Religion
9:18 am
Wed March 7, 2012

Book Of Revelation: 'Visions, Prophecy And Politics'

Originally published on Wed March 7, 2012 11:57 am

The Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, has some of the most dramatic and frightening language in the Bible.

In her new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Princeton University religious professor Elaine Pagels places the Book of Revelation in its historical context and explores where the book's apocalyptic vision of the end of the world comes from.

"The Book of Revelation fascinates me because it's very different than anything else you find in the New Testament," Pagels tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There's no moral sermons or ethical ideas or edifying things. It's all visions. That's why it appeals so much to artists and musicians and poets throughout the century."

Pagels says the Book of Revelation's author, who calls himself John, was likely a refugee whose home in Jerusalem had been leveled by the Romans in response to a Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire.

"I don't think we understand this book until we understand that it's wartime literature," she says. "It comes out of that war, and it comes out of people who have been destroyed by war."

Other images in Revelation — which include bright red beasts with seven heads, and dragons, monsters and cosmic eruptions — were likely influenced by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried and destroyed the city of Pompeii, she says.

"Most people think John was writing at about the year 90 in the first century. That would be 60 years after the death of Jesus, and the eruption of Vesuvius happened in the year 79," she says. "Much of what we find in the Book of Revelation couched in the fantastic imagery are descriptions of events that for John were very close — the war in Jerusalem, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Roman Emperors who were ruling at the time. ... It seems as though [John] reacted to that, saying, 'Jesus is coming and he is going to destroy all of this.' It was John's conviction that the destruction of Jerusalem was the beginning of the end of time that Jesus had predicted."

Many of the images in the book, she says, are thinly disguised metaphors for images associated with the ruling powers in Rome. The great scarlet beast with seven heads and seven crowns, for example, may represent the emperors from the dynasty of Julius Caesar, says Pagels. And the name of the beast — which is not named but is represented by the numbers 666 — may refer to Emperor Nero.

"This is a reference to the technique of calculating numbers and letters," she says, "so that you can take anyone's name and have a numerical value of each letter, and you add them up or multiply them in complicated ways, and you find out what the name is. ... John would have wanted his readers to understand that that number, which is couched in a mysterious code, would be understood to his readers as the name of one of those emperors who destroyed his people."

Shortly after John wrote the Book of Revelation, Christians fearing persecution from the Romans seized on his message, seeing it as a way of deliverance from evil. For the past 2000 years, Christians have been reading Revelation as if it applies to conflicts and struggles in their own time, says Pagels.

"If you read it as John intended, you think, 'God is on our side; we of course are on the side of good,' " she says. "Now we could be Lutherans fighting against the Catholic Church, we could be Catholics fighting against Lutherans. ... What I found so remarkable is the way that people on both sides of a conflict could read that same book against each other."

In the Civil War, she says, Northerners were reading John's prophecies as God's judgments for America's sins of slavery.

" 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' resounds with all of those imageries of the Book of Revelation," she says. "People in the South, in the Confederacy, were also using the Book of Revelation, seeing the war as the battle of Armageddon at the end times, and using it against the North. And that's the way it was read in World War II. That's even the way it was read in the war in Iraq."


Interview Highlights

On other books of revelation, now known as the Gnostic Gospels

"One of the surprises that I found when I started to work on the Book of Revelation is that there is not only one. That is, most people think there is one Book of Revelation because there's only one in the canon, but I discovered that this was one of an outpouring that Jews were writing; Greeks who followed the Greek gods were writing many books of revelation. The Book of Ezra, for example, is another revelation written by a Jewish prophet — not a follower of Jesus — but very similar to John's in many ways and very grieved about the Roman Empire and concerned about the question of God's justice."

