The devil made me do it

July 31, 1995 Volume 146, No. 5

Did the early Christians teach us to call enemies Satan--- and to give them hell?


If we grant that humans can be tools of the devil, let's remember he's our tool as well. As the majestic adversary in Paradise Lost or the heavy-metal party animal, Satan may be a capable tempter. But not until he falls into human hands is the Old Enemy put to his most sinister uses.

Ask Elaine Pagels. Her much honored 1979 work, The Gnostic Gospels, was one of the rare volumes of religious scholarship to find a general readership. In her new book, The Origin of Satan (Random House; $23), Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, examines how the earliest Christians made their opponents out to be the devil. First the Jews who spurned Christ, then the Romans who persecuted his followers, then other Christians who departed from the orthodoxies of the newly consolidating church--each group in turn, she says, appears in early Christian texts not just as a philosophical contender but as Satan's instrument.

In those writings Pagels finds the sources of the durable Western practice of demonizing one's opponent, whether they be Reformation Protestants or gay activists or the Evil Empire. "It's important for those of us who grew up with the Jewish and Christian traditions to know how they structure the way we think,'' she says. "Especially when we are thinking politically and socially."

This is the third provocative reconsideration of early Christian belief by Pagels, 52, an Episcopal churchgoer, though not one who counts herself a conventional believer. In The Gnostic Gospels, about the early Christian sect whose members aimed at mystical communion of the individual with God, Pagels set out a scriptural alternative that was shunned from the outset by the institutional church. In 1988 she published Adam, Eve and the Serpent, a study of the influential way St. Augustine read the Garden of Eden story as a symbol of man's fall, though some earlier Christians had seen it as a parable of human freedom.

It was personal tragedy that brought Pagels to reflect on Satan. In 1987 her six-year-old son Mark died of a respiratory illness. Fifteen months later, her husband Heinz, a physicist, fell to his death while hiking in Colorado. Eventually, Pagels found herself reflecting on the ways in which an invisible presence, like her missing loved ones, holds power over the living. In that frame of mind she turned to the early church and its invisible enemy.

Satan makes few appearances in the Old Testament and never as a figure of consequence. In the Book of Job, he's an imp in God's retinue, a challenger tolerated by a confident Creator. The New Testament enlarges him. Like most religious scholars, Pagels believes the Gospels were set down in the latter half of the first century, after the defeat of the Jewish rebellion against Rome. "Wartime literature," she calls them, reflecting the divisions among Jews traumatized by the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of their temple.

In those years Christians were also a breakaway Jewish faction, still hoping to persuade other Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, though he appeared to have died in defeat. It was to account for Christ's arrest and execution, Pagels believes, that the Gospel writers framed the life of Jesus as an episode in the conflict between God and Satan. Their explanation for his death, Pagels says, is that "his divine mission met with supernatural opposition."

Seen in that light, the Jews who rejected Jesus were instruments of Satan. The Evangelist Mark treats them as chiefly responsible for the Crucifixion, while softening the role of the Roman authorities. In Mark, the Roman governor Pilate, whom other sources of the period describe as a provincial tyrant, becomes a man helpless to oppose the Jewish elders demanding Christ's death. The later Evangelists expanded Mark's themes, paving the way for early Christian fathers who glimpsed the devil in their own adversaries.

Harvard professor Harvey Cox, a prominent theologian, credits Pagels with "a sixth sense'' for finding unrecognized patterns in familiar material. Her critics ask whether she blames Christian sources too much for an all too human tendency to demonize. "Mao did it without any reference to Christianity," observes Jeffrey Burton Russell, a specialist on Satan at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Others say Pagels finds the devil in passages where he is never explicitly mentioned or overplays marginal texts. Pagels is merely "scavenging at the edges of tradition,'' says Father Richard Neuhaus, editor of the religious monthly First Things. But he adds, "That is fine. The Christian tradition is almost infinitely resilient.''

Pagels thinks her concerns are central. "Associating heretics, pagans and Jews with the powers of evil has been a massive theme in Western history. If this is minor, I wonder what moral struggle is all about." Her own struggle is to persuade us that Satan is often just a container that we fashion to hold our own poisons. We have met the Old Enemy. He is us.

Reported by William Dowell / New York
© Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

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