“The origin of Satan (introduction)” – Elaine PAGELS

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—living, that is, with a vivid sense of someone who had died. During the following years 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. I was reflecting, too, on the various ways that people from Greek, Jewish, and Christian traditions deal with misfortune and loss. Greek writers from Homer to Sophocles attribute such events to gods and goddesses, destiny and fate—elements as capricious and indifferent to human welfare as the “forces of nature” (which is our term for these forces).

In the ancient Western world, of which I am a historian, many—perhaps most—people assumed that the universe was inhabited by invisible beings whose presence impinged upon the visible world and its human inhabitants. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans envisioned gods, goddesses, and spirit beings of many kinds, while certain Jews and Christians, ostensibly monotheists, increasingly spoke of angels, heavenly messengers from God, and some spoke of fallen angels and demons. This was especially true from the first century of the common era onward.

Conversion from paganism to Judaism or Christianity, I realized, meant, above all, transforming one’s perception of the invisible world. To this day, Christian baptism requires a person to solemnly “renounce the devil and all his works” and to accept exorcism. The pagan convert was baptized only after confessing that all spirit beings previously revered—and dreaded—as divine were actually only “demons”—hostile spirits contending against the One God of goodness and justice, and against his armies of angels. Becoming either a Jew or a Christian polarized a pagan’s view of the universe, and moralized it. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber regarded the moralizing of the universe as one of the great achievements of Jewish tradition, later passed down as its legacy to Christians and Muslims. The book of Genesis, for example, insists that volcanoes would not have destroyed the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah unless all the inhabitants of those towns—all the inhabitants who concerned the storyteller, that is, the adult males—had been evil, “young and old, down to the last man” (Gen. 19:4).

When I began this work, I assumed that Jewish and Christian perceptions of invisible beings had to do primarily with moralizing the natural universe, as Buber claimed, and so with encouraging people to interpret events ranging from illness to natural disasters as expressions of “God’s will” or divine judgment on human sin. But my research led me in unexpected directions and disclosed a far more complex picture. Such Christians as Justin Martyr (140 C.E.), one of the “fathers of the church,” attributes affliction not to “God’s will” but to the malevolence of Satan. His student Tatian allows for accident in the natural world, including disasters, for which, he says, God offers solace but seldom miraculous intervention. As I proceeded to investigate Jewish and Christian accounts of angels and fallen angels, I discovered, however, that they were less concerned with the natural world as a whole than with the particular world of human relationships.

Rereading biblical and extra-biblical accounts of angels, I learned first of all what many scholars have pointed out: that while angels often appear in the Hebrew Bible, Satan, along with other fallen angels or demonic beings, is virtually absent. But among certain first-century Jewish groups, prominently including the Essenes (who saw themselves as allied with angels) and the followers of Jesus, the figure variously called Satan, Beelzebub, or Belial also began to take on central importance. While the gospel of Mark, for example, mentions angels only in the opening frame (1:13) and in the final verses of the original manuscript (16:5–7), Mark deviates from mainstream Jewish tradition by introducing “the devil” into the crucial opening scene of the gospel, and goes on to characterize Jesus’ ministry as involving continual struggle between God’s spirit and the demons, who belong, apparently, to Satan’s “kingdom” (see Mark 3:23–27). Such visions have been incorporated into Christian tradition and have served, among other things, to confirm for Christians their own identification with God and to demonize their opponents—first other Jews, then pagans, and later dissident Christians called heretics. This is what this book is about.

To emphasize this element of the New Testament gospels does not mean, of course, that this is their primary theme. “Aren’t the gospels about love?” exclaimed one friend as we discussed this work. Certainly they are about love, but since the story they have to tell involves betrayal and killing, they also include elements of hostility which evoke demonic images. This book concentrates on this theme.

