Pagels, Elaine Hiesey 1943–

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Pagels, Elaine Hiesey 1943–

(Elaine Pagels)

PERSONAL: Born February 13, 1943, in Palo Alto, CA; daughter of William McKinley (a research biologist) and Louise Sophia (van Druten) Hiesey; married Heinz R. Pagels (a theoretical physicist), June 7, 1969 (died July 24, 1988); married Kent Greenawalt (a law professor), June, 1995; children: (first marriage) Mark (died, 1987), Sarah Marie, David van Druten. Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1964, M.A., 1965; Harvard University, Ph.D., 1970. Religion: Episcopalian.

ADDRESSES: Home—27 West 87th St., New York, NY 10024. Office—Department of Religion, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544. Agent—John Brockman Associates, Inc., 2307 Broadway, New York, NY 10024. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Barnard College, New York City, assistant professor, 1970–74, associate professor, professor of history of religion and head of department, 1974–82; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion, 1982–. Also taught at Columbia University, New York, NY; danced briefly with the Martha Graham Company.

MEMBER: Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, Biblical Theologians Club.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1972–73; Mellon fellow, Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, 1974; Hazen fellow, 1975; Rockefeller fellow, 1978–79; National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, 1979, and National Book Award, 1980, for The Gnostic Gospels; Guggenheim fellow, 1979–80; MacArthur Prize fellow, 1981–87.


The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John, Abingdon (Nashville, TN), 1973.

The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, Fortress (Philadelphia, PA), 1975.

(Member of editorial and translation board) The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper (New York, NY), 1978.

The Gnostic Gospels, Random House (New York, NY), 1979.

The Gnostic Jesus and Early Christian Politics, Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ), 1981.

Adam, Eve and the Serpent, Random House (New York, NY), 1988.

The Origin of Satan: The New Testament Origins of Christianity's Demonization of Jews, Pagans & Heretics, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to Nag Hammadi Codex III, 5: The Dialogue of the Savior, Brill (Leiden), 1984. Contributor to Harvard Theological Review and other journals.

ADAPTATIONS: Beyond Belief has been adapted as an audio book, Random House, 2003.

SIDELIGHTS: In 1945, an Egyptian farmer near the town of Nag Hammadi came upon a cache of fifty-two ancient scrolls. Examination by scholars in Cairo showed the scrolls to contain writings by the gnostics, an early heretical sect of Christians. It is surmised that the scrolls, written in the Coptic language, were hidden during the first or second century A.D. to prevent their destruction by the orthodox church as heretical texts. Because the find is one of the few examples of gnostic writing to have survived, it has been compared in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls. An international team of scholars, including Elaine Hiesey Pagels, was established to study and translate the writings, which were published in 1978 as The Nag Hammadi Library in English. After this publication, Pagels decided to write a popular account of the scrolls to make the gnostic beliefs—often expressed in obscure, mystical language—more easily accessible to a general audience. Her book The Gnostic Gospels, which won the 1980 National Book Award, examines and explains some of the heretical beliefs of the gnostic sect and tells the story of its losing struggle against the orthodox Christian church.

Despite theological differences, Pagels contends that the primary dispute between the gnostics and the orthodox church, and why the gnostics were finally branded as heretics, centered on a political difference. She points out that gnostic church structure was non-hierarchical, democratic, and allowed for the ordination of both men and women into the priesthood. In practice, by empha-sizing the individual's relationship with God, the gnostics made any type of church organization virtually irrelevant to spiritual salvation. Gnostic claims of continuing contact with Christ and the apostles disputed the divine authority of the orthodox church and the exclusive validity of its scriptures. The gnostics' rejection of Christ's literal death and resurrection made them unwilling to die as martyrs for the faith, since they saw such a course as unnecessarily extreme. Orthodox believers, on the other hand, considering Christ's death an example to follow, thought the gnostic position insubordinate and cowardly. In a Publishers Weekly interview with Jenny Schuessle, Pagels, explained: "Heresy turns out to be a lot of ideas not helpful in building an orthodox religion. That's really it. If you are constructing an institutional church, there are certain things you don't want Jesus to have said."

Critical reaction to The Gnostic Gospels was mixed. John Leonard, writing in the New York Times, found that Pagels' reader is "made to listen to everybody who went sun-crazed out into the Middle Eastern desert and became prophetic." Raymond E. Brown of the New York Times Book Review argued that "from [the Nag Hammadi scrolls] we learn not a single verifiable new fact about Jesus' ministry, and only a few new sayings that might plausibly have been his. Professor Pagels recognizes this, for she does use the Coptic works correctly, not to describe Jesus but to describe the struggle within early Christianity."

