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Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels
Born Elaine Hiesey
(1943-02-13) February 13, 1943
Palo Alto, California, USA
Residence United States
Fields History of religion

Princeton University

Barnard College
Alma mater Stanford University (B.A., 1964; M.A., 1965)
Harvard University (Ph.D., 1970)
Known for

Nag Hammadi manuscripts

Early Christianity
Notable awards MacArthur Fellowship (1981)
National Book Award (1980)
National Book Critics Circle Award (1979)
Guggenheim Fellowship (1979)
Rockefeller Fellowship (1978)
Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities (2012)
Spouse Heinz Pagels (1939–1988†)

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).[1]


  • Early life and education 1
  • Academic work 2
  • Buddhism and Gnosticism 3
    • The Gnostic Gospels 3.1
  • Books 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Early life and education

Pagels was born in California, the daughter of a research biologist.[2] 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."[3] 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.[4][5]

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.[6] They have two children, Sarah Pagels DiMatteo and David V. Pagels. Their son Mark died when he was six and a half years old.[7] 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.

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 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[8] [1] and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Modern Library named it one of the 100 best books of the twentieth century.[9] 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.

In April 1987, Pagels's son Mark died after five years of illness, and in July 1988, her husband Heinz Pagels died in a mountain climbing accident.[10] These personal tragedies deepened her spiritual awareness and afterwards Pagels began research leading to The Origin of Satan.[11] This book argues that the figure of Satan became a way for Jews and Christians to demonize their religious and cultural opponents, namely, pagans, other Christian sects, and Jews.

Her New York Times bestseller, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), focuses on historical Gnosticism's religious claims to possessing the truth about Christianity and God. 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 Thomas taught its adherents that "there is a light within each person, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness", the Gospel of John emphasizes the revelation that God as Jesus Christ is the "light of the world". On Pagels' interpretation, the Gospel of Thomas claims, along with other apocryphal teachings, that Jesus was not God, but rather, a human teacher who sought to uncover the divine light in all human beings. This apocryphal viewpoint is in contradiction with the four New Testament gospels. Pagels argues that the Gospel of John was written as a rebuttal to the viewpoints put forth in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. She bases her conclusion on the theory that, in the Gospel of John, the apostle Thomas is portrayed as a disciple of little faith who cannot believe without seeing and, that the Gospel of John places an emphasis on Divine Jesus Christ as the center of belief, which Pagels views as a hallmark of early orthodoxy. Beyond Belief also includes Pagels' personal exploration of meaning during a time of loss and tragedy.

In 2012, Pagels received Princeton University's Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities for, as one nominator wrote, "her ability to show readers that the ancient texts she studies are concerned with the great questions of human existence though they may discuss them in mythological or theological language very different from our own."[12][13]

Buddhism and Gnosticism

Pagels is a modern advocate for a connection between Buddhism and the third and fourth century Christian sects which were called "Gnostics" by early Christian heresiologists. Pagels' views were published in 1979, including a call for a comparative study of the Nag Hammadi tractates and Buddhist sources. A response came in papers from The Eastern Buddhist Society (1981), but without any further development over the next thirty years.[14]

The Gnostic Gospels

Queen Maya with the infant Buddha - Gandhara, second century CE

Pagels and scholars such as Edward Conze have suggested that gnosticism blends teachings such as those attributed to Jesus Christ with teachings found in Eastern traditions.[15] Conze suggested that Hindu or Buddhist tradition may well have influenced Gnosticism. He pointed out that Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians.[16]

Pagels notes that the similarities between Gnosticism and Buddhism have prompted some scholars to question their interdependence and to wonder whether "...if the names were changed, the 'living Buddha' appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus" however, she concludes that, although intriguing, the evidence is inconclusive and she further concludes that these parallels might be coincidental, since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures without direct influence.[17]

Pagels has written that "one need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition… these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis." She suggests that there is an explicitly Indian influence in the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps via the Christian communities in southern India, the so-called Thomas Christians.


  • The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John (1973), Society of Biblical Literature, 132 p. 1989 edition: ISBN 1-55540-334-4
  • The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (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: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (1988), Vintage Books, 189 p., ISBN 0-679-72232-7
  • The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics (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 0-670-03845-8
  • Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012), Viking Adult, ISBN 0-670-02334-5 [2]


  1. ^ This was the award for hardcover Religion and Inspiration.
    From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Award history there were dual awards for hardcover and paperback books in many categories, including several nonfiction subcategories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including those in the 1980 Religion and Inspiration category.


  1. ^ "Revelations". RadioWest website. Retrieved April 26, 2012. 
  2. ^ World authors, 1985-1990 Vineta Colby - 1995 PAGELS, ELAINE HIESEY (February 13, 1948- ), American religious scholar and historian, was born in Palo Alto, California, to William McKinley Hiesey, a research biologist, and Louise Sophia (Van Druton) Hiesey.
  3. ^ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas
  4. ^ Beyond belief: the secret Gospel of Thomas Elaine H. Pagels - 2003 "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. When I entered college, I decided to learn Greek in order to read the New Testament in the original..."
  5. ^ You're Not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices ... Randal Rauser - 2011 "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.6 It may be that Pagels was alienated as much by the uncompromising and "
  6. ^ Encyclopedia of Women in Today's World - Page 1062 Mary Zeiss Stange, Carol K. Oyster, Jane E. Sloan - 2011 Pagels, Elaine Elaine Hiesey Pagels (1943– ) is a foremost ... In 1969, she married Heinz R. Pagels, a noted theoretical physicist, and subsequently gave birth to two children.
  7. ^
  8. ^ "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-08.
  9. ^ Sheahen, Laura (June 2003). "Matthew, Mark, Luke and... Thomas?: What would Christianity be like if gnostic texts had made it into the Bible?". Faiths & Prayer.  
  10. ^ Cyclopedia of world authors: Volume 4; Volume 4 1997 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
  11. ^ Pagels The Origin of Satan, p.xv. "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. During the following years I began to reflect on the ways that various religious traditions give shape to the invisible world, and how our imaginative perceptions of what is invisible relate to the ways we respond to the people around..."
  12. ^ Staff. "Oates and Pagels receive Behrman Award". Princeton University. Retrieved 19 May 2012. 
  13. ^ Staff Report. "Princeton honors two professors". The Trentonian. Retrieved 19 May 2012. 
  14. ^ The Eastern Buddhist Society (1981) "This paper is an initial attempt to follow up Pagels' call for a comparative study of the Nag Hammadi tractates and Indian sources, by considering some of the similarities in theory and practice which are present in certain Nag Hammadi texts, in certain Buddhist wisdom scriptures, and in the works of two second to third century cE Mahayana Buddhist philosophers, Nagarjuna and Aryadeva."
  15. ^ Elaine Pagels. "The Gnostic Gospels"Extract from . Retrieved 2007-04-22. 
  16. ^ Conze, Edward. Buddhism and Gnosis. 
  17. ^ Pagels, Elaine (1979, repr. 1989). The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House. 

External links

  • Faculty page, Princeton University Department of Religion
  • Works by or about Elaine Pagels in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Diane Rogers, "The Gospel Truth," Stanford Magazine (January/February, 2004). – A profile of Elaine Pagels in the Stanford alumni magazine.
  • "The Politics of Christianity", – A talk by Pagels exploring some of the political issues raised by her work.
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