Book Review: Revelations

Pagels, Elaine. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. (NY: Penguin, 2013). Kindle e-book.

This is a relatively short book about a book chapter, namely the “Revelation of John” or “The Apocalypse of John” in the Bible. It’s not an analysis per se, but more of a history of this type of work, and how the material got to be included in the canon. If you are interested in interpretations of Revelation, or a cultural history, I recommend her very detailed annotated notes and bibliography.

Elaine Pagels has a gift for making theological and political disputes easy to follow and to understand. You can sympathize with all sides in the argument, even if you vehemently disagree with one, or all, or them. This is important when writing about the Early Church (roughly AD 40 CE – AD 375 CE), because once the first struggles to survive passed, theological arguments became heated and serious, unfortunately sometimes lethal.

Pagels begins with an overview of the contents of Revelation, and what we know about the author – not much. Some traditions hold that it was John the Apostle, others that it was a slightly later follower called John of Patmos. The book itself has become well known, or at least parts of it are well known, because the imagery is so dramatic and chilling, and for some, uplifting.

John has a vision, or a series of visions, including warnings for seven churches, the “lamb that was slain,” the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a war in heaven, and finally the last battle and the New Jerusalem. His account of the end times has been invoked frequently in Christian history, and people have identified the various characters in the account with the Pope, the Catholic Church in general, Martin Luther, the Holy Roman Emperor, the head of the Soviet Union, President Obama, and others.

Pagels then sets the Revelation of John into the context of other Jewish end-time writings, including the Book of Danial and some of the Nag Hammadi texts. Although Danial is considered canon, the others are not, and in fact were lost for centuries. The different persecutions of Jews, and of Christians, brought out the apocalyptic strain in both faiths, as well as political divides within the groups. Certain images and ideas in Revelation trace directly back to Danial and other now-recovered texts, which helps explain some of what John of Patmos was invoking for his readers.

Pagels moves next to how the book became official scripture. This is where having a background, at least in general, of the events of the late 200s early 300s in the Roman Empire is important. Revelation was not considered firm canon for many years. The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were accepted early, and many of the letters of Paul, but Revelation and some of the letters didn’t make everyone’s list. The Gospel of John fell in and out of favor for a comparatively long time as well, although it was never as controversial* as Revelation. How Revelation came to be part of the canon depended a lot on some politics centered on the church in Alexandria and attempts to bring a number of Christian groups under the authority of the bishop of Alexandria, and thus of the now-Christian Roman emperors.

To be honest, my sympathies are with the outlying monastic communities and survivors of the earlier persecutions who looked with, let us say, great skepticism on the sudden shift from “Rome’s emperor is the Beast” to “those who disagree with our theology are the Beast.” But Pagels does a good job of presenting both sides, as best she can give the lack of documentation from that time.

If you are interested in the history of the Bible as a book, or in the ins and outs of the early Church, or just wonder how Revelation got to be in the Bible, this is a great book for you. It is well written, and as I said at the beginning, the annotation and foot notes are spectacular. Had I time, and funds, and shelf space, I’d love to make a shopping list out of the works cited. If you are interested in interpretations of Revelation that tie it to current events, this is not your book.

*I like the language in the Gospel of John, but I have some strong reservations about some of the theology that has been based on John. See The Community of the Beloved Disciple for some interesting thoughts on the book and its possible origins.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration for this review.


14 thoughts on “Book Review: Revelations

  1. I’ve put this book into my “Wish List”.

    However, is the book on John authored by Raymond Edward Brown?

    I’ve only seen dead tree versions of “The Community of the Beloved Disciple” by Raymond Edward Brown

  2. I have some strong reservations about some of the theology that has been based on John

    Heh, my kid you not instant response was: “Which makes it different from every other book, how?”

    If it’s not important, and possible to get wrong, you’re not going to write about it; and there’s no writing so clear it cannot be misunderstood.

    • Heh.
      I have a lot easier time with John than with Matthew.
      (What’s with this dramatic and controversial statement that nobody else even mentions in passing? Again?)

  3. I’ve read some Pagels, she’s interesting. Haven’t run across this one.
    Did you know that not all of the book of Daniel is considered canon? I was surprised when I found out that Catholics have more Daniel than Protestants do. It seems to go back to the Septuagint (sp?). Catholic canon is based on what was in that edition. Protestants apparently made their OTs match more closely to the ‘modern’ Jewish OT.

    • My understanding is that Danial was divided, somewhat in the way that Isiah could be divided (but isn’t, outside of academic discussions.) I’m too much a child of the 80s-90s (_Late, Great Planet Earth_, _The Left Behind_ series, and all that) to be that interested in the Apocalyptic books.

