by: Wes Howard-Brook on May 4th, 2012 | 5 Comments »
A perhaps surprising bestseller right now is a biblical scholar’s take on the Christian Bible’s final book: the “Apocalypse,” aka, “Revelation.” As someone who has done my own writing on this dramatic text (see Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now ), it is exciting to see this fascinating book put into popular, intelligent discussion. However, a recent interview with the author, Princeton professor Elaine Pagels, made the hair on my neck stand up and my heart pound.
Pagels’ argument seems to be that the book of Revelation is not “Christian” because it is “too Jewish.” She positions the author, John of Patmos, as someone seeking to preserve a “Jewish” way of life over against the supposedly less Jewish approach of the apostle Paul. And given this premise, she concludes that Revelation became part of the canonical New Testament by “mistake.”
I’ll put aside the fact that Pagels has spent much of her scholarly career seeking to raise the status of the so-called “gnostic gospels” over that of the canonical ones. What I’m concerned with here is her juxtaposition of “too Jewish” with “not Christian.”
There has been a mountain of excellent biblical scholarship in recent decades by both Jewish and Christian writers showing the impossibility of understanding Jesus of Nazareth apart from the core reality that he was completely immersed in the scriptural tradition of ancient Israel. Contrary to the some-times explicit and often implicit anti-Jewish ideology of many pre-Holocaust German scholars, more recent work has largely overcome the dichotomous thinking that seeks to separate “Jews” from “Christians” in the writings of the New Testament. Daniel Boyarin, for instance, has written insistently that the “parting of the ways” didn’t really take place for centuries after the life of Jesus. Similarly, Amy-Jill Levine has written of Jesus as the “misunderstood Jew.” From the other end of the bridge, renowned Christian scholar, Brigette Kahl, has powerfully shown how the “law” that Paul was juxtaposing with the Gospel of Jesus was not torah at all, but Roman law.
As someone who seeks to claim both my Jewish upbringing and my love for Jesus, I find Pagels’ approach deeply disturbing. The message of Revelation is a powerful, hope-filled call to “come out” of allegiance to death-dealing, idolatrous empires and find life and joy in the God-given gift of the holy city, New Jerusalem. Yes, the book is filled with lurid images of violence. They flow out of the deeply Jewish apocalyptic tradition that stubbornly insisted on God’s exclusive sovereignty in the face of human usurpers. Revelation unveils the consequences of relying on human-made systems of power that are grounded in violence and exploitation of the poor and the earth. It proclaims the possibility of a renewed relationship among all God’s creatures, where harmony and true peace abound in God-given abundance.
That Pagels’ popular book calls for the removal of this wondrous text from the New Testament reveals a lot about her own preferences. I hope, however, it will not serve to undo the great work done by many scholars, activists, rabbis, and ministers to heal the centuries of unnecessary pain and suffering that flow from putting “Christian” over against “Jewish.” If we are seeking to join forces in a spiritually grounded movement that opposes “empire” with more life-giving options, we need biblical scholarship that continues to build bridges, not to tear them down.