Elaine Pagels

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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.

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Principal Works