Canon Fodder

Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation
Elaine Pagels
Viking, $27.95, 256 pp.

Politics is always the operative word in Elaine Pagels’s fascinating excursions into early Christianity. In Pagels’s view, ancient religious texts—regardless of what they may say they are about—are actually staking out positions in a battle for domination. Her familiar script for such political maneuvering stars heroes and villains respectively practicing the politics of inclusion (universality) and exclusion (particularity). The villains are the bishops who seek to control institutions, and the heroes are the crafters of a gnostic spirituality who seek only to transform souls.

The Gnostic Gospels (1979) joined the texts from Nag Hammadi to the struggles of women and other intelligent seekers against bishops working busily to suppress them. In Beyond Belief (2003) it was the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas that showed the divine within each person, while the canonical Gospel of John harshly divided the world on the basis of belief and unbelief in Jesus—and became the darling of evangelical Christians.

In her latest book, Pagels portrays orthodox bishops using the Book of Revelation to suppress the gentler and kinder revelations produced by the Gnostics. In making her case, Pagels singles out the fourth-century bishop Athanasius for his efforts in repressing the Pachomian monks who delighted in reading the Gnostic revelations.

Pagels’s oft-...

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).