Book Review – Elaine Pagels, Revelations

Pagels, Elaine. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. New York: Viking, 2012. 246 pp. $27.95, HB; Kindle $12.99.

Elaine Pagels is well known for her books on Gnosticism. Popular media has covered the release of this book, including a interview on NPR and a NY Times review. This book is selling quite well, making it to number ten on the NY Times bestseller list for hardcover non-fiction on March 25.  That Easter is right around the corner may account for this media blitz.

Only the first two chapters concern the book of Revelation directly, the rest of the book deals with “other Revelations” or the way in which the Book of Revelation was used (and abused) in the first three centuries of the church. She describes Revelation as the work of an unknown John, living on Patmos, who has witnessed both the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the growing persecution of Christians during the reign of Domitian. But the threats are not just from Rome, the church is beginning to deal with defections from the apostolic traditions, “heretics” are beginning to influence congregations. The book is therefore John of Patmos’ condemnation of Rome as a “great whore” and the heretics as “Jezebel” or “Baalam.” Those who accommodate themselves to Rome are “accomplices in evil” (35) and they must be rejected by those who are practicing the faith properly.

So far, so good. I am (already) convinced that John is writing at the end of the first century, that his visions include imagery from the Fall of Jerusalem and that he is reacting to the increasing persecution by Rome by looking forward to the coming of Messiah to put an end to Rome. What is more, I think that Pagels is on the right track to emphasize John’s condemnation of the “heretics” as a major component of the book. She rightly points out that the word “antichrist” appears in 1 and 2 John to describe teachers with an errant view of who God is, although the idea of false-messiahs appears elsewhere. Revelation is in fact a politically charged book which does call on God to destroy Rome in a final judgment of apocalyptic proportions.

However, I do have a few criticisms of the book. Pagels does more speculating in the book than I think is necessary, creating a world which is plausible, but may not have actually existed. For example, who are the “evildoers” who are subverting the gospel for some sort of new religion? For Pagels, it is the Pauline Gospel which John has in mind. John represents a form of early Christianity which remained in Judaism, Pagels describes Paul as creating a new religion which “adapted Jesus message for the Gentiles” and was therefore “in effect a new religion” (65). Those who “tolerate other gospels” and claim to be apostles are coming from “Pauline circles” (68).

I am in complete agreement with Elaine Pagels that Revelation is one of many books which might be described as apocalypse, but I disagree with the way she mixes 4 Ezra, a well known Jewish apocalypse with the Revelation of Zostrianos or the Revelation of Peter. In her third chapter she compares her reading of Revelation with these three books without really distinguishing between 4 Ezra as a Jewish text and the others as Christian (or quasi-Christian). Both Revelation and 4 Ezra create a kind of Theodicy, explaining how God will deal with evil in the world (albeit from different perspectives).

While 4 Ezra is an excellent parallel to Revelation since the date and circumstance is similar, the Revelation of Zostrianos has little which can be described as “similar” to Revelation in either circumstance or content. Bentley Lyton’s edition in the ABRL suggest a date before 268, Pagels suggests a date about 50 years after Revelation. Bentley points out that there is no reference to either Judaism or the founding of Christianity in Zostrianos, suggesting a non-Christian origin, perhaps with an interest in astrology. Andreas Werner suggests a late second or early third century date for the Apocalypse of Peter. Like Zostrianos, it is difficult to see many (if any) parallels to the book of Revelation. To lump these two Gnostic gospels together with 4 Ezra is not appropriate, to say that they are the same kind of literature as Revelation completely misses the point of Revelation in the first place.

In addition, there are a number of places in the book where rather strong assertions are made which have no basis in an ancient text. The idea that“Christians throughout the Empire read and treasured” (72) the Gnostic gospels cannot be maintained in the light of evidence. The content of the books found at Nag Hammadi cannot be described as mainstream, nor can they be described as “treasured” by Christians everywhere. In the fifth chapter Pagels speculates about how a test like the Letter to Rheginos or the Secret Revelation of James might have been used as devotional literature in the early monasteries in Egypt. The image of simple monks gathering to read a few lines of these books before a sacred meal (153) is pure fantasy, based on a marginal note by a scribe. We simply do not know how these texts were used or by whom.

As with her other books, Pagels implies strongly that Athanasius and Constantine were behind the exclusion of the Gnostic material, suppressing books which were not orthodox and only endorsing books for the canon which were deemed acceptable by the then-dominant Catholic church. I have no great love for Athanasius, and I am certain Constantine was a political opportunist using the church to gain control of an empire. But to describe the suppression of books like Zostrianos was silencing a critic who was within the church. This sort of literature was well out of the circle of orthodoxy. The way she tells the story, Athanasius is a book burning fundamentalist out of Margaret Atwood’s worst nightmares, while the Gnostics were the open minded peace loving “real” believers. I might be overplaying that a bit, but not my much.

Is this book worth reading? Yes, but the first two chapters (which actually deal with the book of Revelation) are far better than the last three. It seems to me there is too much in Pagels’ book which is speculation stated as fact, and not particularly good speculation at that.

Interview: Elaine Pagels on Revelation

NPR has a nice interview with Elaine Pagels discussing her new book,  Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation.  It will be no surprise to anyone familiar with  Pagels that she draws parallels to Gnostic gospels, but she insists on calling non-biblical apocalyptic “Books of Revelation.”  She does point out that these other books were never canonical, but there were reserved for the advanced believers since they are filled with secret knowledge.  Pagels describes Revelation as anti-Imperial propaganda written after the destruction of Jerusalem by a second generation Jewish follower of Jesus who was more than a little angry at Rome.

NPR’s Terry Gross does a nice job moving the half hour interview along, topics range from the point of Revelation to the impact of evangelicalism on Pagels as a teenager and her conscious departure from Christianity. Towards the end she responds to (fundamentalist) readers who criticize her interpretation of Revelation.  As a non-religious religions professor, she has some unique insights into the way people approach Revelation today.

I have the book and will post a review in a few days.

[Update:  Follow this link for my review of Revelations by Elaine Pages.]