Fall Girl: Theology, Gender, and How Eve Ruined Us All

In Episode 3 we talk to Dr. Elaine Pagels about manic pixie dream girls, tropes about women in early Christianity, lost Gnostic texts, and why being a heretic might not be so bad.

Stereotypes about women aren’t solely a modern phenomenon. Two pervasive ones in early Christian writings were “the devil’s gateway” and “the bride of Christ.” Where did these labels come from? Where did Eve go wrong? Who were Eustochium, Junia, and Marcellina? How do the Pauline and deuteropauline letters differ in their teachings on women? What alternative perspectives do we find among gnostic texts like the Gospel of Mary and Thunder, Perfect Mind? And why were these texts censored over the centuries?

Elaine also talks about her experiences as a woman in academia and how the Gnostic gospels have been received by women today.

Do not forsake me and do not be afraid of my power.

Thunder, Perfect Mind


An award-winning historian of religion, Dr. Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She is a multi-time, New York Times best-selling author, perhaps most famous for writing The Gnostic Gospels, as well as The Origin of Satan, Beyond Belief, and Adam, Eve and the Serpent. She studies gnosticism in early Christianity, sexuality and politics, and the origins of Christian anti-Semitism, among many topics. She was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant and received the National Medal for the Arts from President Barack Obama. Elaine was also the first woman admitted to Harvard’s Graduate School of Religion, where she earned her PhD, a story she recounts in her autobiography, Why Religion?


[podcast theme music plays, an upbeat, Mediterranean detective vibe]

Rebekah Haigh: Welcome to Women Who Went Before, a gynocentric quest into the ancient world! I’m Rebekah Haigh…

Emily Chesley: …and I’m Emily Chesley…

Rebekah: …scholars, friends, and fellow text-raiders!

Emily: Today Elaine Pagels joins us for “Fall Girl: Theology, Gender, and How Eve Ruined Us All.” We talk manic pixie dream girls, lost Gnostic texts, and why being a heretic might not be so bad.

[musical interlude]

Emily: Let’s start with stereotypes. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a quirky, perfect, ethereal character who floats into a story to save the male protagonist, but she bears little if any resemblance to a multi-dimensional human being with real faults. The term was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in a 2007 essay to describe a female archetype found in film and literature.1 The original example he pointed to was Kirsten Dunst’s character Claire in the movie Elizabethtown. Claire’s a gentle and funny stewardess who literally flies into Orlando Bloom’s life. She drops her plans for this total stranger and therapists him through the grief of his father’s death. But she herself stays pretty flat – a pretty enigma.

Manic Pixie Dream Girls float around the movies as idealized, one-dimensional visions of perfection that exist solely to teach the male protagonists life lessons and further their emotional growth. Needless to say, it is a vision of a woman imagined by men and serving heteronormative male fantasies.

Rebekah: And that is a kind of erasure. It removes depth, substance, and individuality from women’s portraits. And it sets up instead a fictive, male-imagined ideal as the type for women. 

This archetype recurs in multiple different movies and books, played out time and time again. Painfully, people who read these books and watch these movies can begin to imagine (perhaps only subconsciously) that this invented type exists. It sends subliminal messaging about the one kind of woman a boy should look for. How she should relate to him and further his life story. It suggests for girls there is only one girl they can be to catch a man’s eye–and in this pattern, it’s always a man. It erases reality and replaces it with fiction. 

Emily: Tropes are hardly a modern invention, though. Two of the most dominant tropes about women that recur in early Christian literature are “the Devil’s Gateway” and “the Bride of Christ.” Which is also the title of a classic article by scholar Elizabeth A. Clark.2

Rebekah: A spicy title! [both laugh]

The “devil’s gateway” remark comes from a third-century lawyer-turned-theologian named Tertullian. He lived in Carthage during the same time as Perpetua.3 In his treatise On the Apparel of Women, Tertuallian orders women to dress chastely and modestly, as you might expect. For him, the problem with women: is that women are the new Eves.

This goes back to the Fall story from Genesis. Eve disobeyed God, ate the apple, and handed it to Adam. She set off an endless, sinful, chain reaction throughout the human race. So all women in Tertullian’s eyes were equally shot through with evil. “You are the devil’s gateway,” he berates the women in his community. “You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law… You so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam; because of your punishment, this is, death, even the Son of God had to die” (De Cultu Feminarum, I.1.1–2, trans. Clark, 1986).4

Emily: Whatever Eve’s faults, Genesis 1 presupposes she too was created in the image of God (imago dei, in Latin). But sadly, Tertullian wasn’t alone in blaming Eve as the fall girl for society’s ills. In the fourth century, the Latin writer Ambrosiaster said the same thing, that a woman isn’t the image of God and therefore had no authority over men (Liber Quaes., XXI and XLV.3).5

The impulse to blame-it-on-the-woman was everywhere in early Jewish and Christian circles.6  Especially in the third through, say, sixth centuries–though it definitely did not end then. Women were seen as the door to all kinds of evil. They ushered sin into the world, and as mothers literally passed it from generation to generation.

Rebekah: But some women chose not to pass it on.  Female martyrs and celibate ascetics embodied  the other dominant Christian archetype for women: the bride of Christ.  Because they were chaste, these women were seen as holy. Such women rejected marriage and instead considered themselves spiritually married to Jesus Christ. One such woman who took a vow of virginity was the Palestinian woman Eustochium. She was the daughter of a Roman noblewoman.7 The translator Jerome celebrated Eustochium for taking Christ as her husband, even daring to call her mother “the mother-in-law of God.8

Emily: Elite male Church leaders often wrote in these tropes. But not all early Christian movements viewed women in archetypal, exclusionary terms. The earliest movements showed more diversity.

