbornly resisted Jesus’ message. Pagels notes that Romans – and other foreign enemies – were traditionally compared to animals but the demonic depictions of Jews were new. Early accounts of Satan portrayed him as an agent of God, but Pagels shows that increases in satanic and demonic comparisons occurred with the rise of various breakaway Jewish sects, notably the Essenes who withdrew from Jewish society. The intra-Jewish conflict was described in stark terms of good and evil which was continued in the books of Matthew and Luke. John is notably absent of the personification of Satan, but the Jews fulfill the role of Satan in that account. Besides casting the Pharisees and the Jewish population as the instigators, the accounts also rehabilitate Jesus’ lineage and cast the story in mythical terms – relating it to the Old Testament, describing Jesus’ coming as the fulfillment of many prophesies, portraying Jesus’ life as a cosmic struggle.In describing how demonic imagery came to apply to pagans, Pagels analyzes the lives of a number of Christian converts in the second and third century C.E. Along the way, she describes the spread of Christianity and how it moved beyond the Jews, often tearing apart families. She does a good job in contrasting that sect to the others that were fermenting at the time – for example, the Essenes were a rather exclusive group compared to Christians; not just anyone could join. I did find the analysis in this section to be interesting and well-done but sometimes it seemed like Pagels was just writing about topics that interested her and that only semi-related to the overall theme. For example, she spends time on the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius – good, but tangential. In her section on the demonization of heretics, Pagels describes the consolidation of the church as well as some out-there takes on Christianity. She again seems to want to talk about her favored topics such as the Gnostic gospels, the subject of her best-known book. I found this to be very interesting and would like to read Pagels’ other books despite the focus/organization issues.more
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.more
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.more
The more I read Pagels, the more I become convinced she has only written one book, and modifies it slightly for each title she puts out. Although there was some information on the origin of Satan, this book was basically just another rehashing of her book, The Gnostic Gospels. In addition, she has a bad habit of ignoring those scholars she doesn't agree with, rather than engaging their arguments and demonstrating why we should listen to her (to be fair, this is a failing I see in a great many Biblical scholars, and not unique to Pagels). Overall, I was very disappointed. This book should have been better.more
The Origin of Satan sets out to trace the evolution of (surprise) Satan, both in Judaism and later Christianity. Elaine Pagels argues that although the actual characteristics ascribed to Satan shift with societal and religious shifts, what remains constant is the identification of Satan as the Other. Believers would identity pagans with Satan, Gentile Christians would identify Jews or Jewish Christians, or proto-orthodox Christians would identify heretics. The function of Satan therefore stands to delineate boundaries of identity, us versus them, while simultaneously reinforcing an increasingly dualistic cosmology within their religion.It's an interesting hypothesis that doesn't get fully played out. Or rather - when Pagels is on, she's on. But the argument is stretched too thin, and tangents are too pervasive, to make for a very tight and impressive read. Often this book reads as an introductory "history of Christianity," with stretches of pages where neither Satan nor the book's argument get brought up. This might have worked better as a longer academic paper, but that would be at the severe detriment of limiting audience. So there's a lot of interesting thought that I'll definitely take from my reading experience. But the book has its high and low points, and so I can't praise it whole-heartedly, knowing its potential that didn't get followed through on.more
A brilliant book about Satan as an historically constructed character. From the obstructive angel of the Hebrew Bible, to the Prince of Darkness and the incarnation of Evil in the Gospels, the processes that led to the diabolization of Satan (no pun intended!) were manifold: theological, but also social and political. This book, by a prestigious Princeton scholar of early Christianity, does a terrific job in analysing and presenting these events in a historical perspective and in a way intelligible by an interested lay person. The book describes in considerable detail the conflicts emerging within the jewish communities in the aftermath of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem's temple by the Romans, as well as the progressive separation of the followers of Jesus, from a jewish sect into an autonomous movement, and their efforts to simultaneous exculpate the romans from the death of their founding leader, and to blame it on their fellow jews, whose non recognition of their dead leader as the Messiah could only be satanicaly inspired. In Jesus' followers view this ill fated inspiration was seen as the reason for the cataclysmic war that have just been lost. This frame of mind, conducing to the expedite device of diabolization of worldly events, characteristic of the early Christian world view (and also of other Jewish sects, such as the Essenes) led, progressively, from the rejection of their jewish connection, to an uncompromising stance towards the pagan world, and to the diabolization of non canonical Christians (heretics) later on. The influence of this lengthy theological construction was pervasive for the past two millenia and still lives with us today in the world view (conscious or otherwise) of countless Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide. At least for this reason, this outstanding book should be read with attention.more
