Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, By Elaine Pagels, Viking, 246 pp., $27.95
The Book of Revelation is a jolt at the end of the New Testament: thrilling, baffling, or embarrassing to many Christians, shocking or laughable to many others. The monsters lumbering across its war-torn pages and its loud rage and triumphalism did not sit well with the liberal Methodist church of my childhood. I was told that the author, the mysterious John of Patmos, must have been a madman and should not be in the Bible. But Revelation is deeply at home in our culture; a couple of verses even supply the lyrics of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” What do we make of the book, which has survived the complete failure of its prophecies?
With her usual sweeping knowledge and accessibility, Elaine Pagels charts the book’s ricocheting reception and explores the milieu of John of Patmos, a pious Jew and follower of Jesus writing c. 90 C.E. Haunted by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans a generation earlier in 70 C.E., he appears to have blasted not only the menacing Roman Empire but also the gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul’s evangelism—whose descendants were the winners in the early development of Christianity. As Roman persecutions of Christians intensified over the next two centuries, spokesmen for the new sect found justification and hope in the prophecies in Revelation of God’s judgment on Rome.
In the early fourth century, when Christianity became Rome’s favored religion under Constantine—and Christian clergy became imperial functionaries—Revelation’s fury was redirected at heretics, or Christians who did not defer to the catholic (from the Greek for “universal”) church now sanctioned by Rome. For 40 years, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, fought opposition to the hegemonic church, banning nonconformist writings like the Gnostic Gospels, which survive as a collection of 52 texts not included in the Bible and encourage worshippers to look inward for salvation rather than to the Church. He found Revelation so effective in combating heresy that he championed the book’s inclusion in the New Testament.
This saga would be even more compelling were Pagels more evenhanded in her skepticism. Instead, as in such earlier books as her award-winning The Gnostic Gospels (1979), she decries Rome’s attacks on Gnosticism. She even includes a prolonged elegiac scenario speculating on how a new set of Gnostic writings recently unearthed in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, might have been used in early Egyptian monasteries still outside Rome’s control. Her underlying message is simple: spiritual openness lost out to Roman authoritarianism, which imposed rigid doctrine in its own interest. Pagels’s partisanship runs through to the book’s conclusion: “Those who championed John’s Revelation finally succeeded in obliterating visions” from a variety of sources that “speak of the kinship of all beings with one another and with God. Living in an increasingly interconnected world, we need such universal visions more than ever.”
Pagels views supporters of Revelation as the oppressors, Gnostics as the oppressed. But in juxtaposing the supposed good and evil influences not only of Revelation but of Jewish and Christian scriptures generally, she fails to acknowledge the complexity and ambiguity of the texts. In the Bible evil may be found not just in outsiders or dissenters but also in God’s chosen leader and within the chosen community. According to New Testament theology, evil inheres in every person, but the ultimate good is always within reach. The Bible’s pages provide as much justification for social reform as for intolerance.
Pagels cites the allusion to Revelation in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“the fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword”) but does not concede that the song inspired abolitionists. Instead, she invokes “the history of religious violence,” including the Inquisition, and notes “how often those who wield power and see themselves standing on God’s side against Satan’s have sought to force ‘God’s enemies’ to submit or be killed.”
The bias in this otherwise useful book could not have survived a sense of historical proportion about its central drama: the suppression of Gnostic writings. These books vanished, probably bloodlessly, soon after they were banned. If repression alone could do this, how (except through archaeology) could we have any Christian—or more astonishingly, Jewish—scripture? People fought for those books as long and hard as it took.
Here’s a guess about why: books are at issue here, in the face of mass illiteracy. “Gnostic” means “related to knowledge,” and the writings extolled hidden truth on the one hand, and on the other assured initiates that they already had it within themselves. This would appeal to educated readers, but not to the poor who flocked to Paul’s message that salvation was for everyone and guaranteed by God’s compassion for human inadequacy. These people were read to. The mass of early Christians might have cherished leadership and inclusion—which the cloistered Gnostics were not offering—and defended whatever books and interpretations came with them. Consider contemporary American politics: many people prefer demagogues, no matter how reckless, to an intellectual elite they see as isolated and self-involved. The Egyptian Gnostics, on their part, would not have clung to their esoteric doctrine if they experienced too little substance in it to counteract outsiders’ suspicion and ridicule.
People loyal to dogma would at least be involved (though inactively) in public intellectual life and could follow new leaders in the course of time. Certainly during the Reformation, fresh prophets arose with a vengeance; sometimes they used Revelation, but what of it? Though scholars like Pagels naturally look to books as role players, it’s questionable whether such a protean, exploitable book as Revelation should be imagined as an actor in religious history—rather than as a mere second-hand, if vivid, costume.