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.”
This is a good example of how messed up various Religions are today. Those who believe that the Bible is God's word through men, have to be just as misled as this article indicates about Revolutions. More and more we are finding out that various books within both Testaments are not as they appear. We hear about how the Catholic Church of the pre-1400's withheld information and verses as a convenience to further their causes. Other than Easter, all the other religious holidays in the Bible are questionable at best. Even Christmas was created by the Catholic Church to compete with pagan celebrations for the Winter Solstice. More and more, we don't know what to believe in the Bible. What I personally believe is that you don't have to be inside, or a member of a specific church to find God or Jesus, as they are everywhere. The rest is just good storytelling.
I would risk the serpent's bite
I would dance around with seven
I would kiss the diamondback
If I knew it would get me to heaven.
I would burn the soles of my feet
Burn the palms of both of my hands
If I could learn and be complete
If I could walk righteously again.
I would sleep on a bed of nails
'Til my back was torn and bleeding
In the deep darkness of Hell
The Damascus of my meeting.
I asked God about his plan
To save us all from Satan's slaughter
If I give up one of my lambs
Will you take me as one of your daughters?
– Lucinda Williams
Don't forget Easter – the resurrection as celebrated by.....bunnies and eggs? Ancient symbols of spring fertility rites? That's right, folks – Christianity was moved forward by political decisions. Revelation? An insurgent text in which the opposition to Roman oppression was disguised in symbology to keep it from looking quite so treasonous. It's not like Christianity was developed in a vacuum that excluded all other historical factors. Christian who try to interpret the Bible literally usually only do so to support things like their bigotry, or because they are dark souls who don't want to take responsibility for their bad conduct or thoughts, or because they lack the ability to handle change, and need an anchor of some sort.
God said to Abraham, kill me a son
Abe said, Man, you must be puttin' me on
God said no, Abe said what?
God said, you can do what you want but,
the next time you see me comin', you better run
Abe said, where you want this killin' done?
God said, Out on highway 61.
All religions and scholars are purely interepreting what they read. Maybe they are wrong and maybe they are right. I enjoy reading anothers persons perspective and broadening my view, even if in the end I do not agree. Maybe instead of all the name calling and getting your paniteis in a twist you should just read her point of view and then either reject her interpretation or alter your point of view.
Thank goodness we don't live in some place like Pakistan, where blasphemy laws forbid any other interpretations or questioning of Mohammad and his hallucinations.
Patmos is in present-day Greece, not Turkey as the article states. I visited there a few years ago while living in Athens.
And that was the article writer's mistake, not the scholar's, right?
April 1st is an Atheist Holiday.
Biblical reference: Psalm 14:1 "The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” "
If you even doubt that God exist, ask Him. Unless you're afraid He just might answer you.
It takes less faith to believe in a Creator, than to believe that the world "just happened".
April 1 is a chance to celebrate human gullibility. It should be a religious holiday. :-)
I asked God if he exists, and his response was Dog spelled backwards is God. See how crazy that sounds.... I spoke to thin air.... And heard voices depicting where I go when I die.....
Religions play on hopes,fears, and rewards and are political poison. Humanity needs to love one another without regard to such things.
THis author hardly knows what they are talking about. Revelation is easy to explain and understand.
Enlighten us in 50 words or less.
Maybe the "easy" explanation you were given is incorrect. Ever consider that?
Well I know it starts with.... It best of times... It was the worst of times... And ends with everybody having tea with a really neat spaghetti monster
Wow! What I am impressed with is the feedback this subject has prevailed. Good Bad, true or not there are folks getting the message they need so badly in this time of revelation ..dont wait you will not have much time to get your life right whatever that is for you.
What the feedback indicates to me is how offended some Christians are that their precious fantasy of Christ destroying their enemies is even questioned.
Yeah – you only have the rest of your life. I don't need an imaginary carrot or stick to live a good and just life. Secular humanism works just fine, and I can even think for myself along the way!
The Bible accurately predicted the first coming of Christ as a suffering servant and Revelation accurately predicts the coming judgement. If people are sickened by the senseless violence that pervades human history, do you really think a holy and just God is going to let it go unpunished? It's coming and it's coming sooner than we think. Accept Jesus as savior, and you will avoid what is going to happen. It's going to happen regardless of how many 'intellectuals' attempt to tell us what the actual truth is.
...and what are your credentials?
Unfortunately, for you and the rest of you dped Christians, the Jews are right and you're wrong to have fallen for an imposter and are doomed for eternal flames. Enjoy hell.
If he is "all powerful", why dosen't he just change humanity into something better and less violent? Why did he make us violent to begin with? Perhaps "god" is not judging us at all, and the entire universe, violence and beauty alike, is all just part of one big cosmic show, and it all has its value, despite how we choose to see it.