What fascinates us about Satan is the way he expresses qualities that go beyond what we ordinarily recognize as human. Satan evokes more than the greed, envy, lust, and anger we identify with our own worst impulses, and more than what we call brutality, which imputes to human beings a resemblance to animals (“brutes”). Thousands of years of tradition have characterized Satan instead as a spirit. Originally he was one of God’s angels, but a fallen one. Now he stands in open rebellion against God, and in his frustrated rage he mirrors aspects of our own confrontations with otherness. Many people have claimed to see him embodied at certain times in individuals and groups that seem possessed by an intense spiritual passion, one that engages even our better qualities, like strength, intelligence, and devotion, but turns them toward destruction and takes pleasure in inflicting harm. Evil, then, at its worst, seems to involve the supernatural—what we recognize, with a shudder, as the diabolic inverse of Martin Buber’s characterization of God as “wholly other.” Yet—historically speaking, at any rate—Satan, along with diabolical colleagues like Belial and Mastema (whose Hebrew name means “hatred”), did not materialize out of the air. Instead, as we shall see, such figures emerged from the turmoil of first-century Palestine, the setting in which the Christian movement began to grow.

I do not intend to do here what other scholars already have done well: The literary scholar Neil Forsyth, in his excellent recent book The Old Enemy, has investigated much of the literary and cultural background of the figure of Satan; Walter Wink and the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and some of his followers have studied Satan’s theological and psychological implications. Jeffrey Burton Russell and others have attempted to investigate cross-cultural parallels between the figure of Satan and such figures as the Egyptian god Set or the Zoroastrian evil power Ahriman.4 What interests me instead are specifically social implications of the figure of Satan: how he is invoked to express human conflict and to characterize human enemies within our own religious traditions.

In this book, then, I invite you to consider Satan as a reflection of how we perceive ourselves and those we call “others.” Satan has, after all, made a kind of profession out of being the “other”; and so Satan defines negatively what we think of as human. The social and cultural practice of defining certain people as “others” in relation to one’s own group may be, of course, as old as humanity itself. The anthropologist Robert Redfield has argued that the worldview of many peoples consists essentially of two pairs of binary oppositions: human/nonhuman and we/they. These two are often correlated, as Jonathan Z. Smith observes, so that “we” equals “human” and “they” equals “not human.” The distinction between “us” and “them” occurs within our earliest historical evidence, on ancient Sumerian and Akkadian tablets, just as it exists in the language and culture of peoples all over the world. Such distinctions are charged, sometimes with attraction, perhaps more often with repulsion—or both at once. The ancient Egyptian word for Egyptian simply means “human”; the Greek word for non-Greeks, “barbarian,” mimics the guttural gibberish of those who do not speak Greek—since they speak unintelligibly, the Greeks call them barbaroi.

Yet this virtually universal practice of calling one’s own people human and “dehumanizing” others does not necessarily mean that people actually doubt or deny the humanness of others. Much of the time, as William Green points out, those who so label themselves and others are engaging in a kind of caricature that helps define and consolidate their own group identity:

A society does not simply discover its others, it fabricates them, by selecting, isolating, and emphasizing an aspect of another people’s life, and making it symbolize their difference.

Conflict between groups is, of course, nothing new. What may be new in Western Christian tradition, as we shall see, 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. Those who adopt this view are encouraged to believe, as Jesus warned his followers, that “whoever kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2). 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.

Research for this book has made me aware of aspects of Christianity I find disturbing. During the past several years, rereading the gospels, I was struck by how their vision of supernatural struggle both expresses conflict and raises it to cosmic dimensions. This research, then, reveals certain fault lines in Christian tradition that have allowed for the demonizing of others throughout Christian history—fault lines that go back nearly two thousand years to the origins of the Christian movement. While writing this book I often recalled a saying of Søren Kierkegaard: “An unconscious relationship is more powerful than a conscious one.”

For nearly two thousand years, for example, many Christians have taken for granted that Jews killed Jesus and the Romans were merely their reluctant agents, and that this implicates not only the perpetrators but (as Matthew insists) all their progeny in evil.8 Throughout the centuries, countless Christians listening to the gospels absorbed, along with the quite contrary sayings of Jesus, the association between the forces of evil and Jesus’ Jewish enemies. Whether illiterate or sophisticated, those who heard the gospel stories, or saw them illustrated in their churches, generally assumed both their historical accuracy and their religious validity.

