Elaine Pagels, née Hiesey (born Palo Alto, California, 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. Her popular books include The Gnostic Gospels (1979), Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988), The Origin of Satan (1995), Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (2007), and Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012).
Early life and education
Pagels was born in California, the daughter of a research biologist. Pagels began attending an evangelical church as a teenager, attracted by the certainty and emotional power of the group, but ceased attending church after the death of a Jewish friend in a car crash when other church members said that her friend had not been saved and would go to hell. Pagels said, "Distressed and disagreeing with their interpretation — and finding no room for discussion — I realized that I was no longer at home in their world and left that church." Pagels remained fascinated by the power of Christianity, both for fostering love and for the divisiveness that can shadow the belief that one has received a divinely revealed truth.
She graduated from Stanford University, earning a B.A. in 1964 and M.A. in 1965. After briefly studying dance at Martha Graham's studio, she began studying for a Ph.D. in religion at Harvard University as a student of Helmut Koester and part of a team studying the Nag Hammadi library manuscripts.
She married theoretical physicist Heinz Pagels in 1969. They have two children, Sarah Pagels DiMatteo and David V. Pagels. Their son Mark died when he was six and a half years old. Upon completing her Ph.D. in 1970, she joined the faculty at Barnard College. She headed its department of religion from 1974 until she moved to Princeton in 1982.
In 1975, after studying the Pauline Epistles and comparing them to Gnosticism and the early Church, Pagels wrote the book, The Gnostic Paul which argues that Paul the Apostle was a source for Gnosticism and hypothesizes that Paul's influence on the direction of the early Christian church was great enough to inspire the creation of pseudonymous writings such as the Pastoral Epistles (First and Second Timothy and Titus), in order to make it appear that 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. It was a best seller and won both the National Book Award in one-year category Religion/Inspiration [a] and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Modern Library named it one of the 100 best books of the twentieth century. 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 contradictory viewpoints. As a movement Gnosticism was not coherent and there were several areas of disagreement among the different factions. According to Pagel's interpretation of an era different from ours, Gnosticism "attracted women because it allowed female 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 account 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 Jewish and Christian history.