Elaine Pagels is a scholar of Early Christianity who has produced a series of books, starting with "The Gnostic Gospels," for the non-specialist reader who is interested in the historical and cultural milieu out of which Christianity arose. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 has provided scholars with a trove of information to digest and relate to the canonical material, and it has seemed to some readers, as the Amazon reviews of this book so far make clear, that Pagels is privileging the Nag Hammadi material over the canonical stuff. It's important to understand that she is NOT doing that -- she is creating and explaining a context, both literary and historical, that in fact gives interested readers something to take back to their reading of canonical material that will help them understand it better. Readers should also understand that Pagels is not concerned with critique of the substantive claims made by apocalyptic literature -- no doubt she has her own opinions about that, like all of us do, but her focus is context. Readers who are interested in going further than Pagels can find in her own notes a good starting point for further reading in more scholarly sources, including Pagels's own more scholarly productions.
Coming to apocalyptic literature from later periods -- Spenser, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley -- I find her starting point convincing: the idea that such literature rises out of times of uncommon stress in a culture. In the writers I just mentioned, the periods of the English Civil War, the French Revolution, etc. were such times. For John of Patmos, it was the Roman conquest of Israel and the divinization of the Roman Imperium that Pagels points to as particularly galling. Her explanation of the equation of Rome and Babylon in relation to John's assumption of the mantle of Old Testament prophets makes all kinds of sense to me. Blake, for example, wrote about Milton (who had been dead for over a hundred years) at a time when the French Revolution raised all kinds of fears and hopes in England, and the idea that the Old Testament language saturates John's expression is well established. Equally interesting is her reading of John of Patmos as a response to Paul's ministry. This might be more controversial -- some American reviewers were clearly bothered by it -- but the passages she chooses to support the point aren't dismissible. I'm not an expert here, but my mind is open to the possibility that she's right about this.
I especially value the chapter in which she quotes some of the other apocalyptic material from the Nag Hammadi library -- wild stuff, different in some respects from John's wild stuff! What an interesting time this was -- and I say that fully aware that it was often a terrible time for those living through it, and too often dying violently in it. Pagels might not be the last word on all this, but she is a great opener of doors.
NOTE: I found Dr. Coulardeau's substantive and specific 2012 review very interesting. I'm not qualified to judge in detail either Pagels's scholarship or Dr. Coulardeau's comments, but other readers who really want to dig into this material need to take notice of his points.
on 9 April 2012
The first thing you must keep in mind when dealing with this author and this book is that she knows all Gnostic gospels and all official canonical texts and that makes you feel humble and lost, especially since this book sets the notes at the end of the volume and the quotations are not referenced within the text, or with footnotes. That makes the book difficult to read for someone who does not have the fluent knowledge Elaine Pagels has. This book is not written for unlearned people and she falls under the criticism of Athanasius: she does not speak for simple people who are more or less obliged to follow the quotations as a patchwork assembly and not as a referential critical construct.
The second remark is that it is too easy to reduce one apocryphal text to two quotations and tell us what we have to think. Of course we can get to the documents on the internet, in The Gnostic Library for example, but this book then is far from being enough to understand the deeper level of their meaning. One set of documents is totally absent from her approach, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that is absolutely regrettable because they are essential to understand what is happening in the first century CE. At times this ignorance (refusal to take into account) is amazing. She has James, Jesus' elder brother, killed by a Jewish mob in Jerusalem and she does not even quote in a note the tremendous work of Robert Eisenman on the subject, not even a mention in a bibliography since the book does not have a bibliography. James was the object of two attacks from the priests of the Temple. He survived the first one and went to Jericho to heal his broken leg and came back and he did not survive the second one since he was not simply stoned by a mob: he was stoned within the elaborate ritual of the time: thrown over the wall, forced to undress completely (which is a sin in Jewish tradition, and James was one of the righteous people who had access to the inner shrine of the Temple), then to dig his own tomb and then be buried in that hole up to the neck and then stoned.
