Monday, May 12, 2008

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels

It takes a skilled intellect to present church history in a way that is riveting for the reader and does justice to the material, without becoming so esoteric that one need actually be a scholar to make any sense of it. Elaine Pagels has excelled in presenting thoughtful works about church history and the Nag Hammadi Library time and time again, and with The Origin of Satan she does not disappoint. Though she is not writing for experts, as one does when composing scholarly work, she does not condescend to people who obviously know less than she.

Less about Satan the character than the way the presentation between cosmic good and evil arose, the book begins by contextualizing the four gospels, identifying the authors’ relationships to each other and the social climate a
t the time of their writing. While none of this information was new to me, it served as an engaging refresher. Most interesting was likely the persecution of Christians by other Jews, creating much of the anti-Semitism that exist within Christianity today, for the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion was blamed less on the Romans and more squarely on the Jews as the writers of the gospels responded to their present climate.

Pagels also focuses on the early church and the way Christians were treated by the Roman Empire, which was made up of pagans. They supposedly hated the Christians because their monotheistic view was thought to anger the multitudes of gods that were worshipped, yet this theory is debunked by claims that even these pagans saw all their gods created by one force, and that perhaps the monotheistic view was not original to Judeo Christian thought. Many early Christians of this time are detailed, like Justin, Origen, and Tertullian, whose writings are compared and contrasted to pagan thinkers like Marcus Aurelius and others.

Finally, Pagels demonstrates the growing antagonism between the different sects of Christianity. As one would expect, she relies on the Nag Hammadi texts to demonstrate the differences in thought. The exploration of these suppressed texts is fascinating for the view it gives one of the differences between early Christians. One writer argues (fairly convincingly in my mind) that the deity identified as God in the Adam and Eve tale is actually Satan, and that the serpent was a representation of the true God. One wonders how different Christianity would be today had a slightly different selection of canonical books been selected at Nicaea. Pagels also uses later historical figures, like Martin Luther, to show how Satan was invoked as an ally of those propagating a different set of beliefs than the attacker.

This book helped solidify for me personally some of the issues I have with the modern church and the way it exerts control over ideas and represses anyone attempting to question dogma or perceived truth. Pagels has written an easily read and incredibly engaging book that is highly recommended for anyone with even the slightest interest in the material.

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