Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots

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Overview

Of all the demons, monsters, fiends, and ogres to preoccupy the western imagination in literature, art, and film, no figure has been more feared--or misunderstood--than Satan. But how accurate are the popular images of Satan? How--and why--did this rather minor biblical character morph into the very embodiment of evil? T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley guide readers on a journey to retrace Satan's biblical roots. Engaging and informative, The Birth of Satan is a must read for anyone who has ever wondered about the origins of the Devil.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An informative study of the biblical origins of Satan…With resourceful though never excessive citation, Mobley and Wray make a good job of pinning down the roots of a notoriously protean character."--The Times Literary Supplement

"Let's admit it. Even in a secular age we are all still fascinated by Old Harry. Even though the devil appears only rarely in the Bible, he is a recurrent presence in the religious and literary imagination. Why? The authors skillfully and humorously trace the origin and history of Satan and explain why we would miss him if he were gone."--Harvey Cox, author of When Jesus Came to Harvard
 
"Making sense out of evil is part of humanity's endless quest to discover the meaning of life. This book illuminates that quest by tracing the history of Satan through the lens of the Judeo/Christian faith story. In an engaging manner, it forces us to realize that either by making Satan a literal being or by dismissing the devil as pre-modern mythology we are still shaped by its ever present shadow."--John Shelby Spong, author of The Sins of Scripture
 

"What a delightful recipe for an interesting and informative reading experience: an inherently interesting topic, sound scholarship, and an utterly engaging style sprinkled with humor! The end result is an engrossing journey through the diverse origins and complex development of the notion of Satan as arch-fiend, concluding with a thoughtful essay on the function and significance of devil-language in human experience. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the topic, about which both religious and non-religious folk tend to be oh, so knowledgeable, yet oh, so ignorant."--Russell Pregeant, Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Emeritus, Curry College, Visiting Professor in New Testament, Andover Newton Theological School
"As intriguing, complicated, and pervasive as the devil himself, this volume tells it all. Essentially a biblical tale, it locates the biblical stories in the tribal cultures from which they arose, intersecting them with classics of Western literature. It's a must read for those who are interested in, or troubled by, Satan."--Raymond F. Collins, Warren-Blanding Professor of Religion, Professor of New Testament, The Catholic University of America

Publishers Weekly
Where the devil did the devil come from? Wray, a Roman Catholic who teaches religious studies at Salve Regina University, and Mobley, a Protestant professor of Old Testament at Andover Newton Theological School, suggest that the early Hebrews struggled with the puzzle of a God who is the source of both good and evil. As Israel continued to evolve toward a clearer monotheism, it was considered prudent to cast off the negative characteristics of the one true God-which the authors call "repellant aspects of Yhwh")-and embody them in a personality who would become the biblical "Satan." Beginning with Genesis, the authors trace the development of "the devil" until he appears fully formed in the New Testament, where his role is "to serve as the cosmic scapegoat, saving God from blame for evil." Wray and Mobley pay particular attention to the beliefs of many of Israel's neighbors and their influence on her emerging faith in a cosmic evil being. Ultimately, they reject the concept of a personal Satan, but acknowledge its usefulness in dealing with the idea of evil. Written at a popular level, this book offers an interesting and challenging alternative to traditional beliefs. (Oct. 5) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781403969330
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2005
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.38 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

T. J. Wray is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Salve Regina University. She is the author of Surviving the Death of a Sibling and Grief Dreams. Gregory Mobley is Associate Professor, Andover Newton Theological School.

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Read an Excerpt

The Birth of Satan

Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots


By T.J. Wray, Gregory Mobley

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2005 T.J. Wray, Gregory Mobley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4039-6933-0



CHAPTER 1

the bible and other preliminaries

An apology for the Devil—it must be remembered that we have only heard one side of the case. God has written all the books.

