Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
Satan is not the distant enemy but the intimate enemy -- one’s trusted colleague, close associate, brother.
The Origin of Satan (1995)
HB: The period of time discussed in The Gnostic Gospels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, and your new book, The Origin of Satan -- the period of early Christianity -- obviously has a lot of appeal for you. What keeps drawing you back?
EP: There’s a tremendous convergence of different cultures, just as there is today. Nothing is set. It is fluid to this point, particularly with regard to the religious traditions of the West. The Christian movement comes in as sort of an upstart new religion, an oriental religion if you like. Judaism is known as an important minority position.
The puzzle for many people who love to study this period is how it is the Christian movement happened to thrive when there were so many other choices people could and did make, often making multiple choices. And also one sees, particularly in the gnostic material, that the movement was multiform, much more so than it is today. Multiform as Christianity is now, it was even more so then because one had no canon or recognized clerical structures or creed. That’s what fascinates me.
HB: In The Origin of Satan you write about the Roman Empire that, “an increasing number of people found themselves excluded from its benefits while being enormously burdened by taxes and conscription.” Was this the opening to Christianity?
EP: That is certainly a possibility. If the official religion involves worshipping gods that look very much like the Emperor and his court, then Christianity is certainly a subversive religion. This god, who appears, as Senator Tacitus said contemptuously, in the form of a crucified Jew, is the most antithetical to the official religion that one can imagine.
HB: You portray Christianity as turning the world upside down.
EP: I feel that it did.
HB: And then there’s the romance of gnosticism. You appreciate the pressures under which the Church founders worked but you cannot disguise the affection you feel for the gnostics.
EP: The romance was with Christianity originally. Like most people who study the early Christian movement, I was, as I admitted at the end of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, on a spiritual quest of my own. For 2,000 years people have gone back to that period looking for the real Christianity.
I discovered the gnostic material as a graduate student. My professors had file folders full of secret gospels, of which I’d never heard. Their attitude was that this is very puzzling, abstruse, aberrant. And so, when I encountered it, I expected to find it full of fantasy and irrelevance. Finding it as direct and remarkable as I did -- or some of it, all gnosticism is not equal -- was an extraordinary surprise. I was interested in writing a different kind of history about it.
The work that most sparked my interest in gnosticism, Hans Jonas’s brilliant book, The Gnostic Religion, placed it in the context of existentialism and nihilism, and portrayed it as something quite alien to Jewish and Christian tradition. The whole generation of scholars with whom I worked, who were then graduate students, have more and more come to the conclusion that this material has a lot to do with Jewish mysticism. This puts it much more in the center of Western tradition than had been guessed.
HB: Can you supply a capsule definition of gnosticism?
EP: There are different views, of course. Jonas’s view is that gnosticism was a sense that we have a divine spark within us that makes us feel alien in this universe. He compares the gnostic movement to the teachings of Nietzsche, Pascal or Heidegger, which speak about people, as Heidegger would say, thrown into the world, and trying to discover themselves in an alien, hostile place.
From my reading of texts which were not available to Jonas, what I see at the center of gnosticism is the conviction that the divine is to be discovered within a person as well as outside, and that one is essentially akin to the divine. It’s a different emphasis. Jonas talked about alienation in the world. I think, instead, of affinity with the divine.
HB: In The Origin of Satan you write “Like circles of artists today, gnostics considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive. Each one, like students of a painter or writer, expected to express his own perceptions by revising and transforming what he was taught. Whoever merely repeated his teacher’s words was considered immature.”
It’s hard to imagine something more in opposition to institutionalized religion.
EP: The gnostic texts give you a view of the enormous range of the early Christian movement. They show the fertile soil from which orthodox Christianity grew.
HB: They point to a great variety of religious experience.
EP: I think of it as a wild proliferation of flora and fauna.
HB: In The Origin of Satan, you present the history of demonization, the -- social history of Satan, as you put it -- within Christianity. If I read you right, you say that though the beginning of a split between God and Devil is present in Judaism, it never crystallized as it does in Christianity.