If the Jews were right why were they scattered to all the nations for the Last 2000 years for rejecting God exactly as the Bible fortold? Only to be gathered in the last days to be rescued by Jesus were they will finally understand!!
I am afraid this person is right. As for the Jews...read Lamentations to see what happened to the non-belieing jews. Get a clue and read your bible.
I am afraid this person is right. As for the Jews...read Lamentations to see what happened to the non-believing jews. Get a clue and read your bible.
Jackdaw, God created man with free will to love him or reject him. If man were to follow God and live a holy life as he wishes this world would be fine. If he forced you to be good and made us robots you wouldn't like that any better!
He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities (that means sins);
The chastisment for our peace was upon him,
And by his stripes we are healed...
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not his mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter...
By his knowledge my righteous servant shall justify many,
for He shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
Because He poured out his soul unto death,
And He was numbered with the
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the
This comes out of Isaiah, written somewhere around 600 BC.
@Debra – I believe that Christ's message of love and salvation is for anyone (John 3:16), regardless of "credentials". He (Christ) is my personal savior just as Steve's and millions of others. You too can have a personal relationship with Him if you wish. It's not about religion.
Romans 10:13 – "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." This is a promise from the King of Kings.
Not a single one of us asked to be here. So why are we born sinners? I would not send my child to burn in Hell for eternity, no matter what he or she did. A God who does this is no God at all.
Well said, Debra
I don't claim to understand everything an infinite God does. However, that Jesus left the perfect peace of heaven to come down here and be tormented to death by Roman centurions says something to me about how much he desires that people do not suffer the fate of hell.
Jesus didn't ask to be here any more than you or I asked to be here. None of us asked to be here.
I guess the Roman centurions did their job if Jesus had to die for our sins. Likes like a real God could have found a better way.
Debra-What are your credentials? Do you even have a degree?
Debra, I'm just telling you the truth. God is good, God loves you, Jesus died for you. There are many questions I don't understand and I've asked the same ones you're asking now. But in the end, God is God and he has revealed the truth to us. God's love is infinitely beyond fickle human love, which all too often is not real love at all (witness the divorce rate). God cares infinitely more for the fate of humans than either you or I do.
Read ABIOGENESIS by Lynn Margoules, amino acids from in animate chemical reactions. Google PANSPERMIA, extremeophile cells spread across the cosmos by comets and asteroids, Life is blooming and dying everywhere in the universe as on Earth.
Check out these sites and then come back and say this increadible work happened by random chance...
Lucky random mutations building the most complex thing in the universe, and the single white blood cell is a factory working with a purpose. Believing in dumb luck ... is dumb.
This is not at all accurate... The problem with revelation is people hear what they want to hear. 666 is the number of the name vicaruis filii dei, or what the pope wears on his crown. I can't read this, it really is just an opinion with no scriptural evidence. This book specifically speaks about the fall of Babylon (anitchrist organization), 2nd coming, and judgment. Most of it has already happened. Rev16:12 is a great example we only have a few months left
God is Great.
Which one? There's several thousand..
I always ask for help from Oden myself. I prefer a god that can do his own dirty work as opposed to having others do it so his hands stay clean.
There is one God and 6,999 idols in seven thousand.
Oden for example would be an idol, thanks for the support.
Oden will put a whuppin on you.
Now Thor on the other hand would be an example a a real God.
Ganesh kicks butt – and even looks like a Republican.
How does she know that it was not the Apostle John who wrote Revelation? I know quite a few Pastors with Doctorates who disagree with her.
I agree with cbinal!!! A unbeliever cannot understand the Bilble in the first place, it is by Revelation from God. But, you must look at the other books of the Bible also, Daniel, Ezekiel, these back up Revelations. NEVER, EVER, listen to a person that is an unbeliever, concerning the Bible, they cannot understand it, and no matter what letters follow there name or their education, they will be ignort of the meaning.
How unbelievably ignorant of you. I understand the bible better than most Christians which is why I don't believe. People like you need to feel like you are special or more intelligent than non-believers for some egotistical reason. This type of behavior leads me to believe you are actually not very intelligent.
Never study chemistry unless you already know chemistry?
So you have to believe the bible is true before you even read it, or else you can never understand it? What a dishonest way of doing things God, you suck.
Unbeliever – a rational person with reason who is not suffering from delisions and therefore realizes that the bible is pure absurd bullshit.
Who said this person is a non-believer? She's a Biblical scholar – chances are really strong that she is Christian. You are just making a snap judgement, because she challenges what some two-bit bozo told you.