—Samuel Butler


In the beginning (Gen 1:1; John 1:1), there was God: the creator of all things. For a brief moment in time (or before time) the world was utterly good, and evil was a concept that does not seem to have been part of the original divine plan. But by the third chapter of Genesis, temptation, sin, and punishment pollute the paradise created by God. A chapter later, the first murder, a fratricide (Gen 4:8), makes it clear that another force is at work in a world that is suddenly unpredictable, uncertain, and precarious. So begins the story of God, humans, and the ever-present struggle of good versus evil. And it is in the existential struggle of good versus evil that the embodiment of evil, a character named Satan, emerges.

Satan fell to earth from the pages of the Bible. Or, more precisely, Satan fell to earth from the religious imagination of the Jewish people in antiquity. Our best knowledge about ancient Jewish religious thought comes from the Bible, a collection of books that includes history, prophecies, poetry, legends, myths, letters, gospels, and other types of writings. Although the Bible is not our only source (we sometimes refer to literature from antiquity outside the Bible), the story of Satan, as written, begins with the Bible, first with its earliest Jewish edition and then its subsequent Christian editions. For that reason, we must begin our study with a brief introduction to the Bible, the single book most of us own but have likely never read.

We begin our investigation with a brief exploration of the world of the ancient Near East, the cradle of civilization that gave birth to the Bible—and to Satan.


The World of the Ancient Near East

The geographical, historical, cultural, economic, and political world of the ancient Near East serves as the backdrop for the Bible. Although this world is explored in greater detail as Satan's story begins to unfold in later chapters, it is important to have some basic understanding of the "setting" of the Bible. The geographical setting of the ancient Near East begins in Egypt and includes Israel, Syria, Arabia, modern-day Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and the fringe areas beyond these borders.

Various ethnic groups were scattered throughout this region, largely along the arc of the Fertile Crescent. The largest of these ethnic groups, of which the people of Israel were a part, was the Semites. The geographical location of Israel was both a blessing and a curse. Its location was part of a larger trade route, which facilitated the transmission of stories and ideas from other lands (the Bible contains numerous references to other cultures and foreign religious practices), but this location also made Israel vulnerable to attacks—not only from the powerful northern empires of Assyria and later, Babylonia, but also from the south (Egypt) and even from beyond Israel's shores (the so-called Sea Peoples, such as the Philistines, from whom we get the geographic term "Palestine") from the eastern Mediterranean.

When we discuss "biblical history," we usually are referring to the historical setting according to the biblical authors, which may not reflect our modern understanding of history. For example, the creation stories in Genesis assume that the world and the various forms of life (including humans) were created by God in a single week. Modern science, on the other hand, presents a gradual evolution of life, beginning with the creation of the earth roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Another difference between the view of history assumed in the Bible and our contemporary view is that, often, a biblical story may have begun as an oral tradition. Because the account was not written down until hundreds of years after the purported events, it is nearly impossible to be confident about the exact details of the story. Of course, the biblical writers were not interested in relating the sort of history found in modern textbooks. Theirs was a religious history that looked at life through the lens of their own particular religious community and place in time.

Certainly, the subject of "biblical history" versus "secular history" is part of an ongoing debate that will not be settled here. Scholars on all sides of the fence continue to argue fiercely and persuasively for one date or another regarding the composition of the books of the Bible, and it is hardly our intention to become the authoritative source when it comes to dating ancient manuscripts. Despite scientific advances in fields such as archeology, the truth is, that there is still a great deal we simply do not know about the world of the ancient Near East and the Bible.

What we do know for certain is that the Bible relates several pivotal events that seem to have shaped the consciousness and religious perspectives of the people of Israel. Very briefly, these events begin with the creation of the world and of humankind, as narrated in the first three chapters of Genesis. As part of the so-called primeval history that spans the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the creation stories are expressions of Israel's particular worldview. This worldview holds that God is the author of life, creator of everything, both human and nonhuman, and that the world and all of creation is good.

