THE ORIGIN OF SATAN By Elaine Pagels Random House. 214pp. $23 ALTHOUGH SHE has written scholarly works, Elaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton, is perhaps best known as a gifted popularizer. In this example, she traces how the idea of Satan as a cosmic power opposed to God developed in early Judaism and Christianity. Pagels is interested in the "social" implications of Satan, i.e., how he was exploited to symbolize human conflict and stigmatize religious enemies as Jews and Christians struggled over their respective identities. Satan served to demonize "the other" -- be they Jews of a different persuasion, pagan persecutors or Christian "heretics." Pagels connects the development of the idea of Satan with Jewish sects in the first centuries B.C. For sectarians, the figure of Satan helped to define "them" (evil Jews) against "us" (righteous Jews). This function already appears in the Jewish Scriptures. From an overzealous member of God's court in the Book of Job, Satan develops into an accuser of the high priest in the Book of Zechariah. This development reflects tensions among Jewish factions after the Babylonian exile (6th century B.C.). Sectarian strife increased around the time of the Maccabean revolt (mid-second century B.C.), producing a slew of apocalypses, notably The First Book of Enoch, in which Satan (under various names) becomes the great rival of God. Once a heavenly prince, the rebellious Satan now leads an army of fallen angels. The message is clear: The most dangerous enemy originates not as an outsider but as one's trusted colleague -- the intimate enemy. Satan is the projection into the heavens of the experience of sectarian Jews: Their fellow Jews had apostatized and turned against them and therefore against God. The underlying question in this struggle was: Who are God's people? While not discarding ethnic identity, the sectarians, notably at Qumran, insisted on moral identity. At Qumran the Essenes defined themselves in terms of the cosmic war between God (and the Essenes) on one side and Satan (and other Jews) on the other. Christians would simply push this definition to the extreme, dispensing ultimately with Jewish identity. Pagels sees this sectarian ideology of cosmic war in Mark's Gospel. Accordingly she emphasizes the importance in Mark 1 of Satan's temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This initial struggle sets the stage for the rest of the Gospel: Mark recounts the battle between Jesus and Satan that develops through Jesus's exorcisms up to the final clash in the Passion. This struggle, says Pagels, is a mythological representation of the conflict between Christian Jews and the Jewish majority in 1st-century Palestine. This tack was then taken up and extended by the later evangelists. Matthew, writing around A.D. 80-90, makes the Pharisees, now ascendant in Judaism, the "intimate enemies" of Jesus (and Christians). About the same time, Luke, writing for Gentiles, claims that his form of Christianity is Israel at its best, virtually the only true Israel. Around A.D. 90-100, John, representing Jewish Christians thrown out of their home synagogue, charges that some Jews are children of the devil. In short, as we move from Gospel to Gospel, the Jews who reject Jesus are increasingly put on the side of Satan. As Gentile converts filled up the Church, they in turn began to see Satan in non-Christian Gentiles, especially Roman persecutors. This new stage of the struggle produced some intriguing positions: The pagans objected to Christians severing the traditional bond between religion and nation, while some Christians asserted the rights of conscience and religious liberty. When Gnostic Christians appeared on the scene, they too were seen as agents of Satan by "orthodox" Christians. Some of the Gnostics returned the compliment. That Pagels can explain this complicated thesis in a mere 184 pages of text testifies to her skill as a master teacher. Her strength lies not in discovering new facts but in drawing familiar facts into new and meaningful configurations. Her clear, concise exposition rarely bogs down in details. Limited space does not allow her to rehearse classic debates (e.g., the identification of Qumran as Essene, the dating of the Gospels), but she usually accepts consensus positions. One exception involves placing the Coptic Gospel of Thomas after Mark and before Matthew in her chronological survey of the Gospels. Here she reflects the very early dating of Thomas commonly accepted at Harvard and Claremont but questioned by many scholars, American and European. Though minor errors of fact occur (e.g., pace Pagels, Timothy is never called a "bishop" in the Pastoral Epistles), they do not affect Pagels's overall thesis. What, though, of her claim that Satan and demons were at home in Jewish sects like Qumran and Christianity but not in "mainstream Judaism"? There are objections. FIRST, not all the Jewish intertestamental literature that mentions devils or demons can be assigned to definite sects. In particular, the library at Qumran reflects a wide range of Jewish thought, not all of it sectarian. Second, while scholars wrangle over who the historical Jesus was, almost all agree that he was a Jewish exorcist and that some pronouncements on Satan and demons (Matthew 12:28; Mark 3:24-27) go back to him. Now Jesus reflects popular Galilean religion, not elite scribal groups writing apocalypses. Indeed, other Jewish exorcists, not connected with any sect, are also mentioned in the New Testament. Third, in his Jewish Antiquities the historian Josephus gives an eyewitness account of an exorcism performed by a Jew named Eleazar. The way in which Josephus traces this "art" back to Solomon and boasts that this power is prevalent "among us" Jews to this day does not favor a purely sectarian origin for demons. Hence Jesus cannot be antiseptically cordoned off from the idea of cosmic war with Satan. This particular exorcist wound up crucified for something more than his call to reconciliation. Nonetheless, Pagels's achievement is both a stimulating intellectual romp and a sobering sermon on the dangers of religious polemic.

n John P. Meier, professor of New Testament at Catholic University, is the author of "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus." CAPTION: "The Temptation of Christ," by Master "L Cz" (circa 1490)