If the best-seller lists are any guide, something odd is stirring in American attitudes toward religion, and specifically toward the Judeo-Christian tradition. For decades, it has been a commonplace that religious belief represents a critical demarcation line in class and intellectual belief, and that educated elites not only do not believe, they do not care. Recently, though, religious books of varying quality have been in vogue, and not just feathery items about obnoxious angels.

Far from suggesting an imminent religious revival, such works ostensibly rest on the assumption that we are now sufficiently removed from the religious dream to be able to revisit it with objectivity. God and Satan are not only dead, they are so far back in history that even their surviving relatives should not object to a frank biography. However, the two books reviewed here suggest a very different picture: God, like Satan, continues to nag at our consciousness so tenaciously that people still feel the need to argue with Him, even denounce Him. For all their academic detachment, both Miles and Pagels are remarkably gripped by this supposedly extinct mythology.

Jack Miles’ Biography (presumably unauthorized) is based on the view that “Many in the West no longer believe in God, but lost belief, like a lost fortune, has effects that linger. . . . [God’s] image is living still within us as a difficult but dynamic secular ideal.” If God has been reduced to a mere vestige of the Western consciousness, then He can be treated as a purely literary figure, whose character development and inner conflicts can be traced through the various works in which He appears. The book takes the form of a detailed literary reading of God’s appearances in the Hebrew Bible (why not the New Testament also?). His studies of particular Old Testament books are often brilliant, reinforced by a broad range of cultural references and parallels. He makes no attempt to conceal his personal love for works like Job and Ruth, and the result is a stimulating meditation that makes us want to read or reread these and the rest of the Bible.

For Miles, God the character is by no means changeless: He demonstrates many flaws, fie whines and rages, He is infuriatingly contradictory, but He also grows and matures. He “comes to full consciousness of His literal uniqueness.” He differs radically from any human character, lacking as He does either parent or family, or any social relationships. This makes it hard to approach, still less comprehend, “the elusive weirdness of the Lord God.” However, we never forget that the development of God is reciprocal with that of the worldly and human community of Israel, which is subject to conventional historical analysis: the notion of God flourishes alongside that of His nation.

This lengthy Biography is based essentially on the one quirky conceit of God the literary figure, and while this is done in a shrewd and literate manner, it would not hold our attention unless Miles were closely engaged with his subject. Though he makes no assertions of personal religious belief, the book is obviously the product of decades of internal debate and presumably argument, an attempt to relate the bizarre figure on the printed page to a cosmic reality. Miles concludes with a splendidly phrased comment on the influence of this God in every aspect of our culture: “His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”

Elaine Pagels has written a biography of Satan quite parallel to Miles’ account of God, and she appears just as engaged both with her protagonist and with His vast influence throughout Western history. She is, however, far more explicit than Miles in using a scholarly exploration to advance a religious agenda, namely to condemn historical Christianity for an abundance of sins and flaws, most egregiously intolerance and anti-Semitism.

The Origin of Satan traces the historical evolution of the devil into what we might call the classical Miltonic sense of a Lord of Evil, master of a hellish kingdom in permanent rebellion against the Divine. She is undoubtedly correct in her assertion that this particular Satanic theme is virtually absent from the Hebrew Bible. The Genesis serpent is not originally diabolical, while the celebrated tester of Job is an official or state prosecutor of the Lord’s court, a sort of supernatural Marcia Clark. The Satanic persona grows in what Christians term the intertestamental period, especially after the Maccabean Revolt: it emerges in mature form in the Dead Sea Scrolls often (but not universally) associated with the Essene sect, and in the New Testament.

