By Published: Oct. 17, 2019

Plenty, says Princeton University professor, who will discuss the devil’s role in human history at CU Boulder

Elaine Pagels, a scholar who argues that early Christians invented the devil, will discuss his origins in Christianity and his role in humanity’s social history at the University of Colorado Boulder this week.

“Talking about Satan sounds strange, and it is; but after I started, I came to see that it has a lot to do with how we interpret human conflict,” said Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, a New York Times bestselling author, National Book Award winner and recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.” 


Elaine Pagels

“Even today, whether consciously or not, people often assume that whatever conflict engages them—social or political—is a matter of good against evil. … When people say Satan is trying to take over this country, they know exactly who they have in mind.” 

Her talk, “Speaking of the Devil: Constructing Good and Evil in Early Christian Sources,” is sponsored by the university’s Religious Studies Department and will be held in the CASE Chancellor’s Hall on Nov. 16 at 5:15 p.m. A reception will precede the lecture at 4:30 p.m. More information is available on the Lester Lecture series' website.

Pagels says the idea of the devil influences how people view and sometimes demonize others—whether, for example, they’re members of rival groups, or people of other cultures, ethnicity, races, even different political parties. This tendency intensifies social strife, she suggests. 

Pagels began exploring this topic when asking why Christians and Muslims developed stories of Satan as a powerful rival to God, when the Hebrew Bible, a source for both, hardly mentions such a figure.   

Pagels graduated with a PhD in religious studies from Harvard University, and joined the Princeton faculty in 1982. 

There, she teaches several courses, including a Religions of Late Antiquity workshop and Jesus: How Christianity Began. Pagels’ educational focus is in early Christianity and Gnosticism. She has published several novels on the topics of Christianity and Gnosticism, such as Adam, Eve and the Serpent, The Gnostic Gospels, and The Origins of Satan.  

Her appearance at CU Boulder is co-sponsored by the Center for Humanities and the Arts, the Program in Jewish Studies and the history and classics departments

The event is the department’s Lester Lecture, a series that addresses contemporary issues in the academic study of religion. The lecture series is supported by a private fund named after the late Robert C. Lester, who founded the department.