According to the Times Literary Supplement reviewer Henry Chadwick, part of Pagels' intent in writing The Gnostic Gospels was to undermine what she sees as the Christian tradition's discrimination against women. Pagels "approaches gnosticism with very contemporary expectations: notably the hope that in these gnostic documents suppressed by ancient authority we may find an alternative Christianity sympathetic to Eastern and individualist mysticism, unencumbered by historical and miraculous events, emancipated if not from clergymen, at least from the notion that holy orders ought to be a male preserve." Christopher Stead remarked in the Chicago Tribune that Pagels' "picture of the Gnostic movement in the early Church is reliable provided always one remembers that it was a minority movement. From the start [Gnosticism] showed features which made for disunion and disintegration." Stead also noted: "Pagels gives us a fascinating picture of early Christian deviationists." Unlike the activist exponents of gnosticism today, the early gnostics were "mystics, symbolists, quietists … who could not have dominated the world of antiquity," commented Stead. For all that Pagels' exegesis may or may not do or be, declared Harold Bloom in the Washington Post Book World, it is "always readable, always deeply informed, always richly suggestive of pathways her readers may wish to follow out for themselves."

Pagels continues to pursue the question of the beliefs of the early Christian church in Adam, Eve and the Serpent and The Origin of Satan: The New Testament Origins of Christianity's Demonization of Jews, Pagans & Heretics. Both works look at the ways in which central beliefs of the Christian Church about sexuality and evil evolved from differing traditions within Christianity. In Adam, Eve and the Serpent, for instance, Pagels has tried to "find out how traditional patterns of gender and sexuality arose and how the idea of original sin came to be connected with state power," explained New York Review of Books contributor W.H.C. Frend. "How was it that Christianity, which owes so much to Judaism, diverged so strongly from the culture of the Hebrews, to whom procreation and the family stood at the center of its existence?" According to James Hitchcock in the National Review, the author "argues that the earliest Christian ideas about sexuality, freedom, and sin have come down to us today only by way of a fair amount of manhandling." The author traces many of these ideas to Church fathers who lived long after the time of Jesus Christ, including Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, Tertullian, and Saints Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine. "In our terms," wrote Thomas D'Evelyn in the Christian Science Monitor, "Chrysostom and Pelagius were liberal: They argued for more moderation, some autonomy, freedom of will, and choice—for Christian liberty. On the strength of Augustinian counterargument, both were exiled as heretics." "The author," noted Frend, "has written a scholarly and challenging work to be set alongside her work on the Gnostic Gospels."

The Origin of Satan was completed after a period of great personal tragedy for Pagels. In 1987, she lost her eldest son, Mark, to a respiratory birth defect. Her husband Heinz died one year later. "The Origin of Satan begins with a nakedly personal moment," commented New Yorker contributor David Remnick, "a hint of the way Pagels transformed pain into scholarship: 'In 1988, when my husband of twenty years died in a hiking accident, I became aware that, like many people who grieve, I was living in the presence of an invisible being—living, that is, with a vivid sense of someone who had died.'" Remnick continuted, noting that after the deaths of her son and her husband, Pagels "wondered how people dealt with catastrophe, where they focussed their anger. 'For people more religious—well, some might get angry at God, but that made no sense to me,' she said. 'In the ancient Church, they got mad at Satan. That seemed to make more sense. And so I had to ask, What is Satan? What's the Devil?'"

The Origin of Satan traces the evolution of a Jewish angel from God's prosecuting attorney to an antagonist of the Almighty himself. Pagels suggests that the character of the Devil was an important uniting factor in the development of Christianity. Nation contributor Mary Gordon explained: "If the leader of your movement has been ignominiously murdered, Pagels suggests, it is helpful to believe that what seems to be disastrous is in fact chimerical; that the real battle is invisible and has, in fact, already been won." The concept of an evil entity opposed to God (and therefore the Christian community) proved to be a unifying force among the persecuted Christians, allowing them to identify their enemies—first Jews and Romans, then other pagans, and finally their fellow Christians—with the forces of evil and darkness. "In this early and extreme polarization, Pagels contends, sectarian movements came to identify themselves in their siege mentality as 'the good ones' and the others as 'the bad ones,' indeed the 'evil ones,'" wrote Brent D. Shaw in the New Republic. "Thus, in her view, began the tragic demonization of 'the other' that was to have such catastrophic effects in Western history." Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, found that some of Pagel's "interpretations of specific biblical passages are highly debatable," but he concluded that The Origin of Satan makes "familiar concepts disturbingly fresh and provocative."

