Elaine Pagels on the Book of Revelation


Read an excerpt from Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels

PROFESSOR ELAINE PAGELS (reading from the Book of Revelation): “And another sign appeared in heaven; a great red dragon with ten horns and seven diadems on his head. His tail swept down a third of the stars in heaven and cast them to earth. And the dragon stood before….”

BOB FAW, correspondent: For almost two thousand years, that fantastic, sometimes nightmarish language of the Book of Revelation has confused and inspired, It was the inspiration for  paintings by William Blake, for the poetry of John Milton. Lyrics like “he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword”: that too came from Revelation. Despite its profound impact, noted biblical scholar Elaine Pagels says Revelation remains “the strangest book in the Bible” and “the least understood.”

PAGELS: It’s the most controversial book in the Bible. It’s always been that. Some people thought it didn’t belong there at all. And other people wanted to throw it out. Others love it, and some hate it. Some Christians never talk about it; some people never stop talking about it. A lot of people throughout the country were using it as a predictor of current events and using it as part of their impetus to get into the Iraq war. People could apply this sort of war against good and evil to almost any situation you were involved with.

Romans burning the Temple in JerusalemFAW: Pagels, author of the acclaimed book The Gnostic Gospels, was one of the first scholars to study ancient scrolls unearthed in Egypt in 1945. What the scholars found is that the Book of Revelation was not written by the author of the Gospel of John but by a different John living on the isle of Patmos off what is now Turkey.

PAGELS: He seems to be a Jewish prophet who is a refugee from a war in his own country, which was Judea, from Jerusalem, where a war had broken out in 66 to the year 70 when the Romans came in with 60,000 troops and totally destroyed Jerusalem.

FAW: It was, she writes, John’s “cry of anguish.”

PAGELS: This book picks up the language from the prophets and speaks about Rome and the leaders of Rome, the emperors, as a huge bright red dragon with seven heads, seven horns on its head. It was anti-Roman propaganda, because John was devastated by what had happened to his people, what had happened to the city of Jerusalem.

FAW: He writes it in language of dreams and nightmares.

PAGELS: Yes. It was probably dangerous in the Roman Empire to openly express hostility to Rome, so people would have done it in coded language.

FAW: John’s Book of Revelation targeted the Roman Empire as evil. But nearly 300 years later, when the Roman Empire became Christian, a wily and powerful bishop, Athanasius,  used the Book of Revelation to strengthen his hold on the Christian movement.

Bishop AthanasiusPAGELS: He says well it’s not just about the Roman Empire. This is about me fighting my opponents trying to create the orthodox Catholic Church in the fourth century. So he turns it into a story about Christians against other Christians, and that’s taken up later by Martin Luther against Catholics. It’s taken up by Catholics against Martin Luther.  It’s taken up by Catholics against Protestants and Protestants against Catholics, and it keeps on going that way.

FAW: And it was Bishop Athanasius who decreed that the revelation written by John of Patmos would be in the Bible even though most bishops would have left it out, says Pagels.

PAGELS: Most of the list we have of what’s supposed to be the New Testament completely leave this book out. It’s just gone. The one person who puts it in is Bishop Athanasius, and he realized that he could take this imagery of the war of good against evil and turn it against his religious enemies.

FAW: In that treasure trove of scrolls found in Egypt in 1945 there was not just one Book of Revelation. There were several, altogether different than the book that got in the Bible.

PAGELS: Most of them aren’t about the end of the world, and they’re not about judging the good and the evil. These other revelation texts have a different vision of the human race, that the same people could be both cruel and compassionate, that we are more complex than that.

FAW: They would not have been as useful for Bishop Athanasius to consolidate the church. That’s why he chose this particular one?

PAGELS: I think that Athanasius did choose this to consolidate the church and talk about you have to be, you know, orthodox to go up into heaven. Otherwise you fall into the lake of fire. I mean, this had been terrifying images for thousands of years.

FAW: Those images, the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the whore of Babylon—that is the version which resonates even now, largely, says Pagels, because those images can mean whatever a reader wants them to mean.

PAGELS: This book isn’t communicating much that’s cerebral. It’s really about what we hope and what we fear, and it’s as though you take all of your nightmares about plague or destruction or war or torture or natural catastrophe, and you just wrap it into a huge single nightmare, you get the Book of Revelation. But it comes out with hope at the end, so it’s very appealing to people who live in times of huge turmoil.

FAW: I wonder if a reader could come away thinking this book should not be taken as seriously as history has shown it has been taken.

PAGELS: I think you’re right that when you look at a book that’s in the Bible and you start to look at it in historical context, and you say, oh, this person wrote it in that situation, in war, you can say it doesn’t matter as much. It’s not necessarily something that came down from heaven. I’m a historian and that, to me, is an important way of looking at it. It’s not the only way. It’s not the way most religious people look at it. But it seems to me an important way of understanding our tradition.

