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Revelations [Hardcover]

Elaine Pagels
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 6 2012

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.


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"Revelations is a slim book that packs in dense layers of scholarship and meaning . . . One of [Elaine Pagels's] great gifts is much in abundance: her ability to ask, and answer, the plainest questions about her material without speaking down to her audience . . . She must be a fiendishly good lecturer."
(The New York Times)

"One of the significant benefits of Pagels's book is its demonstration of the unpredictability of apocalyptic politics . . . The meaning of the Apocalypse is ever malleable and ready to hand for whatever crisis one confronts. That is one lesson of Pagels's book. Another is that we all should be vigilant to keep some of us from using the vision for violence against others."

(The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice))

"Pagels is an absorbing, intelligent, and eye-opening companion. Calming and broad-minded here, as in her earlier works, she applies a sympathetic and humane eye to texts that are neither subtle nor sympathetically humane but lit instead by fury."
(Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker)

"Any book in the Bible that can be cited simultaneously by deeply conservative end-of-times Christians who see the Apocalypse around the corner and by Marxist-friendly Christians looking forward to justice at the End of History must have a compelling back story. That back story is told well and concisely by Elaine Pagels in her new book, Revelations."
(The Boston Globe) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and the author of Reading Judas, The Gnostic Gospels-winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award- and the New York Times bestseller Beyond Belief. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Revelations Oct. 31 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is another excellent book by Elaine Pagels. I have scheduled a trip to Patmos (presumably with personal visions included) as a result of my reading.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, easy to read Sept. 27 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I listened to the interview between author and CBC then ordered the book...it is an interesting perspective on end of days and where are the material came to the writer of Revelations
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  128 reviews
283 of 303 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sign Posts on the Highway to ...? March 6 2012
By Dharma - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
What Elaine Pagels does so well, in this book as in her previous, is to understand, explain, and evoke the context and writings of the period of formation of the Christian religion and the catholic church. In close and careful readings of the many conflicting texts available to present day scholars, she is able to untie the knots of ancient intrigue and conflict from the early days of Christianity. She traces the development of Christian writing through successive generations of apostles, prophets, and bishops to see how and why the core texts of the religion, specifically the Book of Revelation, were chosen to be included in the New Testament.

Pagels shows how the cult of Jesus worship began as a revolutionary movement on the fringes of Roman society, appealing to the lower classes, and offering a vision of equality before God, if not in everyday life. She finds in the words of Tertullian an early formulation of the desire for freedom of religious practice, freedom from the requirements to worship Roman gods and emperors. With careful argument, Pagels shows how the "eternal enemy", identified as the Beast in Revelations, is transformed in meaning over time. Initially the number of the beast - "666" - is a code for the emperor Nero who ordered the persecution of early followers of Jesus. Over three centuries, for a variety of political purposes, Revelations is transmuted into a condemnation of Christian splinter groups called "heretic" because of their failure to obey nascent church authority

Although Pagels does not delve deeply into the vision and drama of the text of Revelations, she is is able to convey how the apocalyptic imagery of the book served to inspire physical and mental resistance to Roman persecution. It is this inspiration which resulted in the book becoming a tool of the early church: Initially supporting resistance to Rome, subsequently in the recruitment of non-Jews to the cause, and ultimately for banning and suppression of other variations of Christian revelation. Early church leaders found the text to be "irrational and incomprehensible" but effective because it incorporates messages of spiritual elitism, great sacrifice, climactic and certain victory, and ultimately a promise of resurrection in the city of God.

For many readers, the works of Elaine Pagels have become the main entry point into the early Christian texts discovered at Nag Hammadi and generally known at "the Gnostic Gospels." In the current work, Pagels continues to explore these texts, specifically works of revelation similar to the one currently known as "The Revelation of John." Several of these works are quoted and characterized. The strong emphasis on personal revelation, direct connection with Jesus, and the communitarian context of these early groups of followers of Jesus is contrasted with the military structure and material greed of the early Catholic church.

