Elaine Pagels wrote: The Strangest Book of the Bible, Visions and Predictions and Politics in Revelation

27 December 2020 | Apocalypse in discussion, Blog, Context and roots, News | 0 comments

Kees Zoeteman

If you read the cover of this book (Viking Penguin, 2012) by the American Elaine Pagels, your first impression is to get in touch with the latest truth about the Apocalypse. John wrote his book according to a Dutch newspaper commentary ‘as a devastating attack on the Roman Empire. Subsequently, very radical followers of Christ used John’s text as a weapon against heresy’. The review in the Dutch NRC Handelsblad states: ‘Pagels convincingly shows that Revelation is a Scripture by a Jewish Christian against followers of Paul’. And thus, one of the most holy books of our time is nicely parked in a harmless corner. 

Elaine Pagels (born February 13, 1943 in Palo Alto, California, USA) is known for her study of the Nag Hammadi scriptures. Since 1982 she has been working at Princeton University as professor of early Christian history. She studied gnosticism.  Her books became bestsellers in, among others, the USA and the UK and she received several awards.

What does Pagels show?

The merit of this book on Revelation is the painting of the reception of the Apocalypse in the first centuries of Christianity, being a rapidly growing movement within the Roman Empire. It is striking that, although Pagels has studied gnosticism, she does not arrive at a gnostic interpretation of the Apocalypse.  The Apocalypse records visions instead of concrete stories and moral doctrines, she observes, but she does not address this phenomenon.  She does, however, conclude that you can only understand the Apocalypse when you realize that John wrote war literature. Still in shock by the Roman massacre (of the war in Jerusalem) in which so many people died, John puts his cry of despair in the mouths of beings he sees in heaven, who are begging for the righteousness of God. This is a telling example of how Pagels reduces the Apocalypse to a scripture that can be understood by the materialistic way of thinking of man of our time. She goes so far as to claim that ‘John created the book of Revelation as anti-Roman propaganda, based on the imagery of the prophetic traditions of Israel, and in particular the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel’. The four horsemen symbolize in her eyes, respectively, the war against the Romans, the permission to slaughter each other, the sign that the prices of bread and oil are skyrocketing, and finally the death caused by plague, famine and wild animals. She is also a supporter of the interpretation that the beast with the seven heads would be a reference to Emperor Nero who reigned from 54 to 68 AD. The number 666 also is linked by her to this emperor. These connections originate from the assumption that everything must have a historical physical background.

John and Paul

Next, in the second chapter, Pagels elaborates on an alleged controversy between Paul and John. Where in the Apocalypse reference is made to ‘people who call themselves Jews and are not’, Pagels reads followers of Paul, who required from the converted pagans less far-reaching rules of conduct with regard to keeping Jewish laws. However, she does not elaborate on the fact that the Nicolaitans and similar groups may have been the ones who selectively interpreted the importance of self as the indulgence of the lower self.    

Other revelations

In the third chapter, Pagels discusses the phenomenon that a whole stream of revelation books appeared in John’s time. These ‘apocalyptics’ concern revelations of divine mysteries through ‘visions, dreams and other paranormal states of consciousness’ of followers of Jesus. In this category Pagels lists several books found in Nag Hammedi such as the Revelation of Zostrianos, of Peter, and of Salathiel. She also discusses a Secret Revelation of John and a Secret Revelation of James, the brother of Jesus. In these Revelations Jesus indicates how his followers can stay in contact with him and calls them to ‘make of themselves a son of the Holy Spirit’. These books depict dialogues of the writers with the risen Jesus. Other books of revelation found in Nag Hammadi, were of non-Christian origin, which led the developing orthodoxy of bishops in the fourth century to suppress these books and recognize the Revelation of John as the only genuine one. In doing so, they wanted to diminish the quarrels between them and consequently prevent them from being arrested and executed by the Roman magistrates, according to Pagels.

Freedom of religion

In the first centuries of our era, the number of Christians increased rapidly, partly due to the inspirations of the Apocalypse of John, which was popular with a movement called the New Prophecy. All the disasters mentioned in the Apocalypse, such as earthquakes, plague epidemics, and violence, are seen as signs of an approaching end time and final judgment. Tertullinanus, a North African convert, belonged to the New Prophecy movement, as did, for example, Justinus who was beheaded in 165 by Rusticus, the city prefect of Rome. Bishop Irenaeus (130-202) also followed the ideas of the Apocalypse.  Rome is seen as the beast with the seven heads, especially because of the many persecutions and atrocities of the Roman army.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon

The Romans see the Christians as the scum of the Roman Empire because they are poor and illiterate and lead a marginal existence. Tertullianus (160-230) mocks the Roman establishment and places the hope of the readers of his Apology on Jesus, whose crucifixion shows the cruelty of the Romans and whose resurrection expresses the hope that Rome will one day be defeated. Tertullianus comes to the demand around 205 that it is a fundamental human right that every person may worship according to his own conviction, because after all, all people are created equal. With this he formulates the requirement of separating church and state and in this way, he hopes to put an end to the persecutions of Christians.   


