I’ve been interested in one line of recurring discussion in all the talk about Mel Gibson’s movie. (Keep in mind I’m focusing on “talk” about the movie; I haven’t yet seen the movie.) On the one hand, the charge that the movie is anti-Jewish. On the other, the counter that it’s not; that it’s telling the gospel story of crucifixion, the atonement. My point would be that these two views may not be exactly contradictory. I recently reread The Origins of Satan (1993) by Elaine Pagels. Her argument has framed my own response to discussions about Gibson’s movie—and to my thinking recently about Joseph Smith’s “prologue” to his New Translation of the Bible (contemporary Mormons know this prologue as Moses 1).
Here are some quotations from Pagels’s book that give you the gist of her argument:
•“While angels often appear in the Hebrew Bible, Satan, along with other fallen angels or demonic beings, is virtually absent.”
•“What interests me are specifically social implications of the figure of Satan: how he is invoked to express human conflict and to characterize human enemies within our own religious traditions.”
•“Thus the problem of evil begins in sibling rivalry. . . . Satan is not the distant enemy but the intimate enemy—one’s trusted colleague, close associate, brother.”
•“The gospel of John, like the other gospels, associates the mythological figure of Satan with specific human opposition, first implicating Judas Iscariot, then the Jewish authorities, and finally ‘the Jews’ collectively.”
•“By presenting Jesus’ life and message in these polemical terms, the evangelists no doubt intended to strengthen group solidarity. In the process, they shaped, in ways that were to become incalculably consequential, the self-understanding of Christians in relations to Jews for two millennia.”
If Gibson has faithfully captured this gospel story of intimate enemies, he may well have captured the strong and highly polarized story Pagels describes. Christians must make their peace with this part of the Christian story as surely as they do with the gospel of love and forgiveness.
It is this same New Testament story of Satan, a ground for the story of intimate enemies, that Joseph Smith wraps around the King James Bible in his prologue to the New Translation, dictated to Oliver Cowdery in June 1830. This text comes at a crucial borderland—the Book of Mormon is recently off the press, the church is only just beginning, the community of faith not yet gathered into one place. This prologue brings a strikingly New Testament frame to the Old Testament’s beginning. Satan tempts Moses in the wilderness just as he tempts Jesus in the gospels. He loudly proclaims that he is the Father’s only begotten, evoking his own story as a family story, insisting on his place in the family of heaven. And in the early pages of Genesis, Satan’s fall from heaven (similar to his fall in Revelations) is inserted as the context for his behavior with Adam and Eve in the garden and his relationship with Cain.
This figure of Satan, the prospect of intimate enemies following in his wake, is used in the early Mormon context very much as it is in the New Testament context, to strengthen the group and to deal with opposition. In the first years of the church, cursing enemies is a parallel ceremony to sealing friends to eternal life. And very early in our history, these were “intimate” enemies—members of the family, former friends and church leaders. Ultimately the parallel ceremonies for enemies and friends are enshrined in the early temples—with lists of both left on the altars of nineteenth-century temples (one of the images that still lingers with me from Wilford Woodruff’s journals).
I understand the power of this story, it’s protective utility in our history. But it’s effect can be—and has been–disabling as well. In contemporary terms, we might admit to a rather dysfunctional family dynamic. As a model for brothers and sisters, families, intimates struggling to disagree, it has its limits.