It Isn’t the End of the World

Elaine Pagels unpacks the history behind the Bible’s scariest book


Elaine Pagels says that the Book of Revelation is less a prediction than a reflection of the time in which it’s read.

The end of the world is coming! Eventually! And it will end with trumpets blaring and horsemen riding across the sky. Except probably not, says religion scholar

Elaine Pagels, who will read from her new book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation,” at Politics & Prose on Friday.

Pagels’ book takes on everyone’s favorite apocalyptic Bible story — which isn’t, in fact, about the end of the world but about the beginning of a faith. Its imagery (which includes a seven-horned lamb with seven eyes, a seven-headed dragon and angels, angels, angels) has been read in countless different ways.

“Primarily, I say this book is an indictment of the Roman Empire by a prophet [John of Patmos] who’s living in a dangerous time,” says Pagels. “[Disciples] Peter was crucified, Paul was beheaded — the leaders of this movement are being killed by representatives of the Roman Empire. So John writes a prophetic denunciation of Rome saturated with the language of classical prophets.”

That language, though, has made Revelation wide open to interpretation. “The language is vivid, but not specific,” says Pagels. “Because it’s written in visionary language, it can be read in many ways. The plot is ‘evil forces have taken over the world, and God is going to return and His justice will be served.’ If you’re having a conflict with people you see as being opposed to you, you can read yourself into that story.”

And people have read themselves into that story since the time it was written. “You can read it in the 11th century, and it was against the ‘infidels’ and it justified the First Crusade. You can read it in the 14th and 15th centuries, and Protestants read it against Catholics and Catholics read it against Protestants.” In the American Civil War, the Northern “Battle Hymn of the Republic” used imagery from the Book of Revelation: A winepress that would squish the “grapes of wrath” and a sword both appear in Revelation, and the allusions get even more pronounced in later verses. And during WWII, Dr. Seuss himself drew political cartoons depicting Hitler as the Great Beast mentioned in the book.

Taking John of Patmos’ images and bending them for social or political meanings doesn’t bother Pagels. “That’s how the book survived,” she says. “Many people living in oppression saw it as a book about God’s justice. The openness of the symbols lends it to that. I’m not shocked that they do that.”

Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Fri., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Christopher Porter · March 14, 2012

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