The conversion of Constantine and how the Apocalypse came into the New Testament

However, the persecution of Christians continued unabated, until the fourth century and took extreme forms in, for example, Alexandria in Egypt. With the arrival of Emperor Constantine (appr. 273-337), who converted to Christianity in 312 on the eve of a victorious battle against his rival Maxentius, Rome became a Christian state and the persecutions ended. The literal explanation that Rome is the beast is now abandoned. As far as we know, the Egyptian bishop Athanasius is the first to include the Apocalypse in his version of the New Testament, no longer as a weapon against the Romans, but against other Christians whom he considers heretical. Emperor Constantine, who becomes patron of the Catholic (is Greek for Universal) Christians, also turns against the so-called heretics among them.

Bust of emperor Constantine

The bishops gradually become executors of Constantine’s decisions, against which stand his protection and a series of privileges of the bishops. The Council of Nicea, attended by Constantine in 325, had to settle the disagreement between the bishops about the divinity of Jesus. Was Jesus a chosen man to be the Messiah or was he the same as God? The then still young Athanasius, involved as secretary of the bishop of Alexandria, will spend the rest of his life trying to use the Nicene Creed as a yardstick for dealing with heretical customs such as those of bishop Arius and as he recognizes them in secret books of Origen, Plato and Plotinus. These books were burned by Athanasius and his followers, but were also hidden in a large vessel in Nag Hammadi and resurfaced in 1945 as the gnostic gospels.  These books, which deviated from the orthodox tradition of the Catholic Church, were ‘not written for intellectuals but aimed at achieving a state of consciousness that leads to inner perception and insight’.

Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius continues to search for coercive measures that can overcome the divisions in the Catholic Church, such as a list of books that ‘teach true piety and to which no one may diminish or add anything’. Finally, the Apocalypse of John appears on this list. Other lists did not mention the Apocalypse. Pagels suspects that Athanasius did this because it enabled him to present his fight against the Christians, who he considers as seduced by ‘demons’, as the fight against the beast mentioned in the Apocalypse of John.       

How could the Apocalypse continue to appeal to people throughout the centuries?

In a short closing chapter, Elaine Pagels concludes that the Apocalypse has continued to appeal to the imagination for millennia because it is about what people fear and hope throughout the centuries. She also mentions the following elements for staying current:

– Not ending in death and destruction but in a glorious new world full of light,

– The conviction that death is not simple destruction,

– Insight into how we could live after death and prepare for it now,

– The painting of the battle between good and evil as a cosmic war, in which everyone can see themselves as fighting on the good side.

The question of whether there may be other factors that have kept the attention for the Apocalypse alive is unfortunately not addressed, and with that, in my opinion, the essence of the meaning of the Apocalypse is unfortunately not touched.

In addition to the above, the book of Pagels can be seen as an attempt to describe her knowledge of the first centuries of outer Christianity in relation to the also outer role of the Apocalypse, as recorded by John.

The spiritual meaning of the struggle between Arius and Athanasius    

Pagels gives the conflict between Arius and Athanasius a central place in her book.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is arius.png

Arius pictured under the feet of Emperor Constantine and bishops, Mégalo Metéoron Monastery in Greece during the Council of Nicea.    

Rudolf Steiner also characterized the fight between Athanasius and Arius as a crucial period in the history of the Christian church (GA 346, p. 100).  Around the year 333 he situates the slant of the Self in the human soul, from which the question arose what the relationship is between the divine Self and human nature. The vision of Athanasius first prevailed in the church. Arius wondered whether there really is a divine being in Jesus Christ. And he answered that question with no. He places an abyss between God and man, he denies the dwelling in man of the divine. And this vision has later gained the upper hand with a large part of the European population. Athanasius saw in Christ a directly divine solar being. He saw in him a being equal to the Father God. However, the power of this vision, that man consists of body, soul and spirit, was taken away at the Eighth Council of Bishops in Constantinople of 869, at which the spirit aspect was abandoned and man was considered to only consist of body and soul. Then in the following centuries, according to Steiner, the Catholic Church falls into disrepair because the spirit can no longer be active in the development of the Church.


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