Then she does not see that at that time the zealots (she does not use the word) to which James could be connected, with the communities of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where carrying the gestation of the third Semitic religion, Islam, the religion of the Arab slave mother of Ishmael whose father was Abraham, married and the father of the legitimate Isaac.
In that line it is surprising to read her description of the four horses of John's Apocalypse. The first white one is carrying a bow and is given a crown. He is not wielding a sword (p. 4) and he represents political power, the king or the emperor. The second red one is given a sword and he is war. The third black one is holding a pair of scales and this is at first the symbol of justice (if scales were that symbol already at that time) and then it is associated with measuring cereals, but not wine or oil. It is difficult to say it is the symbol of inflation except if we can say that the measure of cereal concerned here for one day's work is really inflationary, i.e. going down with time. But then why are oil and wine excluded? The author assumes what she says but does not prove it, hence presumes it. The fourth deathly pale one is associated in the text with plague, pestilence, hence death by disease. It is a common interpretation to qualify the third one as famine, including in the series "Supernatural", but I do not find that in the description.
A passing remark now. The author never specifies which version of the Bible she quotes and no version is more natural than another. It is a basic negligence and that is more than bothering. It is irritating too. Page 34 she quotes "there shall be no more time" to describe the end of time. The end note says: "Revelation 10:6." I checked quite a few versions on BibleGateway.com and could not find this translation which is not the one I have in my Jerusalem Bible. I found "there will be no more delay", "the time of waiting is over", "there shall be delay no longer", "there should be delay no longer", "there should be time no longer" (this one is King James version). This last one is the closest to Elaine Pagels'. It is obvious that this time means delay, waiting. Time has come for the final day of judgment. But the way she quotes out of context and with no precise reference makes us of course think of the end of time and the definition of eternity seized by Augustine and analyzed by Kenneth Burke as being the absence of time, hence timelessness. But that is not what this quotation means in its context: we cannot wait any more, the end of time has to come now.
Now, after these few remarks, what is the positive side of the book?
First it is very positive because it tries to situate Revelation in its context, when it was written by a certain John of Patmos around 95 CE. It is probably not John the Evangelist, but that has absolutely no value for the discussion about the history of this text and how it was included in the canonical New Testament. John the Evangelist must have been around 15 when Jesus was crucified. That would make him around 75 for Revelation. Possible, but quite a canonical age for the period. Anyway it brings nothing to the text itself.
Her first idea is that the text was produced when war was raging between the Romans and the Jews in the Middle East and that it reflects that time. Hence Babylon is Rome, and the Beast is the Emperor. That's fine with me and that explains one possible reading: it is a prediction of the end of the Empire that is already started and the first act was the crucifixion of Jesus, which she does not say clearly, and the second was the destruction of the temple in 70 by the Romans. Unluckily she does not see the position of James and his murder in that period and she neglects the Dead Sea communities that are dissident Jews who are for the purity of faith and life and for a fundamental fight against the enemies of the faith.
The second idea is that this vision is in absolute continuation with the visionary prophetic writings in the Old Testament, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah. There is also a reference to the Sumerian version of the destruction of the mother of all monsters and gods Tiamat. My point would be that the Sumerian version is one among many and what is important is how Tiamat is defeated by her own son, and mind you not the first one who is defeated, not the second one who is defeated, not the third one who refuses to fight but by the fourth one, and the killing of the main monster who had stolen the tablets of truth and was blocking the waters in the mountain releases the water and we have here a filiation that would have been interesting: the rise of waters after the glaciation and the parallel then falls out since that release of waters after the glaciation is in Noah's flood, and in Revelation it is the dragon who uses water to try to drown the pregnant woman. The allusion to Tiamat is too quick and not anthropological at all and it blurs the meaning of Revelation. It is in the line of previous Jewish biblical books.
