The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics by Elaine Pagels
Let me get this out of the way right up front: I can’t think of the title of this book without the Church Lady from the heyday of Saturday Night Live popping into my brain. And now she’s in yours, too. You’re welcome.
So. Who is Satan? A fallen angel? The great adversary of God? Saddam Hussein’s bitch? If nothing else, Satan is the great scapegoat, the one on whom we tend to pile all our troubles. Your church is running out of money? Satan. Your kid is doing drugs and listening to that awful hip-hop music? Satan. Queers getting married? Definitely Satan.
For some, Satan is an actual being, a true agent of evil whose purpose is to ruin all that God has made. For others, Satan is a symbolic representation of the evil inherent in the human condition, an abstract form made real in order to better understand it. In other words, there are as many versions of Satan as there are people who invoke him.
But how did the whole Satan thing get started? Where did he come from and how did we get to the Satan that we all know and loathe today? That’s what Elaine Pagels was determined to find out when she wrote this book.
While most of the book focuses on the New Testament and a history of the early Christian church, it was the ancient history of Satan that I found most interesting, mainly because it concurred with a pet theory that I’ve had for a long time: Satan was never an enemy of God. Satan was God’s quality control guy. It was his job to look for weaknesses in the system, to probe Humanity for its faults and flaws so that it could be made better. Thus the serpent in the garden (which, just as a note, was never actually revealed to be Satan), and especially the story of Job, where God allows Job’s life to be ruined on a bet. My guess was that he won a nice, crisp one-dollar bill.
The Satan of Olde was an agent of God, there to make sure that things went the way they were supposed to. He caused trouble, he stirred things up, yes, but that was his job. Much like the office manager that you despise because he always harps on you for checking your Facebook account during company time, even though you both know there’s nothing better to do right now, but he just enjoys watching you suffer and enforcing his stupid little rules…. That guy is, at least in his own mind, working for the greater good of the company. He may be a dick, you may wish great misfortune heaped on him and his progeny, but he’s doing the job he was given to do.
Sounds great, but Satan’s downfall from “annoying but necessary agent of God” to “vile and demonic enemy of god” was planted a long time ago, before Christianity was even on the horizon.
The Jewish religion, from whence our concept of Satan arose, has always been one of Otherness. Israelites and Enemies. Us and Them. From its earliest days, God made sure the Israelites knew that they were a small force against the world, with only Him to protect them. He told Abraham straight out that He would bless him and curse his enemies. Therefore, the descendants of Abraham had to be on constant guard from enemies both from without and within. With a Satan already set in their theology as a tester and troublemaker for God, it was not a far leap to look to him as the cause of the multiple troubles that the Jews had over the years. Around the time of Christ, the Essenes were a distillation of that concept. They were a small Jewish sect – a minority within a minority – which believed that they were the only true Jews and that everyone else had gone soft. The Jewish majority was corrupt, led astray from the true path to God, probably by Satan.
When the Christians showed up, a minority with an even more tenuous existence than the Essenes, they found this concept very useful. Telling their story from the point of view of an embattled minority, they found Satan to be a very useful opponent against whom their Messiah could fight. He was an excellent symbol that stood not only for the earthly conflict that was taking place between the Christians, Romans and Jews, but a greater spiritual conflict that involved all humankind in a battle between good and evil.
Pagels’ basic thesis is that the concept of Satan, whatever else it may be, was used to not only encourage persecution of The Other – Jews and pagans, to be precise – but to also keep the Christians themselves in line. The book is actually a history of the early Christian movement and how that history was reflected in the writing of the Gospels. In fact, just like in the Bible, Satan doesn’t really appear much in this book. Rather Pagels looks at how the early Christian movement fought for its survival against enemies without and within, and then how Satan became a spiritual catch-all for those who disagreed with them.
It’s a great analysis of the early days of the Church, and just how chaotic and tumultuous it was. There were so many churches with so many different interpretations of Jesus’ life and death, so many Gospels being written and so many opinions on the very nature of God’s universe that it’s surprising the whole thing managed to come together to be the world’s largest religion.
What’s more, it shed some light on something that’s always annoyed me: the persecution complex that so many Christians have. The best time to catch this is in December, when pundits in the States start going off about the War on Christmas as though the last twelve Christians in the country were holed up inside the Topeka Christmas Shanty with shotguns and eggnog. Every time a judge tells a town that they can’t have the Ten Commandments on the lawn of their town hall, or a Wal-Mart tells employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” there is always a vocal group of Christians who claim that they’re being persecuted and that they’re on the edge of extinction. All this despite the fact that Christianity is the most popular religion in the world, that there are more Christians in Congress than any other religion, and that every single President in US history has been Christian. Despite all that, there seems to be a knee-jerk need to feel persecuted.
This book offered a very good reason why this is: because that was how the religion was founded, and it is the fundamental narrative of Jesus’ story. If Jesus had been part of the Jewish majority, his story would have ended very differently, no matter how radical his ideas. The early church was born of persecution, first from the Jews and Romans, and when they were no longer a danger, from pagans and heretics. And under all that, the hand that is always set against them, is Satan. As long as Satan is there, the Christians will always have someone there to persecute them. Without that cosmic, deathless opponent, Jesus becomes just another political rabblerouser executed by Rome. Certainly no Messiah would have allowed himself to die unless it was a gambit in a much greater game against a much more powerful opponent. Without Satan and the relentless threat attributed to him (and, by extension, those who are seen to ally with him), Jesus’s sacrifice becomes meaningless, and the whole religion follows with it.
It’s a fascinating book and a great look at the early days of the Church. If you’re into that kind of thing, go pick it up. Many thanks to my mom and stepdad, who pointed my attention towards it.
“How, after all, could anyone claim that a man betrayed by one of his own followers, and brutally executed on charges of treason against Rome, not only was but still is God’s appointed Messiah, unless his capture and death were, as the gospels insist, not a final defeat but only a preliminary skirmish in a vast cosmic conflict now enveloping the universe?”
– Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan
Elaine Pagels on Wikipedia
The Origin of Satan on Amazon.com