Pagels’ Revelation 2, On Violence and Utopia

To return to the questions in the prior post:  Who was this John of Patmos, as he identifies himself, author of Revelation, and why did he write this strange book? As all reputable Biblical scholarship makes clear, he was not the disciple of Jesus named John, and/or the author one of the four key texts in the New Testament, the Gospel of John.

John of Patmos was Jewish believer in the message of Christ, that is, not quite yet a Christian (more on that in a bit).  Given the time in which he was living, and the beliefs he had adopted, his idea that the end of the world was at hand was no mere fantasy of the delusional, but reflected real, and current events. He seems to have written, first and foremost, for the reasons he said he had- to warn “all who could hear” about what he believed was the coming end of the world.

He was writing around 90 AD, and may very well have been a refugee from the incredibly violent Roman siege, starvation, and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus had predicted the destruction of the famed Jewish temple in that holiest of cities- “that not one stone would remain”, and in essence it had happened. (Pagels believes this prophecy reported in the Gospels to be legit, and not, as some think a later embellishment R10).

The war in the homeland of the Jews, then called Judea, had broken out four years earlier as a rebellion of intensely religious Jews, known as the Zealots, who sought to throw out the Romans and establish a kingdom of the godly on earth. It was perhaps the world’s first truly civilizational religious war:  in part sparked by what many Jews considered to be Roman sacrilege of Jewish religious norms, whose rebels aimed at creating a religiously based political community to be ruled by their hoped for coming messiah. It was a revolt that was ultimately crushed by the Romans who in doing so took direct aim at the Jewish religion: desecrating its holy sites and burning its most sacred temple to the ground.

John may have seen this destruction himself, and even if he did not, he certainly had met the scores of refugees from the Roman war on the holy land. He would have heard, first hand, the stories of the destruction and sacrilege, the rape of Jewish women, the tale of the Jews under siege at the fortress of Masada who chose mass suicide rather than the murder or enslavement by the Roman army that surrounded them.  But this religious war would have only been part of John’s understanding of Rome’s violence against “God’s people”, he would also be confronted by the specter of Rome’s own cult of power, and its corresponding religious persecution.

In modern times, at least in Western countries, we tend to try to preserve a line, sharp or blurred ,depending on our particular national culture, between politics and religion. Political figures or movements that cross this line are usually criticized for using religion for political ends. In the Roman world, on the other hand, it was not merely that religion was co-opted by political forces- it was that religion possessed no real independent existence apart from the state.

As Pagel’s points out, the Imperial Cult of Rome, in which conquered peoples accepted and worshiped both Roman gods and the emperor, were a means by which conquered peoples showed their loyalty to the conqueror. To not give worship to Rome rulers and its gods constituted an act of political defiance. Any wonder then that Jews, and later Christians, aroused the suspicion of Rome, which sometimes resulted in the empire’s extremely cruel persecutions of these dissident groups even outside the religious wars between Romans and Jews. Such persecutions could include everything from crucifiction to being tortured and eaten alive by wild animals for public entertainment.

If the political world offered John plenty of endtime material, the natural world delivered as well. The massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. had not only turned people quite literally to stone, it had opened a vast crater that seemingly opened into the burning mouth of hell, and caused molten lava to rein from the heavens.

But if it is clear that we should not look at Revelation as a book that aimed its’ prophecy at some far-off human future, but instead was a dystopian perspective on the Roman Empire in  the present of its author, how should we make sense of John’s seeming obsession with the Jews, which is another underlying theme in the book? That is, how are we to understand that Revelation is told from the perspective of the Jewish fight for liberation and justice against the Romans when it author, John, seemingly has such horrible things to say about the Jews as well.

It was once typical to read John’s ravings about the Jews as an early example of Christian anti- semitism. A pathology, which as we all know, was to play such a disastrous role in later Western history. That’s how I always read Revelation, but Pagel offers an alternative explanation, one that seemed to make apparently nonsensical ravings such as ones against “those that say they are Jews and are not” scattered throughout Revelation actually make sense.

Pagel sees John as on the losing side of an argument about what Christianity was to become. Was it to present itself the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, concentrate on the conversion of fellow Jews, and retain Jewish law for converts such as dietary laws and the practice of circumcision? Or was it to open itself fully to non-Jews- the Gentiles- concentrate on their conversion rather than the conversion of fellow Jews, and largely abandon Jewish law for religious practices that would be more attractive to non-Jews?

