By Published: Oct. 17, 2019

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


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


Elaine Pagels

“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.” 

“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, “How Jesus’ Followers Invented the Devil We Know – And His Ongoing Role in Our ‘Social History,’” is sponsored by the university’s Religious Studies Department. 

Pagels says the idea of Satan 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 Program in Jewish Studies and the History, Classics and Women and Gender Studies Departments. 

The event is the department’s 2019 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.