Dr. Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spears Professor of Religion at Princeton, and a foremost historian of the early church, has written a first-rate book about the most misunderstood book in the New Testament Canon, the Book of Revelation. Long tiptoed around by mainstream Protestant Christians, and used weekly by Christian literalists and fundamentalists, the Book of Revelation can be be fully embraced as a result of Dr. Pagels writing. A short (175 pages) and lucid explanation of the meaning of Revelations, the author fortunately does not do an exegesis (line by line analysis) of the book, but focuses on the history behind the book, its meaning, and why it was included as the last book in the New Testament Canon. Written by John of Patmos in the late First Century in the ’90s, the book is a reflection of the times. And as Dr. Pagels emphasizes it was a time of extreme violence. The author succinctly says it is “wartime literature” and “anti Roman propaganda.”

Dr. Pagels deftly explains why the book is so rich in symbols, cryptic images, coded language, and sharp “attack dog” concepts. She also explains why the Book of Revelations was used down through the ages out of both fear and hope to attack and battle with forces oppressing both Jewish and Christian communities. The cost of discipleship for Christians in those days was revealed in Tertulilan’s comments: “Marveling at God’s power made visible to thousands of spectators in Carthage on an unforgettable spring day, March 7, 203, when the twenty two year old convert Perpetua walked steadily, with focused gaze, into the amphitheater to die for refusing to sacrifice to Rome and her gods. While the crowd shouted and jeered, Perpetua and her doomed companions, Saturus and Saturninus, infuriated them even more by defiantly signaling ‘You condemn us today; tomorrow God will condemn you’.” (p. 119.)

Pagels is also excellent in describing the conflict of interpretation of Jesus’ ministry between Paul and John of Patmos, and reveals again her strength in discussing the mystical Gospels, those that are not in the Canon — Gospels of Mary and of Thomas et al. It was a time of argument and deep disagreement within both the Jewish and emerging Christian communities

The late First Century and early Second Century were also an era full of mystical writings, including the Gospel of John, a result primarily of the huge conflicts with the Roman Empire. Dr. Pagels concludes “… John’s Book of Revelation appeals not only to fear but also to hope. As John tells how the chaotic events of the world and finally set right by divine judgment, those who engage his visions often see them offering meaning — moral meaning — in times of suffering or apparently random catastrophe” (p. 175). That is true right up to today. A fine read.

—The Rev. Paul W. Buckwalter

The Rev. Paul Buckwalter writes reviews of books you can find in the Renouf/Nelson Library.

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