Elaine Pagels


Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, transferred to emeritus status on September 1, 2024, after teaching at Princeton for forty-two years. Her enormous popularity, exemplified by bestselling books, wide acclaim as a lecturer, and oversubscribed classes, rests on the expertise and erudition she brings to the study of the early Christian world and a passion for conveying how ancient texts speak to the most pressing questions in human life across time and space.

Born in Palo Alto, California, where her father was a research biologist at Stanford University, Elaine received a B.A. in history from Stanford in 1964 and continued for an M.A. in Classics, focusing on Greek language, history, and culture, which she completed in 1965. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1970, with a Knox Fellowship for study at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and a dissertation on “The Hermeneutical Debate between Origen and Heracleon in Origen’s ‘Commentary on the Gospel of John.’” She was appointed an assistant professor of religion at Columbia University, in 1970, and promoted to associate professor in 1974. In 1976, she was appointed professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Barnard College. She served in that role until her appointment at Princeton in 1982 as the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion.

A leading scholar of early Christianity, Elaine has established herself as a foremost interpreter of texts from the Nag Hammadi library, a trove of gnostic manuscripts from the fourth century that came to light in 1945. In her numerous books, articles, translations, and commentaries, she has illuminated for readers both the worlds in which these documents were produced and the changing interpretive contexts in which they have resonated. Her careful analyses of a range of materials, including both the gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi and canonical biblical texts, have helped to reveal the rich diversity of the early Christian movement. Her work focuses on revealing the processes of historical construction of Christian scriptural canon, creed, and institutions, situating them in the context of ancient politics and cultures.

Elaine’s 1979 book, The Gnostic Gospels, which won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, remains widely read by students, scholars, and the general public alike. In this survey of the varieties of early Christianity, she shows how the self-proclaimed orthodox church emerged in reaction to Christian diversity and did so by formulating canons and clerical institutions, as well as by championing a monotheistic and masculine conception of God that supported a male-dominated episcopacy. 

She continued to explore the significance of the rediscovery of gnostic texts for our understanding of the early Christian movement in her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (1988). In this work, Elaine examined Christian attitudes toward the nature and origin of sin, emphasizing that Augustine’s famous formulation of “original sin” was only one among 

many conceptions of sin within the early Church. Her study is focused especially on attitudes toward sexuality and debates over the virtue of rigid asceticism and marriage. 

Her 2003 book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, examines the spirituality of the Nag Hammadi text “The Gospel of Thomas,” concerned with how it encourages its readers to discover a direct connection to the divine within themselves, and she charts how that view challenged ancient clerics who claimed that they mediate between God and humanity. Once again, Elaine’s keen textual analysis and sensitive reading of the broader political, social, and ecclesiastical contexts allow readers to see the theological diversity of the early Christian movement, a view that resituates what later became solidified as orthodoxy in a quite different theological field. 

In her 2012 book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Elaine considers the enduring power of this piece of apocalyptic literature, as both a religious and political text. How, she asks, did John’s revelation, one of many such texts produced in the early Christian era, become the revelation of the Christian canon? Through deep engagement with the theology and politics of the world that gave rise to John’s text, Elaine provides readers with a picture of the Book of Revelation as what she describes as “wartime literature” written by a Jewish follower of Jesus addressing the evils of the Roman empire, on the one hand, and challenging the legitimacy of the Gentile followers of Jesus on the other. 

Elaine reflected in her 2018 book, Why Religion? A Personal Story, on what the study of religion has offered her as she navigated the grief of the death of a child and of her husband, interweaving autobiography and accounts of the questions that drew her to the texts she has so expertly interpreted. In this and other works, we see clearly how gifted Elaine is in showing readers that the ancient religious texts she studies are concerned with the great questions of human existence, though they may discuss them in mythological or theological language very different from our own.

Even as her considerable renown as a scholar and interpreter of the early Christian movement has garnered her international acclaim, Elaine has always been a committed teacher and adviser of legions of Princeton undergraduate and graduate students. Her courses have introduced students to the religious and cultural worlds of Mediterranean antiquity, provided them the opportunity to engage deeply with ancient religious texts in historical context, and guided them to see the enduring power of ancient religion in modern arts, culture, and politics. Elaine’s graduate seminars on varied topics in Greco-Roman religions have consistently drawn students from many different disciplines within the University and from other academic institutions. As a mentor for graduate students, Elaine sets high standards for scholarly excellence, critical thinking, creativity, and clear writing. She has mentored numerous graduate students, many of whom have gone on to leading positions in the field, thereby further shaping the future of scholarship in early Christianity.

Elaine’s scholarly achievements and remarkable ability to engage a broad range of readers on topics in the history of early Christianity, the study of religion, and perennial questions about how humans make meaning have garnered her numerous fellowships, awards, and honors. These include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1978), Rockefeller Fellowship (1979), MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1981), Old Dominion Professorship (2010), and honorary degrees from Kenyon College (2003), Marymount Manhattan College (2008), and Harvard University (2013). Elaine has been recognized with other major honors, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988, a Centennial Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Society from the Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2005, the 2010 Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion from the American Academy of Religion, Princeton’s Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities in 2012, and a National Humanities Medal in 2016. 

Princeton University has been fortunate to have had such an engaged teacher, groundbreaking scholar, and ardent advocate for the significance of the study of religion for so many years. Elaine’s colleagues and students across the University know her to be deeply committed to the humanities and eager to build bridges across disciplines and fields of study, as excited to talk about painting and theater, physics, neuroscience, music, politics, or literature as she is about ancient texts and their contexts, and to do so in all cases with curiosity, passion, empathy, and erudition. Elaine leaves behind a profound legacy.

Written by members of the Department of Religion faculty.