On why the Book of Revelation has been so controversial

"One reason why the book is so contested is that people who saw its prophecies against the Roman Empire suggesting that the empire was going to be destroyed by God realized that those prophecies had failed. What happened instead is that the Roman emperors become actually Christians, and the Roman Empire became a Christian empire — that is, completely contrary to what the prophecy said. So some people would have said, 'The prophecy failed, so let's leave that in the dust the way we leave other prophecies that fail.' Other people said, 'Wait a minute, that is not what it really means.' If you interpret these images differently, and they open themselves to a very wide range of reading, then you could say, 'Well, the prophecies are being fulfilled in a totally different way.' "

On the Book of Revelation's authorship

"John apparently was not only a Jewish prophet, but he was a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who of course had been crucified about 60 years earlier. But they say that Jesus had prophesied that the end of the world was coming, and it seemed as though Jesus' prophecy had simply failed. What John saw 60 years after the death of Jesus was that the Roman Empire was going stronger than ever, and I think he responded to the enormous power of Rome, which you can see in the buildings and the monuments and the architecture and the armies, which he would have seen stationed throughout those provinces. ...

"It's the response of one of the followers of Jesus, who was last seen on Earth crucified and in a horrible way tortured by the Romans. ... And his follower John sees that Jesus is enthroned in heaven and returning as the ruler of the world. It's almost like a perfect retaliation for what he sees as the execution of Jesus."

On the images in the Book of Revelation

"One of them is an image of an enormous, bright-red beast with seven heads with crowns on its head — a violent, threatening, raging monster. Another is a giant whore called the Whore of Babylon who sits on the back of one of these dragons with seven heads, and she's drinking from a golden cup the blood of innocent people who have been killed. Then there's another image of Jesus coming forth from the sky and starting the battle of Armageddon, which ends in heaps and heaps of corpses at the end of the book."

On what the Book of Revelation says about the new world

"It's striking that the author sees nothing of the present world surviving except the people who are dead come back to life in this new world. But the new world as he sees it will be on Earth, will be a new Jerusalem full of the glory of God."

On the followers of Jesus

"The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and they don't seem to have imagined that they would ever diverge from their adherence to their tradition. It was just that they had found the Messiah of Israel. It's the Apostle Paul who decided that Jesus had offered a message for non-Jews and opened it up for the salvation of the entire world. As John sees it, yes, gentiles will eventually be included in the blessings brought by Jesus, just as the Hebrew Bible says all the gentile nations will be blessed through Abraham, but for John the focus is on Israel and the Jewish people."

On various interpretations of the Book of Revelation

"Many Christians assume John is a Christian, he's a follower of Jesus, it's a Christian book, and when the catastrophic events of the end times happen, everyone will have to be converted to Christianity. What I discovered, and it was surprising working on this, was in a sense you could say Christianity hadn't been invented yet. That is, the idea of a new movement that was quite separate from Judaism and its obvious successor the way Christians see it today."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Elaine Pagels, is the author of a new book about what she describes as the strangest book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, a book of dreams and nightmares, an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world as we know it.

Over the past 2,000 years, Revelation has inspired great paintings, songs and literature, has been used to justify wars, and has led many Christian groups to believe the end of the world is imminent. Pagels' book is called "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation." It tells the story of Revelation's author and the times he lived in.

Pagels also writes about other books of revelation that were discovered in 1945 that are part of what are called the Gnostic Gospels. These are ancient texts that were left out of the Bible. Pagels wrote the bestseller "The Gnostic Gospels," which won a National Book Award. She's a professor of religion at Princeton University.

Elaine Pagels, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Would you just recap the story that's told in Revelation?

ELAINE PAGELS: Yes, the book of Revelation opens with a series of visions in which Jesus appears to a prophet and tells him what's going to happen soon, and then the prophet says he goes up into heaven and sees the throne of God and is told by angels the course of future history, which includes four horsemen of the apocalypse coming, each one representing disaster on Earth.

One brings war that kills a third of the inhabitants of the Earth. Another one brings famine and plague and catastrophe all over the world. These visions talk about cosmic war, in which the forces of evil seem to have taken over the world, and claim that God's power is now going to come and challenge those forces, and there will be cataclysmic battles of monsters until finally Jesus returns with armies of angels and destroys all the forces of evil and creates an entirely new world.

GROSS: So the world as we know it will be destroyed, according to Revelation, and a newer and better world - and it will be replaced by a newer and better world, but in the meantime, lots and lots of carnage, right?

PAGELS: Yes, it's striking that the author sees nothing of the present world surviving, except the people who are dead come back to life in this new world. But the new world as he sees it will be on Earth, and it will be a sort of new Jerusalem full of the glory of God.

