The Origin of Satan
Whereas in the nineteenth century Satan seldom attracted the attention of serious historians—Gustave Roskoff’s two-volume Geschichte des Teufels (1869) stands almost alone—of late he has done so repeatedly, and to excellent effect. The collection of essays published in 1948 under the auspices of the French Carmelites, and entitled simply Satan, heralded what became in the 1970s and 1980s a flood of scholarly studies. The five-hundred-page Teufelsglaube by Herbert Haag and others (1974), Jeffrey Russell’s trilogy, The Devil, Satan, Lucifer (1977–1984), Henry Ansgar Kelly’s The Devil at Baptism, Bernard Teyssèdre’s Naissance du Diable and Le Diable et l’Enfer (all 1985), Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (1987)—all these make up a large contribution to our knowledge and (more importantly) to our understanding. So is there anything left to say? Indeed there is—and Elaine Pagels has made a commendable attempt at saying it.
Hitherto studies of Satan have concentrated on the history of the idea (or concept, or symbol, or myth, or whatever), rather than on its function in society. To learn about that one had to turn to works of a different kind—for instance, to studies of the great European witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notably Robert Muchembled’s Culture populaire et culture des élites (1978) and Christina Larner’s Enemies of God: The Witch-hunt in Scotland (1981). There one could learn how certain human beings could come to be perceived as servants of the Devil. In its approach Pagels’s book belongs with such works, rather than with histories of demonology.
Pagels calls her book “a social history of Satan.” To produce such a history would be beyond the capacities of any one person, however gifted, and what one finds here is in fact a more modest work of scholarship: an account of how, in the first three centuries CE, Christians defamed rival or hostile groups by labeling them servants or allies or worshipers of Satan.
For this purpose the earliest Christian sources are the four canonical gospels. It is true that we have no idea who wrote them (except that it was certainly not the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to whom they are ascribed). It is also true that they were granted canonical status only around 200 CE. Nevertheless, as guides to the mentality of at least some early Christian communities these documents are reliable. For all the differences between them, they embody a characteristic world view, and one which has remained potent down to the present day.
As Pagels sees it, a vision of the world as a battleground where the forces of good contend with the forces of evil is integral to all the canonical gospels. All four deal with conflicts between Jesus’ followers and groups hostile to them—and in all four those conflicts are interpreted as manifestations of a cosmic struggle between God’s spirit and the power of Satan.
Pagels accepts unquestioningly the conventional dating of the gospels. She takes it for granted that all these writings were composed…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.