Pagel sees John of Patmos as taking the position that Christianity should remain as close as possible to the Judaism it claimed to fulfill, whereas the apostle Paul, whose side ultimately won this debate, wanted, in a sense, to walk away from traditional Judaism and spread a new faith among the Gentiles.

So John in his Revelation is aiming at two primary targets: the Roman Empire, and those in his new religious movement centered on the figure of Jesus Christ (the Paul faction) who wanted to redefine the faith to embrace the Gentiles and abandon almost all of traditional Judaism.John’s seemingly anti-semitic statements can now be seen not as attacking the Jews but those early Christians who were abandoning much of Judaism and setting their sights on converting the pagans.

With this in mind we can start to answer the question of what all his crazy symbolism might mean. The Beast in all likelihood is the Roman Empire, with the “Whore of Babylon” being the great city of Rome itself, both after all,  sit upon seven hills. The Beast’s “seven heads” are likely the last seven emperors of Rome up until the madman emperor,  Nero.

The infamous Nero, who had murdered his own mother and was rumored to have deliberately set afire the city of Rome, could easily play the part of the last head (emperor) of the seven headed Beast (Rome). Nero had died of a self-inflicted wound to the head- just like the wound suffered by John’s Beast, but was rumoured to be still alive and plotting his return. A rumor John may have known and believed.

The so-called “mark of the beast” which people need to be able to “buy or sell” is probably a cryptic reference to Roman coins which often had images of the Roman emperor, Roman gods, or both, and which many observant Jews of the time faced a moral dilemma in using. (Though Jesus with his “Render what is Caesar’s unto Caesar and what is God’s unto God”, apparently, did not.)

The “false prophet” figure of the antichrist, though John doesn’t call him that, is likely a reference to one of the figures on the Paul side of the where-do-we-go-from-here? debate among early Christians. He might also be the author of a lost alternative end-of-time narrative to John’s own. Pagels shows us just how common these narratives were at the time, an obvious reflection of the enormous pressures society was undergoing at that time.

The figure of Jezebel is also likely one of these figures of early Christianity, and Pagels here too brings prominent Christian preachers who were women lost to time, or erased from official history back into view. Talk of  Jezebel’s “fornication” by John Pagels sees not so much as a puritanical slur as a reference of this prophetesses’ tendency to aim her preaching at “unclean” pagans.

This still leaves us with plenty of questions in terms of John’s symbolism, but a more practical question is how John’s Revelation came to be in the Bible at all if it was indeed a rival to the ultimately winning (Paul) side of the debate among early Christians regarding the future of the faith?

In fact, Pagels points out that including Revelation in the officially sanctioned books that make up the New Testament was highly contested and controversial. At the end of the day, Revelation had a number of opposing strengths that would lead to its eventual inclusion in the Bible.

For one, it offered hope, and ultimate justice and in doing so became popular with Christians who were even more brutally persecuted by the Romans during the 2nd century than they had been when John penned Revelation. The Romans considered the Christians “atheist” in that they didn’t believe in the gods, and though neither would admit it, Christianity and atheism have been the flip-side of one another ever since.

What was worse for the Romans is that this atheism was rapidly spreading and in sections of the population: slaves, women, the poor where such beliefs might foment revolution. The fact that many Christians would not disavow their beliefs, would suffer horrible tortures and death rather than pay homage to the emperor and the Roman gods, or would refuse to curse the name of this agitator- Jesus- whom the Romans had proved to be a charlatan when they crucified him over a century before, made Christians appear like dangerous fanatics in the eyes of Roman magistrates, a cancer on the Empire that needed to be stopped before it became impossible to do so.

Under conditions like this, for Christians, John’s Revelation didn’t read like prophecy- it read like the news. But then everything changed.

In 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. By the end of his reign Christianity would be the official religion of the empire that had tried to destroy it. Christian churches, not pagan temples, would be paid for with the taxes of Rome. Pagans, rather than Christians would find themselves under state persecution.  A betting man would have wagered that The Book of Revelation which had preached against the Roman Empire had had its day. Yet here, another strength of Revelation makes its appearance- that is the ambiguity of its symbolism. John never says “I am talking about the Roman Empire”, “the Whore of Babylon is Rome” etc. You can project onto Revelation any enemy you wish, which also means you can deny that its characters represent some particular power or person as well.

The person almost singularly responsible for getting the Book of Revelation included in the Bible was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.  Athanasius was an impassioned proponent of a hierarchical and universal (catholic) church. His election to the position of Bishop in Alexandria in the early 300s was contested and the issue ultimately decided in his favor by Constantine with whom he had close connections. Many in the Egyptian church fought this decision and Athanasius fought a 40yr struggle to bring them to heel.

