The subtitle of Elaine Pagels' book Revelations is Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation. She is a professor of religion at Princeton, best known for her books about the Gnostic Gospels, a trove of materials hidden more than 1500 years ago in an earthenware jar in Nag Hammadi in Egypt, discovered in 1945.
The book of Revelation, that bombastic last book in the New Testament, was written by a man known as John of Patmos. Perhaps the best known of John's strange visions is the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Just to give a feel for the inventiveness of his visions, here's the first verse of Chapter 13: "And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy." When we visited the small town of Angers in France, Jim and I saw the Tapestry of the Apocalypse, a football field size 14th century tapestry that captures these visions. This amazing tapestry is one of the many depictions of those visions that have been created over the centuries.
John of Patmos probably wrote late in the first century. Elaine Pagels notes that while John was a devoted follower of Jesus, he may not have seen himself as a Christian, a term he did not use. Like Peter and others he saw himself as a Jew who had found the Messiah. It was Paul who became an apostle to the gentiles beginning around 50 to 56; he did not believe the gentiles must follow all the food and marriage requirements in the Jewish laws. This caused friction in the early years after Jesus' death and made John quite angry. In the first chapter of Revelation, John describes the spirit who tells him to write to the seven churches to denounce their practices and describe the dire consequences of their failure to change.
Another great source of ire for John is the might of Rome. The Romans had destroyed the temple in the year 70 and though he did not live in a time of active persecution of Christians, there were deaths of followers of Christ at Roman hands. Because he could not speak directly about his views of Rome, he refers to the Whore of Babylon and describes a beast (with all those heads and even more horns) instead.
The great irony is that once the Romans become Christians and the Book of Revelation is accepted into the canon, the religious leader of the Christian church deftly changes the beast to refer to those who have beliefs that vary from those expressed in the "accepted" books of the New Testament. As Bishop of Alexandria for 45 years, from 328 to 373, Athanasius successfully managed the creation of the Nicene Creed and the adoption of the current canon as the one true Bible, weeding out many conflicting views. Some of these were found in the cache hidden at Nag Hammadi.
This was just the first of many reinterpretations of the beast. Humans always think that the horrific events of their times, whether they are wars or natural disasters, signal that end times are near. It's impressive that John of Patmos was able to write a description of horror that we can ascribe to our enemies, whoever they are. If we are keen to see the anti-christ, perhaps we should look in the mirror.
Elaine Pagels writes in a way that is accessible, even about a topic as complicated and unfamiliar as this. My interest never waned and I would like to learn more about those gnostic gospels as well.