Elaine Pagels will discuss the decoding of the Gnostic Gospels; the lessening role of women as the new religion of Christianity became codified; and how her 40-year participation in the translation of these documents—along with events in her life—have affected her personal faith.
“As soon as enough people are educated, I was told, no one will need religion anymore; they’ll understand that science now gives us adequate understanding of the universe. That left me wondering, however, what function religion fulfills, and why it appeals to so many people,” Elaine Pagels said in an interview. As an historian of religion specializing in late classical antiquity, she has spent the past 40 years studying the formation of Christianity and why some writings and ideas formed the canon of the new faith while others were condemned as heretical and destroyed.
While Pagels was doing doctoral work at Harvard, she was part of a team studying texts found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945: texts that have served as the basis of her research and writing ever since. She wrote two books on the texts in the early 1970s, but it was The Gnostic Gospels, published in 1979, which was a bestseller, won major awards, and introduced the public to the 52 ancient papyrus manuscripts. Considered as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls, these Gnostic writings lost out to the four main gospels that would form The New Testament. The texts include secret gospels, poems, myths, and instructions for mystical practice, some of which, according to Pagels, “…represent early forms of Christian teaching…we may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than nearly anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.
In 1982, Pagels took a professorship at Princeton University. That same year, her infant son was diagnosed with a fatal lung disease. Within six years she would lose her son and her husband, the physicist Heinz Pagels. Her work that followed took some autobiographical turns and has continued to explore more personal and contemporary aspects of faith. “I think it’s very important,” she says, “to look at religion perhaps as a function of the human brain, as a manifestation of part of the way we think, and certainly as a very important part of human culture.”
In Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988), Pagels studied creation stories from an anthropological perspective; in The Origin of Satan (1995) she looked at the idea of the Devil, or the evil “other,” shedding historical light on our eagerness to demonize our opponents with nods to modern-day political and social ramifications; Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), contrasts Thomas’s gospel with John’s; while Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (2007), written with Karen King, delves into an alternate view of Judas and the meaning of Christ’s death as represented in a papyrus made public in 2006.
A recipient of numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Book Critics Circle Award, and Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships, Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and is married to Kent Greenawalt, a professor at Columbia Law School.
Excerpt from Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (2007)
We ourselves investigate Christian traditions because we have found in them much to love, and much that speaks to our deepest convictions, fears, and hopes. When we find in the various gospels—both New Testament and non-canonical—elements that we cannot love, we are learning to own them as part of our history and to put them aside or engage them critically when it comes to faith and practice. In the process, we recognize that this is how Christians have dealt with the many traditions that make up Christianity for thousands of years. Each generation that engages them, and every group that does so, adopts, adapts, and transforms them just as we, and countless others, are doing today.
Many people have asked what we should do about these other gospels. Should we reopen the canon to include some of these long-rejected books? We think that doing so is not useful—and is beside the point. Church leaders established the canon at a specific and crucial time in history and for a specific purpose: to endorse a list of books “approved” for reading in public worship in order to unify the movement under their leadership. Certainly the canon has helped us to do just that, since even today people who belong to an enormous range of churches—Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist, Episcopal, to name only a few—all draw upon the same collection of New Testament books, and read them in worship.
Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (with Karen L. King) (2007)
Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003)
The Origin of Satan (1995)
Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988)
The Gnostic Gospels (1979) (Winner of the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award)
Elaine Pagel’s Princeton University Department of Religion faculty page
A profile of Elaine Pagels in Stanford Magazine (January/February 2004) by Diane Rogers
A talk by Pagels exploring some of the political issues raised by her work at Edge.org
Salon.com: Elaine Pagels interviewed about the Gospel of Judas
Download a pdf of Excerpts from the Gospel of Thomas, which Dr. Pagels quoted from during her lecture.