The Devil – Writ Large and in the Details – By Adam Kotsko

Adam Kotsko on Almond’s The Devil and Korpel and de Moor’s Adam, Eve, and the Devil

Philip C. Almond, The Devil: A New Biography, Cornell University Press, 2014, 296pp., $29.95
Philip C. Almond, The Devil: A New Biography, Cornell University Press, 2014, 296pp., $29.95
Shop Indie Bookstores

At first glance, these two studies of the place of the devil in the Judeo-Christian tradition may seem to share nothing but their topic and their publication date. Almond’s book, though very erudite and scholarly, is clearly aimed at a broad educated audience, while Korpel and de Moor have produced a monograph aimed squarely at scholars. Where Almond tries to sketch a broad historical narrative from the devil’s earliest appearances in the Book of Genesis to his theological eclipse in modernity, Korpel and de Moor opt for fine-grained textual analysis, often in ancient Ugaritic or (untransliterated) Hebrew.

Most striking, however, is the difference in their overall goals, which are in a certain sense diametrically opposed. Drawing on ancient inscriptions that predate the Bible, Korpel and de Moor are inviting us to rethink the devil’s origins. Almond, by contrast, is primarily concerned with the devil’s “death” — his declining influence amid the scientific revolution of early modernity.

Almond’s story is deeply intertwined with the history of witchcraft, to which he has devoted three previous books. Though he provides a broad survey of the relevant texts and topics normally associated with the devil (primarily in the Christian tradition), his ultimate quarry is the devil’s intimate involvement in witchcraft — an association that will spell his doom once scientific rationalism proves the dark arts to be a malign fantasy.

It appears that this endpoint determines Almond’s starting point, which might otherwise seem arbitrary: namely, the obscure story of the “sons of God” who coupled with “the daughters of men” in Genesis 6:1-4. For Almond, “these four verses” serve as a starting point for later authors who create “a complex account of the origin of evil in the world as the result of the lust of God’s angels from God’s heavenly council and the populating of the world with demons and evil spirits” (1). In other words, the same bond with misbehaving women that would seal the devil’s fate in modernity is already present in the very beginning.

Almond’s book traces the devil’s literary career from the early commentators who elaborated on the Genesis account up through the late Middle Ages. Along the way, we learn of the devil’s fall from grace, his role as guard and inmate of hell, his changing role in Christian narratives of salvation, his alliance with earthly foes to Christianity such as Islam and the Cathar heresy, and his place in the catastrophic events of the End Times.

The real emphasis throughout, however, is on the relationship between the devil and witchcraft, which by my count takes up approximately half of the text. This crucial association shapes Almond’s narrative much more deeply than determining its starting point in Genesis. Since for Almond the devil “dies” once witchcraft is scientifically debunked, the entire history proceeding to this point is presented as a series of elaborate fantasies. A story appears in Genesis, and people get to work creating more stories to flesh it out. Sometimes the new stories contradict old ones, but for the most part there is a steady accrual of new “facts” until we get to a recognizable image of the devil — who is subsequently revealed to be the fantasy he always was.

In short, as someone who dabbles in the study of popular culture, I found Almond’s account to be very “in-universe.” There is often little if any consideration of the circumstances that may have motivated a particular iteration of the devil or made it convincing to the author’s audience. It’s as though the apparatus of demonology were a long-standing fictional universe, complete with continuity errors and elaborate “retcons” (retroactive continuity, referring to post hoc attempts to explain away contradictions in a narrative universe). From this perspective, the connection with witchcraft proves to be the crucial error insofar as it implicitly ties this fictional universe to the real world — hence rendering it disprovable in a way it otherwise would not be.

I have major objections to this approach. Above all, it does not seem to take seriously the very human authors and audiences for the “fictional universe,” instead treating it as an artificially self-enclosed pseudo-reality. Almond’s tone is rarely sarcastic or scornful — and on the rare occasions when it is, it strikes me as deserved — but it is implicitly patronizing in its very form. In essence, he gives us no indication of why people would buy into a theology that, his largely respectful treatment notwithstanding, he presents throughout as sheer fantasy. Thus it rings hollow when he concludes by saying that he hopes “that this new biography of the Devil will go some way to restoring him to the central place that he has occupied in Western intellectual history for the better part of the last two thousand years, and to the recognition of the pivotal role that he has had and still continues to play in the history of all of us” (222).

