By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) – The anti-Christ. The Battle of Armageddon. The dreaded Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
You don’t have to be a student of religion to recognize references from the Book of Revelation. The last book in the Bible has fascinated readers for centuries. People who don’t even follow religion are nonetheless familiar with figures and images from Revelation.
And why not? No other New Testament book reads like Revelation. The book virtually drips with blood and reeks of sulfur. At the center of this final battle between good and evil is an action-hero-like Jesus, who is in no mood to turn the other cheek.
Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars, first read Revelation as a teenager. She read it again in writing her latest book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.”
Pagels’ book is built around a simple question: What does Revelation mean? Her answers may disturb people who see the book as a prophecy about the end of the world.
But people have clashed over the meaning of Revelation ever since it was virtually forced into the New Testament canon over the protests of some early church leaders, Pagels says.
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“There were always debates about it,” she says. “Some people said a heretic wrote it. Some said a disciple. There were always people who loved and championed it.”
The debate persists. Pagels adds to it by challenging some of the common assumptions about Revelation.
Here are what she says are four big myths about Revelation::
1. It’s about the end of the world
Anyone who has read the popular “Left Behind” novels or listened to pastors preaching about the “rapture” might see Revelation as a blow-by-blow preview of how the world will end.
Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation was actually describing the way his own world ended.
She says the writer of Revelation may have been called John – the book is sometimes called “Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine” but he was not the disciple who accompanied Jesus. He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos, off the coast of present-day Greece.
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“He would have been a very simple man in his clothes and dress,” Pagels says. “He may have gone from church to church preaching his message. He seems more like a traveling preacher or a prophet.”
The author of Revelation had experienced a catastrophe. He wrote his book not long after 60,000 Roman soldiers had stormed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., burned down its great temple and left the city in ruins after putting down an armed Jewish revolt.
For some of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem was incomprehensible. They had expected Jesus to return “with power” and conquer Rome before inaugurating a new age. But Rome had conquered Jesus’ homeland instead.
The author of Revelation was trying to encourage the followers of Jesus at a time when their world seemed doomed. Think of the Winston Churchill radio broadcasts delivered to the British during the darkest days of World War II.
Revelation was an anti-Roman tract and a piece of war propaganda wrapped in one. The message: God would return and destroy the Romans who had destroyed Jerusalem.
“His primary target is Rome,” Pagels says of the book’s author. “He really is deeply angry and grieved at the Jewish war and what happened to his people.”
2. The numerals 666 stand for the devil
The 1976 horror film “The Omen” scared a lot of folks. It may have scared some theologians, too, who began encountering people whose view of Revelation comes from a Hollywood movie.
“The Omen” depicted the birth and rise of the “anti-Christ,” the cunning son of Satan who would be known by “the mark of the beast,” 666, on his body.
Here’s the passage from Revelation that “The Omen” alluded to: “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.”
Good movies, though, don’t always make good theology. Most people think 666 stands for an anti-Christ-like figure that will deceive humanity and trigger a final battle between good and evil. Some people think he’s already here.
Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation didn’t really intend 666 as the devil’s digits. He was describing another incarnation of evil: The Roman emperor, Nero.
The arrogant and demented Nero was particularly despised by the earliest followers of Jesus, including the writer of Revelation. Nero was said to have burned followers of Jesus alive to illuminate his garden.
But the author of Revelation couldn’t safely name Nero, so he used the Jewish numerology system to spell out Nero’s imperial name, Pagels says.
Pagels says that John may have had in mind other meanings for the mark of the beast: the imperial stamp Romans used on official documents, tattoos authorizing people to engage in Roman business, or the images of Roman emperors on stamps and coins.
Since Revelation’s author writes in “the language of dreams and nightmares,” Pagels says it’s easy for outsiders to misconstrue the book’s original meaning.
Still, they take heart from Revelation’s larger message, she writes:
“…Countless people for thousands of years have been able to see their own conflicts, fears, and hopes reflected in his prophecies. And because he speaks from his convictions about divine justice, many readers have found reassurance in his conviction that there is meaning in history – even when he does not say exactly what that meaning is – and that there is hope.”
