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Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

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A startling exploration of the history of the most controversial book of the Bible, by the bestselling author of Beyond Belief. Through the bestselling books of Elaine Pagels, thousands of readers have come to know and treasure the suppressed biblical texts known as the Gnostic Gospels. As one of the world's foremost religion scholars, she has been a pioneer in interpreting these books and illuminating their place in the early history of Christianity. Her new book, however, tackles a text that is firmly, dramatically within the New Testament canon: The Book of Revelation, the surreal apocalyptic vision of the end of the world . . . or is it?

In this startling and timely book, Pagels returns The Book of Revelation to its historical origin, written as its author John of Patmos took aim at the Roman Empire after what is now known as "the Jewish War," in 66 CE. Militant Jews in Jerusalem, fired with religious fervor, waged an all-out war against Rome's occupation of Judea and their defeat resulted in the desecration of Jerusalem and its Great Temple. Pagels persuasively interprets Revelation as a scathing attack on the decadence of Rome. Soon after, however, a new sect known as "Christians" seized on John's text as a weapon against heresy and infidels of all kinds-Jews, even Christians who dissented from their increasingly rigid doctrines and hierarchies.

In a time when global religious violence surges, Revelations explores how often those in power throughout history have sought to force "God's enemies" to submit or be killed. It is sure to appeal to Pagels's committed readers and bring her a whole new audience who want to understand the roots of dissent, violence, and division in the world's religions, and to appreciate the lasting appeal of this extraordinary text.

246 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2012

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About the author

Elaine Pagels

46 books539 followers
Elaine Pagels is a preeminent figure in the theological community whose scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, she was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim & MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years.
As a young researcher at Barnard College, she changed forever the historical landscape of the Christian religion by exploding the myth of the early Christian Church as a unified movement. Her findings were published in the bestselling book, The Gnostic Gospels, an analysis of 52 early Christian manuscripts that were unearthed in Egypt. Known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library, the manuscripts show the pluralistic nature of the early church & the role of women in the developing movement. As the early church moved toward becoming an orthodox body with a canon, rites & clergy, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were suppressed & deemed heretical. The Gnostic Gospels won both the Nat'l Book Critic’s Circle Award & the Nat'l Book Award & was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of the 20th Century.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 376 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
December 27, 2020
Don’t Hold Your Breath for the End of the World

Many years ago - at least thirty but possibly as many as forty as far as I can recall with an ageing memory - I visited the cave on the island of Patmos where a certain John had his apocalyptic vision and wrote his account of it. The cave is now incorporated into a Greek Orthodox monastery and is curated by a group of rather surly and taciturn monks. Like most biblical landmarks it is simultaneously underwhelming and evocative. And so it is with the dense and often incoherent piece, the Book of Revelation, that was supposedly written there.

The Book of Revelation is liminal. It sits on several boundaries - in time, after the Good News of the gospels and explanatory letters to the emerging Christian cult, but before the establishment of Christian legitimacy; theologically it is on the edge of scriptural legitimacy in terms of authorship and continuity of tradition; and its content sits in no man’s land between surrealist reverie and mystical pronouncement. No one knows quite what it means. So it is typically interpreted tendentiously to prove a point, usually against one’s theological enemies.

But Pagels has identified another border represented by Revelation - that between the Jewish sect which considered Christ as the messiah of Israel and an entirely separate religion of Christianity. The writer of Revelation is most certainly a Jew; and according to Pagels’s exegesis he is a Jew who objects fundamentally to the presumption that Gentiles have equivalence to Jews in the matter of salvation, whether that salvation is material or spiritual. This puts Revelation in opposition to the Gospel of John, written at about the same time (but certainly not by the same John), which is pointedly anti-Semitic and is clearly meant for a group which no longer considers itself Jewish.

Pagels’s hypothesis is that the writer of Revelation is addressing a group of Jewish followers of Jesus who object specifically to the teaching of Paul of Tarsus. It was Paul who two generations previously had undermined Jewish exclusivity and the continuing relevance of Jewish tradition and liturgical practices. This generated a long-standing conflict among apostolic leaders that is smoothed over by the writer of The Acts of the Apostles but was likely never really resolved. Pagels’s reading provides a satisfying explanation for understanding some of the most difficult parts of the book, and opens an intriguing line of inquiry in early Christian history.

One of the most fascinating implications of Pagels’s analysis is the re-interpretation of the issue of the Parousia, or Second Coming of Christ. She makes a convincing case that one of the main concerns of the writer is to correct an obvious misconception of Paul that this event was to be expected imminently. Paul had stated that expectation explicitly about 15 years after the death of Jesus. Despite its non-occurrence, Paul’s expectation was repeated about 20 years later by the writer of the gospel of Mark (the first to be written) who expresses it in the purported words of Jesus. Writing 20 to 30 years after that, John considers that the Pauline expectation of an imminent end of the world is clearly a bust. It simply hadn’t happened.

So this imminent return of Christ is a not inconsiderable black eye for Pauline Christianity. But, as the writer of Revelation attempts to show, not necessarily for Jewish faith in the messiah. John first explains the need for the delay in the Second Coming. This will be a rather messy event he says. In order to ensure that the faithful are protected during the inevitable chaos and blood-letting of the transition to the Kingdom of God, it has been necessary to organise and deploy a heavenly host, an angelic cohort, which can ensure that believers are not mistakenly caught up in the slaughter. This has taken time. Apparently there are logistical constraints, even in Heaven.

Second, unseen by worldly eyes, the Parousia has already begun in a manner unanticipated by Paul. According to John, it is essential to understand that the Second Coming is a cosmic event not just an earthly one. It occurs in the spiritual as well as the material realm. Before it takes place on Earth, it must be completed in Heaven. That is, the demonic spiritual forces must be disposed of before the evil human forces can be neutralised. Christ is engaged as he writes in the conquest of his heavenly opponents.

When, then, can the visible triumph of Christ over the mundane army of evil be expected? In this John is more canny than either Paul or Mark’s Jesus. He doesn’t mention human lifespans. Rather, the relevant metric is that of the lifespan of the imperial regime, Rome itself, the whore of Babylon with its pseudo-Jewish clients. Before Rome passes away, the Lord will return in order to defeat it. So hang in there people. We can’t put a date on it; but we do know as long as Rome lasts, we can continue to expect the Lord’s arrival.

This conclusion may seem perverse. But it is actually a brilliant re-calibration of the ‘imminent’ Second Coming. We must still be alert. Christ has not been delayed so much as busy on the main front. He is still on his way. This is a message that finds its way comfortably into the New Testament canon, despite the lack of substantive commentary in Revelation on the life, death or resurrection of Jesus.

John provides a very handy explanation, therefore, about the obvious inaccuracies of Pauline teaching for Christians Jews. But longer term, through the symbolic interpretation of Rome as any civil government at all, he also allows the increasingly dominant group of Gentile Christians to gloss over these inaccuracies and push the Second Coming into an indefinite future. A win/win situation therefore - and a border wall even the most ardent Trumpist could be proud of.
Profile Image for Mark Russell.
Author 280 books312 followers
April 16, 2012
I gave Revelations five stars, not only because it is a good book, but because it is an important book. No other book in the Bible has as much impact on our way of life as the Book of Revelation. It influences our nation's religion, worldview and foreign policy in a way that the gospels do not, and perhaps never have. So you'll be interested to know that we've been getting it wrong this whole time.

The Book of Revelation is not, as Pagels points out, and as scholars have known for centuries, a prediction of events thousands of years in the future, but rather, the prayer of a man who had witnessed the destruction of everything he believed in and could only conclude that this meant the end of the world was at hand.

Written by John of Patmos between 70-90 CE, the Book of Revelation is a fever dream of dragons, earthquakes and whores and reads more like a Conan the Barbarian book than the Holy Bible. It's difficult to decipher until you learn a few things about John and the world he lived in. John was a Jewish follower of Jesus Christ, writing in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the failure of the Jewish rebellion, which resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of his fellow Jews, and Nero's horrific persecution of Christians. As a man who believed that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and would return to liberate Israel from the Romans and rule the world with his followers, he thought that this would happen in the very near future for the simple reason that if he waited much longer there would be nothing left to come back to.

