Book Review: The Devil: A New Biography

Review---The-DevilThe Devil: A New Biography

by Philip C. Almond

Cornell University Press | Amazon

Many thanks to the kind folks at Cornell University Press for this review copy!

The devil (or Devil if you prefer) is a common figure in modern Christianity. Though his presence in the Bible is comparatively minimal, he figures prominently in a few key points in the overarching narrative of Scripture. However, despite his minor role in the stories of Scripture, tradition and history have shaped and molded this antagonist into a creature quite different from his earliest portrayals (perhaps more so visually than anything). This evolution, we might say, is the object of Almond’s work. The subtitle, A New Biography, might suggest a totally new approach to understanding the devil or perhaps bringing to bear new research that yields new insights. Perhaps neither is purely presented in this volume, though that does not negate its usefulness in providing a valuable resource for those interested in the matter.

Almond claims that it was the story of Enoch’s watchers that birthed the notion of places beneath the earth as abodes for evil angels/demons (5). This conception of evil angels was nurtured by early Christian apologists and ultimately spawned the conception of the devil as a wholly evil being whose primary purpose was to thwart the work of God. Almond also suggests the book of Zechariah (composed around 500 BCE) is a turning point in the history of the Devil (18) and traces the origins of Jewish (and ultimately Christian) demonology to Second Temple Jewish works such as the books of Enoch and Jubilees. Almond provides a brief discussion of early Christian writers’ perpetration of the devil as Satan, Lucifer, etc., or the bad guy.

Almond essentially argues that the devil’s place in Christian thought was borne out of a commitment “to the doctrine of one God who primary attribute was goodness” and could not accept that there was an opposing principle of evil that had existed from eternity or that God himself had created a being who by nature was evil. Thus, Satan became the fall guy—the explanation for evil in the world (47). It seems as though the Devil has been mistreated throughout history, being blamed for many things that could ultimately be explained naturalistically or by other means.

Almond takes the reader down a long historical road, along the way demonstrating the ways in which the Devil had morphed from an anonymous though testy adversary in the pages of the Hebrew Bible to the outright malevolent enemy of God in the Christian church. Along the way the Devil is gradually depicted in more overt gestures of evil and wickedness and linked to all manner of demonic and ungodly practices, e.g., magic, witchcraft, sorcery, possession, etc. Despite centuries of debate and research concerning the nature and activity of the devil, ultimately, according to Almond, the devil was relegated to the domain of credulity and superstition (205).

This book is similar to volumes that survey a history of interpretation of a particular text, theological problem, etc., only this concerns the development of Satan from tester and adversary in the Hebrew Bible to the malevolent antichrist enemy of God of the early church and beyond. This book also achieves two ends that are too frequently mutually exclusive—useful information and entertainment. That is not to say that Almond sacrifices historical detail for anecdotal tidbits all for the sake of entertaining the reader, but one cannot help but come away with at least a grin after reading some of the ways in which previous generations attempted to understand and explain the role of the devil in various practices and beliefs. Perhaps it is too much of a gesture to suggest that Almond is intentionally being humorous; rather, it is the historical data that is simply humorous at points.

There was a current than ran beneath the entirety of this book, a current that seemed to feed the vegetation atop the soil—the devil was an invention, a means by which to explain evil and to account in some way for its origin and continued presence in the world. This will be the primary point of departure for readers who believe in the existence and activity of the devil, regardless of the extent. However, despite this, Almond never writes in such a way that is critical (in a negative sense) of or in any way derogatory of those who hold this belief.

In sum, Almond’s book is indeed helpful and useful and is quite a feat considering the amount of material available for study. Though one could levy the criticism that Almond is minimally selective in his choice of texts and their interpreters to analyze, he does well and tackles many of the important voices in this long-debated subject.

Errata were minimal, the only noticeable error being his use of ὁσατανᾶς instead of ὁ Σατανᾶς (23).

Αυτω η δοξα

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