Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Origins of Satan

Elaine Pagels is the premier contemporary populariser of current Biblical scholarship. Her The Origins of Satan is a reworking of (or stringing together of) various scholarly articles in a book about the development of the notion of Satan.

As with Pagels' others books that I have read, it is informative and accessible. Pagels traces the development of the notion of Satan in Jewish and Christian thought from the generic agent of God (e.g. Balaam and the ass) then specific agent of God (in the book of Job) of the Old Testament to the enemy of God of the Essenes and early Jesus movement, to the inspirer and leader of the demonic forces personified by the pagan gods and pagan order and heretic Christians of the Christian movement.

On the way through, one learns much about scholarly interpretations of the Gospels and of the development of the Jesus movement into Christianity. Pagels argues that the notion of Satan as the enemy of God, and as the motivator and leader of opposing humans, filled developing theological needs in explaining and theological dignifying problematic relations of first the Essenes, then the Jesus movement, with other Jews and then the Christian movement with pagans and other Christians. A pattern that develops through various Gospels to early theological writings (particularly by Origen, against the pagan order, and Irenaeus, against dissident Christians). Basically, it was a way of explaining why folk did not do or think the right things while elevating the status of the (beleaguered) folk who did. Such beleaguered folk being the ritual purists within the Jewish community (Essenes), the Jesus movement within the Jewish community then, particularly as it became increasingly a Gentile movement, the Christian movement within the pagan-Roman world.

On the way through the use of Satan to provide (in Karen Armstrong's terms) a sustaining mythos (particularly about the role and importance of Jesus and being a follower thereof) established the modus of (literally) demonising human opponents that has become so much a habit among Christians and Muslims and various secularisations of apocalyptic and eschatological visions (notably Marxism and its derivatives [p.182]—there are plenty of modern secularists who believe salvation comes from believing the right things and damnation from believing the wrong ones). In, as Pagels ends with, contradiction of Jesus's position that reconciliation was divine.

The book is a little disjointed because of its origins as a series of scholarly articles. Nevertheless, a good and revealing read.

No comments:

Post a Comment