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Making Revelation a Little Less Weird



Rob Hardy


There are plenty of passages and chapters of the Bible that confound me. There is no other book in it that does this as fully as does the very last one, the Revelation to John. You have your four scary horsemen galloping around and causing trouble, and locusts that have the faces of humans, and seven mysterious seals, and a beast that has seven heads and ten horns, and a woman standing on the Moon but clothed with the Sun and wearing a crown of twelve stars, a whore of Babylon, 666, and angels coming down to conduct cosmic warfare. There is no way a book on such strange themes could ever be plain, and on her very first page of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking), Elaine Pagels says, "The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible - and the most controversial." It has been a useful book in many ways. Martin Luther, for instance, wanted to exclude it from the Bible because "there is no Christ in it," but then he found its imagery was handy when used against the Catholic Church. The Catholics, in their turn, found him and his fellow protesters as nasties within the book. Hal Lindsey made more money than I will ever see out of The Late, Great Planet Earth in 1970, which intimated that the weird warfare described in Revelation was maybe going to happen in the 1980's. People have been predicting this final war for centuries and they are always wrong, as were poor Harold Camping and all his duped disciples last year. Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series has made plenty of people fear that the final holocaustic warfare is going to involve them personally; I have read none of the sixteen books, but if the end times are as silly as the first movie made them, we have little to fear except for bad continuity and getting the giggles. Surely a book that can mean all these different things must really not mean much of anything. 




What Pagels has admirably done in a pithy five chapters is to explain what John of Patmos meant when he wrote the book, and what he was trying to accomplish, as well as to show how early church leaders included the book and excluded many similar works of prophetic revelations. Many of these other revelations were among the texts discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, the subject of Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels. Revelation is still weird; it was written deliberately to be. While Pagels, in a scholarly but accessible work, admits the weirdness and understands that the symbols with a contemporary meaning when it was written can be hijacked into any period because of their lack of exact reference, Revelation is far more understandable under her close, scholarly attention. Even if this does mean we will have to skip the prospect of actual giant locusts with human faces. 




To start with, she clears up authorship. Revelation was probably written around the end of the first century CE, by someone who lived too late to have had contact with Jesus himself. This was John of Patmos, a refugee from Roman persecution, a member of a branch of Christianity that saw itself as part of Judaism. He was on Patmos, an island near Turkey, to get away from those Romans, but they seem from his book to have been constantly on his mind. There was a tradition, starting not long after the book's composition, that it was written by John of Zebedee, Jesus's actual disciple. The tradition was started for a purpose; it was easy to condemn Revelation even back then as just too weird, but if it came from the John who was the Disciple, no one could doubt its holiness. There are those who still think John the Disciple was the author, but for almost 2,000 years, critical readers have been pointing out the sharp difference in language and style between Revelations and John's Gospel.  




John of Patmos was worried that his religion was full of supposedly faithful people who were surrendering their traditions to those of the dominant Roman Empire. He hated, for instance, that they allowed themselves to eat meat from pagan temple sacrifices. The purpose of his book was to warn them what was going to happen to evil Rome and to anyone who was seduced by its traditions. Why, if that was John's purpose, didn't he just say so, like an angry member of the public attempting to write a clear letter to the editor? For one reason, John was writing in a traditional vein. His visions of fabulous monsters reflect creation and destruction stories that preceded Genesis. Pagels shows stylistic and thematic parallels within models John would have known, the writings of Daniel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The main reason John employed scary, cryptic images is that it was dangerous to be openly hostile toward Rome. It was safer to write about a beast with seven heads and expect his readers to know that the seven heads stood for seven emperors since Augustus. He got a little more specific saying that there was a person with the number six hundred and sixty-six. This mysterious number can be calculated out of words in many different ways; if A = 99, and B = 100, and so on, the letters in Hitler add up to 666, but then, too, Ronald Wilson Reagan had 6 and 6 and 6 letters in his name. It's a number-and-letter game people have been playing for centuries, but Pagels says there is general agreement now that the numbers nicely add up, using a numerical system familiar to Jews at the time, to the imperial name of Nero. Pagels nicely sums up the advantages and disadvantages of John's symbolic style: "Because John offers his Revelation in the language of dreams and nightmares, language that is 'multivalent,' countless people for thousands of years have been able to see their own conflicts, fears, and hopes reflected in his prophecies. And because he speaks from his convictions about divine justice, many readers have found reassurance in his conviction that there is meaning in history - even when he does not say exactly what the meaning is - and that there is hope."  




John wasn't the only one writing in this style at the time, and the finds at Nag Hammadi show plenty of other people being hit by the religious thunderbolt to produce their own revelations. Pagels says that many of these Gnostic writers had a tone of loving universality. They may have been aiming at a more spiritually elite group than John's broader audience, but they stressed spiritual discipline, study, and prayer, something like esoteric Buddhist teachings. The messages were sweet but not politically useful, whereas John has had his political uses from his time all the way to our own. The great champion of John's text was Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria. (It is important that people remember that human beings were responsible for what got included in the Bible and what got left out, and unless you feel that there was some divine spirit making such choices perfect, then different choices could have been made.) Athanasius, too, insisted that Revelation came from John of Zebedee, in his argument for its validity and inclusion. Athanasius was active in a time after Constantine had accepted Christianity within Rome, but Athanasius could interpret Revelation not as a hammer against Rome, but against, well, anyone who didn't share Athanasius's particular Christian views, like those Arians and believers in Origen, and other heretics and schismatics of the time. Athanasius was able to get many Christians to accept only the books he listed to be included in the New Testament, but he also required acceptance of the Nicene Creed, and he enormously increased the power and authority of the Catholic clergy. 




It's clear that Pagels has lent her ear to the more humane, less militaristic, but non-canonical prophecies. Her description here, however, is of Revelation as a political document of its time, used for power plays by the founders of the church. We are still seeing it used in this way, not to mention its use as a basis for bad movies. 




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