The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity

Not the sort of thing I read often.

A retro review from May 22, 2009 …

Review: The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, Jeffrey Burton Russell, 1977.Devil

How evil was personified in the lands of India, the Middle East, and the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome is the subject of this book.

I suppose Russell thought the opening chapter, “The Question of Evil”, was formally necessary so we know what needs to be personified. His answer, that evil is “deliberate violence done to a being that can feel pain”, leaves something to be desired. Besides the obvious question of war and police violence, it defines as evil violence committed to deter or punish. It doesn’t help matters when we cite that great work of 70’s pseudoscience, Peter Tompkins’ and Christopher Bird’s The Secret Life of Plants, as bringing up the idea of evil committed against the vegetable kingdom. More forgiveable, given the age of the book, is the short shrift given to evolutionary psychology’s (labeled sociobiology when this book was written) explanation of evil.

Once Russell leaves that behind and gets into the history of the devil, things become more interesting the further you go though Russell repeats himself more than necessary for such a short book.

“The Devil East and West” is the broadest ranging chapter in the book . Looking at myths and the beginnings of religion throughout the world, Russell finds that good and bad qualities are often mixed into the same figures, that deities are often twinned to an opposite, and that generational wars in heaven abound with one side judged evil. He even gets into specific, common attributes to these diabolical figures, e.g. black, red, and horned. Nor are these attributes, at this stage in humanity’s religion, confined to a single demonic figure. Often legions of lesser demons are affiliated with various evils of disease, death, and the weather.

Zoroastrianism in 600 BC essentially added a new development. To make its deity Ahura Mazda completely good, to rid him of the evil qualities found in other gods, to make him more worthy of worship, the evil qualities were assigned to the evil Ahriman. Of course, this scheme raised other questions. If Ahura Mazda was all powerful, why let Ahriman roam free? If he could defeat Ahura Mazda, why let his evil continue unabated until sometime in the future? And, as Russell details, Zoroastrianism went through many heresies and evolutions.

“Evil in the Classical World” delves into the demonic aspects of Greek religion, the mysterious Orphic cult and the many Greek gods which exhibit good and bad tendencies. Russell also has a concise section (at least to my untutored eye) about Greek thought on the soul and what evil was.

The highlights of the book are the chapters on the Hebrew development of evil and the devil of the New Testament. Russell traces how the Old Testament god, most blatantly on display in Job, has many troubling aspects. If he is not evil, he certainly seems to employ demonic figures and the Devil as servants and advocates in a celestial court judging individual human worth. Gradually, probably under the influence of Zoroastrianism, Yahweh’s most fearsome aspects — his treatment of Job, hardening Pharaoh’s heart and provoking others to sin just to punish them — were assigned to a diabolical figure. In theological terms, evil in the Hebrew cosmos when from monism, a deity uniting good and evil, to dualism with supernatural beings for each moral quality. He supports his argument with reference to apocryphal books as well as the traditional Bible.

When talking of the Devil in the New Testament, Russell talks not only of the specific animals that came to be associated with him, but the questions the Devil raises in Christian thought. Some are the same questions Zoroastrianism had: what is the exact relationship of the good and evil deities? Is one subordinate to the other? (In a valid aside, Russell notes that atheists frequently use the question of evil in their arguments against God, but the logic of those arguments implicitly assumes that a supreme being must have the qualities of a Christian God.) Russell looks at how the iconography of the devil – where he is said to live, what his relationship is to Hell (prisoner or administrator?), what animals are associated with him – developed.

The final chapter, “The Face of the Devil”, ends with Russell’s not very interesting attempt to bridge his scholarship of the Devil to his personal experience with evil.

I can’t judge the worth of Russell’s religious, philosophical, and historical scholarship, but I found a couple of the chapters interesting enough, in this short book, to make it worth reading. This edition also has some interesting black and white photos of religious art. Those with a more spiritual or philosophical bent will probably find the question of evil’s definition more interesting and practical than I did.

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