Whenever I refer to the Book of Revelations in the presence of my wife, she corrects me by reminding me that it's a singular revelation, not plural. As usual she is correct. But I don't appreciate being corrected, so I was glad to see, at first glance, what appeared to be Elaine Pagels agreeing with my use of the plural form of the word. As it turns out, Pagles is writing about multiple revelations. The book describes the literary (as well as political and social) contexts within which the canonical book Revelation (Apocalypse of John) was written and preserved. This includes discussion of other ancient narratives of visions and prophecy, both canonical and non-canonical. Pagles is a scholar who was very much involved in the translation of the Nag Hammadi texts which were discovered in 1948, and is thus knowledgeable of the variety of religious texts available during the first three centuries of the Christian era.
Pagels agrees with other biblical scholars that the intent of John of Patmos, author of Revelation, was to write an anti-Roman propaganda treatise.
"What John did in the Book of Revelation, among other things, was create anti-Roman propaganda that drew its imagery from Israel’s prophetic traditions--above all, the writing of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel." (p.16)
However, Pagels' understanding of to whom the book is addressed is different from my previous understanding. According to Pagels, the warnings contained in the messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern western Turkey) were aimed against second generation descendants of the gentile converts of the Apostle Paul (i.e. those who "say they are Jews and are not"). John of Patmos was a messianic Jew who believed in strict observance of Jewish laws and did not approve of the relatively loose standards of Paul's gentile converts. The irony is that he used words of such obscure meanings that few people (Pagels excepted) in subsequent generations understood toward whom his barbs were directed. If John of Patmos were brought back to life today he would be shocked to learn that his book was combined with the letters written by Paul and titled The New Testament to served as sacred Christian scriptures.
Prior to Constantine it was quite clear to early readers, especially those familiar with Hebrew scriptures, that the Revelation of John of Patmos was intended to be anti-Roman. The last thing John would have expected happened when Constantine came to power and made Christianity a protected and preferred religion. It was obvious at that point that the "Whore of Babylon" had to be something other than the Roman Empire. It didn't take long to figure out who it did refer to--anybody who didn't sign on to the Nicene Creed.
Pagels provides interesting speculations about what it would have been like to be present in the monasteries near Nag Hammadi during the third century. She describes how the various writings found at Nag Hammadi could have been used and studied. She also describes the long battle of Athanasius of Alexandria to limit Christian literature to his list of acceptable books which matches today's New Testament canon. It's interesting to note that most of the contemporaries of Athanasius agreed with his list of books except that they did not include the book of Revelation. As it turned out the book of Revelation was found to be a convenient tool with which to attack one's enemies. Just about every internal church controversy since that time has resulted in the opposing sides calling each other the "Whore of Babylon."
A couple of additional items I learned from this book about "The Revelation of John" are the following:
1. It is the only book in the New Testament where the writer claims divine inspiration of his writing.
2. It's the only book in the NT where the writer warns copyist not to make any changes and not to add anything to his writing.
That second item is what makes it the ideal book to place at the end of the list books for the New Testament canon.