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The Origin of Satan [Paperback]

Elaine Pagels
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

31 July 1997
This work is a social history of the devil. The figure of Satan has been a standing puzzle in the history of religion. This study examines his origins and his shifting functions. Satan is not present in classical Jewish sources (and scarcely present in traditional Judaism to this day). Images of Satan began to develop and proliferate in later Jewish sources not included in the Hebrew Bible. The book explores this early history or invention of the devil, and traces Satan's subsequent transformations as one of society's most necessary fictions.

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The Origin of Satan + Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) + The Gnostic Gospels
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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd (31 July 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140153683
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140153682
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.7 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 656,064 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Loaded with Insights and Information 5 Mar 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 beginnings of Christianity told from the vantage point of how Satanic forces were described by different groups and succeeding generations of Christians.
The author's 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.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
The Origin of Satan is a fascinating monograph that might best be considered a social history of the concept of Satan in the formative era of the early Christian Church. The actual origin of Satan in terms of Lucifer's fall from grace is mentioned but is not specifically explored. Instead, Pagels sets out to explore the evolution of early Christian conceptualizations of the ultimate adversary as an increasingly internal threat. Israel had always retained a strong moral and ethnic identity as God's chosen people ever since God's promise to Abraham, but Jesus' ministry and the nascent Christian Church tore asunder this viewpoint and offered salvation to Gentiles as well as Jews; in the process, Israel, already occupied by foreign powers, became a house divided internally. In this fractious atmosphere, "the enemy within" came to be seen as a more insidious threat than even the Roman occupiers by many early Christians.
The greatest strength of this book is Pagels' description of the historical and political atmosphere in which early Christianity developed and its influence on the writing of the Gospels and the movement's growing internalization of concepts of "the adversary." While my personal belief in the infallibility of the Gospels keeps me from reading as much into them as Pagels does and while I do not necessarily accept without question some of her "facts" in terms of the dates and authorship of the primary books in question, I am impressed by the logic and consistency of her presentation and principal arguments; what she says does indeed make sense. I found myself taking copious notes on her chapters dealing with the writing of the Four Gospels and came away with a much greater understanding of the formative first two centuries of the Christian church.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars mediocre at best 8 May 2013
Most disappointing, although well written.

The book title is not entirely accurate; this is not a book about The Origin of Satan as a theological idea. This book is about the Christian church and its attitude towards `the other'. Jeffrey Burton Russell's four books on the same subject are far more articulate, lucid and erudite and do provide a fascinating history of the conception of good and evil; god and the devil.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Balanced, Nuanced Picture of Christianity 3 Aug 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you thought that the depictions of Satan and God were all black and white, think again. Elaine Pagels paints a picture of the evolution of Satan in a balanced and very human way.

The gist of the book is that the character of Satan in Christian thought has undergone an evolution from being the God-sent adversary of the Jews, to the embodiment of hated Roman rule in the time of Christ to that of the heretic in Orthodox Christianity.

Like all matters religious Satan is not all evil and bad. He, like the Jesus of the New Testament, is the end result of different agendas and political intrigue in "high" places.

Read this book for a more worldly (and realisitic) view of the character of Satan in current Christian tradition.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By calmly
Elaine Pagels is an orthodox Christian but one who has used her deep knowledge of early Christian history to challenge Christians. For those who only know of Pagels through her study of Gnostic Christianty, this book may come as a surprise. Only one chapter "The Enemy Within: Demonizing the Heretics" is concerned with Gnostic Christianity but in that chapter Pagels is focuses on the responses of the orthodox Church to the Gnostic Christians.

Grounded in her knowledge of history, Pagels speculates reasonably as to the intent of the gospel writers. In doing so, she provides an understanding of the development of the gospels and early Christianity that makes historical sense but is a far cry from the naive picture presented by some traditions that ignore the known history.

Although Pagels cannot know with certainty the intent of the writer of Mark's Gospel, she can suspect that his intent was to comfort Christians living at the time of the Jewish War and provide, in his depiction of Jesus, a model of one who would "endure to the end." If so, this gospel was not written to present primarily what happened to Jesus but rather with the needs of Christians during the Jewish War primarily in mind. Sayings of Jesus such as are claimed in "The Gospel of Thomas" intended for the solitary seeker of insight lost favor to the creation of a group identity:

"Mark and his successors combine many elements of earlier Jesus tradition ... to show Jesus and his disciples in a social context...In the process, Mark and his successors offer social models by which Jesus's followers identify themselves as a group...
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