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Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012)

by Elaine Pagels

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    Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World by James Carroll (bibliothequaire)
    bibliothequaire: Both discuss the early history of Christianity and how interpretations of the religion have changed over time.
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Author Elaine Pagels includes here discussion of not only John of Patmos's Book of Revelations, so well-known from the New Testament, but also discussion of the numerous revelation texts found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945. These are the so-called gnostic or apocryphal texts expunged by order of Egyptian bishop Athanasius in the 4th century C.E. Because of the range of her sources she's able to give us a picture of Christian revelatory thinking and mindsets through the ages.

For instance, the original "beast" or anti-Christ as conceived by John of Patmos was clearly Rome. John, a Jew, wrote in 90 C.E. This was just twenty years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish people. Once Constantine adopted the faith (312 C.E.) and ended the persecution of Christians, however, the beast was reinterpreted to mean all so-called heretics: Jews, ironically, pagans, essentially any nonconformist.

Pagels also discusses how due to the thematic broadness of much of what John wrote he created imagery that has over two millennia been capable of being projected onto any perceived threat of the moment. The list of examples is extensive, but includes Martin Luther's depiction of the pope as the beast, and the Church's depiction, in turn, of Martin Luther as such. We might also add Hitler as beast, Stalin as best, western sexual and moral laxness as beast, and let's not forget the current favorite: Obama as beast. Recommended.

Let me add that there's a wonderful book by Norman Cohn called Pursuit of the Millennium which I discuss elsewhere that looks at this penchant for flexible interpretation of anti-Christ during the 11th through 15th centuries or so, and how this capacity in turn engendered the most appalling mass hysteria and genocide in central and southern Europe. Cohn's is an astonishing book and I recommended it highly. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
Frustrated again.

I should know by now not to make assumptions based on the subtitle. When I read, “Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation,” I assumed Pagels would be exploring the politically subversive nature of John’s Revelation. Instead, I read a book about the reconstructed political factions of the early church that Pagels believes comes to light in John’s Revelation.

An example of this is her discussion of John’s message to Smyrna:

"I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:9 ESV).

Pagels suggests that John’s talking about Paul and his disciples here—those Gentile believers who claim to be included in the seed of Abraham but who eschew Jewish law.

Returning to her bread-and-butter, Pagels describes a conspiracy by who would later be called Orthodox Christians to suppress minority opinions and alternate writings. For her, John’s revelation is the only one which survived because the powerful could use it to increase their power.

While I do agree that many scriptural books have been horribly misused in the name of power against the aims of Jesus, I can’t give the alternate books the credit Pagels does. When I read (what remains of) alternate texts like the Secret Revelation of John, and the Gospel of Truth, I don’t see the sort of sort of scripture-soaked reflection I find in John’s Revelation.

Of course, given my theological viewpoint, I believe the Holy Spirit had a role in preserving the canon. If God could use tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar to accomplish his purpose, he could certainly use Constantine.

If you’re intrigued by Pagels’ thesis and have spent time reading scripture, I encourage you to read the apocryphal texts for yourself. Form your own opinion before turning to Pagels’ Revelations. ( )
  StephenBarkley | Apr 14, 2014 |
Being exposition of the meaning and historical background of the mysterious book of Revelation. The author views the author of Revelation (she brushes aside the traditional identification of said author as St. John the Evangelist in favor of an unknown she calls John of Patmos) as the successor to such great Old Testament grouches as Ezekiel and Jeremiah who inveighed against the foibles of their time with hugely creative, surreal imagery. As for the object of the book's scorn, she joins in the traditional wisdom that it was the Roman Empire to a limited degree, but clearly believes that it was mostly an attack upon St. Paul and his big tent theory of Christianity as opposed to Ss. Peter and James' philosophy that a member of the sect had to be, and live as, a Jew.
These are enlightening and profitable streams of inquiry, as well as being engagingly written, but the middle third of the book consists of out-of-control meanderings into territory largely both unrelated and uninteresting, such as the origins of monasticism, the conversion of Christianity, and the organization of the adolescent church. ( )
  Big_Bang_Gorilla | Oct 21, 2013 |
When I read large swathes of Pagels' earlier books (specifically The Gnostic Gospels and Adam Eve and the Serpent) as an undergraduate, it was as a part of my interest in just exactly what happened in the Roman world on the cusp of the ascendancy of Christianity, to which I was not and to which I am still not sympathetic, that I read this book. I wanted to understand what was going on in the Roman world which could have allowed a movement which was flatly opposed to traditional Roman values to have gained the ascendancy in so little time. I also wanted to understand what it was that seduced the notoriously pragmatic Romans, all without viewing countless and nameless individuals as a monolith.

