Reading revelation

Reading revelation

Is there a difference between divine justice and divine retribution? Religious studies scholars Elaine Pagels and Laurie Maffly-Kipp discuss the Book of Revelation and how it has been interpreted across time, as well as the personal side of their writing and research.


Laurie Maffly-Kipp is the director of religious studies in Arts & Sciences. 


Laurie Maffly-Kipp: Welcome to WashU, Elaine. It's really wonderful to have you here.

Elaine Pagels: Thank you. I'm delighted.

LMK: I wanted to start by talking a little bit about the Book of Revelation and your book Revelations about the Book of Revelation. I wonder if we could start by talking about why you chose to write about that book, in particular.

EP: What happened is actually that I hadn't thought too much about that book. It's not a favorite of mine, although it's a very extraordinary book - enormously visual and enormously popular. When George Bush decided to go into Iraq and invade, he did so using the Book of Revelation as a template. There's a lot about that, and I can be very specific about it. I was thinking, "How does he take this 2,000 -year-old book, and what is it about the way it's written that allows someone to claim to read current events out of it, and has allowed people for 2,000 years to read enormously different scenarios out of it?" I was trying to figure that out. I began to read it carefully. There was so much written about the Book of Revelation, what business do I have writing another book? But this isn't about what it meant. It's about who wrote it, why did he write it this way, and how is it written in such a way that it evokes an enormous cultural response the way it has.

LMK: Can you tell us a little bit about what the Book of Revelation is?

EP: Yes. There's one book in the New Testament called the Book of Revelation. It's the strangest book there is. It's the most challenging; it always has been. It's the one at the end of the New Testament, which picks up a lot of the Hebrew prophecies about when the end of the world coming and how will everything end. We start with Genesis at the beginning of the Bible, and the last book is about the end of time.

The Book of Revelation is a series of prophetic dreams in which a prophet claims to have been taken up into heaven and seen all kinds of amazing things - seen God's judgment coming on the Earth, seen the destruction of the world and then the recreation of the world, destruction of the damned and the blessing of the righteous - justice finally done on earth. It's an amazing book, and it has been read by people for 2,000 years as a book about hope for justice when they don't see any and hope for a good ending when they're dealing with a lot of struggle. And it continues to work that way.

LMK: You also talk in the book a lot about the other revelations written around the same time. I wonder if you could say a little more about that.

EP: Yes. Some people critical of my book said, "She doesn't even know that it's revelation, not revelations!" But of course I wasn't writing simply about the book in the New Testament. Rather suddenly, I thought, wait a minute, there were other Gnostic Gospels besides the New Testament Gospels, and there were other Revelations - lots of them. Lots of the texts found with the secret gospels in Egypt are Revelation texts. What makes them different? Why is this one in the New Testament?

LMK: Why is it in the New Testament? Can you say more about why you think that's the one that ended up being canonized?

EP: It's different from almost all the others in the sense that it's about, as you know, the end of the world. It's about the judgment of evil doers. I think it's because in the second century, it spoke very deeply to Christians who were being arrested and tortured and seeing their fellow Christians executed for being Christians. When they saw that, they understood how John of Patmos hated the Romans, hated the Roman Empire, and prophesied that it was going to be totally destroyed in the last judgment. They wanted to see that. It was the only hope they had because Christians were helpless against the power of Rome. So I think it's the martyrs and the martyrdoms that made this book speak so powerfully about, well, even though Rome is an overwhelming force and you have no way to contest it, God will destroy them.

LMK: You describe John's vision as wartime literature. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how war might have influenced his beliefs about the messiah and what that meant.

EP: Well indeed. We think this man is a refugee from the Jewish War of 66 to 70 C.E., in the first century. My own view is that when you read the Gospel of Mark Chapter 13, Mark says that Jesus prophesied that after his death within a generation there would be terrible, terrible war - such suffering as the world has never seen - and Jerusalem would be surrounded with armies, and the holy places would be desecrated, and horrible things were going to happen. Mark must have believed that he prophesied these things. Some of us were told in graduate school, well he couldn't have known, so it was just added later. But it makes no sense that Mark would write with such conviction or that John of Patmos would write with such conviction unless he deeply believed that Jesus had prophesied it. So that book comes out of seeing his people destroyed, the holy city of Jerusalem reduced to absolute smoldering rubble. I mean today, you go to Jerusalem and you see the rubble that once was the great temple of God. John was so distraught by that, I think, that he wrote this prophecy and the conviction that God would not allow the evildoers to prevail forever.

LMK: So was this more about retribution, or a promise of divine justice, or both?