The call of Abraham, from his home in southern Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, where he would enter into a covenant with God with the divine promises of descendants and the land is the second major event in the Bible (Genesis 12). Although Abraham receives the promise of a long-awaited son, it is not until the book of Joshua that the people of Israel gain a relatively secure dwelling place in the Promised Land. A mere two generations after Abraham, his grandson Jacob (also known as Israel) will leave his famine-stricken Promised Land for Egypt, along with his twelve sons and their families.

The early portion of the book of Exodus details this period when Jacob/Israel's descendants lived in Egypt. Moses liberates the Israelites from slavery and leads them on a forty-year trek back to Canaan. Along the way, at the pilgrimage site of Mount Sinai, Moses receives the Torah, the "Teaching," the religious-legal code that binds the people of Israel to its God. So now we have the creation of the world and of a community ethic, and the Israelites living in the Promised Land. This seems like the end of the story—but the tale is only just beginning.

Little Israel grows up and becomes a nation in its own right. Israel demands from God a king, the greatest of whom is David, proclaimed in the Bible as God's unrivaled favorite against whom all other future kings are measured. The rise and fall of the monarchy (1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings) and the parade of mostly ineffectual kings is followed by the eventual loss of the land, first to the Assyrians, who attack the northern kingdom of Samaria in 721 B.C.E., and then to the Babylonians, who invade Judah to the south and capture Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

Both of these events are narrated in some detail in the Bible, but it is the Babylonian invasion under King Nebuchadnezzar (and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people to Babylon) that is considered perhaps the turning point in the growth of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, when we speak of the two general time periods in the Hebrew Bible, we usually refer to them as either "pre-exilic" or "postexilic." Although the Jewish exiles, under an edict of liberation from the Persian king, Cyrus, eventually return to the Promised Land, their problems are far from over.

The roughly two hundred years of rather benign Persian rule was followed by the Greek period (332–63 B.C.E.). Hellenistic culture was introduced and flourished in many parts of the Near East, including much of Palestine. Following the death of Alexander the Great, Judah was ruled by the despised Antiochus IV, a Syrian, whose violent persecutions of pious Jews is described in grisly detail in the books of 1–2 Maccabees, found in the Apocrypha. This persecution resulted in a revolt and a brief period of Jewish self-rule (142–63 B.C.E.).

In 63 B.C.E. Pompey and his Roman soldiers conquered Judea, absorbing the land as part of the Roman Empire for the next 130 years. Jesus of Nazareth would live and die under Roman rule, and eventually the Jews would rebel against the Romans. Sadly, this rebellion would result in the devastation of the Promised Land in 70 C.E.

The tumultuous world of the Bible is the world into which Satan is born. Let us now turn to the Bible and explore the pages that gave Satan life.


The Authorship of the Bible

The word "Bible" is an English spelling of the Greek word biblia, which means "little books." The name itself reminds us that what moderns know as the Bible, a single document contained between two covers, began as a collection of individual books, or scrolls, written over a long period of time by different authors. The original texts (of which there are no surviving copies) were usually written on a paper-like material called papyrus (made from the papyrus plant). The pages were wrapped around a short wooden pole to form a scroll. Unfortunately, papyrus is not a very durable material, so most ancient manuscripts have been lost in the sands of time.

The Bible is divided into two main sections. The first section (the larger of the two) is the Hebrew Bible (commonly called the "Old Testament" by Christians), and the second section (much smaller) is called the "New Testament" or the "Christian Testament." There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament and either thirty-nine (in the Jewish and Protestant Bible) or forty-six (Catholic editions) in the Hebrew Bible. Many translations of the Bible are currently in use, including the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV—the version used when citing biblical passages in this book), the King James Version (KJV), the New International Version (NIV), the Jerusalem Bible (JB) and the New American Bible (NAB), plus scores of others.

Several books of the Bible announce their primary author in their opening lines—Micah: "the word of the LORD that came to Micah," Galatians: "Paul ... to the churches of Galatia." Others do not—Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" (KJV); John: "In the beginning was the Word." The titles given to biblical books, such as 1 Samuel and the Gospel According to St. Mark, often suggest authors. But these titles were appended to the books after their composition. In fact, in the books of Samuel and Mark, there is no indication that they were written by the prophet or saint with whom the book has come to be associated.