It is a measure of Pagel's brilliance and sensitivity that she is able to explore and illuminate all of these issues in a slim volume of only 180 pages. The reader will enjoy the historical irony as one apocalyptic movement after another succeeds in overcoming persecution, only to become the perceived evil as it consolidates its power. This is a never-ending story on the highway of human history.
107 of 117 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For Spiritual Seekers of All Faiths - Not Just Religious History Buffs March 7 2012
By L. Erickson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Elaine Pagels has written yet another accessible and powerful book that will appeal to both religious history buffs and spiritual seekers attracted to mystic Christianity. In this book, she explores the Book of Revelations, and the role of revelatory experience in general within early Christianity. She brings her impeccable scholarship to bear, detailing the social and political forces that were most likely in play when Revelations was written, and what the symbolism within it would have meant to readers at the time. She also explores the way it has been interpreted over time, and how different groups have used it at crises points in history to assert they are on the 'right' side of God, while their enemies are not. With all the hype surrounding 2012, and some interpreting this year as yet another 'end-times', Revelations is once again being used in this way, which makes this book especially relevant right now.

While all this history is interesting to me, what I found personally even more fascinating were the sections on the role of revelatory experience in Christianity, and sections on early monastics and their mystic practices. Pagels describes some of the other 'Revelations' found among the scrolls of Nag Hammadi - the texts discovered in 1945 buried in Egypt that religious scholars are still interpreting and which are reshaping our understanding of the development of Christianity. Pagels other best-selling books The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas are focused on Gospels found amongst these texts that were not included in the New Testament when it was canonized, while in this book she focuses on alternative Revelations that were found there. She describes 'secret' contemplative practices detailed in these texts, and profound spiritual experiences that are described by their writers. The passages she includes are powerful and inspiring, and display remarkable similarities to practices and insights described by mystic traditions in other religions, including Tantra in Buddhism, Sufism in Islam, Kabbalah in Judaism, and yogic traditions of Hinduism.

The same goes for her coverage of early monastics - the communities of celibate men and women who lived together for the sole purpose of devoting themselves to early Christian spiritual practice. She sheds new light on Anthony of Egypt, typically considered the father of Christian monastics, and particularly on Bishop Athanasius's popular text 'Life of Anthony', which is all most people know of him. While Athanasius's biography paints Anthony as in sync with him and others trying to consolidate church power and hierarchy, it is clear from Anthony's own letters that he was quite opposed to many of the church's edicts. In fact, Pagels makes a strong case that Athanasius pushed for Revelations to be included in the New Testament when it was canonized because he saw a way to strengthen his own case for solidifying church power and decreasing the power of the monastics, and that his edicts banning all other revelations and 'secret' texts as heretical were possibly the reason the texts found at Nag Hammadi were originally hidden.

So overall, this is another great book from Pagels, and one that will inspire both rich debate and spiritual exploration.
194 of 242 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pagel's New REVELATIONS: An Editorial Mystery March 19 2012
By William Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As one who has read all of Elaine Pagel's previous books except the one about the Gospel of Judas, I was naturally curious to see how she would emerge from her encounter with the bizarrely macabre yet strangely compelling Revelation of Saint John the Divine. Knowing that few explorers have tackled that tangled thicket and managed to emerge unscathed, but with an abiding faith that if anyone could, it would be Pagels, I ordered a copy of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation some months before the official publication date. Four days ago, that copy arrived, and I have just this moment finished reading it.

Generally speaking, the book is well written. It does a fine job of providing an overview of the subject for intelligent readers who are curious to know more but prefer not to have their brains cluttered with too many facts. Others of more academic presuasion, alas, might have appreciated, and indeed even looked forward to, a somewhat longer, more detailed effort. No doubt, somewhere in the process that led to publication of the final product, an editorial discussion took place during which someone pointed out that academic volumes seldom become best-sellers, and that thick, scholarly-looking tomes often discourage buyers. Unfortunately, when good scholarship butts heads with good business, profit usually wins. In this case, the result was a disappointingly short volume of 246 pages (a mere 177 pages of double-spaced text followed by 69 pages of endnotes and index), which, in its brevity, fails to treat a significant number of issues that would seem crucial to any meaningful understanding of the complicated and colorful Revelation that a man named John, while on the Aegean island of Patmos, claimed to have received directly from Heaven.

