BOOK REVIEW / Old Nick and the spin doctors

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels Allen Lane, pounds 20; Was the Devil the child of anti-Jewish propaganda? Jan Morris raises an agnostic eyebrow
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If you feel like a few hours by the fire reading interesting theological speculations in the company of a learned, articulate, sometimes repetitive but never boring American academic, this may well be the book for you. If, on the other hand, you are pining for fresh insights into the roots and loyalties of evil, skip it. Like most theologians, of all religions, Professor Pagels is either unable or reluctant to differentiate between the real and the figurative, so that she leaves us at the end little the wiser about what or who Satan was originally supposed to be - being, image, fact or symbol?

I write not just as an out-and-out agnostic but as a despiser of theological and philosophical gobbledygook. Take this banal truism, so dear to Pagels that she prints it twice: "The worldview of most peoples consists essentially of two pairs of binary oppositions: human/not human and we/they". Big deal. It would be an odd world view indeed that confused one's grandmother with a centipede and could not tell the difference between ourselves and everyone else; but the thought chimes happily with the currently fashionable concept of "The Other".

Pagels's catchy title is misleading. The Origin of Satan is based upon learned papers she has written for scholarly journals on varied theological subjects, now revised to make them "more generally accessible" for you and me, and it returns only intermittently, when its author remembers (or perhaps when its editor reminds her), to the explicit theme of Satanic origins. It concerns itself almost entirely with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, virtually ignoring people like the Zoroastrians (from whose alarming demon Ahriman, the encyclopaedia tells me, the Jews probably got the idea of Satan, during their Babylonian exile), let alone the very peculiar Yezidis of Kurdistan, who deny the existence of evil altogether and believe that Satan is the chief of God's angels.

No, it is the demonization of "The Other" that Pagels is writing about, and in particular the deliberate and fateful demonization, in the first centuries of Christianity, of the mass of the Jewish people - mostly by other Jews. Successive New Testament gospels, she demonstrates, while naturally giving a cosmological meaning to the whole story of Christ's execution, cast the Jewish people more and more in the role of devils - children of Satan. Wondering whether the evangelists meant this literally is about like wondering whether the Archbishop of Canterbury really believes in virgin birth, but despite the book's title that is not the point. The point is that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, writing in dangerous times of Roman domination, were anxious to put the blame for Christ's death upon the Jews rather than upon the Romans, and thus established a tradition and a reproach which perhaps did not end with the Holocaust.

This part of the book is entirely fascinating and, to an innocent like me, horrifying too. Could it really be that Christ's evangelists, the ultimate spokesmen of Love and Truth, were hardly more than spin-doctors? Did they make up the entire episode of Christ's appearance before the Sanhedrin? Was Christ's dialogue with Pontius Pilate purely fictional? Was Pilate himself, for whom most of us probably have some sneaking sympathy, really no more than a bully and a bigot? Worst of all, could Matthew simply have invented the terrible cry of the Jewish crowd - "His blood be on us, and on our children" - which has reverberated so appallingly down the centuries?

The later the gospel, it seems, the more distorted, and the more vicious towards the Jews at large, until in the last one (John's), Jesus himself allegedly pronounces the anathema: "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning ... he is a liar, and the father of it". In the end the Jews who oppose Christ appear to be no longer a mere ethnic or religious group, but a kind of communal symbol of evil. "Deploying the devil", Pagels calls this disreputable progression, momentarily justifying the title of her book.

Later, irrelevance seems to creep in. Pagels drifts off into miscellaneous reportage about early Christianity: persecution under the Romans, Gnostic gospels and the growth of Christian heresies, none of which tell us much more about the Satanic idea. We are left to surmise whether the early Christians - Jesus himself, for that matter - believed in Satan as an actual being, or whether the Devil was, for most of them, no more than a sort of frightful logo. Did the evangelists wish us to suppose that Jesus encountered Satan bodily in the desert, and resisted his temptations face to face, or were they talking allegorically? Was Judas Iscariot an actual embodiment of Satan, flesh and blood, in the way that Jesus was God made man? Pagels never tackles this transcendental aspect of her subject. Her approach remains sternly textual and academic.

But that's theology for you, I suppose. The events discussed in this book have had consequences almost unimaginably important. Much of human history has turned upon the death of Christ: millions of people have suffered from the evident manipulations of the gospellers. It must be strange to spend a lifetime exploring the historical minutiae of it all, while aware of the almost farcical possibility at the centre of it: namely the fifty-fifty chance that there never has been a God at all, or a Devil either! How much easier the world would have been, if an agnostic had created it.