Mini-Review: The Quest for the Historical Satan, by Miguel De La Torre and Albert Hernandez (Fortress Press, 2011)

978-0-800-66324-7

This book is much lighter than one expects a scholarly book on the figure of Satan and the history of evil to be. While it makes it a easy read, De La Torre and Hernendez also seem to risk alienating both a serious Christian and a serious secular audience with this lightness, and its mixed concerns. In some ways, this book bites off too much for one book to chew. The development of the figure of Satan in theological and pop culture was done in my detail by Jeffery Burton Russell several decades ago and in much more detail. Burton Russell, who was also a Christian, did not have an aims to redefine the Christian relationship to the Satanic and thus did not have the theological concerns of the end of the book.

De La Torre and Hernendez start and end with discussions of contemporary culture. The beginning of the book is interesting and entertaining to read, but what seems like digression on the film industry’s inversion of the apocalyptic and a few pages on LaVeyan Satanism seem slightly off topic. When the historical elements begin, focusing on Egypt seems problematic. Seth is actually not a simple demonic figure since Egyptian religion was not dualistic. Indeed, Set/Seth even has Pharoahs named after him. De La Torres and Hernendez do some interesting comparative religious work on the development Satan as the accuser in Jewish literature as well as the development of semi-Satanic figures such as Azazel, Belial, Samiel, etc. as well as the redevelopment of Satan mythology in the angelic literature around Enoch. While they discuss Gnosticism and the Satanic briefly as well as slightly further developing the thesis of Elaine Pagel’s in his “Origins of Satan” book from the 1990s.

The more interesting bits though were the comparative developments of early Islam and early Rabbic/Post-Temple Judaism. De La Torre and Hernendez, however, drop this after the post-classical, pre-medieval period. Furthermore, the seem to underdevelop the history of Satan in the late medieval and early modern period, which is where MOST of the modern ideas about Satan are from. Furthermore, outside of discussions of pre-millenialism and post-millenialism in the first chapter and some discussions on demonization in the early modern religious wars, the uniquely Protestant development of Satan is under-written about in the book.

Furthermore, the almost Jungian paradigm used in the end to encourage Christian’s to see Satan as a trickster archetype instead of a dualistic archetype will probably be unconvincing to both secularists and the religious. Despite this, I still would recommend the book. De La Torre and Hernendez are both sympathetic to Christianity (and are Christians if of a liberal bent) but are also pretty much in-line with mainstream scholarship on the subject in the secular world without being dismissive of religious claims. Their writing style is clear and clean–most academic jargon is removed–and the first and last chapters are particularly easy to read. The later middle chapters can seem bogged down with in-text quoting and can be a little bit of a slog, but no where near as intimating as much more scholar-aimed books on the same topic. I would, however, read this while also reading Pagels and Burton Russell’s work on the same topics.

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