Elaine Pagels’s ‘Revelations’: Tracing reinterpretations of the Apocalypse

Correction: This review originally misstated the date of the author’s upcoming appearance at Politics and Prose. She will be at the bookstore on Friday, March 16, not Thursday, March 8.

March 6, 2012

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.


”Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation” by Elaine Pagels (Viking)

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.

Charles is The Post’s fiction critic. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.

On Friday, March 16, Elaine Pagels will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919.

REVELATIONS

Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

By Elaine Pagels

Viking. 246 pp. $27.95

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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