Elaine Pagels 1943–
(Full name Elaine Hiesey Pagels) American theologian.
The following entry presents criticism of Pagels's work through 1997.
Pagels is considered one of the foremost contemporary scholars of the early Christian Church. She is known for her ability to write about theoretical and intellectual matters in clear and engaging prose understandable to the layman.
Pagels was born February 13, 1943 in Palo Alto, California, to William McKinley, a research biologist, and Louise Sophia (van Druten) Hiesey. She received a B.A. from Stanford in 1964, after which she studied at Harvard University, receiving an M.A. in 1965 and a Ph.D. in 1970. In 1969 she married Heinz Pagels, a physicist; the couple had three children. Pagels's husband was killed in a hiking accident in 1988, one year after the death of their son Mark. Pagels worked as a professor of the history of religion at Bernard College from 1970 until 1982, serving as head of the department during her last eight years there. In 1982 she was named the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, where she continues to teach. Pagels also served as a member of Professor James Robinson's translation team, helping to translate the gnostic texts which were originally found in a cave in Egypt in 1945.
Although concerned with disparate subjects, Pagels employs a common structure in her works: the exploration of problems in contemporary society through a consideration of their roots in the early Christian church. She has published widely on the Gnostic church, a group of Christians who splintered from the orthodox faith in the first centuries A.D. While her first books were written primarily for a scholarly audience, her last three books have garnered wider attention. The Gnostic Gospels (1979), for which she won the National Book Award, is an account of the early Gnostic faith and the challenges these believers faced. It chronicles the conflict between the smaller gnostic group and the orthodox church which ultimately gained control of the Christian church and suppressed the gnostic tradition. The arguments in Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988) are not based on new data but rather a reworking of existing material in which Pagels considers moral freedom, original sin, and the Genesis creation story. The Origin of Satan (1995) explores the historic roots of the concept of Satan. Using anthropological terms, Pagels argues that groups have defined Satan and evil as "other" in conflict with the goodness of "self" and asserts that the urge to demonize others has a long history.
The reception to Pagels's last three books has been mixed. Some scholars have praised her ability to conceptualize unifying themes from disparate sources. She is also lauded for her ability to present ideas clearly and simply, for her engaging writing style, and for her ability to explain complicated intellectual material clearly to the layperson and to tie the events of the past to contemporary issues. Thomas D'Evelyn wrote that Pagels "not only brings the voices of the early Christians alive, but also presents their lives in sympathetic contexts." Pagels has also been criticized, however, for presenting sensational, opinionated arguments; for ignoring conflicting theories and data; and for promoting questionable scholarship. Raymond Brown challenged her assertion in The Gnostic Gospels that she had presented an unbiased argument, declaring that she is clearly sympathetic to the gnostics. Others have suggested that Pagels at times has ignored the latest scholarship in the field. The Gnostic Gospels won the 1979 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 1980 National Book Award.
The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John (nonfiction) 1973
The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (nonfiction) 1975
The Gnostic Gospels (nonfiction) 1979
The Gnostic Jesus and Early Christian Politics (nonfiction) 1981
Adam, Eve and the Serpent (nonfiction) 1988
The Origin of Satan: The New Testament Origins of Christianity's Demonization of the Jews, Pagans & Heretics (nonfiction) 1995
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SOURCE: "Gnostic 'Books'," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1979, p. B6.
[In the following review, Crisler describes The Gnostic Gospels as a lucid history of the Gnostic movement.]
The shattering of two ancient jars, one in December, 1945, near Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the other, almost a year later, in a Dead Sea cave, still reverberates in the alcoves of Biblical scholarship.
Although the extraordinary manuscript discoveries in the Dead Sea area have been widely examined, published, and commented upon (with certain notable exceptions), the "gnostic" library found hidden in the Nag Hammadi jar remained "for eyes only", (except for the "Gospel of Thomas") among scholarly initiates until the end of 1977. Then the 52 tractates in 13 codices appeared in a full facsimile edition and a simultaneous English edition, both under the general supervision and editorship of James M. Robinson, director of the Institute of Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California. Said Professor Robinson at the time. "The floodgates have just opened."
