Elaine Hiesey Pagels

Elaine Hiesey Pagels (born 1943), historian of religion, was a leading interpreter of the Nag Hammadi gnostic texts and their implications for understanding the origins and development of Christianity.

Elaine Hiesey Pagels was born on February 13, 1943, in Palo Alto, California, daughter of William McKinley and Louise Sophia (Boogaert) Hiesey. She received both her B.A. (1964) and M.A. (1965) from Stanford University and her Ph.D. from Harvard University (1970). Pagels joined the faculty of the department of religion of Barnard College, Columbia University, as an assistant professor in 1970. She was promoted to associate professor in 1974 and to full professor in 1976. She joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1982 as Harrington Spear Paine Foundation professor of religion. Among the honors and fellowships accorded her were a Rockefeller fellowship (1978-1979), a Guggenheim fellowship (1979-1980), and the MacArthur Prize fellowship (1980-1985).

In 1969 she married Heinz R. Pagels, a theoretical physicist. The couple had two children. In 1987, she suffered the loss of her son and then, in 1988, of her husband.

From the beginning of her academic work Pagels was interested in the implications of the Nag Hammadi gnostic texts for the understanding of the origins of Christianity. Discovered in Egypt in 1945, these texts have been regarded as among the most important archaeological discoveries in this century. They present the world views of early Christian communities which had previously been known chiefly through the refutations made by their opponents. Pagels began studying the texts as a doctoral student at Harvard and wrote her dissertation on the controversies between gnostic and orthodox Christians. In her first two books Pagels examined the ways in which gnostic Christians interpreted scripture, looking first at gnostic interpretations of the Gospel of John Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis (1973) and then at gnostic understandings of the letters of Paul The Gnostic Paul (1975). In both books Pagels demonstrated that, far from deriving their ideas solely from "inspiration, " these proponents of a tradition of special revelation were astute interpreters of scripture and used the biblical writings as sources for their own theology.

Following the publication of these works Pagels received several grants that enabled her to study the Nag Hammadi manuscripts at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and she participated in preparing the first complete edition of the documents in English The Nag Hammadi Library in English (1977).

Pagels' later books introduced a general audience to the Nag Hammadi texts and to their implications for understanding the world views of competing groups of Christians during the first four centuries of the Common Era. She sought to place these world views in their socio-political contexts and to explore why certain doctrines gradually won out over others and came to be accepted as characteristic of mainstream Christianity.

In The Gnostic Gospels (1988) Pagels presented gnosticism as an interpretation of the life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus which for many years was a powerful alternative to the interpretation set forth by the documents which became the New Testament. In contrast to the majority of early Christians, who saw God primarily through male images and who insisted on the reality of Jesus' human body and his literal (bodily) death and resurrection, gnostic Christians used both male and female metaphors for God. They distrusted the body concept in favor of inner experience, and understood Jesus' death and resurrection in a symbolic way. Each of these doctrines, Pagels argued, had important social and political implications. The views of the majority, which were better suited to the development of an institutional structure, eventually displaced the views of the gnostics, ensuring the survival of New Testament Christianity through the centuries. The Gnostic Gospels received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979 and the National Book Award in 1980. It has been issued in foreign language editions in nine countries.

In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988) Pagels argued that Christian ideas concerning sexuality, moral freedom, and human value were developed during the first four centuries of the Common Era through commentaries on the stories of the creation and fall of human beings in Genesis 1-3. She concluded that Augustine's pessimistic view of human nature—a view shaped by his personal experiences but which he understood as normative—came to prevail as Christianity ceased to be a persecuted religion and became the religion of the emperors. This book provoked a great deal of controversy, most of it focused on Pagels' understanding of Augustine and on the question of the extent to which orthodox Western theology has canonized Augustine's idiosyncrasies.

In 1996 Pagels published The Origin of Satan, in which she detailed the evolution of various concepts of Satan, from fallen angel and demon to Prince of Darkness, the embodiment of evil, and the arch-enemy of God. Pagels investigated the conflict between Satan and the followers of Jesus as a parable of the struggle between love and fear or hate in every human being. The idea of Satan, in what was for her one of the weaknesses of Christianity, institutionalizes the demonization of anything strange or disagreeable and legitimizes the concept of "enemy."

In addition to these major works, Pagels published more technical articles on gnosticism and early Christianity in Harvard Theological Review, Vigiliae Christianae, Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society, Journal of Biblical Literature, Signs, and Parabola and in several collections. Pagels was a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Theologians, and the Society of Biblical Literature. Her work as an historian of religion has shaped the way scholars and the general public understand the origins and development of Christianity.


Further Reading on Elaine Hiesey Pagels

Elaine Pagels' work was in dialogue with that of other historians investigating gnosticism and the origins of Christianity. Her works on gnosticism, for example, built on and corrected Hans Jonas' classic study of gnosticism, The Gnostic Religion (1958). Readers interested in the materials which she studied should see the Nag Hammadi Library in English (1977). John Dart provides an engaging narrative of the discovery, content, and importance of the Nag Hammadi texts in The Jesus of Heresy and History (1988).

Pagels' discoursed in great depth on her views of Augustine in "The Politics of Paradise, " which appeared in the New York Review of Books (May 12, 1988). Discussions of her work appeared in Newsweek (June 27, 1988) and Interview (December 1995).