Elaine Pagels on Revelations

Review of Revelation by Elaine Pagels: Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Penguin Group. Kindle Edition. 2012)

This is my first book to be read using Kindle, an electronic reader, and so I have to cite things from the book without reference to pages, making references to Kindle locator numbers instead.

This book comes at the very time that I am getting more and more upset at the insertion of religion into US politics at both the state and the national levels. It was a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) radio interview with Pagels that alerted me to the book's existence. In that interview, she caught my attention when she said this, which is taken from an article describing the interview at this linked web site:

For the past 2000 years, Christians have been reading Revelation as if it applies to conflicts and struggles in their own time, says Pagels.

"If you read it as John intended, you think, 'God is on our side; we of course are on the side of good,' " she says. "Now we could be Lutherans fighting against the Catholic Church, we could be Catholics fighting against Lutherans. ... What I found so remarkable is the way that people on both sides of a conflict could read that same book against each other."

In the Civil War, she says, Northerners were reading John's prophecies as God's judgments for America's sins of slavery.

" 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' resounds with all of those imageries of the Book of Revelation," she says. "People in the South, in the Confederacy, were also using the Book of Revelation, seeing the war as the battle of Armageddon at the end times, and using it against the North. And that's the way it was read in World War II. That's even the way it was read in the war in Iraq."

In my mind I added something to that sentence, something never spoken by Pagels, but it is also being used to support a new war on Iran as a Holy War!

I know several wonderful, believing Christian people who are living in a state of fear or anxious uncertainty because they believe that Revelation gives every indication that President Obama is the AntiChrist. Here is one website that disagrees, it suggests he is not the Antichrist but instead that he is the Antichrist's unwitting dupe, preparing the way for the Antichrist:

Naming his Presidential Limousine “The Beast” also raised some eyebrows on the internet, as you can see in this site for example:

The President has also been called “the beast” by a lawyer working for a Baptist church, Wendy Phelps in a nationwide television interview with Chris Wallace of FoxNews (this is taken from a website article, “Wendy Phelps of Westboro Baptist: Obama is 'The Beast' from Revelation” by Nicole Belle, who is critical of Phelps' extreme pronouncements:

Phelps, who declared that "the default for mankind is hell," stated that she had no "objective indicator" that will prevent the Supreme Court justices from going to hell, and declared the president's fate without hesitation.

"Absolutely on the president. That's a big 10-4," Phelps said. "The president is going to be king of the world before this is all said and done, and he is most likely the beast spoken of in the revelation."

The beast is a figure in the New Testament book of Revelation, which is full of apocalyptic themes.

Revelation is a dangerous book. Too bad it was added to the canon by Bishop Athanasius, as Pagels explained at some length, when several contemporary bishops had no use for the book and thought it uninspired. Athanasius used it to make those who disagreed with him in matters of belief into the 'beast' and used the book to defeat his enemies as he struggled against all who differed in any way from the Nicean Creed's pronouncements. Athanasius spent a lifetime defeating others with differing points of view to build one catholic (meaning universal) church.

Even Martin Luther didn't think Revelation had Christ in it, according to Pagels, but then he found a use for it:

More than a thousand years later, Martin Luther wanted to throw the Book of Revelation out of the canon, saying “there is no Christ in it,” until he realized how he could use its powerful imagery against the Catholic Church, while Catholic apologists turned it back against him and other “protesting” Christians.

Revelation is a dangerous book.

Let's move on to a different topic:

In another part of the same article about the PBS interview with Elaine Pagels, this also caught my attention:

On the followers of Jesus

"The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and they don't seem to have imagined that they would ever diverge from their adherence to their tradition. It was just that they had found the Messiah of Israel. It's the Apostle Paul who decided that Jesus had offered a message for non-Jews and opened it up for the salvation of the entire world. As John sees it, yes, gentiles will eventually be included in the blessings brought by Jesus, just as the Hebrew Bible says all the gentile nations will be blessed through Abraham, but for John the focus is on Israel and the Jewish people."