And don’t forget, tropes by definition reflect the authors’ fantasies and beliefs; they don’t necessarily tell us how women lived or led.  Jesus himself seems to have numbered women, like Mary Magdalene among his disciples (Lk 8:1; Mt 12:46-50). A woman apostle named Junia served in the church at Rome (Ro 16:7). And Eustochium, the “bride of Christ” who we met just now, was a biblical scholar in her own right and managed several women’s monasteries in Bethlehem.9

Some of the most exciting evidence for more three-dimensional views of women comes from an eclectic collection found in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, in Egypt.10 Many of the Nag Hammadi texts belong to what early church fathers like Irenaeus derided as heretical Christian movements. Irenaeus and Tertullian complained that women were especially drawn to these heretical movements (AH 1.13.5). But who counts as a heretic depends on who’s writing. In the second and third centuries CE there were many flavors of Christianity. As our guest today discusses, the so-called “gnostic” texts from Nag Hammadi and groups like the Valentinians, wrote of God as both masculine and feminine and seemed to view women as socially and ontologically equal to men.11  Perhaps it’s no mystery why women might have been more drawn to this brand of Christianity!

Rebekah: We are honored and delighted to have as our guest today Dr. Elaine Pagels. An award-winning historian of religion, she is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She is a multi-time New York Times best-selling author, perhaps most famous for writing The Gnostic Gospels, The Origin of Satan, Beyond Belief, and Adam, Eve and the Serpent. She studies gnosticism in early Christianity, sexuality and politics, and the origins of Christian anti-Semitism, among many things.

She was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant and received the National Medal for the Arts from President Barack Obama himself. Elaine was also the first woman admitted to Harvard’s Graduate School of Religion, where she earned her PhD, a story she recounts in her autobiography, Why Religion?  That was released in 2018. She’s been a trailblazer in more ways than one, and we are so thrilled to welcome her to the podcast.

[podcast theme music]

Emily: So you’re very well known for your work on Eve. And early Christian and Jewish interpreters used the Fall story in Genesis to explain the origin of evil in the world and the nature of human beings. Could you explain how the Fall story is used within early Christian and Jewish traditions? How does Eve become the fall girl –pun very much intended– for all of humanity?

Elaine Pagels: Well it’s interesting. Originally when I first encountered this story I thought it was just about the beginning of the world. You know, how everything started. And that’s what it claims to be. 

And much later—and I think you may know that it’s when I was visiting in East Africa and talking with someone from the Dinka tribe, he was telling his creation stories— And as I heard them (not being part of that culture), I understood that these creation stories were not just telling you about how the beginning of the world, but they were actually constructing the social world, the cultural world of that people. So what they’re doing is giving you the value structure. They’re talking about who’s in authority, and they’re talking about what men do and what women do, and what human beings must do to please the gods. Or what they do to displease the gods. And you know, how people die and why. And you know, what is good and what is evil.

And so there’s a great deal of social coding (and political coding for that matter) included in these remarkable creation stories. So I began to understand that they have multiple functions, very important to transmit the values of a culture.

So how does Eve become the fall guy, yes? Because she is taken by Jews and Christians who are starting to use the story to articulate their cultural values as not a character in the story. She is taken as a corporate personality. She is woman personified, right? So that what she does is indicative of how women act. For better and for worse, and mostly for worse. [laughs wryly] 

I mean, I, when you read the Genesis Rabbah… Well, I was reading things like this: Why do women walk at the head of the funeral procession? Because they caused death, they brought death into the world and they caused death, and therefore they have to walk in repentance at the head of the funeral procession.

Another question the rabbis would ask: “Why do women bleed every month?” Because they shed Adam’s blood and therefore they have to shed blood every month in penitence for bringing death into Adam and of course to men. 

So in these ways women are taught that they are, you know, embodiments of the primordial woman. And she [Eve] exemplifies what it means to be a woman. It’s a pretty consequential and quite horrific story in some ways. 

It’s completely hierarchical. And of course, as fathers of the church never failed to point out, they say, “The man wasn’t deceived by the serpent, but the woman was deceived and fell into sin, and that’s the trouble. And one of the consequences of that is that a man must never listen to a woman.”

So when the Lord speaks to these sinful humans that he’s just created, he says to the man, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and not to me,” – (that’s, “and not to me” is in parenthesis. He doesn’t say that; he doesn’t have to say that) – “because you have listened to the voice of your wife, that’s a big mistake. And when you do you’re going to go the wrong way. So you must not listen to what your wife says. You must listen to what the Lord says and obey him.”

So that’s part of the message. That’s part of a very complicated coding of a really amazing story. 

It looks so naive. You know there’s just this man, this woman, the snake that talks. They’re naked. It’s, it’s a wonderful collage. It suggests so much. It says so little, and so much gets projected into it. 

Rebekah: And thinking about the particular codings of the later church fathers— There were other ways of reading these stories, or perhaps attention wasn’t fixated on these stories in those particular ways. The Gnostic Gospels, which we’ll get to in a minute, and the various books within the New Testament showcase a diversity of voices and teachings on women. What place did women have in the early Jesus movement?

Elaine: Well, of course that’s a complicated question. And it seems that from the sources that we have, as you know, the various gospel accounts and narratives about Jesus, there are conflicting stories. The usual Christian narrative is that Jesus is very unusual in taking women seriously and that he speaks to them. And everybody likes the Gospel of John, and Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman, and isn’t that wonderful? He’s forgiving to the prostitute in chapter 8. That’s one of the ways Christians like to read it. That Christianity, unlike Judaism, is much more receptive to women.

