Elaine Pagels

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B. Cobbey Crisler (review date 3 December 1979)

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SOURCE: "Gnostic 'Books'," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1979, p. B6.

[In the following review, Crisler describes The Gnostic Gospels as a lucid history of the Gnostic movement.]

The shattering of two ancient jars, one in December, 1945, near Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the other, almost a year later, in a Dead Sea cave, still reverberates in the alcoves of Biblical scholarship.

Although the extraordinary manuscript discoveries in the Dead Sea area have been widely examined, published, and commented upon (with certain notable exceptions), the "gnostic" library found hidden in the Nag Hammadi jar remained "for eyes only", (except for the "Gospel of Thomas") among scholarly initiates until the end of 1977. Then the 52 tractates in 13 codices appeared in a full facsimile edition and a simultaneous English edition, both under the general supervision and editorship of James M. Robinson, director of the Institute of Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California. Said Professor Robinson at the time. "The floodgates have just opened."

Random House is in the sluiceway early with this book by Elaine Pagels, a member of Professor Robinson's translation team. As a book, it is the logical and inevitable outcome of her close association with the Nag Hammadi material. She writes for the layman, which is refreshing and she does so lucidly, which is a challenge, especially when "gnosticism" was regarded by its own adherents to be for the initiated only.

But as a title The Gnostic Gospels is inappropriate and was probably an editorial choice—the word "gospel" has market appeal. Certainly there is no indication in the introduction or in the text that the author ever intended to isolate the so called "gospels" of truth, of Thomas, Philip, the Egyptians, and Mary, from the rest of the corpus. Nor is any effort made to compare the "gnostic" gospels with the canonical gospels, as would be expected if the title correctly expressed the book's purpose.

Dr. Pagels instead has chosen to examine some of the primary concepts of "gnosticism," its themes and their major challenge to orthodox Christianity, all of which, she thinks should be re-evaluated in the light of the total Nag Hammadi find. In this same light, even the term "gnosticism," like Alice's Cheshire Cat, seems to be losing more of its definition, when it is made to apply to an amorphous collection of sects, loosely related, divergent in many points of view, and allegiant to scattered teachers.

If there is a common denominator that unites all sects called "gnostic," it is not theological concord. For represented in the relevant literature are the monadic and dyadic; the Scriptural and anti-Scriptural; the roots of paganism and source materials both Jewish and Christian; the ascetic and the seducer; the heresy of Simon Magus and the disillusionment of Tertullian.

In her search for a common denominator for a motivation that would and might have linked all these sects, Dr. Pagels writes: "In many churches, the bishop was emerging for the first time, as a 'monarch'—(literally 'sole ruler'). Increasingly, he claimed the power to act as disciplinarian and judge over those he called, 'the laity.' Could certain gnostic movements represent resistance to this process? Could gnostics stand among the critics who oppose the development of church hierarchy? Evidence from Nag Hammadi suggests that they did." This is a prominent thesis in her book.

Dr. Pagels also devotes a full chapter and much detail to the divisive views of the role of women in the church which she thinks may have helped motivate and widen the gap between "gnostics" and orthodox...

(This entire section contains 763 words.)

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Christians. Some "gnostic" women "were revered as prophets; others acted as teachers, traveling evangelists, healers, priests, perhaps even bishops." Noting the topicality of this issue today, she adds, "The Nag Hammadi sources, discovered at a time of contemporary social crises concerning sexual roles, challenge us to reinterpret history—and to re-evaluate the present situation."

Dr. Pagels is sensitive to the fact that her work might be mis-interpreted. Her book practically closes with a disclaimer: "That I have devoted so much of the discussion to gnosticism does not mean, as the casual reader might assume, that I advocate going back to gnosticism—much less that I 'side with it' against orthodox Christianity." For her, there is no question that Christianity would never have survived without the protection of its developing organization and structure, but she also provides the reader with reasons for sympathy with the "gnostic" outlook, not in its phases of wild distortion, but in those phases that offer logical, perhaps even Scriptural, occasion to review inherited ecclesiastical traditions.

Raymond E. Brown (review date 20 January 1980)

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SOURCE: "The Christians Who Lost Out," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 85, January 20, 1980, pp. 3, 33.

[Below, Brown offers a negative assessment of The Gnostic Gospels.]

Some 30 years ago, there were two discoveries in the Middle East that have great, even if indirect significance for our knowledge of early Christianity. In 1945, Coptic codices (books) were found at Nag Hammadi, near the Nile, about 300 miles south of Cairo; in 1947, scrolls, mostly Hebrew and Aramaic, were found at Qumran, near the Dead Sea.

These parallel discoveries reflect curiously parallel histories. The Egyptian codices, in fourth-century A.D. script, contain 52 works translated from earlier Greek texts, many of them composed by Christian gnostic sectarians. They contain views of Jesus and God that were condemned by the Fathers of the emerging Catholic Church. Weeded from the library of a nearby monastery, the codices were buried in a jar, probably to prevent their discovery during the anti-heretical purges inaugurated in 367 by Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria. The Dead Sea scrolls came from pre-Christian Jewish sectarians, probably Essenes. They propose legal interpretations and apocalyptic dreams (some shared by Christians) that were anathema to the Pharisees who gave shape to orthodox Judaism. Some of these Hebrew scrolls were also buried in jars, to hide them from advancing Roman armies.

The Dead Sea scrolls got notoriety when Edmund Wilson popularized them in The New Yorker and in a subsequent book, unkindly dubbed a novel by some critics. The coptic codices are on their way to notoriety now that Elaine Pagels, chairman of the religion department at Barnard, has popularized them in The New York Review of Books and in The Gnostic Gospels. Wilson was a littérateur and an amateur scholar of Hebrew, Professor Pagels is a recognized scholar of gnosticism; but her popularization, like his, may well be a controversial success. Both books make important discoveries of antiquity accessible to readers who might otherwise have ignored them, but both are accused by scholars of underlining the sensational.

In her introduction to The Gnostic Gospels, Professor Pagels asks why the Nag Hammadi discovery is so little known. She reports that Pahor Labib of the Coptic Museum granted only a few scholars access to the manuscripts and that, as a graduate student at Harvard in 1968, she was "delighted" when she was allowed to study mimeographed transcriptions of the texts. Yet a dozen years before that, it was perfectly possible for me and other graduate students at Johns Hopkins to study a book of photographs, published by the same Pahor Labib, of 13 of the treatises. And the fact that 4,000 studies of varying length have already appeared on the gnostic documents suggests that they have not exactly been neglected.

Without detracting from Professor Pagels's original contribution, let me note another possible confusion in her presentation. She has chosen to call the Coptic library The Gnostic Gospels, even though not all the treatises are gnostic and only about 10 percent are called "Gospels." The title of her book thus might lead us to anticipate new knowledge about the historical Jesus. But from these works we learn not a single verifiable new fact about Jesus' ministry, and only a few new sayings that might plausibly have been his.

Professor Pagels recognizes this, for she does use the Coptic works correctly, not to describe Jesus but to describe the struggle within early Christianity between a smaller group that lost out—i.e., the gnostics—and the larger group that was to become the orthodox Church. Gnosticism is so diverse that it almost defies definition. In general, its Christian proponents claimed special knowledge—about the divine status of human beings—that had been obscured in the Old Testament but was revealed to the elect by Jesus, who was thus regarded as an illuminator rather than a dying savior. Until now we have known the gnostics through the polemics of their adversaries, especially Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. A.D. 180). The importance of the Nag Hammadi find is that it gives us the gnostics' own writings and thoughts. When the Coptic library first appeared, W.F. Albright argued that it proved the Church Fathers were correct in both their analysis of gnostic thought and their aversion to it. Professor Pagels's arguments are more nuanced, but it is noteworthy that The Gnostic Gospels contains more references to Irenaeus and the other Fathers than to the Coptic works. The ancient orthodox texts are still the key to the very obscure gnostic writings we now possess.

One can only applaud Professor Pagels's intention to write as a historian of religion, "not to advocate any side, but to explore the evidence." But about nine-tenths of the discussion of each topic in the book consists of her sympathetic effort to understand the gnostics' side, which will leave the reader cheering for them and wishing that the narrow-minded orthodox had not won. Only at the end, nearly buried, comes Professor Pagels's dispassionate statement pointing out the chasm into which gnosticism could lead and hinting that the orthodox, despite their dyspepsia, may have had their heads on straight. Thus she can defend herself against the misinterpretations people will draw from her book.

Indeed, she even anticipates such misunderstandings, Her book, she says, "does not mean, as the casual reader might assume, that I advocate going back to gnosticism—much less that I 'side with it' against orthodox Christianity." But such a one-line disclaimer will not satisfy other scholars who will ask whether she has responsibly executed her duty to the "casual reader." Pheme Perkins, whom Professor Pagels cites for her contribution to gnostic research, will not be alone in her judgment that The Gnostic Gospels is "flawed by hasty generalization, over-interpretation of texts to fit a pre-determined scheme, and lack of sympathetic balance."

The scheme into which Professor Pagels seeks to fit the gnostics is drawn from the sociology of religion, a delicate task for a minority such as the early Christians, and an even more delicate task for the gnostics, who were a minority within that minority. She sees theological differences as reflecting differences in church politics. The orthodox insisted upon the bodily resurrection of Jesus, she argues, because the authority for that claim was a chain of tradition going back to the apostles—a chain that supported the authority of the bishop in the church structure. The gnostics, on the other hand, had a-nonphysical view of Christ, based on the spiritual experiences of his presence by the illumined elite; their view lessened the need for an authoritative church teacher and allowed greater freedom.

Yet did not Paul (who did not have a simplistic view of physical resurrection; see I Corinthians 15:44) already emphasize the need for an identifiable chain of witnesses to Jesus raised-from-burial (I Corinthians 15:3-8), long before anyone argued about the authority of bishops? And did not the gnostics develop their own authorities, so that eventually they were as critical of one another as they were of the orthodox? In another chapter of The Gnostic Gospels, it becomes clear that the denial of bodily resurrection was less a matter of reliable information than a corollary of the gnostics' denial that Jesus was truly human and really did die.

We are told by Professor Pagels that the orthodox, in order to have a theological analogy for the authority of one bishop, emphasized the one God, while many gnostics downgraded the cruel creator god of the Jews and had a more subtle vision of the Unknown. Here Professor Pagels slips badly by making Clement of Rome, whom she thrice calls bishop, a primary advocate for a church structure ruled by a single bishop. Yet there is no evidence for a single bishop in Rome until well after Clement's time; he never gave himself any title, much less that of bishop; and he clearly advocated an earlier church structure with a plurality of bishops. Moreover, the orthodox insistence on monotheism was surely part of the heritage from Judaism; any relationship of monotheism to monepiscopacy was only a very minor factor.

Professor Pagels presents the orthodox as upholding the distinction between the ordained (male) clergy and the laity—a distinction rejected by gnostics, who often rotated cultic functions, even among women. Yet the discriminating reader of The Gnostic Gospels can learn, from material tucked away in the book, that the gnostics' stance reflected neither a laudable democratic instinct nor an anticipation of women's liberation. The gnostics could share the highest clerical functions among themselves because they regarded themselves as the elite and all other Christians as ignorant and (for some gnostics) as the massa damnata. It would be a rare orthodox clergyman whose contempt for the laity would be comparable to the gnostic contempt for the non-gnostic.

Similarly, the careful reader can discover that the gnostic texts that praise women do so because these women have rejected the "works of femaleness." One of the most famous gnostic gospels ends with the principle that "Every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." If some gnostic texts present Mary Magdalene as the great Christian spokesman—as against Peter, the hero of the orthodox—it should not be forgotten that men were probably the authors of such works and that Mary Magdalene was only their mouthpiece. If the gnostics had been victorious, one may suspect sadly that the history of the male manipulation of the female in religion would still be dreary.

A final word on the greening of the gnostics by promoting this book through appeals to sex and daring. On the third page of her introduction, Professor Pagels quotes a passage that has Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene often on her mouth, and that passage is featured in advertisements for the book. It is only fair to warn the prurient that the action goes no further; this book, like the gnostic gospels, rates a PG rather than an X. As for the hint that it would be daring to read such a heterodox book, why not be more daring? Trust neither Professor Pagels nor her possibly suspect detractors, but instead buy the convenient collection of the gnostic works by James M. Robinson. Read the texts themselves and you may emerge "conservative-chic," concluding that crusty old Irenaeus was right, after all, to regard the gnostics as the crazies of the second century.

Hyam Maccoby (review date June 1980)

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SOURCE: "Counter-Church," in Commentary, Vol. 69, No. 6, June, 1980, pp. 86-88.

[In the following review, Maccoby argues that while The Gnostic Gospels provides the lay reader with an introduction to gnosticism, it is flawed in several crucial areas.]

Gnosticism, an esoteric movement in ancient religion, has achieved surprising topicality. It may even be regarded as the form of religion most congenial to the modern world. Certain popular sects (such as Scientology) are really modern versions of gnosticism, with their description of earth as a lost, evil planet, containing trapped seeds of divinity, to be redeemed only by intervention of saviors from outer space. Anyone who regards himself as religious but "opposed to organized religion" is liable to gravitate toward the gnostic position.

The drawback of gnosticism is that its adherents turn away from the practical problems of the world. They regard themselves as living on this earth as aliens, having wandered here somehow by mistake. They form small isolated groups devoted to developing the secret knowledge (gnosis) of how to link up with their true home. Paupers who have learned that they are really princes, they reject the hovel in which they find themselves, assert their newly-discovered identity, and seek to return to the palace.

This is an attitude that arises in periods when the outward world affords little satisfaction or happiness, and particularly when political expression is stifled by great impersonal forces. Such a time was that of the Greco-Roman world, and such a time is our own. The gnostic movement thus has much to say to troubled, alienated souls of our generation.

Until quite recently, our knowledge of ancient gnosticism was sparse, being confined to quotations and descriptions embedded in the writings of its Christian opponents, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian, who regarded gnosticism as a Christian heresy. Modern scholars, however, have suggested that gnosticism existed before Christianity, and only took a Christian form at a later stage. In the 19th century, some very interesting Christian gnostic documents were brought to light, including the Gospel of Mary and the Apocryphon of John. Finally, in 1945, a library of gnostic documents (some non-Christian) was discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. They had been hidden in jars, probably by some gnostic-minded monk, at a time when the official Christian church was busily engaged in suppressing all the gnostic writings it could find. These manuscripts were in the Coptic (late Egyptian) language and were written in the 4th century, but were evidently translations of Greek originals dating from the 2nd century and perhaps earlier. From this discovery arose a huge scholarly industry, similar in dimensions to that based on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It will be many years before the full impact of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts can be gauged.

The most interesting questions to which definitive answers are being sought relate to the connections between gnosticism and Christianity. Even though official Christianity persecuted gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, its own origins may be very much bound up with this "heresy." Many passages in the New Testament, especially in the Epistles of Paul and the Gospel of John, have a strongly gnostic flavor. The central myth of Pauline Christianity—the rescue of initiates from a fallen world by a descending and ascending Savior—is essentially gnostic in nature. So the question again presents itself: which came first, gnosticism or Christianity? And why did gnosticism and official Christianity eventually come into conflict? What about Jesus himself? Was he a gnostic teacher, or did gnostic ideas enter Christianity only with Paul? Or was Jesus an essentially Jewish teacher whose career was transformed into a gnostic myth after his death?