On various interpretations of the Book of Revelation

"Many Christians assume John is a Christian, he's a follower of Jesus, it's a Christian book, and when the catastrophic events of the end times happen, everyone will have to be converted to Christianity. What I discovered, and it was surprising working on this, was in a sense you could say Christianity hadn't been invented yet. That is, the idea of a new movement that was quite separate from Judaism and its obvious successor the way Christians see it today."

This really caught my attention because a previous book I reviewed was on the subject of Paul creating a new religion, later known as Christianity, that was in a state of conflict with the Jewish Christians because it violated fundamental Jewish beliefs and allowed practices abhorred by believing Jews.

That book is Christ's Ventriloquists by Eric Zuesse.

The entire Pagels book was a great and informative read, but I was really surprised by how Pagels had the same ideas about Paul and his new religion that Zuesse did, and, in fact, uses the same source for her seeing it that way, the Letter to the Galatians. Pagels spent quite a bit of time exploring this topic because of one of her theses is that John, the author of Revelations, is a Jew and is in a state of conflict with the second and third generations of the followers of Paul's new religion. Sure, Rome was the Antichrist and the Beast, but so were these interlopers, Jews in name only, not in fact, who called themselves the 'real' Israel.

I will cite some words from Pagels on these points (remember, I have no page numbers to work with, so you will need to get the book and find these words in Chapter 2, or use the Kindle locator numbers shown for each segment from each page below, NUMERICAL REFERENCE NUMBERS HAVE BEEN DELETED):

. . . when John charges that certain prophets and teachers are encouraging God’s people to eat “unclean” food and engage in “unclean” sex, he is taking up arguments that had broken out between Paul and followers of James and Peter about forty years earlier— an argument that John of Patmos continues with a second generation of Paul’s followers. For when we ask, who are the “evildoers” against whom John warns? we (Kindle Locations 788-794).

may be surprised at the answer. Those whom John says Jesus “hates” look very much like Gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul’s teaching. (Kindle Locations 794-803).

The prophets John derisively calls by the biblical names of despised Gentile outsiders— Balaam and Jezebel— are likely to be Gentile converts to Paul’s teaching. What apparently upset John of Patmos, then, is that forty years after Paul’s death, he still heard of those he called “false prophets” giving advice that sounded suspiciously like Paul’s— telling Jesus’ followers that it didn’t matter whether they ate sacrificial meat or engaged in mixed marriages. And although Paul actually directed this relaxed teaching about Torah observance primarily toward Gentile converts, his letters show that (Kindle Locations 804-813).

intense— sometimes bitter— disputes over such matters had divided Jesus’ followers from the start. Since John of Patmos adhered closely to Jewish tradition, and perhaps emigrated from Jerusalem, he may have personally known James, Jesus’ brother who had become a leader among Jesus’ followers there. In any case, John would have admired James’ reputation for being an observant Jew, which had earned him the nickname “James the righteous.” But in those early years, as we have seen, trouble broke out when the maverick called Paul of Tarsus came out of nowhere and began to preach a “gospel” quite different from what was taught in James’ and Peter’s circle. Some readers may be surprised to hear of disagreement among the apostles, since many have read what Luke later wrote in the Book of Acts to gloss over this embarrassing episode. . . . (Kindle Locations 813-821).

But about thirty years before Luke wrote this version, Paul had sent a blunt and angry letter about a dispute with Peter to believers in the city of Galatia, in Asia Minor. As we’ve seen, while Paul admitted that he’d never met Jesus during his lifetime, nor had he ever been one of his followers— that, on the contrary, as a devout Jew, he had been their enemy— he insisted that Jesus, after his death, had appeared to him. . . . (Kindle Locations 821-831).

