Commentary Magazine

The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels

The Devil in the Details

The Origin of Satan.
by Elaine Pagels.
Random House. 214 pp. $23.00.

At a time when books about angels make the best-seller lists, it is refreshing to have one about the devil—if only to remind us that religion is not all sweetness and light; it also has a dark side, which in turn mirrors the dark side of life and of the human heart.

“Certainly [the New Testament gospels] are about love,” Elaine Pagels remembers telling a friend infected with the popular sentimental view of religion, “but since the story they have to tell involves betrayal and killing, they also include elements of hostility which evoke demonic images.” It is the most demonic figure in Christianity, the figure of Satan himself, that Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, explores in her new book.

But who is Satan? In the Hebrew Bible, Pagels acknowledges, “Satan” refers only to someone in an adversarial posture and not to a fallen angel. Nevertheless, she detects the origins of a figure somewhat foreshadowing the Satan of the Christians as early as the book of Genesis, when God singles out Abraham and his descendants for an especially exalted destiny and a special blessing. This process of selection Pagels repeatedly connects to the anthropological theory that “the world view of most peoples consists essentially of two pairs of binary oppositions: human/not human and we/they,” with the result that people “dehumanize enemies, especially in wartime.”

If the ancient idea of a chosen people laid the groundwork, Pagels writes, it was Jewish sectarians of the late-Second Temple period who developed the biblical Satan into the familiar devil of Western tradition. These dissident Jews projected their opponents into the heavens, and interpreted their own struggles as merely the terrestrial manifestation of a cosmic war between the God of Israel and His demonic antagonist. The irony is that in the next turn of events, which saw the emergence of Christianity, the Jews themselves would come to be identified with the antagonist, and the Christian minority would assume the mantle of the righteous remnant allied with the faithful Jewish God.

Thus, the New Testament Gospel of Mark, a book written (according to Pagels) in the aftermath of the great 1st-century Jewish revolt against imperial Rome, works hard to establish that “Jesus’ followers had no quarrel with the Romans”; rather, their quarrel was “with the Jewish leaders . . . who had rejected God’s messiah” and thus proved themselves “insane or possessed of demons.” Mark tends, in fact, “to minimize the role of the Romans and to place increasing blame instead upon Jesus’ Jewish enemies,” and he does so, Pagels observes, by “plac[ing] the story of Jesus within the context of God’s struggle with Satan.”

Pagels traces the continuation and escalation of this identification of the Jews with Satan through the other canonical gospels. In an especially astute observation about Matthew, she notes that behind Herod’s attempt to find the infant Jesus and kill him lies a startling reversal of roles: now the Jewish king acts as Pharaoh, and Egypt, to which Jesus’ parents escape with him, becomes a place of refuge rather than oppression. In the Gospel of John, Jesus even tells the Jews that their father is not Abraham but the devil, and that it is the latter whose work they have chosen to do.

Inherited from Judaism, the figure of Satan survived the Church’s breaking loose from its Jewish matrix and came to be applied to other enemies, both external and internal. As Pagels demonstrates, ancient Christians were no more reluctant to demonize Greco-Roman pagans and heterodox Christians, especially the gnostics, than they were to demonize the Jews. Thus, in the 2nd century C.E., the Christian apologist Justin tells the Roman emperor and his sons that, “Even now these demons seek to keep you as their slaves, by preventing you from understanding what we say.” Tertullian, a church father of the next generation, attributes heretical biblical interpretation to “the devil, of course, to whom belong the wiles that distort the truth.”



To Pagels, this cumulative evidence of orthodox Christian association of Jews, pagans, and heretics with Satan compels her central thesis: “Satan” is the ancient Jewish and Christian name for the human “other,” for people who are different from ourselves and pose a challenge to our identity.

Despite this grim picture, however, and despite her abundant personal distaste for orthodox theology, Pagels is not ready to give up on Christianity. She finds substantial palliation of its unfortunate demonizing tendency in ancient gnostic texts like the Gospel of Thomas, in which the kingdom of God is not a place or an event but, as she puts it, “a state of self-discovery” or “transformed consciousness” brought about by the attainment of self-knowledge.