And this is the message John sought to impart to his fellow believers, only he had to be cagey in how he presented it, as the Romans didn't really care for predictions of their impending annihilation. So he encoded his message by writing about "Babylon" which his fellow Jews and Christians would recognize as a symbolic reference to Rome, a "pregnant woman" they would acknowledge as Israel, and a Beast which just happened to have a number "666," which those who knew Hebrew could easily figure out was the numeric equivalent to the full name of the Emperor Nero.

John was writing for his time and his alone. And this was understood, even back when they were first compiling the texts which would become the Bible. When the Emperor Constantine ordered the bishops to put together a unified canon of accepted scriptures, each bishop made a list of books they thought were divinely inspired, a list of books they thought were a little iffy and books they considered totally illegitimate. The Book of Revelation was the only book that appeared on their "illegitimate" list to make it into the finished Bible. Besides which, it was only one of dozens of similar "Revelations." So how did this book make the cut? Well, some argued for its inclusion based on the idea that it was written by the same John who wrote the Gospel of John. But most of the bishops realized this was BS right from the start. The Gospel of John was powerfully written and beautifully crafted, whereas the Book of Revelation was so haphazard and lacking in anything that might be considered literary chops that it was a little like arguing that War and Peace and the Da Vinci Code were written by the same author.

But the Book of Revelation had a wild card working in its favor. While they were trying to put together a canon of books for this new-fangled Bible, the church happened to be embroiled in the Arian Controversy: a knock-down, winner-takes-all fight to the death between bishops who believed that Jesus Christ was made of exactly-the-same stuff as God, and those who believed that Jesus Christ was comprised of sort-of-the-same stuff as God. The exactly-the-same crowd won the day, and though the doctrinal difference between the groups was minor at best, the winning bishops felt that if they included the Book of Revelation in the Bible, that all its rants against heretics and threats of eternal damnation would spook anyone from bringing the issue up ever again. Plus, it ends with a really nice curse on anyone who might try to change it later. So what better way to end your new definitive collection of holy scriptures?

The bishops still had their misgivings, but the vote was taken, and the Book of Revelation got into the Bible by the skin of its teeth, despite the fact that it was basically a collection of predictions that had already turned out wrong. The secret to Revelation's longevity, though, is not its accuracy, but its abstraction. The reason why Revelation continues to capture people's imaginations and insinuate itself into every great social upheaval is because, unlike the rest of the New Testament, which refers to righteousness as specific actions (you know, helping widows, telling the truth, that sort of thing), the Book of Revelation merely talks about the "righteous" and the "faithful" without ever defining who they are. So absolutely anyone can read the Book of Revelation and cast themselves as the good guys, prophetically destined to give their enemies a good ass-kicking for all eternity. This is why the Book of Revelation has proven so useful to people over the centuries. During the Cold War, believers believed it foretold an epic confrontation in which the United States, with the help of Jesus, would vanquish the Soviet Union. The Puritans interpreted the Battle of Armageddon as a French invasion of England. During the Reformation, the Lutherans accused the pope of being the Anti-Christ, and the pope accused Martin Luther of being the Beast. There was nothing in the book with which to define who the faithful and the damned actually were, so it was fun for the whole family.

The fact that Revelation's plot is that of a generic battle between good and evil allows anyone to believe they are on the right side, its ending in the absolute victory of good over evil gives them confidence in their cause and the abstractness of the disasters and the weird fantasy imagery allows them to fit just about any recent event into the prophecy as a sign. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure book for demagogues. Quite an accomplishment for a guy writing in a cave two thousand years ago.

I realize this is more of a synopsis than a review, but understanding the Book of Revelation from this historically and theologically nuanced perspective is so important, I felt the best thing I could do was to share what I learned from the book, which is perhaps the best review I could possibly give it.
Profile Image for Lee Harmon.
Author 5 books107 followers
March 17, 2012
Look. If Pagels writes a book, go buy it. You don't need a review, you just need a reminder that it's ready for purchase. But then I'd feel like I wasn't doing my job, so ...

I’ve been looking forward to Pagel's new book, hoping I would read her views on how to interpret Revelation, but this wasn't her focus. Pagels begins by discussing the apocalyptic writings of the early Christian period. The title, Revelations, is not a misspelling of the final book in our Bible; she really does mean "revelations" in the plural. She highlights several other visionary writings, including The Revelation of Peter, The Secret Revelation of James, and The Secret Revelation of John. It turns out the unexpected focus didn't disappoint me.

Pagels then progresses through the next few hundred years of Christianity, detailing how Revelation was received (or not!) by the Church, the argument over its authorship, and how its prophecies were used to bolster or condemn. Irenaeus and Justin the Philosopher strongly championed John’s Apocalypse, both of them certain that its promise of tribulation could be seen plainly in the Christian persecution they were already witnessing. Tertullian praised John for the courage to portray Rome as Babylon, "proud of her power, and victorious over the saints," but damned and doomed. Even Constantine got in on the act, claiming that his rival, Licinius, was represented in Revelation by the dragon. Constantine wrote in a letter to Eusebius that he had restored "liberty to the human race" after he drove “that dragon out of public administration." Still, the vengeful book of Revelation barely squeaked into the Christian canon.

In the few instances where Pagels does attempt an interpretation of the original meaning of Revelation, her perspective is strongly influenced by her exhaustive studies in the Gnostic Gospels—the Nag Hammadi findings—and this emphasis shines a different light on the topic. For example, she compares Revelation to 4 Ezra (the Revelation of Ezra), a Jewish book somewhat contemporary with Revelation. Revelation is Christian, Ezra is not. But because she dates them concurrently (early 90's) and notes their similarities, she lets one aid in the interpretation of the other.

I loved the book, but I can’t help contributing my two cents. I disagree with her approach to interpretation, believing that we can date Revelation to perhaps fifteen years earlier, so its teachings should stand more firmly on their own. History and Christian thought were changing rapidly during this period, and even fifteen years makes a major difference. One example: In a discussion of the hated "Babylon" in Revelation, I believe its original meaning referred not to Rome, but to Jerusalem. Only later, when Revelation's dreams failed to quickly materialize, did Christians lose interest in Jerusalem and shift to interpreting Babylon as Rome. Far more clues point to Jerusalem as the original intended meaning, and I think I'll run a blog series shortly with the arguments for Jerusalem. Keep an eye on my blog at www.dubiousdisciple.com.
Profile Image for William2.
745 reviews2,961 followers
April 2, 2012
Author Elaine Pagels includes here discussion of not only John of Patmos's Book of Revelations, so well-known from the New Testament, but also discussion of the numerous revelation texts found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945. These are the so-called gnostic or apocryphal texts expunged by order of Egyptian bishop Athanasius in the 4th century C.E. Because of the range of her sources she's able to give us a picture of Christian revelatory thinking and mindsets through the ages.

For instance, the original "beast" or anti-Christ as conceived by John of Patmos was clearly Rome. John, a Jew, wrote in 90 C.E. This was just twenty years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish people. Once Constantine adopted the faith (312 C.E.) and ended the persecution of Christians, however, the beast was reinterpreted to mean all so-called heretics: Jews, ironically, pagans, essentially any nonconformist.

Pagels also discusses how due to the thematic broadness of much of what John wrote he created imagery that has over two millennia been capable of being projected onto any perceived threat of the moment. The list of examples is extensive, but includes Martin Luther's depiction of the pope as the beast, and the Church's depiction, in turn, of Martin Luther as such. We might also add Hitler as beast, Stalin as best, western sexual and moral laxness as beast, and let's not forget the current favorite: Obama as beast. Recommended.