  4. Sounds interesting, bug not certain I want to ass to the backlog stack at home (yet). I need to work down 5-6 books first.

  5. Pagels. Nope, can’t read her. I’m sure there’s some good nuggets and notes, but usually I’m sitting there reading a sentence, pounding the table with my fist, screaming, reading a sentence…. And I don’t want to pay for a book, nor endanger a book from the library. Maybe I can find a dilapidated secondhand copy, and write objections in the margins. But I don’t like to mess up a book unless it’s really messed up already.

    Of course, part of the problem is that she used to be on all those PBS, History Channel, and Sci-Fi Channel type of Bible shows, and I’m sure they cut her appearances to be more annoying than she actually was. I’ve heard that she’s really nice in real life. But argh!

    Mary Beard is another one I can’t deal with. But I’m even more split-personality about her, because she’s great in tv shows that she presents at picking out ancient Roman things that are genuinely cool and illuminating to see. But then she makes really ridiculous hot takes on how everything Roman is exactly the same as some perceived classist problem in the UK. Grrrahgh!

    But the absolute worst is the Doctor Who audio play from Big Finish which is putatively about The Council of Nicea. They start by making Arius the “good guy” who is also supposed to be younger than Athanasius, when Arius was fifty or so, much older than Athanasius, and the Council didn’t want to let Athanasius speak because he was barely twenty and only a deacon. And it goes on from there, with the Fifth Doctor being presented as skulduggerous, and an audio-only companion who’s a pagan Egyptian queen being extremely interested in helping out Arius prove that Jesus was only a creature. (Whereas you’d think she’d assume everybody in the story was a god.) It was written by the Anglican priest wife of one of the Doctor Who writers. People tell me that Peri gets some good bits, but very few people seem to have waded far enough into the audio play to have gotten to them.

    Anyhoo… Usually heretics are not associated with the Beast in commentaries later on. They’re associated with the False Prophet and the Antichrist, and with the Scarlet Woman, while the Beast is solidly associated with evil kingdoms, kings, cities, and other temporal and secular governmental structures. Beatus of Liebana and the whole family influenced by him does this, and he draws on a lot of early Christian sources. Can’t remember if Andrew of Caesarea’s Greek-language commentary was into that, and I’ve never gotten to read the whole thing even in translation yet.

    The Book of Daniel’s super-extended Greek version, the one with Mordecai’s dream and all the dueling snake/dragons, is not generally regarded as part of Catholic canon, but it was known in the MIddle Ages and was clearly the inspiration for the Welsh Merlin story about the dueling red and white dragons under Vortigern’s castle.

    The thing with Revelation is that it’s not all that mysterious if you read the prophets, and if you read them in the Septuagint Greek version.

    The other thing to know is that John’s Greek is not “bad” except when he quotes the Septuagint in a deliberately very obvious way, such that he deliberately uses the same declension or tense as the quote he is quoting. And pretty much every sentence has quotes in it. One of the old Victorian/Edwardian commentary guys listed all the quote citations in the appendix to his book, and it goes to ten or fifteen pages of small print.

    The third thing to know is that John keeps recapping salvation history and future history, so you have to keep a close eye on imagery. But a lot of that is quotes from the prophets, so it’s not as bad as all that. Still plenty of room for arguing interpretations, but it’s not all that wild. It’s a lot like Song of Songs in being a big quotefest, and everybody likes Song of Songs.

    Of course, I like Revelation more than a lot of people, because Catholics don’t have to go through all that pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib stuff all the time

    Rambling… sorry. Must go to bed.

    • Bart Ehrman is one of those. I read his very early stuff and it was useful. Then he became popular, and then pop, and that was that. There’s something about becoming a TV expert . . .

      No worries. I’d be considered a heretic by every Christian denomination that I can think of, if I were to discuss my personal beliefs. I think we can all agree that when any denomination of any religion becomes “the official government enforced version of faith,” that denomination is going to start getting corrupted, slowly perhaps, and eventually spiritually lazy. Salafist/Wahabist Islam might be an exception, perhaps, except as soon as they become “official,” a new group of Salafists appears and accuses the others of being lax and straying away from both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

    • Don’t know about the superextended Greek version, what I do remember is I was running a Bible study for my Catholic parish (because people kept telling me I needed to read that Dan Brown book because it was teaching them so much, and I kept saying.. NOOOOOO it’s all wrong…) anyway, I quoted a bit of a praise song from Daniel that’s used in Lauds (Liturgy of the Hours first morning installment for Sundas and big feasts), and the person with the Protestant Bible couldn’t find it in hers. I think it was the prayer of the 3 in the furnace, if it wasn’t it was the similar one that only one of the guys did.
      Which got me curious and I went home and did some digging into Daniel in particular, but led to just how we ended up with two different canons.

