Saturday, July 28, 2012
End Times: The Bible's failed prophecy
By Sarah Ruden
Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, By Elaine Pagels, Viking, 246 pp., $27.95
The Book of Revelation is a jolt at the end of the New Testament: thrilling, baffling, or embarrassing to many Christians, shocking or laughable to many others. The monsters lumbering across its war-torn pages and its loud rage and triumphalism did not sit well with the liberal Methodist church of my childhood. I was told that the author, the mysterious John of Patmos, must have been a madman and should not be in the Bible. But Revelation is deeply at home in our culture; a couple of verses even supply the lyrics of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” What do we make of the book, which has survived the complete failure of its prophecies?
With her usual sweeping knowledge and accessibility, Elaine Pagels charts the book’s ricocheting reception and explores the milieu of John of Patmos, a pious Jew and follower of Jesus writing c. 90 C.E. Haunted by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans a generation earlier in 70 C.E., he appears to have blasted not only the menacing Roman Empire but also the gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul’s evangelism—whose descendants were the winners in the early development of Christianity. As Roman persecutions of Christians intensified over the next two centuries, spokesmen for the new sect found justification and hope in the prophecies in Revelation of God’s judgment on Rome.
In the early fourth century, when Christianity became Rome’s favored religion under Constantine—and Christian clergy became imperial functionaries—Revelation’s fury was redirected at heretics, or Christians who did not defer to the catholic (from the Greek for “universal”) church now sanctioned by Rome. For 40 years, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, fought opposition to the hegemonic church, banning nonconformist writings like the Gnostic Gospels, which survive as a collection of 52 texts not included in the Bible and encourage worshippers to look inward for salvation rather than to the Church. He found Revelation so effective in combating heresy that he championed the book’s inclusion in the New Testament.