Let me add that there's a wonderful book by Norman Cohn called Pursuit of the Millennium which I discuss elsewhere that looks at this penchant for flexible interpretation of anti-Christ during the 11th through 15th centuries or so, and how this capacity in turn engendered the most appalling mass hysteria and genocide in central and southern Europe. Cohn's is an astonishing book and I recommended it highly.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
1,214 reviews105 followers
August 7, 2012
I suspect a hardcore "everything in the Bible is literally true and divinely related" Christian would consider pretty much everything in this book to be heresy. If you've got a somewhat more open mindset regarding the political jostling that created the modern Bible, this is a fascinating read.

Pagels goes into depth on what we know about the historical period in which Revelations was written, and points out the parallels that make a lot of the bizarre imagery from the book make a great deal more sense as political allegory. She then discusses how the interpretation changed as it became clear that the book's prophesies could not literally come true. (After all, if Rome is the dragon and not only does Rome stubbornly refuse to disintegrate in fire and blood but instead becomes the very seat of Christianity, things need to be reinterpreted.) Pagels is fascinated by the transformation of Christianity from a messianic religion promising the end of the world within a generation into something that had to account for the passage of first decades and then centuries. Many of her works chronicle the resulting contortions.

But John is not the only one declaring revelations. Pagels then examines the politics of how and why this particular book gets added as the capstone to official canon while others are discarded as heretical. In doing so, she charts the political infighting as the religion matures from the oppressed to the dominant.

If taken seriously, it's the kind of thing to make any believer a little bit cynical. Or a lot cynical. So many of the decisions that define the tenets of the faith appear to have been made entire to cement one person or another's grip on power or to castigate the people someone powerful didn't like. But it's really fascinating, and in a way, kind of heartening, to remember that today's ideological infighting is nothing at all new.
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,340 reviews123 followers
January 4, 2021
I knew so little about the book of revelations, and this looked as good a place to start. I got much more than I expected from this scholarly and interesting look at the book and at several visionary texts of the period. It’s fascinating how she throws light on the relevance of the book politically and fits it into the time period. Further reading to come.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,307 reviews20 followers
August 20, 2020
This book was interesting and I did learn something from it (as well as having some of my own suspicions about the period bolstered) but it would have been so much better if the author had left the sentences beginning ‘I personally believe...’ out of the book entirely. I couldn’t care less about the author’s personal beliefs; I only care about the evidence, presented completely impartially.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,005 reviews1,116 followers
October 1, 2016
Having had Pagels for a course in seminary and knowing her and her husband socially during that period while my girlfriend studied under her at Barnard I make a point of picking up her publications as they come to hand. I wasn't expecting much from this popular study of apocalyptic literature except for her usual emphasis on its 'gnostic' elements. As it happens, however, there was more to the book than this.

Most interesting to me was her argument that the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) was written as a polemic not only against Roman imperialism but also against the gentile followers of Jesus. Dating the text to ca. 90CE, Pagels notes that it antedates, so far as we know, the concept of "Christian". Instead, there were the Jewish followers of Jesus, associated with his family and with Peter, and the gentile followers, associated with Paul. As commonly noted, the author of Acts describes and attempts to paper over the conflict over the Mosaic law between the home congregation of James and Peter and the Pauline mission to the gentiles. Paul, however, in epistles such as Galatians, makes it clear that this conflict endured, such compromises as may have been effected not withstanding the conservatism of the apostolic community. Pagels points to those portions of the Apocalypse, most particularly the letters to the seven churches, wherein these points of contention are addressed from such a conservative standpoint. Although not mentioned by name, the positions of Paul and his followers are condemned.

Otherwise, herein is to be found an exposition of the Apocalypse and of similar writings which did not make the canon once is was established in the 4th century as well as some intriguing speculation about the background to the Nag Hammadhi cache found in the Egyptian desert in 1945.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,075 reviews711 followers
November 19, 2018
Whenever I refer to the Book of Revelations in the presence of my wife, she corrects me by reminding me that it's a singular revelation, not plural. As usual she is correct. But I don't appreciate being corrected, so I was glad to see, at first glance, what appeared to be Elaine Pagels agreeing with my use of the plural form of the word. As it turns out, Pagles is writing about multiple revelations. The book describes the literary (as well as political and social) contexts within which the canonical book Revelation (Apocalypse of John) was written and preserved. This includes discussion of other ancient narratives of visions and prophecy, both canonical and non-canonical. Pagles is a scholar who was very much involved in the translation of the Nag Hammadi texts which were discovered in 1948, and is thus knowledgeable of the variety of religious texts available during the first three centuries of the Christian era.

Pagels agrees with other biblical scholars that the intent of John of Patmos, author of Revelation, was to write an anti-Roman propaganda treatise.
"What John did in the Book of Revelation, among other things, was create anti-Roman propaganda that drew its imagery from Israel’s prophetic traditions--above all, the writing of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel." (p.16)
However, Pagels' understanding of to whom the book is addressed is different from my previous understanding. According to Pagels, the warnings contained in the messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern western Turkey) were aimed against second generation descendants of the gentile converts of the Apostle Paul (i.e. those who "say they are Jews and are not"). John of Patmos was a messianic Jew who believed in strict observance of Jewish laws and did not approve of the relatively loose standards of Paul's gentile converts. The irony is that he used words of such obscure meanings that few people (Pagels excepted) in subsequent generations understood toward whom his barbs were directed. If John of Patmos were brought back to life today he would be shocked to learn that his book was combined with the letters written by Paul and titled The New Testament to served as sacred Christian scriptures.

Prior to Constantine it was quite clear to early readers, especially those familiar with Hebrew scriptures, that the Revelation of John of Patmos was intended to be anti-Roman. The last thing John would have expected happened when Constantine came to power and made Christianity a protected and preferred religion. It was obvious at that point that the "Whore of Babylon" had to be something other than the Roman Empire. It didn't take long to figure out who it did refer to--anybody who didn't sign on to the Nicene Creed.

Pagels provides interesting speculations about what it would have been like to be present in the monasteries near Nag Hammadi during the third century. She describes how the various writings found at Nag Hammadi could have been used and studied. She also describes the long battle of Athanasius of Alexandria to limit Christian literature to his list of acceptable books which matches today's New Testament canon. It's interesting to note that most of the contemporaries of Athanasius agreed with his list of books except that they did not include the book of Revelation. As it turned out the book of Revelation was found to be a convenient tool with which to attack one's enemies. Just about every internal church controversy since that time has resulted in the opposing sides calling each other the "Whore of Babylon."

A couple of additional items I learned from this book about "The Revelation of John" are the following:
1. It is the only book in the New Testament where the writer claims divine inspiration of his writing.
2. It's the only book in the NT where the writer warns copyist not to make any changes and not to add anything to his writing.
That second item is what makes it the ideal book to place at the end of the list books for the New Testament canon.
Profile Image for withdrawn.
263 reviews259 followers
January 29, 2021
Elaine Pagels has written a number of intelligent, well informed, popular books on topics surrounding Christianity - an accomplished academic who knows how to write for us common folk. This book is no exception.

Revelations is a rather exciting book at the end of the New Testament that is a fun adventure to read, even for us born again atheists. It’s sort of the car chase scene that never gets mentioned in any detail in the other books. For Christians of the time it was written, Revelations was the prediction of the end that was coming within days. For Christians today it’s probably the comeuppance that people like me deserve. (By the way, Pagels says this in much more respectful terms.

I’ll leave the basic story of Revelations out of the review as it is a) well known; b) to be found in other reviews; c) easy to read either in the Biblical original or in Pagels’ book. Of interest to me was Pagels’ description of the place and time in which Revelations was written.

Ascribed by many to John of Patmos (who may or may not have existed, it was likely written within a couple of decades of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Pagels does an excellent job of ascribing the general allegorical nature of the book to the political fears that pervaded the world of the author. Writing a Christian (Jewish) religious prophecy at the time could have proven fatal.