3. The writer of Revelation was a Christian
The author of Revelation hated Rome, but he also scorned another group – a group of people we would call Christians today, Pagels says.
There’s a common perception that there was a golden age of Christianity, when most Christians agreed on an uncontaminated version of the faith. Yet there was never one agreed-upon Christianity. There were always clashing visions.
Revelation reflects some of those early clashes in the church, Pagels says.
That idea isn’t new territory for Pagels. She won the National Book Award for “The Gnostic Gospels,” a 1979 book that examined a cache of newly discovered “secret” gospels of Jesus. The book, along with other work from Pagels, argues that there were other accounts of Jesus’ life that were suppressed by early church leaders because it didn’t fit with their agenda.
The author of Revelation was like an activist crusading for traditional values. In his case, he was a devout Jew who saw Jesus as the messiah. But he didn’t like the message that the apostle Paul and other followers of Jesus were preaching.
This new message insisted that gentiles could become followers of Jesus without adopting the requirements of the Torah. It accepted women leaders, and intermarriage with gentiles, Pagels says.
The new message was a lot like what we call Christianity today.
That was too much for the author of Revelation. At one point, he calls a woman leader in an early church community a “Jezebel.” He calls one of those gentile-accepting churches a “synagogue of Satan.”
John was defending a form of Christianity that would be eclipsed by the Christians he attacked, Pagels says.
“What John of Patmos preached would have looked old-fashioned – and simply wrong to Paul’s converts…,” she writes.
The author of Revelation was a follower of Jesus, but he wasn’t what some people would call a Christian today, Pagels says.
“There’s no indication that he read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or that he read the gospels or Paul’s letters,” she says. “….He doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins.”
4. There is only one Book of Revelation
There’s no other book in the Bible quite like Revelation, but there are plenty of books like Revelation that didn’t make it into the Bible, Pagels says.
Early church leaders suppressed an “astonishing” range of books that claimed to be revelations from apostles such as Peter and James. Many of these books were read and treasured by Christians throughout the Roman Empire, she says.
There was even another “Secret Revelation of John.” In this one, Jesus wasn’t a divine warrior, but someone who first appeared to the apostle Paul as a blazing light, then as a child, an old man and, some scholars say, a woman.
So why did the revelation from John of Patmos make it into the Bible, but not the others?
Pagels traces that decision largely to Bishop Athanasius, a pugnacious church leader who championed Revelation about 360 years after the death of Jesus.
Athanasius was so fiery that during his 46 years as bishop he was deposed and exiled five times. He was primarily responsible for shaping the New Testament while excluding books he labeled as hearsay, Pagels says.
Many church leaders opposed including Revelation in the New Testament. Athanasius’s predecessor said the book was “unintelligible, irrational and false.”
Athanasius, though, saw Revelation as a useful political tool. He transformed it into an attack ad against Christians who questioned him.
Rome was no longer the enemy; those who questioned church authority were the anti-Christs in Athanasius’s reading of Revelation, Pagels says.
“Athanasius interprets Revelation’s cosmic war as a vivid picture of his own crusade against heretics and reads John’s visions as a sharp warning to Christian dissidents,” she writes. “God is about to divide the saved from the damned – which now means dividing the ‘orthodox’ from ‘heretics.’ ’’
Centuries later, Revelation still divides people. Pagels calls it the strangest and most controversial book in the Bible.
Even after writing a book about it, Pagels has hardly mastered its meaning.
“The book is the hardest one in the Bible to understand,” Pagels says. “I don’t think anyone completely understands it.”
But if Revelation isn't about the end of the world, what will scare good little Christians into doing what their religious leaders say, without question? Oh that's right, there is the hellfire teaching. Phew, for a second, I thought Christians would have to stop being delusional. That was a close one.
Patmos is in Greece not Turkey. Doesn't CNN research their articles?
Patmos is the norther most island in present day Greece. Read a few history books before you critize others, all the Greek islands have been under the control of other governments at different times.
