Revelations | Elaine Pagels

The cover of Pagels' RevelationsFrustrated again.

I should know by now not to make assumptions based on the subtitle. When I read, “Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation,” I assumed Pagels would be exploring the politically subversive nature of John’s Revelation. Instead, I read a book about the reconstructed political factions of the early church that Pagels believes comes to light in John’s Revelation.

An example of this is her discussion of John’s message to Smyrna:

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan (Revelation 2:9 ESV).

Pagels suggests that John’s talking about Paul and his disciples here—those Gentile believers who claim to be included in the seed of Abraham but who eschew Jewish law.

Returning to her bread-and-butter, Pagels describes a conspiracy by who would later be called Orthodox Christians to suppress minority opinions and alternate writings. For her, John’s revelation is the only one which survived because the powerful could use it to increase their power.

While I do agree that many scriptural books have been horribly misused in the name of power against the aims of Jesus, I can’t give the alternate books the credit Pagels does. When I read (what remains of) alternate texts like the Secret Revelation of John, and the Gospel of Truth, I don’t see the sort of sort of scripture-soaked reflection I find in John’s Revelation.

Of course, given my theological viewpoint, I believe the Holy Spirit had a role in preserving the canon. If God could use tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar to accomplish his purpose, he could certainly use Constantine.

If you’re intrigued by Pagels’ thesis and have spent time reading scripture, I encourage you to read the apocryphal texts for yourself. Form your own opinion before turning to Pagels’ Revelations.

—Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012).

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