September 17, 2009


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By Kathryn Kopchik

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Elaine Pagels, a noted scholar of religion and author of The Gnostic Gospels, will deliver the Harry Wolcott Robbins Lecture at Bucknell University on Thursday, March 4, at 7:30 p.m. in Trout Auditorium in Vaughan Literature Building.

Pagels' talk, "The Cultural Impact of the Book of Revelation," is free and open to the public. The talk is co-sponsored by the Harry Wolcott Robbins Lectureship and the departments of English, Art and Art History, Classics, Comparative Humanities, Philosophy, and Religion, and the University Lectureship Committee. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session and a book signing.

"Professor Pagels is a noted scholar who has changed our understanding of early Christianity through her research and her writing," said John Rickard, professor of English at Bucknell. "We are looking forward to her visit and her talk."

Early Christian history challenged
As a young researcher at Barnard College, Pagels changed the historical landscape of the Christian religion by challenging the assumption that the early church was a unified movement. Her findings were published in the best-selling book, The Gnostic Gospels (1979, Vintage Books), an analysis of 52 early Christian manuscripts that were unearthed in Egypt.

Known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library, the manuscripts demonstrate that the early Christian movement was far more diverse than previously thought. They also indicate how women, prominent in certain Christian groups, were subsequently excluded from governing positions in its emerging hierarchy. As the early church moved toward becoming an orthodox body with a canon, rites and clergy, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were suppressed and deemed heretical.

The Gnostic Gospels won both the National Book Critics' Circle Award and the National Book Award and was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of the 20th century.

Exploring Genesis and Satan
Expanding on questions raised in The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels wrote Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988, Random House), a book that explores the Genesis creation stories and their role in the development of sexual attitudes in the Christian West, as well as the conviction, fundamental to American political life, that "all men are created equal."

Pagels wrote The Origin of Satan (1995, Random House) after the 1987 death of her 6-year-old son Mark to a respiratory disease and the 1988 death of her husband of 20 years in a rock-climbing accident.

Following these events, like many people who grieve, Pagels had a sense of living with invisible presences. The book is a culmination of her reflections on the many ways that various religions have given imaginative form to what is invisible. She sketches the development of Jewish and Christian perceptions of evil.

She also points out a clear connection between the primarily western view of the world as a battleground between supernatural forces of good and evil, and the tendency of certain groups - both Christian and Muslim - to demonize others. This tendency, observes Pagels, resulted in "some very human tragedies" and adds, "(Demonization) is a cultural habit we can no longer afford."

Gospels of Thomas and Judas
In her New York Times bestseller Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003, Vintage Books), Pagels focuses on religious claims to possessing the ultimate "truth." She contends that, as Christianity became increasingly institutionalized, it became more politicized and less pluralistic.

"I'm advocating, on some level, the inclusion of (religious texts) that were considered blasphemous. I suggest that there are ways of embracing a far wider spectrum of religious diversity within Christianity and quite beyond Christianity," she said.

Her latest book, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (2007, Viking Press), is also a New York Times bestseller. Co-authored with fellow scholar Karen King, the book is the first to illustrate how the newly discovered Gospel of Judas provides a window onto understanding how Jesus' followers understood his death, why Judas betrayed Jesus, and why God allowed it.

The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Pagels earned a master of arts degree from Stanford and a doctorate from Harvard. She has been profiled in national publications including TIME, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Mirabella, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.  

In February 1997, she was named one of the 25 Most Influential Working Mothers by Working Mother magazine. In 2003, she was a featured commentator on the ABC special program, "Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci."

Contact: Division of Communications