In her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Pagels offers, as noted by Library Journal contributor Sandra Collins, an "historical reinterpretation of John's gospel" as the author focuses on the inherent conflicts between this gospel and the Gnostic gospel of Thomas. Writing in Books & Culture, Frederica Mathews-Green noted: "I can't be the only Christian reading Beyond Belief … and thinking, 'What's so heretical about this?'" Calling the book "majestic," a Publishers Weekly contributor concluded that it was "exhilarating reading." Ilene Cooper, writing in Booklist, called the book "a fresh and exciting work of theology and spirituality." A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that the author "ventures alternative and sometimes novel readings of biblical history."



Encyclopedia of World Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Newsmakers 1997, Issue 4, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.


Atlantic, February, 1980, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 95.

Booklist, January 1, 1980, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 639; May 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, p. 1556.

Books & Culture, November-December, 2003, Frederica Mathewes-Green, review of Beyond Belief, p. 22.

Books of the Times, January, 1980, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 20.

Catholic Insight, November, 2004, Leonard A. Kennedy, review of Beyond Belief, p. 44.

Catholic New Times, October 19, 2003, Gwen Nowak, review of Beyond Belief, p. 18.

Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1980, Christopher Stead, review of The Gnostic Gospels.

Christian Century, June 9, 1976, review of The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, p. 78.

Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1979, B. Cobbey Crisler, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. B6; September 14, 1988, Thomas D'Evelyn, review of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, p. 18.

Commonweal, November 9, 1979, Pheme Perkins, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 634.

Critic, February 15, 1980, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 2.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2003, review of Beyond Belief, p. 290.

Library Journal, June 15, 1988, Cynthia Widmer, review of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, p. 63; June 1, 1995, Sandra Collins, review of The Origin of Satan: The New Testament Origins of Christianity's Demonization of Jews, Pagans & Heretics, p. 123; April 1, 2003, Sandra Collins, review of Beyond Belief, p. 106.

Ms., April, 1980, Kenneth Pitchford, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 32.

Nation, June 26, 1995, Mary Gordon, review of The Origin of Satan, pp. 931-933.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004, Chris Herlinger, "Scholar Stirs Controversy with Views on Early Christian Development," p. 9.

National Review, November 7, 1988, James Hitchcock, review of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, pp. 63-65.

New Republic, July 10, 1995, Brent D. Shaw, review of The Origin of Stan, p. 30.

New Statesman & Society, April 20, 1990, Jenny Turner, review of Adam, Eve and the Serpent, p. 37.

New Yorker, January 21, 1980, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 95; April 3, 1995, David Remnick, review of The Origins of Satan, pp. 54-65.

New York Review of Books, June 30, 1988, W.H.C. Frend, review of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, pp. 27-30.

New York Times, December 14, 1979, John Leonard, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. C29; June 15, 1995, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Origin of Satan, p. C18.

New York Times Book Review, January 20, 1980, Raymond E. Brown, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 3; August 21, 1988, Robin Lane Fox, review of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, pp. 15-16; June 18, 1995, Leslie Houlden, review of The Origin of Satan, pp. 9-10.

Publishers Weekly, October 15, 1979, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 58; July 31, 1995, Jenny Schuessler, "Elaine Pagels: No Sympathy for the Devil," interview with author, pp. 59-60; April 14, 2003, review of Beyond Belief, p. 64.

Spectator, March 15, 1980, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 18.

Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 1980, Henry Chadwick, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 309.

U.S. Catholic, September, 2003, "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and … Thomas?: The Editors Interview Elaine Pagels," p. 18.

Washington Post Book World, November 25, 1979, Harold Bloom, review of The Gnostic Gospels, p. 5.

Women's Review of Books, October, 2003, Lesley Hazleton, review of Beyond Belief, p. 16.


International Herald Tribune Online, (June 25, 2003), Frank Kermode, review of Beyond Belief.

Stanford Magazine Web site, (February 6, 2004), Diane Rogers, "The Gospel Truth," profile of author.