FAW: Elaine Pagels’ new book, Revelations, may not become a best-seller like The Gnostic Gospels was, but it is already focusing attention on this Princeton professor, who says revelation might not give her comfort but that it does satisfy her curiosity.

PAGELS: I actually find this very compelling, and I am saying why? That’s a question I ask myself. What is it I love about this tradition, this Christian tradition? I wanted to think about how religion works, why people still are very deeply affected by religious language. I wanted to explore that, and this book is a perfect book for that because it’s not about the intellect. It goes straight to the emotions.

FAW: The Book of Revelation—always perplexing and provocative and now seen anew.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Bob Faw in Princeton, New Jersey.



John’s Book of Revelation appeals not only to fear but also to hope. As John tells how the chaotic events of the world are finally set right by divine judgment, those who engage his visions often see them offering meaning—moral meaning—in times of suffering or apparently random catastrophe. Many poets, artists, and preachers who engage these prophecies claim to have found in the them the promise, famously repeated by Martin Luther King Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Revelations by Elaine PagelsFinally, too, this worst of all nightmares ends not in terror but in a glorious new world, radiant with the light of God’s presence, flowing with the water of life, abounding in joy and delight. Whether ones sees in John’s visions the destruction of the whole world or the dark tunnel that propels each of us toward our own death, his final vision suggests that even after the worst we can imagine has happened, we may find the astonishing gift of new life. Whether one shares that conviction, few readers miss seeing how these visions offer consolation and that most necessary of divine gifts—hope.

But we have seen that the story of this book moves beyond its own pages to include the church leaders who made it the final book in the New Testament canon, which they then declared closed, and scriptural revelation complete. After Athanasius sought to censor all other “revelations” and to silence all whose views differed from the orthodox consensus, his successors worked hard to make sure that Christians could not read “any books except the common catholic books.”

Orthodox Christians acknowledge that some revelation may occur even now, but since most accept as genuine only what agrees with the traditional consensus, those who speak for minority—or original—views are often excluded.

Left out are the visions that lift their hearers beyond apocalyptic polarities to see the human race as a whole—and, for that matter, to see each one of us as a whole, having the capacity for both cruelty and compassion. Those who championed John’s Revelation finally succeeded in obliterating visions associated with Origen, the “father of the church” posthumously condemned as a heretic some three hundred years after his death, who envisioned animals, stars, and stones, as well as humans, demons, and angels, sharing a common origin and destiny. Writings not directly connected with Origen, like the Secret Revelation of John, the Gospel of Truth, and Thunder, Perfect Mind, also speak of the kinship of all beings with one another and with God. Living in an increasingly interconnected world, we need such universal visions more than ever. Revering such lost and silenced voices, even when we don’t accept everything they say, reminds us that even our clearest insights are more like glimpses “seen through a glass darkly” than maps of complete and indelible truth.

Many of these secret writings, as we’ve seen, picture “the living Jesus” inviting questions, inquiry, and discussions about meaning—unlike Tertullian when he complains that “questions make people heretics” and demands that his hearers stop asking questions and simply accept the “rule of faith” And unlike those who insist that they already have all the answers they’ll ever need, these sources invite us to recognize our own truths, to find our own voice, and to seek revelation not only past, but ongoing.

From “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation” by Elaine Pagels (Viking, 2012)

  • al nova

    thist is a dangerous book, more craze ones have user it to their destruction.

  • Vicki Sika

    It is true that the book of Revelation was written during the Roman persecutions of Christians, reasons why it is cryptic, but we need to ALWAYS remember that it a prophetic/apocalyptic book and it has to be regarded always as that. Obviously the types of comments people make about this books says a lot about if they are believers or not and there is room for that,as there are different ‘school of thought’
    Having studied this book, in my opinion, It is the most serious, ‘deep and profound book and it shouldn’t be taken lightly as an ordinary story.

  • Channah

    I can only laugh at the reactions people have to the Book of Revelation. Since I do not accept the part of the Holy Scriptures that you Christians call the New Testament, I guess I look at it as more of the made up story of Christianity. I cannot accept this chapter anymore than I can accept any other chapter of it.

    I was raised a Christian, but, came to the conclusion that my G-d would never come to earth in human form. Besides, the Jewish Messiah is not to be holy, but a man. And, if one believes in the concept of the Messiah, he would say that Jesus was not him, as none of the prophecies of the Messiah came true. So, therefore, to me, the Book of Revelation is no more true as any of the rest of the New Testament.

  • Rosalyn Zieser

    Pagels’ book is important at this time to refute the right wing’s use of Revelations to scare others who don’t agree with them. The far right uses their version of scripture to excuse their support of right wing politicians who would toss people in the streets to protect their narrow beliefs. Their beliefs do not belong in politics.

