But where did this story come from, and how did it end up as the capstone to a collection of gospels and letters about Jesus that seem so strikingly different in tone and content?
Over the past three decades, perhaps no one has done more to teach interested people about the historical dynamics and textual complexity of early Christianity than Elaine Pagels. A professor of religion at Princeton University, Pagels captured an improbably large audience (and a National Book Award) in 1979 for “The Gnostic Gospels,” her engaging introduction to the documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Under her tutelage, interested readers with no background in early Christianity nor any facility with ancient languages can experience the historical and — if they’re so disposed — the spiritual import of those writings hidden in Upper Egypt since at least the 4th century.
Pagels’s new book, “Revelations,” examines a far more familiar text, but it offers revelations of its own for lay readers. Suspiciously slim for such a complex and fraught subject, this five-chapter book whisks us through centuries of religious conflict, ecclesiastical maneuvering and textual scholarship. It’s easy to imagine that Pagels’s obscure academic competitors say mean things about her behind her back — How dare she be so accessible! — but she’s one of those rare scholars who can speak fluently to other professors or to curious people who decide on a whim to learn something about the Bible. Forty-six pages — the longest section of her book — are given over to footnotes that direct students to more technical explorations of these issues. Lay readers, meanwhile, will take this book and eat it up.
Her central point is that this most famous story about The End is a window on the beginnings of Christianity. Those origins were far more dynamic, circumstantial and political than most people realize, and the Book of Revelation played a peculiar role.
Without openly contradicting anyone’s faith in divine writ, Pagels emphasizes that the Book of Revelation was written at a particular time and place: a small island off the coast of Turkey, probably around 90 C.E. after the Romans had burned down the Great Temple and left Jerusalem in ruins. “We begin to understand what he wrote,” she says, “only when we see that his book is wartime literature.” In other words, much of the fiery destruction portrayed early in John’s narrative is not so much prophetic as historical, a florid depiction of the incomprehensible horrors that had left Jews stunned, scattered and frightened. In the wake of Rome’s brutal repression and the flourishing of its empire, John wrote cryptic “anti-Roman propaganda that drew its imagery from Israel’s prophetic traditions.” His “Revelation,” then, was a way of acknowledging recent defeats while knitting them neatly into a narrative of future victory.