In the past 100-years achievements in science dwarf the entirety of accumulated knowledge during the previous thousands of years of human existence. Relativity, quantum mechanics, galaxies, nuclear energy and subatomic particles are but a few of the discoveries that have transformed our understanding of the world in which we live and the universe of which our world is such a small part.
In the same way, last century has witnessed extraordinary gains in all fields of human knowledge. Among these are the history of all religions in general and Christianity in particular.
One of the leading scholars in this modern movement of religious reexamination is Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University.
The author of the award-winning “The Gnostic Gospels,” Pagels now tackles the Book of Revelation.
“The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible and the most controversial,” Pagels writes at the outset. “Instead of stories and moral teaching, it offers only visions-dreams and nightmares.”
She notes that Martin Luther wanted to remove the Book of Revelation from the Bible but soon discovered that he could use its powerful imagery against the Catholic Church. Likewise, she said the Catholic Church found support in the Book of Revelation for its campaign against the emerging Protestant movement.
Pagels bases her research not only on the Bible but on a treasure trove of ancient documents discovered in the 1940s, especially the Nag Hammadi texts, found hidden in a cave in upper Egypt in 1945.
Those new discoveries have allowed Pagels and other scholars to take a refreshing new look at the origins of both the Bible and the Christian religion.
A widespread assumption has been that Revelation was written by John, the disciple of Jesus who wrote the Gospel of John.
Pagels makes it clear that the actual author of Revelation was an entirely different person, John of Patmos, a devout Jewish follower of Jesus who lived two generations after John the disciple. Revelation was written around 90 CE, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire.
Revelation reflects the chaos and violence in the world in which John of Patmos lived and the enemies he saw all around him - the Romans as well as Christians -who disagreed with him. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE and the spreading plague added to his belief that the world was coming to a violent end. Throughout the next 2,000 years, Pagels notes, Revelation’s message resonated with people who lived at a time that experienced wars, revolutions and violent religious clashes, which is just about every single era in human history, including our own.
Pagels views other books of the Bible through the prism of Revelation. John targeted two enemies - the Roman Empire and Christian heretics.
He drew his imagery from the Jewish prophetic tradition, most particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel - as a devout Jew who viewed Jesus as the culmination for God’s chosen peoples. John presents a dark vision in stark contrast with the message in the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline letters. John lived at the time when Christianity was starting to diverge from Judaism; he never used the word Christian. Indeed, the word “Christian” appears only once in the Bible - Acts 11:26.
Pagels shows that Peter, Paul and James the brothers of Jesus were often in conflict with each other about their new religion. Religion in the first century was neither entirely Jewish nor yet distinctly Christian.
The Acts of the Apostles glossed over these differences.
“Heated arguments split churches through Asia Minor,” she wrote, noting that in its first four centuries Christianity experienced bitter struggles for power, position and proper beliefs.
The discoveries in 1945 at Nag Hammadi uncovered about 20 other books of revelation, most of which have different themes than John’s book that Pagels said, “barely squeezed” into the New Testament. Why were the other books excluded from the Bible and hidden away for nearly 2,000 years? One reason, Pagels suggests, is that the other books were very spiritual, emphasizing an individual’s direct relationship with God and thus minimizing the need for any clergy or church hierarchy. Just about the last thing that the emerging Christian movement wanted was any notion that it was institutionally unnecessary.
Despite the complexity of its subject, Pagels’ well-written book is a comparatively easy read.
Some may quibble on this point or that but still her scholarship is solid. The 177-page text is supplemented by 47-pages of footnotes. “Revelations” is highly recommended for anyone interested in Christian history and the origins of the Bible.
Roger T. Johnson lives in Manhattan and is retired from Kansas State University.