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on September 9, 2003
This book is a historical study of early Christians and their relations with opposing groups. Pagel starts with a detailed interpretation of the Gospel according to Mark as a historical document, juxtaposed with a description of the rebellion that was raging amongst the Jews in Palestine at the time the account was written. She then goes on to some Old Testament interpretations of the word and concept of Satan. Following this, she takes up the remaining gospels in turn, interpreting their historical content in the political context of the times when they were written. She also considers lesser known Christian religious writings, such as the Gnostic scriptures.
Reading this book made me a lot more familiar with some of the political issues that were of concern to early Christians, and how these issues may have been reflected in the writing of the Gospels. But I was a little disappointed in the book because I felt that most of the focus was on general Christian history and politics and not on the central questions posed on the back cover concerning the origin of Satan. It seemed that the idea of using the question of the invention of Satan as the central theme of the book was almost pasted onto individual articles as an afterthought. In reading each chapter, it often felt like the chapter was meant to be a self-standing entity, and details concerning the conception of Satan were added simply to glue the book together. Many times, Pagel's comments touched on how the early Christians related to opposition, and how they might even demonize opposing groups, but how this led to the invention of the concept of Satan is still unclear to me after reading this book.
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on November 9, 2003
In THE ORIGIN OF SATAN, Elaine Pagels says that the idea of Satan evolved from "an opposing angel" in Jewish writing such as the book of Lot (Old Testament) to the ultimate source of evil in the Christian gospels (New Testament). Pagels suggests that Christians associated three distinct sets of 'others' with evil (or demonized them) as a way of rallying an opposite force and strengthening group solidarity.
The original 'others' the Christians demonized were 'other' Jews (Jesus and his early followers including Saint Paul were Jewish). At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the main Jewish power in Judea. However, Rome was the supreme ruler of Judea which it occupied as a defeated province. The Pharisees tended to be a "peace at any price" camp associated with Herod the nominal Jewish king. Other groups of dissenting Jews included the Essenes, who are believed to be the source of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many scholars including Pagels argue that Jesus, although not a member of a dissenting Jewish party such as the Essenes, was probably seen as a problem by the Pharisees because the Romans probably viewed him as a seditionist after he wrecked the Temple in Jerusalem.
Pagels suggests that although the four gospels depict the Roman Governor Pilate as a weak man who gave in to the wishes of the Sanhedrin (the council or court of the Pharisees) regarding the execution of Jesus, contemporary sources including Roman writers describe Pilate as a cruel ruler who summarily executed anyone he suspected of sedition. Furthermore, crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment. Pagels suggests the gospels may have palliated Pilate's involvement in Jesus' death for political reasons. During the period when the gospels were written, it was dangerous to criticize Rome. Besides, mainstream Jews had refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah, so the Christians had no incentive to downplay the role of the Pharisees and every reason to demonize them.
The second 'other' group the Christians demonized were the Pagans whose ideas of divinity, gods, and goddesses differed from both the Jewish tradition and the new Christian position. The third 'other' group consisted of heretics who chose a differing interpretation of Jesus' message - as evident in the scrolls from Nag Hammadi. (Pagels covers the pagans who existed at the time the books of the New Testament were written - not later groups or individuals. She also limits her discussion of heresy to those groups reflected in the Nag Hammagi scrolls.)
I particularly liked this book because I have always found the idea of Satan wrongheaded. How can a God who is both omniscient and omnipotent co-exist in a world with an 'other' who is the root of all evil, i.e., the devil. God must be his source (as Carl Jung suggested to Rome's chagrin). Oh I believe evil is real. One only has to reflect on Pogroms and the Holocaust to be reminded of it's existence. However, evil originates in the hearts and minds of human beings. I have long been troubled by the use of Jews, Pagans, dissenting Christians, and others as Christian scapegoats. Pagels suggests the true message of Jesus is about reconciliation which is divine, not seeing fellow human beings as the 'other.'
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on May 5, 2000
I found this book via a search through Amazon. I was looking for a real in depth history of the legend and character of satan, his origins and developement through history. I feel the title of the book is misleading as for much of the text it concentrates on the developement of the gospels through history and how they interpret the Jesus story differently, and Satan seems to be a very background figure in the whole thing, barely earning a mention. It is much more a religious/ theological book than a study study of the character of satan, which the title seems to indicate. Having said that, it is an interesting book in it's own right, just not what I was looking for or, I feel, what the title indicates.
