It’s got treachery, betrayal, politics, violence, skullduggery, sex, war, philosophy, politics, religion, an empire teetering on the brink of collapse, mystical visions, rebellion, emperors and slaves, angry priests accusing other priests, unrepentant martyrs going to their deaths in the arena, and the end of the world looming over it all. What more could you want?
It’s all in Elaine Pagels’ book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation. Reading it has been quite an entertaining experience, as she takes you through the turbulent early church history, through the philosophical and scriptural precedents, the fight to establish orthodoxy and the canon, the bitter confrontation with Rome and into the often violent internecine squabbles within the early Christian faith itself. And what better time be be reading this than at Easter?
If you thought religious fanaticism was a modern invention, you should read the history of the early Christian church. Followers in the first few centuries were torn – often violently and literally – between competing schools and beliefs. They were urged by their leaders to fight other Christians “unto the death” over doctrinal differences that seem barely comprehensible today. Religious leaders accused one another of crimes, of heresy, of vile acts – usually without even a shred of proof (sounds like some modern bloggers, doesn’t it?) and urged their followers to drive them out, tear down their churches and even slaughter their opponents.
And then there’s the fight over the canon: which books were chosen to be included and why – often accepted or rejected for deeply political and self-serving ideological purposes. Among them is John of Patmos’ apocalyptic and very politicized work, Revelation (not, as some people assume, the same person as the apostle John, nor by the author of the Gospel of John, who also was not the apostle, but rather the gospel is the result of a collective authorship).
Revelation was interpreted many, often contradictory, ways, as Pagels describes, by various schools and bishops, usually to bolster one side of a theological stance. Sometimes it was even claimed simultaneously by competing groups, each interpreting it to support their own views.
Revelation is unlike anything else in the New Testament, and likely shouldn’t have made it into the canon at all, because it came from an entirely different school and culture than most of the other books – but although it had its detractors, it did make it and for what seem more political than theological reasons. Pagels gives us the delicious history of intrigues, machinations and plots.
What’s also interesting is that, as Pagels also points out, John of Patmos was not only aiming his barbed words at the Roman empire (barely veiled as the , but also at fellow Christians who followed the teachings of the apostle Paul. The schism between the followers of James and Paul that led to the Pauline version being triumphant was also well documented in Barrie Wilson’s 2009 book, How Jesus Became Christian. It’s also the story of how Christianity was separated from Judaism by its later adherents and the fights that raged between the pro- and anti-Jewish segments of the early church. John of Patmos was on the pro-Jewish side against the Paulines.
The Book of Revelation is an oddity in many ways, being a late addition to the canon (it was written somewhere around 70 CE but not accepted by every school or leader for several centuries until the opposition had been beaten and a canon established).
It is the only of many similar apocalyptic texts included (the Nag Hammadi library has half-a-dozen and there are others found among various Gnostic texts) but the only one to make it into the canon.
It’s utterly fascinating stuff that has captivated me for decades and will continue to do so. The Book of Revelation has been a source of all sorts of debate, division, and a slew of crank nonsense, for millennia. Some future post, I’ll explore some of these interpretations, but for now it is the history of the early church and its divergent schools that fascinates and engages me.