Oops my battery is dying. This could be an apocalypse. TBC maybe.
Profile Image for Jason.
74 reviews10 followers
March 8, 2014
Don't know much about the Book of Revelation? Convinced that we'll never figure out all of its mysteries? I recommend first reading the Book of Revelation and as you read, try to cleanse your mind of all the futuristic implications you learned from films, video games, literature, and your wide-eyed, biblically illiterate uncles. Then, read the first chapter of Pagels's REVELATIONS. In this chapter she summarizes the occasion, devices, and purpose of John of Patmos' work. After that, you'll be good to go, and you'll have enough raised questions to explore for awhile. After chapter one, Pagels explores how various church fathers and figures used and interpreted Revelation and other "revelation" texts written during the first few centuries but later deemed heretical. Finally, she discusses the influences that led to the canonization of Revelation. I liked this part. I'm accustomed to apologists citing early canon lists to prove that the current canon has been settled and closed for centuries. But I've never read any discussions of what motivated certain councils, bishops, and others to include or exclude books from their canon. Pagels sets the historical scene and details the controversies of the early church, the catalysts that led to canons. I found her treatment of Athanasius' role intriguing. It seems he is most responsible for establishing the biblical canon; using his authority and influence, Athanasius was one of the first to successfully define any book outside of his canon as heretical and all books within as orthodox. Also, it seems his influence is responsible for the strain of thought that connects salvation to right beliefs (beliefs in line with his canon and the Nicene Creed) instead of right actions (actions in line with Christ's teachings). Much to chew on and discuss. I'm looking forward to hearing her critics' voices, so if you find a trustworthy critic (not the guy online who thinks Stanford University is "Standford" University and forgot to read most of the places where Pagels actually addressed his "rebuttals"), send me the link!
Profile Image for Tony.
52 reviews
June 23, 2012
It's always interesting to see the 'scholarly' opinion of religious topics. Sometimes, with a world of facts, they just can't figure out how God is God.

This book does a good job of evaluating Revelations based on factual evidence (and several assumed conclusions), but misses the mark by failing to understand how prophesy works. In her mind, Revelations isn't actual revelation. No, John just made it up (using other similar 'stories' from other 'prophets') as war propaganda against the Romans. Modern day Christians are just reinterpreting an old, made-up prophesy because that's what we do. We're too dumb to understand it's not real. End of book.

At first I wondered if the author was an atheist, but nope, she's a professor of religion at Princeton. Then again, maybe an atheist can be a professor of religion, since they're not actually required to believe what they're teaching.

Interesting read for a historical perspective, but if you're looking for religious context, pass this one up. You won't get it here.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Bill Kupersmith.
Author 1 book196 followers
July 11, 2021
The author, a professor of religious studies at Princeton, discusses the authorship and origin of the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, and how it found a place in the Bible. Writers of sensational literature would have been at a loss if it hadn't, as those of us old enough to remember The Late Great Planet Earth will recall. When a headline at the supermarket magazine rack tell us 'Bible Prophecies' forebode calamities or warn of disasters of 'biblical proportions'—it is to this book of the Bible that they refer. The author called himself John and he was clearly soaked up to his eyeballs with some of the more lurid prophetic books of the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel and Daniel. He wrote in a dialect of Greek so peculiar that entire books have been written about it—more or less grammatical by someone thinking in a Semitic language, probably Hebrew or Aramaic or both. Generally scholars agree that it dates from about the end of the first century, about thirty years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans. This John was a Jewish Christian, almost surely not the author of the fourth gospel and the three epistles. Pagels holds that though he believed in Jesus, he would not have applied the term Christian to himself. Further that by the term those who claim to be Jews and are not (Rev. 3:9), he had in mind Gentile Christian followers of Saint Paul, claiming to be heirs of the Covenant though nonobservant of Jewish Law. I have doubts. He might have meant Jews who refused to accept as the Messiah. A Trotskyite could have called Stalinists those who claim to be Communists and are not, or vice-versa. The author wrote in a code that is mostly easily cracked: The Roman Empire is represented by Babylon, along with Egypt the epitome of evil in the Hebrew Bible. The Beast with seven heads and ten horns symbolize the Roman Empire and its emperors, by way of the book of Daniel. Of course we want to know the indentity of the Beast whose number is 666. Pagels suggests Nero. (Using Hebrew numerology one can derive NERON KAISAR.). The notorious Whore of Babylon most likely represents the Imperial cult worhipping Rome as a goddess. Pagels' principal scholarship was devoted to the Nag Hammadi codices, a cache of ancient books from the fourth century, apparently hidden by Egyptian monks. They are what most Christians traditionally label gnostic texts, and hence by Orthodox Christians regarded as heretical. Pagels main contention is that their rejection was the work of Christian bishops who found their teachings, especially their attitudes towards women and openness to individual choice, detracted from their authority. She makes Bishop Athanasius the principal villain. Not only was he responsible for the Trinitarian formula contained in the Nicene Creed, but the official canon of the New Testament that included the Book of Revelation. As Christianity had been accepted by Constantine as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Athanasius and his followers interpreted the Beasts and evil symbols as referring not to Rome, but to those they called heretics (from the Greek word for choose). Of course Athanasius did not have the last word on the book's meaning. The beast became identified with another Satanic figure, the Antichrist (he has gone on to have a very successful career in films). In the Reformation, the Beast acquired a tiara and the Whore of Babylon became the Roman Catholic Church. The reader interested in the central place of the Book of Revelation in our culture will have to read beyond this book. (I'd start with A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John's Apocalypse by Austin Farrer.) The War in Heaven in book 6 of Milton's Paradise Lost depends on John's imagery. Pagels gives little attention to the heavenly chapters, especially to the triumph of Jesus as the Lamb who was Slain and the New Jerusalem (which inspired Blake and a British football anthem). Most significantly, I think Athanasius would reply to Pagels criticism for excluding books as heretical by asking if what is contained in those books was true or false. People really believed it mattered whether Jesus was really both God and a human being - as opposed to Jesus being God so to speak going about dressed as a man (Monophysitism) or a man so good he got invited to join the God team (Adoptionism), or the Son of God but not quite really the same as the Father (Arianism) - but of the 'same Substance as the Father'; this was a question of literally cosmic significance. A good introduction for the reader new to theology can be found in Dorothy Sayers' essay 'Creed or Chaos'. There's a witticism that states a real truth: In a secular university Religious Studies is the only department where the professors can't claim that what they teach is acually true. Of course, few intelligent Christians take Revelation literally as a forecast of the end of the world, but as poetry depicting the power of evil and good, it does indeed belong where Athanasius placed it as the conclusion to the Christian Bible.
Profile Image for John Martindale.
746 reviews81 followers
January 18, 2017
I thought this a well written and an interesting book, yet I can't say I am on board with everything she wrote. For example, Pagels made a speculative case that John of Patmos despised the apostle Paul and his disciples, who she thinks was being referred to when John wrote to a church in Ephesus "I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false." and that John hated the Gentile Christians and referred to them in his message to Smyrna "I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." And that John was angry with Pergamum for embracing some of Paul's teachings, when he wrote "Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. (Pagel thinks sexual immortality meant Jews marrying non-Jews)" and finally Pagel's make's much over the fact John doesn't use the word "Christian" meaning that John was against them. I personally think some scholars make far to much to do out of what someone doesn't say. Yes, these interpretations are edgy, unorthodox and are made by critical scholars and therefore are fashionably cool, but they still are interpretations. Pagel presents it all as if it was established fact though. If one takes the puzzle box she offers, some of the pieces do fit, but other interpretative frameworks can make sense of these passages as well.

Now it was fascinating to hear the story of Revelations in church history, different ways the book was used and understood, and how a majority didn't include it in their scriptural canon. After Constantine came to power, all the previous interpretations of the book were discredited since Rome was now a "holy" empire. Yet largely due to good old Athanasius, who re-interpreted the bad guys in Revelation to represent those he hated as heretics, managed to get the book included in our bible. With numerous others throughout church history, I don't think it should have been included in the canon. But alas, it is no longer fashionable in Christian circles to debate things like this.

Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 20 books272 followers
April 8, 2012
I have read Elaine Pagels' work before (Gnostic Gospels) and have admired her work. I am not an expert in this aspect of history, but her works read well and she shows much knowledge of the material. She also places the issues addressed in an historical context.

Here, she explores the Book of Revelation, written, she says, by John of Patmos (an island off the coast of Turkey). She asks a number of questions in this book and strives to answer each (Page 3): "Who wrote this book? Why--and how--do so many people still read it today?" Pagels suggests that John began writing the book in 90 AD, probably after having fled his homeland in Judea.

Pagels discusses revelatory works, showing how John's book fit into this tradition. She also notes that, from the documents from Nag Hammadi, John's was not the only work of revelation. Why did his become part of the Biblical canon and not some other? She discusses the history and politics of the time and how the emerging church hierarchy wanted a definitive "Bible." She outlines the logic that ended up locating John's Book of Revelation within the canon.

This volume is well written, albeit a bit short. But it takes on a big subject and does not disappoint.
Profile Image for Steve Cooper.
90 reviews12 followers
March 10, 2016
Elaine Pagels continues several themes here that she introduced in her earlier Gnostic books, with particular emphasis on the Jewish apostles and followers of Christ and their reaction to the new gentile Christians Paul has managed to convert with his preaching. This confrontation between law-obsessed Jews for Jesus and a new generation of free-thinking gentile converts plays out in a menacing environment where Rome is beginning to see any follower of Jesus as a threat to the empire requiring mass persecutions.

John of Patmos, author of Revelation, is one of these old-timey Jewish proto-Christians who is probably writing from exile around 90AD. His Revelation is only one of many, and Pagels draws parallels between the symbolism common to them all and where it came from. She also examines what made John’s version worthy to be thrown in as a late addition to the New Testament canon, while all the others were relegated to the garbage heap of heresy.

Informative and provocative, this book gives us the historical and metaphysical context necessary to begin deciphering this most obscure New Testament book.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,032 reviews48.4k followers
November 24, 2013
The remarkable thing about the End of Times is how timeless it is. Harold Camping, the subject of mockery last year with his ever-shifting predictions about the Apocalypse, was only the latest in a long line of hectoring prophets, but every age, every culture, possibly every person endures that existential panic, a vision of the final high-stakes conflict.

Those visions didn’t start with the Book of Revelation, but for almost 2,000 years, the trippy images and fiery rhetoric that blaze away at the back of the New Testament have dominated how we pray, imagine, fear and even joke about the Last Days. The description of cosmic warfare attributed to John of Patmos has inspired some of Western culture’s greatest paintings, music and poetry. Politicians and preachers, evangelical sci-fi writers and gold-bug financial planners — they all know how to sow anxiety and reap profit with those cataclysmic pictures of imminent catastrophe.

But where did this story come from, and how did it end up as the capstone to a collection of gospels and letters about Jesus that seem so strikingly different in tone and content?

Over the past three decades, perhaps no one has done more to teach interested people about the historical dynamics and textual complexity of early Christianity than Elaine Pagels. A professor of religion at Princeton University, Pagels captured an improbably large audience (and a National Book Award) in 1979 for “The Gnostic Gospels,” her engaging introduction to the documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Under her tutelage, interested readers with no background in early Christianity nor any facility with ancient languages can experience the historical and — if they’re so disposed — the spiritual import of those writings hidden in Upper Egypt since at least the 4th century.

Pagels’s new book, “Revelations,” examines a far more familiar text, but it offers revelations of its own for lay readers. Suspiciously slim for such a complex and fraught subject, this five-chapter book whisks us through centuries of religious conflict, ecclesiastical maneuvering and textual scholarship. It’s easy to imagine that Pagels’s obscure academic competitors say mean things about her behind her back — How dare she be so accessible! — but she’s one of those rare scholars who can speak fluently to other professors or to curious people who decide on a whim to learn something about the Bible. Forty-six pages — the longest section of her book — are given over to footnotes that direct students to more technical explorations of these issues. Lay readers, meanwhile, will take this book and eat it up.

Her central point is that this most famous story about The End is a window on the beginnings of Christianity. Those origins were far more dynamic, circumstantial and political than most people realize, and the Book of Revelation played a peculiar role.

Without openly contradicting anyone’s faith in divine writ, Pagels emphasizes that the Book of Revelation was written at a particular time and place: a small island off the coast of Turkey, probably around 90 C.E. after the Romans had burned down the Great Temple and left Jerusalem in ruins. “We begin to understand what he wrote,” she says, “only when we see that his book is wartime literature.” In other words, much of the fiery destruction portrayed early in John’s narrative is not so much prophetic as historical, a florid depiction of the incomprehensible horrors that had left Jews stunned, scattered and frightened. In the wake of Rome’s brutal repression and the flourishing of its empire, John wrote cryptic “anti-Roman propaganda that drew its imagery from Israel’s prophetic traditions.” His “Revelation,” then, was a way of acknowledging recent defeats while knitting them neatly into a narrative of future victory.

More provocatively, Pagels claims that John “sees himself as a Jew who acknowledges Jesus as Israel’s messiah — not someone who has converted to a new ‘religion.’ ” That distinction is significant, because it allows her to argue that while John was portraying Rome as the beast, he was also warning Jewish followers of Jesus against associating with gentile followers of Jesus inspired by “that maverick called Paul of Tarsus [who] came out of nowhere and began to preach a ‘gospel’ quite different.” In this interpretation, the Book of Revelation was part of an early power struggle among Jesus’s believers, an internecine conflict defined by stark terms of good and evil, faithfulness and apostasy, salvation and damnation. Do you smell something burning?

In the chapters that follow, Pagels goes on to demonstrate how — and how thoroughly — John lost the battle of interpretation over the story he left behind. As his “Revelation” became the culmination of Christian eschatology, his Jewish allusions were appropriated by a new sect that colonized the Hebrew Bible as the “Old” Testament, subordinated Israeli prophets to Christian bishops, and recast Jews as unbelievers set for hell.

But “Revelation” was still destined for “a hundred visions and revisions.” The conversion of Emperor Constantine — one of many complex subjects that Pagels can’t explore fully in this brief book — required another radical reinterpretation of John’s prophecy. Having Christianized itself, Rome could hardly be seen as the Beast; new satanic villains must be identified. And that explains the persistence of what John wrote: His “multivalent” language is an apocalyptic inkblot that allows for whatever polemic meanings the times and rulers require.

The final chapters offer a breezy recapitulation of some of the repressed “revelations” found at Nag Hammadi. The most interesting analysis here suggests why John’s “Revelation” thrived while other visions were buried. In short, Pagels argues, the Gnostic writers were simply too lovely, too inclusive, too universal to be politically effective. John of Patmos, though, offered a stark battle between good and evil along with an irresistible list of degrading epithets for anyone to employ against his enemies: “cowards, the faithless, abominable, filthy . . . and all liars.” How much more useful, Pagels says, to identify true believers with the universally flexible language of God’s warriors than by the simple test of the Gospels: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.”

Surely, nobody could incite supporters to violent action with mealy-mouthed talk like that.

Pagels never takes on her contemporary political or religious opponents directly, but they’re unlikely to feel lukewarm about this analysis. “The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible,” she notes on the opening page, “and the most controversial.” She presents the sort of respectful academic discussion that strikes liberal Christians as perfectly reasonable, while leaving evangelicals and other conservatives feeling gored.

What I miss, though, is a fuller reflection on the inspirational power of “Revelation.” Pagels nods toward this in her brief conclusion by highlighting the theme of hope. But after such a brisk tour of the crooked political and theological abuses that John’s vision has been subjected to, her little homily seems perfunctory, unconvincing. Just enough to send us back where she wants us to go: to the Bible, to think again.

