07/23/2012 12:52 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2012

Elaine Pagels on Revelation -- and Revelations

Elaine Pagels quotes Dionysius of Alexandria, who wrote of Revelation, "I take the view that the interpretation of the various sections is largely a mystery. ... I do not understand it, but I suspect that some deeper meaning is hidden in the words" (p. 162). Pagels' "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation" (Viking, 2012) attempts not only to explain the Bible's mysterious last book but also to place it in a narrative about conflict and suppression in early Christian history. The book features Pagels' characteristic vivid historical imagination, along with helpful explanations and provocative, sometimes dubious, judgments.

Many readers will find it surprising that Revelation takes up only the first two of Pagels' five chapters. Pagels deftly lays forth the consensus scholarly view concerning Revelation. Its author, John, was a Jew who followed Jesus. John did not predict events that would happen thousands of years later; he addressed the circumstances of his own first century audience, followers of Jesus who inhabited Roman Asia Minor, what we would now call western Turkey.

According to this consensus, John resented Rome, not least for the devastation it imposed upon Jerusalem but also for its idolatrous propaganda and its merciless exploitation of millions. Pagels describes Revelation as wartime literature (p. 1). John predicts Rome's imminent judgment, and he calls followers of Jesus to avoid contamination with the pagan practices that surround them. What's more: John anticipates that this sort of fidelity -- and fidelity is the basic meaning of what Christians call "faith" -- will lead to persecution. Few scholars would disagree with this basic picture.

Elaine Pagels tends to emphasize conflict in early Christian circles, and her next argument will persuade some interpreters but not most. Any reader of Revelation will see that the book reflects sharp divisions within the churches John addresses. See Revelation 2-3 for hints of those divisions, along with John's insistence that readers must obey his vision (1:3; 22:18-19). According to Pagels, the matter boils down to the role of Gentiles among the churches. John basically wants Christians to observe the Jewish law, or Torah. His opponents represent this new Gentile movement that can accommodate many pagan practices.

In short, Pagels says, Revelation was written to oppose the very form of Christianity that eventually came to dominate the movement: Torah-free, Gentile Christianity. The one figure most strongly associated with that movement is the apostle Paul. This is Pagels' first controversial point, that Revelation opposes Pauline Christianity. Pagels could be correct. Whereas Paul allowed Christians to eat meat that may well have been offered to various ancient Gods (see 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14-15), John opposes any contact with "idol-food" (2:14, 20).

But is it likely that John opposes Gentile Christianity in general? Most scholars will say no. Indeed, Pauline Christianity has strong connections with Ephesus, Asia Minor's chief city. But Gentile Christians were likely present in Ephesus well before John's own arrival there. According to Acts 18-19, the originally Jewish church in Ephesus came to welcome Gentiles as much as 30 years before the composition of Revelation. When Pagels writes, "Those whom John says Jesus 'hates' look very much like Gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul's preaching" (p. 54, her emphasis), she's probably overreaching. That issue had been settled before John's time.

Pagels introduces Revelation as one of many ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses, something many readers need to know. Her larger purpose moves beyond Revelation to explore the role of revelatory literature in a variety of early Christian movements, including those we associate with ancient Gnosticism. While "proto-orthodox" Christians produced the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas and other apocalypses, Gnostic circles created a literature of their own. In a brilliant (and maybe misleading) imaginative section, Pagels imagines the public reading of books such as the Secret Revelation of James, the Gospel of Truth and the Treatise on the Resurrection among Egyptian Christians in the fourth century (pp. 149-154).

Pagels argues, as she has in other works such as "The Gnostic Gospels" and "Beyond Belief," that the Gnostic literature opens the path to individual spiritual exploration and profound personal encounter with the spiritual realm. If Revelation sought help through future political deliverance and the promise of resurrection, the Gnostic apocalypses promise spiritual nurture in the here and now.

At this point I depart from Pagels' perspective. Among other things, Pagels tends to avoid Gnostic passages that sound, well, bizarre due to their complicated religious and philosophical vocabulary. But that's not the main thing. In my view, orthodox Christianity was correct to reject spiritualities that emphasized individual spiritual attainment at the expense of engagement with the social and political realities that shape peoples' lives. Matters of flesh and blood were important to the orthodox, and they are to me; so far as we can tell, Gnostics did not value those things.

The bottom line is that, while Pagels aspires to present a sympathetic picture of the broad expanse of Christian revelatory literature, she really doesn't like Revelation. (For my own three-part series on Revelation, see part one, part two and part three.) Pagels' conclusion laments that the church has largely stuck with "apocalyptic polarities" at the expense of Gnostic revelations that "speak of the kinship of all beings with one another and with God," judging that "we need such universal visions now more than ever" (p. 176). I doubt that many readers who actually work through the Gospel of Truth and Thunder, Perfect Mind will come away with the same impression.

Pagels is entirely correct to point out that early Christians debated the relative validity of various revelations, Revelation included. As she tends to do, she attributes Revelation's place in the canon to the political machinations of powerful individuals rather than to what the evidence actually shows. Though disputed, Revelation made its way into the canon for one main reason: It was popular.