The Book of Revelation – the apocalyptic conclusion to the New Testament – has been a narrative staple in popular culture for centuries. Filled with angels battling demons in heaven, the Beast with the number 666, the Antichrist, and the end times, its fingerprints are all over blockbuster modern storytelling like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Elaine Pagels' new book – Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation – considers this vivid and controversial text.
Pagels is a religion professor at Princeton and perhaps the most important American scholar of early Christianity. Her 1979 study of gospel stories that didn't make it into the Bible – the so-called gnostic gospels – became a bestseller. Since then her influence has spread beyond the academic world, thanks, in part, to The DaVinci Code author Dan Brown's interest in her scholarship.
Pagels says the Book of Revelation is a work of wartime literature, an allegory reflecting Rome's brutality at the end of the first century C.E, and its author John of Patmos an observer of that trauma. She describes to Kurt Andersen how the number "666" is code referring to the enemy power. "In Jewish mystical tradition, you have a numerical equivalent for every letter and Jews were often hiding codenames that way," Pagels explains. "So this is probably the code name of the Emperor Nero, who was taken by many people to be the epitome of the worst of Roman rule. Because the Romans had crushed his people, this prophet is adamantly opposed to the force of evil he sees embodied in this Antichrist, this beast, this one with this number."
This allegorical language, Pagels suggests, allowed John of Patmos to express his fear and loathing of Rome, while keeping him safe: "He was an early follower of Jesus. Jesus had been crucified for sedition against Rome. Peter had been crucified. Paul had his head cut off. Jesus' brother James was stoned to death. So it was dangerous belonging to this movement. And Romans were very suspect of Jews after the Jewish war against Rome, which ended in the year 70 in the complete destruction of Jerusalem."
Pagels says the Book of Revelation is still a deeply contentious topic among Christians, and several have spoken out against her scholarship. "Some say I'm not a Christian because I don't share their view of it," she says. One recent piece of hate mail she received: "It said that 'I and the president of Princeton, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Joel Osteen, and the Pope were all going to hell.' That I can laugh at. I thought it was interesting company."
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