For some 2,000 years, the end of the world has been to preachers what a Canadian girlfriend is to lonely adolescent boys: They keep talking about it, but it never shows up. As Elaine Pagels demonstrates in her aptly titled Revelations, the allegorical Revelation of John — the book that caps the New Testament with a beast-marking, horse-flying, Whore-of-Babylon-hating shitstorm — has long been something of a Christian Rorschach, a fearsome ink blot in which believers are forever spying evidence that their own age's heretics will be rained down upon by the fires of heaven any day now.
But long before Harold Camping, Tim LaHaye, and the apocalypse profiteers of our own age, that Revelation concerned the damnation of a specific set of heretics. Pagels argues that the John who penned the book some 30 years after the death of Jesus had his contemporary theological enemies in mind when it came to the whole wrath-of-God treatment. More a believer in Christ than what we would consider a straight-up Christian, this John, Pagels writes, was a tradition-minded Jew dismayed at the liberties that the apostle Paul had taken with Hebraic law while winning souls in Gentile lands. Christianity at this point was not yet fully discrete from Judaism, so there was something radical in Paul's dismissal of ancient rules governing food and marriage. Irked, John described in his Revelation "those who say they are Jews and not" as "the synagogue of Satan."
John's most horrific visions concern the Roman Empire, whose armies had recently sieged Jerusalem and destroyed its great Temple. As Pagels has it, John envisioned a leopard/bear/lion beast with seven heads, one for each emperor of Rome since the time of Augustus. The injuries John describes on one head correspond to a blow suffered by the real-life Nero, whose name — once monkeyed with in the ancient numerological system called "gematria" — can be expressed as 666, which John calls "the number of the beast." This isn't Dan Brown-style imaginary nonsense; John instructs readers to "calculate" 666, for "it is the number of a person."
In John's vision that Roman beast is ultimately punished by an avenging Christ, who seems more Dungeons & Dragons than Sermon on the Mount. In the real world, Emperor Constantine would lead Rome to Christianity some 200 years later, and within his lifetime, the Revelation was already being reinterpreted — turns out, Bishop Athanasius insisted, its whores and beasts referred not to Rome but to some heretical Christians of his own time.
And so it goes.
Pagels forgoes any explanation of how Nero's 666 became reason for modern-day evangelicals to fear supermarket scanners or government-issued ID cards. Instead, her tightly focused book examines some similar books of revelation that didn't make the New Testament cut. She follows this with a fascinating (and too brief) account of how John's did. The result is an exciting, accessible read, a welcome corrective, and the rare book that offers exactly what its title promises.
Elaine Pagels will speak at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 18, at Grace Cathedral's Gresham Hall, 1010 California (at Taylor). gracecathedral.org.