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A Revelation: Elaine Pagels and the Jewish Cult Behind the Book of Revelations

A Revelation: Elaine Pagels and the Jewish Cult Behind the Book of Revelations

It can’t be said that no one pays any attention to scholarly books about the Bible. After all, works by Robert Alter and Harold Bloom are often best-sellers. And if you’re in New York, you’ve probably heard about the hoards of people who’ve shown up to see the recent Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, which is based on copious academic research.

But few have the ability to take capture the public eye like Elaine Pagels, the Princeton religion professor and perennial best-seller who has basically colonized the field of New Testament studies. If you haven’t read about her yet, Pagels now has a new book out, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation”, which you can expect to get much attention.

This week in fact, Adam Gopnik writes an engaging essay explaining the whole thing in The New Yorker. And it’s relevant for my purpose here, in this Jewish journo corner, because Pagels’ book has quite a bit to say about Jewish life, circa 70 CE. That’s the year the Romans finally crushed the Jewish War waged against the Romans, who captured Jerusalem. And alas, it’s the year the Romans destroyed the Second Temple; by the rivers of Babylon we wept.

That history is crucial, Pagels argues, because it helps explain the seemingly occult, hallucinatory Book of Revelations. It was in that Jewish War context that Revelations was written. Jews may not know that book by name—after all, it’s in the not-to-popular sequel (the New Testament). But you’ll know it by its content: it’s the book about the apocalypse, in which Satan and Christ have a holy throw-down on earth; mountains explode, seven headed beasts eat babies, we meet someone called the Whore of Babylon, and we encounter many other grisly events besides.

When, in the 4th century, the New Testament was being canonized—that is, when the Church was deciding which books would make up the Christian Bible, and which would be cut—many Church leaders had reservations about Revelations. Eventually they’d include it, since it could be used to scare the bejesus out of any non-believing soul. But dissenters though that it was, not unreasonably, a little bit—er?—much.

What Pagels adds to the Revelations backstory is this: it was not only the X-rated content that threw off early Church leaders. It might very well have been, in a sense, too Jewish. She argues that Revelations’ author was one John of Patmos, a follower of Jesus who, in the late first-century CE, ran afoul with another rivaling sect of Christ believers—Paul and his followers. The epistle Paul, who would become the Church founder, was vastly expanding Christianity’s reach by embracing non-Jewish pagans. Paul said you neither need to be circumcised nor eat kosher to be a Christian—you need only believe in Christ, and follow his teachings, to be saved.

But John of Patmos dissented. While his book, Revelations, was mainly, Pagels argues, an attack against the Roman rulers, who had destroyed the Jewish temple and attacked early Christ followers, it was also a subtle dig at Pauline Christians. In other words, John of Patmos was trying to keep Christ followers within the Jewish fold, not what Paul was doing, which would eventually transform Judaism into an entirely new and separate faith.

As Pagels writes: “In retrospect, we can see that John stood on the cusp of an enormous change—one that eventually would transform the entire movement from a Jewish messianic sect into ‘Christianity,’ a new religion flooded with Gentiles. …But since this had not yet happened—not, at least, among the groups John addressed in Asia Minor—he took his stand as a Jewish prophet charged to keep God’s people holy, unpolluted by Roman culture. So, John says, Jesus twice warns his followers in Asia Minor to beware of ‘blasphemers’ among them, ‘who say they are Jews, and are not.’ They are, he says, a ‘synagogue of Satan.’ ”

Gopnik adds that this intra-Christian debate, long since suppressed by Church leaders and now uncovered by Pagels, is not unlike the debates that continue to roil any hardcore religious cult. His example is a good one: the Lubavitchers’ Menachem Schneerson movement in Brooklyn. “Apparently,” he writes, “when you have made up your mind to believe that your rabbi is God, neither death nor disappearance will discourage you. His presence is proof; his non-presence is proof; and non-presence can be conjured into presence by wishing it to be so.”

But most revealing is the irony he highlights, and one underscored in Pagels’ new book. Though the original intent of the Book of Revelations was to keep early Christians essentially more Jewish, it would become, three centuries later, when it was canonized, a powerful tool to sanction a militant Church power. And that power was used, not infrequently, to terrorize Jews who refused to obey Christ.

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