Far be it for the Washington Post to relegate its attacks on orthodox Christian faith and conservative religious practice to its "On Faith" feature. There's room enough for propping up liberal theology in book reviews as well, as Post book editor Ron Charles proved again in his "Book World" review of Elaine Pagels's new book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation."
Charles, who previously praised a novel that depicted Jesus as a "scoundrel" as a "brisk and bracing story of profound implications" and hailed another author who tagged Jesus as "bully of the world," was predictably pleased with Pagels's latest treatise, insisting that the liberal religion professor is not out to undermine the Bible, even though her central thesis does precisely that (emphasis mine):
Pagels’s new book, “Revelations,” examines a far more familiar text, but it offers revelations of its own for lay readers. Suspiciously slim for such a complex and fraught subject, this five-chapter book whisks us through centuries of religious conflict, ecclesiastical maneuvering and textual scholarship. It’s easy to imagine that Pagels’s obscure academic competitors say mean things about her behind her back — How dare she be so accessible! — but she’s one of those rare scholars who can speak fluently to other professors or to curious people who decide on a whim to learn something about the Bible. Forty-six pages — the longest section of her book — are given over to footnotes that direct students to more technical explorations of these issues. Lay readers, meanwhile, will take this book and eat it up.
Her central point is that this most famous story about The End is a window on the beginnings of Christianity. Those origins were far more dynamic, circumstantial and political than most people realize, and the Book of Revelation played a peculiar role.
Without openly contradicting anyone’s faith in divine writ, Pagels emphasizes that the Book of Revelation was written at a particular time and place: a small island off the coast of Turkey, probably around 90 C.E. after the Romans had burned down the Great Temple and left Jerusalem in ruins. “We begin to understand what he wrote,” she says, “only when we see that his book is wartime literature.” In other words, much of the fiery destruction portrayed early in John’s narrative is not so much prophetic as historical, a florid depiction of the incomprehensible horrors that had left Jews stunned, scattered and frightened. In the wake of Rome’s brutal repression and the flourishing of its empire, John wrote cryptic “anti-Roman propaganda that drew its imagery from Israel’s prophetic traditions.” His “Revelation,” then, was a way of acknowledging recent defeats while knitting them neatly into a narrative of future victory.
More provocatively, Pagels claims that John “sees himself as a Jew who acknowledges Jesus as Israel’s messiah — not someone who has converted to a new ‘religion.’ ” That distinction is significant, because it allows her to argue that while John was portraying Rome as the beast, he was also warning Jewish followers of Jesus against associating with gentile followers of Jesus inspired by “that maverick called Paul of Tarsus [who] came out of nowhere and began to preach a ‘gospel’ quite different.” In this interpretation, the Book of Revelation was part of an early power struggle among Jesus’s believers, an internecine conflict defined by stark terms of good and evil, faithfulness and apostasy, salvation and damnation. Do you smell something burning?
In the chapters that follow, Pagels goes on to demonstrate how — and how thoroughly — John lost the battle of interpretation over the story he left behind. As his “Revelation” became the culmination of Christian eschatology, his Jewish allusions were appropriated by a new sect that colonized the Hebrew Bible as the “Old” Testament, subordinated Israeli prophets to Christian bishops, and recast Jews as unbelievers set for hell.
Concluding his review, Charles cheerfully concludes that Pagels's book may push readers to "send us back where she wants us to go: to the Bible, to think again."
Yet perhaps it's Pagels who needs to dust off her Bible, the study of which disproves her theory of competition between John and Paul. Yes, John of Patmos saw himself as a Jew who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, not a pioneer of a completely brand-new religion. However the same is true of the Apostle Paul (see Philippians 3:2-11 and Romans 9:30-10:13), who wrote in various epistles that Christ was the unveiled mystery of the preceding centuries of divine revelation in the Hebrew scriptures.
What's more, the Acts of the Apostles records that Paul's habit in ministry was first to preach in synagogues before reaching out to Gentiles, seeking to convert Jews to faith in Christ as the promised Messiah (Acts 13:13-52; Acts 17:10-15; Acts 18:4).
Far from being a "maverick," the Acts of the Apostles records that Paul was heartily welcomed by the apostolic company as a fellow apostle and his preaching was approved by a church council that met in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and which probably included the Apostle John as a member.
What's more, Peter, whom Catholics consider the first Pope, hailed Paul as a "beloved brother" who writes with wisdom "as he does in all his letters." Of course, "There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Pagels "presents the sort of respectful academic discussion that strikes liberal Christians as perfectly reasonable, while leaving evangelicals and other conservatives feeling gored," Charles gushed. Of course, Pagels's claim to fame has been her decades-long boosting of long-discredited Gnostic "gospels" which scholarly consensus holds were written long after the canonical books of the Bible were authored. Yet Charles failed to note that in his review, noting simply that "Pagels argues, the Gnostic writers were simply too lovely, too inclusive, too universal to be politically effective" in the early Church.
Far from being a disinterested scholar with a fresh take on ancient texts, she's a peddler of a vision of Christian history aimed at undercutting, not undergirding, orthodox Christian faith. It's perfectly fine for Charles to review the book and recommend it, but he should be more intellectually honest with Post readers about Pagels's agenda.