Apocalypse Then

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Art Institute of Chicago
Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with Saint John on Patmos, 1640

The Book of Revelation, which closes the New Testament, describes a nightmare of apocalyptic visions. These famously include beasts, serpents, a bottomless pit, warfare in heaven, wild horsemen, and other horrors that are only partially relieved by the ultimate arrival of the New Jerusalem. (“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”) The very word “apocalyptic,” which occurs in most modern languages to designate such wild imaginings, derives from the Greek name for the Book of Revelation, Apokalypsis, which literally means unveiling, as does the Latin word from which “revelation” is borrowed.

But what goes on in the New Testament text is far more than unveiling. It is a blend of phantasmagoria and ecstatic prophecy that has defied rational explanation for nearly two thousand years. It was the last book to be accepted into the canonical New Testament, and for Christians in the eastern Mediterranean it did not finally find its place there until the fourth century. Yet it was hardly unique in the first Christian centuries. Historians of the early Church have come to recognize a whole genre of apocalyptic literature in Coptic and Syriac.

With the discovery of a hitherto unknown Coptic library of such writings at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in December 1945, the extent and popularity of noncanonical revelations suddenly became more apparent than ever before. The books in the Nag Hammadi library were admirably edited and translated by a team of scholars under the direction of James M. Robinson, who published them all together in 1977. Only two years after that Elaine Pagels, who had participated in Robinson’s project, introduced the new treatises to a large and receptive public in a book of her own, The Gnostic Gospels.

She invoked a variety of Christian heresies that tended to be lumped together in the general category of Gnosticism. This term referred to a mystical and privileged knowledge (gnosis) about the divine realm and the creatures that populate it. Pagels’s name for the new treatises has stuck, even though, as was recognized at the time, many of them are no more gospels than the Book of Revelation itself. But the celestial dramas that unfolded in the overheated fantasy of their authors undoubtedly put the Book of Revelation into much sharper perspective. Now, after so many years, Pagels has returned to this subject in her new study of Revelation. But she had not strayed far from it in her intervening works on Satan, Judas, and the secret gospel of Thomas. The apocalyptic universe is where she is most at home.

Modern interest in the visions of the Book of Revelation is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the television series Apocalypse, shown on the European Arte channel in 2008 in twelve hour-long episodes, featuring discussions with forty-four supposed experts (myself among them). What emerged from this intellectual …

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