Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelations
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The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible—and the most controversial.
Instead of stories and moral teaching, it offers only visions— dreams and nightmares. And although few people say they understand its powerful images and prophecies, the book has been wildly popular among readers for two thousand years. Even today, countless people throughout the world turn to it to find meaning, and many Christian groups claim to see its prophecies of divine judgment being fulfilled before their eyes. Millions fear being “left behind” when the end comes, as Tim LaHaye’s best-selling book series warns, and believe that they are seeing its prophesied battles playing out in catastrophic events of recent history. Its visions of heaven and hell weave through literature from Milton’s Paradise Lost to the poems of William Butler Yeats and the stories of James Baldwin, and have inspired music ranging from “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and African American spirituals to the Quartet for the End of Time, which French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote and first performed in a Nazi prison camp. Filmmakers and artists today graphically picture its visions, as Michelangelo, Goya, Bosch, Blake, and Picasso did before them. Christians in America have identified with its visions of cosmic war since the 1600s, when many immigrating to the New World believed they had arrived in the “new Jerusalem” promised in Revelation. Many have seen America as a “redeemer nation” that is to bring in the millennium, while others see its present military and economic system as evil Babylon. Political rhetoric still appeals to our nation’s sense of divine destiny—or damns America for its sins.
How did this book speak to people when it was written two thousand years ago, and how does it continue to do so today? These questions led to this book, for, whether we love or hate it, the Book of Revelation speaks to something deep in human nature. I began this writing during a time of war, when some who advocated war claimed to find its meaning in Revelation, which was itself written in the aftermath of war. Exploring how this book has fascinated readers for two thousand years tells us much about ourselves and about how religion evokes such powerful responses— for better and for worse— to this day.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Revelations by Elaine Pagels. Copyright © 2012 by Elaine Pagels.
Through the bestselling books of Elaine Pagels, thousands of readers have come to know and treasure the suppressed biblical texts known as the Gnostic Gospels. As one of the world’s foremost religion scholars, she has been a pioneer in interpreting these books and illuminating their place in the early history of Christianity. Here, however, she tackles a text that is firmly, dramatically within the New Testament canon: The Book of Revelation, the surreal apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. It is the Bible’s strangest and most controversial text, one that is devoid of stories or moral teaching, offering only visions—“dreams and nightmares,” in Pagels’ words. Where did it come from, and what has given it such enduring popularity?
In this startling and timely book, Pagels returns The Book of Revelation to its historical origin, written as its author, John of Patmos, took aim at the Roman Empire after what is now known as “the Jewish War,” in 66 CE. Militant Jews in Jerusalem, fired with religious fervor, had waged an all-out war against Rome’s occupation of Judea; their defeat resulted in the desecration of Jerusalem and its Great Temple. Pagels persuasively interprets Revelation as a scathing attack on the decadence of Rome. Soon after, however, a new sect known as “Christians” seized on John’s text as a weapon against heresy and infidels of all kinds—Jews, and even Christians who dissented from their increasingly rigid doctrines and hierarchies.
Pagels shows how the Book of Revelation has been used as a powerful religious weapon over the past two millennia. Martin Luther wanted to remove it from the canon, claiming “there is no Christ in it”—until he realized how he could use its powerful imagery against the Catholic Church. Catholic apologists turned it back against Luther and other “protesting” Christians. Christians in America have identified with its vision of cosmic war since the 1600s, when many immigrating to the New World believed they had arrived in the “new Jerusalem” promised in Revelation. Pagels also uses today’s religious landscape to reflect on the past. In a time when global religious violence surges, Revelations explores how often those in power throughout history have sought to force “God’s enemies” to submit or be killed.
Revelations offers not only an engrossing historical odyssey, but a powerful exploration of the roots of dissent, violence and division in the world’s religions, as well as its more humanistic possibilities. As Pagels shows, understanding how this book has fascinated readers for two thousand years tells us much about ourselves, and about how religion evokes such powerful responses—for better and for worse—to this day.
Hardcover Book : 256 pages
Publisher: Viking Penguin/Div. of Penguin Putnam ( March 06, 2012 )
Item #: 13-499034
Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.25 x 0.64inches
Product Weight: 11.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
Elaine Pagel's book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation" is a concise, interesting, and very readable book about the origins and messages of the Book of Revelations and why this book, rather than some of the other apocalyptic works, was included in the Bible. For example, she talks about an ancient Gnostic writing called the Gospel of Truth and brings up an interesting point: this Gospel, like the New Testament Gospel of John, pictures Jesus' crucifixion as itself a revelation--one that reveals God's love and shows us who we really are. She then writes that those readers reflecting on the Gospel of Truth might also wonder about the question that opens the next writing--a question, she says, many Christians ask to this day: Is it necessary to believe that Jesus was actually raised from the dead? Anyone struggling with this question would know, of course, that certain disciples had said they HAD seen Jesus alive after his death and that certain gospel stories suggest that he had come back physically.
Without giving away any more to the reader, I will conclude by saying that this small book provides "revelations" about how it came to be, dealing with the history of the church and the Roman Emperor Constantine's declaring that Christianity would be the official religion of the Roman Empire. Anyone interested in the subject of Revelations, and many others, will enjoy this writing, well-written and not at all condescending to the average reader.
Reviewer: Peter C
Revelations continues to show other scholars how it should be done. Her explanations of the origins, contemporaneous understanding and effect of these writings provide the interested non-scholar an excellent basis for gaining the proper meaning of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted Biblical literature. Her writing is concise but thorough and, as in her previous works, interesting and thought provoking.
Reviewer: Tom B
Elaine Pagels' latest work follows her established pattern of providing us with solid mastery of the sources combined with clear and in some cases gripping writing. Pagels' analysis of Revelations is an honest and convincing work full of insights into the Jewish, Roman, and early Christian cultures in a crisis period for each. Her work is invaluable not only for scholars of the period she covers in the book, but for those of us interested in apocalyptic Christian movements in the late medieval and Reformation eras.
Reviewer: Don H
I have read all of Elaine Pagels books and really looked forward to this one on the book of Revelation. I took 30 hours of religious studies many years ago. I'm 70-years-old now. This is how I was taught the book of Revelation from Catholic nuns in a Catholic college. It is symbolic writing for the time it was written because of persecution of the struggling young Christian communities. Pagels adds so much more by sharing the insights from the Gnostic gospels and "secret books" discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a great deal from Elaine Pagel's great scholarship. This is the one book in the Bible most misrepresented in today's world.
Reviewer: Marie H