EP: Well they're not so different in this book, are they? This is what the prophet said in Isaiah 27, and in different parts of Isaiah 60 - it's all about how Israel's enemies will be punished and they'll be humiliated. They'll be brought down. The nations that oppressed you will bow down to you. They'll all come and give homage to the Lord's Messiah, which means the king of Israel. So the prophecy and revelation actually is that the Messiah, which would be Jesus, will rule in Jerusalem, come down from heaven. Jerusalem will descend from heaven, creating a new heaven and new earth right here, and all the nations of the earth will come toward the center of the universe, which will be Jerusalem. So it's quite a literal prophecy. Yes, divine justice and divine retribution, John would say - what's the difference?

LMK: And reconciliation, at the end of the day.

EP: In a sense, yes. Because the nations are invited in.

LMK: This is a theme that you have seen, and you allude to the fact that this carries on throughout history. Obviously this text - it's been around for 2,000 years - has resonated in a lot of different political and social situations. This is perhaps speculative on your part, but do you think that's just a human tendency to want to find either retribution or justice in such situations?

EP: Oh yes. Recently it's become sort of chic for academics to talk about the violence in the Bible and the violence in the Book of Revelation. And yeah, this is a violent book! There's a lot not to like about it. But I thought, I don't think anyone could understand it as well as someone, say, in Syria whose town, home, family, neighborhood had been bombed and destroyed and ravaged deliberately by foreign armies. Somebody in that situation - I can't imagine it. But people in that situation, I think, would immediately identify with this.

LMK: So it continues to be, as you said, not just a way to express anger and vengeance but also to provide hope.

EP: Anger and vengeance is something the Lord promises in the Hebrew Bible against people who do the wrong thing. And it's not inappropriate to hope for it.

LMK: Right, I think we forgot some of that.

EP: Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. It's justice. When the abolitionists like John Brown invoked this book, or Julia Ward Howe writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic invoked this book against America's sin of slavery, it's justice they want - and it's retribution.

LMK: Well it also can, as you've alluded to, justify more horrific action down the road from people who feel that they are called by God to be part of God's army as a way of bringing about the devastation of their enemies.

EP: Oh indeed. And it's been used that way, as you know. The difference, some people suggest, is whether the people receiving the message of the apocalypse are the victims of violence or are the perpetrators. And it's been used both ways.

LMK: What in particular do you think there is about the images here that are so resonant? Is it the language? Is it these these striking images? Or all of the above?

EP: You know, I think you're right. I think it is the images. Any child could dream about dragons and monsters and witches and evil women drinking blood. I mean, you see this in Disney movies. It's not the whore of Babylon, but you see some pretty horrific villains.

LMK: Right, closer to Grimm's fairytales, maybe.

EP: This is stuff of nightmares. What makes it so easy to plug into any conflict is that these are just images of horror. When Revelation talks about the evil doers, it doesn't so much tell you what they do, it just says 'the dogs, the evil doers, the filthy, the lascivious.' You can apply that to anyone you don't like. It's good against evil, and of course we're good and you're evil, depending on whoever you are or we are, or we think we are. That's what intrigued me most - how it can be used in the same conflict on both sides.

LMK: How do you break that cycle of justification and retribution in the world?

EP: When I was working on the book on the origin of Satan, I became convinced that I couldn't use the word evil about a person. I can use it about actions. There are definitely evil actions, there's no question. But to call a whole group of people evil or good is a habit in the culture. It's very much enshrined in the Bible. It's a way of interpreting conflict. There has to be a good and evil side, right? But no, there often isn't. It's two parties with different issues, different concerns, different needs - sometimes conflicting ones.

I just think that ancient habit - which is inculcated by books like this - is one that we can't afford in the 21st century without destroying the planet. That's why I wanted people to become aware that that's what this book does. It teaches people to interpret conflict that way. And it's not the only way to interpret conflict. I think maybe we ought to unlearn it.


LMK: So one of the striking things to me about your work is how you have such an ability to humanize early Christians. I consider your texts to be deeply human works, even though they are about texts. You have found ways to link your own questions about inspiration, truth, and evil to the concerns of writers in antiquity. I wonder how you have found your readers and listeners responding to that. Did they make the connections, as well?


EP: I think so. You know you say I wrote about texts; you do, too. The texts are about people and their concerns. They raise concerns that, if they weren't ones that we share to some extent or in slightly different language, or maybe different conceptual frameworks, we wouldn't be even interested in reading that stuff. I got fascinated by the history of religion because it engages issues that do concern me. I never write about anything that doesn't. So I think that that's palpable.

LMK: As academics I think we all deal with other academics who see the popularity of our work as a negative thing. That's somehow seen as a bad thing, to be popular among broader audiences. It seems to me that your work opens up the study of late antiquity to new kinds of questions, and it's helped renew appreciation of religious studies and what religious studies as a field can be all about. It's not just Bible study or Sunday school; it's an intellectual pursuit of fundamental relevance to contemporary concerns. How do you think scholars in the field can do more to enable those kinds of communications?

