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Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation Hardcover – March 6, 2012
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*Starred Review* The preeminent scholar of the early-Christian-period sacred writings found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 uses them as well as the Bible to illuminate the New Testament’s last book, which almost wasn’t added to the canon because, Pagels explains, it conflicted with the Pauline epistles. For it revived the argument over how Judaistic the Gentiles in the Jesus movement had to be, which Paul had answered conclusively in Galatians. The visionary tract squeaked into the NT only when fourth-century bishops saw that, if the aim of its wrath was shifted from Gentiles and their advocates to those who fit in the new category of heretics, it could help with consolidating the institutional church. But how Revelation made the cut is only one of Pagels’ revelations about it. She also discloses the extent to which it extrapolates from the prophetic tradition of Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel; its status as one of many similarly visionary texts, typically also called Revelation and more Gnostic, found at Nag Hammadi; its primary purpose as anti-Roman propaganda intended to rally continuing Jewish resistance after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem; and its modern role in fostering hope in the face of seemingly ultimate cataclysm. A lot for so little a book to do, but, thanks to Pagels’ sublimely fluent exposition, not too much. --Ray Olson
"Revelations is a slim book that packs in dense layers of scholarship and meaning . . . One of [Elaine Pagels's] great gifts is much in abundance: her ability to ask, and answer, the plainest questions about her material without speaking down to her audience . . . She must be a fiendishly good lecturer."
— The New York Times
"One of the significant benefits of Pagels's book is its demonstration of the unpredictability of apocalyptic politics . . . The meaning of the Apocalypse is ever malleable and ready to hand for whatever crisis one confronts. That is one lesson of Pagels's book. Another is that we all should be vigilant to keep some of us from using the vision for violence against others."
— The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)
"Pagels is an absorbing, intelligent, and eye-opening companion. Calming and broad-minded here, as in her earlier works, she applies a sympathetic and humane eye to texts that are neither subtle nor sympathetically humane but lit instead by fury." — Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
"Any book in the Bible that can be cited simultaneously by deeply conservative end-of-times Christians who see the Apocalypse around the corner and by Marxist-friendly Christians looking forward to justice at the End of History must have a compelling back story. That back story is told well and concisely by Elaine Pagels in her new book, Revelations." — The Boston Globe
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Second, this book is only loosely about the Book of Revelation itself. While the first two chapters are devoted to that Book, the remaining chapters include only tangentially related subjects, such as the fights in the early church and the conflicts between its bishops. These are interesting digressions, but they do not have much to do with Revelation. It is almost as if Ms. Pagels wrote six separate essays and justified their inclusion in one book by the fact that Revelation gets a mention in each of them. If her primary subject was Revelation itself, she would have been better off devoting her time to intepreting the book and noting the contemporary context of its writing. If her subject was the historical reaction and interpretation of that book, she should not have stopped at the fourth century. If I were to have one overarching criticism of her book, it is that it is a bit unfocused.
Moreover, the quality of her text varies considerably. Her chapter on other extant apocalyptic literature is really excellent. While the Book of Revelation has been called the happy hunting ground for cranks, a reading of Ms. Pagel's analysis of similar writings makes it clear that John the Divine himself was not one of them. He was just a Jewish-Christian writer penning a particularly vivid example of a rather common literary genre. I would note, however, that her excellent exposition of precursors and contemporaries casts doubt on one of her conclusions -- that Revelation is largely to be interpreted as a cryptic reference to then-current events. Apocalyptic literature, Pagels' examples demonstrate, did have a large prophetic component, and a considerable "end of days" component, and these are often neither closely related to, nor cryptic references about, purely contemporary events. Moreover. the claim that John was writing in "code" because of fear of the authorities is suspect. What Roman magistrate bothered read this sort of stuff? Even Celsus, much less Pliny, demonstrated minimal familiarity which what are now the New Testament books. And if John was writing about the failings of some of his Christian contemporaries, what was there for him to worry about if he called them out by name? John just liked to be cryptic, like a number of other apocalyptic writers, because that is the way they wrote. Nor should it be discounted that writing Revelations may have been fun. It probably gives a fair amount of pleasure to a partisan to see his enemies blown up and thrown into the outer darkness. And the sheer power and imaginativeness of the narrative suggests a certain playfulness. Revelation may not be the best book of the Bible, but it is almost surely the most fascinating.