But actually, that’s I think a mistake. As you know, if you look at the writings of Paul, well Paul has a hierarchy in 1 Corinthians he talks about. 1 Corinthians 11, well, there’s a hierarchy. It goes like this: there’s God. And then there’s Jesus under God. And then there’s man under Jesus.  And there’s woman under man. And it says the man is the image of God, and the woman is the image of the man.

And when I’ve read about Jewish tradition about women, they say, “Well, men are made in the image of God.” Most rabbis thought women were not. But when a woman is joined to a man in marriage, then she can share in the image of God. As part of his, being part of the man, effectively.

Emily: So one of the things that we have looked at was 1 Timothy, that famous bit—“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men, she should keep silent.” I wondered if we could talk a little bit maybe for our listeners about the difference between the Pauline and deuteropauline letters. This is something scholars talk about, Paul and Second Paul. Can you explain a little bit of why the distinction between the Pauline and deuteropauline letters matters when it comes to analyzing these roles for women?

Elaine: That’s such a good question because most people who are familiar with the New Testament or have heard it make no discrimination between the letters of Paul in the New Testament. There are 13 of them, but now we know that probably Paul wrote some of them. Maybe seven out of five. 

And that distinction is really important in this question, as you know, because Paul’s particular experience of women in the Christian movement shows that, as I read him, Paul will take anybody he can get. He’s trying to convert Jews and non-Jews. And if he can include women in that group he is grateful to do that, because he’s working hard against considerable opposition. 

He at the end of the letter to the Romans he greets various people who are his coworkers, and he says “greet Mary, who has worked hard for with me in the gospel,” and Mary is apparently a fellow missionary of Paul’s. And then there’s that famous verse in 16:7 in which he says “Greet Andronicus and Junia, who are my kinsman and my co-fighters.” The Greek is “the people who fight along with me.” My companions, I guess you could say, “who are prominent among the apostles.”

And as no doubt you know, for a couple of millennia readers of this text in Greek have said, well, he’s talking about Andronica and Junia as prominent apostles, so this must be a couple of men, because a woman could of course not be an apostle. 

It was only when Bernadette Brooten not so long ago was writing about this. She said no, the form of the Greek name of Junia is a woman’s name. But it’s always been translated as a man’s name because of course the assumption that a woman could not be an apostle. But she proved in her famous dissertation done at Harvard that this is in fact a man and woman couple of missionaries. And that he was speaking to them as prominent apostles who were there in the movement before him.

And so we can see that Paul himself spoke with respect and with appreciation for women in the movement, not only his converts but his collaborators in spreading the Gospel and his predecessors as well.

But then when you get to the deuteropauline letters… 

His view of the relationship between men and women in 1 Corinthians 7 is often seen as remarkably egalitarian. He’s talking about the reciprocal relationship between a man and a woman who are married, that they each have rights over each other to make claims, particularly sexual requests of each other and demands of each other. And the man and the woman are spoken equally in this regard in 1 Corinthians 7. 

But later he will speak of the man as head of the woman, and so he’s quite inconsistent, Paul is. 

I think he thought that women could be equals—this is just my own reading—if they were celibate, if they were single, or if they were part of a celibate couple. But a married woman would have to conform to the expectations of a married woman. So married women are not included among his equals. But the those he does speak about—in this case Mary and Junia—might well be celibate missionaries as well. I don’t know, that’s just my guess about it.

So Paul gives a mixed message in his own letters. If Paul’s writing between 50 and 60 CE, twenty to thirty years after the death of Jesus, these other letters are written when? 120, 140? We don’t know the answers. We don’t know because they’re not included in the earliest collection of Paul’s letters. They’re added later, apparently as a corrective to change the way Christians in later generations will read these different gender roles.

And so 1 Timothy makes these comments that you bring forth and that are so important in later tradition: that women are weaker than men, they shouldn’t speak in church, they brought sin into the world, they are easily gullible, while men are not. And therefore they have to keep silent and be subject to the men. They shouldn’t go around talking to anybody. They shouldn’t teach anybody, they should keep their mouths shut. They can have babies and they can be saved through childbearing if they’re modest and humble.

So you get a very different social picture, which comes from a different time in the history of the early Christian movement. Apparently, as several scholars have shown, when it’s moving into wider circles in the Greco-Roman society in which patriarchy was completely assumed and thoroughly entrenched…  And this movement might have been much more controversial than it already was, if it had contested the roles of women, or for that matter of slaves. So the later Pauline letters which are written by somebody else reaffirm the traditional patriarchal structure of the man over the woman, the father over the family, and the master over the slaves. The social structure is less disrupted by the Christian movement than it would have been had these secondarily, we call them, deuteropauline letters—had they not corrected Paul’s original mistakes of allowing too much liberty for women.

Emily: So as the Jesus movement grows and gets more entrenched in society, it begins to look a little more like the society around it. To over-generalize.

Elaine: Yes

Emily: [joking] Timothy’s ideas would be unfortunate for those of us who are women teachers!

Rebekah: [also joking] No jobs.

Elaine: That’s right.

Emily: But we’ve talked about literary erasure on the podcast—the idea that women’s portraits were often manipulated by male authors, sometimes written out of the story altogether. We’ve also introduced our audience to two archetypes of women that we find in much of late antique Christian theology, at least mainstream theology: the Devils gateway and the bride of Christ. Where do these opposing archetypes come from? And are they actually all that ideologically different?

