May 092012

origin of satanThe Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, by Elaine Pagels

The title of this book seems somewhat misleading if all you see is, “The Origin of Satan.” The rest of the title is the real story.  Even so, by the end of the book I had a renewed appreciation for that “origin” business, since for me it became a constant reminder of how distorted and manipulated the idea of Satan has become from its Jewish roots.  It’s a good read, and I definitely recommend it for anyone ready to shake off some of the convenient dichotomies in our faith’s popular notions of Satan and evil.

The chapters of this book are:

  1. The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War
  2. The Social History of Satan: From the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels
  3. Matthew’s Campaign Against the Pharisees: Deploying the Devil
  4. Luke and John Claim Israel’s Legacy: The Split Widens
  5. Satan’s Earthly Kingdom: Christians Against Pagans
  6. The Enemy Within: Dehumanizing the Heretics

Through these chapters, Pagels very thoroughly shows how a fringe idea (of Satan as a rebellious and fallen angel) evolved into a means for some members of the oppressed minority of early Christianity to define themselves in opposition to the evils they experienced and perceived in the world.  She then carefully illustrates how this new doctrine was expanded as part of official Christian theology, and how it was increasingly used as a way to stigmatize anyone or anything that would stand in the way of the emerging ecclesiastical hierarchy and its ambition to exercise worldly power.

As we should all know, this doctrine eventually became the justification for “good Christians” committing all the same heinous sins of oppression and persecution (and with even greater magnitude) against other minorities, both internal and external to the Church.  We became what we hated.  If Jesus spoke truly about knowing his followers by their fruits, then what has history shown us about the spirit of this doctrine?

One take-away for me is that it’s painfully obvious many of us are still playing this bloody game today.  And don’t think that I am merely taking a shot at militant evangelicals and fundamentalists; Christians calling themselves mystics, progressives, or liberals can do it too, and too often these various factions viciously hurl the accusations back and forth at each other.  Let’s also acknowledge the presence of this demonizing tactic in many contemporary Christians’ attitudes toward other religions, nations, political philosophies, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and so on.  I’m afraid that almost any wing of popular Christianity could, if too closely tied to political power, repeat this sad, gruesome old story of “lawfully” abusing those judged as under the influence of the Devil.  I’m also convinced that some of us are actively trying to do just that today, and not only in the USA.

The questions begged by this book include these:  What will it take for us to collectively let go of this temptation, this addiction, of demonizing others?  How do we do it without using the same dehumanizing tactics against our Christian siblings who hold onto this human-made doctrine as if it were a divine law?  How do we more fully express the wisdom and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount?

My guess is that it’s all got something to do with love and the mystical relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit in one’s own heart.  What do you hear emerging from the stillness and silence in your heart?

Jesus Christ, our beloved brother and teacher, and Mary Sophia, our beloved mother and counselor, may your merciful, forgiving, selfless love heal us and inspire us to more freely serve as your vessels in this world. Amen.

  9 Responses to “Book Review: The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics”

  1. I wonder which is of more value; to be saved from the ignorance of another’s incorrect view, or to be saved from the arrogance of my own correct view?


    • Yes, Steve, this is part of the challenge for all of us! Jesus’ teaching about attending to the log in my eye before the speck in my neighbor’s eye certainly comes to mind.

      In another venue this morning, some good friends and I had a very spirited conversation about intolerance of intolerance. It seems to me that the underlying problem is thinking in dichotomies, such as right and wrong, in which disagreement with my right view cannot be tolerated, but is instead itself considered an absolute wrong. We seem to need a higher value, a higher priority, than simply being correct. But, of course, then we have to deal with the temptation to make that value/priority into a new correctness that cannot tolerate any dissent. LOL We’re funny funny creatures, aren’t we?


  2. LOL, Steve.

    This looks like an excellent to check into, Chuck. I’ve very much enjoyed the other books of Elaine Pagels I’ve read. She’s not only an outstanding scholar, but she’s also personally invested in her research . . . perhaps as a hidden mystic herself. She does an excellent job of cutting through assumptions to search for historical validity, and her quest has often led to surprising discoveries. When such discoveries expose sinister underpinnings within our religious history, we are certainly challenged to progress. May we do so!


    • Hi Karina,

      Yes, I’m also a fan of Pagels, and I’m not so sure her mysticism is very hidden. 😉 In fact, I recall reading or hearing her state that she can reasonably be called a Gnostic, though stating it very carefully. In any case, across the body of her work she has done a wonderful job of using first-rate scholarship to reveal the rich diversity of our faith in the first couple of centuries, and how it was then forced, often brutally, into smaller and smaller boxes over time. But in doing so, she also at least implies a way forward into a more open, inspired, and vibrant Christianity for our times and the future. It’s been years ago now, but her works thus played a significant role in helping me once again embrace, and be embraced by, Christianity as my religious home.