GROSS: What are some of the most frightening, awesome images in Revelation?

PAGELS: The images that have always captured people, one of them is an image of an enormous bright red beast with seven heads, with crowns on his head - a violent, raging, threatening monster.

Another is a giant whore called the Whore of Babylon, who sits on the back of one of these monsters, one of these dragons with seven heads, bright red, and she's drinking from a golden cup the blood of innocent people who have been killed.

Then there's another image of Jesus coming forth from the sky and starting the battle of Armageddon, which ends in, you know, heaps and heaps of corpses at the end of the book.

GROSS: It just seems so counter to all the images of Jesus in the rest of the New Testament.

PAGELS: It's absolutely counter to that. It's the response of one of the followers of Jesus, who was, after all, last seen on Earth crucified in a humiliating and horrible way, tortured by the Romans and dead, a very insignificant man, and his follower John sees that Jesus enthroned in heaven and returning as the ruler of the world. It's almost like a perfect retaliation for what he sees as the execution of Jesus.

GROSS: So what do we know about who wrote Revelation and when it was written?

PAGELS: Most people who look at this history think that the author - he calls himself John of Patmos, that's his name - that John was a refugee from the Jewish war that had just destroyed his homeland, Judea. And the center of that whole territory, which was Jerusalem, the Temple of Jerusalem, had been utterly leveled by the Romans in response to a Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire.

So I don't think we understand this book until we realize that it's wartime literature. It comes out of that war, and it comes out of people who have been destroyed by war.

GROSS: Just to put this in perspective, the Romans sent 60,000 soldiers into Jerusalem. I mean that's a huge number of soldiers considering, you know, how fewer people there were then than now. I mean, that must have been some - some battle.

PAGELS: Well, accounts from the time, from, say, the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote about the war, he said it was the greatest of all wars of all time. Well, he was living in the middle of it. But even today, if you go to Jerusalem and you look at the ruins of that temple, which was - it wasn't just a building; it was the center of the entire city - you can still see how those enormous stones were thrown down 2,000 years ago as the temple was basically ripped to shreds and burned down to the ground.

GROSS: So did John witness any of this, or did he flee from it?

PAGELS: We don't know whether John witnessed it. He well may have. We think that he escaped from Jerusalem at that point and he went off to Asia Minor, which is territory that we now call Turkey, and he was waiting because he was somehow convinced that these were the last days, that something that catastrophic couldn't happen unless the end of the world was coming.

GROSS: Now, you think some of the images in Revelation may have come from the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried and destroyed Pompeii and nearly everybody in it. Was that contemporaneous with John's life?

PAGELS: Yes, most people think that John was writing in about the year 90 of the first century. That would be 60 years after the death of Jesus. And the eruption of Mount Vesuvius happened in the year 79 in Sicily, and it was an enormous volcanic explosion. It destroyed two cities.

So much of what we find in the book of Revelation, couched in the most fantastic imagery, are descriptions of events that for John were very close: the war in Jerusalem, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Roman emperors who were ruling at the time.

GROSS: So John, who writes Revelation, claims to have had a revelation, to have been spoken to by Jesus, and this is the story that Jesus told him. What do scholars think about how John had that vision?

PAGELS: John apparently was not only a Jewish prophet, but he was a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who of course had been crucified about 60 years earlier. But they say that Jesus had prophesied that the end of the world was coming, and it seemed as though Jesus's prophecy had simply failed.

What John saw 60 years after the death of Jesus was that the Roman Empire was going stronger than ever, and I think he responded to that, to the enormous power of Rome, which you can see in the buildings and the monumental architecture and the armies, which he would have seen stationed throughout those provinces.

It seems as though he reacted to that, saying Jesus is coming and he's going to destroy all of this. And it was John's conviction that the destruction of Jerusalem was the beginning of the end of time that Jesus had predicted.

GROSS: You consider the book of Revelation anti-Roman propaganda. Would you explain why?

