The Origin of Satan

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, gained attention beyond the academy with the publication in 1979 of The Gnostic Gospels. An analysis of the Nag Hammadi Library, which was discovered in 1945 in the Egyptian town for which it is named, the book argued for a reconsideration of the early history of Christianity. Pagels, through her study of dozens of previously unknown documents found at Nag Hammadi, concluded that the standard account of the early Christian church did not take sufficient account of the diversities of Christian belief in the first and second centuries before the canon of Scripture had been settled, orthodox doctrine codified, and the institutional form of church hierarchy established.

More specifically, various so-called Gnostic groups circulated their own “gospels” and other writings that departed from the emerging doctrinal orthodoxy. In fact, Pagels claims, the leadership in the early Christian communities rejected or suppressed certain Gnostic Christian documents for social and political reasons, so as not to hinder the institutional development of the church.

Basic to much of Gnosticism was the belief that the spirit, through special knowledge (gnosis in the Greek means, Pagels says, “insight” or “wisdom”), could somehow participate in the cosmic redemption initiated by Jesus Christ. At issue was the question of authority. Orthodox Christians insisted on the literal resurrection of Christ, Pagels speculates, because only the apostles could witness to that singular event, and only those to whom the apostles chose to pass their testimony to could in turn authoritatively pass it to those who came after. The Gnostic Valentinus, by contrast, emphasized an authority based on gnosis, a kind of personal knowledge of the deep truths of Scripture not given to “ordinary” Christians but potentially available to anyone. Orthodox bishop Irenaeus, writing against the Valentinians, saw such spiritual pursuits as divisive of the Christian community—both its organization and its morality.

The Gnostic perspective forms the coda of The Origin of Satan. One of the Nag Hammadi documents, the Valentinian Gospel of Philip, refuses to divide the world into cosmic opposites of moral and immoral. The question for Philip, as Pagels puts it, is “how to reconcile the freedom gnosis conveys with the Christian’s responsibility to love others. . . . When gnosis harmonizes with love, the Christian will be free to partake or to decline, according to his or her own heart’s desire.”

Contrary to the charges of the Gnostics’ accusers that they taught that they had gone “beyond good and evil,” Pagels contends that at least some of the Gnostic cults had a keen awareness of the struggle against evil. Yet instead of characterizing evil as Satan, the outside invader, as did orthodox Christians, the author of Philip, at least, asks his readers to “know” the “root of evil” within. Coming to this inner awareness is an individual quest, subject to no outside standard of morality. The very recognition of this root of evil serves to eradicate it, for when one sees through the self-deception that one is acting for a just cause, the energy for further evil pursuits simply dwindles. Such teachings are only for mature Christians, those who understand the spiritual (as opposed to the literal) meaning of Scripture. For others, the church’s ecclesiastical hierarchy might well be necessary, at least until those others come to gnosis.

Though Pagels does not simple-mindedly endorse the Valentinian position, it is evident in The Origin of Satan that it is considered a salutary contrast to the beliefs of orthodox Christians. The central thesis of the book is not merely that one group of people has on occasion “dehumanized” another group of people, but that in the

Western Christian tradition . . . 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 writes a social history of Satan, or rather the Satanic impulse—what she says is the “belief that [Christians’] enemies are evil and beyond redemption.” Such an assumption has been challenged by Christian leaders such as Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but Pagels mentions them only in passing. Her attention is focused on what she considers the dominant Christian tradition.

Pagels finds in the four canonical gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John...

(The entire section is 2015 words.)