Book Review: “Revelations” by Elaine Pagels
Book Review: “Revelations” by Elaine Pagels
by Steve Eastman
It all began for me at an airport.
Not that I do that much flying, but a few weeks ago I arrived early to avoid driving through the worst part of a snowstorm. I had several hours to kill so picked up a copy of Revelations at one of those shops you find at airports. It was a “Read and Return” deal. If I bring the book back within six months with the receipt, I get half my money refunded.
One of the first things that struck me about Revelations was the name. Author Elaine Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton University. She should have known, I thought, that the Biblical book she was writing about does not end in an “s”.
I quickly found out the reason. Pagels’ book covered not only the book of Revelation, but also similar apocalyptic writings from the same era.
There was a time in my Christian life when reading a book from a non-evangelical outlook would have caused me more harm than good. But a few years ago I read one by a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I disagreed with many of his viewpoints, but appreciated much of the background information that sources more traditional to me do not generally include. We ended up exchanging friendly emails.
My motivation for picking up Revelations was similar. I’m a history buff and wanted to understand the context better. I was not disappointed.
As a professor of religion at a mainstream university, Pagels is very careful in her wording. Instead of saying ‘Jesus said’ she would say something like ‘John said that Jesus said.’ That’s called being impartial – too much, I’m sure.
One of the first shockers I encountered was Pagels’ assertion that John of Patmos was not the same John who wrote the fourth Gospel. She based that on writing style. Evidently the Gospel of John was written in a very sophisticated style of Greek and Revelation was written in a less refined style. But let’s not forget, if the same author did write both books, as is generally thought, he would have been much older at the time of Revelation and perhaps even in declining health.
Pagels shies away from embracing the concept that visions can come directly from God. Instead, she talks a lot about what the author was trying to communicate, as if the book was largely a human effort.
Pagels does a good job of telling how people, in early years of church history, interpreted Revelation as applying to their particular generation. Before Constantine legalized Christianity, the Roman Empire was the book’s bad guy. After Constantine, that role was relegated to heretics.
I kind of laughed to myself that Pagels seemed completely unaware of the Historicist School of interpretation. It was the Protestant standby at the time of the Reformation. It basically says that most of Revelation is already fulfilled and hits many historical dates exactly on the mark. I can’t be too hard on Pagels, though. Most evangelicals have never heard of this part of their own tradition, although it supports the belief in the inspiration of Scripture.
I am grateful for the light that Pagels sheds on the first few centuries AD. We learn that Constantine promoted Arianism, which failed to accept the full divinity of Jesus. That’s not good. But Pagels fails to mention that Constantine continued to worship “Sol Invictus,” the sun god, after his so-called “conversion.” We learn that church elders, introduced in Acts and several epistles, morphed into priests over the years.
Perhaps the most interesting transition was the rise of bishops. They essentially took the place of the Spirit-led apostles, substituting their own official interpretations for God’s spontaneous direction. From time to time, more experiential groups would arrive on the scene from the charismatic Montanists to monastic groups, which for a time, circumvented the desire of bishops to be in charge.
Some of these monks maintained a library of books, rediscovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Pagels quotes from these texts. The selected passages, for the most part, seem a little off. At the end of Revelations, she comes right out and says it. These books are Gnostic Gospels. It would have been interesting to explore exactly how Gnostic they are. Full blown Gnosticism is extremely dangerous, but these seemed like Gnosticism Lite.
Yes, I had problems with some of Pagels interpretations, but I also value the historical context she provides. And in case you’re wondering, Revelations is a keeper for me. I will not be returning it to get half my money back.
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