The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible, and the most controversial. Instead of stories and moral teaching, it offers only visions—dreams and nightmares, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, earthquakes, plagues and war. In the climactic battle scene, Jesus appears as a divine warrior, Satan is thrown into a pit, and all humans who had died faithful to God reign over the earth for 1,000 years.
The author, John of Patmos, was a Jewish prophet and a follower of Jesus who probably began to write around the year 90 after fleeing a war that had ravaged his homeland, Judea. But his Book of Revelation wasn’t unique. At the time, countless others—Jews, pagans and Christians—produced a flood of “books of revelation,” claiming to reveal divine secrets. Some have been known for centuries; about 20 others were found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/The Bridgeman Art Library‘Luca Giordano’s Archangel Michael Overthrows the Rebel Angel,’ circa 1660-5, based on Revelation 12:7-9.
So what do the other revelations tell us, and how did John’s come to trump the others? Unlike the Book of Revelation, the great majority of the others weren’t about the end of the world, but about finding the divine in it now. Many offered encouragement to seek direct contact with God—a message that some early Christian leaders ultimately chose to suppress.
The Revelation of Zostrianos, found in 1945, tells how the young author, tormented by questions and overwhelmed by depression, walked alone into the desert. Finding no place “to rest my spirit,” Zostrianos says he had resolved to kill himself. But he says that suddenly he became aware of a being radiating light, who “said to me, ‘Zostrianos…have you gone mad?’ ”
This divine presence, Zostrianos says, released him from despair and offered illumination. Then, Zostrianos says, “I realized that the power in me was greater than the darkness, because it contained the whole light.”
Another 1945 find, the Revelation of Peter, similarly opens in a desperate moment. Peter says he was standing in the temple with other disciples when “I saw the priests and the people running up to us with stones, as if they would kill us.” Terrified, he says, he heard Jesus tell him to “put your hands…over your eyes, and say what you see.” Peter sees nothing. Jesus tells him to do it again. Peter says: “And fear came over me, [and] joy, for I saw a new light greater than the light of day. Then it came down upon the Savior, and I told him what I saw.”
Although such revelations might not change outward circumstances—tradition tells us that, just as Peter feared, he was caught and crucified—the Revelation of Peter suggests that what Jesus revealed enabled him to face his death with courage and hope.
These other revelations, written several generations after Jesus’ death, were often written by anonymous followers of Jesus under the names of disciples—not to deceive their readers but to show that they were writing “in the spirit” of those whose names they borrowed. Many were probably not written by Christians at all. Some of the revelations drew upon sacred traditions of Egypt and Greece and, in some cases, on the Hebrew Bible. Others included practices similar to Buddhist meditation techniques.
The Secret Revelation of John opens, again, in crisis. The disciple John, grieving Jesus’ death, is walking toward the temple when he meets a Pharisee who mocks him for having been deceived by a false messiah. These taunts echoed John’s own fear and doubt. Devastated, John turns away from the temple and heads toward the desert, where, he says, “I grieved greatly in my heart.”
Suddenly, he says, he saw brilliant light as the heavens opened, and the earth shook beneath his feet. Terrified, John says he saw a luminous presence that kept changing form, and then heard Jesus’ voice: “John, John, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid?…I am the one who is with you always. I am the Father; I am the Mother; I am the Son.”
The Jesus who appears in the Secret Revelation doesn’t look as he does in the Book of Revelation. Instead of a divine warrior leading heavenly armies to “strike down the nations,” he appears as the apostle Paul says he saw him—in blazing light and a heavenly voice, and then in changing forms: first as a child, then as an old man, then—and here scholars disagree—either as a servant or as a woman. Through a series of visions and imagery, the Secret Revelation suggests that what is revealed to John is potentially available to all people—or, at least, to all who are receptive to what the spirit teaches.
In the fourth century, bishops intent on establishing “orthodoxy” labored to suppress writings like the Secret Revelation. Although they didn’t deny that Jesus was human, they tended to place Jesus on the divine side of the equation—not only divine but, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “God from God…essentially the same as God.” Orthodox theologians insisted that the rest of humankind were only transitory creatures, lost in sin—a view that would support what would become their dominant teaching about salvation, offered only through Christ, and, in particular, through the church they claimed to represent.
From the second century, Christian leaders, who saw their close groups torn apart as Roman magistrates arrested and executed their most outspoken members, felt that John’s Book of Revelation spoke directly to these crises because it prophesied God’s victory over Rome. Such Christians championed this book above the rest. Some challenged other books of revelation, with their more universal visions, calling them illegitimate and heretical.
Throughout the ages, Christians have adapted John of Patmos’s visions to changing times, reading their own social, political and religious conflicts into the cosmic war he so powerfully evokes. Yet his Book of Revelation appeals not only to fear and desires for vengeance but also to hope. As John tells how the chaotic events of the world are finally set right by divine judgment, those who engage his visions often see them offering moral meaning in times of suffering or apparently random catastrophe. Many poets, artists and preachers have claimed to find in these prophecies the promise, famously repeated by Martin Luther King Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The Book of Revelation reads as if John had wrapped up all our worst fears—fears of violence, plague, wild animals, unimaginable horrors from the abyss below the earth, lightning, hail, earthquakes and the atrocities or torture and war—into one gigantic nightmare. Yet this worst of all nightmares ends not in terror but in a glorious new world. Whether one sees in John’s visions the destruction of the whole world or the dark tunnel that propels each of us toward our own death, his final vision suggests that even after the worst we can imagine has happened, we may find the astonishing gift of new life. Whether or not one shares that conviction, few readers miss seeing how these visions offer consolation and that most necessary of divine gifts—hope.
—Excerpted from “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation,” to be published by Viking Tuesday.A version of this article appeared Mar. 3, 2012, on page C3 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What Revelation Reveals.