There are also some very interesting questions about the relation between gnosticism and Jewish mysticism. There can be no doubt that the vocabulary of Jewish mysticism, from its earliest literary manifestations, is permeated with expressions derived from gnosticism, though these expressions are given a Jewish meaning at variance with the dualism and world-weariness of gnosticism itself. But can it be, as Moritz Friedlander has argued, that the historical origin of gnosticism is actually to be found in heterodox Judaism? Or was gnosticism (as Gershom Scholem has remarked) "conceived in the struggle against Judaism as the conqueror of mythology"? Among the Nag Hammadi manuscripts are some that make no reference to Christianity but are full of Jewish references. Are these the work of heretical Jews, or of non-Jews both fascinated and repelled by Judaism who constructed a mythology from Jewish materials by standing Judaism on its head?

Perhaps we should look for the origins of gnosticism independently of both Christianity and Judaism, in the religiosity of the Hellenistic world. A few of the Nag Hammadi texts are entirely pagan. There are strong similarities between gnosticism and pagan forms of mysticism: Hermetism, which was associated with the worship of the Egyptian god Thoth, and the mystery-religions associated with fertility deities (in their Hellenistic elaborations). Special claims can be made also for a background of Zoroastrianism, or even of Buddhism (which was known in the Hellenistic world). Arguments for a Hellenistic origin of gnosticism were once thought to have been refuted, but the pagan gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi have reopened the debate. And this again revives the question of whether Paul created Christianity by injecting, into a not unusual Jewish messianic group, ideas derived from the pagan mystical sects of his native Tarsus.

The gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi have never received the publicity given to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Elaine Pagels has now written a book for the general reader [The Gnostic Gospels] in order to remedy the regrettable public ignorance of this important subject. Professor Pagels's professional work has been concerned with the Nag Hammadi documents, and she has previously written scholarly works on the connections between these documents and the New Testament.

As the only existing guide on the subject for the general reader, Professor Pagels's book has to be recommended, but it is disappointing. The author does not treat the subject of gnosticism with the breadth it deserves. Her chief topic is the conflict between Christian gnosticism and orthodox Christianity in the 2nd century, and she almost ignores aspects of the Nag Hammadi texts not relevant to this issue. She does, however, provide an introduction of wider scope, describing in readable fashion the history of the Nag Hammadi discovery, including the political and scholarly infighting that took place before the manuscripts were released to the world, and also giving a brief summary of the work that has been done on the manuscripts so far.

In her treatment of the conflict between orthodoxy and gnosticism, Professor Pagels seeks first of all to revise the (allegedly) widely held view of early Christianity as consisting of a central church with a lunatic fringe, and to give us instead a picture of a mass of rival sects of which the so-called orthodox church was only one and not even the most promising. As for the gnostics, she shows that, in contrast to orthodox Christians, they were unconcerned with institutional forms, and their communities were characterized by equality, even extending to the choice of priests and prophets by lot. They narrowed the gap between the human and the divine to such an extent that the initiate was regarded as sharing deity with the Savior, Jesus. She gives an attractive picture of the gnostics, emphasizing the spontaneity and inwardness of their religious approach, and arguing that they were pro-feminist. At the same time, she freely admits that such a religion, by reason of its anti-institutionalism and its tendency to split into innumerable groups, was ill-adapted for survival over a long period.

Her picture of the gnostics is considerably idealized in the interests of recommending them to modern libertarians and anti-authoritarians. The darker side of the gnostics is hardly touched on: their obsession with the evil of this world, their hatred of sex, their elitism, their mystagogic pretension, and at times their "transcendence" of ordinary morality. Still, a valuable description is given of the Valentinians, the one gnostic group that made a serious effort to combine mystical insight with the claims of ordinary communal life.

Professor Pagels, unfortunately, has a tedious bee in her bonnet. This is her idea that doctrinal differences between orthodox and gnostic Christians can often be explained in terms of "politics." She applies this approach, for example, to the orthodox insistence on strict monotheism, as opposed to the gnostic belief that the creator of the world was a minor deity (suffering from megalomania), and that the true, ineffable God was far above him. Professor Pagels argues that this difference of doctrine reflected a difference of political, or organizational, attitude: the orthodox hierarchy, with the Bishop of Rome at its apex, was projected into the heavens in the shape of God and His angels. She does not consider the possibility, exemplified by Judaism, that a religion can insist on strict monotheism while its religious institutions remain unhierarchical and decentralized (there was never any Jewish equivalent to the Pope). Professor Pagels here puts the cart before the horse. For the Church, monotheism was a philosophy of life that included among its consequences the need to take seriously the organization of the community of the faithful. If this world was created by the One God, and not by a limited or flawed underling, then it must be basically good, demanding and repaying efforts to set it in order.

Professor Pagels has very little to say about the personality of the historical Jesus, but her general approach suggests that she thinks he was more like the gnostics than the orthodox, and that his alleged conflict with the Pharisees foreshadowed the gnostic struggle with officialdom. At one point, in a rare direct reference to the historical Jesus, she suggests that the gnostics' free attitude toward women reflected that of Jesus, who "violated Jewish convention by talking openly with women, and … included them among his companions." But Jesus did not in fact "violate Jewish convention," since in his easy relationship with women he was following the well-understood pattern of the Jewish prophet (compare Elijah with the widow of Zarephath and Elisha with the woman of Shunem). On the other hand, the feminism of the gnostics can easily be exaggerated; often it only amounted to a contempt for sex and a desire to reduce all mankind to neuter beings.

In general, the role of Judaism in this book is to act as a kind of prototype for the patriarchal, hierarchical structure eventually assumed by the Catholic Church. Opposed to both Judaism and Catholic Christianity is the free individualism of the gnostic sects. This is too simple, not only because it exaggerates the "freedom" of gnosticism but also because the Catholic Church was much more rigid, both doctrinally and institutionally, than Judaism had ever been.

The position of women under Pharisaic Judaism was relatively good: they were allowed to own property even after marriage, to be divorced if ill treated, to refuse an uncongenial marriage. These rights were all lost under Catholic Christianity. The recognition of a female element in the Divine—which Professor Pagels claims as an original achievement of the gnostics—was far from unknown in Judaism, where, for example, one of the divine names, Shaddai, means "breast," and another Rahaman ("merciful") is derived from a root meaning "womb." The idea of divine femininity is prominent, of course, in Jewish medieval mysticism. The doctrine that Adam was originally hermaphroditic (based on Genesis 1:27, "male and female created He them") is a common-place of the aggadic tradition. The gnostics probably took this idea from the aggada. It is most unlikely that a talmudic rabbi derived it from Plato, as Professor Pagels asserts, especially as the idea can be traced back to Babylonian literature.

Professor Pagels's simple opposition of gnostics to orthodox Christians will not do. The real problem is the extreme polarization which Christianity underwent. Why did it divide into lawless gnostics on the one hand and rigidly organized "male-chauvinist" Catholics on the other? Why did the Church produce a hierarchy very similar to the pattern falsely attributed to the Pharisees in the (hostile) descriptions of the Gospels? Why was there no middle ground between a complete rejection of human institutions and the formation of a bureaucracy with a penchant for repression? The answer to this, I suggest, lies in the antinomianism of Pauline Christianity—its extremist antagonism to the concept of law. This is what divided Christendom into those trying to capture an impossible spontaneity and those struggling, by an inevitably exaggerated and overstructured reaction, to infuse a commonsense practicality into the business of communal living. Official Christianity has always had to struggle desperately with people who take the original tenets of Pauline Christianity seriously, and so threaten to destroy all continuity and viability in society. The pendulum thus swings between anarchy and repression.

The study of the gnostic texts will continue to throw light both on the origins of Pauline Christianity and on its subsequent struggles. I doubt if it will throw much light on Jesus himself, since he was rooted in Pharisaic Judaism. Professor Pagels's [The Gnostic Gospels], on the whole, is a useful but flawed interim report, a guide to the many fascinating possibilities that have been opened up, but a guide that should be consulted with caution.

Kathleen McVey (essay date January 1981)

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SOURCE: "Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels," in Theology Today, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 498-501.

[In the following essay, McVey explores issues of feminism in Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels.]

A collection of Coptic documents discovered at Nag Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in Egypt in 1945 has shed important light on early Christianity by increasing our understanding of gnosticism. Gnosticism existed in pagan, Jewish, and Christian forms and was a major competitor with orthodox Christianity during the second century A.D. Christian gnosticism, a complex and varied movement, is nevertheless theologically distinct from Orthodox Christianity because it differentiates between the ineffable true God and the inferior Demiurge who created the material world and who is essentially identical with the God of the Old Testament. Christian adherents of gnosticism further believed that they, the "pneumatics" or spiritual people, constituted the true church over against the "psychics," ordinary Christians, and the "hylics," the material people.

Accepting the basic thesis of Walter Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, some scholars believe that gnosticism represents a form of Christianity, the antiquity and legitimacy of which equals that of orthodox Christianity. Elaine Pagels of Barnard College is among those who accept Bauer's basic understanding of the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy. Her recent book, The Gnostic Gospels, is therefore a popularization not only of the Coptic gnostic find at Nag Hammadi but also of the Bauer thesis. As such, it is naturally attractive to certain readers and correspondingly abhorrent to others.

Pagels participated in the preliminary publication of the texts in question (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. J. M. Robinson and M.W. Meyer, New York, 1977). She has also written on gnostic biblical exegesis and on other aspects of gnosticism, especially in its Valentinian form. The Gnostic Gospels begins with a lively account of the discovery of the texts, their eventual emergence into availability to scholars, and a general description of the state of research on gnosticism. The book itself consists of six chapters, each of which concentrates on some aspect of theology, contrasts the orthodox with the gnostic view, and seeks sociological explanations for the differences. She considers the theological differences, although real, insufficient to account for the opposition between the two groups., The chapters focus, in turn, on the understanding of Christ's resurrection, on the monarchic episcopacy, on the understanding of the deity in male vs. female terms, on attitudes toward martyrdom, on ecclesiology, and, finally, on "self-knowledge as knowledge of God." Throughout the book she draws out modern parallels to the attitudes of both gnostics and orthodox—with notably greater success in translating the gnostic beliefs into terms attractive to a sophisticated modern audience.

Elaine Pagels' Gnostic Gospels is a book calculated to appeal to the liberal intellectual Christian who feels personally religious but who dislikes "institutional religion." In the midst of the resurgence of anti-scientific and anti-intellectual currents throughout American Christianity, Pagels has presented us with an appealing portrayal of the gnostic Christians as a beleaguered minority of creative persons ignorant of their rightful historical role by a well-organized but ignorant lot of literalists. Although in her conclusion the author says she does not, "as the casual reader might assume,… advocate going back to gnosticism," she goes on to claim to have presented the gnostic texts "as Christians in the first centuries experienced them—[as] a powerful alternative to what we know as orthodox Christian tradition." Not only the "casual reader" but some careful readers and specialists in early Christian literature have perceived the book as a kind of modern apology for gnosticism.

Rather than repeating the remarks of the reviewers, I propose here to evaluate briefly one of the book's several related theses, that "two very different patterns of sexual attitudes [emerge] in orthodox and gnostic circles." Pagels claims three areas of evidence for these contrasting attitudes: (1) the gnostics describe the deity using both masculine and feminine terms while the orthodox use only masculine images; (2) gnostic exegesis of the creation story focuses on Genesis 1, where humans are created "male and female," while the orthodox emphasize Genesis 2, in which the woman's creation is secondary and for the happiness of the man; (3) the social practice of the two communities differs, the gnostics practicing a "principle of equality" between the sexes, while the orthodox subordinate women to men.

What is the evidence presented on each of these points? First, on the nature of the deity, the Bible is taken as sufficient evidence of the orthodox use of almost exclusively masculine epithets for God. The few exceptions noted—Deut. 32.11, Hosea 11.1, Isaiah 66.12ff., and Num. 11.12—are insufficient to challenge the overall impression. Without denying the patriarchal framework of the Judaeo-Christian understanding of God, we may ask whether Pagels succeeds in showing that gnostic belief is any less sexist. She notes that "gnostic sources continually use sexual symbolism to describe God…. Yet instead of describing a monistic and masculine God, many of these texts speak of God as a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements."

The simple fact that these texts often use "sexual symbolism" to describe God tells us nothing in itself. The relationship between male and female elements in the dyad is the crucial issue. Since the male principle represents the spiritual realm and the female principle at worst the material realm, at best the spiritual elements in the material realm, all the gnostic cosmologies are ultimately patriarchal in conception.

Pagels' citation of excerpts from gnostic writings without their requisite contexts obscures the overall relation of male and female divine powers. For example, when Ialdabaoth boasts (in clear parody of Yahweh) that he is the only God, his Mother reprimands him, "Do not lie, Ialdabaoth." Since nothing of the context is revealed by Pagels, one might imagine that the female divine principle is superior to the male. But the Mother here is herself the "abortion" of Sophia, who is, in turn, the youngest of thirty aeons descended from the ineffable Father. Sophia's fall, caused by her attempt to know the Father apart from Nous, his only-begotten son, is ultimately the cause of the existence of the material world, from which the gnostic must escape.

On the second point, the exegesis of the Genesis creation story, it is simply untrue that orthodox Christians focused exclusively on Genesis 2. In support of her view, Pagels cites only I Corinthians 11.7-9. Other examples could be cited as well, but Pagels is evidently unaware of the Platonic Christian tradition of exegesis from Clement and Origen of Alexandria to the Cappadocians, Ambrose, and Augustine, which concentrates on Genesis 1. Pagels mentions Clement of Alexandria, but as a "striking exception to the orthodox pattern," and she notes that the consensus of orthodoxy "ruled out Clement's position." But Clement was not really so isolated and exceptional as she claims.

On the third point, the social practice of the two communities, our sole sources of information are the orthodox writers. Irenaeus and Tertullian, the only extant sources which describe the behavior of the gnostics, are discounted by Pagels when they describe behavior of which she disapproves but taken literally when the behavior is acceptable to modern feminist views. As Pagels remarks, "no one knows" whether to believe Irenaeus' claim (also, to his mind, an accusation) that Marcus allowed women to celebrate the eucharist with him is simply added without comment to the evidence that "clearly indicates a correlation between religious theory and social practice."

Further, Tertullian functions in this book as the mouthpiece of the "orthodox" view that women should not speak, teach, baptize, or claim any "masculine" function. He was indeed a first-class misogynist as well as one of the most important early Latin Fathers of the church. But Pagels breathes scarcely a word about Tertullian's doctrinal peculiarities, his extreme rigorism, and the fact that he spent more years as a Montanist than he had as an orthodox Christian. Although early Montanism in Asia Minor provided a context in which women played a prominent role, Tertullian's brand of Montanism, having disposed of the "feminist" elements along with some other less viable eschatological tenets, lived on as a rigorist form of Christianity in North Africa for nearly two centuries, and was known as "Tertullianism."

In short, Heresy and feminism were not such good bedfellows as either Pagels or the modern Christian misogynists would have us believe. While there is some evidence that women may have played a larger role in some heretical communities than in their orthodox counterparts, attempts to link activity with the beliefs of the communities in question have failed.

Insofar as modern proponents of women's rights are concerned, does gnosticism offer a "powerful alternative" to Orthodox Christianity? I think not. Further, I hope that the intellectually curious will refuse to be swept along by Pagels' implicit appeal to see themselves among those "creative persons [who find] themselves at the edges of orthodoxy" but will instead investigate the matter for themselves.

Robin Lane Fox (review date 21 August 1988)

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SOURCE: "Sweet Are the Uses of Original Sin," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, pp. 15-6.

[In the review below, Fox states that Adam, Eve, and the Serpent contains the best elements of Pagels' writing, but contends that Pagels' arguments are not always plausible.]

