Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, by Elaine Pagels – I’ve written quite a bit on the book of Revelation, sometimes in relation to modern Christians who can’t wait for the world to end, but also on its original context and the themes it develops. All religious beliefs aside, how can you not love the book that brought us a seven-headed dragon, the Four Horsemen, preaching olive trees, and streets running with blood? It’s an early psychedelic writing; the Beatles have nothing on this magical mystery tour.
How about those locusts in Chapter 9 with the shape of horses, men’s heads, women’s hair, golden crowns, iron breastplates, and scorpion tails?
Picture by Jadzialana
So where does the locust part come in? Maybe that was just to tie it in with the plagues in Exodus, which could also be why the evil spirits in Chapter 16 resemble frogs. Anyway, the author of this book (the one I mentioned at the beginning, not Revelation itself) is known as an expert on the Gnostic Gospels. I’ve read another book of hers before, and I remember seeing her on the History Channel. Not that the latter means all that much, as making up nonsense about aliens building Stonehenge will also get you a spot on that channel. Anyway, Pagels examines the circumstances under which John of Patmos first wrote the book, and of its rise in popularity in the next few centuries as Christianity was emerging as an organized religion. It’s interesting to note that, while the whole thing is obviously a long indictment against Rome and its empire, it was that same empire adopting Christianity that helped lead to Revelation becoming an accepted part of the canon. Pagels argues that John thought of himself as a Jew who believed Jesus was the Messiah. Never did he call himself a Christian, a term that was likely used by opponents of the Jesus cult before they ever adopted it for themselves. While people like to present the Bible as a single document, it’s obvious that John disagrees with Paul on some key points, like whether it should be acceptable for believers in Jesus to eat food that was sacrificed to other gods. Paul’s major contribution was to spread Christianity to the Gentiles, while John appears to have regarded it as a specifically Jewish movement. Irenaeus, a second-century theologian and opponent of Gnostic Christianity, was a fan of the book, thinking he saw its prophecies of persecution of Christians coming true in his own day. He seems to have been the one who first read into the book the idea of a figure known as the Antichrist. When Christians later tried to make peace with their Roman rulers, the book fell somewhat out of favor. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century, was instrumental in getting Revelation into the canon. While his relationship with the emperors was a quite rocky one, with their sometimes supporting him and other times forcing him into exile, his interpretation of the book took it away from Rome and instead made it a criticism of opposing Christian sects.
Pagels also addresses other apocalypses from around the same time as Revelation, and they were certainly plentiful. While the term “apocalypse” has come to mean the end of the world, or at least a major cataclysm, the Greek word really just refers to the uncovering of hidden knowledge. Many were about the end of the world, but it wasn’t a requirement. Pagels writes about several Gnostic apocalypses, and posits that Revelation became the accepted apocalypse because of the push against Gnosticism in what became orthodox Christianity. While I don’t recall Pagels saying much if anything about it, the Book of Enoch was an apocalypse that was quite popular in the early church, so much so that it’s quoted in Jude. There are many theories as to why Enoch didn’t make it into the Bible (except in the version used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), and I can’t say I know the real reason. I would guess that it has to do with the fact that it doesn’t mention Jesus specifically (it likely predated him by two centuries or so), instead stating that Enoch will be the Messiah. Then again, it’s suggested in the Bible that John the Baptist is a reborn Elijah, so why couldn’t Jesus be a reborn Enoch? It certainly contains many of the same elements as Christianity, particularly regarding the nature of the Messiah. I’m getting somewhat off the track here, though.