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Elaine Pagels

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Residence  United States
Movies  Jesus in India
Role  Professor
Name  Elaine Pagels
Fields  History of religion

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Born  Elaine Hiesey February 13, 1943 (age 72) Palo Alto, California, USA (1943-02-13)
Institutions  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 (m. 1969–1988)
Children  David V. Pagels, Sarah Pagels DiMatteo, Mark Pagels
Education  Harvard University (1970), Stanford University (1965), Stanford University (1964)
Books  The Gnostic Gospels, Revelations: Visions - Prophecy, Beyond Belief: The Secret Go, The origin of Satan, Adam - Eve - and the Serpent
Similar People  Karen Leigh King, Heinz Pagels, Alan Jacobs, R Kent Greenawalt, Paul Davids

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Elaine Pagels, née Hiesey (born February 13, 1943), is an American religious historian who writes on the Gnostic Gospels. She is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University.


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Pagel has conducted extensive research into Early Christianity and Gnosticism. Her best-selling book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) examines the divisions in the early Christian church, and the way that women have been viewed throughout Jewish history and Christian history. Modern Library named it as one of the 100 best books of the twentieth century.

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Early life and education

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Pagels was born 13 February 1943 in California. According to Pagels, she's been fascinated with the gospel of John since her youth, which she found to be "the most spiritual of the four gospels." Abandoning membership of an evangelical church after the death of a Jewish friend, Pagels remained fascinated by the power of the New Testament. She started to learn Greek when she entered college, and read the Gospels in their original language, which proved to be a new experience. 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.

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She married theoretical physicist Heinz Pagels in 1969. They have two surviving children. 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 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. Her other books include The Origin of Satan (1995), Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (2007), and Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012).

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. These personal tragedies deepened her spiritual awareness and afterwards Pagels began research leading to The Origin of Satan. 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), 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."


  • 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 [1]
  • References

    Elaine Pagels Wikipedia

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