Random House is in the sluiceway early with this book by Elaine Pagels, a member of Professor Robinson's translation team. As a book, it is the logical and inevitable outcome of her close association with the Nag Hammadi material. She writes for the layman, which is refreshing and she does so lucidly,...
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SOURCE: "The Christians Who Lost Out," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 85, January 20, 1980, pp. 3, 33.
[Below, Brown offers a negative assessment of The Gnostic Gospels.]
Some 30 years ago, there were two discoveries in the Middle East that have great, even if indirect significance for our knowledge of early Christianity. In 1945, Coptic codices (books) were found at Nag Hammadi, near the Nile, about 300 miles south of Cairo; in 1947, scrolls, mostly Hebrew and Aramaic, were found at Qumran, near the Dead Sea.
These parallel discoveries reflect curiously parallel histories. The Egyptian codices, in fourth-century A.D. script, contain 52 works translated from earlier Greek texts, many of them composed by Christian gnostic sectarians. They contain views of Jesus and God that were condemned by the Fathers of the emerging Catholic Church. Weeded from the library of a nearby monastery, the codices were buried in a jar, probably to prevent their discovery during the anti-heretical purges inaugurated in 367 by Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria. The Dead Sea scrolls came from pre-Christian Jewish sectarians, probably Essenes. They propose legal interpretations and apocalyptic dreams (some shared by Christians) that were anathema to the Pharisees who gave shape to orthodox Judaism. Some of these Hebrew scrolls were also buried in jars, to hide them from advancing Roman...
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SOURCE: "Counter-Church," in Commentary, Vol. 69, No. 6, June, 1980, pp. 86-88.
[In the following review, Maccoby argues that while The Gnostic Gospels provides the lay reader with an introduction to gnosticism, it is flawed in several crucial areas.]
Gnosticism, an esoteric movement in ancient religion, has achieved surprising topicality. It may even be regarded as the form of religion most congenial to the modern world. Certain popular sects (such as Scientology) are really modern versions of gnosticism, with their description of earth as a lost, evil planet, containing trapped seeds of divinity, to be redeemed only by intervention of saviors from outer space. Anyone who regards himself as religious but "opposed to organized religion" is liable to gravitate toward the gnostic position.
The drawback of gnosticism is that its adherents turn away from the practical problems of the world. They regard themselves as living on this earth as aliens, having wandered here somehow by mistake. They form small isolated groups devoted to developing the secret knowledge (gnosis) of how to link up with their true home. Paupers who have learned that they are really princes, they reject the hovel in which they find themselves, assert their newly-discovered identity, and seek to return to the palace.
This is an attitude that arises in periods when the outward world...
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SOURCE: "Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels," in Theology Today, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 498-501.
[In the following essay, McVey explores issues of feminism in Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels.]
A collection of Coptic documents discovered at Nag Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in Egypt in 1945 has shed important light on early Christianity by increasing our understanding of gnosticism. Gnosticism existed in pagan, Jewish, and Christian forms and was a major competitor with orthodox Christianity during the second century A.D. Christian gnosticism, a complex and varied movement, is nevertheless theologically distinct from Orthodox Christianity because it differentiates between the ineffable true God and the inferior Demiurge who created the material world and who is essentially identical with the God of the Old Testament. Christian adherents of gnosticism further believed that they, the "pneumatics" or spiritual people, constituted the true church over against the "psychics," ordinary Christians, and the "hylics," the material people.
Accepting the basic thesis of Walter Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, some scholars believe that gnosticism represents a form of Christianity, the antiquity and legitimacy of which equals that of orthodox Christianity. Elaine Pagels of Barnard College is among those who accept Bauer's basic understanding of the...
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SOURCE: "Sweet Are the Uses of Original Sin," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, pp. 15-6.
[In the review below, Fox states that Adam, Eve, and the Serpent contains the best elements of Pagels' writing, but contends that Pagels' arguments are not always plausible.]
The Bible begins with two accounts of the creation, written by different authors at different times. We do not know their dates, but the likeliest guesses are the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. We do know that they were later combined by a third person, the patron saint of relaxed editors. The two stories contradicted each other and each said the bare minimum. The editor did his best, which was next to nothing. He put the stories one after another and left an Eden of unanswered questions, in which posterity has wandered and made its own discoveries ever since.