EP: No, I think it did. If you look at, say, the scroll of The War Of The Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, which was found at Nag Hammadi, there were very articulate expressions of a divided community of Israel and a divided cosmology. It wasn’t an even split, of course. God was always presumed to have the upper hand in this battle but nevertheless was contending very actively against the forces of evil. It’s beautifully articulated here but doesn’t have the same history it does in Christianity.
The only Jewish groups, so far as I can tell, who wrote with any interest about fallen angels -- Belial, Satan -- are groups who saw themselves split off from the majority. Those groups in Judaism do not have the incredible impact the Christian groups have. What’s striking about the Christian movement is how a radical group, a fringe group grows into a huge history of its own, just as Islam does.
HB: You say we need to see the Gospels as wartime literature.
EP: How, I asked, could one account for this underside of conflict and bitterness that appears in some of the Gospels? I suddenly realized this writing came out of a time of tremendous turmoil and conflict, in which people were divided in the bitterest of ways, and war was a huge precipitating event.
HB: You’re speaking of the first rebellion against Rome. Who, in the Jewish community, wanted to fight Rome?
EP: We don’t have the writings of the people who wanted a revolution because they, being the losing side, had their history destroyed. Josephus writes negatively about them, in his tremendously partisan account.
There’s a wonderful book called Hellenistic Civilization and The Jews by Avigdor Tcherikover in which the author discusses the battle within the Jewish community between those who wanted to assimilate into the Empire of Alexander the Great, accepting Greek language and Greek education, and those who did not.
HB: Gymnasium against synagogue. In the war against Rome, are we talking the equivalent of today’s Bible-belters? Are we talking Torah-belters?
EP: It’s not just Bible-belters; it’s people who were passionate patriots for Israel. They thought it was intolerable that Israel should be any longer subordinated to Rome’s evil ways and exploitative emperors. They might have looked rather like the American revolutionaries.
HB: That gives it a very modern cast.
EP: Their slogan, “for God and for the nation,” reminded me of the American revolution.
HB: It was not, if you will allow an anachronistic phrase, simply religious fundamentalism; there was also a strong national feeling.
EP: National and religious feeling, both. Josephus is writing against a historian who was probably much more favorable to the cause; the work of that historian doesn’t survive. If the American Revolution had lost, and was written from the point of view of the party for King and England, then one would have something similar.
The rebels spoke about God and the nation of Israel. They wanted to restore the glory of the Hosmonean Empire when Judas Maccabeus threw out foreign rulers and recovered autonomy for Israel. They were recalling that great history and saying, we did it before, we can do it again. It’s a much more powerful and complex story than we get see in Josephus. He gives us a parody -- he’ll say they’re all robbers, ignorant country people and fools. But I don’t think anybody entirely believes his version of it.
HB: So the polarizations between Christian and non-Christian, are among the many vehement splits of the day and age.
EP: I was writing about conflicts that start, at least, within the Jewish community.
HB: With demonization -- with Satan -- coming so early in the Christian movement, it seems like a fair question to ask what would be left of Christianity if you subtracted it.
EP: There are glimpses of what happened before. You have the letters of Paul, the earliest Christian writings we know, written around the year 50 or 60, at least ten years before the Gospel of Mark. Paul is a much more traditional Jew in the way that he writes. He does speak about Satan occasionally, employing the kind of language one finds in the Book of Job -- opposition to what one does can come from a troublesome source, but not a source in any way antagonistic to God, and certainly not his rival. Paul does not envision the split universe of the Gospels.
And one can see a pre-demonized Christianity in the source that we call “Q,” if that, indeed, is an early list of the sayings of Jesus. There are mentions of Satan but nothing like what we find developed in certain gospels. It’s my guess -- of course, that’s all it could be -- that after the war the polarizations were much intense. The story of Jesus was told in an attempt to exempt him from an involvement that would probably be assumed by anybody who didn’t know the full story. Christ was executed on charges of sedition against Rome. If the Romans thought he was one of those revolutionaries, why wouldn’t everybody think so? Mark is writing to say, no, no, the Romans didn’t understand at all: the real issue is within the community. It’s an issue about the true worship of God and God’s intention for Israel.