. . . when Paul heard that James’ followers had scolded his converts in Galatia, telling them that their teacher didn’t understand— much less teach— the true gospel of Jesus, Paul attacked. Furious, he rebuked his former followers for turning on him:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ, and are turning to a different gospel! Not that there is a different gospel, but there are some who are confusing you, and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

When some protested that followers of James, Jesus’ own brother, and Peter, his closest disciple, had authorized “the gospel” they now accepted, Paul replied that it made no (Kindle Locations 840-849).

difference who contradicted what he had taught. He cursed whoever it was— even an angel from heaven! Paul twice repeats this solemn curse . . . . When forced to defend himself and his message, then, Paul does what other prophets and visionaries did: appeal to a higher authority that he said came to him “by revelation”— although not everyone accepted his claim. Some forty years after that dispute, when John of Patmos met with groups of Jesus’ followers throughout Asia Minor, he was dismayed to discover considerable variation among them. John found some groups, perhaps predominantly Jewish, that adhered closely to Jewish tradition and welcomed him as a respected prophet. (Kindle Locations 849-857).

. . . John also encountered groups of believers, many of them Gentiles, who apparently had accepted “Paul’s gospel”— and clashed with them. Those John encountered in the decade of the 90s belonged, of course, to the second generation of Paul’s converts, since it was about thirty years since “the great apostle” had preached there. . . . As John saw it, Paul’s converts were not like the Gentiles whom Jews had called “those who show reverence for God” and who had long sought to join with them to worship their God. Those old-fashioned Gentiles had known their place, keeping a respectful distance from those born Jews, (Kindle Locations 857-866).

they realized that gaining full access to the Jewish community would require them to change their whole way of life. Men would have had to undergo surgery to become circumcised; both men and women would have had to adopt sexual, social, and dietary practices that would separate them from their former families and friends before they could qualify to join God’s holy people. By contrast, some of Paul’s converts were saying that, having been “baptized into Jesus Christ,” they were as good as those born Jews— maybe even better. John, who sees Israel’s privilege linked to the obligation to remain “holy,” is angry that they claim to belong to Israel while ignoring what the Torah requires. To justify such negligence, these “wouldbe Jews” invoke the authority of the famous— or, John may have felt, infamous— missionary Paul, self-professed “apostle to the Gentiles.” Even worse, from John’s point of view, is that instead of respecting Israel’s priority, such newcomers speak of themselves— and Gentiles of every kind— as if they themselves were Jews, claiming both Israel’s name and (Kindle Locations 866-875).

her prerogatives. John seems to have such people in mind when he says that Jesus told him to tell his people in Philadelphia that “those who say they are Jews, and are not, but are lying,” are nothing but a “synagogue of Satan.” . . . But, some readers may ask, when John attacks the “synagogue of Satan,” isn’t he talking about actual Jews, that is, members of local synagogues who are hostile to Christians? When he warns “those who say they are Jews and are not,” doesn’t he mean the opposite of what he says— that they actually are Jews, but Jews who don’t deserve to be called by that name? Many— perhaps most— scholars accepted this convoluted interpretation in the past, since only this reading could fit what most of them took for granted— namely, that John, although probably Jewish by birth, had become a Christian by the time he wrote this book. . . . (Kindle Locations 875-885).

On the contrary:

John not only sees himself as a Jew but regards being Jewish as an honor that those who fail to observe God’s covenant— especially non-Jews— do not deserve. For if John knows the term “Christian,” he never mentions it, much less applies it to himself. Instead, as we have seen, John, like Peter, James, and virtually all of Jesus’ earliest followers, for that matter, consistently sees himself as a Jew who acknowledges Jesus as Israel’s messiah— not someone who has converted to a new “religion.” (Kindle Locations 898-902).

So, it seems very likely that the John who wrote this apocalyptic set of visions is not the same John that authored the Gospel of that name. Eric Zuesse in his book says no one doubts the Pauline influence in the Gospel of John. Pagels makes the observation, several times, that the content and language of the two books is very different, so they likely do not have the same author. Here is Pagels on this topic:

When critics charged that a heretic had written it, its earliest defenders sought to lend it legitimacy by insisting that Jesus’ own disciple John wrote its prophecies, in addition to the Gospel of John. Around the year 260, however, the famous Egyptian bishop called Saint Dionysius of Alexandria challenged their view, pointing out that the style of the two books differs markedly and (Kindle Locations 82-84).

that the sophisticated gospel writer could not have written such clumsy Greek. Dionysius added that “I have not said these things to pour scorn upon [the author of Revelation]— do not imagine that!— but only to show how different the two books are,” for he agreed that Revelation had been written “by a holy and inspired writer.” Nevertheless, debates about its authenticity— and its place in the New Testament— persisted. . . . (Kindle Locations 84-88).