In Pagels’ view, the new idea of the diabolical flourished in response to social and religious conflict, especially within the branches and schools of Judaism. Jewish groups in controversy with powerful rivals painted them as servants of the forces of darkness, and quite literally as the children of Satan, tolerated by God for His own mysterious purposes until an imminent judgment (literally, “crisis”) when they would be consumed like chaff. Though the Essencs certainly did this, the main culprits were that other fringe Jewish sect who followed Jesus of Nazareth. To quote the book’s somewhat misleading blurb, it tells how “the writers of the four gospels condemned as creatures of Satan those Jews who refused to worship Jesus as the Messiah . . . the evangelists invoked Satan to portray their Jewish enemies as God’s enemies too.” The anti-Judaic polemic of the Gospels was merely unsavory while Nazarenes remained a hunted minority, but, when they gained political power, these texts provided a charter for segregation, persecution, and ultimately for attempted genocide. The “Satanic” worldview later shaped the Christian approach to other opponents, including the Roman Empire, Christian heretics, and followers of rival religions like Islam.

There is much here that is correct and perhaps self-evident, and certainly gospel passages exist where the evangelists clearly meant to suggest that Jewish leaders opposing Jesus were directly motivated by dark forces. However, The Origin of Satan is also inaccurate on fundamental matters, most glaringly that of origin itself. One can read the book and see “Satan” as the product of internal Jewish debates without the slightest inkling of the vast and unquestioned influence of other Near Eastern cultures, above all that of ancient Persia, whose Zoroastrian religion had for several centuries posited an eternal conflict between God and Satan, the Lords of Light and Darkness, who are portrayed in terminology that would have been instantly familiar to a medieval Christian. Persian concepts were encountered at the time of the Babylonian exile, and subsequently permeated the thought of sectarian Judaism and mainstream Christianity. Dr. Pagels’ failure to discuss these roots is remarkable.

Similarly, her book lays great emphasis on Jewish-Christian conflict at the time of the great Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 A.D., a pivotal event reflected in the Gospel of Mark, the “wartime” polemic with which Pagels begins her study. It would be embarrassing for her thesis to have a prewar Christian account which is thoroughly imbued with Satanic imagery, but which fails to associate the devil with the Jews or the Jewish leadership: probably what vvc possess in the hypothetical Gospel of Q, the reconstructed common source of Matthew and Luke. It is Q which shows us the devil offering Jesus the kingdoms of this world, of which he is master; Q shows Jesus being accused of exorcising through Beelzebub, prince of demons; controversially, Q may be the source of Satan falling like lightning from heaven. In Matthew’s reading, the Q passage known as the Lord’s Prayer ends with the often mistranslated petition to be delivered not from evil as such but from the Evil One (ho Poneros). Q, in short, suggests an early Christianity thoroughly familiar with the diabolical and demonic, but absolutely not in the context of the Jews or the Jewish leadership. Only with a substantial dose of special pleading can Dr. Pagels sustain her “Satanic = Jewish” interpretation of the canonical Gospels.

There is a great deal wrong with this book, in its basic argument no less than its horrid editing. Quotations and ideas are generously repeated, as for example in the paragraph from Origen which makes a nice point on page 139, and returns like an old friend eight pages later. But for all its flaws, the book clearly meets a public demand: like Miles’ Biography, it spent several weeks at the head of Publisher’s Weekly’s chart of bestselling religion books in hardcover, and it is likely to remain on the reading lists of church discussion groups for years to come. As with her earlier Gnostic Gospels (1979), this popular appeal is at least as interesting as anything in the book itself, and demonstrates the immense success of her own strong religious agenda. Pagels’ readers seem hungry for a religion rooted in familiar Christian ideas and terminology, but lacking traditional constraints, and they believe they find it depicted in the work of a certified scholar willing to reject boring or difficult orthodoxies, and to rediscover the thought of those daring “radical Christians.” Origin of Satan finds notions of absolute supernatural evil not only to be founded on the ephemeral controversies of the first century, but also associated with horrifying religious bigotry. Progress in religion is to be achieved by replacing the archaic concept that “otherness is evil” with Jesus’ declaration that forgiveness is divine.

We might take Pagels’ book to illustrate the exact opposite point. If she shows so convincingly that the very earliest Christian thought is so pervaded with notions of the diabolical, is it really possible to imagine a genuine modern Christianity which ignores the element of supernatural evil, which speaks of redemption and salvation without daring to imply what one is being redeemed or saved from?


[God: A Biography, by Jack Miles (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 446 pp., $27.50]

[The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels (New York: Random House) 214 pp., $23.00]