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Filmed on Monday August 20, 02012

Elaine Pagels

The Truth About the Book of Revelations

A professor of religion at Princeton, Elaine Pagels is the author of The Gnostic Gospels (1979); Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003); and her new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.

Revelations about the Book of Revelation

Probably the most consequential vision of the future ever written is the Bible’s Book of Revelation. If God didn’t write it (through the sainted instrument of someone named John), then who did, and why?

Elaine Pagels has a persuasive answer, spectacularly illustrated. The author of The Gnostic Gospels; Beyond Belief; and Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Pagels analyzes other revelations of the time (they were common) and examines how John’s particular version of apocalypse made it into the world’s most popular book. John had his own agenda. It wasn’t Christian.

War in heaven

"The Book of Revelation is war literature," Pagels explained. John of Patmos was a war refugee, writing sixty years after the death of Jesus and twenty years after 60,000 Roman troops crushed the Jewish rebellion in Judea and destroyed Jerusalem.

In the nightmarish visions of John’s prophecy, Rome is Babylon, the embodiment of monstrous power and decadence. That power was expressed by Rome as religious. John would have seen in nearby Ephesus massive propaganda sculptures depicting the contemporary emperors as gods slaughtering female slaves identified as Rome’s subject nations. And so in the prophecy the ascending violence reaches a crescendo of war in heaven. Finally, summarized Pagels, "Jesus judges the whole world; and all who have worshipped other gods, committed murder, magic, or illicit sexual acts are thrown down to be tormented forever in a lake of fire, while God’s faithful are invited to enter a new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven, where Christ and his people reign in triumph for 1000 years."

Just one among the dozens of revelations of the time (Ezra’s, Zostrianos’, Peter’s, a different John’s), the vision of John of Patmos became popular among the oppressed of Rome. Three centuries later, in 367CE, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria confirmed it as the concluding book in the Christian canon that became the New Testament.

As a tale of conflict where one side is wholly righteous and the other wholly evil, the Book of Revelation keeps being evoked century after century. Martin Luther declared the Pope to be the Whore of Babylon. Both sides of the American Civil War declared the opposing cause to be Bestial, though the North had the better music---"He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword." African-American slaves echoed John’s lament: "How long before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?"

But like many Christians through the years, Pagels wishes that John’s divisive vision had not become part of the Biblical canon. Among the better choices from that time, she quoted from the so-called "Secret Revelation of John": "Jesus says to John, ‘The souls of everyone will live in the pure light, because if you did not have God’s spirit, you could not even stand up.’

"The other revelations are universal, instead of being about the saved versus the damned."

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