Profile Image for Ericka Clou.
2,102 reviews163 followers
March 2, 2022
Though there is some interesting analysis in here, this book suffers from two major problems: the title is misleading as this is not specifically about the Book of Revelations and barely about the more general concept of religious revelations. A better title might be Early Christian History. The second problem is that it lacks a very tight thesis, it mostly summarizes early Christianity with the occasional focus on religious visions or the gnostic gospels or the Nicene creed.
Profile Image for Matt.
150 reviews24 followers
September 3, 2013
I've been a big fan of Pagels since I read a couple of her earlier works in the '90s. I've long been impressed by her ability to offer a generally dispassionate interpretation of early Christian history. It's hard for me to gauge how important she might be to that scholarship, since there is always certainly a divide between the academics who actually move the needle and those who write popular books for mass consumption, but my favorite thing about her work is that she was the first author to explain to me in any reasoned detail how much of the Church's dogma is the end result of political decisions and power interests that are millennia old.

I found myself reading this book primarily because of an upcoming chance to hear Pagels interviewed in a live setting. Like most scholars, she has only become sharper with time. But she is also like most good older scholars in that her primary academic contribution to her chosen field of study has probably long since occurred. In that sense, this book offered me no particularly new insight as far as Bible scholarship is concerned, but if you want a lot of insight on the book of Revelation itself, this book is undoubtedly a great start.

I'm probably oversimplifying here (at best -- at worst I am getting things wrong), but here are some of what I thought were primary take-home points.

Revelation was probably written about 70 years after the death of Jesus. It's wartime literature, written by a Jewish follower of Jesus who wanted to create an anti-Roman treatise and to keep the Jewish tradition alive. All the crazy imagery? It exists mainly because writing in metaphor and code was the only way to avoid getting in trouble. Rome was the 'beast', the dark days were the battles that saw the destruction of the temple, and the Jews would one day see their day again.

Pagels claims that the story and its metaphors were, within a century, 'co-opted' by Gentiles in what she says the writer "might have seen as the greatest identity theft of all time: that eventually Gentile believers not only would call themselves Israel but would claim to be the sole rightful heirs to the legacy of God's chosen people." Revelation instead becomes a condemnation of 'heretic' Christian splinter groups because of their failure to obey church (and political) authority. Some persecuted guys named Irenaeus and Justin championed the book, both thinking that they would benefit from its promise of tribulation. Even Constantine claimed that his rival, Licinius, was represented in Revelation by the dragon. The book of Revelation remained in the canon because it could be reinterpreted in expedient ways, and it has continued to intrigue Christians in generations since because natural disasters and wars have led others to believe they were living in the 'end of days' and consequently the meaning and interpretation of the book has continued to evolve.

In short, the argument here is extremely compelling: the historical interpretation of the origins of the book of Revelation run 180 degrees counter to what most pulpit speeches claim the book to be. If anything, Pagels undersells this 'revelation'. I also think I got all I really needed out of the book by the time I was halfway through. And while I think her dispassionate telling of the evidence lends her a lot of credibility, it also dulls the knife a bit.

Still, on the whole, a good book. I'm awfully glad I stumbled upon this author.
489 reviews36 followers
June 14, 2015
Elaine Pagels, who has done so much to expand our understanding of early Christianity, in part by including sources that the Church itself discarded or sought to eliminate, in part by reading the canon with a close eye, here takes on that last and most enigmatic book of the New Testament, Revelations. The book itself stands at the end of the New Testament, and with its vision of justice as eternal vengeance. its imagery looks backward to the righteous anger of the Jewish prophets. But it was also a response to the politics of the time. Its lasting power--as Pagels points out, there were similar books written at the time--is a matter of both the vividness of the imagery and its oddly tactful non-specificity. John of Patmos, for all his righteous anger, took care not to provoke the full might of the Roman Empire. In doing so, what he produced was a vision for the future, to be taken up by all those who feel themselves oppressed, which explains how so much of that imagery is retained in the very conservative Christianity that is so threatened by modernity (sinners eternally tormented in the lake of fire, the mark of the beast, 666, and so on). As Jeanne-Pierre Filiu showed in "Apocalypse in Islam", there is even a series of Muslim comic books in which the end of days was preceded by a battle between Jesus and that Antichrist. Pagels' scholarship is, as always, wide-ranging and clear. There are points on which I would have preferred a bit more elaboration--a special prize awaits anyone who can clarify the long battle between Bishops Athanasius and Arius and why it was so important to the former--but that is more an expression of how strange the early doctrinal debates can be than a criticism of Pagels' book, which does explain a lot of obscure history. The other other unexplored question is the degree to which the violent images legitimized the use of the cross in battle, from Constantine to Cortes and beyond.
Profile Image for Steve Wiggins.
Author 9 books56 followers
August 27, 2017
The book of Revelation is one of the most poorly understood in the Bible. As Pagels makes clear, it wasn't necessarily a shoo-in for inclusion. It was a controversial book from the beginning, and even after it was written many readers didn't understand it. Eventually it was included as an appropriate ending to a book (the Bible) that begins with the creation of the world.

Along the way Pagels discusses revelation with a small r as well. This idea plays into what ancient people thought prophets were and prophecy was seldom removed from politics. There was a lot more going on in the writing of scripture than most people realize. Since this is a book by Pagels there is plenty of information on other ancient apocalypses, including some from Nag Hammadi.

The mistake most modern people make is in thinking Revelation was written as a book to end the Bible. It was one among many ancient apocalypses and certain politically powerful individuals in the early church saw to its eventually inclusion in the Bible. Once it achieved this status it began to have a perhaps unexpectedly large influence on the development of subsequent Christianities.

Like most of Pagels' books, this one is not terribly long, but has great insight. Clearly written and provocative, it is a good resource not only on Revelation, but also early Christianity as well.

I wrote a little more about it on my blog: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.
86 reviews34 followers
May 14, 2023
I have enjoyed reading the glowing reviews of other writers here. I just want to add that what struck me most about Pagels' narrative is to what a large extent the disputes among the early Christians were never really settled but are still on-going to this day. Regarding the struggle between the followers of Paul, for whom belief in the Resurrection was both necessary and sufficient for being the "right kind of Christian," and the followers of the church in Jerusalem--led by Peter, and James the brother of Jesus--who believed that a true follower of Jesus must live a good Jewish life, as Jesus did--tradition tells us that this disagreement was resolved and Paul and Peter were reconciled. But in fact, Christians still argue this point to the present day. Pagels sheds a lot of light on this topic by showing how the Book of Revelation was used (and still is used) to not only support one side or the other of the argument, but to actually demonize one's opponents. Being vs Doing, Orthodoxy (correct belief) vs Orthopraxis (correct practice), words vs actions--still being argued, still being demonized.

Fascinating stuff. For a slightly different take on early Church history as it relates to the Christian canon of written sciptures, I highly recommend Bart D. Ehrman; in particular, "Jesus, Interrupted," "Misquoting Jesus," and "Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are."
Profile Image for Alan Fuller.
Author 6 books30 followers
July 11, 2018
Pagels says John created anti-Roman propaganda with the Book of Revelation. He used cryptic images because he may have feared reprisal. She then examines other apocalypses dug up at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and finds them quite different. Some mention Jesus while others are from other teachers or gods. These other writings don't seem to be a political allegory but instead focus on personal illumination. They seek to raise the reader to a level of personal contact with God. It reminds me of the serpent's promise in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:5). Pagels ponders why the Book of Revelation is the only one of these apocalypses that made it into the canon of scripture. She decides it's because these other books bypass the need for clergy. Pagels appears to take the side of the Nag Hammadi writings.

"And unlike those who insist that they already have all the answers they’ll ever need, these sources invite us to recognize our own truths, to find our own voice, and to seek revelation not only past, but ongoing." (p. 177).