PAGELS: Yes, the book of Revelation speaks about the great scarlet beast with seven heads and seven crowns, but it's a very thinly disguised metaphor or image for the ruling power of Rome, and probably the seven heads of the beast, most people think, represent the emperors from the dynasty of Julius Caesar, Augustus and Tiberius, Claudius and so forth, up to the time John was writing at the end of the first century.

So this is - on one level it's anti-Roman propaganda that's drawn from the language of Israel's prophets to say that God is going to judge and avenge the nations that destroy his people.

GROSS: So 666, the name of the beast - many scholars, including you, think that that refers to Nero, the emperor, the Roman emperor. What would the connection be?

PAGELS: Yes, John says that the beast, whose identity he doesn't say explicitly, perhaps because it's quite dangerous to speak openly against Rome, he says the beast has a human number, and the number is 666. And this is a reference to the technique of calculating numbers and letters so that you can take anyone's name and you have a numerical value of each letter.

You add those up, or you multiply them in complicated ways, and you find out what the name is that's represented by that mysterious number. Many people have worked it out that it could well be the imperial name of Nero, who was notoriously thought of as the worst emperor. Or it could be the name of Domitian, who was actually ruling when John was writing.

John would have wanted his readers to understand that - that that number, which is couched in that kind of mysterious code, would be understood to his readers as the name of one of those emperors who had destroyed his people.

GROSS: So John, who wrote the book of Revelation, was a second-generation disciple of Jesus. What does second-generation mean?

PAGELS: Many people think the book of Revelation was actually written by John of Zebedee, who was a disciple of Jesus. But when you look at the writing of that, and when you look at the writings attributed to John of Zebedee, the Gospel of John, which he probably didn't write either, we realize that this John is a very different person.

And he lived probably about two generations after the death of Jesus, converted obviously to the message of Jesus that the world was coming to an end soon and God was about to restore justice on Earth, but he's not living at the time of Jesus. He's living quite a bit after that.

GROSS: Why did you want to write about Revelation?

PAGELS: The book of Revelation fascinates me because it's very different from anything else you find in the New Testament. There's no moral sermons or ethical ideas or edifying things. It's all visions. That's why it's appealed so much to artists and musicians and poets throughout the century.

But I encountered it first when I was about 14 and had joined an evangelical church, which took those images, as many Christians do today, very seriously.

GROSS: So what impact did it have on you? Were you afraid that the end of the world was imminent and that there was going to be plagues and wars and catastrophe of every imaginable sort?

PAGELS: Actually, no, I didn't get into it that way. It just struck me as a very memorable part of this religious literature, and because it really doesn't have much conceptual content, I thought: How does this book appeal to people for thousands of years? I mean, it's one of the most popular books in the Bible, and it has been for 2,000 years, and that struck me as a really interesting puzzle about how religion affects people.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elaine Pagels. She's a professor of religion at Princeton University. She is the author of the book "The Gnostic Gospels." Her new book is called "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation." Let's take a short break here; then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elaine Pagels. She's a professor of religion at Princeton University and author of the book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation." She's also the author of the book "The Gnostic Gospels."

In your book, you describe a split between the Jews who saw themselves as remaining Jewish and seeing Jesus as a great Jewish prophet, and they wanted to assimilate his teachings into the Jewish tradition; and those who saw themselves as followers of Jesus in a new religion, started by Jesus. Can you describe that split and who led each side?

PAGELS: The earliest followers of Jesus, of course, were all Jewish, and they don't seem to have imagined that they would ever diverge from their adherence to their tradition. It was just that they had found the Messiah of Israel. It's the apostle Paul who decided that Jesus had offered a message for non-Jews, for gentiles, and opened it up for the salvation of the entire world.

As John sees it, yes, gentiles will eventually be included in the blessings brought by Jesus, just as the Hebrew Bible says all the gentile nations will be blessed through Abraham. But for John the focus is on Israel and the Jewish people.

GROSS: And what about for those who saw Jesus as starting a new religion?

PAGELS: What you see in John's prophecy is, in a sense, very conservative Jewish teaching. He saw others who were quoting the letters of Paul and other kinds of teachings, as if this were going to be a split from Jewish tradition. But for John it was a continuous tradition, and he never speaks about any of the writings of the New Testament. He never seems to have read even the Gospels, as far as we know.