Elaine Pagels's Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is the latest heir to these stories that suggest so much more than they state. Why did God say, "Let us make man," if only He existed? Why did He create man twice? Why was Adam given a woman as a helper, not another man? Was it because Adam and Eve were supposed to make love from the start? But if so, was wicked Cain conceived in Paradise? What exactly was the "knowledge" that did such harm: was it carnal, moral or psychedelic? Whatever was bothering the serpent? According to one view,...
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SOURCE: "Politics in Paradise—the Genesis of 'Original Sin'," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 80, No. 203, September 14, 1988, p. 18.
[In the following review, D'Evelyn finds Adam, Eve, and the Serpent an "elegant, well-argued discussion of a bold thesis."]
Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is an elegant, well-argued discussion of a bold thesis. To cover so much ground—four centuries of the Christian era—in such brief scope (under 200 pages), Elaine Pagels looks at a variety of interpretations of a key biblical text: the first three chapters of Genesis, the creation stories.
Long known to be from two different sources, these chapters cover the beginning of time, and the immediate aftermath. God creates man and woman in his image and gives them dominion over the earth; but Adam and Eve listen to the serpent and disobey God, bringing grief on themselves—Adam must work for a living and Eve must bear children in agony—and the whole race in perpetuity.
Obviously there's a problem here, a contradiction between the two stories, and Pagels manages to account for the range of responses to this text, from Jesus and his witnesses, including the Gnostics and Paul, down to St. Augustine in the fourth century. These responses, she discovers, reflect the position of Christians in the society of the Roman, then Christian, empire.
She begins in...
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SOURCE: "The Triumph of Pessimism," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 7, April, 1989, pp. 21-2.
[In the review below, Ochshorn considers Adam, Eve, and the Serpent a fascinating account but finds some of Pagels's arguments troubling.]
Elaine Pagels' new book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent] describes, in rich historical detail, "how certain ideas—in particular, ideas concerning sexuality, moral freedom, and human value—took their definitive form during the first four centuries as interpretations of the Genesis creation stories, and how they have continued to affect our culture and everyone in it, Christian or not, ever since."
Some of these ideas expressed new attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, marriage, divorce, procreation, family and celibacy, making for "a revolution in sexual attitudes and practices" as Christianity spread. And as Christianity moved from being a dissident, outlawed sect to being Rome's imperial religion in the fourth century, the discussions and disputes over these issues were rooted in diverse, often conflicting interpretations of the Genesis creation story.
The outlook of "orthodox" Christianity was formed during its converts' persecution by Rome and in its disputes with other Christian communities later declared heretical. Pagels devotes more than half her book to arguing that in its reading of Genesis, Chapters 1-3,...
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SOURCE: "Pagels's Paradise Lost," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 165-70.
[In the review below, Cotter argues that while Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is well-written and persuasive, it contains misleading and inaccurate areas.]
In the epilogue of her new book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent], Elaine Pagels tells us that, dissatisfied with contemporary Christianity, she turned to the earliest Christians for answers. She assumed that in that era, when the movement was pristine and primitive, things were simpler and purer. She found the opposite to be true: the movement was diversified, divided by controversy, and complex.
So what else is new?
Well, what Pagels found sounds strangely familiar, a not-so-distant mirror of our own time: martyrs, particularly women, ready to lose their lives rather than surrender their freedom to the will of the State; Gnostics, eager to include women in their services and open-minded in judging moral questions on the basis of situational ethics rather than by precept or authority; leaders like John Chrysostom who opposed wealth and position in ecclesiastical and civil hierarchies; and thinkers like Pelagius who insisted on the goodness of nature and the integrity of free will against Augustine's vision of a world riddled by original sin.
What happened? The martyrs perished, the protesters...
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SOURCE: "The Paths of Heresy," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4017, March 21, 1990, p. 309.
[In the following review of The Gnostic Gospels, Chadwick discusses Pagels's efforts to address modern problems in Christianity by considering the early church.]