In this fight Athanasius found in Revelation a potent weapon. John’s warnings against “false prophets” would be used in Athanasius’ hands to mean any group of “heretics” that did not submit to the will of the Church which was now firmly aligned with the Roman Empire. This Athanasius was a major figure among the group of Church and Imperial officials that would create the Nicene Creed, the declaration of belief that Catholics recite at the beginning of religious services to this day. He was also a key player in the decision of what books were to make up the official Christian Bible, and he would argue for, and win the inclusion of Revelation.

This still leaves us with the last question, namely, what does The Book of Revelation mean for us? Here I will step away from Pagel and speak for myself. What it certainly is not is some sort of actual prophecy to be applied to our own time. Yet, given the ambiguity symbolism in the story, and its proven ability to be projected upon just about any political or religious environment, Revelation is likely to be used, or rather misused, in this way until human beings stop imagining the end of the world. A scenario that will probably only come about when there are no longer human beings around to worry about such things. That is, the end of Revelation, or some variant of it, will only come about once the world, at least for us human beings, really has ended.

As I have pointed out in the past, other myths that explained the world in terms of a battle of good against evil, that would end with the victory of the good and represent the end of history predate The Book of Revelation, but it is primarily this book that still holds us in its spell.

John’s strange images of violence, destruction, and evil incarnate take us into the world of our worst fears, but his story ends with the birth of a new world, and the end not merely of this particular experience of suffering in this specific time, but the end of all suffering, and, at least for the just, for all of time to come. In his vision not just human beings stop hurting and killing one another, but animals stop doing so to one another as well. The bloodshed of John’s end-times is a type of catharsis that purges, once and for all, the elemental relationship between violence and the living world. Revelation, as Pagels points out, is a vision of both our worst fears and most fervent hopes.

It is probably this idea of ending violence through violence that has proven to be the most deadly legacy of Revelation. You can see it in the revolutionary reigns of terror in both the French and Russian Revolutions where killing was justified on the basis that violence was being made a thing of the past- a new state to be reached, it was claimed, once the current violence was over. You find this same dangerous nonsense in “wars to end all wars” or “the war on terrorism”, which given that terrorism is a tactic amounts to “the war on war”.  The idea that violence waged against violence will be one that the side of “good violence” is destined to win is a dangerous illusion that has resulted in the most dangerous of gambles with the very survival of humanity.

Violence is good for only two things that I can think of: self-defense, and to stop other violence as it is occurring or right before it is about to occur. Violence can not end violence, and it effect is often exactly the opposite, it can only stop the violence of another group in its tracks. Violence is, thus, a purely negative force, and despite what you might have learned in your political science classes it is never the basis of anything. Even the cruelest of states use violence not as a basis of their power but as a means of making sure no one but those willing to collaborate with them is actually able to organize. As the Romans knew well there is no basis for empire without a sea of willing collaborators.

But if we can step back from this dangerous illusion in Revelation that violence can end violence we can see what I believe to be the true and lasting value of that bizarre book.  In a way that would have never occurred to the Romans who held violence to be an elemental, inescapable, and even praiseworthy feature of the world [these Romans who,  after all, built their famous Coliseum as a house-of-horrors to entertain vast crowds with animals killing animals, animals killing humans, and humans killing humans] that there was something wrong with this state of affairs, that a more perfect world would be one in which violence, even the natural violence of animals, never occurred.

But John, in his confrontation with the Roman Empire could see this, and was thus able to take a moral and imaginative leap into a world that was not, into a utopia, where violence was gone from the world. This is the same type of leap that was taken from a very different perspective by the Indian religion of Jainism that till this day practices nonviolence against all living things. Both Revelation and Jainism accuse the violent character of the natural and human worlds of being immoral on account of such violence, and imagine in its place something new.

A world purged of violence is without doubt utopian in the sense that it will never be realized, but the fact that so many of us have come to believe that violence is fundamentally wrong, that we have purged or tried to purge it from all the places where Roman civilization found it to be natural: from the family, from the economy, from criminal justice, from even our relationship with animals can give us hope that the arc of history moving away from violence, an arc that John of Patmos helped identify, is more than just the delusion of a madman but a destination we, with effort, can continuously move towards, if never reach.