For example, since the Book of Revelation is unquestionably an apocalyptic work, one would naturally expect Pagels to have included a lengthy exploration of the pre-Christian origins of apocalyticism, a conflict which began around the second century BCE between Jews who held to a prophetic world view--that the world was created by God and that human suffering is part of God's greater plan for humanity--and Jews who were beginning to embrace an apocalyptic world view, which departs from the prophetic view to argue that human suffering is caused by God's enemy, the Devil, or Satan, and that only a final battle between God and Satan could set things right.

One might also have reasonably expected to find some discussion about the view, held by some scholars, that John of Patmos' Revelation, in its original form, was penned around 66-69 CE as a more jewish-oriented apocalypse, and that it was subsequently edited and reworked into a more Christian document prior to being published in the closing years of the first century.

Then there is the question of whether the man known as John the Presbyter, identified by Bishop Papias of Hierapolis (c.55-130CE) as being someone distinct from Jesus' disciple John of Zebedee, could have been the same person we have come to know as John of Patmos. This is at least a possibility because, according to Andrew of Caesarea writing in the mid-sixth century, the earliest person known to have "borne entirely satisfactory testimony to" the Book of Revelation was Bishop Papias. Clearly Papias was a contemporary of John of Patmos and knew of his work. Could he have known and endorsed the work because he personally knew its author? What about other evidence suggesting that John the Presbyter was one and the same as John of Patmos?

But perhaps the most intriguing matter, and certainly one well known to many readers, is the enigmatic question of the number of the Beast, which according to Revelation 13:18, is 666. ("Here is the key, and anyone with intelligence may work out the number of the beast. The number represents a man's name, and the numerical value of its letters is six hundred sixty-six.") Although this is one of the most widely known and controversial aspects of the Book of Revelation, Pagels manages to dismiss it in just two sentences: "Historians familiar with the numerological system Jews called gematria, which assigns a numerical value to each letter and calculates the relationship between the numbers, have offered various suggestions to interpret this mysterious number. Some still debate its meaning, but many now agree that the most obvious calculations suggest that the `number of the beast' spells out Nero's imperial name." (Pagels, Revelations, p.33)

What was this "gematria," how did it work, and what are the various suggestions which historians have given towards interpreting this mysterious number? And, if historians offer various suggestions about interpreting the number, what then is Pagel's reaction to, say, the erudite scholars of the New English Bible, who flatly state, without hedging or qualification, that, "In Hebrew, the letters of the name `Nero Caesar' have numerical values which total 666." ? (New English Bible, p.325n18)

There are other glaring omissions in her text as well. Even simple but potentially useful details are left out, like the fact that the earliest known manuscript fragment of Revelation is the one known as papyrus P-47, which dates between 220-260 CE. And there is also no mention of either Millenarianism or verses supporting that philosophy which are found in Revelation 20 and 22. ("These [souls] came to life again and reigned with Christ for a thousand years, though the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were over. This is the first resurrection...." and "for the hour of fulfillment is near....", etc.) Pagel's views on this matter could have been illuminating, especially in light of the fact that some believers in the so-called Rapture cite these verses in support of their beliefs. Yet, there is no mention of any Rapture, or the beliefs surrounding it, in this volume. This may be a good way to avoid controversy, but it does little for scholarship. Since, for many, the Book of Revelation and belief in the Rapture go hand-in-hand, this is a serious omission indeed.

Pagels also fails to inform her readers that the Book of Revelation was not formally accepted into the Catholic canon until the Synod of Hippo in 393 CE.