Elaine: Well, I see them as very similar. “Devils’ gateway,” of course, is Tertullian’s language, and “bride of Christ” is Paul’s language. But it either means hypersexualized or asexual. So the good woman is sexless, preferably, at least manifesting that way and acting that way. And the evil woman is sexually engaged and often parodied as a lurid, seductive, sex-obsessed creature. 

And that’s the way women often appear in some Jewish literature of the time and Christian literature. When a man is attracted to a woman in some of the Jewish texts like the Testament of Benjamin, it’s always the woman’s fault for being seductive. It’s never the man’s fault for his lust. It’s always that the woman has done it to him. She’s the one who’s blamed for his desire.

Emily: [wryly] Something we never see today.

Elaine: Of course not! [all chuckle] You know that’s the strange thing, is the incredible durability of these stories. I mean, you’d think, what are we talking about in the 21st century? This stuff is written 2000 years ago! Who would take it seriously? Well, some people do. Right?

Rebekah: Yeah, a lot of people, unfortunately. [all chuckle wryly]

Rebekah: When many people hear you, they think of the Gnostic Gospels since you became famous at the very start of your career for a book by that name. It’s pretty rare for a scholar’s book to hit the New York Times bestseller list and the MacArthur Genius Grant as well! First, for anyone who doesn’t know, what are the Nag Hammadi texts and the works that historians label the Gnostic Gospels?

Elaine: Well, you know I was just very lucky to be in graduate school at a time when suddenly our cohort of graduate students and faculty had this collection of ancient manuscripts land on our heads. 51 ancient Christian texts which quite transform what we know about the early Christian movement.

Now, a scholar recently here, Yedidah Koren said—speaking of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found the same year in 1945 [Ed: 1947]—she said, “Everything you can’t find in Judaism can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Meaning you can find all sorts of things that Jews think Jews never talked about in the Dead Sea Scrolls. And I thought, the same is true of the Nag Hammadi texts, of these 51 texts which include certain texts called Gospels. Others claim to be conversations between Jesus and his followers, or reports of what he did or said. And others are Jewish texts or Egyptian texts. And things that you think are not part of Christianity at all are found there. 

And so what we know now, each of these discoveries is actually not the discovery of the century. It’s the discovery of the last two thousand years. The Dead Sea Scrolls have transformed the way we understand Judaism in the 1st century in the time of Jesus, and the Nag Hammadi texts are transforming the way we see the beginning of the Christian movement. It completely, give you a wider context and far more diverse panoply of sources than we ever imagined we’d ever see. 

I call them the Gnostic Gospels, but even though there are 51 texts there are only a few that are called Gospels, which are specifically about the message of Jesus. Now what’s different about the so-called “Gospels” you find in this collection and the ones in the New Testament is that the ones in the New Testament claim to be the public teaching of Jesus. So he’s out on the fields, crowds of people around Jesus, thousands of them on the hillsides of Galilee. And he’s preaching and he’s teaching. And that’s supposedly recorded in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels. And probably a lot that’s in those texts are things Jesus said in those settings.

Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one, also says he said things privately to his disciples. He told them a mystery of the kingdom of God which He didn’t tell outsiders, but Mark doesn’t tell you what it is. 

The gospels that were found in this new collection, this new ancient collection, actually claim to tell you secret teachings of Jesus. So the Gospel of Thomas starts with the words, “These are the secret sayings of Jesus which the living Jesus spoke and his disciple Judas Thomas wrote them down.” And that text has 114 sayings of Jesus. Half of them completely familiar from Luke and Matthew, like the parable of the mustard seed or love your brother—very familiar material. And the other half are completely unknown previously. And they often are interpretations of Genesis 1 and the creation story.

Emily: We’ve unpacked how the mainstream leaders of early Christianity and Judaism understood the creation story and the Fall. This narrative of what’s wrong with women today. But how did these early Gnostics understand the creation story? 

Elaine: When I started teaching at Barnard, we had the first women’s conference. It was a big conference of two thousand women and they said, “why don’t you tell us about women in the early Christian movement? What you learned in graduate school?” 

And I said, “alright, nothing.” [Emily laughs] “We didn’t talk about women. They don’t write. They’re seldom written about. We didn’t learn anything about that.” 

And then I suddenly thought, wait a minute! These secret texts are filled with feminine imagery. The divine source, God, whatever we call God, is seen in masculine and feminine images. As father, as mother. As Holy Spirit which is gendered feminine in Hebrew. Or Wisdom, which is gendered feminine. We see a divine being that’s seen like almost all the other cultures of the ancient world, in both masculine and feminine terms. And we see women prominent in these stories. As Mary Magdalene appears as a disciple, say in the Gospel of Thomas, and she’s never seen as a disciple in the Gospel of Luke, which specifically restricts the title of disciple or apostle to men. So here we find a completely different story.

So I went back to one of my professors and I said, “well, what does it mean that we find all of these images?” And he said “why ask me?” So I figured we had to figure it out! 

And I was amazed at what I found. An enormously different kind of interpretation.

And when it comes to Eve, here there are texts in which Eve appears as divine wisdom, as the mother of Adam. She appears as a manifestation of the divine manifest in the world.

And so I began to realize that these texts reflect challenges to gender norms of antiquity. Just as we were in the process of challenging gender norms in our own society, and we still do. And so they’re very useful. Because we say, hey this is not women’s lib. People wrote about me, “oh she’s doing ‘women’s lib.’ [laughs] Yuck! This is kind of new age!” And I said, “hey, two thousand years is not that new!”

Rebekah: The new, new age! [all laugh]

Emily: The old new age!

