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Revelations, on Revelation

Elaine Pagels. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation. New York: Penguin, 2012.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project]

Revelations by Elaine Pagels made its way to the “Read Me” shelf because learning something more about the Bible, church history and early church politics always sounds like a good thing. If a book for a popular audience will contribute to that, all the better. And I’ve read Elaine Pagels’ earlier work with pleasure and profit, particularly her Gnostic Gospels (1979). Her insight there, at least the way I remember it, was that orthodox Christianity ultimately rejected the gnostic gospels and the understanding of creation they represented, because orthodoxy held fast to the goodness of the Creation, of which Jesus’ humanity was a part. I’ve been a lot more leery of gnosticism, in its many guises, ever since.

cover of Revelations by Elaine Pagels
Revelations by Elaine Pagels

Pagels shapes Revelations around the fact that we know of many apocalypses from the era of early Christianity, and the resultant question of why the Christian New Testament only contains one of those, and why this one in particular.

In a way, the choice seems particularly strange. Revelation’s earliest readers, according to Pagels, would have encountered the text as a coded but intelligible denunciation of the debilitating Gentile cultural influence exerted by false teachers, like Paul, on the purity of the Israel redeemed by God’s Messiah, Jesus. Moreover, she argues, it would have been written by someone who understood himself to be Jewish (59-61).

That’s a reading most Christians haven’t heard in church. If anyone remembers the existence of an early community of Jesus’ followers with John of Patmos’ attitude towards Gentile inclusion, they remember it as having got things all wrong. What we have come to know as The Church was founded on the reassurances of the viewpoint staked out in Luke-Acts and the Pauline letters, that God treats the Gentiles pretty much on “come-as-you-are” terms, at least with respect to Torah observance.

Today, we don’t see John of Patmos’ Revelation as assuming a story of the church any different from the one Paul tells in Romans, a story of a universal body of Christ made up to a large extent of Gentiles, “grafted in” to God’s elect like varietals in a California vineyard. We don’t see two contradictory first-century stories, because “… two hundred years later, influential Christian leaders chose both and wrestled them into the same New Testament canon” (71), and handed down ways of reading those stories that minimized their differences.

Along the way, Christians also composed, and suppressed, numerous additional revelations; consolidated a form of church organization that relied on priests and bishops rather than prophets; articulated a set of doctrines that still define Christian orthodoxy today; survived persecution as a despised religious minority to become the established religion of the late Roman Empire; all while dealing with divergent and resistant approaches to the meaning of following Jesus that emanated from various quarters of The Church. The consequences of that evolution for the New Testament canon we know today, and for our readings of its contents, make up the rest of Pagels story in Revelations

Pagels Revelations is not meant to be a comprehensive church history. It is, rather, a series of sketches that remind her readers that the Bible we have today came to be, as part of the same formative process through which the church itself came to be. It tells its story simply, quickly, with broad brush strokes, and a concern to demonstrate the practical human motivations of the actors. As such, it reminds us that the church we encounter today stands in precisely this tradition: a church composed of people, struggling to make sense of the revelation they have received, the world they live in, the practicalities of life in that world, and what of all that they will pass on to succeeding generations.

Revelations thus functions as an exemplary and engaging lecture by a master teacher on something like “the real life of the early church.” Like all good lectures, it makes us think, ask questions, and maybe investigate more. I’d sign up for another class like Revelations with pleasure.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

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