Especially since the nineteenth century, however, increasing numbers of scholars have applied literary and historical analysis to the gospels—the so-called higher criticism. Their critical analysis indicated that the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source from which to construct their amplified gospels. Many scholars assumed that Mark was the most historically reliable because it was the simplest in style and was written closer to the time of Jesus than the others were. But historical accuracy may not have been the gospel writers’ first consideration. Further analysis demonstrated how passages from the prophetic writings and the psalms of the Hebrew Bible were woven into the gospel narratives. Barnabas Lindars and others suggested that Christian writers often expanded biblical passages into whole episodes that “proved,” to the satisfaction of many believers, that events predicted by the prophets found their fulfillment in Jesus’ coming.9

Those who accepted such analysis now realized that the gospel of Mark, as James Robinson shows, is anything but a straightforward historical narrative; rather, it is a theological treatise that assumes the form of historical biography.10 Recognizing that the authors of Matthew and Luke revised Mark in different ways, scholars have attempted to discriminate between the source materials each accepted from earlier tradition—sayings, anecdotes, and parables—and what each writer added to interpret that material. Some hoped to penetrate the various accounts and to discover the “historical Jesus,” recovering his authentic words and deeds from the peripheral material that surrounds them. But others objected to what Albert Schweitzer called the “quest of the historical Jesus,”11 pointing out that the earliest of the gospels was written more than a generation after Jesus’ death, and the others nearly two generations later, and that sorting out “authentic” material in the gospels was virtually impossible in the absence of independent evidence.

Meanwhile, many other scholars introduced historical evidence from the Mishnah, an ancient archive of Jewish tradition, along with other Jewish sources, as well as from Roman history, law, and administrative procedure. One of the primary issues to emerge from these critical studies was the question, What historical basis is there, if any, to the gospels’ claim that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death? What makes this question of vital interest is the gospels’ claim that this deed was inspired by Satan himself. One group of scholars pointed out discrepancies between Sanhedrin procedure described in the Mishnah and in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ “trial before the Sanhedrin,” and questioned the accuracy of the accounts in Mark and Matthew. Simon Bernfield declared in 1910 that “the whole trial before the Sanhedrin is nothing but an invention of a later date,” a view that has found recent defenders among Christian literary analysts. Noting that the charge against Jesus and the form of execution are characteristically Roman, many scholars, including Paul Winter in his influential book On the Trial of Jesus, published in 1961, argued that it was the Romans who executed Jesus, on political grounds, not religious ones. Others, recently including the Roman historian Fergus Millar, have placed more credence in the accounts of Luke or John, which indicate that the Sanhedrin held only a hearing concerning Jesus, not an actual trial.

Recently, however, one group of scholars has renewed arguments to show that, in Josef Blinzler’s words,

anyone who undertakes to assess the trial of Jesus as a historical and legal event, reconstructing it from the gospel narratives must come to the same conclusion as the early Christian preachers did themselves, that the main responsibility rests on the Jewish side (emphasis added).

But scholars who take more skeptical views of the historical plausibility of these narratives emphasize Roman responsibility for Jesus’ execution, which, they suggest, the gospel writers tended to downplay so as not to provoke the Romans in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Jewish war against Rome.

I agree as a working hypothesis that Jesus’ execution was probably imposed by the Romans for activities they considered seditious—possibly for arousing public demonstrations and (so they apparently believed) for claiming to be “king of the Jews.” Among his own people, however, Jesus appeared as a radical prophetic figure whose public teaching, although popular with the crowds, angered and alarmed certain Jewish leaders, especially the Temple authorities, who probably facilitated his capture and arrest.

But this book is not primarily an attempt to discover “what really happened”—much less to persuade the reader of this or any other version of “what happened”—since, apart from the scenario briefly sketched above, I find the sources too fragmentary and too susceptible of various interpretations to answer that question definitively. Instead I try to show how the gospels reflect the emergence of the Jesus movement from the postwar factionalism of the late first century. Each author shapes a narrative to respond to particular circumstances, and each uses the story of Jesus to “think with” in an immediate situation, identifying with Jesus and the disciples, and casting those regarded as opponents as Jesus’ enemies. To show this, I draw upon a wealth of recent works by historical and literary scholars, many of them discussing (and often disagreeing over) the question of when and how Jesus’ followers separated from the rest of the Jewish community.

In this book I add to the discussion something I have not found elsewhere—what I call the social history of Satan; that is, I show how the events told in the gospels about Jesus, his advocates, and his enemies correlate with the supernatural drama the writers use to interpret that story—the struggle between God’s spirit and Satan. And because Christians as they read the gospels have characteristically identified themselves with the disciples, for some two thousand years they have also identified their opponents, whether Jews, pagans, or heretics, with forces of evil, and so with Satan.


PAGELS, Elaine, The Origin of Satan. New York: Random House, 1995.

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