EP: It's a great question. I think what gives popularising a bad name is when people simply write what my late husband used to call 'conventional wisdom in the field' as if it were a discovery. Like, 'Guess what, there are two versions of creation in Genesis. Wow.' Or, 'martyrdom is not such a big issue because after all there weren't that many martyrs.' We all know that. So I decided, I'm never going to write what everybody knows and just try to make it sound like I'm a big deal for knowing it. I only wanted to write original work. The reason I did it for other audiences is that my husband was a physicist and his friends thought my field was just really weird. I wanted to say, you know it's really very exciting. They thought, she's just hooked on Sunday school or something. I wanted to say, 'No, this is really exciting stuff.' So I was writing for people who were physicists and dentists and conductors on trains, or anybody who'd be interested in the subject who just didn't happen to be in my field. It's not a matter of condescending because these are people who know a lot about things I know nothing about. And it's not about just conventional wisdom. It's trying to share the excitement of the discoveries we make with people who wouldn't otherwise have access to them if we don't write it in a way that they can read.

LMK: I think it takes an incredible kind of talent to be able to render in language that's comprehensible. We get stuck in our jargon and in various fields.

EP: We do, Laurie, but it's just the same as teaching. When you're teaching, you can't use jargon. You have to think, 'How does a student come to this text, and how would they look at that? What would they think is odd?' So we try to speak to them.

LMK: When you began to write your academic work, did you have other kinds of models of writing in your head? What reading had you done that really excited you in the way that it approached subjects?

EP: It's an interesting question. The Gnostic Gospels was dedicated to two friends. One is a poet, and the other is a playwright. We were all in a dance group together, improvising, and I felt that my work was a lot like theirs. It's different. It's not fiction because it's responsible to data, but it does take imagination and it does take working with a craft of trying to write well. I still do that, just endless drafts, to try to make writing as clear as possible.

LMK: Sometimes I find that for me, the best models for my writing are not in my field at all.

EP: What do you find?

LMK: Fiction and poetry have both been really important to how I think about plotting a book. Jane Austen - I love Jane Austen. There's something about clarity of writing and precision of writing. Not that I could model her or any other great authors, but I try to think about the writing task not just as a task of conveying information but of rendering it in a narrative that is going to be compelling.

EP: Yes. I particularly like books like one by Eric Kandel called When Memory Comes. He's a neurologist who writes about why he's a neurologist, why he writes about memory. I don't know if you know his work, but it started when he was six years old and his family had to leave Germany because they were Jews, and he remembers. It's a lot about memory and what memory means to him and what memory means to his people. Then he writes about how he became a neurologist. I recently read Oliver Sacks book about the river of consciousness, which talks about how as a child he was interested in outdoors and how we perceive. I find that very interesting, the way people's curiosity is sparked by - whatever.

LMK: Sometimes I think this is what we miss in the disciplinary focus of our universities and our work into these categories of science and humanities and the arts. We miss the fact that I think for most of us, we're inspired in a lot of different ways by a lot of different fields. The best scholars, like you, draw from physics or neuroscience or other places to get ideas for how to convey information how to communicate.

EP: I think that may be. One of my graduate students was startled when I talked about the connection between the events in my life and what I'm writing. She thought that in history, you're not supposed to admit that you have a personal stake in it. And I thought, if you don't have a personal stake in it - whether you're writing about Shakespeare or Mozart or World War II or China or French poetry - there's some way that this catches you, that it speaks to something that matters. How do you talk about that? You don't have to talk autobiographically, but you have to talk about what matters. I just finished writing about why I do the work I do. A very short book - it's called Why Religion: A Personal Story. It's why I write huh, and why I write this, and why I loved to write.

LMK: Fantastic. I think in religious studies in particular it's been a sticky issue. Since the 60s, the field has tried to define itself over against the study of theology or what goes on in seminaries. Religious Studies has moved so far toward trying to claim a stance of objectivity that it's hard to know how to find your way back to that place where you can talk about about what you love about this, even if it's not a part of your own tradition.

EP: I didn't think of it just in our field. In Princeton, there's the Institute for Advanced Study. It was set up by people who didn't like the humanities. They wanted only science, so they are social science, they have physical science, and they have mathematics, and they have history. Now, nobody told them that history isn't a science - at least the way I do it. Historians use to pretend it was objective. I'm not saying there aren't criteria or that there are no facts because there are, but rather that history is interpretation. I never thought that it was a science. I think pretending that it is, is a lack of humility. Because my perspective, like anyone's, is shaped by particular events.

LMK: Yes. I think history in particular teeters on the edge of being defined either as a humanistic discipline or as a social science. At different universities where I've taught, it's under the purview of the humanities, and in other places it's been part of the social sciences. In part because it does both. And of course religious studies is even more interdisciplinary than that, drawing from the arts or from music or from the sciences. How we can talk about those interdisciplinary fields? It seems to me you have to talk about what excites you about them and what what perspective you bring to that study.

EP: Not necessarily talk in the first person about it, but to convey what is exciting about it. That is obviously what matters.