The Bible begins with two accounts of the creation, written by different authors at different times. We do not know their dates, but the likeliest guesses are the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. We do know that they were later combined by a third person, the patron saint of relaxed editors. The two stories contradicted each other and each said the bare minimum. The editor did his best, which was next to nothing. He put the stories one after another and left an Eden of unanswered questions, in which posterity has wandered and made its own discoveries ever since.

Elaine Pagels's Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is the latest heir to these stories that suggest so much more than they state. Why did God say, "Let us make man," if only He existed? Why did He create man twice? Why was Adam given a woman as a helper, not another man? Was it because Adam and Eve were supposed to make love from the start? But if so, was wicked Cain conceived in Paradise? What exactly was the "knowledge" that did such harm: was it carnal, moral or psychedelic? Whatever was bothering the serpent? According to one view, he was jealous because he had seen the human couple making love in the garden. On another, he was disgusted with God's behavior: Why should a single tree be put out of bounds? Why should intelligence be classified as an official secret? One little slip by Adam and Eve, and God appears to weigh in with the death penalty. There were some imaginative early Christians who thought the serpent was the hero of the piece.

Unkind to serpents, the second of the two stories has not been kind to women. In the 17th century, just before the Mayflower sailed, good Englishwomen were still being encouraged to apologize in their prayers for the sin of their grandmother Eve. Speculative unorthodoxy, early Christianity and feminist imagery are a compound that brings the best out of Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University. Her new book takes Genesis 1-3 as the text of its sermon and has the distinctive qualities so many admired in her work on the Gnostic Gospels. It is very clearly written. It has form, moral impetus and direction. The author works with themes and ideas more than facts and historical detail. She sees close connections between contemporary and ancient ways of thinking. She comes across sympathetically and I have greatly enjoyed my dialogue with her argument.

Her book's impact lies in its direction and emphasis, not an any new discoveries that will change future study. The history of Adam and Eve has already been written on a much broader range. Ms. Pagels stops with St. Augustine and his arguments for original sin. This book lacks the luxuriant byways that were traveled only last year by James Turner's "One Flesh," a work that ranged from St. Paul to Milton. Ms. Pagels is less concerned with Jewish speculations on her themes, although books they consider apocryphal do overlap with ideas in early Christian sources. One rabbi even thought Adam had sex with each animal in order to test it before naming it. The idea has a hideous power.

Instead, Ms. Pagels focuses on two ideas, moral freedom and original sin. She admires the former idea as much as she regrets the latter, but I would question several turns in her arguments Christians, she believes, were the first to champion the "absolute moral worth of the individual," although there is more in pagan Greek philosophies about that than she reveals. The Christian "commitment to moral freedom" won converts, she says, and was appealingly radical. It also impelled some early Christians to seek martyrdom. In Ms. Pagels's view, it derived from the text on man's creation in God's image: Genesis inspired Christians to oppose "external domination by the Roman state." The "proclamation of moral freedom grounded in Genesis 1-3 was regarded as effectively synonymous with the Gospel."

I think she exaggerates. A small minority of "knowing," or Gnostic, Christians did make Genesis a battleground with orthodox authors, but the vast majority of Christians were more concerned with redemption by Christ than with possible views of creation by God. They were much less interested in the world's beginning than in its end and their fate afterwards. Christian martyrs and apologists do first voice the idea of "religious liberty," the idea that each person, as Tertullian wrote around 200 A.D., has a "free choice of divinity." That view arose from the position in the martyrs and apologists persecuted nonparticipants in Roman society, not from anything written in Genesis. Rather the martyrs and accounts of them quote Genesis on "bruising the serpent's head," the serpent being Satan over whom the Christian martyr triumphs. The texts on creation were not exploited, not even by the brave Perpetua, the early martyr who wrote an account of her trial and persecution and whom women's histories like to exploit instead.

As for original sin, Ms. Pagels has no truck with St. Augustine's idea and its influence. Her chapters on this lie closest to her title and they make the old issues very clear. When she considers why this doctrine seemed ever more plausible to fellow Christians. I find her case less than plausible. Her particular emphasis is political. By Augustine's day in the fifth century, she argues, the Church was part of a Christian empire under a Christian emperor. The idea that all humans are corrupted by heredity and therefore in need of government made sense of the Christians' new predicament. Why, though, did the doctrine of original sin take root deeply in the West, but much less so in the East, where church and emperor were even more closely intertwined? I think the political view is not much of an answer. Nor, strictly, is the personal one, that original sin made exceptional sense of misfortunes, deaths, illnesses and suffering. To St. Augustine, of course, it did, but why original sin and not just each individual's tendency to sinfulness? Original sin is not an invitation to feel guilt. Original sin and personal guilt are often connected too closely—as they are in this book. We cannot feel guilty for what is not our own fault. The danger in invoking original sin is to take away personal responsibility and open the way to ideas of cheap grace. Grace is not prominent in Ms. Pagels's exposition.

St. Augustine owed much to his wish to explain the great problem of undeserved evil and suffering. He also confronted his own congregations, those groups of stubbornly un-Christian Christians; their sins, more than the Empire's, needed explanation. Above all, he was involved in the particular problems of baptism, especially infant baptism. If babies were sinless, why baptize them? If they were sinful, how had sin entered, except through Adam? Ms. Pagels puts her main emphasis elsewhere. The first part of her book has little to do directly with Genesis; the second half could have advanced on a wider front. Like the serpent, these texts in Genesis offer scope for exceptional subtlety.

Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 14 September 1988)

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SOURCE: "Politics in Paradise—the Genesis of 'Original Sin'," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 80, No. 203, September 14, 1988, p. 18.

[In the following review, D'Evelyn finds Adam, Eve, and the Serpent an "elegant, well-argued discussion of a bold thesis."]

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is an elegant, well-argued discussion of a bold thesis. To cover so much ground—four centuries of the Christian era—in such brief scope (under 200 pages), Elaine Pagels looks at a variety of interpretations of a key biblical text: the first three chapters of Genesis, the creation stories.

Long known to be from two different sources, these chapters cover the beginning of time, and the immediate aftermath. God creates man and woman in his image and gives them dominion over the earth; but Adam and Eve listen to the serpent and disobey God, bringing grief on themselves—Adam must work for a living and Eve must bear children in agony—and the whole race in perpetuity.

Obviously there's a problem here, a contradiction between the two stories, and Pagels manages to account for the range of responses to this text, from Jesus and his witnesses, including the Gnostics and Paul, down to St. Augustine in the fourth century. These responses, she discovers, reflect the position of Christians in the society of the Roman, then Christian, empire.

She begins in the time of Jesus. She sees Jesus as "a fire-brand village preacher" whose preaching of the kingdom-at-hand made him a loose cannon in an anxious society watched over by nervous Romans. Jesus' chastity, his advocacy of leaving all for the kingdom of heaven, his astringent, inward view of righteousness: These set the scene for a century of controversy over marriage, family, procreation, and celibacy-indeed, the capacity of men and women to decide how to live their own lives.

Pagels shows how the Apostle Paul's ascetic version of Jesus' message was answered by early church fathers such as the urbane Clement of Alexandria. In the background are the conflicting images in Genesis of sexual equality in the first chapter and the tension-filled, tragic relationship of Adam and Eve.

As the prospects of an early return on the millennial faith of the early Christians grew dim, the issues raised in Genesis became focused on liberty and autonomy. Widely and savagely persecuted, Christians showed remarkable courage, enough to convert pagans like Justin the philosopher, who himself would later become Justin Martyr.

Pagels is a good storyteller and retails these dramatic events-she used some of them in her earlier best-selling book, The Gnostic Gospels—to great effect. Her art has been compared to the novelist's: She not only brings the voices of the early Christians alive, but also presents their lives in sympathetic contexts. Her contexts are ultimately ideas, though: the ideas in Genesis-ideas about God's love for men and women, His endowing them with the capacity for righteous, rational action in the face of absurdity and death—meant much to the early Christians, some of whom chose celibacy and martyrdom rather than worship pagan, political gods.

In a neat epigram, Pagels notes that when the church entered the world, the world entered the church. Partly because of their eloquent lives, the Christians won the empire and all the perks that came with high office. A new interpretation of the creation was needed, one that played down autonomy and freedom, and elevated obedience to a high virtue.

In pages that will attract skepticism from Augustine scholars, Pagels argues that the bishop of Hippo filled the bill. His interpretation of Genesis included the concept, now orthodox in many Christian churches, of "original sin." His view implied-he would articulate this in his many debates with old-fashioned Christians, soon to be heretics-that Adam's sin corrupted not only Adam but all mankind, indeed all creation. Christians, like pagans, need empire and emperors!

Pagels carefully shows how useful such an interpretation was to Christians in power. It makes the will to be good impotent; desire is seen as the only autonomous force and must be repressed. Ecclesiastical and political hierarchy are justified because men and women cannot govern their own lives.

As Pagels shows in page after eloquent page, Augustine was opposed by strong arguers like John Chrysostom and Pelagius, the British ascetic whom Paul Johnson, in his "A History of the English People," thinks of as the founder of the English view of life. In our terms, Chrysostom and Pelagius were liberal: They argued for more moderation. Some autonomy, freedom of will, and choice—for Christian liberty. On the strength of Augustinian counterarguments, both were exiled as heretics.

This stunning book opens many questions. It refreshes our view of early Christianity by showing the variety of voices that rang out in the primitive church. Pagels notes that the early liberal Christians did not articulate the politics of their interpretation of Genesis, but she adds that the American founders did. She does not try to refute Augustine, but rather puts his reading of Genesis in its full context, theological and political.

With wit, grace, profound sympathy for the early Christians, and admirable economy, Pagels has achieved in her little book what miles of biblical commentary have not: She has brought these issues to a white heat and tempered them on the anvil of her historical art.

Judith Ochshorn (review date April 1989)

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SOURCE: "The Triumph of Pessimism," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 7, April, 1989, pp. 21-2.

[In the review below, Ochshorn considers Adam, Eve, and the Serpent a fascinating account but finds some of Pagels's arguments troubling.]

Elaine Pagels' new book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent] describes, in rich historical detail, "how certain ideas—in particular, ideas concerning sexuality, moral freedom, and human value—took their definitive form during the first four centuries as interpretations of the Genesis creation stories, and how they have continued to affect our culture and everyone in it, Christian or not, ever since."

Some of these ideas expressed new attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, marriage, divorce, procreation, family and celibacy, making for "a revolution in sexual attitudes and practices" as Christianity spread. And as Christianity moved from being a dissident, outlawed sect to being Rome's imperial religion in the fourth century, the discussions and disputes over these issues were rooted in diverse, often conflicting interpretations of the Genesis creation story.

The outlook of "orthodox" Christianity was formed during its converts' persecution by Rome and in its disputes with other Christian communities later declared heretical. Pagels devotes more than half her book to arguing that in its reading of Genesis, Chapters 1-3, this early orthodoxy came to be marked by an optimistic view of human nature, a belief in the moral freedom and the infinite worth of the individual. This sets the stage for her description of the later collision between orthodox ideology and Augustine's new, far more pessimistic and punitive, view of human nature. Why, asks Pagels, did the church leadership, then the laity, embrace the Augustinian doctrine?

Adam, Eve and the Serpent is full of the high drama of women and men who literally staked their lives on their interpretations of the creation text. Pagels' story opens at the beginning of the Common Era, when Jesus broke with his fellow Jews in his attitudes toward divorce, family and procreation, exhorting his followers to abandon family ties and responsibilities and follow him into the new age. When he suggested that celibacy might be preferable to marriage "for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven," and Paul urged celibacy over marriage in preparation for the imminent end-times, they fueled a 200-year-long debate that pitted ordinary family and sexual affection against celibacy. Radical, ascetic Christians advocated celibacy as the only way to expunge the sin of Adam and Eve, and because Jesus prohibited divorce, some married converts, women as well as men, even practiced abstinence.

Such a life was described in "The Acts of Paul and Thecla," an enormously popular story that circulated widely within a century of Paul's death. Thecla was allegedly a young virgin who deserted her mother, rejected her fiancé and a potentially wealthy marriage, braved rape and the death sentence of the Roman state (from which she was miraculously rescued), all to follow the virginal life preached by Paul. When he refused to baptize her she baptized herself and later became a teacher, holy woman and saint of Eastern churches.

Pagels explains the appeal of Paul's endorsement of asceticism and celibacy for women like Thecla who chose freedom from traditional gender roles:

she—and thousands like her—welcomed such radical versions of the gospel…. Their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children's lives. As early as the second century of the Christian Era and thereafter, Christian celibates may have invoked Thecla's example to justify the fight of Christian women to baptize and preach. Even two hundred years later, Christian women who chose the way of asceticism, whether living in solitude at home or in monastic communities founded and often financed by wealthy women, called themselves "new Theclas."

In the century following Jesus' death, even while celibacy and asceticism were on the rise, the author of the Gospel According to Matthew qualified Jesus' absolute prohibition of divorce by adding that it is permissible in cases of "immorality." Likewise, he has Jesus enlarge the Christian community, shortly before his call to his followers to abandon earthly ties, by adding the admonition to "honor your father and mother." In effect, Pagels observes, Matthew has Jesus make room for those living ordinary lives with their families as well as those who aspire to spiritual perfection through asceticism. By the second century most Christians agreed with the moderate Clement of Alexandria, who held that Adam's sin consisted essentially of disobedience and was sexual only in form, and that the significance of the story of Adam and Eve was that it showed people were morally responsible for their choices between good and evil—choices, he emphasized, which were freely made.

However, Pagels points out that even Clement, one of the most liberal fathers of the church, established damaging norms for Christian behavior that have endured for two thousand years. Greatly ambivalent about sexuality, he wavered between denunciation and praise of celibacy and he encouraged sex in marriage only if it was without passion and for reproduction alone. He endorsed patriarchal marriage because he believed in male superiority and in the justice of punishing Eve and all women for her sin. Yet he read Genesis I as a text showing all people were equal since God formed humanity in his own image. This belief in equality was consistent with what Pagels considers Christianity's two cardinal tenets up to that time: a deep commitment to moral freedom and a belief in the infinite worth of individuals:

for nearly the first four hundred years of our era, Christians regarded freedom as the primary message of Genesis 1-3—freedom in its many forms, including free will, freedom from demonic powers, freedom from social and sexual obligations, freedom from tyrannical government and from fate; and self-mastery as the source of such freedom.

The Christian martyrs' defiance of Rome in the arena showed their faith in God's assurance of moral freedom. They could battle against wild animals because they were convinced conversion and baptism gave them the power to overcome pain, suffering, evil, even death. Pagels sees this early insistence on individual moral freedom as central in orthodox doctrine, and leading to the suppression of early Christian groups who did not share this belief—Gnostic Christians, for example, who differed fundamentally from the orthodox in their contention that we have some freedom to make moral choice but aren't absolutely free to avoid all suffering, which is built into the structure of the universe.

In the fourth century Augustine entered the debate over human nature and moral freedom. He believed that Adam's sin, freely chosen, was and would forever be transmitted through sexual intercourse (or semen) to all of his progeny; and that from the moment of conception, or the materialization of (shameful) sexual desire, all of us are infected with original sin and deprived of free moral choice. Augustine's contrary interpretation of Genesis argued that suffering, sin, sexuality and death were consequences of human guilt and sin—divinely imposed to punish Adam's original sin—not natural occurrences. God allowed Adam to sin in order to demonstrate that people could not be totally free, and that, poisoned and corrupted by original sin, people needed to be governed by church and state in order to be saved.