  • Edward Harding Jr.

    Greetings in the Name of the Lord! Great program. Always interesting. May I point out that the Bible is from God and that the books in it are not there by accident ( ” All scripture is given by inspiration og God…”, 2Tim 3:16 ). How we KNOW it’s of God is because of fulfiled prophecies! The 4 Gospels were written as eyewitness accounts and fulfillment was mentioned many times…from hundred year old writings! The book of Revelation is no exception and is more remarkable. It’s the vision that John received from Jesus for US in the latter days…the end times. How do we know it’s the end times? There’s a key given for understanding. The key opens the truths for those searching. Wait for it……the key is…….(( whisper ) go to ). The key is in the Book of Daniel….always was….but the time is ripe for our needing that infomation. Please pass this info on to Ms. Pagels. Keep up the interesting programing.

  • Edward Harding Jr.

    May I add a p.s. to my comment of a moment ago? The Christian faith is certain. Jesus, unlike the leaders/founders of ALL other faiths left an empty tomb ( many of the specifics being prophecied! ). He Is Risen!! There’s a blessed proof of this event given by Pastor Gene Scott. It can be found at The arguments are thought provoking at the least!!! Thanks for allowing me to comment….please hold your skepticism until you check these two web sites out ( the other being and please start from the first presentation ). God bless you and yours! Ed

  • apostolos zoupaniotis

    It is totally inaccurate what BOB FAW says, tat Patmos belongs to Turkey. (“but by a different John living on the isle of Patmos off what is now Turkey.”). I wonder what fact book has your correspondent used. The Island of Patmos is one of the Greek Islands in Dodecanese.
    I think a correction is necessary.
    Apostolos Zoupaniotis
    Greek News

  • Tristinika

    The quote “a different John living on the isle of Patmos off what is now Turkey” is a mistake. Patmos is a Greek island, not a Turkish one. You should have said a John living on the Greek island of Patmos. My friends and I went on a cruise of the Greek islands this summer, and Patmos was one of the islands we visited. If you had visited Patmos, you would have seen yourself that the people are Greek and the language spoken is Greek. Furthermore, any map that you look at will show Patmos as a part of Greece, the CIA world fact book’s map included. Whatever website you go to identifies the island a Patmos, Greece. Saying that Patmos is off Turkey and not saying that it is a part of Greece is like saying that Florida is Turkish. I am an avid viewer of your show and this misinformation shocked me. I hope that you will fix it. Please correct the website and say something about this issue on the show.

  • Dennis

    The acceptance of Pagels opinions as fact by the presenter is offensive. Pagels has no serious support for her thesis regarding the author of Revelations. This story is beneath the standards of Religion & Ethics

  • Humanist

    All books should be read with a critical mind. There is no evidence whatsoever that God exists. People, mostly men, have created all gods/God and written all religous books.

  • Bill

    Is it possible that apostolos zoupaniotis and Tristinika misread the intent of Bob Faw’s comment? Faw was simply noting the LOCATION of “the isle of Patmos off what is now Turkey.” He didn’t say it was Turkish. Patmos is, indeed, a Greek island, but it is much closer to the mainland of what is “now Turkey” than it is to the Greek mainland. If Faw had just said, “the Greek isle of Patmos near the coast of what is now Turkey”, that might be more palatable to those who are sensitive to on the ongoing Greek-Turkish resentments. The real focus of the interview was Pagels’ observations, which are important contributions to our understanding of Revelation. Some interpretations of that book have given rise to much unnecessary conflict and hatred and not a small amount of nonsense and mischief over the centuries—how many Antichrists have been identified? Viewing the 1998 Frontline documentary entitled Apocalypse can provide some historical context.

  • apostolos zoupaniotis

    Even the sentence “off what what it is now Turkey” is politically incorrect. The whole area of Asia Minor during the Hellenistic Times was culturally Greek. To remind us of Turkey is totally irrelevent.

  • JDE

    @Dennis: “The acceptance of Pagels opinions as fact by the presenter is offensive. Pagels has no serious support for her thesis regarding the author of Revelations. This story is beneath the standards of Religion & Ethics.”

    No serious support among whom – evangelicals? I don’t know of any legitimate scholars who have a problem with her.

    Conservative Christians are always “offended” when someone forces them to confront the inadequacies of their worldview.

  • Bob

    Congratulations Elaine. We have been waiting along time for you to share another treasury from your efforts to understand the writings left to us al via Nag Hammadi. I look forward to reading the entire book.

    Should we look forward to you providing us a collection of comparisons of the other revelation books soon?

