The Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, has some of the most dramatic and frightening language in the Bible.
In her new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Princeton University religious professor Elaine Pagels places the Book of Revelation in its historical context and explores where the book's apocalyptic vision of the end of the world comes from.
"The Book of Revelation fascinates me because it's very different than anything else you find in the New Testament," Pagels tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There's no moral sermons or ethical ideas or edifying things. It's all visions. That's why it appeals so much to artists and musicians and poets throughout the century."
Pagels says the Book of Revelation's author, who calls himself John, was likely a refugee whose home in Jerusalem had been leveled by the Romans in response to a Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire.
"I don't think we understand this book until we understand that it's wartime literature," she says. "It comes out of that war, and it comes out of people who have been destroyed by war."
Other images in Revelation — which include bright red beasts with seven heads, and dragons, monsters and cosmic eruptions — were likely influenced by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried and destroyed the city of Pompeii, she says.
"Most people think John was writing at about the year 90 in the first century. That would be 60 years after the death of Jesus, and the eruption of Vesuvius happened in the year 79," she says. "Much of what we find in the Book of Revelation couched in the fantastic imagery are descriptions of events that for John were very close — the war in Jerusalem, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Roman Emperors who were ruling at the time. ... It seems as though [John] reacted to that, saying, 'Jesus is coming and he is going to destroy all of this.' It was John's conviction that the destruction of Jerusalem was the beginning of the end of time that Jesus had predicted."
Many of the images in the book, she says, are thinly disguised metaphors for images associated with the ruling powers in Rome. The great scarlet beast with seven heads and seven crowns, for example, may represent the emperors from the dynasty of Julius Caesar, says Pagels. And the name of the beast — which is not named but is represented by the numbers 666 — may refer to Emperor Nero.
"This is a reference to the technique of calculating numbers and letters," she says, "so that you can take anyone's name and have a numerical value of each letter, and you add them up or multiply them in complicated ways, and you find out what the name is. ... John would have wanted his readers to understand that that number, which is couched in a mysterious code, would be understood to his readers as the name of one of those emperors who destroyed his people."
Shortly after John wrote the Book of Revelation, Christians fearing persecution from the Romans seized on his message, seeing it as a way of deliverance from evil. For the past 2000 years, Christians have been reading Revelation as if it applies to conflicts and struggles in their own time, says Pagels.
"If you read it as John intended, you think, 'God is on our side; we of course are on the side of good,' " she says. "Now we could be Lutherans fighting against the Catholic Church, we could be Catholics fighting against Lutherans. ... What I found so remarkable is the way that people on both sides of a conflict could read that same book against each other."
In the Civil War, she says, Northerners were reading John's prophecies as God's judgments for America's sins of slavery.
" 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' resounds with all of those imageries of the Book of Revelation," she says. "People in the South, in the Confederacy, were also using the Book of Revelation, seeing the war as the battle of Armageddon at the end times, and using it against the North. And that's the way it was read in World War II. That's even the way it was read in the war in Iraq."