Pagels argues that this theory legitimized Christian obedience to Rome, by breaking with the tradition that celebrated moral freedom:

Augustine says, in simplest terms,… [that] human beings cannot be trusted to govern themselves, because our very nature—indeed, all of nature—has become corrupt as the result of Adam's sin. In the late fourth and fifth century, Christianity was no longer a suspect and persecuted movement; now it was the religion of emperors obligated to govern a vast and diffuse population. Under these circumstances … Augustine's theory of human depravity—and, correspondingly, the political means to control it—replaced the previous ideology of human freedom.

Thereby, she concludes, Augustine helped establish the hegemony of the Catholic Church (which became the state religion as Rome became a Christian state), excluding those of his Christian rivals who held more traditional, optimistic views of human nature; and his view has held to date.

But why did the church, in the fifth and sixth centuries, choose to adopt what Pagels sees as Augustine's "extraordinary" ideas, rather than discard them as alien to Christian tradition? "People," she conjectures,

need to find reasons for their sufferings … people often would rather feel guilty than helpless … such guilt, however painful, offers reassurance that such events do not occur at random but follow specific laws of causation; and that their causes, or a significant part of them, lie in the moral sphere, and so within human control.

Her analysis of the triumph of Augustine's views leads Pagels to detect a great paradox at the heart of Christianity, a paradox which becomes the book's main theme. On the one hand the religion adheres to Augustine's doctrine that after Adam no one can choose not to sin. On the other, it is shaped by its early commitment to moral freedom and human responsibility for moral choices freely made, and by its stress on the infinite worth of each individual created in God's image. Pagels argues that, though eclipsed by the Augustinian view of human nature, Western Christianity's earlier emphasis on individualism and moral freedom has remained influential, with echoes in the American Declaration of Independence, in Jefferson's thinking and in other developments in the modern concepts of individualism and liberty. Her position, then, diverges from that of those feminists who reject Christianity as irredeemably patriarchal, and who believe its patriarchal character derives from its cultural context or male mistranslations and misinterpretations of divine intentions.

There are a number of fascinating things in this book. It is dense with accounts of those who, as martyrs, ascetics, gnostics and fathers of the church, acted out religious beliefs about human nature, defied social conventions, took great personal risks, or participated in fierce controversies over ideas in the focus on Genesis. These few pages in the Hebrew Bible, never again mentioned in the rest of that document and referred to by Jesus only once, have been used ever since to justify male dominance and female subordination. It is striking that, as Pagels notes, when Christianity was in its formative stages, some Christian Gnostic texts portrayed Eve positively as the source of spiritual renewal. Her analysis of Augustine's long battle to impose his theory of original sin both relativizes and demystifies it, especially for women.

Despite the elegance of Pagels' argument, it has some troublesome elements. She virtually equates the early Christian commitments to human freedom and to the infinite worth of the individual. Certainly there is a basis for this equation in parts of the Gospels, orthodox and gnostic alike, and it is true that part of the attractiveness of Christianity to its many early converts was its emphasis on living the "good life" in Christian community on an everyday basis. But it was precisely in everyday life that the promotion of moral freedom was not necessarily the same as the protection of individual worth. Much of the assessment of Christianity as a champion of moral freedom and human worth depended on who was doing the assessing.

Nowhere in the extensive theological discourse on Genesis 1-3 is slaveholding, for example (cited by Pagels), attacked as oppressive to some individuals (also created in the image of God). Declining to take a position on concrete issues is, of course, a position in itself. That Christianity promoted the moral freedom of slaves in the fourth, as in the nineteenth, century did not affect their material conditions. Similarly, the Christian image of women that identifies us all as daughters of Eve or urges our salvation through emulation of Mary has hardly promoted a belief in the infinite worth of individual women. And while asceticism may have been sexually democratic, it was not the way of life chosen by most who remained within patriarchal marriages.

Pagels' book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent] is about the power of ideas. She rightly claims that from the time the Church triumphed politically in the fourth century, "Christian attitudes began to transform the consciousness, to say nothing of the moral and legal systems, that continue to form Western society." And she credits the early Christian tradition for its influence on later philosophies that championed "the absolute value of the individual." But there is another face to that influence. Just as belief in the universal capacity for moral choice did not guarantee respect for the worth of all individuals, the concept of moral freedom, while important, did not touch issues of oppression, power and powerlessness. Augustine's view, adopted by the Church, has seen women as only instrumental in men's struggles with sex and sin. Historically we have been considered more responsible for and vulnerable to sin than men, dangerous to men's pursuit of righteousness and destabilizing to society (witness the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century witchcraft persecutions). The history of Christianity has been more complex, contradictory, flawed and punitive than Pagels seems to think.

James Finn Cotter (review date Spring 1989)

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SOURCE: "Pagels's Paradise Lost," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 165-70.

[In the review below, Cotter argues that while Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is well-written and persuasive, it contains misleading and inaccurate areas.]

In the epilogue of her new book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent], Elaine Pagels tells us that, dissatisfied with contemporary Christianity, she turned to the earliest Christians for answers. She assumed that in that era, when the movement was pristine and primitive, things were simpler and purer. She found the opposite to be true: the movement was diversified, divided by controversy, and complex.

So what else is new?

Well, what Pagels found sounds strangely familiar, a not-so-distant mirror of our own time: martyrs, particularly women, ready to lose their lives rather than surrender their freedom to the will of the State; Gnostics, eager to include women in their services and open-minded in judging moral questions on the basis of situational ethics rather than by precept or authority; leaders like John Chrysostom who opposed wealth and position in ecclesiastical and civil hierarchies; and thinkers like Pelagius who insisted on the goodness of nature and the integrity of free will against Augustine's vision of a world riddled by original sin.

What happened? The martyrs perished, the protesters were silencd, the Gnostics suppressed, Chrysostom exiled, Pelagius condemned, and Augustine canonized. If only things had turned out differently, if only the orthodox had lost and the free spirits had won. Christianity and western civilization would not be the embarrassment they are to enlightened folk today. Certainly, there would have been fewer changes to be made in the contemporary church.

Pagels lets you draw such conclusions for yourself. The danger here, of course, is wishful thinking, history as a series of neatly discovered causes, anachronisms disguised as real ideas or events, and in many instances not history at all. To make freedom the central issue in the first centuries of Christian persecution takes some stretching of the imagination and the texts. The martyrologies tell us the saints died for their faith in Jesus as Lord; they hardly thought of themselves as freedom fighters. If given a choice—except for ardent souls like Ignatius of Antioch—they wanted to go on living. Refusing to sacrifice to the emperor as god, they were put to death for their infidelity. They had no choice but to obey their Lord or deny him. "Freedom," as we know it, hardly existed as "the classical proclamation" Pagels claims. In the texts she quotes it is mentioned in passing, never is it the focus of the Christian message.

The Gnostics are another problem. Pagels treats them as a Christian sect when they may have pre-dated Christianity and existed as an independent syncretic religion. They penetrated Christianity, but seem to have remained on the fringes. Gnostics held so many beliefs that one can find evidence for almost any religious theory in their enigmatic writings. As she did in her Gnostic Gospels, which I reviewed in the Summer 1980 issue of The Hudson Review, Pagels has a field day manipulating their texts. Here is "an extraordinary poem," called Thunder: Perfect Mind, as she quotes it:

    I am the first and the last.
    I am the honored one and the scorned one.
    I am the whore and the holy one.
    I am the wife and the virgin.
    I am the bride and the bridegroom,
    and it is my husband who begot me.
    I am knowledge and ignorance….
    I am foolish and I am wise….
    I am the one whom they call life [Eve]
    and you have called Death….

The subject of this poem, she says, "depicts the spirit, manifested variously as Wisdom and as Eve." George MacRae, in his introduction to it in The Nag Hammadi Library, writes: "In terms of religious tradition Thunder: Perfect Mind is difficult to classify. It presents no distinctively Jewish, Christian, or Gnostic themes, nor does it seem to presuppose a particular Gnostic myth." To add to the problem of analysis, Pagels has actually quoted as a single conflation five eparate passages scattered over five pages. The name "Eve" does not appear anywhere in the poem; Pagels does put it in square brackets, but the editors also use such brackets in the text. How is the reader to know what is going on?

Again, Pagels quotes The Secret Book of John as declaring: I am the intelligence of the pure life," when the original reads "pure light." And she cites the Gospel of Philip: "The law was the tree…. For when [the law said, 'Eat this, do not eat that,' it became the beginning of death." In the Nag Hammadi text God speaks these lines, not the law. The differences are minor, but they form part of the mosaic portraying the Gnostics as Pagels sees them and not as they really were.

Pagels persists in stereotyping orthodox Christians as law-abiding formalists who believe in a transcendent deity while Gnostics are true-believers open to an immanent divine presence. Jesus' words, "Live on in me and I in you," Paul's claim, "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me," Augustine's cry, "You are more intimate to me than I am to myself," the Eucharist, interior prayer, the mystics, none of these find a place in Pagels's polemics. For her, no orthodox Christian can say with the Hindu of his God, "I am Thou." Why not? What else is Incarnation? "God became man that we may become God," Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas tell us. Meister Eckhart's condemnation, which Pagels naturally drags up, was mired in the politics of its day and proves nothing. Her narrow-minded treatment of "the orthodox" (the name almost hisses in her pages) gives away the game she is playing.

Pagels covers the first five centuries selectively to support her thesis that after Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 313 a "cata—clysmic transformation" occurred. The thesis is hardly new but her examination of commentaries on the first chapters of Genesis does cover fresh ground. The reader learns a good deal about the period; the controversies are vigorously presented, and the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas is especially fascinating in Herbert Musurillo's lively translation. Chrysostom rightly comes across as an admirable bishop and Justin Martyr is an appealing apologist. Jerome and Augustine, however, appear as political opportunists and male chauvinists, which they probably were.

Is the book an accurate picture of the era? Pagels misrepresents Christianity. The Incarnation finds no room in the inn of her thinking; the sacraments, grace, charity, faith have no part in her historical vision. Only doctrines matter and only ideas make things happen. For Pagels the past is a text to be reduced to practical political issues. Jesus himself appears not as the crucified and risen Lord but as the preacher of a new doctrine. His "radical message" undergoes endless revisions at the hands of his followers. Pagels carefully selects her passages and, if one sounds suitably persuasive, she repeats it. She adds emphasis or shifts emphasis to suit her purpose. She magnifies small issues and ignores main ones. She sprinkles her book with terms like "shockingly" and "sadly," as if she too can barely believe what these men are saying about freedom, marriage, sin, and human behavior. She stacks the deck, to make matters work out the way that suits her best. To her innocent readers she is the serpent in the Garden.

In the controversy between Jerome and Jovinian, for example, Pagels makes Jovinian seem like a reasonable monk who, disenchanted with the ascetic life, saw value in a less rigorous way of living. In the debate about the superiority of virginity over marriage, the position which Jerome obstreperously defended, Jovinian appears correct and his subsequent condemnation incredible. Pagels never tells us that Jovinian was condemned for claiming that a person baptized with water and the Spirit cannot commit sin, for holding that all sins are equal, and for denying the virgin birth. In finding no worth in asceticism, Jovinian went against the grain of all religious tradition. Of course he was wrong, but not according to Pagels.

In Augustine's controversy with Pelagius and his follower Julian, Pagels ignores the question of grace, the essential issue for Augustine. She makes the extraordinary statement that Augustine "denied that human beings possess any capacity whatever for free will." Augustine, the author of "On Free Will" and "On Grace and Free will," has been called "the chief exponent of free will in the early church." He is the pastor who told his listeners: "Love, and do what you will." For him the will was not mere choice between good and evil; to do evil meant to lose your power of will. Free will is a love, a pleasure, an impulse and pressure. Sin prevents people from being spontaneous and caring. For Pelagius, the will was self-centered and based on self-control. Pagels is saddened that Pelagius lost the argument and was condemned. But Pelagius has had a long life. As a boy growing up in Irish Catholic Boston, I and everyone else were all semi-Pelagians at heart. Do not believe everything you read.

Of course, Augustine was wrong on a number of counts. He was forever changing his mind and contradicting himself. His Retractions reviews his 330 works and repudiates passages or works he no longer agreed with. Such is the prerogative or curse of old age: second thoughts. Thomas Aquinas dismissed his views of nature as contradictory: how can nature be good and utterly depraved? The Council of Trent made it clear that on the question of grace and freedom, Augustine was as fallible as his opponents. The history of the church has not been as monolithic as Pagels would have us believe, and many at the time were troubled by Augustine's exaggerations. He was an existentialist, gloomy, but no life-denier. He was Kierkegaard and Pelagius Norman Vincent Peale. "May nothing horrible happen, nothing inhuman," Augustine says, wanting only good and not bad for himself and others. But good comes from God who became human for our sake, to rescue us from evil. For Pelagius, Christ set a good example and leaves the rest up to us. Older now and no longer living in Boston, I am convinced that Augustine is right—most of the time.

Much of what Pagels writes about the rigorist traditional views of marriage and virginity is probably true, if one-sided. The ideas were not cast in tablets of stone as she seems to think. Surely she exaggerates when she claims that Jesus and Paul never endorsed "procreation in marriage": what does "A man shall cleave to his wife and the two shall be one flesh" imply? In the first century celibacy was a response to an eschatological crisis and not the outcome of a negative attitude toward sex. With the kingdom at hand why worry about sexual fulfillment? The marriage feast at Cana, however, was always seen as a sign of the Lord's blessing on young couples. You find no Cana in Pagels's exegesis.

Augustine's idea that some sin—even if only venial—had to be attached to lovemaking for married couples wanting children seemed harsh then and has seemed so ever since. It never became church teaching. The first church council to deal with sexual morality was Vatican II in 1974; it declared that the actions of marital sexuality "signify and promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and thankful will." Augustine himself is ambivalent on the subject. He wrote "On the Good of Marriage" in which he upholds the sacredness of married life as a sacrament and praises fidelity as a source of salvation. He states that the couple should not refuse one another and both partners must agree if they are to abstain from sex. He believed that a humble mother pleases God more than her proud virgin daughter. Augustine is not the harsh marriage-hater Pagels makes him out to be. Jerome, on the other hand, overstated his case for virginity and made such wild claims that even his friends balked. Without him, however, we would not have had the Wife of Bath.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge of this topic. Jean Leclerq recently wrote on monastic twelfth-century views in Monks on Marriage; monks were sympathetic and had plenty of insights on marital relations. In 1650, the Jesuit theologian Thomas Sanchez attacked Augustine's rigorist views, and much has been written on religion and sex in the past decades. You would know nothing about these developments in reading Pagels. She writes as though she is pioneering some new and sensational discovery about that old story in the Garden. Some terrible secret has been at last revealed! Augustine had sexual hangups and they have darkened the centuries! Read all about it!

The mystery of Christianity here is treated as a whodunit, and Augustine is the villain: "From the fifth century on, Augustine's pessimistic views of sexuality, politics, and human nature would become the dominant influence on western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, and color all western culture, Christian or not, ever since." How did this disaster occur? "The eventual triumph of Augustine's theology required, however, the capitulation of all who held the classical proclamation concerning human freedom, once so widely regarded as the heart of the Christian gospel." Regarded by whom? With such sweeping cause-and-effect conclusions, Pagels draws her study to a close. Reader, beware!

