Elaine Pagels
Overview
Elaine Pagels, née Hiesey (born February 13, 1943), is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she is best known for her studies and writing on the Gnostic Gospels
Gnostic Gospels
The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about fifty-two texts supposedly based upon the ancient wisdom teachings of several prophets and spiritual leaders including Jesus, written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. These gospels are not part of the standard Biblical canon of any major Christian...

. Her popular books include The Gnostic Gospels (1979), Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988), The Origin of Satan (1995), Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), and Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (2007).
Pagels was born in California
California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

, graduated from Stanford University
Stanford University
The Leland Stanford Junior University, commonly referred to as Stanford University or Stanford, is a private research university on an campus located near Palo Alto, California. It is situated in the northwestern Santa Clara Valley on the San Francisco Peninsula, approximately northwest of San...

 (B.A.
Bachelor of Arts
A Bachelor of Arts , from the Latin artium baccalaureus, is a bachelor's degree awarded for an undergraduate course or program in either the liberal arts, the sciences, or both...

 1964, M.A.
Master of Arts (postgraduate)
A Master of Arts from the Latin Magister Artium, is a type of Master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. The M.A. is usually contrasted with the M.S. or M.Sc. degrees...

 1965) and, after briefly studying dance at Martha Graham
Martha Graham
Martha Graham was an American modern dancer and choreographer whose influence on dance has been compared with the influence Picasso had on modern visual arts, Stravinsky had on music, or Frank Lloyd Wright had on architecture.She danced and choreographed for over seventy years...

's studio, began studying for her Ph.D.
Ph.D.
A Ph.D. is a Doctor of Philosophy, an academic degree.Ph.D. may also refer to:* Ph.D. , a 1980s British group*Piled Higher and Deeper, a web comic strip*PhD: Phantasy Degree, a Korean comic series* PhD Docbook renderer, an XML renderer...

 at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 as a student of Helmut Koester
Helmut Koester
Helmut Koester is a German-born American scholar of the New Testament and currently Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Winn Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School. He teaches courses at both the Divinity School and at Harvard Extension School, and was the...

.
Encyclopedia
Elaine Pagels, née Hiesey (born February 13, 1943), is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she is best known for her studies and writing on the Gnostic Gospels
Gnostic Gospels
The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about fifty-two texts supposedly based upon the ancient wisdom teachings of several prophets and spiritual leaders including Jesus, written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. These gospels are not part of the standard Biblical canon of any major Christian...

. Her popular books include The Gnostic Gospels (1979), Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988), The Origin of Satan (1995), Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), and Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (2007).

Early life and education

Pagels was born in California
California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

, graduated from Stanford University
Stanford University
The Leland Stanford Junior University, commonly referred to as Stanford University or Stanford, is a private research university on an campus located near Palo Alto, California. It is situated in the northwestern Santa Clara Valley on the San Francisco Peninsula, approximately northwest of San...

 (B.A.
Bachelor of Arts
A Bachelor of Arts , from the Latin artium baccalaureus, is a bachelor's degree awarded for an undergraduate course or program in either the liberal arts, the sciences, or both...

 1964, M.A.
Master of Arts (postgraduate)
A Master of Arts from the Latin Magister Artium, is a type of Master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. The M.A. is usually contrasted with the M.S. or M.Sc. degrees...

 1965) and, after briefly studying dance at Martha Graham
Martha Graham
Martha Graham was an American modern dancer and choreographer whose influence on dance has been compared with the influence Picasso had on modern visual arts, Stravinsky had on music, or Frank Lloyd Wright had on architecture.She danced and choreographed for over seventy years...

's studio, began studying for her Ph.D.
Ph.D.
A Ph.D. is a Doctor of Philosophy, an academic degree.Ph.D. may also refer to:* Ph.D. , a 1980s British group*Piled Higher and Deeper, a web comic strip*PhD: Phantasy Degree, a Korean comic series* PhD Docbook renderer, an XML renderer...

 at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 as a student of Helmut Koester
Helmut Koester
Helmut Koester is a German-born American scholar of the New Testament and currently Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Winn Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School. He teaches courses at both the Divinity School and at Harvard Extension School, and was the...