But when you get to Matthew and Luke, it’s clear that the leaders of the Christian movement were bitterly disappointed at the reception they received from Jews in comparison to the positive reception from Gentles. From the time Mark is written until the end of the first century -- thirty years or so -- the movement becomes increasingly Gentile. What starts as conflict within the Jewish community becomes something that can be anti-Jewish and that later does support -- or can be used to support -- anti-Semitism.
It’s important to say though, that anti-Judaism didn’t originate in this movement. A forthcoming book by Peter Shaeffer, a professor in Berlin, shows cultural and ethnic opposition between Jews and Greeks, Jews and Romans, Jews and Egyptians.
HB: But when driven by demonization, as with Christianity, doesn’t this opposition take on a different meaning?
EP: Completely. The anti-Semitism of Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, in the sources he quotes, is ordinary animosity, the kind of jealousy, rivalry, and dislike that often exists between different cultures. But when the Christian movement separates from the rest of the Jewish community, demonization gets added, so that now you have a moral dimension to the conflict. Now you’re saying here are God’s people, there are Satan’s. That is a very insidious addition.
Animosity and hostility, heaven knows, are not invented by any particular tradition. But when a moral dimension is added, the combination is explosive.
HB: Near the end of The Origin of Satan you suggest there is another way of being Christian. Instead of demonization, there can be reconciliation. You cite Martin Luther King as an example. But this other way of being Christian is not something you demonstrate at great length in the book.
EP: People who say The Origin of Satan is a one-sided book are absolutely right. It is about a side of the Christian movement I’d never seen before. It’s one-sided in the way The Gnostic Gospels has a one-sided enthusiasm for people others called incoherent idiots.
HB: You have a taste for heresy. Please accept that as a compliment.
EP: It’s more that I like to discover things and I am surprised by what I find. The first real surprise was seeing that when you have a split cosmology, that is, when you have God having a supernatural opponent up in heaven, then you also have, right here on the ground, a split community. Second, I was amazed to realize that in the Gospel accounts the forces of evil are not associated with the Romans as one would expect; they are associated with, as I call them, more “intimate enemies.” It’s almost as though only Israel is a moral community, and therefore only in Israel can you have this serious split. In a way, Romans and others are outside of it.
HB: The devil is always close.
EP: He started that way. This image is so powerful that it can be used in all kinds of other ways.
So the book is one-sided. And I didn’t look at those elements of Christian tradition in which, according to early sources, Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them, and so forth.
HB: How do you account for the popularity of your work from The Gnostic Gospels on?
EP: I think the history is intrinsically fascinating. There are many people who do it extremely well but most of us who do it are within a scholarly dialogue and don’t write for people who are not part of that dialogue. We write in shorthand.
HB: Your aim was to find a broader audience?
EP: Yes it was. I was living in Manhattan, in a world where if you go to a dinner party and say you study religion, conversation dies. I wanted to say, but this is fascinating! I wanted to write for those people. It was a quite conscious decision; I wanted to share this work, to participate in that discussion.
And I’ve had the great good fortune of having Jason Epstein as my editor, an absolutely great editor who challenges every sentence if its not clear
HB: Is this material popular because it continues to resonate or is it popular because the story’s over, and reading about it is like reading the fairy tale of the past?
EP: I don’t think it’s simply an antiquarian interest. It’s deeply in our cultural legacy; I think it’s something like the architecture of the mind. It’s very illuminating about who we are and how we think.
I was working on this book during the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein was using this rhetoric and President Bush was using it. That was one case in recent history. Another is the former Yugoslavia. Cyrus Vance, himself a Christian, went to the heads of the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia, the Orthodox Church in Serbia, and the Muslim leadership and tried to get religious leaders to intervene on behalf of peace. He wrote a very moving, painful piece entitled, “They Call Each Other Devils.” I thought it’s not just an accident that all three of groups in this conflict have a particular legacy which they then turn on one another.
Unfortunately, it’s deeply part of the way we’ve been taught to read political and social situations.
HB: I’m of the Vietnam generation. I realized later that many of us reversed the demonization. I didn’t believe the Vietnamese were devils; I began to think Americans were. There had to be a devil somewhere; if it wasn’t them, it had to be us.
EP: That’s what’s unfortunate about this kind of thinking. If one is going to try to look at historical and political situations it would be helpful, particularly now, to become aware of this background to our perceptions and to question it.