Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels, née Hiesey, (born February 13, 1943), is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she is best known for her studies and writing on the Gnostic Gospels.


Pagels was born in California, graduated from Stanford University (B.A. 1964, M.A. 1965) and, after briefly studying dance at Martha Graham's studio, began studying for her Ph.D. at Harvard University as a student of Helmut Koester. She married theoretical physicist Heinz Pagels in 1969. At Harvard, she was part of a team studying the Nag Hammadi library manuscripts. Upon finishing her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970, she joined the faculty at Barnard College, where she headed the department of religion from 1974 until she moved to Princeton in 1982.

Academic Work

In 1975, after studying the Pauline Epistles and comparing them to Gnosticism and the early Church, Pagels wrote the book "The Gnostic Paul". This book expounds the theory that Paul of Tarsus was a source for Gnosticism whose influence on the direction of the early Christian church was great enough to inspire the creation of pseudonymous writings such as the Pastoral Epistles (1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus), in order to make it appear as if Paul was anti-Gnostic.

Pagels' study of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts was the basis for "The Gnostic Gospels" (1979), a popular introduction to the Nag Hammadi library. The bestselling book won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award and was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of the twentieth century. In a different measure of its influence, the conservative Christian Intercollegiate Studies Institute listed it as one of the 50 Worst Books of the Twentieth Century ["The Fifty Worst (and Best)Books of the Century," "The Intercollegiate Review" (Fall 1999), pp. 3-13, [http://www.mmisi.org/ir/35_01/50worst.pdf] .] .

She follows the well-known thesis that Walter Bauer first put forth in 1934 and argues that the Christian church was founded in a society espousing a number of contradictory viewpoints. Gnosticism as a movement was not very coherent and there were several areas of disagreement among different factions. According to Pagels, Gnosticism attracted women in particular because of its egalitarian perspective, which allowed their participation in sacred rites.

In 1982, Pagels joined Princeton University as a professor of early Christian history. Aided by a MacArthur fellowship (1980–85), she researched and wrote "Adam, Eve, and the Serpent", which examines the creation myth and its role in the development of sexual attitudes in the Christian West. In both "The Gnostic Gospels" and "Adam, Eve, and the Serpent", Pagels focuses especially on the way that women have been viewed throughout Christian history.

In April 1987, Pagels' son Mark died after five years of illness, and in July 1988 her husband Heinz Pagels died in a mountain climbing accident. These personal tragedies deepened her spiritual awareness and led Pagels to begin the research leading to "The Origin of Satan". This book argues that the figure of Satan became a way for orthodox Christians to demonize their religious opponents, namely, other Christian sects and Jews.

Her "New York Times" bestseller, "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas" (2003), focuses on religious claims to possessing the ultimate truth. In it, Pagels contrasts the Gospel of Thomas with the Gospel of John, and argues that a close reading of the works shows that while the Gospel of John emphasizes that Jesus is the "light of the world", the Gospel of Thomas teaches individuals that "there is a light within each person, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness." On Pagels' interpretation, the Gospel of Thomas reveals, along with other secret teachings, that Jesus was not God but rather a teacher who sought to uncover the divine light in all human beings. Pagels argues that the Gospel of John was written as a reaction and rebuttal to the Gospel of Thomas. She bases this conclusion on her observation that, in the Gospel of John, the apostle Thomas is portrayed as a disciple of little faith who cannot believe without seeing and, moreover, that the Gospel of John places a very strong emphasis on accepting Jesus as the center of belief, which Pagels views as a hallmark of early orthodoxy. "Beyond Belief" also includes Pagels' personal exploration of the meaning of loss and tragedy.


Pagels' work has been the subject of a good deal of controversy. With regard to Pagels' conclusions about the Gospel of Thomas, the most frequent and fundamental criticism comes from scholars of the New Testament and first century (such as Richard B. Hays and N.T. Wright ) who conclude that the Gospel of Thomas is, in fact, a second century Gnostic text which uses the already extant tradition of the synoptic, canonical Gospels. [Richard B. Hays, "The Moral Vision of the New Testament" (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 162.] Key to this critique are the observations that the Gospel of Thomas is unlike the other texts with which Pagels wishes to consider it and that its symbols and worldview are radically different from contemporary Jewish and Christian accounts; hence, critics of Pagels argue that the Gospel of Thomas is most likely a significant "translation" or "subversion" of typical first century Christianity rather than an accurate representation of it. Thus, these scholars challenge Pagels' claim that the Gospel of Thomas deserves equal value to the canonical Gospels as a historical document about the development of Christianity during its earliest years. [N.T. Wright, "The New Testament and the People of God" ( Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pp. 427-443; esp. 442-43.] In so doing, they also undermine Pagels' argument that the Gospel of John was written in response to the Gospel of Thomas.