. She married theoretical physicist Heinz Pagels
Heinz Pagels
Heinz Rudolf Pagels was an American physicist, an adjunct professor of physics at Rockefeller University, the executive director and chief executive officer of the New York Academy of Sciences, and president of the International League for Human Rights...

 in 1969. At Harvard, she was part of a team studying the Nag Hammadi library
Nag Hammadi library
The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. That year, twelve leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar were found by a local peasant named Mohammed Ali Samman...

 manuscripts. Upon finishing her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970, she joined the faculty at Barnard College
Barnard College
Barnard College is a private women's liberal arts college and a member of the Seven Sisters. Founded in 1889, Barnard has been affiliated with Columbia University since 1900. The campus stretches along Broadway between 116th and 120th Streets in the Morningside Heights neighborhood in the borough...

, where she headed the department of religion from 1974 until she moved to Princeton in 1982.

Academic work

In 1975, after studying the Pauline Epistles
Pauline epistles
The Pauline epistles, Epistles of Paul, or Letters of Paul, are the thirteen New Testament books which have the name Paul as the first word, hence claiming authorship by Paul the Apostle. Among these letters are some of the earliest extant Christian documents...

 and comparing them to Gnosticism
Gnosticism
Gnosticism is a scholarly term for a set of religious beliefs and spiritual practices common to early Christianity, Hellenistic Judaism, Greco-Roman mystery religions, Zoroastrianism , and Neoplatonism.A common characteristic of some of these groups was the teaching that the realisation of Gnosis...

 and the early Church, Pagels wrote the book The Gnostic Paul
The Gnostic Paul
The Gnostic Paul is a book by Elaine Pagels, a scholar of gnosticism and professor of religion at Princeton University. In the work, Pagels considers each of the non-pastoral Pauline Epistles, and questions about their authorship...

. This book expounds the theory that Paul of Tarsus
Paul of Tarsus
Paul the Apostle , also known as Saul of Tarsus, is described in the Christian New Testament as one of the most influential early Christian missionaries, with the writings ascribed to him by the church forming a considerable portion of the New Testament...

 was a source for Gnosticism whose influence on the direction of the early Christian church was great enough to inspire the creation of pseudonym
Pseudonym
A pseudonym is a name that a person assumes for a particular purpose and that differs from his or her original orthonym...

ous writings such as the Pastoral Epistles
Pastoral epistles
The three pastoral epistles are books of the canonical New Testament: the First Epistle to Timothy the Second Epistle to Timothy , and the Epistle to Titus. They are presented as letters from Paul of Tarsus...

 (1st
First Epistle to Timothy
The First Epistle of Paul to Timothy, usually referred to simply as First Timothy and often written 1 Timothy, is one of three letters in the New Testament of the Bible often grouped together as the Pastoral Epistles, the others being Second Timothy and Titus...

 and 2nd Timothy
Second Epistle to Timothy
The Second Epistle of Paul to Timothy, usually referred to simply as Second Timothy and often written 2 Timothy, is one of the three Pastoral Epistles traditionally attributed to Saint Paul, and is part of the New Testament...

 and Titus
Apostle Titus
Titus was a companion of Saint Paul, mentioned in several of the Pauline epistles. Titus was with Paul and Barnabas at Antioch and accompanied them to the Council of Jerusalem, although his name occurs nowhere in the Acts of the Apostles....

), in order to make it appear as if Paul was anti-Gnostic.

Pagels' 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
National Book Critics Circle
The National Book Critics Circle is an American tax-exempt organization for active book reviewers. Its flagship is the National Book Critics Circle Award....

 Award and the National Book Award
National Book Award
The National Book Awards are a set of American literary awards. Started in 1950, the Awards are presented annually to American authors for literature published in the current year. In 1989 the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization which now oversees and manages the National Book...

 and was chosen by the Modern Library
Modern Library
The Modern Library is a publishing company. Founded in 1917 by Albert Boni and Horace Liveright as an imprint of their publishing company Boni & Liveright, it was purchased in 1925 by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer...

 as one of the 100 best books of the twentieth century.

She follows the well-known thesis that Walter Bauer
Walter Bauer
Walter Bauer was a German theologian and scholar of the development of the early Christian churches.-Life:...

 first put forth in 1934 and argues that the Christian church
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 was founded in a society espousing a number of contradictory viewpoints. Gnosticism
Gnosticism
Gnosticism is a scholarly term for a set of religious beliefs and spiritual practices common to early Christianity, Hellenistic Judaism, Greco-Roman mystery religions, Zoroastrianism , and Neoplatonism.A common characteristic of some of these groups was the teaching that the realisation of Gnosis...

 as a movement was not very coherent and there were several areas of disagreement among different factions. According to Pagels, 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
MacArthur Foundation
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is one of the largest private foundations in the United States. Based in Chicago but supporting non-profit organizations that work in 60 countries, MacArthur has awarded more than US$4 billion since its inception in 1978...

