Two years ago, I listened to an audio version of the New Testament, courtesy of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Having been associated with Baptist churches nearly all my life, I had, of course, read and heard many passages over and over. It was, however, very interesting and informative to “read” the New Testament in order – first the Gospels telling about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and then Acts and the various epistles and other books dealing with the growth of the early church.
And then I got to Revelation and thought – wow. What is this?
Elaine Pagels’ new book, which I have just listened to in the audio version, sets out to answer that question.
By Linda Brinson
REVELATIONS: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation. By Elaine Pagels. Random House Audio. Read by Lorna Raver. 5 compact discs. 6 ½ hours. $35. Also available in hardback from Viking. 246 pages including notes and index. $27.95.
“The book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible – and the most controversial. “ With that opening sentence, Elaine Pagels dives right into the controversy, not a bit afraid of stirring things up. Bravo for her. We can use a bit of stirring up.
I have no scholarly background for understanding the Bible. I did take an Old Testament (required) religion course as a freshman at Wake Forest University (college at the time) many years ago. Then, rather, than continuing with New Testament, I completed my religion requirement with an Ethics course, which was provocative and inspiring. If I had it to do over, I’d also study the New Testament.
Fortunately, Elaine Pagels writes on more than one level. Her academic credentials are impressive – she teaches religion at Princeton and has written several well-received books, including The Gnostic Gospels, which won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. One or two scholarly reviewers have pointed out minor inaccuracies in the book, but all seem to agree that over all, this is solid work. For those who want to follow her lead and delve more deeply into the subject, Pagels provides extensive notes.
For those of us who simply want a better understanding of this strange book that concludes our Bible, Pagels’ slim book is easy to understand while providing ample material for further thought and discussion of the lay variety.
Revelation, of course, is the apocalyptic book at the end of the Bible that has provided material for all sorts of paintings, poems and other works of literature, music – and predictions of what is going to happen to people whose beliefs or actions are not the same as those of the people doing the predicting. There are dragons and beasts, cosmic battles, lakes of fire. Revelation gives us the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Whore of Babylon. This is a vision of the end time, Judgment Day, when the righteous will be saved and the unrighteous plunged into eternal agony. This is powerful literature.
Pagels makes a convincing case that Revelation was not written, as many of us grew up believing, by John the Apostle or the author of the Gospel of John. Rather, the author was John of Patmos. This John was a Jew who was a follower of Jesus some years after the Resurrection, when Christianity was spreading and becoming more organized. John had believed that Christ’s return was imminent. But Rome had crushed the rebellion, destroyed the Great Temple of Jerusalem and brutally clamped down on the Jews. John, an elderly man living on the island of Patmos, was writing in a context or war and repression, and his book should be read with that in mind. His writings drew on older Jewish texts – some, books we can read in the Old Testament – and used metaphor in part to avoid Roman retribution. He was, in a way, trying to offer hope by providing a vision of the day when God would wreak havoc on the pagan Roman empire that had so oppressed His people.
Pagels goes on to show how John’s powerful writing was almost immediately adopted by others who used it for their own purposes, in their own fights against those they considered enemies or heretics. Her book provides insight into the early years of Christianity and the struggles over whose vision of the church would prevail. She reminds us that John, like many of the early Christians, still thought of himself first as a Jew. If you read all of the New Testament, not just the parts that preachers and others find inspirational or instructive, you come across passages arguing endlessly about whether Christians must be circumcised and refrain from eating certain foods. These debates are a part of what Pagels is describing: the conflict between early Christians who wanted to welcome non-Jews, even society’s cast-offs, into their new faith, and those who insisted that Christians must first become good Jews.
Brilliantly, in remarkably few pages, Pagels shows us how, as the early church grew, some Christians declared that Jews themselves were infidels who wouldn’t make the cut on Judgment Day. And as the Roman Empire became Christian, Rome was no longer the Beast. It wasn’t just that Rome became Christianized, she writes; Christianity also became romanized, with the Roman church organized like the Army, with layers of officials and strict discipline. Before long, those Christians who resisted the Roman way became infidels and the Beast, headed for fiery damnation. And so it went, and so it continues to go, until today we have fundamentalist Christians who use Revelation’s imagery to blast those Christians they consider too liberal.
Pagels also reminds us, if we even realized it in the first place, that God did not deliver the Bible to us as a finished book. She writes about the years when early Christians were battling over what writings should be included in the Christian canon. Her explanation of why our Bible includes John’s Revelation but omits many contemporary revelatory books – some with a much less violent outlook – is particularly thought-provoking.
Pagels talks fairly briefly about how Revelation has continued to be used to rouse emotions and demonize enemies into modern times. Both sides in the American Civil War used language and imagery from Revelation, and so did Hitler and those who opposed him. She shows us how profoundly John’s book, intended as a message of hope and inspiration for members of a persecuted minority, has been abused and perverted as a justification for hatred and violence time and again.
Pagels writes on two levels, so that scholars and the rest of us can benefit from reading her book. She also writes on two levels in another respect, for the benefit of those who want to consider Revelation only in an academic or historical way, and for the benefit of those who want to discern its real message of faith and hope.
I listened to the audio book because, knowing myself, I figured I’d never sit down to read the print version. As Lorna Raver read the book respectfully and without exaggeration, I was caught up in the story. I suspect that those with more scholarly knowledge than I might enjoy listening to the book to quickly get the gist of Pagels’ arguments, but then would want to get the print version and spend some time with her notes.