Elaine Pagels the Revelator
Elaine Pagels spoke for the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco on August 20, 2012.
I have been having a lively time lately studying early Christianity, which featured a fascinating diversity of beliefs before it was extruded and compressed into its narrow canonical form. I recently reviewed Henry Chadwick’s classic history of early Christianity, and have been studying the medieval mystics Pseudo-Dionysius and Eriugena and their debt to the Greek philosopher Plotinus (check out this terrific lecture on Eriugena by Willemien Otten). I’ll have more to say soon on the Neoplatonic bridge that links Hinduism and Buddhism to Christian mysticism.
In the context of this exciting period of study, it was my great good fortune to see a lecture and lengthy Q&A by one of the world’s best-known scholars of Gnosticism and early Christianity, Elaine Pagels.
Hosted by the Long Now Foundation, Professor Pagels delivered a rapid and exhilirating summary of her recently-published Revelations, a study of the Revelation of John and other extra-canonical books of Revelation.
Pagels argues that the fantastic imagery of John’s Revelation can be interpreted in the light of Roman political art as an allegory expressing the plight of Christian refugees fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Titus in 70 CE.
To the right you can see a contemporaneous representation of the defeat of Jerusalem. It is engraved on the interior of the Triumphal Arch of Titus, which stands to this day in the Roman Forum. The arch may have been built by the forced labor of Jewish slaves who were brought to Rome after the war.
The destruction of Jerusalem, and especially of the Temple, was a traumatic event for the entire Judeo-Christian world. It was right around this time that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were first written down. These gospels teach that a period of destruction and chaos will precede the triumphant return of Jesus and the end of history.
The gospels appear to have incorporated recent history into their prophetic vision. Mark, for example, says:
And as [Christ] went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! And Jesus answering said unto them, seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down. (Mark 13:1-2)
Compare to this account of the destruction of Jerusalem recorded by the historian Flavius Josephus:
And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it. (The Jewish War, VI 1)
What we seem to have in the Synoptic Gospels, then, is an account of Christ’s ministry occurring after the destruction of the Temple, which features Christ predicting the Temple’s destruction, and then immediately moving into a discourse about the End Times (q.v. Mark 13:3 ff.).
John’s Revelation also drew from the prophetic language of Ezekiel, Isiah, and Daniel to interpret the disastrous loss of Jerusalem as a sign of Christ’s immanent return.
As the centuries rolled on and history did not end, the book’s images of war and destruction lost their fixed historical meaning and began to serve for Christians as a general symbol for worldly chaos and suffering, one which could be interpolated onto any large-scale conflict or disaster. The image retains its power, Pagels believes, in part because calamity is regarded as a prelude to victory and resolution. Any defeated or suffering people can look to the story as an image of hope.
However, she is critical of the book’s distinctly dualistic cast, which divides the world into two big groups, the elect and the damned. This way of thinking, Pagels argues, has caused a lot of problems in the history of the church and a lot of personal pain. She recalls her own childhood estrangement from an evangelical church after being told that her Jewish friend was going to Hell.
Pagels favors Christ’s teaching in Mark, that those who perform compassionate acts will be welcomed into heaven, over Revelation‘s vision of dirty, accursed, promiscuous people who will be cast into the Lake of Fire.
The book has always been controversial and was not widely accepted even in its day. Of the several competing early versions of the canon which we still have, she notes, only one of them included Revelation – that of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. His redaction happens to be the one which was eventually accepted by the Latin church.
The lecture concluded with a long Q&A moderated by Stuart Brand, co-chair of the Long Now foundation.
Long Now is generally wary of religious topics, Brand noted, as religions tend to pick sides, and the Foundation does not like to do that. Now, to me, that actually sounds a lot like picking a side – especially since he gave no comparable disclaimer when he introduced Sam Harris in 2005. Harris’s electrifying attack on religious thinking can be heard here. I reviewed his book The End of Faith here.
During one interesting exchange, Brand asked Pagels to play the part of redactor and tell us what books she would include in HER Bible. She extemporaneously suggested Genesis, Exodus, the prophets, the Synoptic Gospels, the gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdelene, Thunder Perfect Mind, and Trimorphic Protennoia.
All pictures (C) Barnaby Thieme.