Henry ANSGAR KELLY, Satan: A Biography. Cambridge University Press, 2006. pp. xiii + 360, $19.99 pb ISBN 0-521-60402-8.
Reviewed by Charlene P. E. BURNS, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI 54701

This entertaining “biography” is written by retired UCLA professor of English, Henry A. Kelly, who has published previously on the history of the Devil. Kelly is clearly conversant with writings of the ancient world, and brings his expertise to bear on the evolution of Satan as a figure in Christian writings. In this work, Kelly’s intent is to “set the record straight, detailing what is in the Bible, and what is not(1),” because “tradition has trumped scripture (5).” The Original Biography as found, Kelly claims, in the Bible, portrays Satan as a “functionary of the Divine Government” whose job is “Chief Tester and Accuser (7-8)”. Satan’s image “deteriorates” beginning in the 3rd Century C.E. with Origen of Alexandria’s theological portrayal of the Devil as God’s enemy. This is not a new claim, but perhaps for some his framing the question in terms of tradition having “slandered” Satan would be a new slant.

Problematic aspects are several. He assumes on one hand, a ‘scripture only’ position which seems to eliminate interpretation, and on the other, a dismissive attitude toward Jesus and Paul, who have, he says, “a decided bias against Satan”! Apparently, the only valid portion of scripture in this view is found in the Hebrew Bible/”Old Testament” for Kelly. Another issue, problematic for anyone who might want to use the book in teaching the history of Satan, is his tendency to make claims without attribution. One example is his statement that Prisca is “one of the suggested authors” of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, for which he cites only Acts 18:2-3 as his source (126). This claim about female authorship was first set out by A. von Harnack at the turn of the 20th century and revived in 1997 by a freelance writer named Ruth Hoppin. The passage in Acts to which he refers says nothing about Prisca in relation to Hebrews, and in fact, scholarly opinion now tends toward agnosticism regarding authorship, and assigns it a fairly late date of 80-100 CE.

Although Kelly does provide an interesting overview of the history of teachings about Satan his effort to “reconstitute the Original Biography of Satan” contained in Christian scripture and “show how it was replaced by the New Biography (327)” is, in the end not especially successful. He at times conflates developments traceable in the New Testament with the Patristic period, and moves between non-canonical writings, the Bible, and even the Quran in ways that are likely to be confusing to many readers. Persons interested in the evolution of Satan would be better served sticking with Jeffrey Burton Russell’s masterful volumes on the topic.


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