Once again Pagels provides an incisive and readable overview of the origin of the Bible and the historical context shaping both Christian & Jewish identities, and the Catholic Church as an institution. This title focuses on how the concept of Satan emerged from the story of Job (the angel "challenging" God's faith in his servant, Job), evolving from a "loyal obstacle" to a representation of evil. Pagel's findings are that the evolution had more to do with social developments than theological: groups of people vilified their enemies by associating them with Satan. Somewhat counterintuitively, this trend was followed primarily by Jews against other Jews, not against non-Jews, as they struggle to define / defend themselves and their faith in the face of increasing repression.Pagels analysis highlights the war between Jews and Roman authorities (especially the siege of Jerusalem) as the key contextual event in which to place an understanding of the Bible. This war and its aftermath motivated the very writing of the Bible, and defined who would be around to write it. Interestingly, this event is also pretty much irrelevant to understanding Jesus, since he died 30-35 years before -- unless by "understanding Jesus" is meant the portrait put forth by different groups claiming him as their own, in which case this is merely another way of saying "understanding the Bible" (and helps explain the rift between heretics such as the gnostics and the Church).Also interesting: Pagels seems to have come to this topic / question in part out of her grieving for her husband, who died in a hiking accident. That Pagels would acknowledge this personal motive in her introduction marks out the perspective she uses in all her popular writings: a critical and scholarly examination undertaken by a believer. I respect her scholarship and thesis all the more for this perspective.more
This was the first book that I read by Elaine Pagels. She has helped ease me on my spiritual journey. I have now read several of her books and this one is one of my favorites. I have also had the opportunity to see her speak once... that was unforgetable!more
Pagels' analysis of the treatment of evil as "other" in the Bible.more
Well written and insightful. Pagels demonstrates a clear progression of the evolution of early Christian thought and writing, putting it into relevant historical and social context. At times while reading it, her insights seemed so obvious, I wondered why people hadn't spotted this earlier. Both easily digestible, and scholarly; that's no small feat.more
Read all 12 reviews

Reviews

In this book, Pagels purports to show how the conception of Satan arose from the early Christians’ demonization of Jews, pagans and other Christians. While I had some issues with the organization and focus of the book, on the whole the analysis was interesting, detailed and insightful. Pagels does a close analysis of Biblical passages, religious accounts that were not incorporated into the Bible and lives of some Christian converts. She gives historical background and context and compares different versions and lives. I wondered if her publishers changed the name of the book because it is a bit of a stretch to say that the focus is mainly on the origin of Satan. I wouldn’t say that the organization is haphazard or superficially jumps around but when Pagels is on a subject that she finds interesting, even if it only tangentially relates to the broader theme, she goes on for awhile with the analysis. Some may find the book dry since it is pretty much in-depth analysis of short passages, but I found this fascinating. I would definitely like to read more by Pagels.Pagels starts with the four Gospels and sets the background with the Jewish rebellion against the Romans which culminated in 70 C.E. with the burning of the Temple, a traumatic event. The rifts between Jewish groups – some who supported the rebellion, others who wanted to make peace with the Romans – influenced the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Pagels describes reasons for the negative depiction of Jews in the Gospels and the more conciliatory portrait of the Romans (contrasting to contemporary accounts of Pontius Pilate, for example, which put him somewhere on the uncaring to cruel spectrum). Jews were the intimate enemies at that point, the group that stubbornly resisted Jesus’ message. Pagels notes that Romans – and other foreign enemies – were traditionally compared to animals but the demonic depictions of Jews were new. Early accounts of Satan portrayed him as an agent of God, but Pagels shows that increases in satanic and demonic comparisons occurred with the rise of various breakaway Jewish sects, notably the Essenes who withdrew from Jewish society. The intra-Jewish conflict was described in stark terms of good and evil which was continued in the books of Matthew and Luke. John is notably absent of the personification of Satan, but the Jews fulfill the role of Satan in that account. Besides casting the Pharisees and the Jewish population as the instigators, the accounts also rehabilitate Jesus’ lineage and cast the story in mythical terms – relating it to the Old Testament, describing Jesus’ coming as the fulfillment of many prophesies, portraying Jesus’ life as a cosmic struggle.In describing how demonic imagery came to apply to pagans, Pagels analyzes the lives of a number of Christian converts in the second and third century C.E. Along the way, she describes the spread of Christianity and how it moved beyond the Jews, often tearing apart families. She does a good job in contrasting that sect to the others that were fermenting at the time – for example, the Essenes were a rather exclusive group compared to Christians; not just anyone could join. I did find the analysis in this section to be interesting and well-done but sometimes it seemed like Pagels was just writing about topics that interested her and that only semi-related to the overall theme. For example, she spends time on the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius – good, but tangential. In her section on the demonization of heretics, Pagels describes the consolidation of the church as well as some out-there takes on Christianity. She again seems to want to talk about her favored topics such as the Gnostic gospels, the subject of her best-known book. I found this to be very interesting and would like to read Pagels’ other books despite the focus/organization issues.more
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.more
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.more