Thomas, Pagels remarks, “teaches that when one comes to know oneself, at the deepest level, one simultaneously knows God as the source of one’s being,” and one thus becomes an identical twin to Jesus. Another gnostic text, the Gospel of Philip, similarly “interprets the human inclination to sin without recourse to Satan,” and finds the antidote to that inclination not in God’s action but in human self-recognition.

Most appealing to Pagels is a source in the canonical gospels which some scholars have associated with gnosticism and which presents Jesus as calling upon Christians to be reconciled with their enemies and even to love them. This call she sees as the reverse of the demonization of opponents that prevails elsewhere in the canonical gospels and the Church Fathers. For Elaine Pagels, in the end the true struggle within Christianity is “between the profoundly human view that ‘otherness’ is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine.”



There is little in The Origin of Satan that is new. Indeed, the book is almost entirely derivative and seems to have been hastily patched together. For example, the term “gnosis” is initially defined only near the close, after several discussions of gnostic texts have gone by. Still, popularizations of sound scholarship can be valuable and can help remind us of things too easily forgotten.

One such thing has to do, precisely, with the dark side of life, the side more suggestive of devils than of angels. In Pagels’s book, however, this dark side of life seems to be given short shrift—and how dark can it be, when it can be vanquished by nothing more than self-recognition? Her attention, rather, falls on a very different matter, the dark side of religion, especially orthodox Christian religion.

In this connection, some of her points are both well-taken and timely. Of special interest today, when the Jewish community is agitated over the question of fundamentalist Christian participation in politics, are her observations about the ways in which the New Testament gospels associate the Jews with Satan. Christian thought about Jews and about Judaism is extremely complex and many-sided; over the centuries, it has generated both anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism. Even today, a Christian can be philo-Semitic in some areas—as in supporting Israel—while at the same time regarding the New Testament demonization of the Jews as inerrant, and working fervently for their conversion to Christianity. Christian philo-Semitism is a newer phenomenon than Christian anti-Semitism, and only time will tell whether it has anything approaching the latter’s phenomenal durability.



Even when her points are valid, however, Pagels’s development of them is often flawed both in detail and in conception. Her discussions lie at a considerable remove from the ancient texts themselves and occasionally mischaracterize them. She tells us, for example, that in the important Jewish work known as the Book of Jubilees, “it is Mastema [a devil]—not the Lord—who commands Abraham to kill his son, Isaac.” In point of fact, in Jubilees as in Genesis it is the Lord who orders the sacrifice; all Mastema does is to suggest the command as a way by which God may ascertain whether Abraham’s faithfulness to him outweighs his love for Isaac.

More serious, and more indicative of her own conceptual confusion, is Pagels’s misinterpretation of God’s initial promise to Abraham in Genesis. Concerning the words, “whoever blesses you I will bless; and whoever curses you I will curse,” Pagels observes that God “simultaneously defines and constitutes [the Abrahamic nation’s] enemies as inferior and potentially accursed.” But the text she quotes says nothing at all about inferiority, and does not identify the “others” as enemies or associate them with accursedness. She could just as truthfully have written that outsiders are here seen as potential friends and potentially blessed.

To do so, however, Pagels would have had to give up the point, crucial to her whole argument, that the we/they dichotomy is synonymous with the dichotomy of human/nonhuman. In fact, the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic tradition offer plentiful evidence that it is at least possible to maintain a firm distinction between insiders and outsiders without necessarily identifying outsiders as nonhuman, cursed, or diabolical. One has the sense that, in her discussion of Jewish texts, Pagels is engaging in a certain demonization of her own—a demonization of Jewish particularism as an example of misanthropy.



