I just finished reading Elaine Pagels's new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation, and thought I would collect some of my thoughts. There have been many initial reviews that will, most likely, show greater verve and greater detail than what I am going to discuss here; this is more of a series of notes rather than a review, per se. See Adam Gopnik's review in the New Yorker here. Moreover, three chapters of the book previously appeared as more technical articles, whereas the book is for a more general, non-specialist audience.
What struck me is that the book is really about shifting contexts of visions, particularly John of Patmos's Revelation. The different chapters of the book provide different political contexts from an imperial telescope to intra-Christian microscopes in overlapping contexts that slowly spiral outward in space and time until one finds oneself far away from the late first century setting (Pagels agrees with the majority of scholars who date the text to Domitian's reign).
The first context is the political context of the Roman Empire; it focuses on the enemies without. It is the political context in which John mobilizes archaic symbols, particularly the chaoskampf of the (usually male) god conquering the (usually female) chaotic waters (often symbolized as a sea creature, the Leviathan, Rahab, or, in Babylon, Tiamat) and transforms them into a staunchly anti-Roman message. Pagels admirably interweaves prophetic traditions, the emergence of the Roman Empire at large, the major political events of the first centuries BCE and CE, the specific effects of these events in Asia Minor, and the emergence of the Jesus movement. While the scholarship in this chapter is nothing new--most NT scholars recognize Revelation as perhaps the most anti-Roman document in the New Testament--Pagels succinctly and vividly paints a picture that is engaging and informative.
Her second context shifts from telescope to microscope: competitive prophetic figures and visions among the earliest "Christians" (placed in scare quotes since, as Pagels emphasizes, John of Patmos never calls himself such). This is the context of enemies within. Here Pagels sets up John against the rival prophets he mentions by code in the seven letters to the churches of Asia. Her most interesting reading is how the message John proclaims would strongly conflict with Paul's or, perhaps more specifically, Paul's successors (since Paul would be long dead by now). She specifically singles out Ignatius of Antioch. John of Patmos rails against those followers of Jesus who have given in and assimilated in various ways: sexual impurity (she reads this as a possible reference to intermarriage), food laws, and handling Roman money (idolatry since it has the image or "mark"(?) of the emperor-as-god on it). Most interestingly, she reads "those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9) as Gentile Christians. That is, those Pauline Gentile Christians who, following Paul's advice, do not follow the traditional food laws and would eat foods sacrificed to idols, likely are married to non-Jews, and, what is more, are not circumcised, yet consider themselves part of "Israel." By the time of Ignatius, however, there would be a shift in the tides, as institutional authority sought to undermine or co-opt charismatic authority (at one point, going into an ecstatic state to say prophetically to obey the bishop; Philadelphians 7.1-2).
The third context turns to placing Revelation in a series of many revelations occurring throughout the ancient world in the second to fourth centuries CE, including Jewish, emergent Christian, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, etc. Having visions was the way of the day. She spends a great deal of time, however, on 4 Ezra and the Apocryphon of John, along with the other documents of Nag Hammadi in order to show the range of possibilities of revelatory documents at this time. This is more of a programmatic chapter that largely introduces readers to the documents for which she famously introduced to the general reading public about 35 years ago now(!), and sets up the stage for what comes next: deciding what is genuine and what is not--and who gets to decide?
The fourth context takes the first two and melds them together with the increased information from the fourth: how do intra-Christian squabbles fit within Christian-Roman tensions, especially as one moves to the second to fourth centuries? She sets this up in terms of who accepts and promotes Revelation and who rejects it all within terms of the sporadic persecution of Christians by Roman authorities as well as more written aspersions of Christians in books such as Apuleius' Golden Ass and Celsus' True Doctrine. Revelation would be claimed (in spirit) by the New Prophecy movement (formerly called Montanism), and, oftentimes, those administrative folks (bishops) who preferred administrative authority rather than charismatic authority would condemn this movement and the books they most admired (Revelation and the Gospel of John) as false and heretical. On the other hand, Justin (later Justin Martyr) and others such as Irenaeus would champion Revelation because they saw in its violent and anti-Roman imagery a reflection of what they saw in their own day: "beastly" Romans killing Christians. The apologists on the one hand sought to show that Christians were good imperial subjects; but on the other hand threatened that the events in Revelation would take place (being held back only by the good Christian subjects praying for its delay). Irenaeus and Apuleius, from different perspectives, however, set up the critical discussion of discernment between true and false visions. Revelation would be claimed alternately as true and false by different Christians. Apuleius, however, promoted Isis as the true revealer of divine mysteries, and all Christian claims of vision as false.