Oh, BTW if the anti-Roman shoe doesn't seem to fit, try her theory that John was arguing with the followers of Paul.
Profile Image for Jon.
1,303 reviews
April 23, 2013
I greatly admired Elaine Pagels's first book--The Gnostic Gospels. Since then it seems she keeps talking about the gnostic books discovered at Nag Hammadi in the mid-20th century, always from a slightly different angle. This time she compares them to the Biblical book of Revelations. It becomes very clear in this book as with her others that her real interest and sympathy is all with the gnostic books. Mine is not, especially, and I'm finding Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years much more interesting.
Profile Image for Chungsoo Lee.
64 reviews34 followers
June 11, 2019
Prof. Pagels at Princeton University convincingly assesses the remarkable role the Book of Revelation played in the time of Roman persecution of Christians and that of Roman conversion to Christianity. 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 "666" (which stands for Nero, not Satan) and other symbols that refer to the persecuting Roman Emperors. The Book of Revelation, written in response to the catastrophic fall of Jerusalem in CE 70, gave the persecuted Christians (being put on the stake or tossed to lion's mouth) courage and hope of the Divine intervention and eventual triumph in glory--a vivid illustration of what Nietzsche later calls 'ressentiment.'
Another remarkable aspect about 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.' 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. Furthermore, as Pagels successfully argues, the strong language of judgment used 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 against fellow Christians in doctrinal disputes during the time of Constantine and his son, Constantius, and henceforth throughout the ages, even to the present. The Book is used by Christians against other Christians: Athanasius against the Arius followers, against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, or against the secret books (that were used by Gnostic monks in Egypt). Later the Book is used by the Protestants against the Catholics (and vice versa), the Unionists against the Confederates in America, Koreans again Japanese during WWII and thereafter. How the Word of God is used to incite violence against the fellow Christians! and to incite nationalism against the historic enemies! The Book of Revelation was the favorite book to read and preach on when Koreans were liberated from the Japanese oppression. Yunson Park, the first and perhaps the only Korean to complete the commentaries on the entire Bible, memorized the entire Book of Revelation on his Pacific voyage on the way to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in early 1930's (soon after the breakup from Princeton Theological Seminary) and wrote and revised his commentary on the Book, the first one in the series that covered the entire Bible. When I came to American in 1974, my father (an elderly Presbyterian minister then, taught by Dr. Prak) held a daily family bible study every evening, reading and commenting on the Book of Revelation, offering mostly allegorical interpretations. The Book must have been a great consolation to him as he suffered through the 5-year and 4-month of imprisonment, including near starvation, by the occupying Japanese in early to mid 1940's. Dropping of the American atomic bombs on the Japanese soils in 1945 was for him and his fellow Christians certainly God's long waited answer to their prayers and prophecy. One of the greatest technological atrocities in the 20th century became the act of God and the occasion for a great joy and celebration for Koreans and particularly for Korean Christians. The Book of Revelation provided the symbolism and language to preach and to celebrate the victory throughout the peninsula.

What is particularly 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 seal the era of revelations as well as, by implication, to exclude other competing 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 later effectively by Athanasius and his followers to exclude the other books with the vehemence of condemnation found in the Book. 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 the external threats to Christianity no longer existed) by Athanasius and his followers against anyone who disagree with them in terms of doctrines as well as in disputes over authenticity of various Scriptures. How legitimate could the Nicene Creed be (and the language of 'homoousia'), when it was conceived under the Emperor Constantine himself presiding over the Synod, as he demanded a resolution to the Arian controversy and subsequently sanctioned the summary of the Synod (written by Athanasius)? How about Constantine's son, Constantius, who exiled Athanasius after rejecting the Nicene Creed and upholding Arius's view? Athanasius' authority and in fact the authority of early Christianity (i.e., the entire ecclesiastical authority) almost entirely rested on Constantine, not on, as we are told, apostolic tradition or on the Scriptures, thus systematically excluding any non-Pauline views regarding the role of Christ and the Resurrection.
Thus, we may ask: If Paul had transformed and elevated the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection (from the physical reality to the 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, like Paul's, from the physical reality of Christ's death and resurrection in their interpretation and transformation of the Christ event. Why must Paul's theology dominate Christianity at the expense of other vival but similar views? Such is the challenge posed by Pagels.

Pagels book does not and did not intend to address the question about 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 the Pauline interpretations). Why were Paul's letters and his interpretations of Christ command such a high esteem (so as not only to make it into the New Testament canon but to dominate and determine the canonicity of the New Testament and henceforth the fate of the West (according to Giorgio Agamben's The Time That Remains: A Commentary On The Letter To The Romans)) despite such books, like the Book of Revelation, that opposed Pauline interpretations? Pagels does not ask this vital question which lies beyond the scope of her fine book.

Another noteworthy point is that the word "Anti-Christ" never appears in the Book of Revelation. Pagels also engages in persuasive explanations on the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and on the so called Gnostic books found in the Codex 1 that is worth noting.

What a remarkable place Egypt must have been soon after Christianity was allowed to develop, after having been freed from the jaws of the persecuting Roman emperors. It became the center of Christian asceticism and the ascetic experience oriented toward a salvation that was believed to be obtainable apart from the atonement of Christ! Indeed, for the contemplative monks in the desert and in the Eastern Orthodox, the question of legal justification (drawn from the concept of Roman laws) does not arise as a central theme of Christianity. A Christianity that focused on the union with God thrived all over the desert along the Niles corridor with Alexandria at the summit. How exciting a time it must have been and what a tragic loss it is (although not a total loss as such spirit live on in the Eastern Orthodox churches) when the desert spirituality was almost completely suppressed by the western ecclesiastical powers. (A great number of the desert monks later fled to Syria during the time of Chrysostom to revive the declining spirituality of Constantinople. See W. R. W. Stephens' Saint John Chrysostom, His Life and Times) 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 Western theology irreparably, as did Paul and Augustine, if not more. Such is the picture Pagels paints of the early church fathers, in which the spirit of Protestantism lives on.
Profile Image for Ill D.
Author 1 book8,612 followers
September 26, 2019
With horned beasts, psychedelic imagery, apocalyptic premonitions, and a fiery appeal that has remained an unyeilding following down the centuries, the final book of the Bible is nothing short of a literary and cultural tour de force. But how are we to make sense of its “multi-valent” meanings? Having read, enjoyed and even reviewed a few of her books, I decided to turn to renowned author of religion, Elaine Pagels for answers to my burning questions. These very same questions that have perplexed and boggled minds across all spectrums of human experience when applied to this enigmatic tome are truly voluminous, of which, here are a few: Why was is written? Who wrote it? And most importantly for all involved, what does it all mean?

Does Pagles do these questions justice?


As a presentation of where and when, it succeeds as a superior historical and cultural contextualization of the authors means and know-how at the very end of the 1st Century A.D. Connecting layers of meaning across secular and religious sources, the world of the Romans and the Jews meets a neatly tied meeting point at which the seed of Christianity germinated in its fertile milieu. However when Pagels expands her perspective toward that of the gnostic communities of the era, things can get muddled.

Sure, it’s her bread and butter. And sure its interesting and relevant stuff for this work. However, discussions on innumerable and largely forgettable codices and papyri of all sorts of revelations and secret what-not, detract from my original goal toward a greater understanding of the canonical Revelation. Taking us far from where we were expected to be, sticking with better known Roman and Jewish sources such as Josephus, Apuelius, are far more useful to contextualize the religious zeitgeist of the era than banished books that are largely no more than fragments (of mostly nonsense) any more.

As such when I reached the relatively early conclusion, which ended on page 140, I was duly surprised to realize that the last 50 some pages were nothing more than, citations, acknowledgments, indices, and a relatively large swathe of notes. Whether this was consumed in the digital or printed format (the former for this reader) the inflated page count was as much a surprise as at it seemed to be nothing more than a shameless insertion of 25% filler.

Seemingly chuckling at the suckers who expecting something as meaty as a 200 page count would lead one to believe, Pagles states on page 134, “… to fully answer [these] questions [about Revelation], would require another book - or many books…” Expecting a plug for another book I was only slightly less disappointed to read through a conclusion that was a vaccuous as it was paper thin to read through.

