Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Not a Mystery--REVELATIONS by Elaine Pagels

If you have always wondered about the Biblical Book of Revelation, Elaine Pagels’ Revelations might help you understand it.

Pagels describes John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. She tells about the author and the environment in which John wrote the book. She describes other somewhat similar books which did not make the canon. Then she gives the history of the book up through its adoption and use by the church of Athanasius. And she does all this in fewer than 200 pages (not including notes).

For me, Pagels’ most interesting point is that John of Patmos was a Jewish follower of Jesus, not a “Christian.” The book never uses the name “Christian.” The term “Christian,” with all its doctrinal baggage, came later.

John of Patmos is not the John who wrote The Gospel According to John.

John considered gentile churches to be heretical. Among the churches he criticizes are churches founded by Paul.

Here are a few of Elaine Pagels’ major points.

(1) John’s Revelation was written in response to war and conflict. John may have “witnessed the outbreak of war in Jerusalem in 66 C.E.” He certainly knew about Vespasian’s desecration of the Jewish temple and the Roman wars for governmental power. 

(2) John’s Revelation was written in response to two threats--the Romans and the gentile church.

(3) In some ways, John’s Revelation is not unique. Various authors wrote other Revelation-like books over several centuries. Pagels names her book Revelations probably at least in part because it describes several apocalyptic revelations, not just John’s.  Those writings didn't make the canon.

Pagels says Irenaeus promoted John’s Revelation after the martyrdom of Justin in 165 CE. Irenaeus thought John of Patmos had predicted the persecutions Justin and other Christians were living through.
A major point in John’s Revelation is that right action is not enough. You must also have right belief.

Revelation has lasted because you can read it to see yourself among the persecuted. You can see your enemies as members of the synagogue of Satan.

John saw it that way in regard to Rome and the gentile churches, but Constantine saw it that way in regard to his military enemies

In other words, if you want to justify yourself and condemn somebody else, you can probably find a way to do it with The Book of Revelation. Even preachers on both sides in the Civil War used the book to affirm the rightness of their side. They also used the book to proclaim God’s judgment on the other side. (Thank God Lincoln understood what he articulated in his Second Inaugural Address!)

What I’ve written makes the Pagles book seem more academic than it is. Elaine Pagels writes clearly. This is a readable book. If you are interested in John’s Revelation you might enjoy Pagels’ Revelations
Pagels assumes you have read John's Book of Revelation. If you have not read the Biblical book, you might want to read it before reading what Elaine Pagels has to say.

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