A bit of a firestorm emerged last week in the wake of a very prominent New Yorker review by Adam Gopnik of Elaine Pagels’ recent book on the Book of Revelation, Revelations. Since then, Pagels has been featured in everything from the Daily Beast to the Washington Post. The virtual commotion is quite understandable: Pagels has published many successful books on Gnosticism in early Christianity and currently occupies a tenured chair at Princeton University. But above all, her book has created a stir because it has asserted that Revelation was written in opposition to Pauline Christianity. For Pagels, when John speaks of those who “say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9), and those who “are lying” (3:9) he is referring to followers of Paul. As she wrote in an article from 2006, “John’s target includes followers of Jesus who accept Pauline teaching—teaching already widespread in Asia Minor, especially among Gentiles”. According to Pagels’ John, these Pauline churches have conformed too much to Gentile culture, forsaking their claim as heirs of Judaism. John, then, is a Law-abiding Jewish Christian who prophetically attacks apostate followers of Jesus. While traditional interpretations of the Book of Revelation have tended to see these attacks as Christian polemics against persecuting Jews, for Pagels this surprisingly represents a vigorous debate between Gentile and Jewish Christians. Gopnik writes:
What’s more original to Pagels’s book is the view that 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.
While a full treatment of Pagels’ commentary is not possible on the basis of the New Yorker review and her published articles alone, I wish to suggest one possible problem regarding some of her assumptions about the circumstances of Book of Revelation’s writing. The primary difficulty in her depiction is her heavy reliance upon Ignatius of Antioch as a representative of the type of Anti-Jewish Pauline Church. Pagels draws a direct line from Paul to Ignatius, enabling her to retroject Ignatius’ view on Paul and his followers. This does not allow a fair reading of Paul and therefore assumes an anti-Jewish stance which is simply not true. Pagels too easily reads supercessionalist themes in Paul and assigns to him a position outside of first century Judaism. Accordingly, Paul’s claims to his genuine Jewish heritage are not read as honest appeals to Judaism, but an anti-Jewish polemic. While Paul does speak polemically about what he believes to be a misguided form of Judaism, he still genuinely grieves over their unbelief and makes a consistent appeal to the Jewish scriptures as a common appeal to his Jewish brethren. Far from demonstrating distance to Judaism (as say, the Gospel of Thomas might reveal), Paul’s fierce debate over Jewish heritage demonstrates a closer proximity to Judaism than Pagels’ portrait is able to allow.