Pagels offers up a biblical revelation

Elaine Pagels, professor at Princeton University and award-winning scholar, talks to students during the Levine History Lecture.
Elaine Pagels, professor at Princeton University and award-winning scholar, talks to students during the Levine History Lecture.

By Gianluca D’Elia
The Book of Revelation, which has been called the strangest book in the Bible, was the topic of this year’s Levine History Lecture. On Feb. 18, Princeton University professor and award-winning scholar Elaine Pagels discussed how the mysterious final chapter of the Bible has influenced world history.
Warnings of the end times, and stories about monsters and beasts have fascinated readers of the Bible for over 2,000 years. Pagels said Revelation is a book that has been used often to both support and discredit political agendas, and people have frequently applied it to struggles and conflicts. The book itself is also rooted in politics. Conflicts that occurred when Rome invaded Israel led to prophecies that the second coming of Jesus Christ would happen soon.
“It’s a book of paradoxes and prophetic visions,” said Pagels. “But it helps to understand that this book was written by someone who was probably a refugee from a war in Jerusalem that took place in the first century, about 30 years after the death of Jesus.”
Pagels’ fascination with controversial writings was sparked by religious experiences she had as a 14-year-old. Despite coming from a generally non-religious family, she became passionate about religion after going to an Evangelical revival. “It’s sort of like falling in love when you’re 14,” Pagels admitted. However she “fell out of love” with the Evangelical church once she was told that her best friend would be sent to hell for being Jewish.
“Years later, I kept thinking that there was something about the power of that experience,” she said. “Finally, I went back to school to try to find out what happened and how the Christian movement really started.” Much to Pagels’ surprise, her graduate school professors had file cabinets filled with secret gospel writings that were not authorized by the Church. Most of the other copies had been burned and destroyed as heresy. “And I thought they were fantastic,” Pagels said.
In her research on scripture writings that were deemed heretical, Pagels discovered that there were also multiple versions of the Book of Revelation. She showed the audience samples of these writings.
For example, the Revelation of Ezra, written in 95 C.E., tells the story of Ezra seeing an angel who tells him that the end of time is coming soon. Ezra wrote that he was in Babylon when he had this vision, but he was actually in Rome, using “Babylon” as a location because he feared speaking against Rome. He felt troubled because Zion was completely desolate, while Babylon was full of wealth. Furthermore, the beast that is often mentioned in Revelation may have been used to represent Nero, the most hated emperor of Rome. This reveals some of the political roots of the book of Revelation.
In addition to Revelation having a political nature itself, it has also been used in arguments for political ideas throughout history. Revelation ideas have been applied to events such as the bubonic plague epidemic in the 14th century, the American Civil War, and World War II. Dr. Tim McGee, associate director of faculty development, was fascinated by this.
“The fact that the same text has been cited by parties on opposing sides of numerous political conflicts for over 2,000 years is, in itself, a revelation,” McGee said. “Perhaps it speaks to the capaciousness of the text. On the other hand, it could also serve as a frightening indictment of the limited capacity of the human imagination.”
At its core, Revelation is not merely a collection of writings about judgment and the end times.
“All these different stories were not just revelations of the end of the world,” Pagels said. “They were like resolutions to spiritual crises.” She referred the audience to the Revelation of Zostrianos, in which an angel showed Zostrianos eternal light that stopped him from killing himself and relieved his depression.
Many who read the Bible see Revelation as a message of hope. “In this book, the world is falling apart,” Pagels said. “But after that, there is a hopeful message, because Revelation ends with hope for a glorious new life.”

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