In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant made, with his mattock, an archaeological find that has coe to generate a substantial industry among students of early Christianity and of its pagan environment of high mysticism, low magic, and religious syncretism. The find consisted of a cache of Coptic codices buried in the second half of the fourth century a few miles from Nag Hammadi, containing fifty-two texts most of which were either gnostic in origin or congenial reading in gnostic circles. That is, they represent a broadly theosophical doctrine divergent from and at times severely critical of main-line Christianity as that emerged out of the various second-century groups claiming the Christian name. The spot where the codices were discovered is close to the ruins of a monastery founded in the first half of the fourth century AD by Pachomius. It seems probable that the books once belonged to the library of a monk admitted to that community. Fourth-century Egypt pullulated with Manichees and dualistic gnostics of many brands. In the year 367 Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria issued throughout his jurisdiction a warning against the reading in the...
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SOURCE: "The Prince of Darkness," in New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, pp. 9-10.
[In the following review of The Origin of Satan, Houlden states that while Pagels's arguments are single-minded and do not always have documentary support, she has written a compelling book that connects the concerns of the early church with contemporary issues.]
Satan, Elaine Pagels says, has a much more tenacious grip on the world than many people suppose; his power over the human imagination has grown for 22 centuries, and in the West even people who deny his existence, or who have no religion at all, live in a culture in which he is a large presence This demon will not go away
If that sounds like a promotion for fright films, Ms. Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University and the author of several volumes on the Gnostics among the early Christians, did not write The Origin of Satan as an entertainment. By finding out where Satan came from, she thinks, we find out, at least in part, where we came from. That is not to say that some readers of her book will not be shocked, or at least offended.
In ancient Israel, as one sees in early books of the Bible, Satan is hardly a monstrous figure, the dark near-parody of God he later became. In the Book of Job he is the official "opponent" at the heavenly court, his task being to challenge God's assumptions and,...
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SOURCE: "Bedeviling Satan," in The Nation, Vol. 260, No. 25, June 26, 1995, pp. 931-33.
[In the review below, Gordon concludes that The Origin of Satan is informative but fails to address some of the questions it raises.]
Satan may not exist, but there are excellent reasons to invent him. He is called onstage whenever behavior pases our understanding of the limits of the human. To say that something is diabolical means it is inexplicable in ordinary terms. It ruptures the line of measurable cause and effect, or its sheer scope and efficiency seem untraceable. This kind of attribution can be seen as a failure of imagination or a type of species compassion. When we invoke Satan, we are saying that humans can't be that bad; they wouldn't do something like that on their own.
Recently, the temptation to demonize seems stronger than it has for a long time, a fallout, perhaps, of the information age. One intolerable piece of news we all must digest is that whoever we are, we are a minority, radically outnumbered by Them, the Others. We must now come to terms with Others who are more other than we'd imagined, therefore more inexplicable, easier to demonize. The readiness with which a term like "demonize" springs even to the lips of the popular media may signal the resurrection of an old habit of mind.
We seem newly in the grip of increasingly...
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SOURCE: "Our Old Enemy," in Washington Post Book World, July 9, 1995, p. 2.
[In the following review, Meier argues that while some of Pagels's assertions are questionable, The Origin of Satan reveals Pagels's skill at clearly and concisely developing new theories out of pre-existing facts.]
Although she has written scholarly works, Elaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton, is perhaps best known as a gifted popularizer. In this example [The Origin of Satan], she traces how the idea of Satan as a cosmic power opposed to God developed in early Judaism and Christianity. Pagels is interested in the "social" implications of Satan, i.e., how he was exploited to symbolize human conflict and stigmatize religious enemies as Jews and Christians struggled over their respective identities. Satan served to demonize "the other"—be they Jews of a different persuasion, pagan persecutors or Christian "heretics."
Pagels connects the development of the idea of Satan with Jewish sects in the first centuries B.C. For sectarians, the figure of Satan helped to define "them" (evil Jews) against "us" (righteous Jews). This function already appears in the Jewish Scriptures. From an overzealous member of God's court in the Book of Job, Satan develops into an accuser of the high priest in the Book of Zechariah. This development reflects tensions among Jewish factions after the Babylonian exile (6th...
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SOURCE: "A Social History of Satan," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 30, 1995, pp. 6-7.
[In the review below, Gray writes that Pagels's efforts in The Origin of Satan to link early Christian ideas to the present are hampered by her failure to include cultural history and psychology in her analysis.]
