Elaine Pagels Discusses The Book Of Revelation
Pagels, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, spoke in the Lowell Humanities Series on Thursday.
Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 4, 2013 01:02
Boston College welcomed world-renowned biblical scholar Elaine Pagels on Thursday for the first lecture in the Lowell Humanities Series this semester. Best known for her work on the non-canonical and in particular the Gnostic Gospels, Pagels, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, came to BC to speak both on her scholarship in these areas as well as the Book of Revelation, the subject of her new work, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.
Pagels emphasized the historical context surrounding Revelation, what she called one of the most misunderstood biblical texts. “It’s one of the most controversial books in the Bible, and often considered one of the strangest,” Pagels said. “There are no stories in it, no morals. Revelations consists of dreams and visions.”
She attributes the book to John of Patmos, a refugee from the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. “If you go to Jerusalem today, you can see a pile of rubble when the Romans destroyed the temple of Jerusalem,” she said. “You can still see the destruction of that war. They destroyed Jerusalem and John’s people.”
Furthermore, she added, the disillusionment that Patmos would have experienced at the failure of the second coming would have contributed to his writings. “This war was unthinkable, but according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus predicted the unthinkable destruction of Jerusalem, and after that happened, that the Kingdom of God would come,” she said. “But 10 years passed after the war, and 20, and 30, and John would have seen, everywhere he went, the kingdom that had come was not the kingdom of God. It was Rome.”
According to Pagels, the Book of Revelation then carried on a prophetic tradition of an often-conquered people. “What John did, in the Book of Revelations, on one level at least, was to take the cultural traditions of his people, the writings of the prophets and the imagery of classical Jewish prophecy, and update them to his own time,” she said. “This ancient story, of God fighting the dragon, has been updated throughout Jewish history, when they were taken over by Babylon, by Egypt, by Rome, and so on. They would portray these enemies that were conquering them into terrible monsters.”
What to modern readers often seems a hallucinatory vision, therefore, Pagels explains as a thinly veiled criticism of the Roman Empire. For understanding readers, this work would have provided solace. “This book gives hope that someday justice would happen, that somehow God would not allow the innocent to suffer, that He would bring the power of Heaven down and set the world right again,” Pagels said.
The universality of the imagery also allowed the book to remain relevant, as Pagels explained, from political cartoons of Hitler as the seven-headed beast to the naming of the 2003 “Shock and Awe” operation in Iraq. “It’s a powerful book, it can be used so many different ways, and people apply their own situations to it because it’s so evocative and imaginatively written, and can be read so many different ways,” Pagels said. “What is striking to me is that people on either side of the same conflict can use it against each other, because the images are so universal.”
Although this historical emphasis, as well as her dedication to non-canonical gospels has not necessarily endeared Pagels to theologians, she considers her work a part of understanding Christianity. “It’s not everyone who understands that the work I do, exploring the history of a religion, is a deeply personal quest,” she said. “It’s about the deepest, most important questions that we have. I wouldn’t study this tradition my whole life if I didn’t love it.”
Still, she added, “The legacy of this work should be to open up questions.”