  3. I too enjoy reading pagles work.

  4. Hey Chuck,

    Thank you again for your overview of Pagels’ book. Having submitted grades yesterday (whew!), I’m now back with a “real” response. If Steve worries he may be “monopolizing” one of your other blogs, then I really worry how much more I am about to do so! Sorry.

    A few chapters felt belabored, but her pivotal second-to-last chapter on the “enemy within” was well worth the wait – and so was, in fact, the reflection of why these earlier chapters felt so belabored. After Pagels explains the history of the concept of “Satan,” which you’ve described, she then explores the history of Judeo-Christianity’s concept of the Satan force and who each generation associated with it. Early Jewish generations associated it with the other, the enemy, while later Christian generations associated it closer to home, with Christians they termed “heretics,” referring to “choices” in thinking. (So am I permitted to call them “open-minded”?) These are in contrast to the “orthodox,” or “straight-thinking.”

    The transition comes when early Christians perceived the Satan force with the Jews. It felt like Pagels spent an extraordinary amount of time quoting, citing, exploring, and analyzing the now-seemingly obvious point that the gospel writers blamed the Jews (yes, go on . . . !), as they hardly lived under “free speech” under the Romans who would persecute any who blamed them (of course . . . go on . . . !) So I skipped over some of this, but in my “yes, go on . . .” frustration, I checked the publication date and saw it was 1995. Hmmm, I recalled, I was just beginning grad school then, when my questions over the church were becoming ever more maddening. Had I found this book then – ahhhh! – what a gift it would have been! Given Pagels’ influence and her over-development of this point, I began to wonder: could it be that perhaps her point seems so obvious today in part because of the consciousness she herself raised through the publication of this book?

    OK, now to the critical later section, still quite telling today: Pagels explains that many who were not part of the “orthodox” movement saw this “Satan” force as an internal one, an internal battle within each of us. But the “orthodox” not only saw this Satan force as external, they placed this force upon other Christians they called “heretics,” who differed from them. I wondered, “How are those who interpret evil as an internal battle to even talk with those who interpret it as external – let alone win an argument when they are the very ones perceived as evil?” Clearly, they wouldn’t. Instead, they’d avoid such a futile battle and meet together in private. Sure enough, that’s what they did, and, sure enough, that’s one of the “arguments” the “orthodox” made against them! They must be evil, reasoned the “orthodox,” for they meet in private!

    The words of these “orthodox” fathers is strikingly revealing. One of our church fathers, for example, got away with inverting Jesus’ own words, as if to suggest that Jesus himself was wrong and had wrongly led the “heretics” – and he got away with it! She quotes these words from Tertullian:

    “Away with the one who is always seeking, for he never finds anything; for he is seeking where nothing can be found. Away with one who is always knocking, for he knocks where there is no one to open; away with one the one who is always asking, for he asks of one who does not hear.”

    Pagels also tantalized my curiosity with some of the Nag Hammadi texts I haven’t yet read, including one akin to my own latest blog, which explores which character in the story of the tree of knowledge is more “good,” the one who commanded humans against knowledge or the one who led them toward it. While my take was more subtle, this text was more condemning of the commander, but the affirmation for us both remains that the quest for knowledge is to be desired and the suppression of knowledge, especially for the sake of control by those in power, is to be avoided. It intrigued me to see that these ideas were posed in the very beginning of our faith, and then quite literally buried.

    Intriguingly, this is precisely the story of the orthodox vs. the open-minded streams of Christianity. As Pagels describes the history of this conflict, it appears to come down to one very specific difference: whether the people in the churches should think for themselves or whether they should merely listen and obey what the authorities tell them. This and the hierarchical structure, she explains, goes back even as far as Clement, who she says was writing contemporary with the gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. So I wondered whether these same gospel writers might have been referring to Clement and other such authorities in their repeated descriptions of the disciples arguing among themselves as to “who was the greatest.”

    Yep – I think I’ve “monopolized” your blog. Sigh. But you’ve plugged a book that contains a great wealth of insight on many themes we are often discussing here at So I second your plug!


  5. LOL I’m happy I could write the introduction to your review, Karina! 😉

    All kidding aside, thank you for providing such a nice synopsis of Pagel’s work! And you’re right, there are some chapters that require a bit of slogging, but it’s all such valuable information, and I believe it will be revealing to many people. I love the way Pagels as a meticulous historian lays the foundation for profound observation about where we are today and what could come tomorrow.

    Thank you very much for a wonderful contribution to this post! 🙂


 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>