Elaine Pagels' books on early Christianity introduce the lay reader to a concept familiar to almost any seminarian or graduate student of religion--that is, that the development of early Christianity into modern doctrinal mainstream Western Christianity was far from inevitable. Certainly many readers will be aware of much later fissures within the body of Christianity, including the 11th century split between the Western Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, the 15th century rise of Protestantism, the 19th century birth of Mormonism and the 20th century advent of Pentecostalism. What may not be so well known is the wide diversity of belief and practice that existed within the growing Christian movement during its first few centuries.
Recent archeological discoveries, most notably the Nag Hammadi library and the Dead Sea Scrolls, both discovered in the mid-20th century, have just begun to reveal the diversity within Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity in the centuries immediately preceding and after the time of Christ. Pagels relies on these texts, as well as canonical Christian scripture, to explore in a highly accessible manner the historical context within which the the book of Revelations was written and the choices made at the many forks in the road along the way to the establishment of modern creedal Christianity.
Among the issues discussed in this book are: the eventual conflation (very probably erroneous) of the author of the book of Revelations with the apostle John; likely sources of the use of imagery in the book; the undercurrent in Revelations of antipathy towards the apostle Paul's inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian movement without requiring Torah obedience on their part; changing understandings of what was meant by "the beast"; the use of the book to suppress perceived heresies in order to consolidate Christianity in a Constantinian world; the controversial nature of the book from the time of its writing and the fact that it only made it into the Christian canon by the narrowest of margins. Pagels explains how John's was only one of many apocalyptic writings extant at the time, analyses the differences and similarities between his and examples of the others, and describes the process which ultimately led to John's book's inclusion in the canon
Pagels, a Christian herself, does not write with the intention of discrediting or diminishing Christianity, but rather to open up our understanding of the faith as a living and dynamic process. Those who have become disillusioned with established Christianity may find new inspiration here and those committed to modern Christian doctrine may find food for thought as well as a new appreciation for the complexities that went into the development of their religion. Whatever one's background, this book offers a fascinating insight into the growth of what was essentially a spiritual movement into the established global religion with which we are familiar today.