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 near-2,000 years 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.