The pious have always considered the contents of the Bible to have been inspired by God, but the cross-section of the inner workings of this divine-human collaboration between Author and secretary has been drawn in various ways. Among the pious and impious over the centuries, inquiring minds have demanded and produced a set of traditions about the authorship of every book of the Bible. According to tradition, Moses wrote "the Five Scrolls" (in Latin, Pentateuch; i.e., the Torah), David wrote most of the Psalms, Solomon wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and Paul wrote the Epistles. Historians, however, are not satisfied with these answers, and a vast scholarly enterprise, producing tomes of competing theories, has been devoted to naming "the real authors" of scripture. As the books themselves do not directly name their authors, and an unbiased reading tends to make the traditional answer suspicious (did Moses really write the account of his own death in Dt 34:5?), scholars have developed an alphabet soup-roster of hypothetical authors such as J, E, D, P, Dtr, and Q to refer to the actual authors of biblical books.

But we should keep in mind that ancient ascriptions of authorship were not designed to protect the intellectual property rights of poets and priests. They were designed to give the writing an air of antiquity and authority. And the older and more revered the author, the better. Thus the impulse to firmly associate texts with respected elders, as a way of expressing their significance, has guided the traditions that link the biblical books with the greatest names of biblical history.

Jewish and Christian traditions and scholarship provide varying answers, and sometimes the traditionalists in the choir and the scholars on the back pews harmonize: Paul did write Romans; Amos did speak many of the oracles contained in the book that bears his name. As much of the material now found in written form in the Bible was first recited and narrated in oral form, and passed on from generation to generation in a great chain of anonymous saints, we refer most often to "the Jewish community" or "the Christian community" that produced the various books of the Bible. And although the term "Bible" is commonly used to refer to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the truth is that there is more than one Bible.


The Bibles

The Jewish Bible is quite different in many ways from the Christian Bible. And even among Christians, different versions of the Bible are read by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. We are not talking here about the differences among translations of the Bible. The Bible continues to be translated and revised, and is available in hardcover or paperback, with or without pictures, maps, and marginal notes from televangelists who will send you one for free. We are talking about substantial differences in content and sequence of books between the Bibles treasured by Jews and Christians and among the various families within Christendom. Most of us know the Bible of our tribe. Regardless of whether we are Jewish or Christian, the fact remains that all Bibles derive from the Jewish Bible, which came into existence over the course of roughly a thousand years and grew incrementally over time. We cannot say with any certainty when the earliest Hebrew religious teachings, songs, prayers, ritual protocols, and stories were written, but by around 500 B.C.E., it is safe to say that there existed a set of scrolls known as the Torah ("the Law," or "Instruction"). Within another couple of centuries, the Prophets section (in Hebrew, Nevi'im) had coalesced into something approximating the prophetic books we know today. A final section, the Writings (or Ketuvim), anchored by the Psalms, emerged in the final centuries before the common era.

So by that odd measure of year 1 of the common era, with our fingers crossed, we can say that the Jewish scriptures existed in three sections: Law, Prophets, and Writings. In Hebrew, these terms are, respectively Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim, and Jews often use the resulting acronym TaNaK (Tanach or Tanakh) to refer to their scriptures.

The Bible, at this point around the turn of the common era, was not a book but a filing cabinet of the various scrolls on which each individual book was scripted. Virtually every line of these scrolls was written in the Hebrew language, but portions of two scrolls, Daniel and Ezra, were written in Aramaic, the language that served as the lingua franca of the Persian Empire (540–330 B.C.E.), which encompassed Jewish communities in Persia, Babylon, and Judah. Aramaic was also the spoken language of Jesus. Thus, here is another complicating fact: This Jewish Bible, which we will refer to as the "Hebrew" Bible, was not written solely in Hebrew, but in Aramaic as well.

