Elaine Pagels Essay - Critical Essays

Pagels, Elaine


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


B. Cobbey Crisler (review date 3 December 1979)

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, which is a challenge, especially when "gnosticism" was regarded by its own adherents to be for the initiated only.

But as a title The Gnostic Gospels is inappropriate and was probably an editorial choice—the word "gospel" has market appeal. Certainly there is no indication in the introduction or in the text that the author ever intended to isolate the so called "gospels" of truth,...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

Raymond E. Brown (review date 20 January 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)

Hyam Maccoby (review date June 1980)

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....

(The entire section is 2219 words.)

Kathleen McVey (essay date January 1981)

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...

(The entire section is 1480 words.)

Robin Lane Fox (review date 21 August 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 1232 words.)

Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 14 September 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Judith Ochshorn (review date April 1989)

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."


(The entire section is 2192 words.)

James Finn Cotter (review date Spring 1989)

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.


(The entire section is 2618 words.)

Henry Chadwick (review date 21 March 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)

Leslie Houlden (review date 18 June 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)

Mary Gordon (review date 26 June 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 2350 words.)

John P. Meier (review date 9 July 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)

Rockwell Gray (review date 30 July 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1627 words.)

Norman Cohn (review date 21 September 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 3304 words.)

Mary Troychak (review date September-October 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 173 words.)