In what she terms the social history of Satan, Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, finds the roots of the need to demonize one's enemies. The practice of explaining adversity or conflict by reference to demons reaches back, Pagels notes, into Old Testament history. But she argues [in The Origin of Satan] that it entered a radical phase when the small sect of 1st Century Jews who declared Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah proceeded to demonize their enemies.
In claiming that Satan inspired their opponents—largely the Temple authorities and other established Jewish leaders—those proto-Christians confirmed the truth and solidified the ranks of their new faith. This strategy, while not exactly new, says Pagels, was an intensification of earlier practice. In Old Testament Hebrew, "the Satan" originally designated an adversary and came to refer to a messenger from God who would oppose human design or test human resolution, as with Job. Over time, a more personified figure emerged in the form of a powerful fallen angel—fallen either because his lust for...
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SOURCE: "Le Diable au Coeur," in The New York Review, Vol. XLII, No. 14, September 21, 1995, pp. 18-20.
[In the review below, Cohn calls The Origin of Satan an important, original, and adventurous work.]
Whereas in the nineteenth century Satan seldom attracted the attention of serious historians—Gustave Roskoff's two-volume Geschichte des Teufels (1869) stands almost alone—of late he has done so repeatedly, and to excellent effect. The collection of essays published in 1948 under the auspices of the French Carmelites, and entitled simply Satan, heralded what became in the 1970s and 1980s a flood of scholarly studies. The five-hundred-page Teufelsglaube by Herbert Haag and others (1974), Jeffrey Russell's trilogy, The Devil, Satan, Lucifer (1977–1984), Henry Ansgar Kelly's The Devil at Baptism, Bernard Teyssèdre's Naissance du Diable and Le Diable et l'Enfer (all 1985), Neil Forsyth's The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (1987)—all these make up a large contribution to our knowledge and (more importantly) to our understanding. So is there anything left to say? Indeed there is—and Elaine Pagels has made a commendable attempt at saying it.
Hitherto studies of Satan have concentrated on the history of the idea (or concept, or symbol, or myth, or whatever), rather than on its function in society. To learn about...
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SOURCE: A review of The Origin of Satan, in The Bloomsbury Review, September-October, 1995, p. 23.
[In the review below, Troychak discusses how events in Pagels's life motivated her to explore the dark side of Christianity.]
Five hundred years ago, Elaine Pagels would have been burned at the stake. She has read the sacred texts of Christianity and become fascinated with the devil. She expresses doubt that Jesus was actually crucified by Jews. She contends that the New Testament gospels—which millions of Christians believe to be the actual word of God set down by his apostles—are polemical tracts written generations later to strengthen the fledgling church against its enemies: the pagans without and the heretics within. Finally, she has gained this knowledge by studying forbidden books, suppressed and deviant gospels that had remained buried until 50 years ago.
The personal tragedies that preceded and inspired The Origin of Satan have received almost as much attention as the work itself. For almost 20 years, Pagels was married to physicist Heinz Pagels. In 1987, their six-year-old son Mark died of a lung disease. In a PBS World of Ideas interview around that time, she told Bill Moyers that she had become interested in the question of how Christianity interprets bad fortune. Confronted with the death of her child, Pagels admitted that she felt it easier to blame...
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Begley, Adam. "The End of Evil." Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 October 1995): 1, 11, 13.
Compares The Origin of Satan with several other works on Satan, particularly Robert Fuller's Naming the Antichrist.
Review of The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, by Elaine Pagels. Choice 13, No. 2 (April 1976): 238.
Calls The Gnostic Paul a good comparison between the views of Paul and the Gnostic Christians.
Pagels, Elaine. "The Orthodox Against the Gnostics: Confrontation and Interiority in Early Christianity." In The Other Side of God: A Polarity in World Religions, edited by Peter L. Berger, pp. 61-73. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1981.
Explores what differentiates Gnostic writings from the canonized New Testament.
Salisbury, Joyce. "Sexuality, Freedom, and the Body Politic." Journal of Social History 23, No. 4 (Summer 1990): 817-23.
Discusses theories about historical perceptions of the body and the body politic in several works, including Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.
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