Elaine: You know, to realize that there were women in that early movement who were educated, who were writing songs and poetry, who were looking at the goddesses of Egypt, for example, in the poem called Thunder, looking at Isis and Hathor and Nut and other of the great goddesses of antiquity and resonating with a sense of the power innate in those images.

Emily: So you’ve mentioned texts from Nag Hammadi like Thunder Perfect Mind and the Apocryphon of John. Texts that characterize the divine as both masculine and feminine.

Elaine: Yes.

Emily: You’ve written that “gnostic sources which describe God as a dyad often suggest that human nature is also androgynous.”12 How is gender or femaleness used in theological ways in the Nag Hammadi corpus?

Elaine: Well, it’s so interesting, you know. That it’s used in various ways. There are some texts that assume what the culture has taught, that the masculine is always prior to the feminine, like in the story in Genesis 1. The Gospel of Thomasuses that imagery too. So that there, Jesus says of Mary Magdalene when Peter criticizes her and says “she’s a woman! She, she’s not worthy of spiritual life.” It may be a wrong thing, for example, to teach Torah to a woman. And then Jesus says, “yes, well, I will take her and make her a male so that she may become a living spirit like you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of heaven.” 

I remember reading that when I was at Oxford and I thought “yes, this whole place is designed to turn women into men.” Because of course men are more important and more powerful. So that’s one way you see it in these texts.

But otherwise, as you said, gender is seen as a continuum in all beings, divine being as a paradigm of being, right? And in all of us. So you don’t see the kind of sharp division and hierarchical shape that it so often takes in other cultures.

Rebekah: So the Nag Hammadi texts preserve a glimpse into noncanonical forms of early Christianity. Heretics, depending on who you ask! Until these texts were found, as we’ve discussed, our understanding of early Christianity was dominated by literature written by the historical victors. How were women imagined within the Nag Hammadi corpus? And do depictions of, say Mary Magdalene, offer any alternative roles for women? At least alternatives to the devil’s gateway/bride of Christ paradigm that we’ve discussed?

Elaine: It’s fascinating that among the texts which come from antiquity we find the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It was actually not discovered in that collection. It was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. But any of the men who realized that they had a fragment of something called the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, they just didn’t pay attention to it. But in that text there’s some very important clues. 

Here, Mary Magdalene—who in Luke’s gospel is deprecated as a woman who was possessed by demons and only exorcised by Jesus, who was never a disciple, who was never an apostle, who could never speak truth about the movement, and later was interpreted as a prostitute in Catholic tradition—here in the Gospel of Mary she appears not only as an equal to the other disciples, but a leader among them. She’s the one who consoles them when they’re terrified of preaching the gospel because they’re afraid they’ll get killed the way Jesus was killed. And she stands up and says, “the Lord has preserved us and turned us into men.” And there again you have the image that a woman who can adopt roles of leadership is seen in some sense in a man’s role. She takes the lead in that gospel, and she claims to have received from Jesus secret teaching. 

And there she’s challenged by Peter, who says, “what, are we supposed to listen to her? I mean, these, I don’t believe the Lord said these things. I, she’s just making these things up. And we’re not going to go turn around and listen to that woman?” 

And then he’s rebuked. And says, “well, if the Lord thought she was worthy, who are you to dismiss her?” And then Mary speaks, and she claims that she has received revelations which all the disciples need to hear. And it’s a very powerful and poignant story.

And we have other texts as well like Pistis Sophia, in which Mary and Peter are seen as vying rivals for leadership among the disciples. 

But most significantly for our purposes, the literature that speaks of Mary in that way is almost completely erased. But here Mary is not sexualized, either as a virgin or a prostitute. It’s interesting that she is simply seen as a leader among the disciples. And in the Gospel of Mary, Mary has the last word. She wants to go out and preach like the others. And in this gospel she wins the argument. So now we know why it’s not in the New Testament, because whoever put those things together never let the woman win the argument or take those kinds of roles! 

Emily: I’m so glad you mention that because for me the Gospel of Mary is so illustrative of the power that male church leaders had to silence heterodox voices or voices that they didn’t want. Because not only did we not have the text preserved of the Gospel of Mary until it was discovered in 1896 I think in that trash heap; but we didn’t even have a reference to it, that it had once existed. We didn’t even have it mentioned, they wanted it silenced so much. So who knows? As you said, who knows what’s missing?

Rebekah: So how do we get from sort of the first and second century diverse sort of literature and imagination—and yes, we’re working with some uncomfortable stereotypes, but there are more options— How do we get from the New Testament and Gnostic literature to theologians like Tertullian and Augustine?

Elaine: Well, it does seem to me what you just spoke about, that these texts as Emily said were utterly censored. I mean, they were targeted. And any text that had that kind of suggestion of women’s leadership or roles or reverence in the community are gone!

And that couldn’t have been the only one, right? Because there are many uses of feminine imagery and characterizations of stories with feminine character reappearing as divine beings. 

And we also know that the fathers of the church were really angry. Irenaeus was angry that women were very much attracted to this kind of stuff. Why? Because one of these terrible prophets that he talks about would lay his hands on women and challenge them to speak in prophecy. [relating Irenaeus’ view,] He would convey the Holy Spirit and this poor woman would start babbling some crazy nonsense and thinks she’s a prophet. And it’s absolutely outrageous. And they let women participate in decision-making. I mean, I can’t even tell you the awful things they do. 

Tertullian says they let women preach and baptize and do all of these things! He speaks about a woman in North Africa who leads a community. He calls her “that viper.” So he doesn’t name her. But she has no business doing that because she is, as he’s the one who said it, the devil’s gateway. [relating Tertullian’s perspective,] And all of you are in Eve, and you should be repenting your whole life and cover your head so that men don’t get drawn into your lustful imaginations.

