Elaine Pagels Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The educator and historian of religion Elaine Pagels (PAY-guhls) is the daughter of William McKinley Hiesey, a research plant biologist, and Louise Sophia Van Druten. To the astonishment of her politically liberal, Protestant nonchurchgoing parents, she joined an evangelical church at the age of thirteen; she abandoned it a year later when she found it separated her from the people she loved. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, she was attracted to the study of Greek, the language of the New Testament, and she read Homer and Pindar and became fascinated with the way Christianity became the symbolic focus for millions of people over the course of a few thousand years. She received her B.A. from Stanford in 1964 and her M.A. from the same school in 1965. After a brief time studying modern dance at the Martha Graham studio in New York City, Pagels entered the doctoral program in the department of religion at Harvard University in a program in the history of religion directed by Krister Stendahl. She believed that religion would hold her attention for a lifetime because it involved politics, art, history, anthropology, imagination, and fantasy. She hoped to uncover a “real Christianity” unpolluted by history or ideology through objective scholarship. Her professors at Harvard introduced her to the Gnostic codices that had been discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These fifty-two early Christian alternative texts were written about 600 c.e. in Coptic, an Afro-Asiatic language descended from ancient Egyptian and related to the Monophysite Christian church. The documents suggest that the Christian church was more diversified during its first two centuries than it is in the twenty-first century. Pagels’s doctoral dissertation, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic...

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(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Elaine Pagels's career as an academic interested in religion has been highlighted by numerous publications and awards. An Episcopalian,...

(The entire section is 314 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Colby, Vineta, ed. “Elaine Pagels.” In World Authors, 1985-1990. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1995. Includes basic biographical facts.

Coughlin, Ellen K. “Wrestling with the Idea of Satan.” Chronicle of Higher Education 41, no. 44 (July 14, 1995): A6. Includes basic biographical facts as well as a discussion of The Origin of Satan.

Demnick, David. “The Devil Problem.” The New Yorker 71, no. 6 (April 3, 1995): 54. Includes basic biographical facts and a look at The Origin of Satan in the light of the deaths of her husband and son.

Ludwig, Eugene Michael. Working in the Intersection: Elaine Pagels as Historian. Berkeley, Calif.: Berkeley, 1998. Part of the Pacific Coast Theological Society Papers series. This pamphlet addresses Pagels’s scholarly work.

McVey, Kathleen. “Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels.” Theology Today 37, no. 4 (January, 1981): 498-501. The author explores Pagels’s thought and issues of feminism in The Gnostic Gospels.

Moyers, Bill. A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women About American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future. Edited by Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Includes a conversation with Pagels and covers some basic biographical facts.

Pagels, Elaine. “The Divine Intercourse.” Interview by Andrew Solomon. Interview 25, no. 12 (December, 1995): 118. Pagels discusses demonization, personal evil, her books The Origin of Satan and The Gnostic Gospels, and religion.

Pagels, Elaine. “No Sympathy for the Devil.” Interview by Jenny Schuessler. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 31 (July 31, 1995): 59. Pagels discusses the history of Christian anti-Semitism and her religious upbringing.