While the title of this book states that it deals with the Book of Revelation, its scope is far wider. At times it seems like Pagels is in fact writing a history of early Christianity. However, this history becomes more thought-provoking when viewed through the prism of the Revelation of John.
Chapter 1 (John’s Revelation: Challenging the Evil Empire, Rome) opens with an introduction which raises many of the peculiarities of Revelation when compared to the other books of the New Testament. After setting the agenda, Pagels situates the text in its historical context, which she claims should be identified with the growing power of the Roman Empire and the Jewish resistance and rebellion against it. She points out that in this context Revelation should be interpreted as anti-Roman propaganda. In so doing John was continuing a long Jewish tradition of propaganda against rulers of foreign empires.
Chapter 2 (Visions of Heaven and Hell: From Ezekiel and John of Patmos to Paul) continues the exploration of the historical and literary context of Revelation. The chapter emphasizes the prophetic self-perception of John of Patmos and his use of the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible. Pagels then points out the great differences between the message of the Revelation of John and those of competing revelations, most notably those of Paul and his gentile followers. She discusses extensively the scholarly debate over whether Revelation should be interpreted as a Jewish or Christian text. By detailing the developments taking place among the gentile followers of Jesus at the same time and in the same place as John was writing his book, Pagels makes a convincing case for a Jewish interpretation.
Chapter 3 (Other Revelations: Heresy or Illumination) continues to explore the literary context of Revelation. It presents other contemporary apocalyptic texts, specifically 4 Ezra and the books of the Nag Hammadi corpus. Here Pagels draws a picture of the various elements of the apocalyptic genre. She does this with very little theoretical discussion, but rather with an abundance of examples. When comparing these texts to Revelation, she also makes the important observation that while most apocalypses were esoteric in nature, John intended his own book to be read far and wide. This may have been the first step that led to the canonization of Revelation.
Chapter 4 (Confronting Persecution: How Jews and Christians Separated Politics from Religion) begins to track the intriguing process by which the only apocalyptic book of the New Testament was canonized. Pagels does this through a brief recounting of the history of Christianity in the second half of the second century C.E. When recounting the persecutions of Christians by the Roman Empire, she emphasizes the great power Revelation had in encouraging the persecuted to endure. By interpreting the book in light of their contemporary context, Christians could see their own hardship as part of a divine plan that would soon bring the Roman Empire to an end.
In this context Pagels also presents an explanation for the specific appeal of Christianity in comparison to other religious groups active at the time. She discusses at length Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and the variety of religious experiences and practices detailed in the book. Most of the religious groups described by Apuleius would have been accessible only to rich and privileged members of society. Therefore, it is not surprising that people who felt disassociated from mainstream Roman society found the universal message of Christianity appealing.
Chapter 5 (Constantine’s Conversion: How John’s Revelation Became Part of the Bible) deals with the vast changes Christianity underwent in the fourth century as a result of the conversion of the emperor Constantine and the council of Nicea. Here Pagels diverges most noticeably from the topic of the book, and the majority of the chapter deals with the polemics which raged through the ranks of Christian clergy during this period. In particular she focuses on the monastic movement that flourished in Egypt, and on the long and illustrious career of the bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. Revelation does eventually reenter the picture when Pagels discusses Athanasius’ reinterpretation of the book as well as his successful campaign to have it canonized. For the first time John’s enigmatic visions were interpreted as directed not only against the Roman Empire, but against heretical members of the church itself. This was a crucial development in the history of the reception of Revelation, since it set the precedent for Christian communities using the book as a propaganda tool used against internal opponents. The tendency to reinterpret ancient prophetic texts in light of contemporary events is widespread throughout human history. However, this phenomenon is probably most prevalent with Revelation. This perhaps more than anything else is a testimony to the strong influence Revelation has to this very day.
Pagels’ book presents a convincing case for a political and historical understanding of the Book of Revelation and its early reception history. Her writing is eloquent and comprehensive and makes for a good read. The book is apparently intended to appeal to a wider non-academic audience, although academics will also benefit from reading it. Specialists in the field are not likely to find many new insights into the understanding of Revelation. Similar arguments have been put forward in the past by scholars such as Adela Yarbro-Collins, Steven Friesen, and Leonard Thompson (to name just a few), and were also featured prominently in the monumental commentary of David Aune. Pagels is well aware of this and in several places in her notes she refers “scholar and student” to more in depth discussions of the material.
The attempt to appeal to a non-academic audience may also be the cause for some problematic points in the book. Two of the major issues in the scholarship of Revelation are its baffling literary structure and the question of source criticism and its application to the text. These intertwined issues are the source of much academic debate and directly affect the way different scholars have interpreted the text. Despite their importance, Pagels does not discuss them. Philological discussions are by their very nature highly technical and tend to be inaccessible to people who have not studied them extensively. Their inclusion in a popular book would likely detract from its appeal to the wider audience. Still, I think these issues should not be ignored and could have been mentioned more prominently in the notes.
A different point, which I think could have been improved, is the comparison of the Revelation of John with other contemporary texts. The discussion in chapters 2 and 3 focus mainly on a comparison of Revelation with other books of the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi corpus. While these comparisons are intriguing and well placed, I think Pagels has focused here too much on the texts with which she is most familiar. Better points of comparison would be the texts most similar to Revelation: the Jewish apocalypses of the late first century. These texts were composed in reaction to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Pagels emphasizes this historical context in her arguments for a political understanding of Revelation, yet of the books which share this context she discusses only 4 Ezra in depth. Adding 2 (Syriac) Baruch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and books 4 and 5 of the Sibylline Oracles into the discussion would reinforce her argument. All of these texts are thoroughly anti-Roman and contain many similarities to Revelation.
One unfortunate mistake must also be mentioned. On page 48, Pagels mentions Alexander, an apostate Jew whom she claims was a contemporary of Jesus and the uncle of Philo of Alexandria. The intended apostate is presumably Tiberius Julius Alexander, who was Philo’s nephew. Throughout his illustrious political career he held some of the most important offices in the Roman Empire. He was not a contemporary of Jesus, but rather of John of Patmos. In many ways he can be viewed as the complete antithesis of Jews like John who rejected Roman rule. Tiberius Julius Alexander was an important part of the system which enforced this rule. He loyally served Rome even against his fellow Jews, most notably during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., where he was Titus’ second-in-command.
Throughout the book Pagels also mentions different reinterpretations of Revelation in recent history. These comments are sporadic and never discussed systematically. The modern day influence of apocalyptic literature in general, and Revelation in particular, is intriguing. Such a discussion is obviously beyond the scope of the book, but one gets the impression that Pagels has much to say on the subject. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in future publications.
In conclusion, the main contribution of this book lies in its successful attempt to rephrase complex and technical academic scholarship and make it appealing to a wider public. This is an important endeavor. Too frequently the fruits of scholarly research remain within the walls of the ivory tower and only specialists within a particular field learn to appreciate them. This book is a good first stepping stone for readers who are unfamiliar with the scholarship of apocalyptic literature and early Christianity. Hopefully they will continue and also read the more in depth studies mentioned in the notes. I also hope that other scholars will follow Pagels’ example in writing books for the general public and not just for their fellow academics.