Monday, July 30, 2012

Elaine Pagels' book on the Book of Revelation

Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels has done a popular book on the Apocalypse of John, aka, the Book of Revelation, called Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012).

By "popular", I mean it's not a scholarly book as such. She doesn't lead the reader through discussion of Greek participles.

But it is written from a scholar's viewpoint. She's analyzing the history of the book and the story of how it came to be included in the New Testament canon during the fourth century CE. As she explains, the first list of the enduring New Testament canon of which we know is from a letter from the Bishop Athanasius in 367 CE.

A specialist in the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945, Pagels uses some of those esoteric works to recreate some of the religious and historical context in which the Book of Revelation was written and understood until it became part of the established Christian canon of Scripture.

She doesn't walk us through the history of the book through the following 15 centuries. But she does make some informed observations about the persistence of its popularity, for better or worse:

We need not rehearse the history of religious violence-from crusaders fighting "infidels" and inquisitors torturing and killing Jews to save their immortal souls, to Catholics and Protestants fighting religious wars from the sixteenth century on, or Christian groups engaged in vigilante violence to the present time, or the wartime rhetoric of world leaders - to realize how often those who wield power and see themselves standing' on God's side against Satan's have sought to force "God's enemies" to submit or be killed. Such apocalyptic fervor, whether engaged in by Christians or Muslims, allows no neutral ground between God's kingdom and the lake of fire, and no room for compromise, much less for human-or humane-interaction. [my emphasis]
She notes that the notion of justice in history, or maybe it should be History, is one of the ideas that people have taken from Revelation.

Yet John's Book of Revelation appeals not only to fear but also to hope. As John tells how the chaotic events of the world are finally set right by divine judgment, those who engage his visions often see them offering meaning-moral meaning - in times of suffering or apparently random catastrophe. Many poets, artists, and preachers who engage these prophecies claim to have found in them the promise, famously repeated by Martin Luther King Jr., that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
That saying is also a favorite of President Barack Obama's.

And it is also important to remember that John's Apocalypse promises a bright ultimate future for the elect:

Finally, too, this worst of all nightmares ends not in terror but in a glorious new world, radiant with the light of God's presence, flowing with the water of life, abounding in joy and delight. Whether one sees in John's visions the destruction of the whole world or the dark tunnel that propels each of us toward our own death, his final vision suggests that even after the worst we can imagine has happened, we may find the astonishing gift of new life. Whether one shares that conviction, few readers miss seeing how these visions offer consolation and that most necessary of divine gifts - hope.
The philosopher Karl Löwith argued that the concept of meaning in history was based on Jewish and Christian thought: "it is only within a preestablished horizon of ultimate meaning, however hidden it may be, that actual history seems to be meaningless. This horizon has been established by history, for it is Jewish and Christian thinking that brought this colossal question into existence." (my emphasis) (Löwith, "The Theological Background of The Philosophy of History" Social Research 13:1/4; 1946)

Revelation originally spoke to a world in which Christians were persecuted by the secular power of Rome in "actual history". But it promised that this "actual history" was, if not exactly meaningless, insignificant seen against the ultimate victory of the Lord over the forces of evil. "The very existence of a philosophy of history and its quest for a meaning is due to the history of salvation; it emerged from the faith in an ultimate purpose," writes Löwith. He argues that it is in the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature in particular that we find the roots of Western theories of meaning in history, even the distinctly secular ones:

The Greek historians wrote pragmatic history centered around a great political event; the fathers of the church developed from Jewish prophecy a theology of history focused on the supra-historical events of creation, incarnation and consummation; the moderns elaborate a philosophy of history by secularizing theological principles and applying them to an ever increasing number of empirical facts.
One of the issues around the Book of Revelation is to what degree it was a specifically Christian document. As Pagels explains, the author was likely a Jewish Christian follower of Jesus who does not specifically refer to himself as "Christian". The initial followers of Jesus were Jews like himself, of course. But the Jesus movement among Jews fast developed distinctive features and Gentile converts started coming in significant numbers soon after Jesus' death. The conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are evidenced in Paul's letters and in the Acts of the Apostles. Over time, Christians defined themselves in more hostile terms toward Judaism. But Jewish Christian groups survived in the Middle East for centuries; the Prophet Muhammad almost certainly had contact with them and was likely significantly influenced by them.

G.W. Bowersock in a review of Pagels' book (Apocalypse Then New York Review of Books 04/05/2012; behind subscription) notes that John Marshall (2001) and Daniel Boyarin (2011) have made a strong case for the Jewish nature of Revelation. As Bowersock delicately puts it, this "raises the deeply complex issue of the Jewishness of the first Christians," an issue which Pagels discusses in her book.

My own favorite chapter of Revelation is Chapter 12, with its cosmic story of the woman in the heavens and the dragon after her. It apparently intrigues Pagels, as well, because she has some interesting suggestions about it. Her caution in a footnote that the symbolism of that chapter may be "multivalent", I tend to think she's right to note identify the woman with Mary but I would question the identification of the child with the Messiah.

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