Recently, Anglican Rector Bruce Chilton wrote an article critiquing Pagels' work on "The Gnostic Gospels" for "The New York Sun". [Bruce Chilton, "The Gospel According To Pagels," "The New York Sun" (April 2, 2008), [http://www2.nysun.com/article/74033] .] In this article, Chilton argues that Pagels' conclusions are flawed because she "does not mention crucial evidence concerning Gnostics and Catholics, and distorts what she does mention." ["Ibid."] Moreover, he decries Pagels' heavy-handed attempts to make Gnosticism relevant for the contemporary world, writing that Pagels' "anachronisms have undermined public understanding of early Christianity." ["Ibid."] Chilton's ultimate recommendation is that we no longer use "The Gnostic Gospels", since it is, quite simply, bad history: "Gnosticism is a deeper and darker force than the revisionist scenario that makes it the prop of modern liberalism. After 30 years, it is time to move beyond the anachronism of "The Gnostic Gospels." ["Ibid."]

Pagels' work on the question of evil in "The Origin of Satan" has also been thoroughly critiqued. Jeffrey Burton Russell, for one, has attacked Pagels' book as unoriginal: "It is characteristic of this book that the author repeatedly presents hoary ideas as if she herself (or very recent scholarship) had just discovered them." [Jeffrey Burton Russell, "Getting Satan Behind Us," "First Things" (November 1995), [http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=4108] .] Russell also argues that "The Origin of Satan" is primarily an exercise in projecting Pagels' own beliefs and positions onto the past, writing that "Pagels joins those who want to save [Christianity] by remaking it in their own image and likeness." ["Ibid."]

All the criticism, however, has not diminished Pagels' currency in the popular market or in scholarly circles sympathetic to her historical and theological conclusions. [Cf. "The Mystery Of Christmas," "CBS News" (Dec. 25, 2007, originally aired on Dec. 20, 2005), [http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/12/19/48hours/main1135330.shtml] ; "Gospel of Judas; New Biblical Finding," "ABC News Transcripts" (April 6, 2006), [http://www.religionandpluralism.org/MediaSummary/PDFs/April1April302007/PagelsAndKing/GOSPELOFJUDASFINDING040607.pdf] ] Indeed, she is often lauded for the accessibility of her prose, as well as for her ability to make early Christian history interesting for non-specialists.


In addition to the MacArthur award, Professor Pagels is also a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and Rockefeller fellowships.


* "Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John" (1973), Society of Biblical Literature, 132 p. 1989 edition: ISBN 1-555-40334-4
* "" (1975), Fortress Press, ISBN 0-8006-0403-2
* "The Gnostic Gospels" (1979), Vintage Books, 182 p., ISBN 0-679-72453-2
* "Adam, Eve and the Serpent" (1988), Vintage Books, 189 p., ISBN 0-679-72232-7
* "The Origin of Satan" (1995), Vintage Books, 214 p., ISBN 0-679-73118-0
* "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas" (2003), Vintage Books, 241p., ISBN 0-375-50156-8
* "Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity" together with Karen L. King, (2007), Viking Press, 224 p., ISBN 0670038458


External links

*Elaine Pagels' Princeton University Department of Religion [http://www.princeton.edu/religion/people/display_person.xml?netid=epagels faculty page] .
*Diane Rogers, " [http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2004/janfeb/features/pagels.html The Gospel Truth] ," "Stanford Magazine" (January/February, 2004). - A profile of Elaine Pagels in the Stanford alumni magazine.
*" [http://www.beliefnet.com/story/128/story_12865_1.html Matthew, Mark, Luke and... Thomas?: What would Christianity be like if gnostic texts had made it into the Bible?] ," "Beliefnet". - An interview with Pagels by Laura Sheahen.
*" [http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pagels03/pagels_index.html The Politics of Christianity] ", "Edge.org". - A talk by Pagels exploring some of the political issues raised by her work.

=Positive Reviews=
*Frank Thomas Smith, " [http://southerncrossreview.org/2/gnostic.html Book Review: "The Gnostic Gospels"] ," "Southern Cross Review", Issue 2.
*Frank Thomas Smith, " [http://southerncrossreview.org/14/pagels.htm Book Review: "Adam, Eve, and the Serpent"] ," "Southern Cross Review", Issue 14.
*Frank Thomas Smith, " [http://southerncrossreview.org/29/pagels.htm Book Review: "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas"] ," "Southern Cross Review", Issue 29.
*Allen D. Callahan, " [http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week712/review.html Book Review: "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas"] ," "PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly", Episode 712 (November 21, 2003).

Negative Reviews

*Bruce Chilton, " [http://www2.nysun.com/article/74033 The Gospel According To Pagels] ," "The New York Sun" (April 2, 2008).
*Jeffrey Burton Russell, " [http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=4108 Getting Satan Behind Us] ," "First Things" (November 1995).
*Matthew Gross, " [http://reformedperspectives.org/newfiles/mat_gross/NT.Gross.Matthew_BeyondBeliefbyElainePagels.html Beyond Unbelief: A Critical Response to Elaine Pagels’ "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas"] ," "Reformed Perspectives Magazine", Volume 6, Number 16 (May 19-May 25, 2004).
*Paul Mankowski, S.J., " [http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=43736 The Pagels Imposture] ," "Catholic World News" (Apr. 26, 2006).

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