Revelations, by Elaine Pagels

Do I Recommend It? No

Revelations, by Elaine Pagels, is not intended to be a commentary on the Revelation of John. Instead, it is meant to be an explanation of what the book is, how it functions, and how it came to be considered ‘scripture’. The chapters can be summarized as follows:

  1. Situates the Revelation of John within the sphere of first century Christian literature, and imaginatively presents how the author came up with his symbolism.
  2. Shows the relationship between the Revelation of John and other forms of Christianity from the first and early second centuries CE.
  3. Compares the Revelation of John to other ‘revelation’ literature.
  4. Broadly covers Christian ecstatic movements in the late second century CE into the third century CE, with most of the focus on Montanism.
  5. Recaps the history of the fourth century CE, including the legalization of Christianity and the development of the New Testament ‘canon’.

The plural title of this book, Revelations, is not to be confused with the singular title ‘Revelation’ (of John) that is used for the biblical text that Pagels is primarily writing about. The plural title is meant to hint to the reader that the Revelation of John is part of a larger category of similar texts.

I’m not a fan of the writing style. Pagels jumps back and forth on topics somewhat erratically. I couldn’t find a clear ‘train of thought’ throughout the individual chapters. Some section headings would have been helpful.

Pagels cites many sources, but where she doesn’t I noticed she tended to speculate more hyperbolically. The first few chapters also hint at a general sloppiness when it comes to describing biblical passages. She regularly mixed up, conflated, or imagined details not found in these texts. It was common enough that I can see lay readers being misled and more serious readers being confused.

She had some insightful thoughts on Ignatius’ letters that I hadn’t heard before.

Chapters 4 and 5 were interesting, but they didn’t really mesh with the first three. I do see how they would be helpful to lay readers trying to get a handle on Revelation of John, not just on its own merits, but how it was used in the first few centuries of Christianity. Chapters 1 to 3 seem the most connected in purpose on exploring the contexts that produced a book like the Revelation of John, while chapters 4 and 5 shift gears into more of a history lesson, and at a much later time period.

Pagels’ book is primarily about the Revelation of John, a textbook example of apocalyptic literature from the Second Temple period. She doesn’t so much as hint at the Second Temple apocalyptic genre until thirty pages in, doesn’t even use the words ‘apocalypse’ or ‘apocalyptic’ in reference to this genre until page 75 (about halfway through the book), and only somewhat interacts with a single other example of the genre. An author who intends to help readers understand the biblical Revelation of John simply cannot do so without making it absolutely clear from the start that this genre exists, that books in the genre employ a common set of tropes, and what key examples there are to compare with the Revelation of John.

I did expect Pagels to compare the Revelation of John to various Gnostic texts. However, of the only chapter she spends discussing other ‘revelation’ literature at length, she spends four-fifths of the chapter talking about Nag Hammadi texts. Most or all of these texts post-date the Revelation of John, and come from a very different stream of thought from the apocalyptic genre. In contrast, she spends just six pages talking about a single non-Gnostic revelation text, 4 Ezra. While this apocalypse is the most immediately comparable to the Revelation, she near-completely ignores the entire rest of the genre. She barely mentions the Book of Daniel (a few passing references in the first thirty pages), and there is a brief mention of ‘apocalypses attributed to Moses, Isaiah, and Enoch’ (page 171), but zero mention of the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, 2 Baruch, Apocalypse of Abraham, or the Sibylline Oracles.

Pagels’ neglect for the Second Temple apocalypse genre is inexcusable. It is bad enough she delays talking about the apocalyptic genre until the halfway point, but she focuses so much more on a later, adjacent genre that it will mislead less informed readers into think the Revelation of John has more in common with Gnostic texts than it truly does. I cannot recommend this book due to this egregious error.

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