All in all there’s some good stuff here. Certainly what’s fascinating and elucidating, will remain so for anyone outside of academia. However for those, like yours truly expecting something text-centric as the title would lead one to believe, we’ll have look elsewhere.
Profile Image for B. Rule.
808 reviews23 followers
April 8, 2021
Pagels is always a thoughtful guide to early church history, and here she ties her explication of the Revelation of John back to her strong expertise in the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi. This book gives the historical context for why John of Patmos wrote the book and how it falls within a tradition of other prophetic works generated in the frothing ferment of the early Jesus movement. It also provides solid accounts for how such texts were received and used, and how that changed over the period from roughly 90 CE to 400 CE.

As Pagels aptly notes, the ambiguous semiotics of the text were one of its enduring strengths, as it allowed believers to read into it whatever their current socio-historical context required. Thus, a coded Jewish text against the Romans could later become an indictment of "heretics" in a Christianizing Empire where the idea of orthodoxy was reifying. Pagels breathes life into the figures and disputes behind some of the early factions of the movement, and she subtly celebrates the heterodox spirit of the "seeker" sects over the more rigid demands for doctrinal purity that came to dominate the Church Triumphant. You really get a sense for the spiritual enthusiasm and out-there dynamism that drove the explosive growth of the cult of Jesus in Pagels' accounts of the struggles between Paul's Gentile mission vs. James and Peter, the New Prophecy movement, the formation of early monastic communities by Pachomius and others, etc., etc.

That's all good stuff. However, the organization of this book left something to be desired. There's a fair amount of repetition as Pagels gives concise summaries, then circles back thematically, then circles back for a literary analysis, and so on. One feels some judicious editing could have avoided quoting the same passages multiple times in a relatively short volume. However, I'll let Pagels finagle a rounding up in rating, as her scholarship and sensitive mind are always pleasant guides even when the organization is perplexing.
Profile Image for Herman.
494 reviews19 followers
October 11, 2022
REVELATIONS Visions, Prophecy, & Politics In The Book Of Revelation by: Elaine Pagels on the back cover where the best promo-quotes are placed it says "I know of no other short book I would recommend more to gain an overview of how Christianity came into being." The Philadelphia Inquirer, I think I will second that opinion this is concise well organized and very clear with a scientific mindset of a historian trying too read the map of clues and give a clear description of how this gospel became part of the bible. I was raised catholic until I left the church sometimes during my teens and I always found it strange how for years I didn't even know Jesus had a brother, which gives some clue as to how the story of Christ could and had been encased in a very interconnected and controlled narrative creating a certain holy emphasis that fit's a political view. The fact that the new testament was also a highly political document and always often related directly to the politics of the time it was written. The Book of Revelations the last and strangest book of the new testament was included because it's imagery is open to re-interpretation and at the time was used by powerful figures for their own purposes it became part of the accepted Christian Canon and from time to time used as a tool to promote or stress a point of view. By following the development of the Christian creed Ms. Pagels gives a very understandable account of the creating of Christian Religion and that in itself makes this an important book. It's how well Ms. Pagels presents this material that makes this a really good book. Four stars!
Profile Image for Denny.
322 reviews26 followers
March 9, 2015
With _Revelations_, gifted scholar, professor, and storyteller Elaine Pagels has published yet another compelling, concise, and enjoyable work of scholarship easily accessible to lay readers and non-scholars. Pagels argues her points clearly and persuasively and provides extensive endnotes citing works of many other respected and influential scholars with similar as well as differing opinions. Pagels stands on the side of a growing majority of contemporary critical scholars who have come to an understanding of John of Patmos and the Book of Revelation that is vastly different than what has for the majority of Christian history been the norm, and in this book she does an excellent job of making her case with reasoned argument, sound scholarship, and luminous prose. If you have any interest in the current tendencies in Biblical-Critical scholarship or have never been satisfied with the traditional teaching about and understanding of the Book of Revelation, you should read this book. If you’re still wavering and need just a bit more info, skeletal spoilers follow .

In Chapter 1, “John’s Revelation: Challenging the Evil Empire, Rome”, Pagels establishes who John of Patmos most likely was (not the Apostle John, author of the eponymous Gospel), what he believed revelation was and in which genre of it he wrote (Jewish apocalyptic eschatological), and against whom he was speaking out (not only the oppressive Roman empire but also rival groups of followers of Jesus).

Chapter 2, “Visions of Heaven and Hell: From Ezekiel and John of Patmos to Paul”, explains in greater detail how John of Patmos understood revelation, which Old Testament sources (mainly Isaiah and Ezekiel) he used and why, and how those OT authors understood revelation and why and how they used it before going on to further develop Pagels’ thesis about who John sought to discredit: groups of Gentile converts of the Apostle Paul whom John had come to see as usurpers of Jesus’ covenant with the Jews.

Chapter 3, “Other Revelations: Heresy or Illumination?”, is an introductory discussion of how widespread in the early Christian era works of revelation were and showcases several of the numerous texts found in the Coptic Gnostic Library / Nag Hammadi Codex as well as Fourth Ezra/Revelation of Ezra, all of which are representative of a different genre of revelation in which the subject is the seeking of personal, self-guided enlightenment rather than revealed visions of the end times or congregational guidance from ecclesiastical leaders. Pagels explains how John of Patmos and later early church fathers, specifically Irenaeus and Tertullian, perceived such texts as threatening and heretical before preparing to move on to discussion of how and why late 2nd-century Christian leaders favored John of Patmos’ Revelation and defended it against pagan and Christian critics alike.

Chapter 4, “Confronting Persecution: How Jews and Christians Separated Politics from Religion”, discusses the “New Prophecy” movement surrounding Montanus and his followers in and around Asia Minor beginning about 160 AD, briefly explains its link to the Book of Revelation, and mentions how widespread Christianity has become in the Roman Empire as well as how popular Montanus and his teaching have become, especially in Asia Minor, before embarking upon a history of how contentious the New Prophecy was, occasioning debate among churches that became so acrimonious that bishops in the province had to censor the teachings of the movement and declare its favored scriptures, Revelation and the Gospel of John, as being full of lies and blasphemy and to ask Roman bishops for support. In painstaking detail, Pagels goes on to explain how, despite the fierce resistance to the New Prophecy and its favored texts, early leaders Tertullian, Justin, and Irenaeus argued fiercely and successfully for the validity of and acceptance of the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation before ending the chapter with a surprising proclamation of how Tertullian was one of the first advocates, at least concerning Christians and the Roman Empire, of freedom of religion being a fundamental human right. Chapter 4 also includes a wonderful synopsis of the Roman spiritual seeker and writer Apuleius’s The Metamorphoses (a.k.a. The Golden Ass) in presenting it as an expression of both the pagan contempt for Christians and an example of how much a broad spectrum of non-Christians valued personal revelation.

In Chapter 5, “Constantine’s Conversion: How John’s Revelation Became Part of the Bible”, Pagels provides a compressed but thorough history of Constantine’s adoption of Jesus Christ as patron, the issuance of the Edict of Milan and resulting end to imperial persecution of Christianity and concomitant granting of increasing power and authority to Christian bishops belonging to the “catholic” (Greek for ‘universal’) school of thought. Following a brief synopsis of what led Constantine to call the Council of Nicea in 325 and its doctrinal repercussions, Pagels gives a detailed history of how, beginning with Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, the Book of Revelation began to be perceived as canonical and how, now that Rome was no longer oppressive so couldn’t be portrayed as “The Beast” against whom the returning Christ would triumph, it was to be understood as offering proof that the Beast against whom Christians must struggle are heretical, i.e. non-Catholic, Christians. This chapter also includes a concise history of how Athanasius and like-minded successors campaigned, with eventual overwhelming success, against the autonomy and authority of the immensely popular “solitaries”, that is monks and monastic communities, who held fast to the practice of cultivating intensely personal revelations as a way to attain enlightenment/salvation, and brought them under the control of the Catholic bishops, who professed that salvation could only be attained through orthodox as opposed to heretical belief.

Pagels concludes with a very short statement of how the Book of Revelation has continued to speak to believers in the ensuing 2,000 years and of how believers suffer by failing to accept the validity of alternative types of revelation that encourage and teach us to discover our own truths through experiencing ongoing revelation.
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