11 comments on “Pagels’ Revelation 2, On Violence and Utopia

  1. An excellent take on Revelation. I agree with many of your (and Pagels’) conclusions. However, I think that it is Rome that is Babylon and Jerusalem that is the Whore of Babylon. Note that the Jewish religion that Christ railed against in the New Testament was in fact a mingling of the traditional Abrahamic religion and Babylonian paganism. It was still monotheistic, but inherited some deeply disturbing features (to Christ, the Essenes, and the Sadducees anyways) from Babylon. Notably unbiblical rituals and legalism, in addition to the rejection of certain earlier traditions and prophecies. See Ezekiel 23.

    The tribe of Judah was exiled to Babylon in the sixth century BC, where it picked up these things. There were several factions up until the time of Christ, many of which rejected these unorthodox teachings, but the group that survived the destruction of Jerusalem, the Rabbinical/Talmudic Jews (intellectual descendants of the Pharisees) were the practitioners of this Babylonian heresy.

    Understand that while the Talmud was written over the course of many centuries that it was actually compiled up to 100 years after the greater portion of the New Testament. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, this would indicate that today’s Christians and today’s mainstream Jews, from an objective standpoint, have EQUAL claim to being the true heirs of the Old Testament (Torah, Tanakh), rather than Judaism being the elder brother. All of this is key to understanding why, in the context of Matthew 24, Jerusalem was destroyed. There is one remnant group of the Sadducees, i.e., non-Talmudic Jews, living in the Crimea, Russia, and Lithuania, to this day, known as the Karaites.

    Roman: Nero Caesar >
    Greek: Neron Kaiser >
    Hebrew: Nrvn Qsr >
    That is, Nun (50) Resh (200) Vav (6) Nun (50) Qoph (100) Samekh (60) Resh (200) totals 666

    John 1 mentions antichrist and antichrists in the context of “the last hour”. But the fact that there is a plurality of antichrists, rather than just one great Antichrist, and the fact that the end is said to be near, is likely another reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. Whether this destruction was actually predicted or whether these texts were written after 70 AD is a matter of discussion, though I, like Pagels, have no problem holding to the “prophecy” argument.

    Also, Christ’s “render unto Caesar…” comment has many levels of sophistication. Some think that what Christ is truly saying is “give to Caesar what he THINKS is his, but all is under God’s sovereignty. Roman hegemony, a temporary and vain thing, too, shall pass.”

    For the record, Rick, in case you were wondering, I count myself a Christian.

    Keep up the good work my friend.

    • Rick Searle says:


      That you for bringing to my and readers attention just how complex this whole story is, along with raising very important puzzles that need to be solved before we can have an accurate historical understanding of these events- let alone a religious one.

      Your idea of that the dominant form of Judaism today and Christianity emerged at roughly the same time is well supported by historical scholarship. It is perhaps best to look at this period as one of enormous religious innovation and factional dispute within Judaism which only two schools ultimately survived: the rabbinical Judaism that emerged from the Pharisees and what became Christianity.

      However, the Sadducees/Pharisees split and the relationship of Judaism to the outside world might be somewhat different than you implied and even more complex than either of us suggested.

      In my understanding the Sadducees were the purist party in so far as they wanted to wall off Judaism from the influence of outside cultures. This might include things picked up during the Babylonian Captivity, and the period after their liberation by the Persians [and this might very well include dualism and the idea that history could be understood as a battle between good and evil that would ultimately be won by the good- an idea the Jews would have picked from Persian Zoroastrianism], but certainly would have focused more sharply on the threat of cultural influence that the Sadducees found more immediately at hand: that is from the Greeks and Romans.

      These ideas that the Sadducees rejected included ideas such as the immortality of the soul, the reward of the just and punishment of the wicked after death- all of which were found in the Greeks first. But the story is very complex in that though the Sadducees sought to avoid such Greco-Roman influence in terms of religious doctrine, as aristocratic members of the priestly class, they acted as virtual tools of Roman power, and because of their close contact with pagan elites they were much more willing to accept elements of pagan culture overall.

      Ironically, it was the Pharisees who tried to create a wall between Jews and pagans who themselves adopted religious ideas from the pagans, most notably the idea of the immortality of the soul. The Pharisees were the “peoples party” in that they were composed mainly of the non-elite/priestly class and were therefore not likely to even have access to vectors of Greco-Roman culture- gymnasia, baths, literature that the Sadducees would have had they so chose. In addition to this you had the Zealots and Essenes who looked to religious war as a resolution of this cultural tension.

