I’ve been a fan of Elaine Pagels for years, ever since a friend of mine loaned me a copy of her 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels. Since then I’ve gone on the read more of her books, namely Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas and The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. While I’m embarrassed to admit that her 2007 book Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (coauthored with Karen King) has been sitting on my shelf ignored and unread for the last few years I’m happy to report that during one of my weekend library visits when I found a copy of her latest book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation I grabbed it without hesitation. After finishing the slim volume fairly quickly I’m pleased to announce that once again Pagels has written excellent book.
Among the books of the New Testament, the book of Revelation is a bit of an outlier. The only apocalyptic book in the Christian canon, it lacks both the narrative quality of the Gospels and Acts as well as the instructional one of the Epistles. Missing also are the mystical “God is love” proclamations one might find in the Gospel of John, Paul’s hopeful expectations of glorious things to come and the social gospel kind of pronouncements found in Luke and James. Instead the book of Revelation contains a series of hallucinogenic visions describing massive death and destruction, final judgement and the end of the world as we know it.
To help us gain a greater understanding of this somewhat problematic Christian text Pagels interprets Revelation through the lens of its first century context. Composed in the wake of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Temple, according to Pagels the final book in the New Testament is as much a piece of political propaganda as it is as proclamation of faith. By calling upon the newly conquered to remain true to the faith while also comforting those faithful with the knowledge that their evil Roman oppressors would soon be vanquished by the forces of good, Revelation through its cryptic imagery and strange visions is at its heart, a first century anti-Roman tract.
But, as we all know, the world changes. What do you do with a anti-Roman book when the Empire becomes, well, Christian? According to Pagels once Rome embraced Christianity the early Church Fathers appropriated the book of Revelation as yet another weapon to be used in their fight against heretics and other religious dissenters. Centuries later, ironically things would come full circle as the book would be used by Protestants like Luther to rail against the alleged evils of a Roman Catholic Church.
One of the reasons why I liked Pagels’ book so much is its relatively short, but at the same time it covers a lot of historical ground. It’s also well-written. I’d recommend it to general readers, regardless of religious affiliation. Speaking of recommendations, if after reading Revelations one would like to follow it up with a few other good books, I’d recommend Jonathan Kirsch’s History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization and Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation.