When I read large swathes of Pagels’ earlier books (specifically The Gnostic Gospels and Adam, Eve and the Serpent), it was as an undergraduate, a few (well, twenty-ish) years ago, casting around for material to use in a paper. And it was as a part of my interest in just exactly what happened in the Roman world on the cusp of the ascendancy of Christianity, to which I was not and to which I am still not particularly sympathetic (although the Book of Common Prayer has some nice bits in it, and I like properly old churches), that I read this book. I wanted to understand what was going on in the Roman world which could have allowed a movement which was flatly opposed to what were ostensibly traditional Roman values to have gained power in so little time. I also wanted to understand what it was that seduced the notoriously pragmatic Romans, all without viewing countless and nameless individuals as a monolith.
With my historian’s hat on, I’m not entirely certain that I ever understood what was going on, or that anyone really can. I could talk about the instability of the Imperial seat in the Later Roman Empire, the subversive forces of a cult which did not conform to Imperial tradition, the importance of the Roman army, and the changing demographics of the Empire itself quite literally all day, and maybe come to an answer or three. In the service of this, I came to appreciate what Pagels did in her previous books, and what she continues to do in Revelations. She has again unpicked the thread of the tapestry of myth in which many Christians cloak the early centuries of their faith, if they bother to think about it at all.
And this is why it’s important to understand the history of the last four or five centuries of Classical Rome when asking questions about the foundations of Christianity, and when trying to understand just how, and why, the books of the Christian New Testament were written. It isn’t just a matter of context: context is in fact everything.
Pagels has written a lively and informed view of that trickiest of coves, the book of Revelation, and she did so in such a way that I wanted to go back and re-read Revelation, in light of what she wrote. Cranky modern reviewers quibbling over this edition or that fiddling detail aside, this is an excellent book, and one which will challenge intellectually honest and those of us non-religious types alike to re-examine our views. The worst that could happen is that your mind might be dangerously expanded, if ever so slightly. Highly recommended.
Originally reviewed 3 September 2012.
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