What he read and immersed himself in were the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, in the Hebrew Bible.

GROSS: You say that the future of Christianity during John's time turned on the question of whose revelations were genuine, Paul's or John's. What were the differences between the two?

PAGELS: What the apostle Paul taught is that Jesus had come to bring salvation to everybody through his death, and what you need to do is be baptized and believe in Jesus. That's the message that Paul's converts taught throughout the Middle East, and it actually spread widely and quickly through cities in Syria and Egypt and so forth.

John's conviction was that Jesus was God's messiah sent to Israel. He was going to come and vindicate God's rule over the world and institute something like the great empire of David, who had ruled a vast empire from Jerusalem.

Jesus was going to restore God's rule over the entire world, but it was going to be based in Jerusalem, and it would be founded on Israel.

GROSS: You know what this is making me think of - many evangelicals today who believe in a pretty literal interpretation of Revelation believe that there will come a time when, in the face of apocalypse and the second coming, anyone who does not convert to Christianity will be left behind to suffer, you know, the calamities of war and plague and so on, and that includes Jews. Jews will be left behind unless they convert to Christianity.

And what you're saying is that John, who wrote Revelation, thought of the second coming as a kind of Jewish renewal that was open to everyone, but still he saw it as part of, like, the Jewish religion.

PAGELS: Yes. You know, what's amazing, Terry, is that we have 2,000 years of Christians taking this book and putting it into the New Testament. It was the most contested book in the whole New Testament. Should it be there, or does it not belong? But it was put into the New Testament, and it was appropriated by Christians, and for 2,000 years Christians have been reading it as if it applied to events in their own time.

That is the way these amazing, vivid, prophetic images have always been read. And as you say, many people today, many Christians today, assume, well, of course John's a Christian. He was probably a follower of Jesus. It's a Christian book. And when, you know, the catastrophic events of the end time happen, everyone will have to be converted to Christianity.

What I discovered, and it was quite surprising working on this, is that in a sense you could say Christianity hadn't been invented yet - that is, the idea of a new movement that was quite separate from Judaism and its obvious successor, the way Christians see it today.

GROSS: Why was Revelation so contested? Why - how did it end up in the New Testament?

PAGELS: One of the reasons this book was so contested is that people who saw its prophecies against the Roman Empire, suggesting that the empire was going to be destroyed by God, realized that those prophecies had failed. What happened instead is that the Roman emperors became actually Christians, and the Roman Empire became a Christian empire.

That is completely contrary to what the prophecy said, and so some people would have said: Well, the prophecies failed, so let's just leave that in the dust the way we leave other prophecies that fail.

Other people said: Wait a minute, that's not what it really means. If you interpret these images differently, and they open themselves to a very wide range of different ways of reading, then you can say, well, the prophecies are being fulfilled in a totally different way.

What happens is that people for 2,000 years have read their own conflicts and struggles into that story, because if it's a battle between good and evil, whatever you are dealing with, whatever I am dealing with - in the 16th century, the 11th century, the 21st century - can be read in those terms.

The book is so open-ended because the images are so evocative, but they're also not very specific in the way they're written.

GROSS: So no matter what you're doing, you can see yourself as the force of good and your opponent as the force of evil.

PAGELS: Of course, because if you read it as John intended you to read it, you think God is on our side, we of course are on the side of good. Now, we could be, say, Lutherans fighting against the Catholic Church, we could be Catholics fighting against Lutherans. This is, you know, 1,500 years later. It could be people fighting against Muslims. It could be Muslims contending against, you know, the great Satan of the West.

Those images have proved enormously powerful. What I found so remarkable, Terry, is the way that people on both sides of a conflict could read that same book against each other. For example, in the Civil War, people in the North were reading John's prophecies, they're reading the Civil War with the terrible destruction of that war as God's judgment for America's sin of slavery.

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" resounds with all of those imageries of the book of Revelation. People on the South, in the Confederacy, were also using the book of Revelation, seeing the war as the battle of Armageddon at the end time and using it against the North. And that's the way it was read in World War II. That's the way it was read even in the war in Iraq.

GROSS: Elaine Pagels will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation." She's a professor of religion at Princeton University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Elaine Pagels, author of the new book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation." It's about what she describes as the strangest and most controversial book in the Bible, Revelation, which describes an apocalyptic battle with monsters and demons that destroys this world and is followed by God inviting the righteous into his kingdom.

Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton University and author of "The Gnostic Gospels," which won a National Book Award.

Do you, as a scholar, have any sense of when John thought the world as we know it would end?

PAGELS: What's fascinating is that anyone who reads the book and becomes involved in its prophecies has the sense that we're just about there. This is almost the end time. We're right on the cusp. And that's because I think he had the sense that somehow Jesus should come now, and the world should end, and God's justice should prevail.

This book has also been inspiring for people who fought against evils that were overwhelming. I mean John would've said, oh yes, that's the Roman Empire. But someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the evils of segregation and the sort of injustices of the 20th century and the 21st century and the 19th century. And people who longed for justice have always felt that the book speaks to us now and we are now on the cusp of that great change.

GROSS: Two thousand years after it was written, many people still believe that it's imminent. But that...

PAGELS: Indeed.

GROSS: ...belief has endured for 2,000 years.

PAGELS: It has. And it still very much prevails in many circles. And there's a good reason for that. What I realize is that many people - many scholars - sort of tend to deprecate the book and say, well, this is a foolish book. Who would believe that? Someone said to me recently, well, don't you think it's awful that people keep reinterpreting this as if it were applying to them? And I thought no, it's not awful. That's exactly how the book has survived and that tells us a lot about the power of religious imagination, for better and for worse.

GROSS: So there's a part in Revelation where John charges that rival prophets among Jesus' followers were seducing Jesus' servants to practice fornication and encouraging them to eat food sacrificed to idols. Would you interpret that for us?

PAGELS: John speaks with a great deal of personal anger about a couple of prophets. He calls them Jezebel and Balaam. Now, those aren't their real names, but it's about a man and a woman prophet who are prophesying things that he thinks are deeply, intensely deceptive and false. And what I began to realize working on this book is that those prophets, Christian prophets whom he challenges, are probably preaching what the Apostle Paul had taught and what disciples of Paul taught about a generation after the death of Paul. They're preaching that you don't have to eat kosher food to be a follower of Jesus and that you don't have to practice - sort of engage in sexual practices in the way that devout Jews were taught to do. You could have much more open views about food and sexual practices and still be a follower of Jesus. And I think John was upset by that and thought they were wrong and wrote against them.

GROSS: So the Jewish sexual traditions you're talking about, is that like not engaging in sex during a woman's menstrual period?

PAGELS: That's part of it. And also it could mean for a Jew to marry a non-Jew or to have a sexual relationship with one or any sexual practices that were discouraged by traditional purity laws.

GROSS: So the Book of Revelation in the New Testament is really just one book of revelation among several, but the other books didn't make it into the canon. Several of those books of revelation were discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, where, you know, books that didn't make it into the canon were discovered. You've written about those books. They're now known as the Gnostic Gospels. Tell us about some of the other books of revelation that were discovered there.

PAGELS: One of the surprises that I found when I started to work on the Book of Revelation is that there isn't only one. That is, most people today think that there was one Book of Revelation because there's only one in the canon, but I discovered that this was one of an outpouring of books that Jews were writing, Christians were writing, Greeks who followed the Greek gods or Isis were writing many books of revelation. The Revelation of Ezra, for example, is another revelation written by a Jewish prophet - not a follower of Jesus - very similar to John's in many ways and very grieved about the Roman Empire and concerned about the question of God's justice. But the other revelations...

GROSS: Let me just stop you here for a second.

PAGELS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: When we say a book of revelation, we mean a book in which God or Jesus manifests himself to the writer and speaks to him.

PAGELS: Yes. A book of revelation - we have, for example, the Revelation of Ezra. It's usually called Fourth Ezra by scholars, but it's one in which a prophet, a Jewish prophet, weeps over the fate of his people just as John is terribly grieved about what happened to Israel in the war. And this prophet, who calls himself Ezra, is grieved about that same war and he prays and asks God, how could you let this happen? How could you let your people be destroyed? And an angel appears to him and gives him visions from God, which talk about the future and the judgment and so forth and the coming of the Messiah, who after all in this case is not Jesus.

But other books of revelation talk about divine messages that come from - either from Jesus himself - understood in, say, the Revelation of John. There's - we have one, found with the Gospel of Thomas, that's called The Secret Revelation of John. We have others, The Revelation of Zostrianos, which is not even Christian, the revelation called Thunder, Perfect Mind, and these are meant to be understood as divine messages. But what's different about them is they're - most of them are not about the end of the world. They're about how you find the divine in the world now.

GROSS: Give us an example of that.

PAGELS: The Revelation of Zostrianos talks about a young man who is in despair because he can't find any understanding of reality, he can't make any sense of the world. He goes into depression and despair, decides to kill himself, and goes out to do it. And suddenly a divine being, a blazing light appears and says, have you gone crazy? And then he says he received internally a revelation. He says that I realized that the light within me was greater than the darkness. It's a very moving passage. And he has a sense that there's divine truth that can sustain him, and that comes from a divine source or understood to be.

There's also one called Thunder, Perfect Mind, in which a divine presence, usually understood to be God's imminent presence in the world, pictured in feminine form, speaks as if she is everywhere and one must recognize this divine presence in the world even though often many people are completely oblivious to that presence.

GROSS: So these books of revelation that you've been describing, were any of them candidates for the canon, for the New Testament?

PAGELS: It's very interesting that some of these texts are Christian and most of them were never really considered as candidates for the canon because the canon, after all, is meant to be the books you read in church, or worship, you know? They are the books for public worship. These other books of revelation are usually understood as secret books, they're advanced-level books. They're books you're supposed to read when you're on a spiritual quest and at a more advanced level than beginning people. So people who start in a religious community would hear what's read in worship and people who continue along that path might read these other books in addition.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elaine Pagels. She's a professor of religion at Princeton University. Her new book is called "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation." She's also the author of the book "The Gnostic Gospels."

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elaine Pagels. She's a professor of religion at Princeton University and author of the new book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation." She's also the author of the book "The Gnostic Gospels."

Revelation is cast as the story of good versus evil. It's very black and white. There's no nuance. There's no, well, this person is right about that but wrong about this. And then there's, you know, there's good people who are living under the bad regime and some of those good people are going to die during the war, but they're just, you know, innocent bystanders. There's no nuance like that. It's good versus evil. What impact do you think that has had, that really influential book that has this image of pure good versus pure evil?

PAGELS: Yes. By working on the Book of Revelation, I came to have a much greater respect for the power of this book and the way it's inspired many poets and painters and writers and religious thinkers, you know, to think about good and evil. But when it's applied in a very specific, literal, political way, it's often led people to see conflict as something non-negotiable, and that can be, in the world we live in now - or in any world - a very deadly way of trying to deal with human conflict. So I think we need to understand how this book was written, to respect the power of it, taking it, as I said, seriously but not literally, because when it's taken literally, it can lead to frightening ways of dealing with conflict and particularly with war.

GROSS: Now, you first read Revelation seriously when you were a teenager and you had joined an evangelical church. Now...

PAGELS: Yes. Yes. Go ahead.

GROSS: Now you're a religion scholar and you've read Revelation over and over and over and read many texts about it, and now you have this new book about the Book of Revelation. So can you compare for us how you saw it when you were a teenager in an evangelical church and how you see it now?

PAGELS: Well, I was brought up in a family that was nominally Christian, not intensely so in any way. And so when I encountered an evangelical group about the age of 14, I just plunged right into it because of the intensity of the emotional power of the music, of the preaching, of the group identity. It was quite wonderful, I thought, about the age of 14. And one of the books that that group read fervently and often is the Book of Revelation. That's about, you know, the powerful justice of God, the people of God against the people of Satan, and so forth.

About a year later, I realized I had to leave that group because I was told that one of my closest friends, who was Jewish, was going to hell. And I just suddenly said, wait a minute, that's not what drew me into this group, that's not what I loved about the messages I heard here, that is not anything to do with what - the power of Christianity as I understood it. You know, it's ridiculous because Jesus and all of his followers were Jewish, to say nothing of anything else.