 (1980–85), she researched and wrote Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, which examines the creation account and its role in the development of sexual attitudes in the Christian West. In both The Gnostic Gospels and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Pagels focuses especially on the way that women have been viewed throughout Christian history.

In April 1987, Pagels's son Mark died after five years of illness, and in July 1988 her husband Heinz Pagels
Heinz Pagels
Heinz Rudolf Pagels was an American physicist, an adjunct professor of physics at Rockefeller University, the executive director and chief executive officer of the New York Academy of Sciences, and president of the International League for Human Rights...

 died in a mountain climbing accident. These personal tragedies deepened her spiritual awareness and led Pagels to begin the research leading to The Origin of Satan. This book argues that the figure of Satan
Satan
Satan , "the opposer", is the title of various entities, both human and divine, who challenge the faith of humans in the Hebrew Bible...

 became a way for orthodox Christians to demonize their religious opponents, namely, other Christian sects and Jews
Judaism
Judaism ) is the "religion, philosophy, and way of life" of the Jewish people...

.

Her New York Times bestseller, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), focuses on religious claims to possessing the ultimate truth
Truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

. In it, Pagels contrasts the Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel According to Thomas, commonly shortened to the Gospel of Thomas, is a well preserved early Christian, non-canonical sayings-gospel discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in December 1945, in one of a group of books known as the Nag Hammadi library...

 with the Gospel of John
Gospel of John
The Gospel According to John , commonly referred to as the Gospel of John or simply John, and often referred to in New Testament scholarship as the Fourth Gospel, is an account of the public ministry of Jesus...

, and argues that a close reading of the works shows that while the Gospel of John emphasizes that Jesus is the "light of the world", the Gospel of 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." On Pagels' interpretation, the Gospel of Thomas reveals, along with other apocryphal teachings, that Jesus was not God but rather a teacher who sought 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. She bases this conclusion on her observation that, in the Gospel of John, the apostle Thomas is portrayed as a disciple of little faith who cannot believe without seeing and, moreover, that the Gospel of John places a very strong emphasis on accepting Jesus as the center of belief, which Pagels views as a hallmark of early orthodoxy. Beyond Belief also includes Pagels' personal exploration of the meaning of loss and tragedy.

Buddhism and Gnosticism

Pagels is the main notable modern advocate for a connection between Buddhism and the 3rd and 4th Century Christian sects which were called "Gnostics" by early Christian heresiologists. Pagels views were published in 1979, including a call for a comparative study of the Nag Hammadi tractates and Buddhist sources. A response came in papers from The Eastern Buddhist Society (1981), but without any further development over the next 30 years.

The Gnostic Gospels

Some scholars, such as Edward Conze
Edward Conze
Eberhart Julius Dietrich Conze was an Anglo-German scholar probably best known for his pioneering translations of Buddhist texts.-Life and work:...

 and Elaine Pagels
Elaine Pagels
Elaine Pagels, née Hiesey , 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...

, have suggested that gnosticism
Gnosticism
Gnosticism is a scholarly term for a set of religious beliefs and spiritual practices common to early Christianity, Hellenistic Judaism, Greco-Roman mystery religions, Zoroastrianism , and Neoplatonism.A common characteristic of some of these groups was the teaching that the realisation of Gnosis...

 blends teachings like those attributed to Jesus Christ with teachings found in Eastern traditions.

Jenkins acknowledges that "the Jesus of the hidden gospels has many points of contact with the great spiritual traditions of Asia."

The word gnosis
Gnosis
Gnosis is the common Greek noun for knowledge . In the context of the English language gnosis generally refers to the word's meaning within the spheres of Christian mysticism, Mystery religions and Gnosticism where it signifies 'spiritual knowledge' in the sense of mystical enlightenment.-Related...

 (knowledge) as used by the Gnostics is equivalent to the Buddhist word prajna
Prajña
Prajñā or paññā is wisdom, understanding, discernment or cognitive acuity. Such wisdom is understood to exist in the universal flux of being and can be intuitively experienced through meditation...