Marjo C.A. Korpel and Johannes C. de Moor, Adam, Eve, and the Devil: A New Beginning, Sheffield University Press, 2014, 358pp., $95
Marjo C.A. Korpel and Johannes C. de Moor, Adam, Eve, and the Devil: A New Beginning, Sheffield University Press, 2014, 358pp., $95
Shop Indie Bookstores

As I have noted, Korpel and de Moor take a very different approach. Their object is not the devil’s end, but his origin, which they attempt to push into pre-biblical times by examining “fresh evidence from the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit that hitherto has not been taken into account in studies on the biblical traditions about the primordial history of humankind” (1). Biblical scholars have long made use of Ugaritic texts in light of the close relationship between the Ugaritic and ancient Hebrew languages, but for Korpel and de Moor, insufficient attention has been paid to their actual theological content.

This is especially true, Korpel and de Moor argue, of two tablets that scholars have designated as KTU 1.107 and KTU 1.100, which contain myths that bear a striking resemblance to the creation accounts in Genesis. As they note, the tablets’ testimony is incomplete: KTU 1.100 “is one of the best-preserved tablets from Ugarit, but unfortunately [KTU 1.107] is badly damaged, making its interpretation extremely hazardous” (14). Apparently undeterred by the danger, however, Korpel and de Moor not only hang considerable weight on the damaged KTU 1.107 but even claim that it is “likely that a third tablet preceded KTU 1.107,” which other sources allow us to infer “contained some kind of creation story ending in a rebellion of one of the gods which disturbed the cosmic order” (14).

Despite its fragmentary and partly hypothetical status, in Korpel and de Moor’s account the mythology recounted here has a truly impressive influence. They trace its enduring legacy to a wide range of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts, and they make use of even later Christian commentaries — so that the mythology of Ugarit is apparently holding sway over theological writings for centuries if not millennia.

This procedure is already questionable in itself, but my suspicions were redoubled when I realized that there is a very consistent pattern in the pay-off of this mysterious staying power of ancient Ugarit. Namely, it turns out that when we take these myths into account, traditional Christian doctrines on things like the fall of the devil, the creation, and the temptation of humanity — which scholars tend to dismiss as anachronistic impositions on the biblical text — suddenly appear much more credible.

A good example is the story of the fall of the devil, which nearly all scholars would argue does not appear in the Bible at all, but is instead a theological extrapolation that Christian thinkers retrospectively read into certain biblical passages. For Korpel and de Moor, by contrast, the Ugaritic evidence indicates that there were such stories floating around Canaan. Hence not only is it likely that the biblical authors actually had the fall of the devil in the back of their mind as they wrote or compiled their texts, but it is also probable, in Korpel and de Moor’s view, that precisely the passages that later theologians singled out as proof texts for the fall of the devil likely did contain echoes of the Ugaritic story. This is all a little too convenient, and all the more so when we realize that the Ugaritic parallel to the fall of the devil is contained in the purely hypothetical third tablet.

I must here admit that I am not a critical scholar of ancient Ugaritic literature, and so my critique of their reconstruction of the text should be taken with a grain of salt. Their overall approach, however, shares the same fundamental flaw as Almond’s: it is a purely literary account, wherein texts beget other texts in isolation from anything like real history. We get no sense of why the authors of the Hebrew Bible would pick up the mythology of Ugarit, nor indeed of why we should interpret their (purported) references to that mythology as a positive adaptation rather than a rebuke. Why should we presuppose that when they are silent on a point of the Ugaritic story, they are presupposing it rather than excluding it?

Nor is there any indication that the various world-historical events that take place during the centuries of Ugaritic influence — such as the Babylonian exile, the rise of apocalyptic thought, the birth of Christianity, or the advent of Islam — have any discernable influence on the chain of transmission for the myths contained in KTU 1.107, KTU 1.100, and their missing comrade. To return to the pop culture metaphor, it is as though these Ugaritic texts serve as a massive “retcon,” showing how the apparent contradictions between the Bible and the later theological tradition are actually not contradictions after all.

In short, though Almond wants to chart its demise and Korpel and de Moor want to shore up its credibility, both studies fundamentally treat the traditions surrounding the devil as a self-enclosed and self-referential “universe.” Within those limits, both texts are often informative and insightful, and yet they fail to answer the question toward which Almond gestures in his conclusion: why should we care?

Frans Floris, "The Fall of the Rebellious Angels," 1554. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Frans Floris, “The Fall of the Rebellious Angels,” 1554. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In my view, in order to figure out how the devil might speak to the modern era, we first need to think through how he spoke to people of past eras — the concrete circumstances and convictions, quandaries and catastrophes that made the development of this increasingly baroque theological system appear plausible and even urgent. If we cannot recapture the existential pull the devil exercised on previous generations, if we cannot reopen the questions to which the demonic was the most credible answer, then we are fundamentally doing nothing more than taking inventory of the documents of a dead world.