So I had to leave that group, and becoming a scholar of religion is an interesting path because later I had to think, what is it about Christianity that was so compelling and powerful? I think it is about the religious imagination and the sense of a spiritual dimension in life. But I also had to think, why did I have to leave that group? And I think it's that insular sense of being in a righteous, homogenous, good group against sort of a faceless mass of people who were Satan's people, that is a very dangerous way of looking at the world, in the 21st century particularly.

Both of those questions have been in front of me while I think about this book today. And looking at other books of revelation, instead of having a vision of the world of the saved and the damned, the good and the evil, these others have a universal vision of human beings, in fact of all beings, including nonhuman beings, as part of the same structure of life, and that seems to me a compelling kind of vision and maybe one that we need even more right now.

GROSS: Because you write as a religion scholar and because you're writing about historical Christianity, different interpretations of biblical texts, do you ever get criticized by people who take the Bible literally and think that the work you're doing is very misguided...

PAGELS: Do I ever...

GROSS: ...and misleading?

PAGELS: You're saying do I ever. I do very often. I mean many people write to me, call me and say they know exactly what this book means. Many people would say, well, she's not reading it as a believer. And that's accurate. Because I'm less interested in simply believing these texts than understanding them. And I don't mean just understanding them intellectually, but also understanding the emotional power and the spiritual power, or the lack of it, that we find in them.

GROSS: And what is the nature of the criticism you get? Is it - do you get angry letters?

PAGELS: There's a lot of anger. There's a lot of outrage and there are people who really want to explain to me that if I would just accept their understanding of the faith, which is authoritative and absolutely certain, I would understand everything. And now as a scholar I acknowledge that I don't and that I'm still searching, and they want to enlighten me with their version of truth. I've been down that road and I didn't find it compelling.

GROSS: If it's not too personal, can I ask if you go to church?

PAGELS: I sometimes go to church because the traditions that I feel closest to are often Christian traditions, but I often don't go, as well, because there's a distance that it takes for the work I do. But the work I do also has questions about spiritual truth in it and those are some of the ones I was trying to sort out in this book.

It's not just a sort of intellectual's distant look at people that I don't agree with. It's an attempt to look empathically at a phenomenon that I feel I have some understanding about. But also, one has to have some distance on this. At least, I do.

GROSS: The way you talk about distance it almost sounds like a journalist won't attend a political rally because, you know, a journalist is nonpartisan and has to fairly report on things and not take sides. It sounds like you feel that way as a religion scholar.

PAGELS: I do in a way, except that I almost feel differently from that, that as a historian, if you want to understand something like this, in a way you have to be on both sides empathically. You have to understand different perspectives, both what's very compelling about this kind of religious prophecy and also what the hazards of that kind of group identity can be.

GROSS: What do you look for in religion now compared to what you looked for when you were a teenager and discovered an evangelical church?

PAGELS: That's a great question. I think then I was looking, as many people do look in religion, for some kind of authority, some kind of answer, something sure. Right? And there are plenty of religious people of all kinds who could tell you that they know absolutely what's right and they can speak with authority and they can tell it to you.

Now, I understand that that sense of authority has to come from ourselves, and I was writing this because I do believe that there are some insights we have that are like revelations, that are deeper truths, and I still look for those. But they don't come from somebody else or some book or some preacher. For me, that's not a source I can unequivocally believe in. In fact, I'm not interested in believing it; I'm interested in how we discover revelations, the way John thought he had done.

GROSS: So what do you look for in religion, in the way you practice, to the extent that you do practice?

PAGELS: What I feel today is that there is something that I call a spiritual dimension in human life and there are truths that are truer than other perceptions. And so I look for that sense of authenticity. I found some of that, say, in the Gospel of Thomas when - in the saying: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

I found some of it there. I find some of it in these other texts that speak about how the divine potentially speaks to all beings. I find some of it in the Gospel of Mark, in some traditional Christian sources. And one could find some of it in the Book of Revelation, depending on how we see that and read that.

GROSS: Well, Elaine Pagels, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

PAGELS: Thank you. I've really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Elaine Pagels is the author of the new book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.