A few months ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Pagels for Publishers Weekly about her new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. The book was released last week to some fanfare, including a great interview on Fresh Air, which you can access here.
For the PW interview I could only use about 500 words, which was less than a quarter of our conversation; here are some of my favorite parts that had to be omitted. --JKR
You note in the book that confusion about authorship of Revelation begins very early, with Justin and Irenaeus in the second century. Why is the idea still widespread today that the author of the Gospel of John was also the author of the Book of Revelation?
It was probably in the mid-second century, around 150 or 160, that the New Prophecy movement ignited like wildfire in Turkey. People were receiving the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, fasting, and waiting for the kingdom of God to come. They thought it would be very soon. The controversy arose among Christian leaders, especially bishops who didn’t like the visions and experiential approaches that were happening especially among women. But the [ecstatic] movement said it was speaking in the tradition of John’s prophecy, and that it was not written by a heretic. People like Irenaeus, who found in the book explanations for the current situation and hope about the future, responded to the controversy by connecting the book to John of Zebedee. So suddenly it had the authenticity of having been written by one of Jesus’ closest disciples.
So the attribution was to counter the claim that the book was written by a heretic. What was the setting?
The date I used is about 90 or 91, when Domitian is ruling the empire. We’re not absolutely certain, but Irenaeus said it was written in the time of Domitian, and there are internal clues that it was. This is a conventional dating.
Probably 80% of the written material at the time is completely lost, so we’re working with what we have. We don’t know about all the people who might have heard the book in prophecy. David Barr sees the book of Revelation as a performance piece that was memorized and performed. He says it’s really liturgical.
How has the Book of Revelation been used in history?
You can imagine that people could see conflict between monsters and beautiful, angelic beings, and then plug that into any current conflict where people are getting hurt or killed. Or you can see how Catholics and Protestants who were killing each other in religious wars in Europe would see this book. Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach did a whole series of woodcuts picturing the pope of Rome as the whore of Babylon. On the other hand, Luther’s Catholic biographer pictured him as a seven-headed monster.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is straight out of this too, that the [U.S. Civil] war is God’s horrible judgment for the sin of slavery in this country. In World War II you see it on both sides, with the Third Reich seeing itself as the reign of Christ and people on the other side seeing Hitler as the Anti-Christ. So the book is filled with very powerful images that can be played in many different ways, and plugged into many different kinds of conflicts.
Speaking of Luther, didn’t he try to remove the Book of Revelation from the Christian canon?
Luther originally was opposed to the Book of Revelation, but when he started viewing the whore of Babylon as the Catholic Church, he started to like the book more. And the Muslims had been the whore of Babylon in the ninth century and through the Crusades.
And of course, it’s used today. There is an unbelievable amount of this on the Internet. Plug in your enemy; there are plenty of them.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. Revelation is so often appropriated by people who think that they own it, when in fact it has its own life and history in Christian culture. I came to a much greater appreciation of the book and its possibilities.
I have this pet peeve about people who put an “s” at the end of Revelation. But then you do that in the title of this book. Why?
It’s about revelations; there are lots of them. There are many books of revelation written during that time. I wanted to juxtapose those writings with the Book of Revelation and ask why this book, and not any of these other revelation texts, t was included in the New Testament. Not only were the others not included, but most were banned as heresy.
How was Revelation fixed in the canon?
That is one of my questions. It’s easy to understand why an early Christian leader, watching his or her friends maimed and killed and raped, would read the Book of Revelation as a prophecy of the end time. The [Roman] empire seemed so corrupt that God was surely about to destroy it. But when the emperor becomes a Christian [in 313], suddenly the prophecy that God would destroy Rome is proven wrong. So either it’s a book of false prophecy, or it has to be reinterpreted.
Many Christians had no use for the book after that. There’s a lot of argument after Constantine’s conversion about whether this book will make the cut or not. After that, around 350 or so, we have five canon lists mostly from the eastern empire, and four out of five exclude that book. Only one includes it. So why did the canon we received include that book?
What is your next project?
I’m not sure yet, but I’m getting very interested in the fascination of how people read what they’re calling scriptures — whether they feel it’s poetry or absolute revealed truth. It’s quite fascinating how people claim authority for ancient texts.
Author photo of Elaine Pagels by Jerry Bauer.