Monday, May 31, 2010

Origin of Satan

Nothing like taking some sick time to finally get around to some reading. Or should I say, nothing like being forced to take some sick time, because I have spent most of the last week or so in bed or coughing myself silly in an armchair because when I was coughing myself silly in bed I kept waking up the baby. 

While I was visiting the US I got caught up with the recent seasons of Supernatural, the drama/horror series currently dabbling in apocalyptic themes. Made me decide to read the New Testament again, well, that and ODing on so much Johnny Cash while Stateside, so many Christian themes in his music, made me want to go back and research the source, which in turn reminded me that I never finished Elaine Pagels fascinating book "The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics".  

No, this is not a study of the occult nor a book that particularly deals with anything particularly Satanic, rather it's a fascinating look at early Christian history and how early Christianity portrayed its opponents in terms of the demonic or satanic. 

Rereading the New Testament after many years was quite an eye opener. I don't think I'd ever really noticed just how much emphasis there is on exorcisms and Satan, how many references that pop up in everyday English and American discourse have their origins in the Christian text itself. Certainly that disconnect between how Judaism traditionally tends to view Satan and the much greater emphasis Christianity seems to place on Satan has always piqued my curiosity, especially the way it impacts popular culture and frames of reference. 

I would be the first to admit that I don't know much about Christianity, I am an observant Jew after all, but religion has always been a favourite interest of mine. I first picked up Pagels' book when taking a course about the European witchcraze at college. I think that's probably also the last time I read the New Testament, trying to understand where it all came from, get into the heads of the European clerics at the time, trying to understand how they came to the conclusions they did. I don't remember noticing how many stories of possessions and exorcisms there were that time around, but I should have, seeing as that was very much an issue during the tail end of the witchcraze. Strange to say, but to the best of my knowledge actually reading the New Testament, or at least the passages relating to possession and exorcism, and how these might have, must have, directly influenced those events, wasn't on the course reading list. How could they have even taught such a course without that kind of a primary source? For that matter, I don't remember whether Pagels' book had come out yet, but it should be required reading for such a course too.

I guess to an extent I'm sucked in to Pagels' book as much by the history as by the theology and exegesis, such a critical period in determining both the fate of Judaism and Christianity, indeed the identity of what was to become the Western world, getting into the voice of Josephus and trying to imagine the turbulence and chaos of the period, the uncertainty, the doubts that must have plagued to many faithful, the destruction of so much of the Jewish people, the insanity of taking on the might of Rome. It really is quite terrifying. And the signs of so much of it are still visible in the landscape of this region to this day.

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