The more I read Pagels, the more I become convinced she has only written one book, and modifies it slightly for each title she puts out. Although there was some information on the origin of Satan, this book was basically just another rehashing of her book, The Gnostic Gospels. In addition, she has a bad habit of ignoring those scholars she doesn't agree with, rather than engaging their arguments and demonstrating why we should listen to her (to be fair, this is a failing I see in a great many Biblical scholars, and not unique to Pagels). Overall, I was very disappointed. This book should have been better.more
The Origin of Satan sets out to trace the evolution of (surprise) Satan, both in Judaism and later Christianity. Elaine Pagels argues that although the actual characteristics ascribed to Satan shift with societal and religious shifts, what remains constant is the identification of Satan as the Other. Believers would identity pagans with Satan, Gentile Christians would identify Jews or Jewish Christians, or proto-orthodox Christians would identify heretics. The function of Satan therefore stands to delineate boundaries of identity, us versus them, while simultaneously reinforcing an increasingly dualistic cosmology within their religion.It's an interesting hypothesis that doesn't get fully played out. Or rather - when Pagels is on, she's on. But the argument is stretched too thin, and tangents are too pervasive, to make for a very tight and impressive read. Often this book reads as an introductory "history of Christianity," with stretches of pages where neither Satan nor the book's argument get brought up. This might have worked better as a longer academic paper, but that would be at the severe detriment of limiting audience. So there's a lot of interesting thought that I'll definitely take from my reading experience. But the book has its high and low points, and so I can't praise it whole-heartedly, knowing its potential that didn't get followed through on.more
A brilliant book about Satan as an historically constructed character. From the obstructive angel of the Hebrew Bible, to the Prince of Darkness and the incarnation of Evil in the Gospels, the processes that led to the diabolization of Satan (no pun intended!) were manifold: theological, but also social and political. This book, by a prestigious Princeton scholar of early Christianity, does a terrific job in analysing and presenting these events in a historical perspective and in a way intelligible by an interested lay person. The book describes in considerable detail the conflicts emerging within the jewish communities in the aftermath of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem's temple by the Romans, as well as the progressive separation of the followers of Jesus, from a jewish sect into an autonomous movement, and their efforts to simultaneous exculpate the romans from the death of their founding leader, and to blame it on their fellow jews, whose non recognition of their dead leader as the Messiah could only be satanicaly inspired. In Jesus' followers view this ill fated inspiration was seen as the reason for the cataclysmic war that have just been lost. This frame of mind, conducing to the expedite device of diabolization of worldly events, characteristic of the early Christian world view (and also of other Jewish sects, such as the Essenes) led, progressively, from the rejection of their jewish connection, to an uncompromising stance towards the pagan world, and to the diabolization of non canonical Christians (heretics) later on. The influence of this lengthy theological construction was pervasive for the past two millenia and still lives with us today in the world view (conscious or otherwise) of countless Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide. At least for this reason, this outstanding book should be read with attention.more
Once again Pagels provides an incisive and readable overview of the origin of the Bible and the historical context shaping both Christian & Jewish identities, and the Catholic Church as an institution. This title focuses on how the concept of Satan emerged from the story of Job (the angel "challenging" God's faith in his servant, Job), evolving from a "loyal obstacle" to a representation of evil. Pagel's findings are that the evolution had more to do with social developments than theological: groups of people vilified their enemies by associating them with Satan. Somewhat counterintuitively, this trend was followed primarily by Jews against other Jews, not against non-Jews, as they struggle to define / defend themselves and their faith in the face of increasing repression.Pagels analysis highlights the war between Jews and Roman authorities (especially the siege of Jerusalem) as the key contextual event in which to place an understanding of the Bible. This war and its aftermath motivated the very writing of the Bible, and defined who would be around to write it. Interestingly, this event is also pretty much irrelevant to understanding Jesus, since he died 30-35 years before -- unless by "understanding Jesus" is meant the portrait put forth by different groups claiming him as their own, in which case this is merely another way of saying "understanding the Bible" (and helps explain the rift between heretics such as the gnostics and the Church).Also interesting: Pagels seems to have come to this topic / question in part out of her grieving for her husband, who died in a hiking accident. That Pagels would acknowledge this personal motive in her introduction marks out the perspective she uses in all her popular writings: a critical and scholarly examination undertaken by a believer. I respect her scholarship and thesis all the more for this perspective.more
This was the first book that I read by Elaine Pagels. She has helped ease me on my spiritual journey. I have now read several of her books and this one is one of my favorites. I have also had the opportunity to see her speak once... that was unforgetable!more
Pagels' analysis of the treatment of evil as "other" in the Bible.more
Well written and insightful. Pagels demonstrates a clear progression of the evolution of early Christian thought and writing, putting it into relevant historical and social context. At times while reading it, her insights seemed so obvious, I wondered why people hadn't spotted this earlier. Both easily digestible, and scholarly; that's no small feat.more
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