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Satan: A Biography (review)
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Reviewed by
Henry Ansgar Kelly Satan: A Biography Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 Pp. xiii + 360. $19.99 (paper).

This book marks a magnum opus on Satan for an author who has been writing about the topic for forty years, yet it is one written for a general audience and replete with folksy rhetorical devices. To wit: "Wait a minute!" (104); "believe it or not" (163); [Abaddon is] "definitely 'A Bad 'Un'" (159); and, best of all, "No way, José. Not yet, Josette" (117). It is certainly surprising to find these colloquialisms in a book from Cambridge University Press. Or, should I say: Wow!

Distracting as these little gems might be to the scholarly reader, Kelly has produced an important historiographical study, marshalling considerable evidence that traditional popular and even scholarly views of Satan derive from careless reading of the evidence or deliberate exaggerations/fabrications on the part of ancient scholars. The problem starts with the terminology, and Kelly reveals how ancient and modern writers blithely equated daimon, diabolos, and pone¯ros.

Some material is familiar, for example, that the Garden of Eden account speaks only of a serpent and not of Satan, but Kelly proves how later writers, engaging in "retro-fitting" (14), re-wrote or re-interpreted the account to fit their own views. Initially Satan plays a positive role in the divine governance of the world and "not only reports on earthly matters but also serves as executor . . . of the approved action. But it is Yahweh who makes the decisions" (27). Kelly believes that Satan preserved this role as late as Mark's temptation scene: ". . . It is clear that (the temptation) was an experience that (Jesus) was required to undergo as part of his preparation" (80). That is, Satan served God and every ruler needs someone to do the dirty work.

But the positive role could not hold. Satan's transition to a negative figure began with the Septuagint when the translators used Greek terms for "opponent" instead of terms implying a divine agent. The Jewish Apocrypha added sinful angels and equated one of them, Mastema, with Satan (38). The early Christians inherited this later tradition.

Much of the book follows this line of inquiry. Kelly investigates the many uses of "Satan" and "Devil" in the New Testament and easily demonstrates the variety, imprecision, and confusion of terms. Such diversity, however, would not last. The Fathers started to put together a comprehensible if inaccurate demonology. [End Page 103] Starting with Justin, the Eden serpent became Satan, the angels who mated with women (Gen 6) shared Satan's fall, evil angels metamorphosed into the gods of the pagans, and they were "also the grubby little parasitic possessing Demons of the gospels (2 Apol., chs. 5–6). Wow!" (177).

Once begun, the patristic creative process grew until it produced what Kelly calls "Lucifer and the NEW BIOGRAPHY of Satan" (ch. 9), and he identifies the villain of the piece: "The Hijacking of Isaiah 14 by Origen" (191). Allegorizing enabled Origen to find the devil in any number of Old Testament passages, but Kelly gives him no credit for elevating the notion of Satan to a pre-mundane fall that obviated such difficult theories as Cyprian's claim that Satan's sin was jealousy of Adam and Eve. Instead, thanks to Origen, "the Christian religion was transformed, in effect, into a Zoroastrian system" except that "in post-Origen Christianity the Principle of Good created the Principle of Evil" (198). Once this "trendy new theory initiated by Origen" (201) caught on, Satan was discovered in the Book of Revelation and soon entered the baptismal liturgy. The last third of the book trots through medieval demonology (Aquinas, Jacob of Voragine), literature (Milton), and art together with some unconvincing modern theories.

In such a polemical piece overstatements inevitably appear. Discussing 2 Cor 6.14–16, Kelly claims that scholars do not know what Beliar really means, but what counts is that Paul and the Corinthians did (65). And did Paul really mean "the first death" when he spoke of "death coming into the world" (77)? Such points as these, however, do not diminish the overall value of the book.