I’ve lived my whole life deep in the Bible Belt. This is both amusing and frustrating for me as an agnostic. Pretty much everything, everywhere is awash in religion and religious culture, from the t-shirts ahead of me in the checkout line to the fact that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a church of some kind. Even the checkout person at the local liquor store isn’t above telling me to “have a blessed day” when I’m on the way out the door.
I dimly remember reading some of Revelation back when I was in high school, and again for a class in college, but I was not in any way familiar with it. I picked this book up a while ago – it was on the shelf at the local library within reach of The Year of Living Biblically, which I reviewed a while back – and so I figured what the hell.
Revelation was written by a second-generation follower of Jesus named John of Patmos. John was a Jew, but a Jew who had accepted the messianic nature of Jesus. He was writing about 20 years after the Romans put down a bloody Jewish revolt in Judea and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and Pagels argues that much of John’s symbolic language is directed at the Roman Empire. The book was intended as both a condemnation of the Romans and a promise to the Jews that the empire would, one day, get its comeuppance.
What fascinated me is how, in the following years, the interpretations of the book changed to reflect contemporary controversies. When the early Christian movement – which was still largely Jewish – began seeing a large influx of Gentiles, the apocalyptic language was repurposed so that the Antichrist, et al referred to non-Jews. Later, when Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and the faith began to spread throughout the empire, the church began to be divided by doctrinal differences and the “orthodox” factions declared that the Whore of Babylon symbolized heretical doctrine, and those who spread heresy were antichrists.
Needless to say, the book has been hugely controversial within the church practically since the ink dried. It made it into the New Testament canon by the skin of its teeth, and mostly on its merits as a condemnation of non-orthodox beliefs. And there it’s sat ever since, continuing to spawn off newer and newer interpretations as needed.
I found this book to be really fascinating, if a bit dry at times. At a slender 246 pages, Pagels does a fine job of distilling the theological and social disputes of the early church into easily read chunks, and, with a few exceptions, the book moves along surprisingly quickly. Overall, very nicely done.