Elaine Pagels on Revelation

Wednesday Elaine Pagels was on the NPR program Fresh Air discussing her new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. I was only able to hear about 1/3 the interview, but the online synopsis of the discussion seems pretty thorough; if you are interested, the download link for the audio is near the top. What follows are my thoughts after reading the interview piece on the website.

Pagels' basic interpretive approach towards the book of Revelation is nothing new and is actually pretty common in the literature concerning the book. Essentially she argues that the author was writing against the imperial power of Rome in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. She makes a few points, though, that really strike me as odd. She states the following regarding the difference between the book of Revelation and the rest of the New Testament (this quotation and the ones following are from the Fresh Air website):

"The Book of Revelation fascinates me because it's very different than anything else you find in the New Testament," Pagels tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There's no moral sermons or ethical ideas or edifying things. It's all visions. That's why it appeals so much to artists and musicians and poets throughout the century."

It is true that the book of revelation is different from the rest of the New Testament in terms of the extent to which it portrays apocalyptic visions, but there are similar apocalyptic teachings in the Gospels, in Paul's writings, and in Peter's second epistle. She also makes this statement regarding the view that Revelation is a unique type of literature:

"One of the surprises that I found when I started to work on the Book of Revelation is that there is not only one. That is, most people think there is one Book of Revelation because there's only one in the canon, but I discovered that this was one of an outpouring that Jews were writing; Greeks who followed the Greek gods were writing many books of revelation. The Book of Ezra, for example, is another revelation written by a Jewish prophet — not a follower of Jesus — but very similar to John's in many ways and very grieved about the Roman Empire and concerned about the question of God's justice."

In keeping with many books of this genre (that is, scholars writing to communicate their erudite findings for the layperson), this sounds like there's a real revelation (pun intended) to be made. But like other scholarly revelations of recent memory, this one is simply a retread. Scholars have known about these other apocalyptic writings for a very, very long time and have compared them to the book of Revelation for just about as long. I don't really know whether to take her statement as perhaps a memory from when she first started studying the book or as a statement cast to make a bit of a PR splash.

One final thing she says that is worth noting:

"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 is an overstatement to say the least. Revelation is distinctly Christian in that the risen Christ is at the center of the book's message. Chapters two and three are written to churches in Asia Minor which would almost certainly have been majority Gentile. Revelation is distinctly Christian from both a theological and sociological standpoint. Interestingly enough, what she notices about the Jewish emphasis of the book actually is in keeping with traditional dispensational interpretation (a theological system I doubt seriously that she accepts): The book of Revelation shows in a dramatic way the culmination of God's dealing with his people Israel. But to say that it reflects a milieu in which Christianity hadn't been invented yet just doesn't make sense.