'The Origin of Satan' author Elaine Pagels discusses the religious figure's modern conception

Pope Francis recently advised members of the Catholic Church not to dismiss fearing the Devil as 'old-fashioned.' Pagels discusses how the view of Satan has changed over the centuries.

'The Origin of Satan' is by Elaine Pagels.

Pope Francis is more than willing to give the devil his due. Observers say the head of the Catholic Church is spending an unusual amount of time talking about the influence of Satan over our everyday lives.

"Francis’s teachings on Satan are already regarded as the most old school of any pope since at least Paul VI," who served four decades ago, reported the Washington Post last month.

In addition to seeming to recognize the potential for demons to directly afflict people, Pope Francis has advised his flock to "look out because the Devil is present" and not dismiss this warning as "old fashioned... in the 21st century."

The Pope even humanized himself by comparing gossip to the temptation of Satan, "the prince of this world": "Maybe not one of you, if you’re a saint, but I too have been tempted to gossip! It’s a daily temptation. And it begins in this way, discreetly, like a trickle of water. It grows by infecting others and in the end it justifies itself."

For perspective on the role of Satan past and present, I turned to author Elaine Pagels, a Princeton University professor and leading biblical scholar. We last chatted two years ago about her 2012 book examining the Book of Revelation, in which Satan plays a major role.

This time, we talked about the devil, whom she profiled in her 1995 book "The Origin of Satan." In our chat, Pagels tracks views of Satan from the Old Testament, where he serves as God's faithful assistant, to more familiar depictions of an evil supernatural force. Pagels also examines the evolution of perspectives of Satan, who's been used as a weapon to dehumanize other people but is now portrayed as a malignant force that's much closer to us.

Q: Contrary to what people may assume, Satan is barely a presence in the Old Testament. What is he like?

A: There about five Old Testament stories in which Satan is kind of an incidental character. In the Book of Zechariah, he's the devil's advocate, so to speak, for the Lord. In Book of Numbers, he's not even a person. He's an angel.

The Jewish view is that Satan is always under the command of the Lord. Satan is one of his servants, one of his army.

Q: So the Satan of the Old Testament is basically a lackey, a kind of minion?

A: He is. In the book of Job, he can't do anything that the Lord doesn't authorize. He says, 'Let me do this thing,' and the Lord has to say, 'I'll give you this much permission. You can go this far.' He can't go any further.

Satan is not a rival to God at all. He's a servant.

Q: Did the early Jews ever view Satan as evil?

A: The only place I could find that is when Jewish groups split. It's only when God's people are divided that you get an angel who turns against the Lord.

It's a way of defining your enemy as the enemy within. Members of one sect see all the Jews who don't join the sect as the sons of darkness: We are the sons of light and other Jews are the sons of darkness.

Q: The New Testament offers much more visceral descriptions of Satan and demons. What changes?

A: If you look at the Gospel of Mark, it's full of demons. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is God incarnate and Satan incarnate is the son of darkness.

And Satan, of course, is in the Book of Revelation.

Satan in the gospels is never identified with gentiles but only with Jews. That got me interested in how Christian anti-semitism comes out of this.

Q: Throughout history, people have described their rivals as agents of the devil. Even the second President Bush referred to the "Axis of Evil." What sort of harm does that provoke?

A: It really impressed me how you can divide people like that: We are good, and they are evil. It splits groups and is a way of turning people into something less than human beings, making them easier to harm and kill.

Q: What do you think of the way the Pope is talking about Satan?

A: Maybe the Pope doesn't want to say "Be nice to everyone." That the liberal Protestant view that I grew up with. It's pretty boring and doesn't have much spiritual depth.

Instead, he's using very traditional language that sounds archaic to a lot of people. But he's shifting it: He's trying to say it's the behaviors that harm people that are evil. And not just the dramatic ones like murder.

Q: So he's suggesting we all have potential for evil even if we aren't tempted to commit major crimes?

A: He's saying people have to be careful not to damage and harm others: You have these impulses to harm people within you. When you're not cognizant of them and not aware of them, you end up doing harm.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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