Tuesday, 28 January 2020

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

Pros: very thorough, lots of endnotes

Cons: not many photos 

This was a very interesting book about how peoples in the past thought about the concept of evil and how those philosophical musings and religious beliefs slowly morphed into the idea held by Christians that there is a single force that causes evil: the Devil.

After the preface the book consists of 7 chapters: The Question of Evil, In Search of the Devil, The Devil East and West, Evil in the Classical World, Hebrew Personifications of Evil, The Devil in the New Testament, and The Face of the Devil. There’s a select bibliography and an index.

The book starts with a discussion of what evil is. This book traces how ancient societies thought of ‘evil’, whether it was part of the gods, human nature, imposed from the outside or something within us. It examines both religious and philosophical beliefs from various cultures and periods whose peoples wanted to know why good things happened to bad people. Why, if there’s a god (or gods) who is good, who created a world of good, is there evil in the world?

We’re so used to categorizing things that it’s easy to forget just how interconnected the world really is. I tend to think of Greek mythology as independent from other religious practices, even though I know the Romans modified the beliefs to fit with their own pantheon of gods. So it was eye opening learning how the Greek gods were turned into evil spirits by early Christian thought, and how Pan was used as a template when artists started visualizing the devil as a personification of evil.

I only knew bits and pieces of other ancient religions so leaning more about them and how they intersected and built off of one another was fascinating. I also loved learning side information like why people with red hair were considered evil.

The most interesting section for me was on the Persian Zoroastrian religion, whose basic mythology is similar to the one Christianity ultimately settled on. I also enjoyed learning more about the apocalyptic Jewish writings and how they impacted the Gospels in the New Testament. 

There aren't that many photos, but the ones included help visualize how the devil gained certain attributes (like wings, horns, etc). 

This is an older book (it came out in 1977), but it’s still highly relevant to Christian and general religious studies.

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