Elaine Pagels on the cultural impact of the book of Revelation

A somewhat disappointing talk by Pagels tonight. I was interested to hear her stress the importance of Judaism as a context for John and Revelation, specifically the Jewish Wars. It’s obvious on one level, of course, with the stress in the book on Jerusalem’s destruction but she seemed to suggest that the author’s Judaism was in some way more important for making sense of the visions than his belief that Jesus Christ was the Messiah.

I think you can do that only if you separate out the letters to the seven churches from the visions. For if the same audience is implied then the most important context is the relationship between Christianity and the empire, not Judaism and the empire. I’m still convinced that the book’s overall message is not only to stand firm in the face of persecution, but to force readers to come to see Rome in the same light as the author does, as the great enemy of God.

That’s one of the points of apocalyptic literature like Revelation–to help the reader see the world in a new way, where there is no gray area, just black and white and as the angel said to the church of Laodicea:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16

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