Princeton University religion professor Elaine Pagels, who helped bring into the public eye the biblical also-rans—the Gnostic Gospels that didn’t make it into the Christian canon—takes a fresh look at the provocative Revelations: Visions, Prophecies, & Politics in the Book of Revelation.
How did you become interested in writing about the Book of Revelation?
I never thought I would write about the Book of Revelation. It’s so dense; it’s so complex and puzzling. But then I found I was thinking about a number of themes, one of which has to do with politics and religion. Another part was the question of what is religion. So often religion is identified in terms coined by Christianity as sets of belief. But I had the sense that it not only involves practice, but also emotion and levels of our experience that are almost precognitive. The Book of Revelation is a beautiful case in point, because there’s nothing in it but visions and dreams and nightmares. It helps us understand how religion appeals to people even when it doesn’t seem to make rational sense.
You say in the book that we can begin to understand what John wrote only when we interpret his visions as “wartime literature” in the struggle against Rome.
It is such a strange book, with these terrifying images of the First Horseman of the Apocalypse who emerges and is given power from God to kill a fourth of the inhabitants of the earth by the sword. You know that the people hearing this lived in a time in which the destruction of entire populations was something familiar.
Why is Revelation so perennially popular and adaptable?
I keep asking myself that question. It’s one thing to read it when you’re in a war, but how do people keep reading it forever? First of all, the images are the kinds that come out of a child’s dream: monsters, dragons, beasts with eyes all over their bodies, an angel with a rainbow standing between the sea and the sky. It’s extraordinary imagery, but it’s very open-ended. You can see almost any conflict in it. Second, those images aren’t so specific that they can’t be applied to a wide range of different references. You can see how, when 30% of the population had died [from the Black Death in the 14th century] in some places in Europe, the court painter in 15th-century France would see this as the apocalypse that John had written about.
Why is your book called Revelations, plural?
There are many books of revelation written during that time. I wanted to juxtapose them with the Book of Revelation and ask why this book, and not any of these other revelation texts, was included in the New Testament. Not only were the others not included, but most were banned as heresy.