Pagels’s distaste for Christian orthodoxy and her lack of generosity toward Judaism are more than matched on the other side by her idealization of gnosticism. A more balanced discussion would have emphasized that the gnostic texts which she contrasts favorably with the canonical gospels are, in most and perhaps in all cases, of a later date and speak to a different situation. And in any case, they do more than celebrate innocuous things like self-discovery, self-recognition, and the transformation of consciousness: they also demonize. And among the occasional victims of their demonization is none other than the God of Israel, identified as a lesser deity, the foolish demiurge who created the inferior world of matter from which the gnostic believes he can liberate himself.

If we adopt Pagels’s own model of religion as a mirror of social reality, it is hard to see how this demonization could reflect anything other than the animosity of Christian gnostics toward the Jews. She herself notes that the gnostic Gospel of Philip “at one point uses the terms ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Christian’ to compare the relationship between those who have received only the preliminary revelation and those who have received the fuller understanding of gnosis.” Except for the term gnosis, the pattern here is the altogether familiar one of classical Christian supersessionism. If a statement like this had appeared in a canonical rather than a gnostic gospel, would Pagels have been so inclined to overlook its invidiousness? If not, then she should have been compelled to acknowledge that demonization can occur even in the absence of the figure of Satan, and that the gnostic’s voyage inward provides no immunity against prejudice, theological or otherwise.



In her introduction, Pagels tells us that she is interested in how the figure of Satan “is invoked to express human conflict and to characterize human enemies within our own religious traditions.” By the time she reaches her conclusion, however, she has changed direction. No longer is Satan a figure invoked by humans to “express” their conflicts; he has become, rather, a projection of human conflict, a product (in the words I quoted earlier) of “the profoundly human view that ‘otherness’ is evil.” The effect of her book is thus to reverse the classical religious view that Satan is the origin of conflict. Here, conflict is the origin of Satan.

There are criticisms of both method and substance to be made about this reduction of religious phenomena to social and psychological configurations. For one thing, if Satan is a human construct, why not God as well? But if God is nothing but a human construct, how can Pagels speak of anything—even reconciliation and the love of one’s enemies—as truly “divine”? Why should Elaine Pagels’s particular values and ideals—for which her use of the word “divine” is presumably metaphoric—be exempt from the guillotine of the social constructionist?

In this way, The Origin of Satan nicely reflects how the academic method known as the “hermeneutics of suspicion” is usually applied in religion departments and divinity schools today. What gets “suspected” is principally traditional religious belief, never the (unexamined) beliefs of those doing the suspecting. Elaine Pagels is no exception.

But let us return to substance. It is true, as Pagels argues, that the belief in Satan has tempted people to demonize those who are innocent, and has thereby contributed to human sinfulness; given the grim view of human nature taken by traditional theologies, that should hardly be unexpected. But there is another side to this particular coin. If Satan is a name for the nearly irresistible force that tempts people to do things that their own minds, in clearer moments, should abominate, may not a belief in Satan also energize people to do good things, things that their own minds and spirits might never otherwise attempt?

I think, for example, of the young Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45). After having been dismissed by the Nazis from his post in Germany, Bonhoeffer lectured for a while in America, and then chose to return home at the outbreak of World War II. Once there, he resumed his anti-Nazi work, for which he was eventually imprisoned in Buchenwald. Days before the war ended, he was hanged for his involvement in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.

Early on, in castigating a Christian organization sympathetic to Nazism, Bonhoeffer invoked the inflammatory term, “Anti-Christ,” which designates a figure not too different from Satan. Had he not believed in the pessimistic Christian theology out of which the idea of the Anti-Christ grew, would he have chosen his heroic path of resistance to evil? Or would he, like the pro-Nazi Christians, have chosen instead the path of compromise and accommodation? Or perhaps the neo-gnostic course: exhorting the Fuehrer to engage in self-discovery, with a view toward transforming his consciousness and discovering the divine spark deep within?

Given the mysterious capacity of human beings for unspeakable evil, a belief in Satan and his works may lead not only to acts of demonization, but also to acts of redemption. In explaining away the true challenge posed by the satanic to the divine—and posed, as well, to us—Elaine Pagels unwittingly contributes to the sentimental view of religion that a more hard-headed and provocative book than hers might have helped to correct.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.