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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center visiting fellow Elaine Pagels

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Historian Elaine Pagels delivered an endowed lecture in April at the Stanford Humanities Center on the origins of Satan.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo

Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University, is best known for research and publication involving the discovery of a cache of over fifty ancient Greek texts translated into Coptic in Upper Egypt in 1945. After completing her doctorate at Harvard University she participated with an international team of scholars to edit, translate, and publish several of these texts. After publishing two monographs and several scholarly articles, she wrote The Gnostic Gospels, which won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Then, having received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, she joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1982, where she now teaches and engages in research. Besides continuing to write scholarly articles, she has published other books accessible to a wider audience, including Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (Random House, 1988), which explores how various Jewish and Christian readings of the Genesis accounts (c. 50–400 CE) articulate a wide range of attitudes toward sexuality and politics; The Origin of Satan: How Christians Came to Demonize Jews, Pagans, and Heretics (Random House, 1995); Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003) and most recently, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking Penguin, 2012).

During her fellowship at the Stanford Humanities Center, where she delivered an endowed lecture, Pagels recounted the social history of Satan and reflected on her scholarly life from The Gnostic Gospels to her current book project.

How does the figure of Satan evolve throughout the Bible? How, if at all, does he change in the New Testament? What accounts for his metamorphosis over the centuries?

What surprised me when I started working on Satan is that this figure is hardly in the Hebrew Bible. He’s in just a handful of stories — maybe five. “Satan” isn’t a name; instead, it simply indicates that he’s a supernatural being who causes trouble.

But when you look at groups that became followers of Jesus of Nazareth, or the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, these are Jewish sects who saw themselves as separate from the majority of the Jewish community. And so instead of saying, “we’re all following God,” they began to say, “the supernatural world is split between Satan and God, and right down here on Earth, we’re God’s people and they’re Satan’s people.” That became a way of talking about divided communities.

Satan became a way of talking about the apostasy of the majority of other people — a way of describing other people, or people from whom you want to distinguish yourself.

In The Origin of Satan, you describe Satan as an “intimate enemy” — a hostile agent among us. Yet throughout history, people have invoked his name to discriminate against others. By sowing the seeds of discord, the intimate enemy made friends into strangers. Why does this happen?

I would have guessed that the Satan would be a way of talking about people who are different from us: outsiders who were not members of the Jewish community. Yet these stories hardly speak about such outsiders. Instead, the only people who matter in these stories, in the Biblical stories, are members of God’s people, Israel; and it’s that community that the stories represent as divided between God and a supernatural antagonist, an angel who falls.

When we look at stories about how an angel could go wrong, we see that the ancient stories they either say, “he was a member of the heavenly army and he rebelled against the commander in chief” or “he was the older brother of Adam, and the Lord wanted the Satan to respect his younger brother, but he was jealous of his brother.”

The Satan is a brother, a member of the family, somebody upon whom you count, but who turns into a betrayer. That’s why he’s seen as a particularly dangerous enemy — somebody close to you, really close, but who is somehow on the dark side.

Why do you think this happened?

These groups split and they were trying to articulate their sense of self, thinking, “we had to separate because you people are wrong. You are wrong. We are following God. You went over to the dark side to the prince of darkness, Beelzebub.” Another name for him is “Mastema,” which in Hebrew means “hatred.”
It’s about split groups, as I was looking at it, about what at first I jokingly called “the social history of Satan.” Because I thought, “do I really mean that Satan has a social history?” Well, the Satan stories do.

The Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters portray Christianity as a movement divided from the start. Peter and Paul quarreled; church councils suppressed dissidents, labeling them heretics; schisms cleaved Christianity into dozens of denominations, each laying claim to its own version of the truth. What role was Satan said to have played in this infighting? How, exactly, was he used?

He’s deployed in many ways for over 2,000 years. Even in the New Testament stories, he’s seen as the one who incites people to crucify Jesus. To my surprise, I discovered that it wasn’t the Romans who were blamed for this; the New Testament stories blame other Jews. That was a defensive move on the part of Jesus’ followers who were being persecuted and wanted to defend themselves from charges of being followers of a convicted revolutionary, which is the charge on which the Romans executed Jesus.

After that period, Satan could be anybody you don’t like. In the seventh century, it was Muslims when they attacked Constantinople. In the First Crusade, when the Muslims controlled Jerusalem, the Catholic king of France raised a crusade, saying, “We’ve got to fight the infidels. They’re on Satan’s side.”

Then came the wars between Catholics and Protestants, when each side saw the other as allied with Satan. And it continued over 2,000 years — up to the Iraq war and beyond. As you know, some Muslims have also adopted Satan and flipped the whole scenario; in the view of some radicals, America is the “great Satan.” Muslims and Christians particularly use this type of language against each other.

We talk about secularism — yet in many ways religion is alive and well around the world, and people are flocking to it in different ways. Christianity is flourishing in Africa and places like Asia. Does religion remain a factor in global politics?

It does — perhaps especially for infusing emotional power into political action. When George Bush was talking about the Iraq war, it was about America. All the patriotic feelings were poured into that by people who identify this as a Christian country, as Bush would have and a lot of people in government today would. For them, this is a Christian country — it’s not Jewish, it’s not Muslim, it’s not Hindu, it’s not Buddhist. People who still want to make this claim insist that this is still a “Christian nation” — that anyone not Christian doesn’t really belong here.

Has Satan vanished? Or do we call him by another name?

People don’t like other people for lots of reasons, but invoking the Satan image indicates more than dislike; it suggests that “they’re evil. We can’t negotiate with them. We have to destroy them.” And as I see it, that’s an especially dangerous way of thinking in the 21st century.

That’s one of the reasons I’m writing a book about why religion is still around in the 21st century. Or trying to. That’s a huge question. I’m interested in the whole field of how people understand religious traditions, not just Christianity, and how they function. There’s no simple answer to that. You could look at it anthropologically, sociologically, or psychologically, or neurologically — in so many ways. But it’s a question I’m asking nevertheless.

Reflecting on your career, how did The Gnostic Gospels change your field and how do you look at it now — especially in light of the book you’re writing?

When I started graduate school, people who studied Christianity would say, “well, what was the early Christian movement like? It was really a golden age then. Everybody was in agreement, it was a simple thing, and now look: it’s a big mess. There are Christians from Christian Scientists and Russian Orthodox and Unitarians to heaven knows who. It’s all a messy playing field when it used to be a nice, simple little movement.”
But when I was looking at these other texts, I said it was never a “simple little movement.” There were, from the beginning, lots of different groups. There were different disciples who led different groups and emphasized different parts of what they thought was important about Jesus or his message.

When we look at it, we can’t get back to a nice, simple sort of early Christian movement that looked like Martin Luther thought it should, or looked like Francis of Assisi thought it should, with everybody doing the right thing. As far as we know, it’s a very complicated and multifaceted kind of movement, much more than we thought.
Today, people are much more willing to acknowledge the plurality within that field — as they are within Judaism.

When you published The Gnostic Gospels, what did you think its impact might be?

You never know. I knew some people would hate it. It’s so funny: I’d written two monographs before that and this was the first time I wrote what I really thought. I said to myself, “okay, I like these texts; these are really interesting; and this is the challenge it presents to whatever people thought was ‘Christian.’”

I actually dreamed that the book was purple, which for me meant “pornographic” because it was so revealing. I got hate mail, praise and blame all over the place. I was attacked in the New York Times and the Times in London by my former professor at Oxford, who talked about how susceptible women are to heresy.
It was an interesting ride, though I didn’t expect all of that. But it’s been fascinating.