So anyone who disagrees with you is automatically wrong. Gee, that's convenient.
and you can recognize an unbeliever by them having a different opinion than what you know as a believer. This helps pretty much guarantee you only listen to those that will reinforce your current beliefs. Does strong faith and study ensure correct understanding? If that were true then all those that pray, have faith and study would converge on one truth but they don't and as a result there are many different sects of Christianity some vary on small points and some on large. There is only one truth so MOST of these good folks must be wrong and some very wrong which. So we know that many that have strong faith, prayer and study can be wrong which leads to the question how many are wrong.
Why are people assuming its a female that wrote the article?
Prayer changes things ..
Ignorance is bliss. Prayer does nothing. Go pray for an amputee to regenerate a limb. You'll see how well prayer works.
So this persons opinion of Revalation is what I should take as the absolute truth concerning this scripture.....I think Ill think for myself on this one.
The Bible clearly states that Jesus will return "Like a thief in the night". In other words, we aren't supposed to know. That's the whole idea of FAITH. If we could figure out when the day Jesus returns, then people would continue to live God-less lives until the "day before" then they'd "get right with God".
But it all comes down to this...we will ALL die and face spending eternity somewhere. I choose Heaven.
I choose candyland Dennis. Does that mean i get to go to candyland?
I believe that the word of God was inspired by God and written word for word by followers of God. I do not agree with this writer. The Bible states that many will teach in my name, but they are false teachers. This person is spreading her own opinions and sorry to say, but some people will think that her opinion is correct. Read the Bible for yourself and pray for understanding, God will help you understand the real truth,.
Robin – what makes you so sure this interpretation isn't divinely inspired? Hmmm? You are just choosing to believe someone ELSE's interpretation. Whoops – looks like you are tempting hellfire.
AMEN! AND WELL PUT.
I think the most important message stated in this article is that most people don't know that the early Catholic Church shaped what is in the bible of today. To me, that's a problem. We will never know what the other books written by apostles and people of the time had to say because it's not in the best interest of the Catholic Church. That's ridiculous and proves that we don't know the whole story and have been led down a road created by the Church. I can only imagine all the books and literature stored in the archives of the Vatican that no one will ever read and what the real story is. It's amazing how gullible people can be.
agree. so many unknowns. Even IF the bible was the direct word of God you have many different very human people deciding things like how to read it (like how literal or whether you should use verses from one book to interpret another). Then you have different very human people deciding which books to include. In some cases there were votes on what to include.
It would be interesting to know what religion if any the author claims. How she grew up. What she was taught. What her parents believed. This would speak volumes about this writer and what she writes..... It's so easy to dish Christianity because it teaches love, respect, caring, non-violence, everything the world is not.
She's a Biblical scholar. This means that she knows a lot more about religion than you do, has read many more interpretations than you have, has read many more Biblical texts than you have, and understands context and history. She knows more than you do about this subject. How she grew up has about as much to do with this article as your two-bit ideas have to do with Mongolian politics. And likely even less than that.
Just remember that 50% of the people that graduated from any school/university have graduated in the bottom ½ of their class. Also, you can graduate just by memorization. You don’t have to truely understand. And if this person was so smart why is she not an engineer?
I "like" how this article started out describing how Pagel has read the book of Revelation only twice, once as a teenager and then again before they wrote the book. Now this probably is not literally stating Pagel only read it two times, but with the opinions Pagel holds about the book, it seems right on. Pagels opinions are false, and a straightforward reading of revelation without trying to read into the text or add things that are not therewill counter almost everything said in this article.
Very true Tyso.
Ive found that most of what CNN puts up on there Belief board is actually anti-Belief. Anti-faith, anti Christian. and if the Anti Christ ever shows up in this lifetime Im sure everything he says concerning God will be found on this Belief site.
Are you kidding me? Do you believe your own uninformed, contextless interpretation is superior to that of a Biblical scholar? For the record, I know a helluva lot about this subject, too (including the 666/Hebrew numerology connection to Nero, which is absolutely straightforward), and also the Roma symbology contained within the text. It is a book of its time – to pretend that it represents some timeless key to what the Russians are up to (like what Hal LIndsey and other P T Barnums do to sell books to gullible fools) is plain, unadulterated ignorance. She knows more about this subeject than you do. Celebrate your ignorance, but don't pretend for a minute you know what you are talking about.
For the Christians out there – why does this interpretation botger you in any way? Are you only motivated by your fear of doomsday? The message of Revelations is "This, too, shall pass." If you read it that way, it becomes a positive motivation to move forward, and it takes nothing from your faith. Only an idiot would feel threatened by Biblical scholarship that has the opportunity to see things anew – perhaps as God truly intended, as opposed to what gets pounded into your head by two-bit hucksters. How about that?
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.