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.”
I can't believe someone at CNN had the nerve to post this article as if they alone know the answer and meaning of Revelation. That's nerve.
Don't like it? DON'T READ IT!!
What are you? The Taliban? No free press now?
Move to Afghanistan and stablish your own colony of Mullahs. Then you can censore any news source you like,
there is no god
there is no Thomas
I would suggest "Angels Beasts and Plagues" by Dr. Ken Maahs of Eastern University. He published a very excellent book that deals with these same issues more than 2 decades ago. An excellent biblical scholar and for more than 40 years a professor at Eastern University, a leading Christian university in PA.
You "left beind" folks have been "left behind" from reality and taken in by a charlatan., A false prophet who was seeking real profits.
That's right. And they even believe stuff that is NOT in the Bible, though the claim to be be fundamentalists who take the Bible literary.
People who believe in prophecy of any kind are delusional, naive, and ignorant of history.
Prophets were not predicters of the future in the bible. They were more like "covenant enforcment officers" sent to remind people that they were not keeping to the covenant between god and man.
And the book of revelation is just that – aroad map to which of the churches were getting it right, and which were not. The 7 headed lamstand (a menorah) is symbolic of even of the Pauline churches.
So Pagels says John the apostle didnt write Revelations
Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho quotes from the Apocalypse, as John the apostle’s work, the prophecy of the millennium of the saints, to be followed by the general resurrection and judgment. This testimony of Justin is referred to also by Eusebius. Justin Martyr, in the early part of the second century, held his controversy with Trypho, a learned Jew, at Ephesus, where John had been living thirty or thirty-five years before: he says that “the Revelation had been given to John, one of the twelve apostles of Christ.”1
I'm really getting tired of this. Every day it's another attack against the Bible or God or Christians. What would happen to me if I were to come on here and say that a book in the Koran is false? The Bible that these people despise also says that He is coming back soon and in the last days Christians would be despised. But guess what? According to Revelation, WE WIN IN THE END!
ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:
–from the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi)
The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:
( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)
Are you ready?
Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.
The First Five of the 77 Branches:
"1. Belief in Allah"
aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.
"2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."
Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".
"3. To believe in the existence of angels."
A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.
"4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."
Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.
Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.
Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.
"5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)
Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.
Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!
Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.
Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..
How is a biblical scholar examining the actual meaning of the Bible an "attack on Christians?" It is just pointing out that many Christians hold really erroneous beliefs about the Bible because they do not bother to study enough to understand what it really means. It is a SUUPRT of Christians....stop believing the silly carp you are told by televangelists and bad sci-authors like rick warren and actually STUDY YOUR BIBLE. No attack. Just learn what the book REALLY MEANS.
its nice attempt but clearly flawed. On one hand calls john the author of revelation a devout jew, at the same time calls him a liar,story teller . john states he was in the spirit on the lords day given a revelation by GOD , that states how the world would end. either he was a devout jew and told the truth or he lied and was only telling a story about the current world he lived in?
but hey if it makes them feel better they tell themselves its just a story about the past.
Mirosal, Look around you friend. The universe balances on the edge of a knife. The goodness that exists in men's hearts, even the little bit the exists in men of great evil. The fact that nothing men make stands the test of time. Something as intricate as the veins on a maple leaf or the flavors in a great wine. All things men cannot create. We may make some cheap coppies, but that doesn't count. If you will look for the evidence of trhe One, you will find the One.
Pagels is an unbeliever and without believing God's word, one can never understand it. As the bible says "it is foolishness to the world" (1 Corinthians 1:27). So women like pagels should not spend their valuable "intellect" on revealing and dissecting God's word, it is better pagels stick to fantasy books. At least hope she will be good at that.
The book of revelation is a prophetic book that affirms how the world is going to end. Unbelievers cannot understand it and will not believe it until the Holy Spirit reveals it to them.But they will witness the events of this book, and will know that they were wrong. When they wake up on the other side, after death, they will wake up to a shocking truth that hell is real and they cannot do anything about it. The author of the book of Revelation is indeed John, an apostle who walked with Christ, in line with the definition of apostle in the book of Acts 1:21.
Yep. And Justin Martyr says it was John the Apostle as well
I'm assuming you have proof or a logical explanation for such big claims?