Pagels writes well and argues persuasively. It is easy to see why her books are so popular. She explains so much and makes it clear how down through the centuries we landed in the mess of the present. Much is informative, more is shaded and distorted to fit her preconceived thesis. She knows who did it from the start. When she states that her task is "historical investigation" and not "religious inquiry," she sounds sincere, but the statement has to be weighed carefully. Her own confession that "dissatisfied with the representatives of Christianity" she turned to the origins of the early church certainly implies a "religious inquiry" that masks itself, consciously, as objective history.

Pagels answers those who say that she projects her own ideas into the text by first denying it and then admitting it is impossible—and not even desirable—not to make such projections. She quotes Foucault on "the politics of truth" and says that "what each of us perceives and acts upon as true has much to do with our situation, social, political, cultural, religious, or philosophical." "What is truth?" as Pilate asked Jesus, not waiting for an answer. To a colleague who objected that religious ideas cannot be reduced to political agendas, she responds by agreeing and then stating that "moral choices often are political choices." In Boston we called this "talking out of both sides of your mouth." Today it is fashionable as literary and historical theory.

How can you not trust a writer who documents every statement, who seems so fair-handed and scholarly, whose book contains twenty pages of closely written notes with references to French and German as well as English criticism? As compared to The Gnostic Gospels, where the notes would not pass the scrutiny of a freshman English instructor, this is a much more carefully researched book. Pagels has learned how to deal with her critics. As the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and the recipient of a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, Pagels is a formidable academic figure. Whether or not her "brilliant new book," to quote its blurb, is "a work that will prove a landmark of historical thought and profoundly affect all future interpretations of the historical meaning of Christianity" remains to be seen.

Henry Chadwick (review date 21 March 1990)

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SOURCE: "The Paths of Heresy," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4017, March 21, 1990, p. 309.

[In the following review of The Gnostic Gospels, Chadwick discusses Pagels's efforts to address modern problems in Christianity by considering the early church.]

In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant made, with his mattock, an archaeological find that has coe to generate a substantial industry among students of early Christianity and of its pagan environment of high mysticism, low magic, and religious syncretism. The find consisted of a cache of Coptic codices buried in the second half of the fourth century a few miles from Nag Hammadi, containing fifty-two texts most of which were either gnostic in origin or congenial reading in gnostic circles. That is, they represent a broadly theosophical doctrine divergent from and at times severely critical of main-line Christianity as that emerged out of the various second-century groups claiming the Christian name. The spot where the codices were discovered is close to the ruins of a monastery founded in the first half of the fourth century AD by Pachomius. It seems probable that the books once belonged to the library of a monk admitted to that community. Fourth-century Egypt pullulated with Manichees and dualistic gnostics of many brands. In the year 367 Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria issued throughout his jurisdiction a warning against the reading in the church lectionary of books other than the Bible canon and especially deplored the study of "secret books" or apocrypha composed by heretics. Perhaps his instruction led to the hiding of the codices.

The story of the find's zig-zag course towards eventual publication is a mixture of folly, selfishness, generosity, and energy. Some of the original papyri were used as fuel by peasants ignorant of their value. But news came to percolate through to Cairo dealers and so to Western scholars in Egypt with their ear to the ground. One codex was smuggled out of Egypt and, after a journey across the Atlantic and back, was finally bought at a Brussels cafe by Gilles Quispel on behalf of the Jung Institute in Zürich. It was later added, wisely, to the twelve other surviving codices in the Coptic Museum in old Cairo, where the manuscripts now occupy a small room.

A first volume of facsimiles appeared in 1956, a book which is still an essential tool as the codices have not been immune from damage since that time. An initial attempt to restrict access to the new material to a small group of approved scholars was a mistake. Thanks to the energy of James Robinson of Claremont in California and the support of Unesco, the entire set of manuscripts were photographed and English translations made from the transcribed texts! Dr. Robinson and his collaborators produced in 1977 an invaluable volume offering a provisional translation of all the new texts other than the fragments which defy reconstruction. Through an opulent series of facsimiles all the texts are now an open book to scholars able to read Coptic.

Of the fifty-two new documents only three are entitled "Gospels", and one more, because of its opening words. "The gospel of truth …", has been accorded that title by modern scholars. The most important of all the new texts is certainly the 114 sayings ascribed to Jesus in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and this rightly attracted excited attention when the 1956 facsimile text was first translated into European languages in 1959. It remains a matter of scholarly judgment, for each individual saying, whether or not this tradition about Jesus preserves authentic features. Admittedly the proportion of matter with reasonable claims to such respectful treatment may not be large, and the good tradition keeps some pretty bohemian company.

Elaine Pagels teaches at Barnard College, New York, and is a gifted, clever communicator with a lively interest in the new texts and some inclination to think the Christian tradition, in spite of its power and undiminished attraction, sadly responsible for fostering discrimination against women. So she approaches gosticism with very contemporary expectations: notably the hope that in these gnostic documents suppressed by ancient authority we may find an alternative Christianity sympathetic to Eastern and individualist mysticism, unencumbered by historical and miraculous events, emancipated if not from clergymen, at least from the notion that holy orders ought to be a male preserve, and allowing one to be bolder than the main-line Christian tradition in admitting "natural evil" (in contrast to those evils which human beings cause by their actions) to be not only within the purpose but even within the very being of God.

The author's purpose [in The Gnostic Gospels] is not to offer a description either of the gnostic systems or of the mainline defence against them, but rather to bring out the social and political implications of some of their characteristic doctrines. The gnostics interpreted Christ's resurrection not as an objective event but as an inward psychological experience in the souls of the apostles and in all who aspire to their vision: She feels that this psychological interpretation undercuts the classic defence of Catholic Christianity to the effect that teaching authority, entrusted by the Lord to the apostles, is then passed on to the churches which their mission founded.

The gnostics also disbelieved in the human reality of Christ's passion, a view which naturally raises the speculative question whether, in the seventh century, Muhammad was influenced towards the same opinion by fringe gnostic sects in Arabia. For many gnostics this disbelief entailed the moral consequence that physical martyrdom could not be something to which they were called.

A feature of gnosticism which seems especially congenial to Elaine Pagels is the large liturgical and teaching role allowed to women in at least some gnostic sects. Admittedly on this point she has to exert gentle pressure on the surviving evidence. The new material from Nag Hammadi offers only few grains of encouragement to liberated women readers, unless it be the gnostic readiness to think the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene erotic. In most of the new Coptic texts the sexuality of woman is an object of fear and contempt. Femininity is interpreted as symbolic of those earthbound appetites which hinder the divine spark in the mind of mankind, of which the symbol is masculinity.

Accordingly, for evidence of gnostic sympathy for feminine emancipation Professor Pagels relies on long familiar texts in Irenaeus and Tertullian. Irenaeus describes Marcus, a seducing heretic addicted to alphabetical magic, as allowing women to prophesy in the community and to minister the chalice in his eucharist. Tertullian knows of heretical women who are allowed to teach argue, exorcise, cure, and even (climax of horrors) baptise. The sentence illustrates little more than Tertullian's unrivalled capacity to manufacture polemic; we may be sure that his climax would have been the exercise of presbyterial or episcopal functions had he known of these being exercised by gnostic women.

Some confusion is introduced here when, to the evidence that in gnostic sects women could exercise liturgical functions, Elaine Pagels adds the Montanist prophetesses Prisca and Maximilla without the least note that their hostility to gnosticism cannot be exaggerated. I am also sorry she allows herself to write that "from the year 200 we have no evidence for women taking prophetic, priestly, or episcopal roles among orthodox churches", a true sentence apparently intended to carry the false suggestion that before the year 200 women are known to have exercised presbyterial or episcopal functions in the great Church. (That they prophesied is of course certain.) When Professor Pagels wants to quote a Christian writer who speaks of women in the Church as she would like, she turns not to any Nag Hammadi text but to the highly anti-gnostic Clement of Alexandria who affirms both a feminine element in God and the equality of men and women. Fourth-century Syrian Fathers would be vexed at her pronouncement that "by 200" virtually all the feminine imagery for God had disappeared from the orthodox Christian tradition. The Odes of Solomon too have something to offer her there. It may be pertinent to her thesis that the first evidence for the invocation of the Virgin Mary comes in the mid-third century.

This book will dissatisfy some learned readers familiar with the new Nag Hammadi material who may feel it to be a pity that so good a scholar has not treated her texts with full rigour. But for most readers that will matter little. Elaine Pagels has an enviable gift for writing easily. Her thesis that the exclusion of gnosticism impoverished the Christian tradition is not convincingly defended here, and it lies in unresolved tension with the recognition that the heretical sects fostered pretentious mumbo-jumbo. They replaced the New Testament affirmations of God's presence in the historical life of Jesus and of his church with a vast fabrication of irrationality that appalled Plotinus and the philosophers. But the bond between the gnostics and the author of this book is perhaps that she and they both share the same basic difficulties about the pattern of main-line Christian tradition.

The trouble with the main-line tradition is no doubt that it speaks the language of paternal authority. Bishops are fathers in God. The minds through whom the tradition took its decisive and irreversible shape have received the honorific title Church Fathers. The authority structure looks unattractive to those who prefer the alternative society or underworld where bearded weirdies are more obviously welcome or at least in evidence. The gnostics expressed an alienation both from this world and from the normal sacramental life of the Christian church.

They expressed their alienation from the world and from the human condition by attributing it to incompetent or malevolent angelic powers. They denied human responsibility by their thoroughgoing determinism. Most of the sects required strict renunciation of sex and marriage, and criticized orthodoxy for asserting marriage to belong to the divinely intended order of creation. A few sects drew the opposite conclusion from the same dualistic premises, and had exciting nocturnal ceremonies where men and women prayed together naked or danced in a ring chanting solemn hymns of no clear meaning. One or two had erotic orgies. This heady stuff, however is wholly unrepresented in the Nag Hammadi texts, which sing in unison of their dedication to the radical suppression of sex. Whatever form gnosticism might take, one is still allowed a sigh of relief that the second-century churches succeeded in their life-and-death struggle against it. Elaine Pagels may begin her book with the suggestion that the gnostic defeat was regrettable, but by the end she is explicitly inclined to the opinion that there is a lot to be said for something very like the main-line stuff.

Leslie Houlden (review date 18 June 1995)

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SOURCE: "The Prince of Darkness," in New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review of The Origin of Satan, Houlden states that while Pagels's arguments are single-minded and do not always have documentary support, she has written a compelling book that connects the concerns of the early church with contemporary issues.]

Satan, Elaine Pagels says, has a much more tenacious grip on the world than many people suppose; his power over the human imagination has grown for 22 centuries, and in the West even people who deny his existence, or who have no religion at all, live in a culture in which he is a large presence This demon will not go away

If that sounds like a promotion for fright films, Ms. Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University and the author of several volumes on the Gnostics among the early Christians, did not write The Origin of Satan as an entertainment. By finding out where Satan came from, she thinks, we find out, at least in part, where we came from. That is not to say that some readers of her book will not be shocked, or at least offended.

In ancient Israel, as one sees in early books of the Bible, Satan is hardly a monstrous figure, the dark near-parody of God he later became. In the Book of Job he is the official "opponent" at the heavenly court, his task being to challenge God's assumptions and, with divine permission, to test the fidelity of God's people. But it is no surprise that such a critic should eventually become a subverter and a wicked tempter; that transformation was complete by the time the First Book of Chronicles took shape, two centuries before Christ.

During the final centuries B.C., divisions appeared among the Jews that were to prove fateful to them. One group demonized others some Jews might not belong. In the second century B.C. the sect called the Essenes arose, and flourished for several centuries. They taught what they considered a pure form of religious observance, which they charged the majority of Jews had abandoned. Among the Essenes, Ms Pagels thinks, Satan, as ruler of a whole demonic realm, was a necessary evil: "Had Satan not already existed in Jewish tradition, the Essenes would have invented him "She quotes one of their Scriptures, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, as saying Satan "rules in darkness, and his purpose is to bring about evil and sin" the Essenes envisioned life as a cosmic battle between "sons of light" like themselves and the spawn of darkness, between God and Satan.

The early Christians adopted that view and used much of the same language, she continues, seeing themselves as protected by God and by angels, freed from satanic manipulation while their antagonists were under diabolical control. Thus her book moves quickly from the narrow subject of its title, and indeed from Satan as the force behind wickedness and misfortune, to become an analysis of how the early Christians used this idea of a cosmic battle in their confrontations with non-Christians as well as in their own discourse; the book becomes a kind of case study of how people, defining difference between themselves and others, find it easy to abandon love and tolerance for a hostility that is licensed, even commanded, by divine decree.

Ms. Pagels concentrates first on the four Gospels in the New Testament. It is generally accepted that they were written in a certain order during the last few decades of the first century—a time when the early Christians were turning their attentions beyond their fellow Jews and beginning to convert gentiles. Ms. Pagels argues that in each succeeding Gospel the Jews are demonized with growing intensity. Increasingly, from the earliest Gospel to the latest, Roman responsibility for the death of Jesus—historically quite clear—is played down, and instead the Jews are blamed. And even though some of the Evangelists perceive widely varied responses to Jesus among the Jews, and write with real sympathy for the Jews, all agree that the community of "God's people" is no longer Israel but the followers of Jesus.

This process of achieving self-definition by opposing Christians to Jews was soon enough applied to defining the difference between Christians and all non-Christians—though, arguably, its legacy of anti-Semitism has been the most dire of its consequences for everyone. In Ms. Pagels's account, after the Jews, the next people demonized were the pagans, especially when Christianity began to spread and Christians were persecuted for refusing to participate in Roman rites (she reminds us that these, like the ceremonies of virtually all ancient religions, were patriotic rites, and that to reject them was to declare rebellion).

Then, with growing vehemence as the Christian community increased, Christians began to demonize one another, to single out certain people as heretics. After all, who is more intolerable than the traitor within the gates? In many myths, both Jewish and Christian, Satan himself started as a fallen angel, "one of us" become "one of them"—what Ms. Pagels calls "the intimate enemy." In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul, the earliest Christian writer, referred to fellow believers who disagreed with his vision of the Christian mission as agents of Satan. So did the writer of the First Epistle of St. John (whom Ms. Pagels does not cite): to describe such people, and their demonic backer, he coined the word "Antichrist," which was to have quite a future.

Ms. Pagels states her argument—that all four canonical Gospels depict the career of Jesus as a battle between Him as God's agent and the Devil in the visible shape of the Jews or Jewish authorities—with excessive single-mindedness. Such an approach will surely make the book controversial and draw attention to her underlying thesis: that the way in which early Christianity developed is a very troubled heritage. But it also requires one to state some reservations. A minor one is that her adding noncanonical material about Jesus—from Gnostic documents and other writings rejected when the canon of the Bible was formed around the end of the second century A.D.—to what she finds in the New Testament is tendentious with regard to dating, and distracting to readers who are not specialists.

More materially, her theory about demonizing imbalances her reading of the Gospels. It fits the Gospel of St. John, the last one written, fairly well, but the others much less so. Satan is an important presence at both the beginning and the end of Luke, and even Matthew provides a satanic backdrop to the life of Jesus; but there are considerable differences in their treatment of Satan, and of the Jews. In Mark, the earliest Gospel, although Satan's presence makes clear the cosmic significance of Jesus' work, Jesus is involved with devils chiefly as sources of madness: His miraculous power is shown by His exorcisms, done to cure people. Furthermore, in Mark the story of the death of Jesus is told without any reference to invisible evil powers. He is a passive victim and there is virtually no note of a cosmic battle behind His death. Even in the Gospel of Luke, the business of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus is much less clear-cut than Ms. Pagels makes it seem. Satan instigates the abandonment of Jesus by His disciples at the critical moment, and inspires the assault on Him by the authorities. But the Jews divide over Jesus, some reacting with compassion. Even their leaders act "in ignorance," and Jesus prays they will be forgiven. Demonizing is far from complete here: if this Gospel blames Jews, it also seems to reach out to them.