I'm not sure who Elaine Pagels is, but she doesn't understand The Revelation at all! This is HER interpretation, not GOD'S interpretation. The Bible says "not to add to or take away from the written Word of God."
Ironic that the Nicene Coucil decided to leave that part in.
All have sinned and greatly offended the Holy God of the bible. The just punishment is death then Hell. That's not God's will. He became a man in the person of Jesus Christ and suffered and died on the croos paying for the law you broke in His life's blood now He can legally dismiss your case. You must repent turn from sin and trust alone in Jesus Christ for your eternal salvation.
Please read this standard definition of being deluded and tell me that you are not deluded. Once you realize that you really are we politely ask that you seek some mental health and live in this world and be productive.
an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder: the delusion of being watched.
" The just punishment is death then Hell. That's not God's will. "
Of course it's your god's will. He claims both omnipotence and omniscience. He knew, before he even created the universe, who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. You cannot show up where god does not know you will end up. Thus, your god purposefully creates billions and billions of people for the sole purpose of torturing them for all eternity.
The only people your god is relevant to are those who accept him. Now, get off your knees
Primework: Does seem like sick f word, doesn't "he"?
People made this up to control people. No "god" in it.
Yeah, yeah, blah blah blah to you too.
"Here are what she says are four big myths about Revelation::"
And where is the author of this story asking the question, 'how did you arrive at these conclusions?' There is no mention of that in this piece. To me that is the first question that pops to mind when someone takes such a definitive view on a subject like this. How does a so-called professional journalist not even ask that question? What a joke...
He source is nag hammadi
Pagel-You are good at writing nonsense. All those years of study? unbelievable! oh well, can't blame ya if the only religious script you have studied is nag hammadi by Mohammad
The texts are from early gnostic Christians named for the town where they were discovered. Try looking some stuff up once in a while.
ed-that makes you more qualified as babel on this topic..
If Elaine Pagels, is one of the world’s leading biblical scholars she would not have written such absurdities. How about everyone take an honest interest in reading The Book of Revelation for themselves and see what they come up with. Come on give it a go!
I have. And I didn't require a biblical expert to tell me it was nonsense.
Scholarship involves studying all relevant history to give context the the writing in question. Reading the text itself over and over will only provide a very narrow understanding.
a FOOL says in his own heart : there is no God, nuff said to all the educated dummies
There are all sorts of Gods. The trick is finding the right one to worship.
Eenie meenie miney – Quetzlcoatl
an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder: the delusion of being watched.
A fool says it in his heart. A wise man says it in his brain.
That definition is interesting, Voice of Reason, in this sense. Do any of us know ultimately what is real? By this definition, reality is decided by the majority. But is the accepted reality true reality?
Come on Kay! I know what's real, don't you? The definition is real and yes it is interesting because it is the truth, the truth always is interesting if you just take the time and live in the real world. I love abstract thinking but the reality of our existence is a natural one and their are natural laws that keep us alive. We have the huge luxury of being cognizant and aware of ourselves unlike most of our animal friends. It truly is a fascinating process that we have been through to arrive where we are. And we are here, refuting and proving the non-existence of an abstract thought of a god. It is not real in our natural world. It is your choice to believe that there may be but if you so claim there is then you hold the burden of proof. Prove it, you can't.
Wow, quoting a book to those who do not accept the validity of the book. Who is the fool?
C'mon, Voice of Reason. You know as well as I do that scientific discoveries have been made to show that what was once accepted as reality is no longer. Do you doubt there is more to discover?
The fool has said in his heart, "There is no Santa."
II Northpolians 3:28
crossan, The pagan devil, JUDAS ISCARIOT aka CNN
They're probably the ones who are poisoning your corn flakes, too. Better start spreading salt around your doorways.
People are dependant on Symbols, and Religions offer exactly that....Intelligent people use Religion for power and control of Peoples by using Symbolism....If we were to follow what the three main Religions (Christianity, Islamism and Judaism) of today preach.....we are ALL going to burn in hell, no exception, as they ALL say if you don't follow them you are doomed....that's why I believe that Sacred Books should be read as a guide and not blindly followed
Yikes , makes one wanna puke just like this article
Isn't Pagels known for her serious (?) work on Nag Hammadi which was discovered by a Mohammad?