  6. Re: heretics, it’s a term that comes from the pagan Greek philosophers, and I think it’s Plotinus that has a paragraph full of complaints about hairesis in his neo-Platonist school. The general idea was that you as a philosopher’s disciple would carry his teaching into the world verbatim, although working to add amplification and clarification yourself. To go into hairesis was to break with your teacher. It wasn’t uncommon, but it meant that you had to think your new different philosophy was some pretty awesome stuff, and that your teacher was wrong and/or stupid.

    Of course, the ultimate in hairesis was to be a long-time disciple, be trusted to carry the moneybag for the whole party, and to either remain in the party while siphoning off money, or to leave the party with the whole moneybag. At least two famous Greek philosopher disciples not only did this, but invested the money to buy real estate or cargos and ships.

    OTOH, if you just took classes from various philosophers and didn’t make commitments to be disciples of anyone, that was fair and fine, and no hard feelings (unless somebody offered discipleship and was miffed to have it refused). Plotinus was a bit salty, though, because a lot of Christians took his classes about some stuff, and then used it to support Christianity.

    So Christians did start using the term, and it basically meant someone who had broken with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Obviously some people were sincere; but just as in the world of philosophy, sometimes hairesis was all about power over disciples (and/or magical power), money from disciples, and sex from disciples. And that’s still the case. When you have hairesis inside or outside a church, you usually look around and find grooming of underage kids, taking advantage of adult disciples, and all kinds of cutting people off from their support systems so that the leader can do bad things.

    (St. Epiphanius of Salamis often gets cited as an early Christian who was ridiculously paranoid about heresy, but we also have his account of how he was groomed by a Christian sex cult when he was barely a teenager. That’ll make you paranoid, guaranteed.)

    Now, of course somebody could be totally and orthodox and Do Bad Things, or create a cult of personality around himself. But it’s astonishing how often that bad intentions lead to bending or breaking belief systems; and of course, breaking or bending belief is a grooming technique too.

    Beyond that, though, it is possible to be completely honest, and to have one’s exploration of creating a personal philosophy or belief system take one to very bad places.

    It’s very like how one’s thoughts about how to sing can be good for one’s voice and vocal health, or very very bad. Affecting and controlling involuntary muscles and internal structures is very tricky, and the way we think about singing is actually very powerful for good or evil. The farther you go with singing, the more you have to have teachers who know what they’re doing, directors you can trust, and so on, because it’s very easy for you or for other people to mess with your voice or your thoughts about your voice.

    Personally, I know there are philosophical or religious thoughts that, if I let myself believe them, are basically the worst possible thing for my mental health as well as my morals. Thinking that I’m the only one not real in a world of living humans, and that my thoughts and feelings are only an illusion, for example. Maybe some people can toy mentally with this kind of thing and be amused. But if I start thinking about it, it’s basically my brain slipping into suicidal depression, and I can’t put up with it or tolerate it — just as I can’t tolerate stage fright thoughts, or voice-destructive thoughts.

    “Christ isn’t really God and/or really man” is basically that kind of thought. It’s healthier for someone to disbelieve in Christ’s teachings at all, than to try to undermine the whole importance of what’s going on, or how that should affect your attitude towards your fellow humans.

    Now, that said, there are various groups of people out there who have created non-standard varieties of their beliefs, but have overall been okay, and are basically moral people. Usually these people have enough healthy cultural practices or philosophies that it offsets the bad stuff; or the bad stuff is basically downplayed for anyone not becoming a religious leader (or even for them). The obvious problem is that if Serious Bob starts to study the bad stuff and then becomes a leader, he may decide that everyone needs to study and follow the bad stuff. (See Islam in a lot of back areas of countries, where anything they didn’t like had been ignored for hundreds of years.) And so of course there are individuals who don’t seem to take any harm from their wackier ideas.

    But the thing with philosophical and belief systems is that, the more explanatory power they have, the more you find them opening up new vistas and explaining things in a useful way. My experience as a Catholic has been that, if I find out that X is what we’re supposed to believe, I eventually find out that X is tied to every other letter in the alphabet and every book in the Bible, to historical beliefs and Messianic expectations, and to all sorts of other things. It all makes more sense as I go along. And so, if I find something not making sense, that’s a signal that I need to poke around and avoid going whole-hog into that area before I do.

      • No, not at all. My annual physical, sorting out new glasses and shooting, and a few other things are the stress. Discussing church history, theology, and philosophy are not stressful.

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