Altogether, if Ms. Pagels had widened her consideration of how the evangelists account for the death of Jesus, she would have seen that Mark tells the story principally in terms of the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and that those prophecies are equally prominent in the other Gospels. In a word, testimony from the Bible and cosmic conflict were twin ways in which early Christians could see the death of Jesus as being no mere tragic accident but the climax of God's saving purpose.

Nonetheless, this brief book is thought-provoking—especially effective when it vividly portrays the faith of individual early Christians and of noble pagans. The problem of evil vexed them as it does us; indeed, Ms. Pagels says she was led by the accidental death seven years ago of her husband, Heinz, to search the Scriptures for a clue about how people throughout history have dealt with evil. And that led her to ponder the human tendency to populate the world with invisible presences: controllers, initiators, helpers, hinderers—unseen but all the more potent because they are mysterious. "I began to reflect," she says, "on the ways that various religious traditions give shape to the invisible world, and … on the various ways that people from Greek, Jewish and Christian traditions deal with misfortune and loss."

It is when she takes up some of the early Christian fathers and pagans like the Emperor Marcus Aurelius that she writes with greatest feeling about the issues at stake, such as our proper response to the complexities of experience. Should we school ourselves to accept whatever an impersonal fate gives us (as Marcus Aurelius, and some Christian writers, thought we should)? Or should we see ourselves as engaged in a supernatural struggle between good and evil, God and Satan, in which (despite St. Paul's command in the Epistle to the Romans to obey the authorities) even governments and other earthly powers may be on the side of the Devil? Without a strategy of demonization could Christians have seen—as clearly as some did by the third century—that the highest powers in a nation, its legitimate leaders, might be wicked, people to be resisted and even overthrown?

Ms. Pagels also excels in depicting both the strengths and the weaknesses of orthodoxy: how are Christian leaders to resist travesty and mere foolishness by members of their community without stifling vitality of mind and spirit? She gives some samples of both wild speculation and sublime spirituality from Gnostics in the second century, and notes that the church father Tertullian would not discriminate between the two, since the Gnostics were simply heretical to him: good Christians must not ask questions but accept what they are taught by their leaders. One recalls that a great fault of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost is that he insists on asking questions.

There is no lack of sympathetic understanding in [The Origin of Satan] of the acute dilemmas that led early Christians to reach so readily for the weapon of demonization. It gave them impetus and assurance, especially when they were new and up against great opposition. But Ms. Pagels believes that demonization of other people tended to accumulate through the centuries, at a terrible cost. It seems almost an afterthought that in the last six pages she points to a powerful tradition in Christianity—represented in the Gospels themselves and by people like St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King Jr.—that rejects a division of the world into followers of light and of darkness. There is a "struggle within Christian tradition," she concludes, "between the profoundly human view that 'otherness' is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine."

Mary Gordon (review date 26 June 1995)

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SOURCE: "Bedeviling Satan," in The Nation, Vol. 260, No. 25, June 26, 1995, pp. 931-33.

[In the review below, Gordon concludes that The Origin of Satan is informative but fails to address some of the questions it raises.]

Satan may not exist, but there are excellent reasons to invent him. He is called onstage whenever behavior pases our understanding of the limits of the human. To say that something is diabolical means it is inexplicable in ordinary terms. It ruptures the line of measurable cause and effect, or its sheer scope and efficiency seem untraceable. This kind of attribution can be seen as a failure of imagination or a type of species compassion. When we invoke Satan, we are saying that humans can't be that bad; they wouldn't do something like that on their own.

Recently, the temptation to demonize seems stronger than it has for a long time, a fallout, perhaps, of the information age. One intolerable piece of news we all must digest is that whoever we are, we are a minority, radically outnumbered by Them, the Others. We must now come to terms with Others who are more other than we'd imagined, therefore more inexplicable, easier to demonize. The readiness with which a term like "demonize" springs even to the lips of the popular media may signal the resurrection of an old habit of mind.

We seem newly in the grip of increasingly numerous, violent and finer-grained xenophobias that encourage those in their thrall to use any means necessary to justify the annihilation of the Other. It seems pandemic, from Islamic fundamentalists' referring to America as "the great Satan" to Pat Robertson's asserting that feminism "encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft" and, even worse, become lesbians. Hindus see the devil in Muslims, African nationalists in Nordic blondes. I myself believe I may have found him in the face of Howard Stern. Who else would have tied up forty blocks of traffic on Fifth Avenue with a book signing?

In such a world, a book about the Origin of Satan, by a scholar of Elaine Pagels's distinction, is awaited with unusual anticipation. An article on Pagels in The New Yorker recounting her personal tragedies—the death of her child and the freakish accident that claimed her husband's life just over a year later—and another in Mirabella have also generated remarkable advance publicity. And her first two sentences reinforce our expectations: "In 1988, when my husband of twenty years died in a hiking accident, I became aware that, like many people who grieve, I was living in the presence of an invisible being…. During the following year, I began to reflect on the ways that various religious traditions give shape to the invisible world, and how our imaginative perceptions of what is invisible relate to the ways we respond to the people around us, to events, and to the natural world."

The Origin of Satan is a fascinating and valuable book, but it is not the book these sentences suggest. Its focus is narrower; it is a philologically trained scholar's book, rather than an intellectual historian's. Pagels, who made her reputation with The Gnostic Gospels, a study of radical and dissident early Christian sects, turns her mind here to the history of Satan in the life and texts of the ancient world.

In examining the Hebrew Bible, she notes that whereas certain prophets call upon Canaanite monsters, like the Leviathan, to symbolize Israel's enemies, Satan is not a constant presence, and his role is not the one most familiar to later imaginers. He never appears as "the leader of an 'evil empire,' an army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike." He is one of God's servants. The biblical term Satan "describes an adversarial role,… one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity." The root means "one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as adversary." He can even act as a kind of messenger of God, as he did with Job.

It is dissident sects like the Essenes and the monastic community at Qûmran who begin to invoke Satan to characterize their Jewish opponents, those whom they consider insufficiently observant or pure. "In the process they turned this rather unpleasant angel into a far grander—and far more malevolent—figure. No longer one of God's faithful servants," he begins to become what he is for Christianity, "God's antagonist, his enemy, even his rival." Mark and the other three Evangelists who followed him adopted this radical strain, and Pagels gives us excellent reasons for their choice.

If the leader of your movement has been ignominiously murdered, Pagels suggests, it is helpful to believe that what seems to be disastrous is in fact chimerical; that the real battle is invisible and has, in fact, already been won. What appears to have been Jesus' defeat is actually the sign of a cosmic victory for the forces of God and good. These forces appear as characters in the Gospel narratives, an appearance, Pagels correctly notes, that "many liberal—minded Christians have preferred to ignore." Yet, she says, no one can deny the evidence that Mark (and those who followed him) "intends the presence of angels and demons to address the anguished question that the events of the previous decades had aroused: how could God allow such death and destruction?"

By creating such a supernatural and morally charged interpretation of conflict, Christians have created what Pagels calls "fault lines" that have allowed for the demonizing of others throughout Christian history. This tactic has been "effective throughout Western history in consolidating the identity of Christian groups; the same history also shows that it can justify hatred, even mass slaughter." Perhaps the most catastrophic of these fault lines has been a justification for anti-Semitism, which she rightly insists is an inextricable part of the Gospels.

Pagels traces the historical roots of this anti-Semitism, and indeed one of the most valuable contributions of The Origin of Satan is its ability to provide coherent and comprehensible historical contexts. She reminds us that "we cannot fully understand the New Testament gospels until we recognize that they are … wartime literature." A series of Jewish rebellions in the first century resulted in a vicious attack by the Romans lasting twelve years and ending in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

The Jewish community was sharply divided before this war, and in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, conflicting sects were eager to cast blame upon one another for the disaster. The followers of Jesus had refused to fight, because of their understanding of the approaching "end." Some, in fact, insisted that the horrors of war actually vindicated his call, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near," and that Jesus had predicted the destruction of the Temple and other terrible events.

There were several reasons for the followers of Jesus to dissociate themselves from the Jewish majority. Primary among them was their quarrel with Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and the majority's insistence upon observation of Jewish law as a prerequisite to salvation. This insistence conflicted with the Christian wish to spread their message among the Gentiles. It also allowed the Christians to justify allying themselves with the stronger power—the Romans. Thus, Pagels tells us, the Evangelists, beginning with Mark, place much greater blame upon the Jews than upon the Romans for the death of Jesus, although there is no historical justification for this. "Mark tells the story of Jesus in the context that matters to him most—within the Jewish community. And here, as in most situations, the more intimate the conflict, the more intense and bitter it becomes."

For Mark, then, the conflict is internecine, among Jews, and his use of the image of Satan reflects the Jewish tradition: Satan is not a hostile power assailing Jews from without; he is a representation of conflict within the community. Matthew, writing in 80-90 C.E., insists that Jesus offers "a universalizing interpretation of Torah … so that Gentiles can fulfill it as well as Jews. Matthew in effect encourages people to abandon traditional ethnic identification with Israel." It is one of the tragic paradoxes of Western history that the universal welcome offered by the Gospels is linked with a violent dissociation from, and vilification of, Jews. Followers of Jesus, in insisting that the circumstances of birth were irrelevant to salvation, placed themselves in direct opposition to an idea that had allowed the Jewish community to survive and know itself.

The Gospel of Luke continues the identification of the Jews with Satan and his cohort, but places the accusation in the mouth of Jesus himself. Luke, whom Pagels identifies as a Gentile, is determined to play up the non-Jewish aspects of Christianity, its openness to all believers. John, writing later than the others, around 100 C.E., portrays the struggle between Jesus and his enemies as a struggle between darkness and light. More than any of the other Gospels, Pagels tells us, John's has inspired believers who find themselves in a minority. Another paradox of the history of Christianity arises: The belief that one is the victor in a supernatural war allows for acts of courage that exceed ordinary understanding, and for bloodshed that efies comprehension. The same notion—that the invisible may be more important than the visible, and that one is on the side of the angels—inspired the behavior of both Savonarola and Martin Luther King Jr.

Up to this point in The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels presents us with fascinating information, and original and thoughtful elucidations. But she loses this lucidity after her analysis of the Gospels. She races through a discussion of Revelation, a book that has been crucial in the imagination of supernatural and cosmic war. And her discussion of the early Christian thinkers seems breathless and cursory. She has encouraged us to understand the Gospels as wartime literature, but neglects to offer a similar context for the early Christians, who were after all a horribly persecuted minority standing up, with superhuman courage, to imperial Rome. She fails to credit the moral value of the "good news" of Christianity, reflected in the marvelous passage of Tatian that she quotes. He is challenging the empire on the practice of gladiatorial combat: "I see people who actually sell themselves to be killed; the destitute sells himself, and the rich man buys someone to kill him; and for this the spectators take their seats, and the fighters meet in single-handed combat for no reason whatever…. Just as you slaughter animals to eat their flesh, so you purchase people to supply a cannibal banquet for the soul."

Pagels points out that Christians never gave up any of their old enemies; they just kept on adding new ones. They never abandoned their hatred of Jews even when their focus shifted to pagans and, later, to heretics. She notes that the rancor they directed toward non-Christians shifted when they, like the Essenes, began to see their insufficiently observant or doctrinally impure brethren as the greatest threat to their security. Tertullian, for example, thought that any questioning of any article of faith was the inspiration of the devil.

In the Olympics of Comparative Atrocities, it is tempting to believe that Christianity gets all the gold. But it is perhaps more the case that a love of cruelty and a desire to destroy one's enemies in ways that deny their humanity crosses race, class, ethnic and historical lines. This desire to destroy seems more connected to the possession of secular power than to the shape of belief. The Christians likened their enemies to Satan, and the Romans did not; nevertheless, it would be difficult to defend the behavior of the Romans toward the Christians, or to suggest that the Romans occupied the ethical high ground in this particular confrontation. Pagels tells us that the habit of interpreting the world as a cosmic battleground has its origin in the Gospels; but it is only after the church obtained an inordinate amount of power that it used these ideas to malign effect. The early Christians, with the same or more radical beliefs as their medieval and Renaissance descendants, were unable to do much harm because they had so little scope for action. They were a minority, and they were poor.

It is churlish of a reviewer to wish that the writer had written a different book from the one she has. But, grateful as I am for the illuminating information in The Origin of Satan, I wished for more in the way of interpretation and cross-cultural comparison. Having traced with admirable precision the sources of the Christian habit of placing themselves in the middle of a "cosmic war," Pagels doesn't wonder about the implications of such a belief. It would be fascinating to trace the connection, if any, between the way a particular people describes its enemies and the actions it then takes against them.

The Origin of Satan begs some very large questions. Why do some cultures, like the Greeks, the Romans and the early Hebrews, fail to be taken up by the idea of Satan in an important way? What is the connection between a tendency to Satanize and a taste for ritual and dogmatic purity? In which situations does human behavior cry out for a supernatural explanation, and when doesn't it? If a culture doesn't have a Satan, what does it have in its place?

But the title of her book suggests that Pagels's project is textual rather than interpretive—a task it admirably fulfills. If we forget the somewhat misleading anteor outré-texts and concentrate on the main body of The Origin of Satan, we must be grateful to her for not allowing us to forget that embedded in the narrative that tells us to Love Our Enemy and Do Good to Those Who Hate Us is the simultaneous injunction to see them as demons, creatures of darkness dedicated to the destruction of the everlasting light.

John P. Meier (review date 9 July 1995)

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SOURCE: "Our Old Enemy," in Washington Post Book World, July 9, 1995, p. 2.

[In the following review, Meier argues that while some of Pagels's assertions are questionable, The Origin of Satan reveals Pagels's skill at clearly and concisely developing new theories out of pre-existing facts.]

Although she has written scholarly works, Elaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton, is perhaps best known as a gifted popularizer. In this example [The Origin of Satan], she traces how the idea of Satan as a cosmic power opposed to God developed in early Judaism and Christianity. Pagels is interested in the "social" implications of Satan, i.e., how he was exploited to symbolize human conflict and stigmatize religious enemies as Jews and Christians struggled over their respective identities. Satan served to demonize "the other"—be they Jews of a different persuasion, pagan persecutors or Christian "heretics."

Pagels connects the development of the idea of Satan with Jewish sects in the first centuries B.C. For sectarians, the figure of Satan helped to define "them" (evil Jews) against "us" (righteous Jews). This function already appears in the Jewish Scriptures. From an overzealous member of God's court in the Book of Job, Satan develops into an accuser of the high priest in the Book of Zechariah. This development reflects tensions among Jewish factions after the Babylonian exile (6th century B.C.).

Sectarian strife increased around the time of the Maccabean revolt (mid-second century B.C.), producing a slew of apocalypses, notably The First Book of Enoch, in which Satan (under various names) becomes the great rival of God. Once a heavenly prince, the rebellious Satan now leads an army of fallen angels. The message is clear. The most dangerous enemy originates not as an outsider but as one's trusted colleague—the intimate enemy. Satan is the projection into the heavens of the experience of sectarian Jews: Their fellow Jews had apostatized and turned against them and therefore against God.

The underlying question in this struggle was: Who are God's people? While not discarding ethnic identity, the sectarians, notably at Qumran, insisted on moral identity. At Qumran the Essenes defined themselves in terms of the cosmic war between God (and the Essenes) on one side and Satan (and other Jews) on the other. Christians would simply push this definition to the extreme, dispensing ultimately with Jewish identity.