      The rituals and rules prescribed by the Pharisees acted as a barrier to the conversion of pagans, and the issue of what to do about so-called “God-Fearers” – pagan converts to Judaism was conflicted. This was a barrier Paul leaped over when he set out to focus his attention on the conversion of the Gentiles. This decision by Paul was itself a matter of debate, but it seems to me that Pagels has made a pretty good case that John, in his Revelation, was of the anti-Paul faction.

      For all that, the question I really want to ask you is whether, as a Christian, you read Revelation in a literal way as projecting our future, or whether you read it as I do, though not as John intended,as a spiritual commentary on the human experience of power, and violence and the hope that such a relationship might be changed?

      • I think of it as more of a historical narrative, as opposed to some prophecy about the far future. I am not dispensational in my theology. It does also have strong elements of condemnation of the violence that is Rome, and commentary on human nature and spiritual warfare. The thing I find interesting about Revelation is how late it was accepted into the official canon. It appears to have been a dangerous book, even for Christians.

  2. James Cross says:

    Great post.

    Pagels undoubtedly gets it mostly right about the historical origin and context of Revelations. I have read several other works by her and may look for this one.

    Revelations with its imagery is a Rorschach test for fundamentalist Christians to project whatever fears they have in whatever era they live. The end of the world and final judgment is always imminent.

    Sociologically violence serves to delineate the boundary of the group. We do not use violence against members of our group. We use violence against members of other groups. Underlying it is often a battle for scarce resources. Psychologically the quest for the world without violence is the quest for the world of one group where everyone believes the same and is the same.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks as always for your comments, James.

      I am not sure that violence originates from the group/non-group split you suggest. This is actually the case made by E.O. Wilson in his recent book “The Social Conquest of Earth” the review of which I intend to be my next post.

      The problem I see here is that a good deal of violence actually originates WITHIN groups. Most crimes are actually committed against other family members- husbands beat wives and children etc. And this kind of family member on family member violence has little to do with scarcity.

      At best, violence used to delineate the boundaries between groups is a way to structure violence for socially useful ends i.e. group cohesion and solutions to the rational problem of scarcity, but is not the origin of violence itself.

      If these comments are unclear I hope to clarify them in my “Social Conquest” review this week.

      • James Cross says:

        Perhaps I was overly broad in my generalization.

        In the particular case of Revelations, however, the violence is precisely about delineating the group of who would be defined as Christian and the final judgment is about creating a world of all believers with the non-believers destroyed.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Largely agreed James, this is one of the underlying themes of Revelation- and a very dangerous one. Added to it is the idea that violence can be purged from the world through violence- what I find to be a somewhat different and equally dangerous idea also found there.

        There is also, however, in Revelation the cry for justice against and an end to oppression and a utopian hope that a world can exist that did not have violence as an elemental quality. It is these last two legacies that I find positive in many respects giving Revolution, in my opinion, a more complex value for believers, of which I am not, and non-believers, alike.

  3. Excellent post. Growing up, I was fascinated by Revelation (the star falling from heaven actually gave me nightmares). Despite growing up with fundamentalism, it’s one of the few books I know well.

    I’m also intimately familiar with the theology that a war in the Middle East needs to happen before Christ returns (and the potential danger posed by militaristic Christian Right members who think they can speed this up). It’s fascinating to see how the writers might have viewed their own work.

    Any other recommendations you have on Biblical history or textual criticism would be gratefully received!

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hi Jonny,

      I would recommend anything by Pagels. I am also a big fan of Karen Armstrong. (In that Denette/Dawkins video I shared with you and your readers a short while back both were scathingly critical of Armstrong. I intend to do a post on that criticism before the end of the summer, and your criticism of it would be greatly appreciated given that it will deal with the New Atheism).

      In Pagels’ Revelation she mentions 3 books that might be of interest to you:

      Brian Daley: The Handbook of Patristic Eschatology 1991: Which argues that early Christianity was primarily an apocalyptic faith.

      Steven Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins

      Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Which looks Essenes as actual holy warriors preparing to fight an apocalyptic war.

  4. […] a positive role for violence in the movement of history. Certainly this must be the main thing: ideas that give rise to extreme violence tend to be theories of history that look at violence as som…Though, even here we need to be historically careful, for the American Civil War which resulted in […]

  5. […] there is the question of time horizon. As Stewart Brand suggested to the religious scholar Elaine Pagels the attraction of the ambiguity of a “prophetic” text like the Book of Revelation is that […]

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