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Review 109: The Origin of Satan

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.

Well, isn't that SPECIAL?

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.

Employee of the Millennium (photo by Nathan Rupert)

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.

Really he just likes to watch

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.

One of the Prince of Darkness

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.

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“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
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Elaine Pagels on Wikipedia
The Origin of Satan on Amazon.com

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Filed under Bible, Christianity, Elaine Pagels, good and evil, history, Jesus, Judaism, nonfiction, religion, Satan, theology

Review 13: Misquoting Jesus


Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

I saw this guy on The Daily Show a few years ago, and his book sounded like a really interesting idea – study the ways in which, over the last two thousand years, the text of the Bible has been altered. Sometimes it has been altered by mistake and sometimes on purpose, but it has been altered nonetheless.

Now this is a claim that angers a certain section of Christianity – often known as the Biblical Literalists – who believe that every word of the Bible is true, the revealed Word of God. Unfortunately for them, once the text is analyzed, once source texts and translations are looked at carefully, there are too many discrepancies for that to be true.

What makes this book interesting is the author’s background, which he explains in detail in the introduction. Bart Ehrman is not an angry atheist, looking to tear down the New Testament. Quite the contrary – in his teens, Ehrman became Born Again, filling the void in his life with 100% Jesus. He threw his heart and soul into Bible study, convinced that the book was the inerrant, incontrovertible Word Of God. It was only when he began really studying the Bible that he started to get the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

And when I say “studying the Bible,” I don’t mean just reading a few passages before he went to bed at night. Ehrman is the kind of person who learned Latin and ancient Greek and Aramaic so that he could read the oldest known manuscripts for the Gospels and the Epistles. He immersed himself in Biblical history, arming himself with every tool he would need for textual criticism and a better understanding of the text that meant so much to him.

An explanation of textual criticism takes up a great deal of the book, since it’s a branch of academia that most people aren’t all that familiar with. Textual criticism is the analyses of ancient manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original text was. This is done by comparing manuscripts. It attempts to determine what changes were made and when. It’s very difficult, even worse so the older the work is, but it’s a task that has absorbed Biblical scholars for centuries. This brings up two questions: why is that difficult to do, and why is it important?

As to the first, it’s difficult because these manuscripts were, before the printing press got into full swing, copied by hand. By humans, to be specific and if you’re a human – and there’s a very good chance that you are – you know how hard it is for us to do things without making errors. A pen might slip, your eye might skip a line, or you just might be tired and misread a word. That error then gets around, and someone else copies it, probably adding their own errors as well. Many of the original copyists of the New Testament weren’t professional scribes, and even some of the pros were barely capable of actually reading the text they were copying.

What’s worse, there’s no guarantee that the “correct” text is the one that gets the most exposure. You might have fifty copies of, say, the Gospel of Luke that say one thing and five that say something else, but those fifty copies might all be wrong. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but there you go. And age isn’t always reliable either. You might think that an 8th century text is more “correct” than one from the 10th century, but not if that 10th century text had been copied from a 4th century manuscript. You can see how problems emerge.

Ehrman lays out, as simply as he can, the criteria by which textual critics judge a manuscript. It can’t be called scientific, as there are a lot of judgment calls to be made, but within the field there are a lot of very good guidelines, and the peer review process is relentless.

The bigger question, then – why is it important? Well, the biggest reason is because there are over a billion people on the planet who live their lives, to one degree or another, by the words of the New Testament. They look at the Gospels and see the stories of Jesus and his miracles, they read the letters of John and his instructions to the newly-birthed churches of the first century to try and find out what Jesus would have wanted. And because Jesus himself never left us any notes, the words in the New Testament are all they have to go on. Isn’t it vital, therefore, to know what the writers originally wrote? If you’re basing your faith off of inaccurate writings, does that mean your faith is flawed? If you’re living your life based on ideas that were not inspired by Jesus, but by a third-century scribe who, for example, had certain ideas about a woman’s place in the church, does that mean you’re living wrong?

And if you are one of those who believe that God transmitted His words to the writers of the New Testament, what does the fact that we no longer have those original words mean to your faith?

That’s the big thing here – we don’t have Paul’s original letters to the early churches. We don’t have the notes that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used when they were writing their Gospels. We don’t even have copies of copies of those notes. What we do have, and what Ehrman demonstrates in detail, are many manuscripts over many centuries that have thousands of points of divergence. Sometimes those differences are minor, but some of them affect the very foundations upon which Christianity is built.

Like the famous story of the adulteress, where Jesus gave his “Let he who is without sin” speech. It doesn’t show up in the earliest and best texts, but gets wedged in a few centuries later. Or the bit in Luke where Jesus sweats blood? That, too, appears to have been a later addition to an otherwise well-constructed section of that Gospel. Even the famous King James Bible is not immune – it was based off a Greek New Testament that was written earlier, parts of which were constructed by a man named Erasmus, who did it not by using original Greek writings, but by translating later Latin translations back into Greek. Why? Because those original Greek writings were lost, but they had to have something….

Ehrman tries to look at the possible motivations for these changes, and they are necessarily speculative. The early Church was a turbulent and unstable entity, with many different groups pushing their rendition of who Jesus was and what he wanted of his followers.

Was Jesus an emotionally turbulent rabblerouser or was he a calm and serene figure of peace? Was he the begotten son of God or just adopted? Did he die with quiet dignity, willingly surrendering his spirit up to God, or did he die in torment, forsaken? Was he entirely human, entirely divine, both or neither? Christians of the early Church knew these to be vital questions – with a variety of answers. The New Testament we have today is the result of who had the most power to enforce their interpretations of Jesus’ life, times and teachings.

This book covers a whole lot of ground in 218 pages – Biblical history, Christian history, textual criticism, politics, sociology…. The history of how the New Testament came to be the way it is today is a complicated and fascinating one, and Ehrman casts it in an interesting light.

You see, rather than spend 200 pages noting the history of alterations in the book, he doesn’t say, “And that’s why we should just throw it the hell out!” Rather, he encourages readers to look at the New Testament as an ornate human creation, a text (or, more accurately, a collection of texts) that has survived the millennia by being complex enough to survive interpretation after interpretation. The inerrant Word Of God? Sorry, but no. But it is still key to understanding human history in the last two thousand years, and is therefore worthy of study.

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“What if God didn’t say it? What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words? What if the Bible doesn’t give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age – abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy and the like? What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol – or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?”
– Brad Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus
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Misquoting Jesus at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman’s homepage
Textual criticism at Wikipedia

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Filed under Bart Ehrman, Bible, Christianity, criticism, history, Jesus, nonfiction, religion, textual criticism, theology