Elaine Pagels explores the surprising history of the most controversial book of the Bible. In the waning days of the Roman Empire, militant Jews in Jerusalem had waged an all-out war against Rome’s occupation of Judea, and their defeat resulted in the desecration of the Great Temple in Jerusalem. In the aftermath of that war, John of Patmos, a Jewish prophet and follower of Jesus, wrote the Book of Revelation, prophesying God’s judgment on the pagan empire that devastated and dominated his people. Soon after, Christians fearing arrest and execution championed John’s prophecies as offering hope for deliverance from evil. Others seized on the Book of Revelation as a weapon against heretics and infidels of all kinds.
Even after John’s prophecies seemed disproven - instead of being destroyed, Rome became a Christian empire - those who loved John’s visions refused to discard them and instead reinterpreted them - as Christians have done for 2,000 years. Brilliantly weaving scholarship with a deep understanding of the human needs to which religion speaks, Pagels has written what may be the masterwork in her unique career.
©2012 Elaine Pagels (P)2012 Random House Audio
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.
My interest in the Bible, its writers and interpreters and the author's coverage of the enigmatic Book of Revelation. Also the brief coverage of each of the ancient writings discovered at Nag Hammadi and why the early Church fathers decided to reject them.
Elaine Pagels' other books, e.g. The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief. However, I think Revelations focuses more on John's writing of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, accompanied by the writer's interpretations - a little like a Bible study or a Church sermon. In Revelations, Pagels also spends a good deal of time on early Christian personalities and powerbrokers.
The voice was a little hard to take at first, but I got used to it as the book progressed. Lorna Raver speaks very distinctly and with appropriate intonation and animation. Bit croaky for my liking.
No extreme reactions!
The book provides a good, brief coverage of developments in the early Christian Church, and the powerful characters who influenced the composition (canon) of the Bible we read today.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in commentaries of the Bible. Pagel's generally broadens our understanding of the way the Bible was put together--how decisions were made and why.
The conclusions near the end, emphasizing why Revelation was chosen over other visionary writings of the time--and what these other writings have to teach us---was enlightening.
Her reading was clear, her pronunciations very good, and in general she seemed to understand the material she was handling.
I listened to it in about three sittings, and I would not recommend stretching out the listening process. Too much would be lost between sessions. One needs to stay in the "flow" of the book.
I think religious fundamentalists would not like this book, but then it was not written for them. Pagels writes in terms that any interested person can comprehend. I think her popularity has been her ability to avoid strictly "theological" terminology and language.
In this book, Pagels puts Revelations in its historical context and shows how it lies in the tradition of Jewish prophetic/apocalyptic literature and how it may be related to gnostic-Christian literature. She described, correctly in my opinion, how it was really a rather close thing that the book came to be included in the New Testament--still being debated in the 3rd and 4th centuries, as the canon was solidified. Pagel's book is required reading for anyone who thinks the New Testament and particularly the book of Revelations was simply dropped out of the sky by God one day. She devotes a good deal of space in the book to Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. Was he a saint, a villain, or both? Fascinating account--how he co-opted the monasteries, how his Life of Anthony, the book that so influenced later Christians, is likely rather pure fiction to promote Church control of monasteries. Athanasius was responsible for suppressing gnostic writings (and, of course, Arius) and may have been the ultimate cause of the gnostic books being hidden at Nag Hammadi. Since this was the time of Emperor Constantine, Athanasius had to reinterpret the beast in Revelations to refer to Christian heretics rather than its rather obvious original 1st century reference to the Roman Empire. This is but one example, as she points out, of the continuing reinterpretation of the symbolism in this book over subsequent centuries to explain present calamities or to predict future ones. Lots more to the book than I can cover here. I thoroughly enjoyed the it. I also liked the reader--strong female voice for a strong writer.
I learned a lot about the other Biblical sources...especially the other apocalyptic literature...that was concurrent with the book written by John of Patmos, but was left out of the canon.
This is a bit tough to listen to if you are not able to give it your full attention. There is a lot of scholarly commentary. For me, this is a more "visual" book.
Fascinating, informative, well-told
Pagels provides the historical context to make this rather different book of the Bible comprehensible. She shows how the creation of this book and its inclusion in the Bible are part of the early development of Christianity. In the process the listener learns some very interesting history. It is surprising how much the conflicts, concerns, and events of those earlier times correspond to what is happening today. The book is very well-written, easy to listen to, with just enough information, but not so much as to overwhelm. The only downside to listening rather than reading is that the written version provides a wealth of footnotes.
The Book of Revelations is indeed a revelation in Elaine Pagels's understanding of it. Spirited, erudite and engaged best describe her exploration of a long-ago world that continues to inform our own.
The narrator sounds like someones 75 year old grandmother who smokes 3 packs of cigarettes a day for the past 50 years, . Never could get used to her narration and the narrator seem to me to have read the book with a sort of disdain or contempt for Christianity, which I don't believe the author intended. It was in a sort of sarcastic tone. Hard to explain.
The book however, is very enlightening on the history of Christianity. I have learned a great deal about early Christians and the initial movement. Loved the descriptions of the early monastic life of many christian sects, very moving.
Of the books that were accepted into the New Testament canon, Revelations was the most controversial. Elaine Pagels traces the early history of Revelations in the context of the other controversial books that did not make it into the canon, most particularly the books deemed heretical and which were lost until copies were found in the Egyptian desert in 1945 at Nag Hammadi.
Pagels traces the changes in how each generation in the early centuries of Christianity interpreted Revelations, and how these interpretations were used in the politics of the early church. It was these political issues that caused Revelations to be included in the canon, whereas other, similar books of prophesy were declared heretical.
Pagels brings broad research to bear on her subject, producing a fascinating, illuminating, and comprehensible history that's a must-read for anyone interested in the history of early Christianity.
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