I'VE BEEN A fan of Elaine Pagels since I read The Gnostic Gospels in...1988, I think it was; she's one of the writers whose books I buy the second they show up in the store, before I've even read a review.
This most recent one makes a dandy companion to Mark Davis's Left Behind and Loving It (LLL, July 2012); Davis offers a compelling contemporary reading of the theology of Revelation, and Pagels gives a deeply informed and persuasive account of its composition and early history. Like her other books for general audiences, Revelations is written so gracefully that you scarcely notice the pages zipping by, yet rests on the deep foundation of a career's worth of scholarship and reflection.
What can we reconstruct of the life and circumstances of John of Patmos? My impression from having read his text a few times was that he was a dyspeptic, unpleasant sort with a strong but somewhat repetitive knack for grotesque imagery, but needless to say Pagels draws a richer portrait.
John likely was a kind of itinerant preacher/prophet with well-developed ties to a group of congregations in Asia Minor (the "seven churches" he addresses at the beginning of Revelation), some of whom he thought were paying too great heed to the wrong sort of people (e.g., "Jezebel"). He was haunted by the destruction of the Second Temple, which likely occurred twenty-some tears before he wrote his text, and by the persecutions to which Christians were subject under Nero and later emperors. Powerful and seemingly indestructible as Rome was, though, John had a vision of a complete transvaluation of values, the cruel and powerful overthrown, the weak and godly raised up, the Temple restored and more glorious than ever, never again to be brought down.
For me, the most powerfiul image in Revelation is not the dragons, the whores, the beasts, the horsemen, and so on, but "he will wipe every tear from their eyes." You can tell from that--and Pagels brings this out eloquently--that John belonged to a community that had suffered terribly, and he found a way to give them hope.
John may not have thought of himself as a "Christian"--some in the early church did, notably the gentiles converted by Paul, but John was probably a Jew (hence his grief over the Temple) and may have been one of the Jesus-following Jews who could get prickly about non-Jews wanting to get on the bandwagon without observing the dietary laws and such. Pagels finds traces of such an attitude in various easy-to-overlook pockets of the text.
There were lots of other apocalypses circulating in those days, and Pagels gives intriguing details about of some--a large part of what makes Pagels appealing is her ability to offer glimpses of the roads not taken by Christianity--but only John's got into the canon. Why? Pagels is good on that point, too. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire in the 4th century, the gravy train pulled into the station, and suddenly a whole lot depended on which persons and which texts and which doctrines could claim authority. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, and judging from Pagels's account somebody you would not want to mess with, was particularly enamored of John's apocalypse, not for its anti-Roman sentiments--which were largely forgotten until the Lutherans rediscovered them--but as a vivid account of what was in store for heretics, a category into which Athanasius tended to lump all those who got in his way. It was Athanasius's list of the New Testament canon that became the New Testament, ending with the big bang of John's apocalypse.