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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 10 (March 1995)

Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan. New York: Random House, 1995. 214 pp; $23.00.

This book will be of interest to some Bulletin readers because the mimetic approach has reopened the question of the status of evil and the significance of the traditional figure of Satan. This book is a valuable example of how a contemporary scholar can deal with very pertinent material, come close to opening up the subject at a profound level, but ends up simply by trivializing it because she is so caught up in current intellectual fashions.

Elaine Pagels is well known for her studies of Gnosticism, particularly The Gnostic Gospels (1979). She is also the author of the widely read Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988). Her thesis in the present book is that the Christian tradition has "allowed for the demonizing of others" (p. xix), and this "fault line" may be traced back to the NT Gospels and the very beginnings of Christianity.

She does not really trace a religious or cultural history of Satan as symbol and concept, but focuses first on Christianity's Jewish background and origin. Her basic conclusions are two: (1) Socially and psychologically Satan is a way of referring to the "intimate enemy," the trusted person or persons who betray one out of hostile jealousy. (2) This conflict of the self vis-à-vis others is then projected onto opponents, who are "demonized," understood as Satanic, representatives of Satan. In the emergence and development of Christianity this projection occurred in radical fashion. These conclusions are pursued in a historical overview of the Gospels, of Christianity against paganism, and of the Christian struggle with heretics.

It is a bad book, but clearly written and on a popular subject, so it will undoubtedly be widely read. Its unexamined assumptions include pragmatic relativism (an idea or conviction cannot be "true," but it's good if it works now), moral autonomy (each person is obligated only to act by his or her own standards), and a Romantic view of human nature (human nature is good, transcendent evil does not exist). She continues, as in earlier writings, to extol the Gnostics as contrasted to the "dualistic" orthodox Christians, whereas many forms of Gnosticism were in fact radically dualistic. But the egregiously bad dimension of the book is the way in which she scapegoats the Gospels for alleged demonization of the "other."

It is just this question of demonization of opponents that will be my focus in this review. Two things are to be noted. First, the Gospel of Mark sets the synoptic pattern of always associating demons and demon possession with crowds. (Likewise in John, but most of the mentions of demon possession in the Fourth Gospel relate that a crowd of people accuse Jesus of having a demon. John 7:20; 8:48, 52; 10:20.) The one apparent exception to the synoptic pattern, the episode of the Syrophoenician woman who seeks out Jesus to exorcise her daughter (Mark 7:24-30), simply proves the rule. He has retreated from the crowds and she, in faith, has come out of the crowds (like the woman who touches Jesus in Mark 5:25-34). Not once is any person called a demon or devil.

Second, the association of demons with crowds, which can easily become mobs, is important for understanding the origin of Satan. The Gospels attest that Satan is "mimetic desire," which is associated above all with the yearning and surging of crowds to obtain healing, food, security. This mimetic desire is what Jesus overcomes in the temptation accounts in Matthew and Luke: it is expressly stated in the temptation to be given authority over all kingdoms of the world, but it is implied in the other two temptations. As Feodor Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor tells the silent Christ, all the general populace actually wants is miracle, mystery, and authority.

Mimetic desire results inevitably in rivalry, conflict, and violence. Satan is the spirit of the desire to outdo the other, the spirit of accusation and violence. Satan is the projection and personification of mimetic desire. Pagels' insight concerning Satan as the "intimate enemy" would have been very useful if she had deepened and extended it, particularly in showing how the Gospels expose destructive desire and offer an alternative vision to it. The crowd scenes in the Gospels are remarkable for showing the working of desire for ill (Mark 3:7-13, 21-30; 15:6-15), but sometimes for good if the model is one of sharing and reconciliation (Mark 6:34-44; 8:1-9).

It is this and not, as Pagels contends, the Gospel writers' political maneuvering that best accounts for the relatively favorable light in which Pontius Pilate is cast: even the representative of mighty Rome is subject to the power of the crowd according to Mark. And if he is depicted increasingly in Matthew, Luke, and John as resistant to the crowd before finally submitting, this portrayal emphasizes that power originates with the crowd, whose seething desires would turn them against one another or the authorities unless they found an outlet in a victim. Satan's origin in the mimetic desire of the crowd also clarifies other passages, which have been labeled as anti-Jewish. If Pharisees are intended as the "sons of the evil one" in Matthew 13:38, which is not at all certain, this would be because they are persecutors of Jesus, trying to turn crowds against him. As for the Jews in John 8:44 who are told they belong to "your father the devil," they had once believed in Jesus and now they threaten to turn on him as a mob. To take one more example, the infamous verse, Matthew 27:25: here those present accept the curse of innocent blood upon themselves and their children. But the "people" are earlier identified as a "crowd" (ochlos) whom "the chief priests and the elders persuaded to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus" (27:15, 20). So again, the negative picture of opponents has to do with opponents who stir up the crowd, turning it into a mob. The point is not that Pharisees or Jews are more likely than any others to lynch the innocent victim in times of crisis. The point is rather the exposure of desire and scapegoating that is the key to the Gospels.

Pagels concludes her book by expressing the hope that her research "may illuminate for others, as it has for me, the struggle within Christian tradition between the profoundly human view that 'otherness' is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine" (p. 184). If it is a "profoundly human view" that "otherness" is evil, then it is universal, not just a phenomenon of the history of Christianity. And how can we know and accept that Jesus teaches divine reconciliation if the Gospels are attacked as the primary texts for propagating the power of Satan, the spirit of accusation and triumph over the other?

James G. Williams