Elaine Pagels was in a dark period of her life when she began researching Satan.
Her son died in 1987 after years of battling illness, and the next year, her husband died in a hiking accident.
"I guess when difficult things happen, some people ask how God could allow it to happen," Pagels said from her office at Princeton University, where she is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion. "I just never thought of putting the questions that way. But in the early Christian movement, people used to think Satan was responsible for these things — they wouldn't blame them on God, they would blame them on Satan.
"And I would think, 'That would be convenient, wouldn't it?' So I started thinking about Satan and a world where it's understood that Satan is someone who throws obstacles at you."
Pagels' research led her to write her 1995 book The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics (Vintage, $14). In the book, the celebrated scholar and author describes Satan as a figure that was not prominent in Jewish literature and is often undefined, but has been personified by Christians over the centuries to characterize people they are opposed to.
She is in Lexington this weekend to talk about Satan and other topics at Christ Church Cathedral. Her visit to Lexington starts Thursday with a talk at Transylvania University and Friday night at Christ Church.
It will continue Saturday at the cathedral with a morning presentation about her latest work on the New Testament's Book of Revelation and with Pagels moderating a panel of area Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in the afternoon. She will speak again at the church Sunday morning.
The appearance is part of a program called What's Evil Got to Do With It?, which Christ Church's minister of Christian formation, Elizabeth Conrad, said was inspired by the Halloween season and Pagels' expertise on the subject.
Pagels' questions about Satan were the latest in a career that started with questions she had about faith and religion.
"They came from an experience with an evangelical church when I was 14," Pagels, 67, said. "I attended an evangelical revival and loved it, having come from a liberal Christian background, which was pretty boring. I found the intensity and commitment these evangelical Christians showed very powerful."
She became involved in the church for a year, but questions started to nag at her.
"Particularly when they said someone who wasn't a Christian was going to hell because he was a Jew — a friend of mine," Pagels said. "Knowing Jesus was a Jew, I didn't quite get that. That seemed to me to conflict with the teachings about loving God and your neighbor in a way that I felt I had to sort out myself."
Initially she was not going to make a career of that.
After undergraduate work at Stanford University, Pagels went to New York with designs on becoming part of Martha Graham's iconic dance company. But she realized that while she was pretty good at dance, that wasn't quite good enough for Graham's level. She also realized she wasn't ready to make her life singularly devoted to dance the way being in an elite dance company required.
So she pursued religious studies. "I think it's worked out pretty well," an understated Pagels said.
She earned her Ph.D. at Harvard and in 1970 joined the faculty at Barnard College, where she stayed for 12 years. She has been at Princeton since 1982.
Pagels' research has taken her deep into theological texts never seen by most people. Her breakthrough work was 1979's The Gnostic Gospels (Vintage, $13), which explored accounts of Jesus' life that were written but not included as part of the New Testament. She has published two books on individual Gospels: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas in 2004 (Vintage, $13) and Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, co-written with Karen L. King, in 2007 (Penguin, $15). Other works include Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity in 1988 (Vintage, $13.95) and a new book she is working on about Revelation. Along that path, she has earned widespread acclaim for her work and received awards such as a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the "genius award."
Stepping into Revelation, the final book in the New Testament, which many Christians believe details how the world will end, Pagels knows she is heading into another area of religious studies that generates constant interest and controversy.
"If you look at all these secret Gospels, and the boundary between heresy and these other Gospels is open to question — and I had to question, for my work — how do you know which revelation is real or true?" said Pagels, who expects to finish the Revelation book this year. "Orthodoxy is designed to tell you this is right and this is wrong. So these are the right teachings and these are the wrong teachings. And if you even start to ask a question about that, how do you answer that question?"
Pagels said she has answered many of the questions that initially drew her into religious studies, but "the questions, one hopes, get deeper."