Pagels sees this sectarian ideology of cosmic war in Mark's Gospel. Accordingly she emphasizes the importance in Mark 1 of Satan's temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This initial struggle sets the stage for the rest of the Gospel: Mark recounts the battle between Jesus and Satan that develops through Jesus's exorcisms up to the final clash in the Passion. This struggle, says Pagels, is a mythological representation of the conflict between Christian Jews and the Jewish majority in 1st-century Palestine.

This tack was then taken up and extended by the later evangelists. Matthew, writing around A.D. 80-90, makes the Pharisees, now ascendant in Judaism, the "intimate enemies" of Jesus (and Christians). About the same time, Luke, writing for Gentiles, claims that his form of Christianity is Israel at its best, virtually the only true Israel. Around A.D. 90-100, John, representing Jewish Christians thrown out of their home synagogue, charges that some Jews are children of the devil. In short, as we move from Gospel to Gospel, the Jews who reject Jesus are increasingly put on the side of Satan.

As Gentile converts filled up the Church, they in turn began to see Satan in non-Christian Gentiles, especially Roman persecutors. This new stage of the struggle produced some intriguing positions: The pagans objected to Christians severing the traditional bond between religion and nation, while some Christians asserted the rights of conscience and religious liberty. When Gnostic Christians appeared on the scene, they too were seen as agents of Satan by "orthodox" Christians. Some of the Gnostics returned the compliment.

That Pagels can explain tis complicated thesis in a mere 184 pages of text testifies to her skill as a master teacher. Her strength lies not in discovering new facts but in drawing familiar facts into new and meaningful configurations. Her clear, concise exposition rarely bogs down in details. Limited space does not allow her to rehearse classic debates (e.g., the identification of Qumran as Essene, the dating of the Gospels), but she usually accepts consensus positions. One exception involves placing the Coptic Gospel of Thomas after Mark and before Matthew in her chronological survey of the Gospels. Here she reflects the very early dating of Thomas commonly accepted at Harvard and Claremont but questioned by many scholars, American and European.

Though minor errors of fact occur (e.g., pace Pagels, Timothy is never called a "bishop" in the Pastoral Epistles), they do not affect Pagels's overall thesis. What, though, of her claim that Satan and demons were at home in Jewish sects like Qumran and Christianity but not in "mainstream Judaism"? There are objections.

First, not all the Jewish intertestamental literature that mentions devils or demons can be assigned to definite sects. In particular, the library at Qumran reflects a wide range of Jewish thought, not all of it sectarian.

Second, while scholars wrangle over who the historical Jesus was, almost all agree that he was a Jewish exorcist and that some pronouncements on Satan and demons (Matthew 12:28; Mark 3:24-27) go back to him. Now Jesus reflects popular Galilean religion, not elite scribal groups writing apocalypses. Indeed, other Jewish exorcists, not connected with any sect, are also mentioned in the New Testament.

Third, in his Jewish Antiquities the historian Josephus gives an eyewitness account of an exorcism performed by a Jew named Eleazar. The way in which Josephus traces this "art" back to Solomon and boasts that this power is prevalent "among us" Jews to this day does not favor a purely sectarian origin for demons. Hence Jesus cannot be antiseptically cordoned off from the idea of cosmic war with Satan. This particular exorcist wound up crucified for something more than his call to reconciliation.

Nonetheless, Pagels's achievement [in The Origin of Satan] is both a stimulating intellectual romp and a sobering sermon on the dangers of religious polemic.

Rockwell Gray (review date 30 July 1995)

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SOURCE: "A Social History of Satan," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 30, 1995, pp. 6-7.

[In the review below, Gray writes that Pagels's efforts in The Origin of Satan to link early Christian ideas to the present are hampered by her failure to include cultural history and psychology in her analysis.]

In what she terms the social history of Satan, Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, finds the roots of the need to demonize one's enemies. The practice of explaining adversity or conflict by reference to demons reaches back, Pagels notes, into Old Testament history. But she argues [in The Origin of Satan] that it entered a radical phase when the small sect of 1st Century Jews who declared Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah proceeded to demonize their enemies.

In claiming that Satan inspired their opponents—largely the Temple authorities and other established Jewish leaders—those proto-Christians confirmed the truth and solidified the ranks of their new faith. This strategy, while not exactly new, says Pagels, was an intensification of earlier practice. In Old Testament Hebrew, "the Satan" originally designated an adversary and came to refer to a messenger from God who would oppose human design or test human resolution, as with Job. Over time, a more personified figure emerged in the form of a powerful fallen angel—fallen either because his lust for women had drawn him to Earth or because prideful struggle with his Creator had brought expulsion from Heaven. Thus was born the figure of Satan as a great demon or spirit who contended with God and the faithful.

While the earlier Jewish practice of demonizing one's enemies antedated the appearance of Christianity, a crucial turn was given the story between 70 and 100 A.D. by the authors of the New Testament Gospels. Pagels argues that while both Mark and Matthew downplay the role of the Romans and accentuate that of the Jewish authorities in their account of Jesus' arrest and persecution, Luke explicitly links Jewish leaders who were enemies of Jesus to the designs of an evil spirit. John, in turn, implicates "the Jews" in general in the Savior's crucifixion, thus laying the groundwork for Christian anti-Semitism. By the late 2nd Century, when the originally Jewish "Jesus movement" had become the increasingly Gentile religion of Christianity, the practice of demonization had become deeply rooted as a strategy for social and credal cohesion.

Pagels notes that from very early, and across cultures, human groups have divided the world between insiders and outsiders, using the dichotomies human/non-human and us/them. But, she adds, "What may be new in Western Christian tradition … is how the use of Satan to represent one's enemies lends to conflict a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation, in which 'we' are God's people and 'they' are God's enemies, and ours as well."

The Israelites had already established the idea of a "chosen people" in covenant with their Lord, and later Christians would universalize this concept to include all believers. The genius of Judaic monotheism had been to replace the many lesser gods, goddesses and demons of the ancient world with a single all-powerful deity. But Jehovah could not stand alone. As the Hebrew adversarial concept of "the Satan" evolved, through internal divisions within the Jewish world, into that of the arch-devil Satan, the scattered emonology of paganism was simplified. Though Pagels does not explicitly say so, the revolutionary advance to monotheism eventually brought with it the counterinvention of what might be called "monodiabolism," setting the stage for strife between the Creator and His powerful rebel angel.

Dissenting Jewish sects before Jesus—notably the Essenes—were already demonizing their enemies, but Pagels argues that the first followers of Jesus used the tactic to defend their precarious place in the larger Jewish community. Historians of religion cite earlier pagan and pre-Christian instances of demonic figures loosely comparable to Satan, but nowhere else, she suggests, has the demonic been as central as in the evolution of Christianity.

If Satan was a Jewish creation, his greatly enlarged role in the Christian church would become fundamental to its dramatic expansion across Europe and, in time, to other continents. The proselytizing thrust of Christendom was much indebted to the dark Tempter whose earthly power must be resisted and overcome.

By late in the 2nd entury, Christians were linking Satan to their new enemies—first, Roman magistrates and pagan worshippers of graven images, and then heretics who threatened the solidarity of nascent orthodoxy. The vigorous Gnostic and Manichean heresies that sprang up in the 3rd Century accorded the realm of darkness an existence independent from divine light. Unlike Satan as conceptualized by orthodox believers, the Gnostic Demiurge, or "creator god" (as distinct from an unknowable higher Being), had actually fashioned a fallen world at odds with the truly spiritual. Seeing in this challenge a limitation on God's omnipotence, early church fathers ruthlessly, if only gradually, suppressed it. The eventually victorious doctrine held that evil, baseless in itself, was merely an absence of good. As an estranged and lapsed angel, then, the devil was only negatively derived from an all-powerful God.

Because Pagels' account is confined to origins, she says nothing of representations of Satan in his later career and full regalia. His highly theatrical incarnations have fascinated visual artists from Hieronymus Bosch to Gustave Dore, great poets like Dante, Milton and Goethe, and many generations of ordinary believers. If, as Tolstoy remarked in favor of suffering and tragedy, "the story of all happy families is the same," then the cosmic struggle of Satan's rebellion and fall is surely the most interesting and original chapter in the family romance of Heaven. Little wonder that popular lore and artistic imagination have been inspired more by the tortures of the damned than by the bliss of those who sit on the Lord's right hand.

One wishes at times in these lucid and closely reasoned pages that Pagels had given us an awesome, full-fledged "prince of this world." But, in fairness, the most dramatic iconography of Satan flourished mainly after the period that concerns her. Moreover, she advises at the outset that she will not duplicate the work of other scholars who have focused on the literary, cultural, theological and psychological implications of the devil. Nonetheless, her repeated references to the social uses of demonization cry out for fuller recognition of its psychological aspects, not least because she begins by tracing the genesis of this book to her husband's death in a hiking accident and her subsequent experience of "living … with a vivid sense of someone who had died." In turn, this brought reflection on how many religions invoke forces from an invisible world to explain and cope with misfortune and loss.

Pagels remains always a lively writer who discerns the human implications of esoteric texts and scholarly disputes. And this book, like her earlier The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and Adam and Eve and the Serpent (1988), is modest in scale and stays close to materials she knows well. But if her clearly schematized stages in the social history of Satan—Jews against Jews, Christians against pagans and then against heretics—is generally sound, her argument for a progressive demonization of the Jews in the four Gospels seems tendentious and fails to register significant differences in evangelistic references to Satan.

Notwithstanding her larger concern with the dark side of the faith is of great interest. Although restricting herself to the first two centuries of the Christian Era, Pagels makes clear that the original division between Jesus' advocates and his enemies became in time a "supernatural drama" that has allowed believers for "some two thousand years … [to identify] their opponents, whether Jews, pagans, or heretics, with forces of evil, and so with Satan." Thus have apostasy, dissent and heresy been met, and holy war and mass conversion justified.

It requires little extrapolation to see that a similar pattern of demonized opposition infests the extremist rhetoric of our public discourse and moral vocabulary. Still given to absolutist, virtually Manichean dramas of Good versus Evil, contemporary American imaginations teem with paranoid visions and prophecies of apocalypse. Rational distinctions and disciplined passions are swallowed up in invective and counterinvective, while lip service paid to a bloodless political correctness only masks our obsession with divisive labels and categories. The intoxicating vision of the other as Antichrist is all too easily adapted to modern uses, both secular and religious.

While the author suggests a link between the early history of Christianity and our present world, her exclusion of cultural history and psychology finally limits her book. Nor does she have much to say for the loving, forgiving face of Christian doctrine. Noting briefly in her closing paragraphs that many Christians have sought reconciliation with rather than damnation of their opponents—one thinks immediately of Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail"—she concludes, "For the most part … Christians have taught—and acted upon—the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption."

Pagels' dramatic sense of the tangled social context of early Christianity will constitute her primary appeal to a nonscholarly public, and one does come away from this book with troubling questions about the moral legacy of Christianity. Yet, risking a bit more, Pagels might have delivered more.

After all, the two millennia of Christian history are soaked in the blod shed by crusades, religious wars, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms and holocaust. And Satan has had a hand in it all. But the author's cool, cogent account only tersely refers to "certain fault lines in Christian tradition that have allowed for the demonizing of others throughout Christian history." It's as though The Origin of Satan throws open a window on a vast ideological landscape, only to close it abruptly for the sake of a tighter, closer story.

Norman Cohn (review date 21 September 1995)

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SOURCE: "Le Diable au Coeur," in The New York Review, Vol. XLII, No. 14, September 21, 1995, pp. 18-20.

[In the review below, Cohn calls The Origin of Satan an important, original, and adventurous work.]

Whereas in the nineteenth century Satan seldom attracted the attention of serious historians—Gustave Roskoff's two-volume Geschichte des Teufels (1869) stands almost alone—of late he has done so repeatedly, and to excellent effect. The collection of essays published in 1948 under the auspices of the French Carmelites, and entitled simply Satan, heralded what became in the 1970s and 1980s a flood of scholarly studies. The five-hundred-page Teufelsglaube by Herbert Haag and others (1974), Jeffrey Russell's trilogy, The Devil, Satan, Lucifer (1977–1984), Henry Ansgar Kelly's The Devil at Baptism, Bernard Teyssèdre's Naissance du Diable and Le Diable et l'Enfer (all 1985), Neil Forsyth's The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (1987)—all these make up a large contribution to our knowledge and (more importantly) to our understanding. So is there anything left to say? Indeed there is—and Elaine Pagels has made a commendable attempt at saying it.

Hitherto studies of Satan have concentrated on the history of the idea (or concept, or symbol, or myth, or whatever), rather than on its function in society. To learn about that one had to turn to works of a different kind—for instance, to studies of the great European witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notably Robert Muchembled's Culture populaire et culture des élites (1978) and Christina Larner's Enemies of God: The Witchhunt in Scotland (1981). There one could learn how certain human beings could come to be perceived as servants of the Devil. In its approach Pagels's book belongs with such works, rather than with histories of demonology.

Pagels calls her book [The Origin of Satan] "a social history of Satan." To produce such a history would be beyond the capacities of any one person, however gifted, and what one finds here is in fact a more modest work of scholarship: an account of how, in the first three centuries CE, Christians defamed rival or hostile groups by labeling them servants or allies or worshipers of Satan.

For this purpose the earliest Christian sources are the four canonical gospels. It is true that we have no idea who wrote them (except that it was certainly not the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to whom they are ascribed). It is also true that they were granted canonical status only around 200 CE. Nevertheless, as guides to the mentality of at least some early Christian communities these documents are reliable. For all the differences between them, they embody a characteristic world view, and one which has remained potent down to the present day.

As Pagels sees it, a vision of the world as a battleground where the forces of good contend with the forces of evil is integral to all the canonical gospels. All four deal with conflicts between Jesus' followers and groups hostile to them—and in all four those conflicts are interpreted as manifestations of a cosmic struggle between God's spirit and the power of Satan.

Pagels accepts unquestioningly the conventional dating of the gospels. She takes it for granted that all these writings were composed in the wake of the catastrophic Jewish rising against Roman rule in Palestine, 66-70 CE, and builds the first part of her argument around that rather questionable assumption. "We cannot fully understand the New Testament gospels," she writes, "until we recognize that they are, in this sense, wartime literature." Not that they are anti-Roman propaganda. After all, Jesus' followers had taken no part in the war—how could they have done so, since they were convinced that they were living during the last days, when God was about to shatter and transform the existing world? For them, the war against Rome was incidental to the infinitely greater war between God and Satan.

That greater war had moved into its final stage with the appearance of Jesus, whose life and death could be understood in no other terms. Satan had striven to frustrate God's plan by destroying Jesus—but Jesus had struck back, defeating Satan at every turn; and his crucifixion, which superficially seemed to signal the victory of the forces of evil, in reality heralded their ultimate annihilation. In this way the gospels strove to show how a seemingly unsuccessful prophet, who had been betrayed by one of his own fllowers and brutally executed by the Romans, had been, and still was, God's appointed Messiah.

In combating Jesus, Satan had human allies, who were themselves the embodiment of the transcendent forces of evil—and these monstrous beings were above all Jews. In reality, Jesus' chief enemies seem to have been the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his soldiers, who, after all, in that same century arrested and crucified thousands of Jews charged with sedition. But Jesus also had enemies among his fellow Jews, especially the Jerusalem priests, and the gospel writers concentrate on them.

