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-reworked script does not altogether lack historical validity. Some early bishops did seek to rebut and repress writings they considered incompatible with the Rule of Faith, and Athanasius and others did use coercive measures to secure the Nicene faith in the century of turmoil following the Council of Nicaea. Who were the villains in this story and who the heroes, however, is a matter of judgment, and here Pagels’s proclivities unfailingly reveal themselves. Her reduction of religion to politics, and of politics to the binary opposition between the inclusive and the exclusive, hardly constitutes a balanced consideration of this complex historical period.

She does not ask, for example, whether there may have been values at stake for the bishops beyond ecclesiastical control, or elements in the Gnostic compositions that truly were at odds with any reasonable construal of the truth of the gospel. Indeed, she does not tell the reader that Clement and Origen of Alexandria (the latter one of her heroes for his theory of apokatastasis, which holds that everyone will in the end be saved) were both vehemently opposed to these same Gnostic texts—and neither was a bishop. Nor does she note that the same institutional hardball she deplores in Athanasius was practiced with equal vigor across all parties in the theological warfare of the fourth and fifth centuries.

In the case of the canonical Book of Revelation, Pagels’s script develops some complications. She recognizes that this composition itself was not widely accepted among many early ecclesiastical writers, especially since it was associated with the “New Prophecy” of Montanus in the late second century that was roundly excoriated by most orthodox writers. In the early fourth century, Eusebius was uncertain whether Revelation should be included among the universally accepted books or placed among the disputed ones; he was certain, however, that the composition should not be lumped among the rejected writings of heretics such as the Gnostic teachers. Indeed, Pagels wonders just how this version of “revelation,” so patently inferior to the more universalist and internal “revelations” composed by the Gnostics, reached its secure and, in her view, privileged position.

She finds the answer in the rhetoric of the composition and its usefulness to various readers looking to counter their opponents. After assessing the visions of Revelation 4–21 as anti-Roman propaganda that identifies the empire as the satanic beast opposed to the saints, Pagels argues that the same demonizing rhetoric is turned against internal opposition in the spirit-letters of Revelation 2–3; in effect, she asserts, the Jewish messianist John of Patmos regards Pauline Christians in Ephesus as false Jews because of their loose attitudes toward intermarriage and eating food offered to idols. In Pagels’s analysis, the canonical Book of Revelation proved to be a valuable weapon for second- and third-century writers who found its prophecies concerning the saints fulfilled in Roman persecutions, and its demonizing language useful for identifying heretics within. The argument reveals Pagels’s habit of making a case by excluding data. The Book of Revelation was by no means the only source for the demonizing of opponents either outside or inside the chruch: Paul and the other Johannine literature offer much more and clearer precedent for the practice.

In Pagels’s view, Revelation’s perilous history of reception makes it a marginal contender for canonical status; she lays the blame for its place in the New Testament squarely on Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who, in his thirty-ninth paschal letter to his people in 367, fashioned a canonical list that placed Revelation at the end of the New Testament books as a “capstone” and forbade the reading of heretical books. Pagels attributes Revelation’s continuing popularity to its ability to appeal to both fear and hope; but she wishes it would be countered more powerfully by the other revelations from antiquity that “speak of the kinship of all beings with one another and with God” while offering “universal visions” of “complete and indelible truth.”

Pagels writes an intensely novelistic sort of history. She summons actual historical characters to serve her polemical needs, supplying them in the process with psychological reactions and motives that she could not possibly know. Thus, in the first chapters, John is “shocked,” and readers invited to “imagine how John felt;” we learn that he “begins to understand,” and is “horrified and fascinated,” and “held all emperors in contempt,” and “decided,” was “surprised,” “angry,” and “expressed alarm.” Such elements of pathos are utterly lacking in the source. Pagels also speculates at every turn about what might have been possible: John “must have considered...might have seen...may have had in mind...would have agreed...perhaps remained skeptical...” And on and on. Such a fictional and suppositious rendering of ancient texts and figures falls short of serious historical reconstruction.

In the end, though, historical arguments prove convincing or not on the basis of adducible evidence. The real point of Pagels’s argument is to indict Athanasius as solely responsible for the canonization of the Book of Revelation, motivated entirely by the desire to suppress diversity—and therefore as presumably responsible for all the mischief the book has subsequently created. She asks, “Had it not been for Athanasius, would Revelation be in the Bible?” She answers it would not, because the contemporaries of Athanasius who composed canonical lists—she cites Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus, Amphilocus of Iconium, and an Asian council in 363—omitted it.

Yet while Pagels herself acknowledges that earlier Christian leaders such as Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian had championed the book, she fails to mention the frequent use of Revelation by Origen, Cyprian, or Hippolytus. She reports at length on Dionysius (Athanasius’s predecessor) and his discussion of Revelation in relation to John’s Gospel, but fails to follow through by noting Dionysius’s acceptance of the book. She reports on Eusebius’s indecision concerning where to place Revelation but neglects to observe that his remarks clearly indicate an acceptance by many of Revelation as among the books that ought to be read in the church. Pagels might argue that such “use” of Revelation does not itself constitute or indicate canonical status. I disagree, but for the sake of discussion will grant the point: she wants actual lists.

It is, then, all the more striking that Pagels makes no mention of our earliest known canonical list, the Muratorian Canon. Although its long-held provenance of late first-century Rome has been challenged by some who propose a fourth-century Syrian composition, the list is, in any case, an early and important one, and it includes Revelation while vigorously rejecting the Gnostic writings of Marcion, Valentinus, and Basilides. Similarly, Pagels takes no note of the canonical list drawn up by the Council of Carthage in 397, which also lists in last place the Book of Revelation as among the Scriptures to be read in church “under the name of the divine Scriptures.” As so often, her evidence is both highly selective and tendentiously shaped.

Pagels utterly fails to make the case that Athanasius alone was responsible for the canonization of Revelation, much less that he included it because he sought to demonize the Gnostic writings. Nor does she make the case that Revelation is responsible for the practice of demonizing opponents within and outside the church. More sadly, she utterly fails to communicate to her readers anything of the powerful poetry and prophetic vision in the Book of Revelation that have, together with the imagery of the Letter to the Hebrews, shaped Christian imagination in liturgy, in mysticism, and yes, in a politics of resistance to idolatrous claims of human power. Her literalistic, historicist, referential reading in terms of ancient politics makes no such appeal to the imagination, indeed, avoids engaging the magnificent poetry of this composition as totally as do millenarian readings.

Elaine Pagels holds an apparently unassailable position as the symbol of a more enlightened and benign—read, less institutional and doctrinal—Christianity. Like Bishop John Spong, she seems to some who are weary of the small-mindedness and meanness of institutional leadership to offer an alternative vision of Christianity that is based not on a prophetic vision of the future but on a revised version of the past. It is not likely that any review of any of her books will seriously affect her iconic position for such seekers of a more spiritual faith. But insofar as her position is based on her claim to be a serious historian, she must be expected to meet the standards demanded of serious history. In this book, she fails to meet those standards.

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: View Contents
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