Hey, the writer of the article should state in clear terms what is meant, not force the reader to guess. Otherwise all is subjective and why bother reading anything? "In present-day Turkey" means just what it says. How else can one take that but at face value? No one need read into it. The statement is incorrect. I rest my case. Don't know why you are so concerned about defending the writer of the article, UB. It is an error. Simple as that.
Yes it is. In her book, however, Pagels discusses the sovereignty of Patmos in the past, under Rome, Greece, Turkey, Persia and periods of relative independence.
Thank you SixDegrees for that input. I apologize for posting this in the wrong spot, but I erred as well – – haha.
Matter is energy, energy is matter. The universe is not "solid" as you understand the word, but simply a place of interacting wavelengths and force fields, some negating each other, others supporting each other. You are made of the same thing, as is everything from one end of the universe to the other.
"God" is the universe, and the universe is "God"...YOU are part of "God."
When you pray, you are talking to yourself. When you believe, you are creating reality, as "God" is meant to do.
There, now you know the truth.
Thou art God.
The truth is that you are delusional.
"The best part about debating believing in religion.
If I'm wrong it doesn't matter. If I'm right your screwed."
I bet the untold numbers who have died for the sake of religion throughout the ages would beg to differ...
hmmm.. studying the myths behind the book of myths .. surely there's another way to spend one's time. say... actually LIVING a life insted of being shackled by how someone else wants YOU to think, eat, live, and love. Anybody, and that goes for your "god" as well, who demands that you obey, praise and worship said being is not worthy of any of those things.
Teddy Roosevelt said thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college degree.
He had a rather busy life. When did he say this?
Actually, Pagels' placement of Revelation within its proper historical context is fascinating.
The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.
Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you live your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.
That sounds very reasonable.
They have no case for there is nothing to substantiate.
Rational to a reasonable human is still a lie from the father of them.
Wow, Robert, what an insightful comment.
Most of the book of Revelation is really the imagery of worship as it is in Heaven and as it is in the Catholic mass.As for the end world scenarios...history repeats itself..the bible is a living book..it is a book of prophesy and some fulfilled,some yet to be.As for non-believers and mockers there is not a single person on earth who can convince you of the existence of God..only God in His mercy can reveal Himself to you in a way that you may believe.However to deny His existence and to deny the unseen(supernatural)world which does manifest itself..to go through life clinging only to science..which is just mans way of trying to explain or figure out Gods creation..is to go through life ignorant and blind.There are hundreds of thousands of examples and proof of Gods existence before your very eyes.Therefore when the day comes for you..you will have no excuse before Him and therfore will find yourselves in an eternity without Him.Mock all you want..your mockery is of your own ignorance and peril.I hope that God will remove the scales from your eyes and the stones you have for hearts.
@john You are delusional.
Fortunately, I don't have to respect your beliefs...only your right to have them.
God is going to reveal himself? He can go to jail for that you know, especially if he does it outside of a school.
You live in a fantasy land. You are delusional.
@ John said, "Therefore when the day comes for you..you will have no excuse before Him and therfore will find yourselves in an eternity without Him.Mock all you want..your mockery is of your own ignorance and peril."
All Abrahamic religions survive only with a healthy dose of fear regarding our souls' damnation to hell. This dose of fear overshadows any sweet Bible stories regarding God's love and forgiveness. If you take away the fear and there is little that would compel us to believe any of it. My belief is that God loves all of us – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist – even more than anyone of us can conceive. The component of fear was added by man (and the early church) to push a particular agenda, and to maintain control over the message. In the end, this component of fear has done more damage than it has helped. Stop living Christ's message out of fear, and listen only to what He really taught.
@ John commented, "Therefore when the day comes for you..you will have no excuse before Him and therfore will find yourselves in an eternity without Him.Mock all you want..your mockery is of your own ignorance and peril."
