Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

A startling exploration of the history of the most controversial book of the Bible, by the bestselling author of Beyond Belief.

Through the bestselling books of Elaine Pagels, thousands of readers have come to know and treasure the suppressed biblical texts known as the Gnostic Gospels. As one of the world’s foremost religion scholars, she has been a pioneer in interpreting these books and illuminating their place in the early history of Christianity. Her new book, however, tackles a text that is firmly, dramatically within the New Testament canon: The Book of Revelation, the surreal apocalyptic vision of the end of the world . . . or is it?

In this startling and timely book, Pagels returns The Book of Revelation to its historical origin, written as its author John of Patmos took aim at the Roman Empire after what is now known as “the Jewish War,” in 66 CE. Militant Jews in Jerusalem, fired with religious fervor, waged an all-out war against Rome’s occupation of Judea and their defeat resulted in the desecration of Jerusalem and its Great Temple. Pagels persuasively interprets Revelation as a scathing attack on the decadence of Rome. Soon after, however, a new sect known as “Christians” seized on John’s text as a weapon against heresy and infidels of all kinds-Jews, even Christians who dissented from their increasingly rigid doctrines and hierarchies.

In a time when global religious violence surges, Revelations explores how often those in power throughout history have sought to force “God’s enemies” to submit or be killed. It is sure to appeal to Pagels’s committed readers and bring her a whole new audience who want to understand the roots of dissent, violence, and division in the world’s religions, and to appreciate the lasting appeal of this extraordinary text.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

  1. Review

    A Review

    All readers with an interest in the prolonged birth pangs of a religious faith and in its youthful debates over sacred documents will welcome Professor Pagels’ remarkable study. Her book performs a real service (yes, even a revelatory one), explicating with impressive clarity what most readers would frankly admit is a highly episodic and almost psychedelic dream vision called Revelations.

    Pagels offers a surprisingly lucid explanation for the specific meanings of the wild array of images, figures and monsters in John of Patmos’ vision. She sees his book as having a rational or at least discoverable basis in both contemporary history and the Christian “cult’s” evolving theology. The paradigm for John’s “eye-witness” narrative she traces to the dream visions “in Israel’s prophetic tradition … Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.” (She reminds us that John himself was a Jew, though one “who acknowledges Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.” There was, when he commenced writing around 90 C.E., no recognizable faith called Christianity.)

    Topical references Pagels unearths to decipher this messy text include allusions to the Emperor Nero, and to the eruption of Vesuvius in 78 CE; another is her hypothesis that the third horseman of the Apocalypse refers to inflation then rampant in the empire. But the heart of John’s vision derives from much earlier history: the affair between Antony and Cleopatra (40 – 30 BCE). The political leaders of the lands of the eastern Mediterranean had supported Mark Antony in his rivalry with Octavian for control of Rome. Upon his defeat and suicide, those same rulers had to make amends. They overcompensated, “[vying] with one another for … the advantages of crowding their cities” with ornate statues and opulent temples dedicated to Octavian, now the divine Augustus Caesar.

    Imagine the effect of this on a Jew like John. The cruel and vindictive empire that had not only leveled his sacred Second Temple but had also executed his spiritual master was now receiving godlike reverence. Rome clearly is his Beast of the Apocalypse. And as a devout Jew, John was almost as much offended by another group: the “second-generation followers of Paul.” Not only did he not consider them Jewish but he was especially outraged they even dared term themselves the “new Israel.” No, they were illegitimate inheritors. Revelations thus captures the passionate fighting within Judaism before the cult of Christian believers finally broke with its father faith.

    It was that internecine element of his vision, Pagels shrewdly notes as she traces successive interpretations of John’s vision, that was seized upon two centuries later under the institutional auspices of “the Egyptian Bishop Athanasius” who was probably “the first to place [Revelations] in his version of the New Testament when he saw how to use it as a weapon.” He exploited the book “against other Christians whom he called heretics.” By then the Church was itself an imperial organ, eager to enforce creedal orthodoxy, especially after the Council of Nicaea’s enforced confessional consensus in 325. Those who rejected that Creed came to be viewed as the new real anti-Christ.

    In enforcing his will, Athanasius was simultaneously disestablishing multiple other “secret revelations” that were then in active circulation. That proved a tragedy for the freedom of intellectual and doctrinal thought at work within the monasteries in North Africa, whose inhabitants “apparently gathered eclectic writings for their libraries.” Originally organized by the diligent and determined monk Pachomius, these centers had grown into genuine outposts of learning.

    What were these writings? Sadly, we would have only a small sample of them were it not for a trove discovered found at Nag Hammadi (close by one such monastery) in 1945. Pagels walks us through and explains this rich collection of “gnostic gospels” in a series of analyses that proves to be the highlight of her erudite study. She guesses that this precious cache of writings was placed there by the thoughtful monks (in both senses of “literate” and “considerate”) whom Bishop Athanasius had ruled out of order.

    Professor Pagels’ sustained textual explorations dramatize for us the price those literate men and women paid in conforming to Athanasius’ decree. We had to wait sixteen centuries to rediscover, by pure good luck, the intellectual and spiritual heritage they had sacrificed.

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