Emily: I think throughout this whole conversation, I think I can say that we have been thinking about present echoes of these ancient texts. So you published your autobiography in 2018. And you wrote incredibly courageously of your experiences applying for graduate school, enduring sexism and even harassment in academia. I am so sorry the academy treated you that way. And thank you for using your position of influence to shed light on the sexism within our disciplines. But what made you decide to share those parts of your story in the book?

Elaine: I hesitated to talk about sexual harassment by a professor of divinity and New Testament studies at Harvard University, with honorary doctorates from all over the place, as a serial sexual harasser and seducer of graduate students. 

Had any of us spoken about it at the time, he would have totally denied it and the person would have been I don’t know, totally shamed and probably sent out of graduate school. 

But I tell you this, Emily, it’s very interesting. I had put those things so far behind me in order to do the work I wanted to do, that I had— I can’t tell you I forgot them, but they were not in my conscious mind. 

And twenty-five years after The Gnostic Gospels was published the Society of Biblical Literature did a special session honoring me for that work. And people spoke about the work I was doing—scholars, wonderful scholars from Scandinavia saying, one of them, I love him, he said— Antje Marianne—and said “I was reading her book on a bus and I just, I never got off the bus. I ended up at the bus stop, the bus station, and I didn’t know where I was!” And he became a scholar of these texts.

So there were wonderful people speaking about what these texts meant to them and what that book meant. And my advisor got up and started speaking about what a wonderful student I was and what a wonderful scholar. 

And a man that I was very close to was in the audience, James Hal Cone. And he was sitting there. He said, “What happened to you?” He said, “Look, if my advisor had talked that way about me I would have felt really good! You looked so uncomfortable. What was wrong with you?”

And I suddenly thought, “Oh of course. He was a serial, a seducer!” And I remembered it all.

But isn’t that weird? How far away some women had to put all that stuff in order to function in a man’s world?

I knew I was in a man’s world. When I went to Harvard there were no women in graduate school except one. And my professors ridiculed her for the way she looked. I heard them do it. It was a man’s world, and we felt sort of we were walking on egg shells. We felt lucky be there. So I could not afford jeopardizing my career to focusing on that at the time. 

But much later I thought, “Hey wait a minute.” The first woman president of Harvard University, Drew Faust, set up a commission on—guess what?—sexual harassment at Harvard. As soon as she did, I called up her office. I’d just gotten an honorary degree from my wonderful alma mater. And I called up her office and was put in touch with the person in charge of the committee on sexual harassment, and I gave a deposition about all the stuff that happened.

What do I find out? I mean, I knew that it wasn’t an isolated situation. Had it been, I think I would have said nothing. But I knew it would… It became this man’s secret specialty was having sex with graduate students or working very hard to try to. And it never stopped. It went through generations. And nobody talked about it. 

So I thought, okay, that’s over. Time’s up. Right? 

And I’m only sorry I didn’t do it sooner. But you know, it took me some time to realize it. 

And then I thought, now do I name this man? I thought, if I talk about it I have to name him. Because it wasn’t Krister Stendahl who was an absolutely magnificent mentor. But there were others. [Helmut] Koester wasn’t the only one. And when I did speak about it I learned that the officers at the health center had a name for this guy. They called him Koester the Molester. 

Rebekah: Oh my god.

Elaine: Yeah, they knew from therapy from women for decades! And they didn’t speak about it! And the women didn’t speak to anyone in the administration. This went on for like thirty years.

But you see, there’s nothing unique about it. I mean, I know professors here at Princeton one of whom was in English literature, Columbia the same thing. I mean, you know the same kind of thing. It’s just a common story. 

And that was another reason for talking about it. It wasn’t unusual. It was so common. In fact I did speak with some of my graduate students about five years ago about one of the professors at Princeton who was famous for this. Who was quite the opposite in his image, shall we say. But was well known for seducing women or trying to, or harassing them for sure.

Emily: It’s common, but women deserve better. And men deserve better.

Elaine: Was it common in your experience at Princeton or other places?

Rebekah: No.

Emily: No, not on the level that you have described. Which was actually one of my questions. If you’ve seen the treatment of women in the academy change over your career?

Elaine: Well, it was very common then. I mean we were pioneers in a man’s world, and that happened in movies. It happened in show business. It happened in business, you know. And it was taken for granted by— I mean women just knew that. That was the liability of going to law school or whatever.

And yes, it’s changed hugely. When I first came to Princeton it was not long after women had first come to Princeton, and I went to, I was in the women’s gym for a gym class. And in the bathroom there was a graffito that said “Women are not equal at Princeton University.” And I thought, “Isn’t it great that these women imagine they would be equal at Princeton University after two hundred-and-fifty years of being excluded?” I love it, you know. 

And now, I tell you, the women I see in class, undergraduates, they speak out. I mean, maybe ten to fifteen years ago they didn’t so much. But now they’ve claimed those roles. And they are expected to.

Rebekah: Emily and I have discussed this before, but realizing when you look back, that you hadn’t thought it was unusual to have all of these female male mentors over the course your undergraduate and graduate and PhD you know, journey. And then, wait—that is pretty amazing that I can do this and be surrounded by women and not think about like, what it was like for them. That was a completely different world.

Elaine: Well I appreciate you saying that. I think the whole culture has really changed a lot. And it needed to. I mean, look at the situation for sexually ambivalent people, for people of different races. I mean, thank heaven there’s been tremendous awareness of the humanity of many more people than ever used to be acknowledged.

