Elaine Pagels was born in California on February 13, 1943, as Elaine Hiesey. She was married to Heinz Pagels, a theoretical physicist, 1969. Elaine Pagels graduated from Stanford University (B.A. 1964, M.A. 1965) and, after briefly studying dance at Martha Graham’s studio, began studying for her Ph.D. at Harvard University, where she was part of a team studying the Nag Hammadi scrolls, documents found in 1945 that shed light on early Christian debates on theology and practice.
Elaine Pagels received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970, went to teach at Barnard College in 1970 where she became the head of the religion department in 1974. In 1979 her book based on her work with the Nag Hammadi scrolls, The Gnostic Gospels, sold 400,000 copies and won numerous awards and acclaim. In this book, Elaine Pagels asserts that the differences between the gnostics and the orthodox Christians was more about politics and organization than theology.
In 1982, Pagels joined Princeton University as a professor of early Christian history. Aided by a MacArthur grant, she researched and wrote Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, which documented the shift in Christian history when Christians began to focus on a meaning of the Genesis story which stressed the sinfulness of human nature and sexuality.
In 1987, Pagel’s son Mark died, after four years of illness, and the following year her husband, Heinz, died in a hiking accident. In part out of those experiences, she began working on the research leading to The Origin of Satan.
Elaine Pagels has continued to research and write about the theological shifts and battles within earlier Christianity. Her book, The Origin of Satan, published in 1995, is dedicated to her two children, David and Sarah, and in 1995 Pagels married Kent Greenawalt, a law professor at Columbia University.
Her Biblical work is both well-received as accessible and insightful, and criticized as making too much of marginal issues and too unorthodox.
In both The Gnostic Gospels and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels examines the way that women have been viewed in Christian history, and thus these texts have been important in the feminist study of religion. The Origins of Satan is not so explicitly feminist. In that work, Elaine Pagels shows the way that the figure Satan became a way for Christians to demonize their religious opponents, the Jews and the unorthodox Christians. Elaine is featured in the FAITHANDREASON® Studio Series Volume Two, “Is There Really A Devil?”, and “Faithfulness Or Extremism?”