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on March 24, 2004
This book deals with early Jewish and Christian religious politics and how these formed the identity of satan. Anyone that is interested in early christianity will find much of interest in this book. With this book and others she has swritten, the author has shown how early christianity evolved into what it is today. Recommended!
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a "spirited" and authoritative look at the inner workings of the gospels and their attempt at giving meaning to the concepts of evil and Satan.
Reading just one of her books obviously doesn't provide all the answers to a subject both complex and controversial. However, to read several of Pagels' books is to give your mind a tapestry of penetrating, insightful dialogue on arguably the most influential book of all centuries.
Christianity and Judaism deserve a scholar who is willing to probe the depths and return with vivid, entertaining language that nullifies the typical babble occurring at any given moment in a Sunday sermon.
Pagels does just that in a style that is always fresh and fulfilling to the mind and heart.
Readers are able to develop appreciation of the gospels while gaining further understanding of what they were really about.
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on March 5, 2004
In THE ORIGIN OF SATAN Elaine Pagels traces some of the earliest known incidents of religious groups demonizing their enemies back to Jewish apocalyptic sources and then shows how this idea was further developed by the Essenes and soon thereafter employed by the first Christian writers. The book is much more than a history of Satan. It is actually a story of the origins of Christianity told from the vantage point of how Satanic forces were described by different groups and succeeding generations of Christians.
In the beginning the enemies of the Christians are seen as other Jews such as the Pharisees. When the new movement fails to attract many Jewish converts, it instead starts to successfully recruit Gentiles. Now Satan is more likely to be seen at work orchestrating the Roman persecutions or instigating angry pagan mobs. Still later the enemy can be identified among groups of Christian heretics.
The author's strength and primary interest is the history of early Christianity. As usual her text is loaded with information on that subject. You may not agree with her conclusions but you will probably be impressed with the wealth of insights she gives to the reader on her favorite topic. Don't let the heavy-sounding title discourage you. Above all Elaine Pagels is an optimist and a message of hope can almost always be found in any of her books.
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on October 14, 2003
I could use many adjectives to describe Elaine Pagel's book The Origin of Satan, but, they can't really do it justice. All of Elaine Pagel's works have been extraordinary, this is no exception. A highly interesting look at the very roots of where Christians and Jews alike got their views of Satan and Evil, and how it contributed to the development of the church. Interesting too, is the look at the Gospels and the demonization of the Jews. Of course, as always the Gnostic interpretations are much appreciated and very insightful.
If you are looking to expand your religious horizons and open your mind, look no further. In fact, I'd suggest reading this before her book on the Gnostic Gospels.
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on January 10, 2003
Elaine Pagels is a wonderful historian and writer. In this book, which I personally regard as her best, she takes the reader on a journey to discover the character of "Satan." Did he start out as "the devil"? How did one of god's servants transform over the course of time into a rival for power? As always, Pagels is much like Marvin Harris or B.F. Skinner. You thought you understood an argument or issue, but she finds a way to explain it that makes it make perfect sense, but in a way you hadn't considered.
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on July 25, 2000
The author of this book has amazing credentials. The topics covered in this book are primarily oriented towards scriptural comparisons with the traditional four gospels and the Nag Hammadi findings. Further, too much attention is focused on Jesus, and not enough on Old Nick. Of course, had they called this book a textual and historical comparison of the gospels with the Nag Hammadi scriptures, three people would have purchased it. So...they figure to call it the Origin of Satan to bring in the masses. (No pun intended). Wanna read better stuff on the Prince of darkness? Try Jeffrey Burton Russell or Paul Carus. With them ya gets what ya pays for.
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on January 5, 2004
Whether or not you have read other works by Elaine Pagels, you will find the book "The Origin of Satan" as a fascinating view into the time of the writings of the gospels. This is not a deep theological treatise and those familiar with her earlier books ("The Gnostic Gospels" for one) will find this book easy to read. It does not have that large a scope. Exploring the usage of the word "Satan" in the writings of new testament times, this book is really more about the Christian gospels than it is about the adversarial angel. The title is a bit misleading: the work is really about the origin of the use of the word "satan". There is a considerable amount of treatment of how Mark and each of the gospel writers used invective to refer to the other Jewish sectarian movements. And whether any of us can really pin down when a word came into usage or why, there is a clever and well articulated theory in this work. You get the sense that there is a moral behind all this, that the challenge in the church is not to survive persecution (as it was in the early days), but to stand on God's side without demonizing perceived opponents. For those who want as complete an understanding of the new testament writings as possible, this book will be a helpful teacher of one aspect of that writing. Just do not expect too much from this little study.
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