Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels

Revelations isn’t really a book about the Book of Revelation. Professor Pagels devotes her first chapter to that spooky entry in the New Testament, but then veers off into discussions of the history of the early church. Nevertheless, she argues that the Book of Revelation was written around 90 C.E. by an itinerant preacher known as John of Patmos (not, as some believe, John the Apostle). 

John of Patmos was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. According to Professor Pagels, he wrote the book as a piece of anti-Roman propaganda, in response to the fact that Rome had colonized Judea and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. The Romans are the villains in the Book of Revelation. The number 666 is probably a numerological translation of the full Latin name of the emperor Nero.

The author of the Book of Revelation borrowed from earlier prophesies in making up his particular story of the Beast, Armageddon, etc., for example, the prophesies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel. And there were many other writings that claimed to be divine revelations. Most of these differed from the Book of Revelation — they were usually concerned with how to be saved, not with the end of the world. 

Unlike its competitors, the Book of Revelation became an official part of the Bible when the New Testament was codified in 325 C.E. It appears to have been included for political reasons. It was useful to the men who were organizing the Catholic Church to have a story that could be used against their political enemies, i.e. the Christians that church leaders like Irenaeus and Athanasius considered to be heretics. The early leaders of the church were a quarrelsome, unprincipled bunch who did whatever was necessary to suppress opposing views.

This is a depressing book. Generations of innocent people have been scared and even scarred by a horror story that purports to describe a coming apocalypse, albeit one with a happy ending for a few true believers (us, not them). To borrow from Nietzsche: “What cruel and insatiable vanity must have flared in the soul of the man who thought this up”. (8/24/12)