ELAINE HIESEY PAGELS Biography - Writers


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Elaine Pagels, Hiesey, (born 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.                                                                               
Pagels was born in California, 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 as a student of Helmut Koester. She               
married theoretical physicist Heinz Pagels in 1969. At Harvard, she was part of               
a team studying the Nag Hammadi library manuscripts. Upon finishing her Ph.D.                 
from Harvard in 1970, she joined the faculty at Barnard College, where she                     
headed the department of religion from 1974.                                                   
In 1975, after studying the Pauline Epistles and comparing them to Gnosticism                 
and the early Church, Pagels wrote the book The Gnostic Paul. This book expounds               
the theory that Paul of Tarsus was a source for Gnosticism whose influence on                 
the direction of the early Christian church was great enough for the creation of               
forged additions such as the Pastoral Epistles (1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus)                 
to make it appear as if Paul supported their interpretation rather than                       
Her study of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts was the basis for The Gnostic Gospels (1979),         
a popular introduction to the Nag Hammadi library. The bestselling book won both               
the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award and was                     
chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of the twentieth                     
century. In a different measure of its influence, the conservative Christian                   
Intercollegiate Studies Institute listed it as one of the 50 Worst Books of the               
Twentieth Century.                                                                             
She follows the well-known thesis Walter Bauer first put forth in 1934 and                     
argues that the Christian church was founded in a society espousing a number of               
contradictory viewpoints. Gnosticism as a movement was not very coherent and                   
there were several areas of disagreement between different factions. Gnosticism               
attracted women in particular because of its egalitarian perspective which                     
allowed their 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 myth and its role in the               
development of sexual attitudes in the Christian West. In both The Gnostic                     
Gospels and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels examines the way that                   
women have been viewed in Christian history.                                                   
In April 1987, Pagels' son Mark died after five years of illness, and in July                 
1988 her husband Heinz Pagels died in a mountain climbing accident. Her personal               
tragedies deepened her spiritual awareness, and led Pagels to begin the research               
leading to The Origin of Satan. This book hypothesizes that the figure Satan                   
became a way for orthodox Christianity to demonize their religious opponents,                 
other Christian sects and the Jews.                                                           
Her New York Times bestseller, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003),             
focuses on religious claims to possessing the ultimate truth. 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 John emphasizes that Jesus is the "light                 
of the world", Thomas teaches individuals that "there is a light within each                   
person, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is                   
darkness." Thomas also shares with other supposed secret teachings a belief that               
Jesus is not God but rather a teacher who seeks to uncover the divine light in                 
all human beings. Pagels argues that the Gospel of John was written as a                       
reaction and rebuttal to the Gospel of Thomas. In John, the apostle Thomas is                 
portrayed as a disciple of little faith who cannot believe without seeing, and                 
John places a very strong emphasis on accepting Jesus as the center of belief,                 
which is the foundation of most traditions of Christianity today. During the                   
time of persecution of Christians, the church fathers constructed the canon,                   
creed and hierarchy, suppressing some of its spiritual resources in the process,               
in order to avoid conflict with Roman law and religion. The book also includes                 
her personal exploration of the meaning of loss and tragedy.