The Origin of Satan Essay - Critical Essays

Elaine Pagels

The Origin of Satan

THE ORIGIN OF SATAN is heavily influenced by Pagels’ interest in the gnostic sects that apparently proliferated during the first and second centuries of the Christian era; these groups claimed for themselves secret knowledge (gnosis) by which their members were initiated into true salvation. Some gnostic documents, which were recovered in the find at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, speak of a root of evil within a person that can be overcome by right knowledge.

By contrast, the author maintains, the developing orthodox Christian community characterized evil in cosmic moral terms, personified by Satan (“the one who opposes”)—terms which allowed little room for redemption to those enemies of the Church branded “satanic.” In her reading of the canonical gospel accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John (the order of their composition), Pagels finds a growing tendency toward portraying Jesus and the early Christians as alienated from their own Jewish community, members of whom are described as satanically motivated.

As the Christian movement gradually became a Gentile movement between the years 70 and 100, converts facing Roman persecution found Satan at work among other Gentiles. In the second century, with Church leadership facing challenges to its doctrine and authority, those deviant Christians called heretics were cast as the embodiment of Satan.

Such dehumanization, Pagels says, while not new in human history, took a particularly dangerous direction in Western Christianity because framing the battle between “us” and “them” in cosmic moral terms paved the way for virulent anti-Semitism and even mass slaughter.

Pagels’ thesis is provocative, and THE ORIGIN OF SATAN is purposely one-sided. She is correct in her assessment that unspeakable evil has been promoted under the guise of “fighting Satan.” What THE ORIGIN OF SATAN fails adequately to explain, however, is how evil of such magnitude entered human experience in the first place.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. August 1, 1995, p. 14.

Commentary. C, September, 1995, p. 54.

The Nation. CCLX, June 26, 1995, p. 931.

The New Republic. CCXIII, July 10, 1995, p. 30.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, September 21, 1995, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. C, June 18, 1995, p. 9.

The New Yorker. LXXI, April 3, 1995, p. 54.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXI, Autumn, 1995, p. 124.

The Wall Street Journal. June 21, 1995, p. A16.