18 April 2011

Review: The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (Jeffrey Burton Russell)

The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive ChristianityThe Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

WOW! What a book, and what a history lesson. The first half of the book covers so much mythology, ancient Eastern views of evil, and enough odd names and stories to make your head spin. Yet all along you start to see some similarities shared and transferred from culture to culture, until you finally hit the second half of the book, which deals with evil in the Hebrew and biblical context.

This was (to me) the most fascinating section, as it is an area I knew a little more about already. The author uses many ancient apocryphal and extra-biblical writings to show the developing mindset that seems to have eventually led to the more modern view of evil and the Devil that is believed today.

It is so hard to clear out the traditional thoughts that you have had all your life, and that made this section a bit harder, though surprisingly revealing too. If you strip away all that you know of the Devil, and simply use the few mentions in the Bible, you will find that the information is quite lacking from the whole story we hear now. Then you start to see how Hellenistic thought started coming in and influencing the text, to build the whole story we mostly now believe in the modern church.

The influence of Dante and Milton adds to the story line, and the details grow and grow to a story that is nowhere to be found in biblical text. Even the non-canonical writings add to the story, filling in many of the gaps that the Bible has in this story. How much emphasis should we put on those extra bits and pieces? Is the "Devil" a member of the heavenly council of God, doing the evil? Is he a fallen angel, and if so, did he fall for pride against God as some tell us, or was it for lust as the book of Enoch displays? Was his fall before the fall of Adam, or just prior to the flood? These and so many more topics are examined in detail, making this a fascinating, and sometimes mind boggling look at the topic.

In the end, I do not know if what I have learned is more for the better or the worse on this topic. There is much more to it that I had originally thought, and now in some ways I am a bit more confused on where I stand on certain aspects. All in all though, a good read that looks at many questions, many histories, gives many answers, and in the end just makes me wonder even more. Fortunately, there are more volumes in this series that might provide further answers; so I will refrain from making any decisions on where I stand on this whole topic.

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