On the other hand, to her credit, she does an excellent job in recounting the story of Bishop Athanasius, the obsessive and almost certainly unbalanced fourth century Egyptian fanatic whose misguided, self-serving, narrow-minded machinations played a significant role in defining both the scriptural canon and the rigidly exclusive orthodoxy that would ultimately become the Roman Catholic Church. And her brief observations concerning the origins of monastic life, both in Egypt and elsewhere are certainly interesting and informative.

All things considered, Pagel's Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation, is something of a disappointment, especially to readers who are fully aware that its respected author is capable of much better things. This having been said, it would seem that although Pagels certainly possesses the potential and qualifications needed to create a meaningful study of the Book of Revelation and still emerge unscathed from its tangled thicket, unfortunately she, like so many others, somehow became lost along the way. The result is a volume which pays far more homage to commercial exploitation than it does to good scholarship. (To beg a moment of editorial privilege--dare one suspect that the author had a multi-volume deal with the publisher which obliged her to produce something, and she produced this volume merely to fulfill the obligation even though her heart wasn't really in it? Excuse me, but that was my first reaction after reading the last page.)
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pagels Hits Her Target Audience March 23 2012
By Jimmie Benbrook - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
From my perspective, critics of Elaine Pagels', Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, seem to expect much more from her latest effort than what was intended. I am far from being a biblical "expert," but that does not imply I lack the interest and intellectual skills to comprehend Pagels' message, in fact, I believe I am a member of her intended audience. This work is not meant to be a treatise for biblical scholars and academics on the Book of Revelation, on the contrary, it is meant for members of the general public who are unfamiliar with the Book of Revelation history, its author, why it was written, and the contemporary environment during which it was written.

I will not attempt to recount everything Pagels touched upon since that seems to have been covered quite well by other reviewers, rather, I would like to highlight some of the things I found particularly interesting. The Book of Revelation was not written by John the Apostle after the death of Jesus Christ as some have maintained (some still do), rather, it was written some sixty years later, about 90 C.E. by a man named John of Patmos (Patmos is a small island off the coast of Turkey). John of Patmos was, first and foremost, a Jew, not a Christian, who fervently believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and based much of his writing on several Jewish prophesies in the Old Testament. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and the defeat of the Jews by the Romans during that time period profoundly affected John and much of the violent imagery in his Book of Revelation is based on these events. However, by purposely being vague and not tying his work to these specific events out of fear of reprisal by the Roman authorities, John's work has been applied to worldwide events that have occurred over the centuries.

Pagels also points out that the Book of Revelation as it appears in the New Testament was but one of many revelations written in the earliest days of Christianity. Many of these documents were discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi and are included in the so-called Gnostic Gospels. After the Christian religion became formally recognized by Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, the structure of the Catholic Church solidified and evolved into its current state. When the New Testament was established, all of the revelations, except for that of John of Patmos, were banned, seemingly forever, only to be rediscovered at Nag Hammadi. So much for permanent annihilation.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat disappoionting April 9 2012
By John E. Mack - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Elaine Pagels is learned, interesting, and careful. Unfortunately, her work on the Book of Revelation has a number of flaws. First, it is not well-edited. Ms. Pagel repeats herself several times, including offering a nearly identical synopsis of the Book of the book in separate chapters. This is the sort of thing that careful editing should catch. And sometimes the footnootes do not have much to do with the tesxt they are supposed to annotate. For example, Pagels notes that Revelation barely made it into the New Testament canon, while the footnote offers nothing about its inclusion -- where, when, and by how many votes it happened to be incorporated into the canon? There were come church councils that voted on the Canon (Pagels mentions the Council of Carthage). What happened there? By what process was it decided to include Revelation in the cannon.

Second, this book is only loosely about the Book of Revelation itself. While the first two chapters are devoted to that Book, the remaining chapters include only tangentially related subjects, such as the fights in the early church and the conflicts between its bishops. These are interesting digressions, but they do not have much to do with Revelation. It is almost as if Ms. Pagels wrote six separate essays and justified their inclusion in one book by the fact that Revelation gets a mention in each of them. If her primary subject was Revelation itself, she would have been better off devoting her time to intepreting the book and noting the contemporary context of its writing. If her subject was the historical reaction and interpretation of that book, she should not have stopped at the fourth century. If I were to have one overarching criticism of her book, it is that it is a bit unfocused.

