In a new book on those end pages, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation” (Viking), Elaine Pagels sets out gently to bring their portents back to earth. She accepts that Revelation was probably written, toward the end of the first century C.E., by a refugee mystic named John on the little island of Patmos, just off the coast of modern Turkey. (Though this John was not, she insists, the disciple John of Zebedee, whom Jesus loved, or the author of the Gospel that bears the same name.)
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… 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.