Elaine Pagels

Biblical Scholar, Expert in Gnosticism

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Guercino, 1600s.
17th Century Depiction of Thomas and Jesus: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Guercino. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Known for: books on Gnosticism and early Christianity

Occupation: writer, professor, Biblical scholar, feminist.  Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Received a MacArthur Fellowship (1981).
Dates: February 13, 1943 -
Also known as: Elaine Hiesey Pagels

Elaine Pagels Biography:

Born in California on February 13, 1943, as Elaine Hiesey, married to Heinz Pagels, theoretical physicist, 1969. Elaine Pagels 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, where she was part of a team studying the Nag Hammadi scrolls, documents found in 1945 that shed light on early Christian debates on theology and practice.

Elaine Pagels received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970, then began to teach at Barnard College in that same year.  At Barnard, she became the head of the religion department in 1974. In 1979 her book based on her work with the Nag Hammadi scrolls, The Gnostic Gospels, sold 400,000 copies and won numerous awards and acclaim. In this book, Elaine Pagels asserted that the differences between the gnostics and the orthodox Christians was more about politics and organization than theology.  She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981. 

In 1982, Pagels joined Princeton University as a professor of early Christian history. Aided by the MacArthur grant, she researched and wrote Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, which documented the shift in Christian history when Christians began to focus on a meaning of the Genesis story which stressed the sinfulness of human nature and sexuality.

In 1987, Pagel's son Mark died, after years of illness. The following year her husband, Heinz, died in a hiking accident. In part out of those experiences, she began working on the research leading to The Origin of Satan.

Elaine Pagels has continued to research and write about the theological shifts and battles within earlier Christianity. Her book, The Origin of Satan, published in 1995, is dedicated to her two children, David and Sarah, and in 1995 Pagels married Kent Greenawalt, a law professor at Columbia University.

Her Biblical work is both well-received as accessible and insightful, and criticized as making too much of marginal issues and too unorthodox.

In both The Gnostic Gospels and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels examines the way that women have been viewed in Christian history, and thus these texts have been important in the feminist study of religion. The Origins of Satan is not so explicitly feminist. In that work, Elaine Pagels shows the way that the figure Satan became a way for Christians to demonize their religious opponents, the Jews and the unorthodox Christians.

Her 2003 book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas , contrasts the Gospel of John with the Gospel of Thomas. She makes the argument that the Gospel of John was written to counter the gnostic ideas, especially about Jesus, and was adopted as canonical instead of the Gospel of Thomas because it fit better with the viewpoint of the other three gospels. 

Her 2012 book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation, takes on the often controversial New Testament book.  She notes that there were many books of revelation circulating, both Jewish and Christian, and that only this one was included in the Biblical canon.  She sees it as directed to the general public, to warn them about the war between the Jews and Rome that was then in progress, and assuring that it would turn out with the creation of a New Jerusalem.

Cultural Impact

Some have posited that the publication of The Gnostic Gospels inspired a more popular culture interest in gnosticism and hidden threads in Christianity, including the famous The Da Vinci Code novel by Dan Brown.

Places: Palo Alto, California; New York; Princeton, New Jersey; United States

Religion: Episcopalian.

Awards: Among her prizes and awards: National Book Award, 1980; MacArthur Prize Fellowship, 1980-85.

Major Works:

The Gnostic Gospels. 1979. (compare prices)

Adam, Eve and the Serpent. 1987. (compare prices)

The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis. 1989.

The Gnostic Pau: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. 1992.

The Origin of Satan. 1995. (compare prices)

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. 2003. (compare prices)

Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. Co-author Karen L. King. 2003.

Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. 2012.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Elaine Pagels." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/elaine-pagels-biography-3525446. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Elaine Pagels. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/elaine-pagels-biography-3525446 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Elaine Pagels." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/elaine-pagels-biography-3525446 (accessed November 29, 2022).