The fifth context, as we spiral away from Revelation for the most part, is how the document came into the canon by the skin of its teeth. Much of this material is well-rehearsed from any scholarly account one might read on the books found at Nag Hammadi, except with a special focus on John's vision. Few canon lists circulating in the early fourth century include it...except Athanasius's. Set against the backdrop of Constantine's "conversion," Athanasius builds upon an interpretation of Irenaeus to turn the "Anti-Christ" (which is never, as such, mentioned in Revelation) from the Roman emperor to other Christians, downplaying the anti-imperial aspects of the document since he was trying to court Constantine's favor (except when the emperors are Arian or except when they would exile Athanasius). Drawing again on the third context, we see how Revelation begins to beat out other revelations (such as those found at Nag Hammadi), how it gets into the canon, and how those others are suppressed. We also begin to see another power-conflict: the (more charismatic) monastic authorities (particularly Pachomius and Anthony) clashing with the episcopal authority in Egypt. Pagels looks at the letters of the "fiercely independent" Anthony, looking at the recommendations of the monastic leaders who seek to inculcate experiences and not dogmatic adherence, finding in their letters and other writings sentiments that match much of what was found at Nag Hammadi. She seeks, in this way, to demonstrate how the spirituality in the eclectic documents found at the site near a Pachomian monastery is, in fact, completely in line with monastic practices at the time. Indeed, I should note that one thing I did appreciate about her discussions of the Nag Hammadi texts was an emphasis on the practices they prescribe, describe, or assume, and the attempt to put them into a particular social setting of spiritual reading practices. As Ignatius co-opted charismatic authority for episcopal ends, however, so does Athanasius with his Life of Anthony, transforming the sophisticated, independent, learned seeker into an illiterate, obedient follower of none other than Athanasius himself.
In its ancient, medieval, and modern contexts Revelation would be redeployed by opposing parties to denigrate one another--each side claiming to be the dispensers of divine justice and claiming their opponents to be on the side of the beast, or anti-Christ. But, Pagels seeks to end with the message of hope, as Revelation ends in a new Jerusalem after a long nightmare (something Ron Charles at the Washington Post wishes she would have spent more time on), and especially recovery of those more universally oriented "revelations" as the Gospel of Truth, the Secret Revelation of John (Apocryphon of John), and the Thunder: Perfect Mind. Works that are open to dialogue between divine revealer and human questioner, open to revision rather than the strict "no addition; no subtraction" legacy of the closed canon.
Others have offered various critiques--many wish, for example, that she would have a more substantial discussion of medieval and modern usages of the book, something which she does in passing in the conclusion and partly in the introduction. I understand that critique; but I also understand why she might avoid it. I would, however, direct people to a scholarly (and readable!) account of how Revelation has been used in more modern imperial contexts as Spanish and Portuguese colonized the Americas, how its imagery was used differently by colonized and colonizers, and then re-deployed in street art in Los Angeles in the twentieth century in David Sanchez's From Patmos to the Barrio. Gopnik also critiques, for example, that sometimes gory, violent imagery is just...entertainment and not always political.
I offer a different question. Mostly Pagels emphasizes the political contexts and implications of visions, but at times suggests that through the apologetic mission to show that Christians could be good subjects while not following Roman religious practices, they, and Philo before them, began to disentangle religion from politics. I found this quite a striking statement. Is this a de-politicization of religion tout court? It is a disestablishment of politics to a particular religious form, but to all religion? Her example is Philo's Embassy to Gaius, but that work does not really show a divorcing (however slight) of religion and politics so much as a form of religio-political diplomacy. This is a minor point, however, concerning a passing comment she made.
I also wonder: while texts like Thunder: Perfect Mind, and others, are quite eclectic and were placed in a very eclectic collection, are they necessarily as "universal" as she suggests in her conclusion? I include non-canonical and canonical side-by-side, because that is the most accurate way to reconstruct the dynamic and fluid world of emergent Christianity. But, when shifting perspective to modern inspiration, is there such a stark difference of "open" versus "closed," "universal" versus "particular" that aligns with non-canonical and canonical? Can the canonical be creative, open? Is the non-canonical always so? I am thinking of J.Z. Smith's essay on canonization, where he compares the process of canonization to viticulture (or oenology). We choose one fruit of many to make wine (though others do make wine out of other fruits), but then make a staggering variety of wines out of it through processing, cultivation, aging, etc. We may choose a few books to be in canon, but we interpret them in so many different ways, ways that liberate and ways that oppress, ways that create and ways that destroy, ways that lead to and ways that block critical reflection. Through the process of commentary and hermeneutics, creativity can still flow and transform--as well as stunt.
A final point--and a point that I am fundamentally in agreement with Pagels--is that the claiming of a vision, the affirming of someone else's vision, or the denial of a vision is a political act; it is an act where one is claiming a direct line to divine authority or the ability to speak on behalf of the divine. While William James in his masterwork, Varieties of Religious Experience, sought to disentangle religious experience (particularly mysticism) from any form of authority over another (see the end of his chapter on mysticism) reflecting a broader tendency to privatize religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the truth of that matter is that, historically, such claims of experience and direct contact with the divine have had a social and political effects over others; those who claim such revelations so often claim that such visions demand that they claim authority over others (Paul is a quintessential example of this). People use visionary experiences to claim authority over others, and shape their lives. One of the major contributions of this book is that Pagels offers a fairly thick description of the macro and micro power struggles over the claims of vision of a single book. We see the power struggle between rival visions within the same geographical region in the same group (Asia Minor); we see rival visions at the same time between different groups (Christians, Jews, and Romans); we see rival claims of authority by visionaries and those who deny them or co-opt them in institutional forms of authority. (note: For a full discussion of the intersections of authority and visions, I would direct people to Grace Jantzen's Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism, where she argues these points alongside the gendered implications of such claims of authority of divine vision in male-dominated institutions.) This is just as true of one's contemporaries as of one's predecessors. Centuries after John of Patmos wrote Revelation, people affirmed or denied his vision--usually an eye on whether their opponents were doing with it, using it to delineate who was "in" and who was "out" in community formation. This was also true with major, even universally accepted, figures of tradition, such as Moses; how much more so with contested figures.