Moreover, the quality of her text varies considerably. Her chapter on other extant apocalyptic literature is really excellent. While the Book of Revelation has been called the happy hunting ground for cranks, a reading of Ms. Pagel's analysis of similar writings makes it clear that John the Divine himself was not one of them. He was just a Jewish-Christian writer penning a particularly vivid example of a rather common literary genre. I would note, however, that her excellent exposition of precursors and contemporaries casts doubt on one of her conclusions -- that Revelation is largely to be interpreted as a cryptic reference to then-current events. Apocalyptic literature, Pagels' examples demonstrate, did have a large prophetic component, and a considerable "end of days" component, and these are often neither closely related to, nor cryptic references about, purely contemporary events. Moreover. the claim that John was writing in "code" because of fear of the authorities is suspect. What Roman magistrate bothered read this sort of stuff? Even Celsus, much less Pliny, demonstrated minimal familiarity which what are now the New Testament books. And if John was writing about the failings of some of his Christian contemporaries, what was there for him to worry about if he called them out by name? John just liked to be cryptic, like a number of other apocalyptic writers, because that is the way they wrote. Nor should it be discounted that writing Revelations may have been fun. It probably gives a fair amount of pleasure to a partisan to see his enemies blown up and thrown into the outer darkness. And the sheer power and imaginativeness of the narrative suggests a certain playfulness. Revelation may not be the best book of the Bible, but it is almost surely the most fascinating.

Some of Ms. Pagels' claims are rather tenuous. For example, she argues that John was a Jewish follower of Jesus who was was writing against the "gentilizers" in the early church, particularly Paul and his followers. Pagels even suggests that John was not Christian, at least he did not call himself by the name "Christian." But John regularly mentions the church, and he nowhere mentions Paul. Nor does he have any direct criticism (or any obvious cryptic criticism) of gentile church members; much less does he suggest that gentile converts are not welcome in the church. Indeed, some of the churches in Asia Minor that he writes to had large gentile congregations, and he surely knew this. And the dates proposed by Pagels for Revelation's writing are suspect. Pagels believes that the book was written circa 95 A.D., although she acknowledges that some scholars would place it 30 years earlier. But Tacitus wrote that Nero blamed "the Christians" for the great fire at Rome, so the name "Christian" was surely widely known and used at the time. For John not to use it in the 90's would seem strange. Perhaps Revelation is a composit, which might account for the difference in tone between its first few chapters and the rest of the book and between the portions which seem to relate to current events and portions which relate to pure prophesy.

Finally, Pagels does not spend nearly enough time on the text of Revelation itself. Although she contends that it relates principally to contemporary events, and analyzes the passages about the beast and the number of the beast and the destruction of God's enemies in some detail, she performs next to no exigesis of those passages which are more purely prophetic, such as Armageddon, the four horsemen (the third horseman being problematically denominated as "inflation" rather than the underlying famine which caused that inflation, which is what it primarily refers to), the Star Wormwood, the angel standing in the sun, the last trumpet, etc. While she is good about Revelations' roots, she is less helpful as a guide to the branches. Revelation is a treasure-trove of haunting and powerful images, which is probably why it is a happy hunting ground for cranks. If one is going to demystify it, it is very important to examine what the author was trying to mean rather than what the naked image conveys whoever happens to be reading it. This requires a careful exposition of the text, and Pagels does not always provide it.

It is hard to criticize Pagels too much. It is generally a well-written book and a useful corrective for those who do not know much about Revelation. But for those who came to the book expecting to learn something new and revelatory about it, it is a bit problematical. Where it is really good, it does not have much to do with Revelation. And where it has a lot to say about Revelation, it is not particularly good.
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