All Abrahamic religions survive only with a healthy dose of fear regarding our souls' da-mnation to h-ell. This dose of fear overshadows any sweet Bible stories regarding God's love and forgiveness. If you take away the fear and there is little that would compel us to believe any of it. My belief is that God loves all of us – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist – even more than anyone of us can conceive. The component of fear was added by man (and the early church) to push a particular agenda, and to maintain control over the message. In the end, this component of fear has done more damage than it has helped. Stop living Christ's message out of fear, and listen only to what He really taught.
"Mock all you want..your mockery is of your own ignorance and peril."
Get off your knees.
john: how do you make the leap from a creator to a being that judges "sin"?
rev. rick: without this supposed damnation, the religions of the middle east are flaccid.
I'm with you John. Lots of good arguments out there, but I think you are right. You know what I think? God made things gray (not always black and white) so that people who did not want to believe could come up with an argument of their choice. God did, however, reveal Himself in the Bible and somehow found a way to give us a book made up of 66 books, many of which were preserved while all other litterature of any length or quality of writing, etc. didn't survive the years. 40 different authors wrote 66 books with a clear introduction, consistent story line and conclusion–over a period of 1,600 years. I think Christianity makes the best case of all faiths, having studied all the major religions, "cults" and variations of Christian theology personallly with the goal of finding the truth. Revelation, by the way, makes the perfect conclusion to the Bible and Jesus Christ as Savior, the perfect story line.
Prayer changes things
Prayer changes lives
Get your head out of the imaginary ass and think for yourself. Life is short and you are wasting it on such drivel.
Talking to yourself in a room and convincing yourself that a magical skydaddy has your back may improve your mood temporarily but it solves nothing. Two hands working hard can do more than a thousand held in prayer.
@Atheism blah blah blah, When? When has prayer ever changed one damn thing? Do you think all the men who lay bleeding out in the fields of war, thousands of miles from home never prayed? Lot of good that did them. I hate it when people start spouting dumb garbage like, "The power of prayer can move mountains. Fact." As if simply stating that something is factual makes it so. A fact is something that can be proven EVERY TIME. Well, where is this proof you seem so sure of? Statistically, prayer works a whopping .001% of the time. For those of you who have an rudimentary understanding of math, that's a really crappy success rate. And yet, there are those who cling to it and insist that appealing to a higher power is how we should go about solving world problems. Sounds a lot like the mentality of a child who doesn't want to do his homework and thinks that if they ask dad in a nice enough way, he'll do it for them, absolving them from any responsibility and completely failing to learn from the lesson. So basically, it's a conceited cowardice, or perhaps a cowardly conceit. Either way, relying on mysticism to save one's self is fool-hearted at best, utterly ridiculous at worst. I've got an idea, how about a new commandment? Number 11: Do God a solid, handle your own problems.
Ok, let's see the proof. You can copy and paste here – citations, please.
Prayer is delusional.
Elaine Pagels, "one of the world's leading biblical scholars?" You're kidding, right? She may be a "leading biblical scholar" to people who prefer their theology cooked up with a big helping of shallow pop culture references, but among actual scholars she is not only a light weight, she is a joke. Although I haven't read this book, nor will I feel especially compelled to do so, I can tell from your review that once again what we'll get is questionable scholarship by a woman is more interested in seeing her name on CNN and Time than actually critical scholarship.
Please, next time you write about a biblical scholar's work, give us the work of a reputable scholar, someone like Walter Brueggeman or Walter Wink. This is pop theology at its worse.
Christians do not like scholars who look at religion objectively. They prefer theologians who have bought into the same religious delusions they have.
Please provide citations from those Biblical "Scholars" who consider Pagels to be a joke. She is Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, which apparently does not consider her or her Harvard PhD in religion to be a joke. She's only a joke if she threatens your theology, which must be pretty shaky if it can't stand challenge.
Yes, jhubers, I'm sure that the biggest motivation of an endowed Full Professor at Princeton is to desperately try to get her name on CNN's web page. The world is bigger than you imagine, jhubers.
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