. Both traditions of Buddhism and Gnosticism held that only direct knowledge was liberating. Some basic parallels held in common with the Buddhist and the Gnostic, and canonical gospels, is that the Buddhists believed that the Buddha was like a great father with sons of light (Bodhisattvas), while all Christians held that Jesus was the light and the son of a great father. While it is true that some Gnostics demonized the "Father", this concept could be the Buddhist concept of 'killing the Buddha', or leaving the raft (religion)behind. Scattered throughout the Gnostic gospels there can be found many exclusively Buddhist themes, such as within The Gospel of Mary can be found the stressing of matter as impermanent, within The Infancy of James those who chew, yet do not chew can be compared to the Bodhisattvas in the Surangama sutra who Taste, but do not taste, within the book Thomas the Contender, Jesus is recorded as saying, "woe to you , because the wheel that turns in your mind" which might reference the Buddhist wheel of dependent origination, within the Gospel of Thomas when Jesus is questioned about how disciples should prove that they were from God, Jesus says the proof of God in them was "motion, and rest" which again could reference the Buddhist belief that the easiest path to enlightenment was through contemplation on the ear organ and the understanding of its two defiling attributes of motion and stillness, the gospel of Phillip mentions that Jesus was martyred many times just as the Buddhist Jatakas and Pali texts mention of the Buddha in his former births.

Philip Jenkins writes that, since the mid-nineteenth century, new and fringe religious movements have often created images of Jesus, presenting him as a sage, philosopher and occult teacher, whose teachings are very similar to those of Asian religions. He asserts that the images generated by these religious movements share much in common with the images that increasingly dominate the mainstream critical scholarship of the New Testament, especially following the rediscovery of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. He alleges that, in modern scholarly writing, Jesus has become more of a Gnostic, Cynic or even a crypto-Buddhist than the traditional notion of the reformist rabbi
Rabbi
In Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher of Torah. This title derives from the Hebrew word רבי , meaning "My Master" , which is the way a student would address a master of Torah...

.

Jenkins acknowledges that "the Jesus of the hidden gospels has many points of contact with the great spiritual traditions of Asia." Pagels has written that "one need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel According to Thomas, commonly shortened to the Gospel of Thomas, is a well preserved early Christian, non-canonical sayings-gospel discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in December 1945, in one of a group of books known as the Nag Hammadi library...

 to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition… these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis." She suggests that there is an explicitly Indian influence in the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps via the Christian communities in southern India, the so-called Thomas Christians.

It is believed by some that of all of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gospel of Thomas has the most similarities with Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhism , also referred to as Amidism in English, is a broad branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism and currently one of the most popular traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. Pure Land is a branch of Buddhism focused on Amitābha Buddha...

 within it. Edward Conze has suggested that Hindu or Buddhist tradition may well have influenced Gnosticism. He points out that Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians.

Elaine Pagels notes that the similarities between Gnosticism and Buddhism have prompted some scholars to question their interdependence and to wonder whether "...if the names were changed, the 'living Buddha' appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. " However, she concludes that, although intriguing, the evidence is inconclusive, and she further concludes that these parallels might be coincidental since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures without direct influence.

Books

  • Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John (1973), Society of Biblical Literature, 132 p. 1989 edition: ISBN 1-555-40334-4
  • The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters
    The Gnostic Paul
    The Gnostic Paul is a book by Elaine Pagels, a scholar of gnosticism and professor of religion at Princeton University. In the work, Pagels considers each of the non-pastoral Pauline Epistles, and questions about their authorship...

    (1975), Fortress Press, ISBN 0-8006-0403-2
  • The Gnostic Gospels (1979), Vintage Books, 182 p., ISBN 0-679-72453-2
  • Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988), Vintage Books, 189 p., ISBN 0-679-72232-7
  • The Origin of Satan (1995), Vintage Books, 214 p., ISBN 0-679-73118-0
  • Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), Vintage Books, 241p., ISBN 0-375-50156-8
  • Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity together with Karen L. King, (2007), Viking Press, 224 p., ISBN 0670038458

External links

  • Faculty page, Princeton University Department of Religion
  • Diane Rogers, "The Gospel Truth," Stanford Magazine (January/February, 2004). – A profile of Elaine Pagels in the Stanford alumni magazine.
  • "The Politics of Christianity", Edge.org. – A talk by Pagels exploring some of the political issues raised by her work.
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