Staff Picks: Why Religion?

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

The reader (or listener) thus is granted access to Pagels’ vast knowledge and sensitive understanding of these relatively unknown texts.

Elaine Pagels, professor of Religious Studies at Princeton University, is likely the foremost scholar on the Gnostic Literature of the Nag Hammadi Library—a trove of ancient documents discovered in Egypt, in 1945, that radically changed our understanding about the diversity of beliefs in Early Christian communities. Her popular books about these documents, 'The Gnostic Gospels', 'Adam, Eve, and the Serpent', 'The Gospel of Judas' are seminal texts for anyone interested in Early Christianity. This book, however, is not a work of popular scholarship but rather a personal memoir. In it, Pagels describes her early involvement with evangelical Christianity, her teenage friendships with counter culture figures such as Jerry Garcia and her struggles as a woman in academia: she was initially rejected from Harvard because the admissions committee feared that because she was a woman she would leave the doctoral program in order to get married, once at Harvard she has to endure sexual harassment from a predatory professor. The heart of the book, however, discusses the long illness and eventual death of Pagels' young son. This devastating tragedy (‘it was like being burned alive’) is followed by the death of Pagels’ husband—astrophysicist Heinz Pagels—in a hiking accident. Pagels explores her own loss by drawing on her own vast knowledge of ancient religious texts—particularly the Gnostic material from the first few centuries of the common era. The reader (or listener) thus is granted access to Pagels’ vast knowledge and sensitive understanding of these relatively unknown texts. (Submitted by Jennifer)

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