Those who’ve studied the history of ancient West Asian religions know that the concept of a devil, as a character, derives from Zoroastrian origins. In Zarathustra’s dualistic worldview, the forces of evil were concentrated in an “anti-God,” who, upon contact with the emerging monotheism of ancient Israel, became the satan. While scholars still argue about exactly what the role of the satan was, it is clear that it was a role, and not a name. The job of the satan was in some way to bring to accounting wicked deeds. By the time of the New Testament, “the Devil” had developed into an embodiment of evil more along classic Zoroastrian lines. What Elaine Pagels explores in The Origin of Satan is encapsulated in her subtitle: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.
This is not a book about the historical development of the figure of Satan, but rather a study of how early Christians (and to an extent, Jews) viewed “the other.” Naturally she does discuss Satan, who developed along the lines suggested above, but more specifically she addresses how the accusation of being “of Satan” was used. Interestingly, it was generally utilized by those of ancient times to describe those of their own religion, but who held different viewpoints. Sects of Christianity and Judaism generally accused other sects in their own religious tradition of being “satanic.” Foreigners and pagans, well, what would you expect of them anyway? Those closest, ironically, are those most despised. Even early converts to Christianity from Roman polytheism tended to view their former religion as satanic. Satan, in other words, is “the other.” But not the far other. The near other.
While the book is full of Pagels’ usual erudition, it is also disappointing. Not as a book, but as a fact. Religions that claim God only wants us to love one another and treat each other well rely too readily on the figure of personified evil to castigate their enemies. As Pagels demonstrates, even as early as Augustine of Hippo there were those who realized Satan was not a “physical” being, but a symbol for evil. Yet on through the Middle Ages Satan would continue to be evoked to murder women and men thought to be witches or heretics. Satan, it seems, is simply a word for our darkest urges to harm those different from ourselves. We know that religions often have noble intentions. Perhaps the most noble could be to rid the world of Satan, and I don’t mean the mythological figure we all recognize without a hint.