With my historian hat on, I'm not entirely certain that I ever understood what was going on. I could talk about the instability of the Imperial seat, the importance of the Roman army, and the changing demographics of the Empire itself quite literally all day, and maybe come to an answer or three. Regardless, I came to appreciate what Pagels did in her previous books, and what she continues to do in Revelations. She has again unpicked the thread of the tapestry of myth in which many Christians cloak the early centuries of their faith, if they bother to think about it at all.

Pagels has written a lively and informed view of that trickiest of coves, the book of Revelation, and she did so in such a way that I wanted to go back and re-read Revelation, in light of what she wrote. Cranky modern Xian reviewers quibbling over this edition or that fiddling detail aside, this is an excellent book, and one which will challenge intellectually honest Xians and those of us non-religious types alike to re-examine our views. The worst that could happen is that your mind might be dangerously expanded, if ever so slightly. Highly recommended. ( )
  Bill_Bibliomane | Aug 1, 2013 |
One for the scholar - and maybe not just for the scholar.

If you write a book about the gnostic or "hidden" books of the Bible, you might expect your book to sell a few hundred copies (if you were lucky) and then go quietly to sleep on the shelves of pastors and scholars..

But Elaine Pagels's book The Gnostic Gospels came out a decade ago and was read by everybody and was a National Book Award winner and was a hard kick in the pants to a lot of sleeping sacred cows.

With a sharp eye and a fresh insight it showed the process of choosing texts to be included in the Christian Bible to be a deeply political and human process while shining a bright clear light on the very human figures that we often see done in marble outside of the churches.

Now we have come to Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics a new and very exciting book about the last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St John.

(This is the book with "The Number of the Beast" in it. 666 and so forth).

(This is also the book that doesn't mention Jesus - even through the New Testament is supposed to be all about Jesus.)

Dr. Pagels is wonderful about the fact that there were many hundreds of books of mystical "Revelations" written during the Roman Era. So why did this one come down through history and not the others?

And THAT question is a very interesting one - bringing in issues about the early Church and the Roman empire and what people under repression could get away with and not get away with.

Professor Pagels is a wonderful writer and scholar, and reading her books you are caught up in the excitement of the chase and the wonder of discovery.

Good book, fascinating topic, brilliant writing. Worth a look for you if you want to learn something new. ( )
  magicians_nephew | Jul 5, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670023345, Hardcover)

A startling exploration of the history of the most controversial book of the Bible, by the bestselling author of Beyond Belief.

Through the bestselling books of Elaine Pagels, thousands of readers have come to know and treasure the suppressed biblical texts known as the Gnostic Gospels. As one of the world's foremost religion scholars, she has been a pioneer in interpreting these books and illuminating their place in the early history of Christianity. Her new book, however, tackles a text that is firmly, dramatically within the New Testament canon: The Book of Revelation, the surreal apocalyptic vision of the end of the world . . . or is it?

In this startling and timely book, Pagels returns The Book of Revelation to its historical origin, written as its author John of Patmos took aim at the Roman Empire after what is now known as "the Jewish War," in 66 CE. Militant Jews in Jerusalem, fired with religious fervor, waged an all-out war against Rome's occupation of Judea and their defeat resulted in the desecration of Jerusalem and its Great Temple. Pagels persuasively interprets Revelation as a scathing attack on the decadence of Rome. Soon after, however, a new sect known as "Christians" seized on John's text as a weapon against heresy and infidels of all kinds-Jews, even Christians who dissented from their increasingly rigid doctrines and hierarchies.

In a time when global religious violence surges, Revelations explores how often those in power throughout history have sought to force "God's enemies" to submit or be killed. It is sure to appeal to Pagels's committed readers and bring her a whole new audience who want to understand the roots of dissent, violence, and division in the world's religions, and to appreciate the lasting appeal of this extraordinary text.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:04 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A world-renowned scholar of religion and bestselling author of "The Gnostic Gospels, Beyond Belief," and" Reading Judas" explores the strangest and most controversial book in the Bible: the Book of Revelation.

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