Some of Ms. Pagels' claims are rather tenuous. For example, she argues that John was a Jewish follower of Jesus who was was writing against the "gentilizers" in the early church, particularly Paul and his followers. Pagels even suggests that John was not Christian, at least he did not call himself by the name "Christian." But John regularly mentions the church, and he nowhere mentions Paul. Nor does he have any direct criticism (or any obvious cryptic criticism) of gentile church members; much less does he suggest that gentile converts are not welcome in the church. Indeed, some of the churches in Asia Minor that he writes to had large gentile congregations, and he surely knew this. And the dates proposed by Pagels for Revelation's writing are suspect. Pagels believes that the book was written circa 95 A.D., although she acknowledges that some scholars would place it 30 years earlier. But Tacitus wrote that Nero blamed "the Christians" for the great fire at Rome, so the name "Christian" was surely widely known and used at the time. For John not to use it in the 90's would seem strange. Perhaps Revelation is a composit, which might account for the difference in tone between its first few chapters and the rest of the book and between the portions which seem to relate to current events and portions which relate to pure prophesy.
Finally, Pagels does not spend nearly enough time on the text of Revelation itself. Although she contends that it relates principally to contemporary events, and analyzes the passages about the beast and the number of the beast and the destruction of God's enemies in some detail, she performs next to no exigesis of those passages which are more purely prophetic, such as Armageddon, the four horsemen (the third horseman being problematically denominated as "inflation" rather than the underlying famine which caused that inflation, which is what it primarily refers to), the Star Wormwood, the angel standing in the sun, the last trumpet, etc. While she is good about Revelations' roots, she is less helpful as a guide to the branches. Revelation is a treasure-trove of haunting and powerful images, which is probably why it is a happy hunting ground for cranks. If one is going to demystify it, it is very important to examine what the author was trying to mean rather than what the naked image conveys whoever happens to be reading it. This requires a careful exposition of the text, and Pagels does not always provide it.
It is hard to criticize Pagels too much. It is generally a well-written book and a useful corrective for those who do not know much about Revelation. But for those who came to the book expecting to learn something new and revelatory about it, it is a bit problematical. Where it is really good, it does not have much to do with Revelation. And where it has a lot to say about Revelation, it is not particularly good.
In this respect, Pagels views the development of this facet of the book via a further reliance upon the historical context of the books authorship. She takes passages from Revelation, meanwhile explaining the meaning of these passages when taking into account the worldview of John of Patmos. Most assuredly, common belief concerning the horsemen of the apocalypse and the number and mark of the beast are explained in scholarly manners. Not willing to view this simply from a scholarly light, however, Pagels is fair in that she presents the modern interpretation of the work.
All in all, this work is very well written in an informative, fair, and scholarly manner. It's a must read for those interested in the development of apocalyptic literature in Christianity and for those interested to know why exactly Revelation was chosen as canonical while many other works were rejected.
After a careful review of some better known history, Pagels carefully lays out events in the 4th century when The Revelation was reinterpreted and used for new, very political purposes. More interesting, I think, than the analysis of the role of The Revelation in all of that political scheming, is the scheming itself. Pagels tells the story of how the church was Romanized and formalized by a few who profited greatly in terms of both treasure and power. It was they who made new use of The Revelation in a reinterpreted form, and in doing so made changes in both the church and our understanding of the book which very much persist today.
This is a story about how things came to be the way they are that gives us a chance to reflect, and reimagine what might have been except for some 4th century intrigue that was very motivated by politics and profit and not at all by spiritual discernment or scripture