Chungsoo Lee's Reviews > Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

Revelations by Elaine Pagels
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May 19, 12

Read in May, 2012

Prof. Pagels at Princeton University convincingly assesses the remarkable role the Book of Revelation played in the time of Roman persecution of Christians and during the time of Roman conversion to Christianity thereafter. What a fine study of the Book! Pagels makes it clear what John of Patmos (who is not to be equated with John of Zebedee, the beloved disciple) meant and referred to by his symbolic figures in his Revelation such as by "666" which stands for Nero and by other symbols referring to the persecuting Roman Emperors. The Book of Revelation, which was written in response to the catastrophic fall of Jerusalem in CE 70, gave the dying Christians (who were put at the stake or at the lion's mouth) courage and hope of the Divine vengeance and eventual triumph in glory--a vivid illustration of what Nietzsche calls by the French word 'ressentiment.' Another remarkable aspect of the Book Pagels points out is the Book's condemnation toward other fellow Jewish Christians who, like Paul, were assimilating into the Hellenistic culture and were laxing Jewish ritualistic laws and regulations on the basis of 'the Gospel of freedom.' That is, John of Patmos repudiates Paul and upholds Peter and James. He condemns the Jewish Christians who ate meat that was sacrificed to Roman gods and who did not see the point of circumcision. Pagels establishes that the strong language of judgment use in the Book against the Rome as well as against the wayward Jewish Christians at the time of John's writing during the persecution era is revived again later to be used again toward fellow Christians in doctrinal disputes during the time of Constantine and his son, Constantius, and thereafter throughout the ages, even to the present. The Book is used by Christians against fellow Christians: Athanasius against Arius followers, Athanasious against Coptic Christians in Egypt, Athanasious against the secret books (used by Gnostic monks in Egypt), as well as Protestants against the Catholics (and vice versa), the northern Unionists against the southern Confederates in America, etc. What is specially noteworthy is Pagels persuasive argument (in the last chapter of her book) regarding the Revelation's role in determining the New Testament canon and asserting the finality of revelations. The Book is used to close the era of revelations as well as to exclude other existing revelations and Scriptures (i.e., the so called Gnostic books and many others that did not survive Athanasius' censorship). Not that the Book itself refers to the others books (so as to exclude them) but the language in it was used effectively by Athanasius and his followers to exclude the other books with the vehemence of condemnation found in the Book of Revelation. And the very judgment the Book lays upon both Roman persecutors and the wayward Jewish Christians is conveniently invoked (during the time of Christianized Roman empire where there no longer existed the external threat to Christianity) against anyone who disagrees with Athanasius and his followers in the doctrinal disputes and as well as disputes over authenticity of various Scriptures. How true could the Nicene Creed be (and the language of 'homoousia') when the Emperor Constantine himself presided over the conference and prescribed a resolution and sanctioned the meeting summary (written by Athanasius, which is now known as the Nicene Creed? How about Constantine's son, Constantius, who exiled Athanasius after rejecting the Nicere Creed and upholding Arius's view? Athanasius' authority and in fact the authority of early Christianity (i.e., the entire ecclesiastic authority) almost entirely rests on Constantine, not on apostolic tradition or on the Scripture (that excludes non-Pauline view of the role of Christ and the Resurrection). Another point: If Paul has transformed the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection (from physical reality to spiritual reality--"I have died with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me"), why not the Gnostic or feminists'interpretations which are equally distanced from the physical reality of Christ's death and resurrection in their interpretation and transformation. Why must Paul's theology dominate Christianity?

Pagels book does not and did not intend to address the rise and dominance of Pauline interpretation of Christ in the development of Christianity (despite, as Pagels points out, the condemnation and opposition the author of the Book of Revelation asserts toward such interpretation). Why were Paul's letters and his interpretation of Christ held so high an esteem (so as not only to make it into the New Testament canon but to dominate and determine the canonicity of the New Testament) despite such books like the Book of Revelation that oppose Pauline interpretation? Pagels does not ask this vital question in her book.

Another noteworthy point is that the word "Anti-Christ" never appears in the Book of Revelation.

Pagels also explains persuasively the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the so called Gnostic books found in the Codex 1.

Pagels book leaves me with a strong impression as follows: What a remarkable place Egypt was soon after Christianity was able to develop, having been freed from the jaws of the persecuting Roman emperors, as the movement of Christian asceticism and the experience oriented salvation (obtainable apart from the substitutional atonement of Christ) were bubbling up all over the dessert along the Niles corridor! How exciting a time it must have been, on one hand, and what a tragic loss it was when bubbles were almost completely suppressed by ecclesiastical power and control. Indeed, Athanasius during the 45 years of his career as a bishop (17 of which was spent in exile) almost single-handedly determined the fate of the West irreparably and decisively--more than perhaps did Paul or Augustine.
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