A beast from the sea with seven heads and 10 horns.
A 200 million-man army.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse.
These and other mythical and terrifying images are part of the most esoteric writing of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. While it has captivated the imagination of readers since it was first written more than 1,900 years ago, few people have fully understood its meaning or agree on its intended purpose.
Some contend that it is a code book that reveals when the world will end. (“Left Behind” novels are a current example of that thinking.) Others say it is a metaphorical treatise that presents general themes, applicable for all times, about the struggle between good and evil. Still others state that it was written for a specific people during a specific time in history.
In “Revelations,” author Elaine Pagels digs into historical records that she says reveal how church leaders and other Christ followers interpreted the controversial document and used it for theological and political purposes – and not always in the most principled way.
Pagels, author and professor of Religion at Princeton University, is well known for her scholarship of gnostic gospels, 13 ancient codices containing more than 50 texts that were discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These writings, which include supposed statements of and myths about Jesus, are the backdrop for her examination of the Book of Revelation.
Following the lead of most scholars, Pagels rejects the claim that the Book of Revelation’s author, John, was one of the 12 disciples. Instead, she identifies him as a second-generation follower of Jesus who may have witnessed the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 C.E.) that led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. She describes John’s writing, begun in 90 C.E. while on the small Greek island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, as “wartime literature” that fervently anticipates Jesus’ imminent return to establish God’s kingdom on Earth.
Using popular imagery from such prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, John reassures his readers through the use of symbols and bizarre imagery that divine judgment is coming; God’s people will be vindicated. His message, after all, comes straight from God.
But John had to contend with other apocalyptic writers – Jewish, Christian and pagan – whose visions were often in stark contrast to his own. Even Paul, the writer of numerous New Testament epistles and eventual standard-bearer of Christian theology, was suspect. Pagels contends that John saw himself as a Jewish follower of the Messiah Jesus, rather than as a member of a new movement. And Paul’s effort to reach out to non-Jews was not welcomed by John.
The conflict between John and Paul, Pagels declares, was one of the crucial issues testing the merits of the Book of Revelation: “Whose revelations, then, are genuine – Paul’s or those of John of Patmos?” she says early followers of Jesus asked. “The future of the (Christian) movement would turn on this question.”
But there were other challengers to confront. The Revelation of Ezra, the Secret Revelation of James, and the Secret Revelation of John, among other anonymously written documents between the second and fourth centuries, offered their own mystical visions that were used by seekers of personal enlightenment and spiritual direction. John’s book, however, retained its status in Christian communities especially through times of persecution.
When Constantine became emperor in 312 C.E. and declared Christianity to be a legitimate religion, ending state-sponsored persecution, Christians were left wondering: What are we to make of John’s book that we were taught spoke of Rome as the beast persecuting believers? The pre-eminent, Egyptian bishop Athanasius provided a new interpretation.
With various Christian groups violently arguing over theological teachings, he used the Book of Revelation to support his contention that the beast is no longer Rome but demonically deceived Christians. “Athanasius interpreted John’s Book of Revelation as condemning all ‘heretics’ and then made this book the capstone of the New Testament canon [authoritative Scripture], where it has remained ever since,” Pagels writes.
Moreover, “Athanasius ordered Christians to stop reading any other ‘books of revelation,’ which he branded heretical and sought to destroy – with almost complete success,” says Pagels. It would not be until 1945 before many of these “secret books” and gnostic gospels were found.
Pagels acknowledges the importance of the Book of Revelation with its vision of consolation and hope but questions whether similar revelatory writings should have been condemned. They can provide, she maintains, “universal visions” that are still vital today. Pagels’ sympathies are clear: “. . . [U]nlike those who insist they already have all the answers they’ll ever need, these sources invite us to recognize our own truths, to find our own voice, and to seek revelation not only past, but ongoing.”
To be sure, gnostic and secret writings hold contemporary interest in a way that can make older biblical writings seem passé. Still, 1,900 years later and through countless upheavals in history, the Book of Revelation continues to hold its own. Unlike other books of revelation, it remains a source of hope and inspiration for countless Christians and a revelation that speaks to the ages.