It’s remarkable how things have changed. It’s absolutely terrific. 

I just want to say I’ve always felt I’m not an antiquarian. I’m not interested in the ancient world so much. I’m interested in the world we’re living in and interested in that insofar as it illuminates aspects of the world we live in.

You know I was influenced by Nietzsche’s essay a long time ago called “The Use and Abuse of History for Life.” And he said, it’s not about knowing esoteric things about somebody in the third century. It’s how that, what that can show you about the questions we have right now. So I like that. I think what we do as historians when we do our best work.

Rebekah: Something that fascinates people about your work is that you’ve brought a body of literature to cultural awareness that was not part of the story of Christianity before. The Nag Hammadi texts allow us to hear some of the other voices in their words and sometimes glimpse alternatives to the bride or the devil’s gateway archetypes. 

So what are some of the ways that people have responded to your work or to texts like Thunder, Perfect Mind or the Gospel of Mary? How are these works being received today?

Elaine: What I so much love, Rebekah—it’s a great question—are the ways that artists use these. 

My closest friends from the start in New York and here even,  all around the world are, many of them are artists. And when I started I had some friends downtown who were painters and performance artists. Kind of wild women, some of them, too. And they had a journal, an arts journal that the women called Heresies. And so they said, why don’t you write something for Heresies?

And I said, well, actually I am not gonna write something, I’m gonna give you some heresy. So Carolee [Schneemann] and the other women who were doing this journal Heresies, said that at the end of the night when they finished the journal and they published the poem in it, they all started to chant and dance it. At the end of the night, the editors were tired and it was three in the morning and they chanted and danced to Thunder. And it probably was a chant and a dance and a ritual right?

And then I love the way Toni Morrison used it. The way that— I heard some songs that she’d written. So where, those are sort of interesting, where [Elaine asked Toni:] “Where did you get that? What is that about?”

She said, “Oh, oh it’s Thunder.” She said, “You told me about it!” 

And she had taken Thunder. And just took little pieces of it and turned it into a series of poems. It’s published now in a book that she self-published in Firestone [Library] with illustrations by an African American woman named Kara Walker.

Leslie Marmon Silko is a Native American artist who used it in a novel she called Garden[s] in the Dunes about a woman in her tribe who is completely out of place in the East Coast intellectual scene until she finds treasure. And the treasure she finds is Thunder, Perfect Mind

Last Saturday I saw a performance in Paris on Zoom of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene done in French by women.

Then you find this new movie Mary Magdalene, which is obviously leaning on that. So, artists have played with this material and made music out of it, made ritual out of it, made films out of it. I mean, there’s so much imagination and poetry and spiritual dimensions in these sources.

Rebekah: What do you think in particular about Thunder, Perfect Mind resonates with so many women?

Elaine: Because exactly that, Rebekah: that it breaks the dichotomy between the whore and the holy one. Between war and peace, between shamelessness and shame. Between poverty and wealth. Honor and disgrace.

And I translate it, you know, Thunder, Complete Consciousness, or complete mind. But nous you know, means consciousness. Because it’s not part of the mind. It’s not a part of a woman’s experience or a part of a human experience. It encompasses the whole. 

About two weeks ago I was speaking with a remarkable woman, named Zainab Salbi. She wrote about growing up in Iran, the daughter of the private pilot of Saddam Hussein—

Emily: Under the shadow of Saddam Hussein.

Elaine: Yeah. But in aristocratic circles in Iran, and how her mother forced her to leave Iran and marry an old Iranian man and she hated her mother for it. But realized later that Saddam was about to abduct her. She was sixteen as he and his sons abducted so many women and raped them and threw them away. 

And she, when I gave her this poem, she just burst into tears. And she sent me a poem she had written in a very extreme state of mind which practically echoed the same poem. She said, “I’ve never heard anything like this,” but she had written something like this. It was stunning. And it was her attempt to speak about having been raped and about being the rapist, about cruelty and about kindness, about being on every side of all kinds of experience. She was claiming it all. And she realized this poem was claiming it all. And it just astonished her, and it astonished me. 

How did you see that poem? Either of you or both of you.

Emily: We’ve both talked about, Rebekah and I’ve talked about the ways that it avoids an either/or and avoids flattening. We’ve talked about the devil’s gateway and bride of Christ archetypes as flattening for women because they give you one or two options. Thunder presents a vision that’s more multifaceted and that allows for a woman to not be perfect, and yet to not be bad.

Elaine: The whole. That’s why I call it complete mind: it’s the whole of experience, you know. It’s not just the part that you want to show.

And that’s even why I wrote in the book things that are not making me look good. [laughs] You know? But that’s just, I thought, well you know what, it’s just somebody’s life. It’s just the kinds of things that happen, right? You don’t always look good. But it is complex, whatever your story is. 

Either of you or anyone who’s in this conversation with us has a complete story that is complicated and contradictory, yeah? That’s why we love that poem.

[podcast theme music]

Elaine, reciting:

“I am the honored and the scorned, 

I am the harlot and the holy one.

I am the wife and the virgin. 

I am the m[oth]er and the daughter.


I am the barren one and the one with many children. 

I am she whose marriage is multiple, and I have not taken a husband. 

I am the midwife and she who does not give birth. 

I am the comforting of my labor pains.

I am the bride and the bridegroom.” (Thunder, Perfect Mind 13:16-20, 22-27, trans. Anne McGuire, 2000)13 

Emily: This poem Thunder, Perfect Mind was written in the second or third century CE, and it was unearthed among the Nag Hammadi corpus. In the poem, a mysterious female divine figure addresses her audience in an unstable series of philosophical and religious riddles.

