Most people have heard that the common scholarly reading of the The Book of Revelation understands it as a veiled critique of the political order of the end of the 1st Century. The apocalyptic genre was often used in that day to say what was not safe to say, to speak truth to power. But a new book by Elaine Pagel’s argues that the critique was not of the Roman Empire, but of the Pauline Church’s decision to allow Gentiles to become Christian.
A review of Pagel’s book “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation” in the New Yorker this week lays out Pagel’s argument early on:
“[…]Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic. That is, it was written by an expatriate follower of Jesus who wanted the movement to remain within an entirely Jewish context, as opposed to the “Christianity” just then being invented by St. Paul, who welcomed uncircumcised and trayf-eating Gentiles into the sect. At a time when no one quite called himself “Christian,” in the modern sense, John is prophesying what would happen if people did. That’s the forward-looking worry in the book. “In retrospect, we can see that John stood on the cusp of an enormous change—one that eventually would transform the entire movement from a Jewish messianic sect into ‘Christianity,’ a new religion flooded with Gentiles,” Pagels writes. “But since this had not yet happened—not, at least, among the groups John addressed in Asia Minor—he took his stand as a Jewish prophet charged to keep God’s people holy, unpolluted by Roman culture. So, John says, Jesus twice warns his followers in Asia Minor to beware of ‘blasphemers’ among them, ‘who say they are Jews, and are not.’ They are, he says, a ‘synagogue of Satan.’ ” Balaam and Jezebel, named as satanic prophets in Revelation, are, in this view, caricatures of “Pauline” Christians, who blithely violated Jewish food and sexual laws while still claiming to be followers of the good rabbi Yeshua. Jezebel, in particular—the name that John assigns her is that of an infamous Canaanite queen, but she’s seen preaching in the nearby town of Thyatira—suggests the women evangelists who were central to Paul’s version of the movement and anathema to a pious Jew like John. She is the original shiksa goddess. (“When John accuses ‘Balaam’ and ‘Jezebel’ of inducing people to ‘eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication,’ he might have in mind anything from tolerating people who engage in incest to Jews who become sexually involved with Gentiles or, worse, who marry them,” Pagels notes.) The scarlet whores and mad beasts in Revelation are the Gentile followers of Paul—and so, in a neat irony, the spiritual ancestors of today’s Protestant evangelicals.
Pagels shows persuasively that the Jew/non-Jew argument over the future of the Jesus movement, the real subject of Revelation, was much fiercer than later Christianity wanted to admit. The first-century Jesus movement was torn apart between Paul’s mission to the Gentiles—who were allowed to follow Jesus without being circumcised or eating kosher—and the more strictly Jewish movement tended by Jesus’ brothers in Jerusalem. The Jesus family was still free to run a storefront synagogue in Jerusalem devoted to his cult, and still saw the Jesus or “Yeshua” movement within the structure of dissenting Judaisms, all of which suggests the real tone of the movement in those first-century years—something like the gingerly, ambiguous, now-he-is, now-he-isn’t messianic claims of the Lubavitchers’ Menachem Schneerson movement, in Brooklyn. “On one side are movement officials who say the promotion of Judaism throughout the world is the heart of continuing Schneerson’s work,” the Washington Post reported several years ago. “On the other are the messianists, whose passion is preparing the world for the coming of Schneerson himself. They are two distinct missions from within one movement—each in the name of the same man.” Apparently, when you have made up your mind to believe that your rabbi is God, neither death nor disappearance will discourage you. His presence is proof; his non-presence is proof; and non-presence can be conjured into presence by wishing it to be so. (“At recent Sabbath services, an older woman along the front row of the women’s section smiled and pointed to the chair. ‘He is Moshiach,’ she said, using the Hebrew word for messiah. ‘We can’t see him with our eyes, but that doesn’t mean he’s not here. He is.”) The two approaches—the Pauline, which says he’s already here in our visions; the “Johannine,” which says he’ll come back if we stay true to our practice—seem to be the pillars of any messianic movement.”
This line of reasoning does sort of echo the idea that Paul invented Christianity, though in a more sophisticated way than you often hear it. But the idea that the tension between the Jewish and Greek converts in the early days of the Jesus movement was much greater than is generally acknowledged in the New Testament is worth pondering. Certainly it would help to explain the reluctance of the Gentile Christian community to respond to the needs of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem, and the way the Ebionites pass from history in a relatively unremarked way.
NPR has an interview with Pagel’s about her book too.
Take some time to read the whole review and let us know what you think. Or have you read the book already?