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.)