THE ORIGIN OF SATAN
By Elaine Pagels
214 pp., $23
Elaine Pagels secured a niche for herself in her two previous groundbreaking books about early Christianity.
In ''The Gnostic Gospels,'' she made extensive use of documents, so-called secret gospels found at Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt in 1945, to develop her thesis that early Christianity may have been as diverse then as are the many churches that preach in Jesus' name today.
And in ''Adam, Eve, and the Serpent,'' she showed how the early Christian movement was altered. Originally, she posited, followers were attracted because of Christianity's message of healing, individual freedom, and human equality. Over time, this message was reinterpreted, with for example, the Adam and Eve allegory becoming a proof of man's innate depravity rather than goodness.
Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, bases her work on her own scholarly research into original materials, on information gained by comparing texts, and current knowledge about the political and social environment of the early centuries after the time of Jesus.
The title of her latest book, ''The Origin of Satan,'' does not adequately inform the reader of its contents. As she herself writes, the book is ''a social history of Satan.''
First of all, Pagels traces the history of the personification of Satan, or the evil one, in the Bible. Second, and more important for the general reader to understand, is how this personification of the devil has affected thought patterns and human societies to this day.
Pagels argues that Satan played no major role in most of the Old Testament. The serpent in Genesis is not explicitly identified as the evil one. Even in the allegory of Job, Satan and God were on speaking terms.
It was only under the stress of prolonged Roman occupation, when the Essenes broke away from the mainstream of the Jews, who, they felt, were too accommodating both to Roman rule and Greek cultural influence, that human opposition came to be identified with Satan.
The early Christian movement, she says, inherited this tendency. The writers of the four Gospels, working at the time of the destruction of the Temple (Mark) or in the generation after that, confronted an environment in which the Christian movement was becoming mostly non-Jewish. They hoped to appear less obnoxious to Roman authority if they could distinguish themselves from the rebellious Jews; they also came to consider the Jews in Satan's camp because they didn't see Jesus' mission as Christians saw it.
Pagels traces the steps in the four Gospels by which the Jews became increasingly responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, and Pilate an almost innocent bystander. This she finds impossible to explain on its own terms, since the major historians of the era considered Pilate to have been a brutal ruler.
Once the Christian movement had become largely Gentile, the same habit of portraying one's opponents as inspired by Satan was used to describe Roman persecution. Christians then depicted other Christians with whom they disagreed as doing the work of the devil.
Reading the Gospels from a different standpoint can open up new views of scripture, and it can also bring a new viewpoint to bear on someone else's interpretation. Pagels writes that John ''chooses to tell the story of Jesus as a story of cosmic conflict - conflict between divine light and primordial darkness.... Whereas Mark begins his narrative with Jesus' baptism, and Luke and Matthew go beyond Jesus' birth to his conception, John goes back to the very origin of the universe.'' Depending on one's own outlook, however, it just may be that John captured the significance of Jesus' life with great inspiration and accuracy when he cast it in terms of the light overcoming darkness.
Where Pagels's book may be most helpful is the suggestion in her concluding chapter that Christians have been too ready over the years to look on their opponents as allies of Satan.
Although she acknowledges that an apocalyptic Christian vision has often sustained Christians under persecution, she also says: ''Throughout the centuries, Christians have turned the same polemical vocabulary against a wider range of enemies. In the sixteenth century for example, Martin Luther ... denounced as 'agents of Satan' all Christians who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, all Jews who refused to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, ... and all 'protestant' Christians who were not Lutheran.''
Yet, she notes, Christians from the time of St. Francis to Martin Luther King, Jr. have been able to believe they were standing on God's side ''without demonizing their opponents.'' The challenge would seem to be to practice Jesus' religion of love and reconciliation without personalizing (either in individuals or in other groups) the human evils that Jesus' religion was intended to destroy.