Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation

Elaine Pagels (2012), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

A popular writer of the early church dynamics, especially of the canonical process, Pagels focuses on Revelation, the apocalyptic vision of the end of the world.  She then introduces us to a wide range of other books of revolution written around the same time.  She attempts to show how these other ‘revelations’ were excluded from the canon while John’s book gained a prominent place in the bible.

Pagels sees Revelation as an account of how the Roman empire was seeking to destroy the early church; this is the first issue on which I would disagree with her.  There is little evidence of persecution in the early church’s story;  the conflict between Rome and the early church is a conflict of values and worship, life-style issues; Pagels sees the conflict between the state and the believers, and the conflict in the church between the attempts to produce orthodoxy and to combat Gnosticism.

Pagels sees the struggle between the empire and its coercive political pressure; the early church did not see this physical issue, but were very much aware of the pressures being put on them culturally.  Eg Pliny, governor in Asia, laments that the Asian economy is being seriously damaged by the Christians not being part of the economy (ie buying meat for temple sacrifices).  What I would see as the major confrontation is that of the economic and life-style variations creating serious tensions.  Other factors were soon to come, too (eg emperor worship), but the initial perspectives is one of economics, focused in theology.

This is a book that recycles Pagels’ tired diatribes against the early church, accusing it of stifling the canonical process and the gnostic influences. Reading the canonical material in contrast to the gnostic writings that didn’t make the cut, makes me glad the early church made the decisions it did.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.