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

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

Elaine Pagels
New York: Viking, 2012. 246 pages, hardcover, $27.95.

Of all the books in the Bible, none has aroused as many complex and contradictory emotions as the book of Revelation. A work that for centuries hovered on the edges of the New Testament canon, it was for years regarded with suspicion both by the Eastern Orthodox church and, later, by the Protestant Reformers; many today view it as the source of all apocalyptic excesses. And yet it retains an uncanny power and has inspired countless works of art. Indeed, wrote Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, “All great, genuine art resembles and continues the Revelation of St. John.”

The latest figure to explore this elusive work is Elaine Pagels. Best-known for her groundbreaking book The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels is also the author of such well-known titles as Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. In her latest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, she turns her attention to this last and most perplexing book of the Bible.

Pagels’s book falls into two parts. In the first she discusses Revelation itself, its author, and what he may have been trying to say in the context of its time (following conventional views, she dates it to c.90 a.d.). She then explains how and why the book came to be included in the New Testament canon.

Like most scholars, Pagels believes that the John who wrote Revelation was neither the apostle nor the author of the fourth Gospel. From the book’s prose style—which is the crudest in the New Testament, with many usages suggesting that its author’s first language was probably Aramaic—she contends that the author was a second-generation Jewish convert to Christianity. This John would have known about, and possibly witnessed, the cataclysmic destruction of Judea by the Romans in the Jewish War of a.d. 66–73. For him, the great villain was Rome, the “great beast.” Indeed, as she notes, the famous number of the beast, 666, is now generally identified as the numerological equivalent of the name “Nero Caesar.”

In essence, then, Pagels agrees with much of current scholarship that portrays Revelation as a coded tirade against the Roman Empire. She plants its historical background firmly in the context of John’s time in the late first century a.d. But why should this crabbed book have been given entry into the canon of sacred scripture?

The answer, Pagels tells us, has to do with the uses to which the book was put in later centuries. As early as the second century a.d., the great villains of John’s apocalypse began to be identified more and more with Christian heretics and less with the beast of Rome, particularly by Irenaeus of Lyons, the chronicler and opponent of so-called heresies. This trend continued in the fourth century, when Constantine’s conversion to Christianity turned the Roman Empire into the greatest benefactor of the nascent Catholic church rather than its greatest enemy. The chief enemy then became Christians who did not agree with the mainstream church. According to Pagels, Athanasius of Alexandria, one of the chief formulators of Catholic Christianity, “found an unlikely ally in John of Patmos— especially as Irenaeus had read him. For . . . Irenaeus interpreted God’s enemies, whom John had pictured as the ‘beast’ and the ‘whore,’ to refer not only to Rome’s rulers but also to Christians deceived, by the false teacher he called Antichrist, into false doctrine and into committing evil” (emphasis in the original).

In fact the Antichrist is not actually mentioned in Revelation (the term appears in the New Testament only in the first two epistles of John), but by the time of Athanasius, it was easy to insert this dark and ambiguous figure into Revelation’s demonology. For Athanasius himself, “Antichrist” was a pliable term, suitable for use against his archenemy, the bishop Arius, whose formulation of Christology differed from Athanasius’s, and even against Constantine’s son, the emperor Constantius, who sent Athanasius into exile.

Pagels’s story stops in the fourth century, but it is easy to see how Revelation’s enigmatic figures of evil could be projected onto the villains of any era. The Protestant Reformers saw the church of Rome itself as John’s whore of Babylon. In recent centuries, the beast has been identified with Napoleon, Hitler, and even Henry Kissinger. The full name of Ronald Wilson Reagan has three sets of six characters, leading some to argue that the beast was none other than the Great Communicator. And if you have any doubts about the continuing vitality of these symbols, I suggest you run a Google search for “Barack Obama” and “Antichrist.”

Nevertheless, Pagels’s book does not stray past the age of Athanasius. In fact the work as a whole has a hint of the perfunctory about it. Her characterization of Revelation does not do justice to the enormous number of controversies about its composition. Some scholars argue that the core of the book was written, not by a Christian, but by a follower of John the Baptist, and that the explicitly Christian sections, particularly in the book’s first three chapters, were added later. I also wish Pagels had addressed some of the ideas of the British biblical scholar Margaret Barker, who argues, for example, that the Greek of Revelation is so astonishingly bad because the text was first written in Aramaic.

I bring up these points to suggest that scholarly opinion about this text is almost as rich and diverse as the apocalyptic speculations, but Pagels addresses none of these issues here. We are left with the usual view of a unitary Revelation written by somebody named John around the year 90. Pagels fares better with her discussions of figures such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, but in the end, Revelations is a lackluster work, written, I suspect, not so much out of fascination with the topic itself as out of frustration with today’s fundamentalisms. Revelations might appeal to a reader who knows little about this text, but anyone who knows more is bound to be disappointed.

Richard Smoley