Pagels comments, "Had Jesus' followers identified themselves with the majority of Jews rather than with a particular minority, they might have told his story differently—and with considerably more historical plausibility." They could, she suggests, have presented him, in traditional patriotic style, as a Jewish holy man martyred by a foreign oppressor. But that was not to be: in the gospels the ultimate blame for Jesus' death is placed squarely on his Jewish enemies, and it is also made plain that in engineering that death the Jews were consciously serving Satan. Indeed, the link between Satan and the Jews was even closer than that: Mark and Matthew imply, and Luke states explicitly, that in Judas Iscariot Satan returned in person to betray Jesus and cause his arrest and execution. Pagels even suggests that it was because Jesus himself was persuaded of the Satanic nature of the forces arrayed against him that he organized a leadership group of his own—the twelve disciples—as potential leaders of the original twelve tribes of Israel. In giving these men "power to cast out demons," he was declaring war on the Satanic host, including its Jewish wing.

Pagels tries to relate all four gospels to the situations in which she believes them to have been composed, and she gives particular attention to what each gospel in turn has to say about Jews. In her opinion the first gospel, Mark, was probably written in the last year of the war, which was some thirty years after Jesus' death. Even at that tragic moment Mark can insist that Jesus' followers had no quarrel with the Romans, only with the Jewish leaders—the Sanhedrin (council of elders), the Jerusalem priests and scribes. Clearly intent on allaying Roman suspicions, he strives to show that neither Jesus himself nor his followers ever dreamed of undermining Roman order. Matthew and Luke, who wrote some ten to twenty years after Mark, carry this argument further: now Pilate himself is favorably portrayed. This is a large distortion of the facts, for other historical and political sources, both Jewish and Roman, agree in showing Pilate to have been a particularly brutal governor.

In Matthew and Luke the Jewish enemy is also redefined. The Roman victory, with the destruction of the Temple, had deprived the high-priestly dynasty and its aristocratic allies in the Sanhedrin of all power. Leadership of the Jewish community in Judea, and eventually of Jewish communities throughout the world, had passed to a body of teachers and rabbis, most of them Pharisees. These were the people with whom Matthew found himself in competition; for they aimed to set the Torah at the center of Jewish life, as a replacement for the destroyed Temple. It was their intention that a practical interpretation of Jewish law should preserve Jewish groups everywhere as a separate and holy people—which is indeed what happened. Matthew was bound to see this interpretation as a rival to his teachings about Jesus. He responded by presenting the Pharisees of Jesus' time, half a century earlier, as Jesus' main antagonists. Now it is they who are Satan's allies. If Satan tries to seduce Jesus by offering him "all the kingdoms of this world," that means that political success and power are themselves Satanic—and the Pharisees, under Roman patronage, were enjoying political success and power.

Spiritual warfare between God and Satan has a still more important place in the only gospel of Gentile origin, John, which was probably composed around 100 CE. According to John, Jesus sent out seventy apostles to preach the coming of the kingdom and to cast out demons (i.e., to heal the sick, especially the mentally sick). They returned triumphant, claiming that even the demons were subject to them in Jesus' name. This was enough to convince Jesus that the final defeat of Satan was imminent: "I saw Satan fall like lighting from heaven. Behold, I have given you power to tread on snakes and scorpions, upon every power of the enemy."

Pagels argues that, in the gospel of John, Satan is shown to have been incarnate first in the Jewish authorities who organized opposition to Jesus, and finally in all Jews—the overwhelming majority who refused to become Jesus' followers. Jesus is portrayed as fully aware of this, and aware also of what it would lead to. When Jews who had previously believed in him deserted him, he identified them as Satan's brood: "You are of your father, the devil; and you want to accomplish your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning." The implication is obvious: it was because they were the spiritual children of the murderer Satan that the Jews killed Jesus.

By the end of the first century CE the Christian movement had become largely Gentile—and now Gentiles began to see Satan at work also among other Gentiles. It was natural that they should see him at work in the Roman authorities, who really did sporadically persecute, torture, and kill Christians—but Christians did not stop there: pagans in general were held to be serving Satan. This was a natural consequence of the Christian view of the pagan gods and goddesses. Such radiant deities as Apollo and Venus were perceived as demons, vessels of Satanic power; so their worshipers, whether consciously or not, were in fact willfully adoring the great supernatural opponent of Jesus.

From the Christian point of view there were in fact only two kinds of people—those belonging to the kingdom of God, and those who were still subjects of Satan. For Christians, the entire universe was a battleground where the struggle between God and Satan was being fought out. Christian martyrs never doubted that by their agony and death they were hastening God's victory in that battle. And this was held to be supremely true of the crucifixion of Jesus himself. For Origen, in the third century CE, it was still quite natural to write that Jesus died "to destroy a great daimon—in fact, the ruler of daimones, who held in subjection the souls of humanity."

However, the Christian movement-itself was anything but monolithic. In its early days, the apostle Paul already found himself confronted with rival teachers—and he dealt with them by calling them servants of Satan. It was the beginning of a tradition: more damnable even than hostile pagans were Christians with whom one disagreed. As the Christian movement turned into an institutional church, with bishops exercising authority over their congregations, it acquired an orthodoxy. When, around 180 CE, Irenaeus, bishop of the congregation of Lyons, wrote his very influential work Against Heresies, he had no hesitation in labeling all dissidents servants of Satan. These people, he claimed, used the name of Christ as a lure; in reality they taught Satanic doctrine, "infecting the hearers with the bitter and malignant poison of the serpent, the great instigator of apostasy."

In describing what these dissidents really believed, Pagels, the author of that celebrated work The Gnostic Gospels, speaks with special authority. They did not, of course, think of themselves as servants of Satan but of the only true God. And some went further: it is good to be reminded that in the Gnostic Testimony of Truth, which probably dates from the second century CE, the God of the Hebrew Bible is presented as a demon, and his worshipers—i.e., "orthodox" Christians—as demon-worshipers.

Such, in brief, is Pagels's argument. How valid is it? The book has many shortcomings, some small, some not so small. The ones that caught my attention all belong to the earlier part of her book and concern her treatment of relations among Jews and between Jews and Christians.

Pagels's comments on the historical background of the Hebrew Bible take little account of recent scholarship. It is not the case that either the Babylonians or the Persians put pressure on the Jews to assimilate to their ways—they couldn't have cared less. Nor is it now thought that Antiochus Epiphanes rededicated the Temple to "the Greek god Olympian Zeus"; the image he installed was of the god whom he himself worshiped, the Syrian Baal Shamen. These are minor points that do not affect the central argument. More surprising is the absence of any reference to the possibility (which is beginning to look like a probability) that down to the sixth century BCE the normal, traditional religion of the Israelites was polytheistic.

Pagels's attempt to trace the figure of Satan back to the Hebrew Bible is unconvincing. In fact, the "satan" who appears from time to time in the Hebrew Bible is an angel of good standing at the heavenly court. Counselor and emissary of God, he owes his title of "satan" (meaning "adversary" or "accuser") solely to the fact that on occasion, at God's bidding, he takes on the role of prosecuting counsel against this or that human being (most famously against Job). Pagels is well aware of this, but nevertheless claims that "when Israelite writers excoriated their fellow Jews in mythological terms … most often they identified [them] with an exalted, if treacherous, member of the divine court whom they called the satan." The solitary quotation which she cites from the visions of Zechariah hardly suffices to support so large a claim.

In my view the antecedents of the being who is called by the proper name Satan in the New Testament and in subsequent Christian teachings do not lie in the Hebrew Bible at all. Where do they lie? Pagels points out that relevant material is to be found in those strange Jewish works of the second century BC, the Book of the Watchers and the Book of Jubilees, and that is true enough. In these works we do indeed meet the fallen angels—former members of the heavenly court who, in one way or another, rebelled against God, came down (or were thrown down) to earth, and there seduced innumerable human beings into sin. The leader of these fallen angels could be regarded as a Jewish prototype of Satan.

Yet he is a very imperfect prototype. If in the Book of Jubilees he and some of his followers have God's permission to go on roaming the earth and doing harm, in the Book of the Watchers he is quite impotent—buried under-ground, pending the Last Judgment, when he and his followers will be still more grievously punished by being cast into the pit of fire, there to burn forever and ever. There is no denying that the myth of the fallen angels has proved a very enduring one—where would Paradise Lost be without it?—but the true origin of Satan, as the mighty and ever-active opponent of God, can hardly be found there.

This conclusion has implications for Pagels's book. If the origins of Satan are not after all to be found in the leader of the fallen angels, one of its central themes collapses: Satan ceases to be an "intimate enemy." An "intimate enemy" Pagels defines as "one's trusted colleague, close associate, brother … who turns unexpectedly jealous and hostile." I'm not sure whether it is invariably true even of first-century Jews and Christians that Satan is perceived not as a hostile foreign power, as Pagels writes, but as "the source and representation of conflict within the community," i.e., an "intimate enemy." What of the Book of Revelation, where the dragon-Devil who persecutes the Church is doubtless Rome? Certainly the concept of the "intimate enemy" throws little light on the subsequent history of demonization. If Christians have at various times cast near-neighbors—Jews, religious dissidents, "witches"—as servants of Satan, they have done exactly the same to many foreign peoples—the Muslims whom they fought, the pagan peoples whom they colonized throughout the world.

There are other objections to the concept of the "intimate enemy." Satan has always performed a vast number of quite humble, one might say domestic; functions. At various times he has been accused of tempting Christians to fornication, gluttony, vanity, using cosmetics, dressing luxuriously, going to the theater, gambling, avarice, quarreling, spiritual sloth, and much, much more. This side of the Devil's nature, too, can be traced back to early Christianity—and the notion of an "intimate enemy" does nothing to explain it.

Pagels comes near to what I believe to be the true origin of Satan when she turns to the Essenes, some of whom made up the Qûmran community, otherwise known as the Dead Sea Sect. Of them she writes:

… the Essenes go much further [than the Book of the Watchers] and place at the center of their religious understanding the cosmic war between God and his allies, both angelic and human, against Satan, or Beliar, along with his demonic and human allies. The Essenes place themselves at the very center of this battle between heaven and hell…. They invoke Satan—or Beliar—to characterize the irreconcilable opposition between themselves and the "sons of darkness" in the war taking place simultaneously in heaven and on earth. They expect that soon God will come in power, with his holy angels, and finally overthrow the forces of evil and inaugurate the Kingdom of God.

Here, surely, lies the true Jewish origin of the Satan with whom Pagels is concerned. But that said, one must hasten to add that his Jewish origin is not, in all probability, his true origin. On the grounds that others have already "attempted to investigate cross-cultural parallels," and that her own interest is in the social implication of the figure of Satan, Pagels eschews any mention of Zoroastrianism. But it is not a question of mere parallels. Would the members of the Qumran community, or the early Christian movement, ever have imagined themselves as involved in a cosmic struggle between God and Devil—a struggle just nearing its triumphant world-transforming conclusion—if they had not come under strong Zoroastrian influence? For just such a struggle has always been central to the Zoroastrian world view—and current research is showing more and more clearly how close Zoroastrian-Jewish relations were at the relevant time. What has long been suspected is now almost certain: that Satan originated as a Judaized version of the Zoroastrian spirit of evil, Ahriman. In a book entitled The Origins of Satan one might reasonably expect to find more awareness of that research.

These are serious reservations. Despite them, it seems to me that Pagels has achieved something important. She has demonstrated, more fully and convincingly than has been done before, how ancient the demonizing tradition in Christianity is. In particular, she has demonstrated how the authors of the canonical gospels helped—unintentionally and unwittingly, to be sure—to create the stereo-type of the demonic Jew. Thoughtful, scholarly works that are also original and adventurous are not common. The Origin of Satan is such a work, and we should be correspondingly grateful.

Mary Troychak (review date September-October 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Origin of Satan, in The Bloomsbury Review, September-October, 1995, p. 23.

[In the review below, Troychak discusses how events in Pagels's life motivated her to explore the dark side of Christianity.]

Five hundred years ago, Elaine Pagels would have been burned at the stake. She has read the sacred texts of Christianity and become fascinated with the devil. She expresses doubt that Jesus was actually crucified by Jews. She contends that the New Testament gospels—which millions of Christians believe to be the actual word of God set down by his apostles—are polemical tracts written generations later to strengthen the fledgling church against its enemies: the pagans without and the heretics within. Finally, she has gained this knowledge by studying forbidden books, suppressed and deviant gospels that had remained buried until 50 years ago.

The personal tragedies that preceded and inspired The Origin of Satan have received almost as much attention as the work itself. For almost 20 years, Pagels was married to physicist Heinz Pagels. In 1987, their six-year-old son Mark died of a lung disease. In a PBS World of Ideas interview around that time, she told Bill Moyers that she had become interested in the question of how Christianity interprets bad fortune. Confronted with the death of her child, Pagels admitted that she felt it easier to blame herself, to blame anyone, than to accept the random and meaningless death of someone so beloved. In 1988, when friends perceived that the couple was finally emerging from their mourning, Heinz Pagels fell to his death while hiking in the mountains outside Aspen, Colorado.

Pagels begins her Introduction to The Origin of Satan with the observation that, like many people who grieve, she found herself "living in the presence of an invisible being." A historian of the ancient Western world, she began to reflect on how religions have shaped our views of the invisible world, and how those views affect our relationships with other people, with events, and with nature. She assumed she would find that Christianity moralized the universe: Disasters such as she had suffered would be seen as the will of God or a judgment on human sin. What surprised her as she worked was the predominant role of the devil.

Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, has published two books for the general public about the roots of Christianity. She was among the first scholars to translate the Nag Hammadi Library, 13 papyrus books bound in leather that were discovered in 1945 by a man digging for gold in the upper Egyptian desert. Pagels encountered texts that would revolutionize her views on Christianity, direct the course of her future work, and establish her as a creative, intuitive scholar with a gift for making history come alive for the general reader.

The Gnostic Gospels, which concerns a second-century Christian sect, received the National Book Award and has been published in at least 10 languages. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent shows how creation as described in Genesis has influenced our culture's beliefs about gender, sex, and reproduction. In her most recent book, Pagels confronts the dark side of Christianity. She peruses ancient manuscripts—the Bible as well as Hebrew, pagan, and heretical Christian texts—to construct what she calls "a social history of Satan." At what point did Satan emerge as a principal player in the Christian drama? How has belief in the devil influenced Western perspectives on ourselves and other people, and affected the course of human history? These are questions Pagels invites the reader to consider in this illuminating and provocative book.

For nearly two millennia, millions of Christian believers have viewed their personal and political struggles as reflections of an eternal cosmic war waged between God and the devil. Many in our culture were raised on this cosmology; the battle continues over whether it should be taught in out public schools. During the Gulf War, Satan was present in the rhetoric of both President Bush and Saddam Hussein. Susan Smith's Methodist pastor told the New York Times that when she parked at the lake with her two sleeping children, "God made a her a presentation, and Satan made her a beautiful presentation." The importance and the power of Pagel's latest work is her insistence that we scrutinize our dominant mythologies.

Pagels acknowledges that strife between groups is as old as umanity:

What may be new in Western Christian tradition is how the use of Satan to represent one's enemies lends to conflict a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation, in which "we" are God's people and "they" are God's enemies, and ours as well. Such moral interpretation of conflict has proven extraordinarily effective throughout Western history in consolidating the identity of Christian groups; the same history also shows that it can justify hatred, even mass slaughter.

Pagels concludes [The Origin of Satan] with this hope:

that this research may illuminate the struggle within Christian tradition between the profoundly human view that "otherness" is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine.


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