Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, Jan. 21, 2004

Princeton religious scholar to host lectures examining early Christianity

It may be said that 2003 was a good year for Christian arcana.

First came The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's fictional thriller about religious symbology and a millennia-old church conspiracy to quash alternative Scripture. Then came Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, in which scholar Elaine Pagels explores the diversity of early ideas about Jesus, particularly the notion that the Gospel of John (which made the final cut for the New Testament) deliberately sets out to refute ideas contained in the Gospel of Thomas (which, obviously, didn't).

Following the success of Beyond Belief, which spent 13 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list last year, Pagels is set to return next week to her old stomping grounds -- Stanford -- to present the Harry Camp Memorial Lectures, organized by the Humanities Center.

The first lecture, "Revisioning Christianity: New Perspectives from the Gospel of Thomas," is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26, in Cubberley Auditorium. Her second lecture, "Politics and Religion: How and When Do They Begin to Separate?" is scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, in Room 290 of the Law School. In addition, Pagels will conduct two seminars -- at 4 p.m. Jan. 27 and 29 -- in the Humanities Center. All events are free and open to the public.

Pagels grew up on the Farm, where her father was a plant biology professor and where she graduated in 1964 with a bachelor's degree in history. A year later, she also earned a master's degree in classics from Stanford. She earned a doctorate in religious studies from Harvard in 1970. She is now the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University.

Pagels first made headlines in 1979 with her book The Gnostic Gospels, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. It was an analysis of 52 ancient papyrus manuscripts, including poems, prayers and the so-called "Gnostic gospels," that were discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945. According to Pagels, these Gnostic gospels, one of which is the Gospel of Thomas, convey a pre-canonical Christian movement that was unsettled about the nature of Jesus. But seeking to impose an orthodox set of doctrinal beliefs on the nascent religion, early church authorities decried the texts as heretical. Historians believe that monks from a nearby monastery buried the manuscripts in a large clay jar at Nag Hammadi to save them from destruction.

Pagels is also the author of Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988) and The Origin of Satan (1995). Robert Gregg, a professor of religious studies, tells the current issue of Stanford magazine: "Elaine has made her mark and gained her fame as someone who has mastered making popularly accessible a lot of good, critical scholarship, which has reshaped how we understand early Christianity."