Authors: Elaine Pagels

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian

Identity: Christian

Author Works


The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon’s Commentary on John, 1973

The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, 1975

The Gnostic Gospels, 1979

The Gnostic Jesus and Early Christian Politics, 1981

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, 1988

The Origin of Satan, 1995


The educator and historian of religion Elaine Pagels (PAY-guhls) is the daughter of William McKinley Hiesey, a research plant biologist, and Louise Sophia Van Druten. To the astonishment of her politically liberal, Protestant nonchurchgoing parents, she joined an evangelical church at the age of thirteen; she abandoned it a year later when she found it separated her from the people she loved. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, she was attracted to the study of Greek, the language of the New Testament, and she read Homer and Pindar and became fascinated with the way Christianity became the symbolic focus for millions of people over the course of a few thousand years. She received her B.A. from Stanford in 1964 and her M.A. from the same school in 1965. After a brief time studying modern dance at the Martha Graham studio in New York City, Pagels entered the doctoral program in the department of religion at Harvard University in a program in the history of religion directed by Krister Stendahl. She believed that religion would hold her attention for a lifetime because it involved politics, art, history, anthropology, imagination, and fantasy. She hoped to uncover a “real Christianity” unpolluted by history or ideology through objective scholarship. Her professors at Harvard introduced her to the Gnostic codices that had been discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These fifty-two early Christian alternative texts were written about 600 c.e. in Coptic, an Afro-Asiatic language descended from ancient Egyptian and related to the Monophysite Christian church. The documents suggest that the Christian church was more diversified during its first two centuries than it is in the twenty-first century. Pagels’s doctoral dissertation, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis, addressed the controversy between Gnosticism and orthodoxy in early Christianity and was published in 1973. She married Heinz R. Pagels, a theoretical physicist, on June 7, 1969, and received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970.{$I[AN]9810001701}{$I[A]Pagels, Elaine}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Pagels, Elaine}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Pagels, Elaine}{$I[tim]1943;Pagels, Elaine}{$I[geo]CHRISTIAN;Pagels, Elaine}

Pagels began teaching religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, in 1970. In 1981, she was named Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1973, a Mellon Fellowship from the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies in 1974, a Hazen Fellowship in 1975, a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1978, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979, and the MacArthur Prize Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, in 1981.

In 1987, Pagels and her husband Heinz suffered the loss of their six-year-old son, Mark, to a rare lung disease. Fifteen months later, Heinz Pagels fell to his death while hiking in Aspen, Colorado. Elaine Pagels was left to raise their two remaining children, both adopted and under three. In 1995 Pagels married Kent Greenawalt, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia University, in a ritual of her own conducted in an Episcopalian church in Princeton, New Jersey. After the death of her first husband, Pagels began to reflect on the ways in which an invisible presence, like a missing loved one, can take hold on the grieving mind. She also became interested in intra-Jewish conflict and the early Christian church. Her experience with the Christian Easter liturgy, where candles in a menorah are blown out and candles flanking the altar are lit, disturbed her with the implication that there was no revelation acknowledged by Christianity in the Jewish tradition.

Pagels centered her 1995 work, The Origin of Satan, on how in the first three centuries c.e. Christians defamed rival or hostile groups by labeling them as servants or worshippers of Satan. Pagels argues that the capacity for evil goes back culturally to the Jewish teaching that every person has within her or him both an evil impulse and a good impulse. She is not convinced by the doctrine of Original Sin. Rather, she felt drawn to the gnostic “Gospel of Philip” with its emphasis on the individual’s capacity for evil. In her opinion, Christianity and the Christian tradition suppress people’s awareness of their own greed, rage, fear, and violence.

Pagels believes that when Christianity suppressed the gnostics “who thought of themselves as Christians,” it cut much of the heart out of the Christian movement. What remained were sets of dogmas and beliefs, some extraordinary stories and writings, and sufficient clues and relics of religious experience to have sustained millions of people for centuries. What was lost, however, was beautiful and useful. The original gnostic texts showed how the architecture of the Western cultural mind was constructed and what the limitations of that dominant structure are.

BibliographyColby, Vineta, ed. “Elaine Pagels.” In World Authors, 1985-1990. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1995. Includes basic biographical facts.Coughlin, Ellen K. “Wrestling with the Idea of Satan.” Chronicle of Higher Education 41, no. 44 (July 14, 1995): A6. Includes basic biographical facts as well as a discussion of The Origin of Satan.Demnick, David. “The Devil Problem.” The New Yorker 71, no. 6 (April 3, 1995): 54. Includes basic biographical facts and a look at The Origin of Satan in the light of the deaths of her husband and son.Ludwig, Eugene Michael. Working in the Intersection: Elaine Pagels as Historian. Berkeley, Calif.: Berkeley, 1998. Part of the Pacific Coast Theological Society Papers series. This pamphlet addresses Pagels’s scholarly work.McVey, Kathleen. “Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels.” Theology Today 37, no. 4 (January, 1981): 498-501. The author explores Pagels’s thought and issues of feminism in The Gnostic Gospels.Moyers, Bill. A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women About American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future. Edited by Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Includes a conversation with Pagels and covers some basic biographical facts.Pagels, Elaine. “The Divine Intercourse.” Interview by Andrew Solomon. Interview 25, no. 12 (December, 1995): 118. Pagels discusses demonization, personal evil, her books The Origin of Satan and The Gnostic Gospels, and religion.Pagels, Elaine. “No Sympathy for the Devil.” Interview by Jenny Schuessler. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 31 (July 31, 1995): 59. Pagels discusses the history of Christian anti-Semitism and her religious upbringing.
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