The third chapter enters the debate about knowing whether Revelation is really prophetic or heretical. She insists on the position of Irenaeus that considers it as prophetic though he dedicated his essential work to the definition of and fight against heresy and even heresies. She would probably be more convincing if she said Irenaeus is a typical product of the nascent clerical organization that must unify for sure but even more exclude. They unify by integrating people from other faiths and here they use fear (the future divine punishment or the immediate human punishment), the integration of some of their beliefs (Revelation for example) and actual repression which is rejection of ideas and annihilation of the individuals who advocate or simply believe these ideas.
The fourth chapter is the time of persecution and Revelation is seen as a prediction of what is really happening, the end of time, the second coming of Jesus, the final judgment day, doomsday. Revelation then is used by Christians to make this long period of brutal persecution meaningful, in the eyes of God at least, and to build their own courage to die since that is the shortest way to salvation, in proportion even with the horror of the death that makes you a martyr then and not a simple victim. That's where the author is best and most convincing. She speaks a lot of other Apocryphal Revelations like the Apocalypse of James but she does not consider the form of the two apocalypses. John's Revelation is extremely descriptive and it is telling us a story in crude and direct details, whereas James' Apocalypse gives us the Frequently Asked Questions about the Apocalypse. In other words it is flat and boring. There is no action, no powerful description. And it is not so much a Revelation from God, the prophet being totally passive in front of the vision, as a systematic questionnaire used by the prophet who is no longer a prophet but a passive sociological worker.
The fifth chapter is the most interesting since it is the period opened by the legalization of the Christian church by Constantine. The legalization is seen as the realization of the principle that "each person [is] free to worship `as seems good to him'." (page 134) and as soon as the clerical organization is established or starts being established the bishops start a war to impose a canonical New Testament and against all other texts and those who use them, particularly the first monks in the monasteries in Egypt around Hag Hammadi. She lyrically speaks of the great advancement of Constantine's decision when compared with the very first full-fledged written expression of the freedom of religion in the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution. But she has no lyrical terms to describe what follows, which is the witch hunt against heretics just as in the US at first whole segments of the populations (black slaves and Indians) were banned from the Christian faith and this freedom the way it was set in the 1780s only concerned the Christians and the Jews. There will even be a campaign at the end of the 19th century against the Indian cult known as the Sundance. And I do not want to speak of those who do not believe in any religion and do not worship any god. I remember the case of the morning prayer in schools in the USA coming to some kind of a compromise only at the end of the 1960s, and how are non-believers supposed to take the constant mentions of "God bless us", "God bless you", "God bless the USA"? And when in court an atheist requires to swear on the US constitution and not on any religious book, it is accepted because of the very mention there of all men being created equal and being endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. In other words in Constantine's times just as in more modern time, as soon as an institution is legalized its tendency will be to cleanse itself of those who are not in the right line and, if they can, cleanse the society at large in the same way, not to speak of campaigns against people who are not your direct and faithful associates.
But she misses in her conclusion the main reason why Revelation is still speaking to us. The promise of a new life after death, of salvation of the righteous after death, of the messianic Jerusalem after Doomsday, why not. The promise is based on the good one does here and now and not on anything hereditary or coming from a social position. Though we could discuss the fact that the saved ones are those who will have been marked as righteous by God due to their good actions. The expression of hope beyond the worst horrors is also an important dimension. But when she speaks of hope as a "divine gift" (page 175) she pulls the blanket to herself. Hope is not divine. It is a basic human dimension just like fear and language and intelligence and the need to migrate, whereas the need to survive is purely animal, though it may take some human forms.
And her conclusion with Origen who calls upon us to find "our own thruths, our own voice and to seek revelation not only past, but ongoing" (page 177) is absolutely biased by the fact Origen is speaking within a Christian context and the author does too. In other words the permanent Christian reference in the text limits the book to those who define themselves as Christians. What about human beings beyond the Christian religion, before the invention of religion and after the invention of atheism? But she misses the main quality of Revelation: From Chapter 4 to the end it is a marvellous action film, adventure story, horror movie, in one word the best maybe ever work of creative supernatural fantasy. Of course then God in that dimension is just one character among a few others.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU