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What would Jesus do....
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.'