Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, by Elaine Pagels. Viking Press (New York, N.Y., 2012). 246 pp., $27.95.
Some authors of books are good writers, and some authors of books are excellent writers. The latter is the case for Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Elaine Pagels’s prose flows in a way that this reviewer hasn’t experienced in a long time. Her writing is engaging. Winner of a National Book Award in 1979 and a professor of religion at Princeton, she takes many complicated biblical and extra-biblical issues and makes them understandable.
“The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible — and the most controversial,” writes Pagels in the opening line. She continues, “Instead of stories and moral teaching, it offers only visions — dreams and nightmares.”
In chapter one, “John’s Revelation: Challenging the Evil Empire, Rome,” the author first explores authorship, original meaning, and other typical biblical critical questions before giving a summary of Revelation’s narrative and focusing on John of Patmos’s audience. She writes, “. . .John decided that he had to fight on two fronts at once: not only against the Romans but also against members of God’s people who accommodate them and who, John, suggests, became accomplices in evil.”
Pagels’s apocalyptic scholarship shines in chapter two, “Visions of Heaven and Hell: From Ezekiel and John of Patmos to Paul.” She guides the reader through some of Ezekiel’s visions as borrowed by John of Patmos. Then, she narrates the developing conflict that occurred between John of Patmos’s vision of Christianity and Paul’s vision of the same.
The author examines other apocalypses in chapter three, “Other Revelations: Heresy or Illumination?” She writes: “Like John of Patmos’s Revelation, these other ‘revelations,’ written several generations after Jesus’ death, were not the work of original disciples. Instead, followers of Jesus who chose to remain anonymous wrote many of them under the names of disciples — not to deceive their readers but to show that they were writing ‘in the spirit’ of those whose names they borrowed.” Orthodoxy, however, ultimately wins, and all other revelations — like Thunder, Perfect Mind, Secret Revelation of James, etc. — were buried for hundreds of years, only to be found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.
“Confronting Persecution: How Jews and Christians Separated Politics from Religion” is the title of chapter four. “Seventy years after John wrote Revelation, his visions of terror and hope inspired a revival moment called the New Prophecy — an early instance of how John’s prophecies have galvanized Christians to this day,” writes Pagels. She traces the effects of the interpretation of the Book of Revelation from Tertullian’s call for libertate religionis 15 centuries ago to 1776, when American revolutionaries claimed that “all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” She adds, “What actually happened was something that the fierce prophet John, for all his visions of the future, could hardly have foreseen.”
That unforeseen future is the topic of chapter five, “Constantine’s Conversion: How John’s Revelation Became Part of the Bible.” In this chapter, Pagels presents the events that led to Constantine’s conversion, his calling of the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius of Alexandria’s famous list of New Testament books, and Athanasius’s choice of placing the Book of Revelation as the capstone of his New Testament canon in his effort to silence all other revelations.
Pagels’ book contains copious notes and an index. It would be very useful in adult study groups or other adult-education endeavors. It’s readability makes it one of the best volumes on Revelation that this reviewer has seen in a long time. TP