There's nothing like reading a liberal "scholar" try to discredit Christianity. Isn't it strange how these attacks always come out around Easter? Apparently Elaine has never heard that prophecy can have more than one meaning, each equally valid. Perhaps she should try reading The Apocalypse Code by Hank Hanegraaff.
Pagels today and before her the following:
"Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll branded Revelation "the insanest of all books". Thomas Jefferson omitted it along with most of the Biblical canon, from the Jefferson Bible, and wrote that at one time, he "considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams." 
Martin Luther "found it an offensive piece of work" and John Calvin "had grave doubts about its value."
swing and a miss
Well, Herod was long dead before Jesus was born, so some stuff in the great tome must be taken with a grain of salt...if not a pillar of same. I read in Leviticus that touching the skin of a dead pig is an abomination...I guess Sid Luckman is running the T-Formation in ye ol' fiery furnace. My biggest concern is the miracle of the Easter Bunny rolling that big stone from the front of the crypt...come on guys,,,a bunny? Now...where did I put that palm frond...
Thanks CNN for your usual attack on the traditional Christian faith right around Easter or Christmas. PS – if anyone wants to know what this book of the Bible is about, just read the first part of the first verse.
Interesting piece, but one wonders if the writer would have the nerve to write an article enitled "4 Myths of the Koran"
The following should help in that regard:
(From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi)
The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:
( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)
Amazing how people alwasy call others Ignorant whenever there is a dissagrement on a religious topic.
Because ignorance is always rampant where faith is involved.
The entire Bible is a man-made book. The Old Testament is a book of Hebrew literature containing Hebrew legends, myths, legends, historical fiction, other fiction, and probably a few lies. The New Testament is a Christian book, also made by man, and contains myths and legends about Jesus and God. Jesus probably lived, but as a human, not a god. Face it, the Bible is not the word of God. It is the words of many, many men. [The Koran's also a man-made book of Arabian myths, legends, etc.] After all, all civilizations of the past had their myths and legends, and some of them were recorded in books (by man).
OK thanks I didn't know. Who are you again? lol.
I've been researching the bible for years. There's no way it's a book of "myth and legend". People have been trying to marginalize the accounts in the bible for centuries and any evidence that is dug up always completely exhonerates the biblical account. Of course that doesn't stop the naysayers from making the same accusations for the rest of the bible. Until evidence is enearthed to support that too.
The people who believe strongly in religion will never believe anything that goes against their belief, as they have and will not allow any other thought or explaination of it. Religion is not a born with belief, it is taught by who ever brings you up, thus the many different beliefs. Nothing wrong with believeing in something, just don't bet the ffarm on it, when you won't allow yourself to explore any other explanations.
I AGREE COMPLETELY. I LOST MY FAITH BECAUSE I WENT PROVING THE HISTORICITY OF MY BELIEFS TO ONLY FIND LIES,
Now I love Norse and Greek mythology. My nation, the Akan, practise ethical polytheism. However these pale in contrast to the manifest ability of Christian teaching to achieve its aims. Why do I not explore other religions? I do but I don't find them better than mine. Historicity is not a point.
so true.... People who don't believe what you believe are so ignorant.
Nobody gives a r@ts ass that you found ONE person on the planet that has ONE particular view of the bible. Where do you get the freaking nerve plastering a headline like that on your homepage as though CNN figured out what revelation means and is gracuiously sharing the answers wtih their readers.
GET OVER YOURSELF!!! DOes anybody even want to be force fed religious information every time they come here?
Nothing of what she said. WASN'T already said by people from Ben Franklin forward. Ben Franklin's bible didn't include revelation. EASTERN ORTHODOX Christian church didn't include revelation.
I believe that is Thomas Jefferson's bible.
Well if Ben Franklins forward andthe Eastern Orthodox church believe it then I guess that's all the confirmation needed to slap it up on the front page as though it were fact.
There are a million differen't interpretations of the bible and a million differen't beliefs regarding the authenticity and writership of every book and every sentance. When hard evidence has been uncovered it has always proven the bible to be a very detailed and authentic record book. The fact that someone today is marginalizing Revelation is absolutely meaningless.
Nobody understands Revelation but ME ME ME!
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.