Rebekah: Gnostic texts, like Thunder, Perfect Mind, offer a foil to the dominant female archetypes of early Christianity. Rather than a stereotyped, one-dimensional character, the poem’s “both/and” style embodies the contradictions of womanhood. Both honored and scorned, harlot and holy, unmarried and multi-married, even bride and bridegroom. She enacts violence and she is violated.  As scholar Hal Taussig put it, this anonymous poem is profoundly sensitive to “the power, pains, and constraints inherent to gender–particularly to being a woman.”14 

Emily: The exciting thing for us is that living women were probably hearing and even reading these gnostic poems. Scholars like Sarit Kattan Gribetz and David Brakke have suggested that it was precisely because they appealed to women and were spreading amongst their communities that male church leaders attempted to suppress them.15 Around 160 CE, a woman teacher named Marcellina voyaged across the Mediterranean Sea from Alexandria to Rome. There, she popularized gnosticism and gathered her own circle of followers that frightened churchmen like Irenaus.16 You don’t censor books unless people are checking them out from the library.

Rebekah: Church leaders were threatened by the social vision and theological orientation such gnostic texts presented, and they tried to suppress their views. Tertullian, the same angry theologian we met earlier, who called women “the gateway to the devil,” vented about the threat these gnostic women posed. “These heretical women,” he wrote, “how audacious they are! They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!” (De Praescriptione Haereticorum 41, trans. Pagels, 1979)17 Not only was their expansive vision of womanhood dangerous to mainstream Christianity, but so also were women’s spiritual leadership, raised voices, and bold teachings.

Emily: Maybe women weren’t running from the Fall, they were running towards the thunder.

[Podcast theme music]

Emily: If you enjoyed our show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts. Check out our website womenwhowentbefore.com, or find us on Twitter @womenbefore.

This podcast is written, produced, and edited by us, Emily Chesley and Rebekah Haigh. This episode was fact-checked by Jillian Marcantonio. Our music is composed and produced by Moses Sun. The podcast is sponsored by the Center for Culture, Society and Religion, the Program in Judaic Studies, and the Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies all at Princeton University.

Rebekah: Thanks for listening to Women Who Went Before! And don’t forget: women were there!

[Closing music]


  1. Nathan Rabin, “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown,” The AV Club, January 25, 2007; as a follow-up, see Rabin’s, “I’m sorry for coining the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’,Salon, July 15, 2014; and Noel Murray, Donna Bowman, Nathan Rabin, Amelie Gillette, Leonard Pierce, and Steven Hyden, “Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls,” The AV Club, August 4, 2008.
  2. Elizabeth A. Clark, “Devil’s Gateway and Bride of Christ: Women in the Early Christian World,” in Ascetic Piety and Women’s Faith: Essays on Late Ancient Christianity (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), 23–60.
  3. Some have speculated that Tertullian may have even been the one to edit her prison diary. Barbara K. Gold summarizes some of the scholars for and against this proposal in Perpetua: Athlete of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 13-14.
  4. Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women,” I.1.1–2, trans. Clark, “Devil’s Gateway,” p. 26.
  5. See also David G. Hunter, “The Paradise of Patriarchy: Ambrosiaster on Woman as (Not) God’s Image,” The Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 43, no. 2 (1992): 447–469.
  6. Sibylline Oracles, Book 1 lines 42–43; Philo, Creation, 165–166 and 151–152; Ben Sirach 25.24; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 1.49; II Enoch 31:6 and 30:17; Apocalypse of Moses 14.2.
  7. Clark, “Devil’s Gateway,” 28–29; Lucy Grig, “Paula and Eustochium,” Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity [ODLA] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), online edition.
  8. Jerome, Ep. 22.2, quoted in Clark, “Devil’s Gateway,” 29. See also, Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, 90.
  9. Grig, “Paula and Eustochium,” ODLA. See also Giselle Bader, “Paula and Jerome: towards a theology of late antique pilgrimage,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 18, no. 4 (2018): 344–353.
  10. On the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices and Elaine’s introduction to the field, see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), xiii-xvii, xxiv-xxix.
  11. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 48–69; and Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), 74–77.
  12. Elaine H. Pagels, “The Suppressed Gnostic Feminism,” The New York Review, November 22, 1979.
  13. Anne McGuire, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” in The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M. Robinson (New York: HarperOne, 1988), 172.
  14. “In ways both large and small, Thunder shows profound sensitivity to the power, pains, and constraints inherent to gender–particularly to being a woman. Amidst its carnivalesque shaping-shifting, the ‘I’ of Thunder continually takes account of the cruelties and contradictions of feminine identities: the unsparing swing between whore and holy woman, virgin and wife.” See Hal Taussig et al., The Thunder: Perfect Mind: A New Translation and Introduction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 41–51, at 41.
  15. David Brakke, Athanasius and Asceticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 58, 59–79; and Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “Women as Readers of the Nag Hammadi Codices,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 26, no. 3 (2018): 463–494.
  16. Clark, “Devil’s Gateway,” 35; Irenaus, Against Heresies, I.25.6; H. Gregory Snyder, “‘She Destroyed Multitudes’: Marcellina’s Group in Rome,” pp. 39–61 in Women and Knowledge in Early Christianity, eds. Tervahauta et. al. (Brill: 2017); and Jens Holzhausen, “Carpocrates, Carpocratians,” Brill’s New Pauly, eds. Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, and Landfester, trans. Christine F. Salazar and Francis G. Gentry. Consulted online on 29 April 2022.
  17. Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum 41, quoted in Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 60.
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