The most important intellectual centers of Jewish life in the final centuries before the common era were in Babylon and Israel (known under Roman occupation as Palestine). The manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible we now possess—handed down, copied, lost, decayed, recopied, and transmitted over the centuries—stem from ancient Jewish scribes in Babylon and Israel. The version of the Jewish Bible written in Hebrew and Aramaic is called the Masoretic Text (MT), in honor of the Masoretes ("transmitters"), the class of scribes who, over centuries, preserved the Hebrew Bible and ensured its safe passage from the ancient world into our own.

The Egyptian city of Alexandria was another important center of Jewish learning in the ancient world. Between 300 and 100 B.C.E., the Jewish community in Alexandria translated its collection of scriptural scrolls into Greek. This edition of the Bible, Jewish in origin but later adopted by Greek-speaking Christians, was called the Septuagint ("The Seventy," often abbreviated in Roman numerals as LXX), after a tradition that seventy-two Jewish scribes, working in isolation for seventy-two days, providentially emerged from their labors with identical versions of the scrolls on which they were working.

The most germane feature of this Greek version of the Jewish Bible is that it is not identical to the Masoretic Text, which came to be the standard among Jews. The Septuagint contains extra portions of some biblical books—Daniel, Esther, the Psalms—and another set of Jewish religious texts, whether translated from lost Hebrew originals or originally composed in Greek. These books include 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, and Wisdom (not Song) of Solomon, among others.

As we move now from an overview of the Jewish Bible to the various Christian Bibles, the status of these additional writings—the books in the Jewish Bible produced in Alexandria (the Septuagint) but missing in the Palestinian and Babylonian canons—will become crucial. The differences among the canons of each respective family within Christendom—Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches—all stem from their acceptance or rejection of these writings that were part of the Septuagint but not part of the Masoretic canon.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Birth of Satan by T.J. Wray, Gregory Mobley. Copyright © 2005 T.J. Wray, Gregory Mobley. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The Bible and Other Preliminaries
• Unsystematic Theology: The Nature of God in the Hebrew Bible
• The Devil Is in the Details: Satan in the Hebrew Bible
• The Influence of Israel's Neighbors on the Development of Satan
• Satan between the Testaments
• Satan in the New Testament
• Why Satan Matters

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2005

    THE book on Satan is out!

    This is an absolute triumph of a book, the one I¿ve been wanting to read for a long, long time. The Devil has made, for over 2000 years, a good story, and this book tells us why. Using the tools of religion, history, theology, and culture, authors Wray and Mobley offer the general and religious reader alike a conceptually fresh, extremely well-written, and relatively short history of the role Satan has played. This playground includes our literature, religious imaginations, everyday conversations, and religious literature. The strengths of this book include: 1) Mobley is a gifted Hebrew Bible scholar who understands the pre-Christian world, including its manifold non-biblical writings that held traction in this world. With his co-author this book makes the case that there have been many two-bit ideas of Satan through the years, mostly inchoate and undeveloped (and not that powerful), until a largely single image of the High King of Hell emerges in early Christianity. 2) Powerful summaries throughout the chapters, culminating in a final chapter that is a rare tour de force in synthesis, breadth of insight ¿ and brevity. In that chapter, the reader will get a well-developed job description for Satan. 3) The reader will be invited to think deeply about monotheism, and how that very enticing theological position may have itself led to the birth of Satan as an unintended consequence. The thoughtful reader should anticipate the authors¿ examination of the more peculiar and distasteful aspects the Bible and God. 4) Conceptually fresh imagery. Chapter Two¿s introduction of God as ¿Godfather¿ is a strikingly unique way the authors get the readers to understand God as the early Jews may have. This is just one of scores of helpful images. The authors have made in this short book a landmark contribution to popular understanding about the many factors that contributed to Satan¿s metamorphosis from a third-rank adversary or stumbling block in the Hebrew scriptures to the Titan of Evil in the Christian era. This kind of intelligence is critical in our times.

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