Combining visions, religion and politics in an apocalyptic drama, the Book of Revelation still captures our imagination 2,000 years after it was written by John of Patmos, a Jewish prophet and follower of Jesus.
HuffPost Religion Editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbush spoke with Princeton University religion professor Elaine Pagels about her new book "Revelations" -- what drove her to write it, why the book is considered so controversial and what we can learn from the Book of Revelation today.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: Why write about the Book of Revelation?
Elaine Pagels: A few years ago, people were publically reading current events into the Book of Revelation, and like a lot of people, I was concerned at the fusing of religion and politics. I had been taught that the separation between religion and politics happened in the Enlightenment. But there were people who tried to create a secular relationship to government 2,000 years ago, and those people were the Jews.
In those days, the conquered would naturally worship the conquerors’ Gods. The only people who didn’t do that were Jews. I got to thinking about the Book of Revelation that was written by a Jewish prophet who was also a follower of Jesus who hated the Roman Empire. I realized that the Book of Revelation could be a way to reflect on the issue of religion’s relationship to politics.
You’re saying that the people living at that time were trying to separate the cosmology of religion from politics?
They separated their religious devotion from their relationship to a government like Rome. There is no evidence that the author of the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, read anything that we think of as a New Testament book. I don’t see any evidence that he knew what was in the Gospels, or the letters of Paul, which I don’t think he would have liked at all.
But what he did immerse himself in, the literature that he loved, was Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel -– the prophets. And the book is saturated with their imagery. When he said he had visions, they are really visions in the key of those Hebrew prophesies.
And what he is saying is what Isaiah and Jeremiah said about Babylonia and Egypt. The evil empires that conquered Israel and destroyed the first temple are now transferred, in John’s visions, to Rome, which destroyed the second temple and devastated the city of Jerusalem. So, John takes the same images like the beasts, and whore and applies them to Rome.
Revelation is an apocalyptic book, right?
The Book of Revelation is all about the conflict, the contest between the forces of Good and Evil. The Spirit of God, the Son of Man appears to John and lays out how the forces of evil that have taken over the world in the form of the Roman occupiers, are about to be destroyed and the armies of heaven are about to return with Jesus leading them in a great war, the battle of Armageddon. And so, it is a war of good against evil. It is a very powerful narrative.
What surprised you once you started getting into your research?
The first thing to note is that the Book of Revelation has always caused enormous controversy –- even from the time it was written. Some people said a heretic wrote it, and some people said it was by Jesus’ disciple. It was the most contested book in the New Testament. Martin Luther wanted to throw it out because he said there is no Christ in it.
But what really surprised me was that it was not a unique book. There was a whole outpouring of "books of revelation" being written 2,000 years ago. One of my favorites was called the Revelation of Ezra. And Ezra was a Jewish prophet writing at exactly the same time, about the year 90, and writing in anguish about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and asking God: "How do you allow this to happen to your people?" And Ezra also talks about how God will come and judge the world and send his messiah, although Ezra is not a Christian and the messiah will not be Jesus. But there are many other books of revelation that were found with the gnostic gospels.
With similar imagery, also taken from the prophets?
No, very different, and that was what was so interesting. The Bishops suppressed all those because they were not about the end of the world, and not about the coming Judgment or the end of times -- they are about how you find the Divine in the world now. And some of them are beautiful and remarkable such as Revelation of Zostrianos, Revelation of Peter, the Revelation of Paul and others such as Thunder Perfect Mind that is in the voice of the feminine Divine that speaks from heaven. These books were written at the same time, some by followers of Jesus, some by Jews, some who worship the god Hermes, or using Egyptian or Greek imagery, and some that look like Buddhist texts.
There is a huge range, but what stuck me as similar and interesting is that, unlike the Book of Revelation, they don’t separate the human race between the saved and the damned and the good and the bad, they actually have a universal vision of all people, and that is a very different kind of vision and these were all suppressed.
Were they written at a similar time?
Yes, they were buried in the 4th century along with the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. About 20 of them were found at Nag Hammadi. They are probably late first century and early second century.
When you say "books of revelation" -– is that because they used that word in their title?
A lot of them do, apocalypse is the word in Greek, and revelation is just the Latin translation. Some of them are called "apocryphon," which means secret book. Some of them are called secret books, like the Secret Revelation of John.
Would you say you are something of a gnostic yourself?
(Laughs) Well, in the range of Gnostic Christian I suppose. I really like this tradition very much or I wouldn’t spend my life studying it. I like these mystical texts, I guess I don’t call them gnostic any more rather Jewish and Christians mystical texts because that’s what many of them look like.
What is most dangerous, or potentially misleading, about the Book of Revelation?
As you know, people who live in uncertain times want a map of what is going to happen next and this book claims to promise that. Casting events in the 21st century as part of the Book of Revelation can be very misleading. Although that is the way the book has survived for 2000 years, having people do that.
It may not be the best roadmap for a foreign policy?
I would hope not! This book really pictures the world in terms of cosmic conflict. Jesus in Matthew specified that those who did acts of compassion would be invited into the kingdom of God and those who don’t, will not. But in the Book of Revelation, the good are pitted against the evildoers with those who go into the lake of fire as the filthy, the evildoers, the abominable, the dogs -- when you use epithets like that, that can mean anybody you don’t like.
The way the Book of Revelation sets up the human race -– that some of us are God’s people and some of us are Satan’s people and better off destroyed -- is a very dangerous message in a world in which that can happen. I think these other books of revelation with a different vision of human kind are something we deeply need as a corrective to that.
What do you think is a positive lesson that we can learn from the Book of Revelation when approaching the text from a spiritual goal of more fully understanding God?
What I felt was worthwhile was to see how religion appeals to us. How John wraps up all of our fears into a gigantic nightmare -- everything you could be afraid of playing out in this terrifying drama -– but you don’t see it end in tragedy. It is not like Shakespeare where you have bodies all over the stage, but actually it ends in a vision of new hope and justice and a new world. So, for me, it is a sense of how much we need hope when we live in a world with so many dangers.
African American tradition, as you know, uses it a lot in preaching. People who are suffering persecution and oppression read the Book of Revelation and see that it promises God's justice to the people who are suffering now. But that whole interpretation is very different than the one used by the Crusaders who went out to kill the infidels and recover the city of Jerusalem based on the Book of Revelation.
The book is unnerving, but only if you place yourself potentially on the wrong side.
It does depend if you are reading it as someone in power, or if you are reading it as someone whose people are being killed and destroyed by an enemy who seems overwhelming and, of course, that was John of Patmos’ situation.
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