First aired on Tapestry (6/12/12)
Within the Christian religion, the Book of Revelation is arguably the most controversial book in the Bible, as interpretations of the text have caused tension and division between churches and denominations. The book, written by a man identified as John, vividly sketches out grim details of the end of the world. Some believe the prophecies outlined in Revelation are future events that will come true. Others believe the book is meant to be an allegory for the struggle between good and evil.
Religion professor and author Elaine Pagels has studied Christianity extensively, and recently wrote a book about Revelation, with the goal of exploring the legendary book as well as the historical, political and social context in which it was penned. Her interest in Revelation began as a teenager when she herself rediscovered a spiritual side.
"When I was about 14, much to my parents' shock, because they weren't particularly religious, my father was a biologist who had no use for religion, I went to an Evangelical revival and I was born again. I joined an Evangelical church and they were very much involved with this book, and of course the book is enormously graphic."
She left the church a year later after finding herself at odds with some of their more hard-line interpretations of the Bible and Christianity, but the power and influence of religion continued to fascinate her. Her interest in writing a book about Revelation sparked several years ago after then-U.S. President George W. Bush was reportedly referring to Biblical prophecies in conversations with other officials as part of his rationale for going to war in Iraq.
"That got my attention, that this book should be read this way by people today was startling, and just the fact that it's been read that way for thousands of years."
So what do we know about the book? It was written about 2,000 years ago. Certain Biblical followers believe that the author John is actually John the Apostle, but Pagels says the author never refers to himself as an Apostle. He is identified as a prophet that had terrifying visions about the end of the days, including demonic beasts, horsemen slaughtering people by the millions and the eventual triumphant return of Jesus.
Pagels says the graphic detail of Revelation "really has to be read with its historical context in mind."
"It's full of blood and guts. This sounds fantastic and exaggerated [but] makes more sense when you know it's written by a refugee from a terrible war."
She said John is from a place that was ravaged by the Roman army. After the Jews started a rebellion against the empire in 66 CE, the Romans responded by killing Jewish rebels and burning their towns down en route to Jerusalem, where they destroyed parts of the city and sacked temples. Revelation, then, is perceived by some Biblical scholars to be a politically inspired anti-Roman narrative in which the epic war between angels and demons is actually about the real historical conflicts, in which the author perceives the Roman empire to be akin to an evil force and Rome itself to be Hell on Earth. The outcome, then, would be John's hope that the empire would collapse and for Christianity to prevail. Which was prophetic in a way, since that is what happened.