Why has it had such a powerful recurring effect on Western culture?
"St. John the Evangelist at Patmos," by Alonso Cano, c. 1645 (Wikimedia)
Among contemporary forms of Christianity oriented around a belief in the (more or less imminent) coming of an end-time for the world, the final book of the New Testament is often thought to contain clues to the historical timing of Jesus' return to humanity. Jesus himself may say elsewhere in the Bible that "about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32). But if you believe in a literal second-coming of Christ, attended by a literal Apocalypse, the mystery is when, and how, and Revelation is the closest thing you have to a set of clues.
From another perspective, the greater mystery may be the book itself: Who was its author, John of Patmos? Why did he write it? And why has it been as influential as it has, as recurringly as it has, in the nearly two millennia since?
As Elaine Pagels, Princeton's Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion and the author of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, explained at the Aspen Ideas Festival today, John -- about whom we know very little -- wrote Revelation as a refugee from Rome's war against the partisans of the first century's Great Revolt, after the Empire had exhaustively slaughtered its rebelling Jews. He was among the few devastated by this war who believed that Jesus of Nazareth had been sent into the world by God, and that Jesus would come back to rule the world from Jerusalem as God's messiah. As he made his way to Patmos, a small island in the Aegean Sea, Pagels said, John became absorbed with the seeming failure of early-Christian prophecy of Jesus' return.
The Book of Revelation is John's account of a vision that he attests to having received directly from God as a new prophecy of Christ's impending triumph over evil in the world. It's a story of hope, but one told in the idiom of a nightmare -- with the descent of plagues, dragons, and angels warring with Satan's armies. Throughout history, Pagels said, "people have been able to plug those into the strife that they've been experiencing" and find meaning in it.
Just for instance:
"The Horseman of Death," Jean Colombe's representation of the fourth rider of the Apocalypse, from the Limbourg brothers' illuminated manuscript, the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-16)
Lucas Cranach illustration from the 1522 publication of Martin Luther's translation of the New Testament, depicting the pope as the Whore of Babylon
The cover to Thomas Hobbes's classic of political philosophy, Leviathan (1651), which extends the metaphor of the modern state as a beast
Janitor and artist James Hampton's "Throne Room," constructed for Christ's return out of scavenged materials (1950-64)
A Dr. Seuss cartoon lampooning Charles Lindbergh's sympathy for Europe's fascist powers during World War II
The lyrics to Julia Ward Howe's abolitionist anthem, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," first published on the cover of the February 1862 issue of our magazine
Judy Garland singing "Battle Hymn" on her CBS show in 1963, after President Kennedy's assassination