Pagels then shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look. “When John says that ‘the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth,’ he revises Daniel’s vision to picture Rome as the worst empire of all,” Pagels writes. “When he says that the beast’s seven heads are ‘seven kings,’ John probably means the Roman emperors who ruled from the time of Augustus until his own time.” As for the creepy 666, the “number of the beast,” the original text adds, helpfully, “Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person.” This almost certainly refers—by way of Gematria, the Jewish numerological system—to the contemporary Emperor Nero. Even John’s vision of a great mountain exploding is a topical reference to the recent eruption of Vesuvius, in C.E. 79. Revelation is a highly colored picture of the present, not a prophecy of the future.
What’s more original to Pagels’s book is the view that Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic. That is, it was written by an expatriate follower of Jesus who wanted the movement to remain within an entirely Jewish context, as opposed to the “Christianity” just then being invented by St. Paul, who welcomed uncircumcised and trayf-eating Gentiles into the sect. At a time when no one quite called himself “Christian,” in the modern sense, John is prophesying what would happen if people did. That’s the forward-looking worry in the book. “In retrospect, we can see that John stood on the cusp of an enormous change—one that eventually would transform the entire movement from a Jewish messianic sect into ‘Christianity,’ a new religion flooded with Gentiles,” Pagels writes. “But since this had not yet happened—not, at least, among the groups John addressed in Asia Minor—he took his stand as a Jewish prophet charged to keep God’s people holy, unpolluted by Roman culture. So, John says, Jesus twice warns his followers in Asia Minor to beware of ‘blasphemers’ among them, ‘who say they are Jews, and are not.’ They are, he says, a ‘synagogue of Satan.’ ”