The supreme irony, of course, lies in the material cited at the start of this review, which involves modern Pauline Christians, almost all gentiles, using this Jewish-Christian John's Book of Revelations to smear contemporary people they do not approve of with the “Beast” and “Antichrist” labels. These labels, unbeknownst to the ones using them now, were originally meant to apply to the adherents of the very religion of the gentiles now using this negative imagery. Adherents who proclaim that because of their faith in Christ they are the 'real' Israel, without benefit of living by the precepts of the Law of Moses. In fact, to keep the law is to show a lack of faith in the Jew Jesus Christ, who kept the law.

This irony would be funny except that some of these Revelations-deluded souls are actually in positions of power and are looking forward to, and urging governments to start, huge military conflicts that they hope bring the end of the world and thus Christ's return in glory. They are fantasizing of themselves being taken up into heaven as the world burns below them.

Thank you, Elaine Pagels, for masterfully showing the ill-logic behind those Revelations-fueled and macabre fantasies! The desire of some is to experience being taken up into heaven, to be recognized by God as having believed right while everyone else is left to suffer unimaginable tribulation. Why? Because the unfortunate ones have done 'evil' in some sense? By hard-line Pauline doctrine, all they had to do is simply believe wrong, hence their sins are not covered by Christ's self-sacrifice.

This is a hateful doctrine and expectation.

Whatever happened to God is Love?

Please don't think this material on the followers of Paul is a major theme in this multifaceted book. It is just one of many themes. For example, Pagels also brings in a new way to understand the Nag Hammadi library materials as having some role in defining earlier Christianity before the catholic-ation of the faith.

Part of that story of making the divergent faith converge into one is Bishop Athanasius's erasing a desert father's life's work by redefining him to have been almost the opposite of what he really was. Anthony was a visionary with beliefs at odds with those of Athanasius, and was made into an extremely obedient and orthodox monk.

Those who survive write the history!

Here, in part, is how Pagels tells this story:

When Athanasius sought to overcome resistance from monastic establishments, he chose a more effective strategy than accusing their most respected leaders of demonic possession. Instead he effectively coopted the most famous of them— Anthony— by writing an admiring biography picturing Anthony as his own greatest supporter. Since Anthony had died, Athanasius had a somewhat free hand, and his biography turned Anthony into a model monk— a model, that is, of what the bishop (Kindle Locations 2260-2264).

wanted monks to be. For in his famous Life of Anthony, the sophisticated and fiercely independent teacher known from his letters disappears, and Athanasius replaces him with his own vision of an ideal monk— an illiterate and simple man. So while Anthony’s letters show him to be educated in philosophy and theology, Athanasius pictures him as someone who despises educated teachers as arrogant men who are ignorant of God. And although in his letters Anthony never mentions bishops, clergy, or church rules, Athanasius pictures him instead as a humble monk who willingly subordinates himself to the clergy and “the canon of the church.” Athanasius also depicts Anthony as one who hates Christian dissidents as much as he did— and who, like the bishop himself, calls them not only heretics but “forerunners of Antichrist.” (Kindle Locations 2264-2270).

The book also delves into what teachings monks such as those in Anthony's and other contemporary monasteries were exposed to. Pagels gives a fascinating look into what could have become Christianity, a religion that praised and encouraged seekers of mystical revelation, but was stopped in its proverbial tracks by Athanasius.

Why was Athanasius so anxious to close off the fountain of new revelation by placing the Book of Revelation at the end of the canon, which says to neither take away from nor add to this corpus of God's words? Because revelation led to the very type of divisive product he was using to seal off the expectation of new revelation, and to bash his enemies: the Book of Revelation.

Pagels' book is obviously well worth reading.

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