Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins

an Interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar
in its twenty-fifth year under the auspices of
The University of Pennsylvania
Department of Religious Studies
Philadelphia PA

PSCO Minutes
March 10, 1988

"The Influence of Genesis 6.1-4 on Demonology"

Presentation by Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels from Princeton University presented a portion of her larger project on the interpretation of Genesis in early Christianity (ultimately published as Adam, Eve and the Serpent). She opened her talk with a quote from Peter Brown's The Making of Late Antiquity: "For Justin and his contemporaries, the story of the mating of the angels with the daughters of men and so forth was not a distant myth, but it was a map on which they plotted the disruptions and tensions around them." In her work studying the readings of Genesis, she was interested in how the gnostic myths were related to the issues and choices that faced the people who told these stories, and the connections between the kind of society and the kind of stories they tell, and relationship of all of that to power. In tracing out interpretations of Genesis, though, she came to the use of these texts by the apologists.

She found that Justin uses Genesis 6 a great deal, using the demons as an explanation for the evil behavior of the Roman pagans around him. The prevalence of the demons in his argument was a fact that she had never really noticed before. In fact, she presented evidence of a claim in scholarship that Christians were indifferent to Roman institutions and approved of Roman politics, and were essentially rationalistic. However, in her reading she kept bumping up against Justin talking very seriously about the demons, and this made her doubt the claim that Christians rejected the spirits and the powers, and in so doing were more rationalistic than pagans.

Pagels, in fact, argued that Christians were not apolitical, nor were they simple philosophical dissidents. They were dissidents, but they were also more radical — they were in some sense religious fanatics. At first, when attempting to understand what was happening with the persecution of Christians she had seen it as a terrible misunderstanding, that the two groups were just talking past each other and not understanding each other's metaphors (such as in the Gospel account of Pilate asking Jesus if he was a king, and his comment to his followers that his kingdom was in heaven). Rather, the conflict between Christians and pagans was extremely serious, and goes to the heart of issues like social order and power.

She thought that Justin's understanding of demons is directly related to his idea of the contemporary world, such as what's happening in the courts to the Christians. Imperial propaganda at that time was focused on claims to a family relationship between the emperor's family and the gods. They were expanding the ideology of imperial power, showing their legitimacy on the basis of claims to divinity. Justin and the emperor, then, are really speaking in the same terms. He is not just a simple citizen, although that is one of rhetorical poses — he is offering a damning inversion of imperial propaganda. In fact, as Pagels sees it, the Christian perspective on power is very complex. They view the government as coming from God, but people like Justin argue that this God-given institution has been usurped by demons. Justin's overall goal is not to please the authorities, but to please God, and in that he is more hostile and dangerous to Roman social order than we might have thought. The judges who condemned him understood that this kind of attack on the gods and the Roman power structures would be extremely serious and dangerous, if believed.

In fact, what Justin is doing is attacking the whole theology of power. Christian attacks on the Gods are connected to social, cultural, and political attitudes. For example, calling the god Jupiter a pederast and an adulterer in a city filled with images of the emperor enthroned as Jupiter was definitely not without risk. Also, she reminds us that in the Roman Empire the political and religious are not separate things at all.

The subversive message is inherent in the Christians, unlike other philosophical dissidents. The Christians always referred to their enemies by name, and show themselves as different kinds of critics. The didn't just talk to other philosophers, they spoke to the masses. They were also not just attacking the structures of Empire, but also offering a positive message. For example, Clement says that the emperor is not the image of God on earth, but rather God is present in the mind. If all are created in the image of god, he asks, why should we worship a tyrant? Christians are making a radical argument about the nature of liberty. Unlike the Stoics, who saw freedom as living under a good emperor, the Christians saw liberty as freedom from oppression. The Christians even offered a hostile critique of history — rather than the claim that the Romans were helped by the gods to become the most powerful on earth, the Christians said they won because they were brutal and worshipped demons, who helped them with conquer the world.

See also the presentations by George Nickelsburg and David Utz and the ensuing Discussion with Nickelsburg, Pagels, and Utz

For related materials, consult other PSCO presentations and discussions on the topic for the 1987-1988 seminar, "Principalities and Powers: Demons and Angels in the World of Late Antiquity".