  • Steven Carpenter

    To better understand Revelation, requires recalling what Jesus said about Daniel and the abomination that causes desolation. The historical Crucifixion of Jesus Christ corresponds to Daniel 9:26 when from Nehemiah 2:1-5, after “seven sevens (weeks of years) and sixty-two sevens (weeks of years, again)” Thus, (7×7+62×7=49+434=483 years) from about 445 B.C., more precisely 444 B.C., referencing Edwin R. Thele, “The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings” (Grand Rapids, 1965, pp. 28-30, 61). the predictive prophecy begins in [Nehemiah 2:1-5] continues through 483 apocalyptic years to the time when Jesus appears as the openly declared Messiah, after which he is abruptly “cut off” (killed). Passages with The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11:1-7 have (42 months/1260 days)X(1 year/12 months)= 1 year/360 days, defining how many days per year or ‘time’. Thus,

    The Seven Weeks and Sixty-Two Weeks
    7 X 7 years + 62 X 7 years = 483 years 444 B.C. to 33 A.D. = 476 solar years
    476 solar years X 365.24219879 days per
    483 years solar year = 173,855 days (showing no remainder)
    x 360 days/apocalyptic year + 25 days from March 5 to 30
    173,880 days 173,880 days


    Luke 19:28-44 March 30, 33 A.D. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the Triumphal Entry!
    (Isaiah 29:1-16) –Jack Finnegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology,
    Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1964, p. 468. For 33 A.D. it has been shown that there is no ‘predictive’ error! However, Dr. Isaac Asimov in Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, Volume One: The Old Testament , page 614, published in 1968, states: “It may, therefore, be Onias III who is the Messiah that is cut off, although the date given in Daniel misses the actual date by sixty-six years. However, no one has been able to make the dates given in Daniel’s vision come out both significantly and accurately.” However, the dates given in Daniel’s vision have just come out accurately!, (referencing “Daniel’s Seventy Weeks and New Testament Chronology”, Chapter VI, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Harold W. Hoehner (The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1977, (first printed 1975)). Dr. Hoehner died in 2009. This study is dedicated to his memory.) This method is reminescent of the way Isaac Newton studied Revelation and Biblical prophecy, numerology and history.

  • dahreese

    @Edwin Harding Jr. “( ” All scripture is given by inspiration og God…”, 2Tim 3:16 ).”

    Edwin, you cannot use the bible to “prove” the bible as you are trying to do with your quoted scripture. The scripture mentioned in your quote is a reference to the old testament Jewish scripture, not the new testament christian scripture.

    Additionally, the letters of Paul ( which we do not have all of) were written before the gospels and, the first of those, Mark, was written some 80-90 years after the death of Jesus.

  • Phuong Szot

    Well…I’ll try this again. If you’d like to buy the DVD of this, just go to the WNET PBS station website, and you can, with a little effort, find the info there. Good Lord, you people see how many Folks want to buy this, how about NOT removing my post with the info?

  • Lorean Plohr

    My friend emailed me about this post, and I can see why!

  • Zoye Marinopoulou

    I think Elaine Pagels is one of the finest scholars of religion. She is quiet correct on many points, in all of her many books on these early Christian topics, including the philosophical connections to Far Eastern thought. My family is from the Dodacanese I have been to the cave in Patmos where “John of Apocalypses” at 108 years wrote this vision, so they say. Of course I was raised a strict Greek Orthodox and have been practicing the Buddhism of Nichiren for 30 years. Starting from Constantine I on yes, the Orthodox made up most of the dogma we follow today, and what is more fascinating is, most inquisitive Greek Orthodox know this; it is not a well kept secret. I knew, that the 12 Apostles ( they left out the women), the trinity, and condemning the Bishops of Alexandria as heretical, was political in fighting at 14 years old. I commend Dr. Pagels for her scholarship, and bringing the full story, all sides of Early Christian thought to light. ( The Dodacanese 12 Islands including Patmos, was ruled by many empires: Roman, Ottoman, Italian, and became part of The Republic of Greece in 1947; it’s soul however has always been Hellene).

  • John Sprague

    first of I am thankful for all the. Research and the clarity which resulted in your book entitled ” Beyond Belief “, copywrite 2003. In 1954, as a young man going through high school in Portsmouth , N.H., I joined the Advent Christian Church there.WHat is important to me is the realization of how little I really knew then about the formation of the old and new tesetaments of the bible.In checking all the references you showed gave me a greater appreciation and a deeper awareness of my relatioship with God.
    0ne mor reason to write to you is this: in January 1972 I became a member of the Bahai Faith. I humbly ask you to look at the writings of Baha’u’lah the prophet- founder of the Bahai faith.One way is to dial , or on line www Baha’ And if you feel inclined please respond back. Thanks again for your wonderful book.

  • Manny Fragoza

    I will prob order the book on a suggestion of a friend.I look at Rev as the end of the story; Genesis being the beginning ; I am the first and the last the Alpha and Omega: Truth began the world and truth ended the world.The heavenly Jerusalem being the new world which comes down from heaven to earth. Peace and Love