The Origin of Satan: How Christianity Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics
© 1996 Elaine Pagels
Although Christianity sprang from Judaism, the two religions have sharply different conceptions of Satan. Christians view him as the prince of evil, the enemy of all that is good and holy. Jews, however, see him as a faithful servant of God: the Almighty’s quality-control agent who tests the faithful’s integrity by opposing them. We can plainly see that there were once Jews who held a view similar to the Christians: Jesus, his disciples, and followers like Paul saw Satan as a wretched foe. How was Satan transformed from servant to foe of God? The root lies in the influence of Apocalyptic dualism, but Elaine Pagels sees Satan’s descent into evil as inspired by the desire of some Jews and the Christians to literally demonize their opponents. In elaborating upon this she delivers a fascinating partial history of late-Temple Judaism and early Christianity as one transformed into another, and Satan fell from light into darkness.
It began with the Greeks, those venerable fathers of western civilization who seduced the Jews with their philosophy, gymnasiums, and three orders of pillars. While the Jews had fallen under the control of various powers before — the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Persians before Alexander and his generals bought Hellenic culture and rule to Palestine — never before had the people of Moses been so open to assimilation. They began avoiding circumcision and nibbling on pork, to the horror of traditionalists. The increasingly-Hellenized Jews, in rejecting their cultures’ norms and embracing those of the Greeks, were seen as even worse than old-time idolaters: they were race-traitors, and the direct agents of Satan.
Historically, Satan’s role was to oppose the chosen people, either to force them to prove their worth, or to hinder them from really making a mess of things.As the Jewish people became increasingly divided between their own ways and the Greek, his resistance gained an edge, and stories emerged in which his motives were changed. Satan was increasingly believed to oppose the Jews not for the greater good, but to spite God. Pagels details the various narratives that were co-opted or created to establish his going into business as CEO of Evil, Inc. The story of Babylon’s fall — its description as Venus/Lucifer, Star of the Morning, attempting to surpass God/the Sun’s glory and being crushed — is turned into the story of a rebellious angel. Satan’s origin also appears in texts not accepted by the Christians, wherein he and other angels are introduce to Adam and Eve and told to worship them. Upon refusal, they were exiled. The common thread in these origin tales and another is that of disobedience, and since the Hellenized Jews were no longer obeying the rules regarding pork and circumcision, they were Of the Devil. The early Christ-followers later turned the table on the traditionalists by accusing them of not obeying God through his messiah/incarnation,, and thus being agents of Satan if not demon possessed. This same belief was targeted against pagans who would not convert, as well as against Christians who had slightly different views on issues from the fundamental to the seemingly esoteric. The book ends with a hopeful plea that disagreeing with someone need not mean accusing them of being worse than Hitler.
The Origin of Satan is an interesting book, though not very true to its title. Pagels never mentions the influence of dualism and apocalypticism altogether, with the effect that she addresses Satan’s flowering as the prince of darkness, not the origins, the seed, of his evil. On the other hand, Origin covers the tension between the Jews in this period of cultural conflict quite well, and the strength of the book is its history of Judeo-Christianity in transition, with Satan’s own transformation being used as the lens. On the whole, Pagels has thus produced a fascinating work, but if you were really interested in the history of Satan, it’s not quite comprehensive.