Inculpating Christianity

satanIn The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels intends to show how Jesus’ early followers appropriated and transformed the Israelite concept of Satan for the purposes of forming and consolidating a Christian identity in opposition to the Jewish majority. As Pagels explains, for Israelite writers “satan is not an animal or monster but one of God’s angels, a being of superior intelligence and status … In the Hebrew Bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an ‘evil empire,’ and army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike” (Pagels, 39). If we trust Pagels’ interpretation, Satan’s transformation within Christianity has been quite dramatic, evolving as he did from a supremely intelligent being in the Israelite version into some kind of animal or monster. The point that Christians introduced a revamped notion of Satan is adequately supported through Pagels’ analysis of the Christian Gospels, yet in the passage cited above and elsewhere in the book, Pagels demonstrates a certain proneness to sensationalism. To claim that the Hebrew Satan is not an animal or a monster is also to suggest that the Christian notion of Satan, by contrast, does represent such things. By logical extension then, since Christians equate Satan principally with their Jewish enemies, Pagels seems to be arguing that, from a Christian perspective, Jews are effectively “animals” or “monsters.” Pagels’ conclusions clearly need to be situated in their appropriate historical context, that is to say, the period of the first couple hundred years after Christ. Pagels, however, is not particularly keen on restricting the implications of her findings to this early period within the Christian era (note that Pagels, in the passage cited above, refers to current mainstream Judaism as well as Western Christendom, understood as the cumulative history of the Christian movement). Pagels’ investigations of the Christian Gospels in general, and of the use of Satan in particular, may be deemed academic in nature, yet they also clearly constitute religious interpretations, or re-interpretations of these Biblical sources.  While Pagels proceeds under the guise of scholarly research, implicit condemnation of Christianity lingers as a constant theme throughout The Origin of Satan.

As Pagels explains in the introduction, “Conflict between groups is, of course, nothing new. What may be new in  Western Christian tradition … is how the use of Satan to represent one’s enemies lends to conflict a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation, in which ‘we’ are God’s people and ‘they’ are God’s enemies, and ours as well” (Pagels, xix). The Origin of Satan presents itself as a work of religious and social history, yet these introductory remarks suggest an underlying agenda which extends beyond mere historical analysis. For reasons that may have less to do with scholarly rigour and more to do with generating popular interest in her book, Pagels begins her work with the sensationalistic hypothesis that Christians are somehow responsible for the inception of a terrible idea with profound historical implications. Subtitled “How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics,” The Origin of Satan as a whole stands as an indictment of the Western Christian tradition, a tradition which, according to Pagels, was built on the premise of a toxic dichotomy which opposed God’s people to His enemies. Yet the dualism suggested by Pagels is not a Christian novelty. We need in fact to look no further than The Book of Psalms for ample evidence of the existence of this same spirit of confrontation within the Hebrew Bible. As Pagels herself even explains, “from the beginning, Israelite tradition defines ‘us’ in ethnic, political, and religious terms as ‘the people of Israel,’ or ‘the people of God,’ as against ‘them’ – the (other) nations, the alien enemies of Israel, often characterized as inferior, morally depraved, even potentially accursed” (Pagels, 36). Thus, it is unclear how this dualism inherent to Judaism differs significantly from the dualism resulting from the Christian interpretation of Satan. Furthermore, Pagels identifies strong similarities between the Christian appropriation of Satan and that of certain marginal or extreme Jewish groups such as the Essenes. As Pagels explains, “these dissidents began increasingly to invoke the satan to characterize their Jewish opponents; in the process they turned this rather unpleasant angel into a far grander – and far more malevolent – figure. No longer one of God’s faithful servants, he begins to become what he is for Mark and for later Christianity – God’s antagonist, his enemy, even his rival” (Pagels, 47). If the Essenes converted Satan into a malevolent figure as effectively as the Christians did, how can it be that this represents a uniquely Western Christian phenomenon, as Pagels claims in her introduction?

It is understood that the specific focus of Pagels’ book is the notion of Satan and its specific deployment within Christianity for decidedly strategic purposes, and it is fair to say that Pagels describes this deployment in a convincing manner, demonstrating how Christians transformed the Hebrew notion of Satan from merely the Adversary into something far more antagonistic. Yet Pagels oversteps the bounds of her scholarly endeavour by suggesting that Christians, through their demonization of others, effectively demonized themselves. While the events that characterized the two thousand year history of Christianity, including the many instances of persecution against the Jews, remains technically outside the scope of Pagels’ analysis, her work contains much indirect insinuation regarding the actual repercussions that this early Christian demonization of the Jews would eventually cause throughout that history. As Pagels explains, “as the Christian movement became increasingly Gentile during the second century and later, the identification of Satan primarily with the Jewish enemies of Jesus, borne along in Christian tradition over the centuries, would fuel the fires of anti-semitism” (Pagels, 34). Also, as she states in the conclusion, “for the most part, Christians have taught – and acted upon – the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption” (Pagels, 184). In these passages, Pagels seems to be diagnosing Christianity’s basic illness; a fundamental corruption within the Christian worldview to which many unfortunate events over centuries of Western history can somehow be attributed. But anti-semitism, as it has been witnessed throughout Western history, cannot simply be explained by the Christian identification of Satan with the Jews.  Yet Pagels allows herself significant liberty in interpreting the historical effects of the Christian deployment of Satan, an imprudent move that may cause certain readers to conclude that it is somewhere defined within the fundamental spirit of Christianity that it should tend to engage in the massive destruction of its enemies. Religious violence in the modern, Western world is not simply attributable to biblical doctrine; it is far more complex than that, as historians and sociologists have shown.[1] The credibility of Pagels’ narrative, however thorough, detailed, and enlightening, is somewhat compromised by the false suggestiveness of her conclusions. The intellectual rigor of Pagels’ analysis is overshadowed by the inculpating spirit of her endeavor. Her effort to derive from a mere Biblical device an entire history of Judeo-Christian tensions is, in the final analysis, more of a theological enterprise than an academic one.


Pagels, E. H. (1995). The Origin of Satan. New York, Random House.

[1] For an example of the complexities involved in understanding modern religious violence, see Zigmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1989).