The Beatrice Interview

Elaine Pagels

"I was looking at angels and demons, spirits and daimons."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Elaine Pagels is perhaps best known for The Gnostic Gospels, a groundbreaking popularization of the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but she is also the author of several other works that deal with the historical and cultural roots of modern Chris tian faith. The Origin of Satan, her most recent book, traces the development of the devil as a figure of evil as seen in the four Gospels of the New Testament.

RH: What initially attracted you to this field of study?

EP: I got interested in the history of religion because...I was brought up somewhat outside Christianity, in a not-very-religious Protestant family, so I became very interested in religion and spirituality, things that I thought were missing in my life, so I began to explore them. Then I realized I would have to learn more about the origins of Christianity, because I was dissatisfied with the institutions I found around me at that time, so that I could begin to understand the religion for myself.

RH: When did you first come across the Dead Sea Scrolls and the material that led to your first popular book, The Gnostic Gospels?

EP: In graduate school, when I was trying to uncover the origins of Christianity, I discovered that my professors had filing cabinets full of ancient gospels that I had never heard of. That was startling enough, then I found that I really liked these texts, and wanted to work with them extensively.

RH: How about the new book? What made you decide to examine the treatment of Satan in the New Testament?

EP: It's always struck me that the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark, have a sense of evil spirits as a real part of the world. But I was originally thinking about the ways that different religions imagine the invisible world. When my husband and son both died within a short period of time, I often thought of them as being both with me and not with me at the same time. Later, when I could think about the subject more abstractly, I considered how the people of the ancient world believed that there was an invisible world that impinged on this world, and the different ways cultures pictured the angelic and demonic beings of that world. I was looking at angels and demons, spirits and daimons.

RH: The deeper you go into that conception of the invisible world, the clearer its political and social role in the formation of Christianity as a separate religion, a movement distinct from its Judaic origins, becomes.

EP: That's what surprised me during my research; it was not something that I suspected at all. So of course it also interested me greatly. There's a lot of ways that you can talk about this topic. You can discuss questions of theology and God, of the social and cultural origins of these figures, what they mean psychologically. But I decided to focus on what this subject matter had to say about the way that we see ourselves and other people, about the cultural identity... and group identity... of Christianity.

RH: Obviously, there are many cultural differences between first-century Judea and twentieth-century America, but the basic theme or situation of group identity that you describe in the book could apply to many different historical/cultural moments.

EP: But it's curious, because I realized that people raised in the Jewish tradition, for example, have a highly monotheistic conception of God. The conviction is that the Lord is in heaven, unopposed by any other being. There is no other being; the Lord your God is one God. That's really very different from the Christian tradition that sees the world split between the forces of God and the forces of evil.

I never thought much before about this figure (of Satan) because if you are around liberal forms of Christianity, as I am, one doesn't hear a lot about the devil. It's almost something of a relic. But the concept of the devil is integral to the way that Christians understood their lives, and the conflicts of the world in which they lived, as well as the death of Jesus. And, in many traditions, continue to understand the world today.

RH: It's fascinating to see the contrasts in how different branches of Christianity view Satan, even liberal and conservative tendencies within the same tradition, such as Catholicism, where many Catholics vocally blame Satan for starting the wars in Eastern Europe in order to silence the Virgin at Medjugorje.

EP: Even if they don't take Satan literally, it provides a way of thinking about opposition, for people who aren't Christians, or who were raised Christian but abandoned much of their faith. It's like an architecture in the mind, a cultural construct that becomes the way that people think. When Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire", or Bush called Saddam Hussein "the devil", people might have said that they were merely using silly political rhetoric, but it resonates quite deeply in the American psyche, and one wouldn't have to believe in Satan for those images to work powerfully in his or her mind.

RH: One of the things that has fascinated me about your work over the years is the rigorous scholarship you apply to matters of faith, showing their cultural and historical contingency, but treating the faith itself with respect -- leaving room for belief even within the knowledge of where that belief developed in the past.

EP: My questions when I started out as a scholar were primarily religious questions, and in many ways they still are. I soon discovered that you can't answer those questions with historical means. History will tell you when a gospel was written, give or take thirty years, but it can't tell you if that gospel is true. That's a religious question, a very different question. I have friends and colleagues who teach religion and see their work as a form of debunking; they show how totally historically contingent it all is. Now, I think a lot of it is historically contingent, but it's still compelling. How is it that these archaic images still work as powerfully as they do, become reference points for the way that we interpret our lives, even if we don't acknowledge them consciously?

RH: If it isn't prying to ask, can you talk about how you resolve any conflicts between your academic work and your personal spirituality?

EP: One's own spirituality is always hard to define...I came to an understanding that there is a spiritual dimension to life, and it is something that I deal with in my life. Some people can avoid dealing with it, but sometimes people's lives just come up against it, and they can't excuse it as unresolved political or sexual or other kinds of issues. There's another dimension one needs to consider. My work informs the way I think about that, but it's not a direct correlation... I believe it should matter to us to know how the image of Satan has played itself out in Western history, and it matters to me, but it's not a direct religious answer to my questions.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Mark Thompson | Joseph Sharp

All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan