Words. They can be slippery sometimes. Take for example the word “revelation.” It can be secular or sacred, and if the latter, general or specific. Many recognize it as the title of the final book of the Bible, and some can’t even get enough of it and make it plural—Revelations. “Revelation” is actually a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, the “original” title of the book. It has been a source of contention as well as fascination just about since John—whoever he was—put quill to parchment. Elaine Pagels, whose work is always rewarding to read, plays on the singular/plural convention that raises the ire of many a biblical scholar. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation is a refreshing change from what I read in college and seminary. No book exists without a history and that of the Apocalypse is colorful indeed. And it revolves around what has been traditionally taught about “revelation.”
The current final book of the New Testament presents itself as a revelation. It isn’t, however, the only book from this time period to do so. Many revelations existed, as did many gospels, in the first couple centuries of the Common Era. Some early leaders of the Christian movement who became inordinately influential decided that John’s revelation would be okay to keep but the rest should be destroyed. And they very nearly were. Some were recovered by the fortuitous discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. These texts have preserved some of the other gospels and revelations that rivaled those of the current canon. It is in her close observations about their continuities and the motivations behind the politics of early Christians that Pagels sheds fascinating light on how Revelation became a tool of manipulation in a power struggle, primarily for centralized religious control of Egypt. Looking at headlines even now we know that it never really worked.
Revelation very nearly didn’t make the canonical cut. Many church leaders of the fourth century believed it spurious and not entirely helpful. It has, however, arguably become the most influential book of the Bible. Evangelicalism is hard to imagine without some kind of end times dispensational viewpoint that owes its existence to John of Patmos. Reformers, while not caring for the book, saw Revelation’s usefulness as a cudgel to strike at Rome. The papacy likewise saw it as a vivid threat against reformers. Those who took sola scriptura a little too literally used Revelation as the focal point of their hope and practice. Today we’re left with Left Behind and the Rapture and the Antichrist, whether they occur in Revelation or not. (They don’t, but who’s counting?) Pagels will give anyone plenty to think about here, and she’ll do it in surprisingly few words.