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4 big myths of Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation has terrified and confused readers for centuries. Few agree on its meaning, but many have opinions.
March 31st, 2012
10:00 PM ET

4 big myths of Book of Revelation

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.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Christianity • Church • Devil • End times • Faith • History • Jerusalem

soundoff (8,460 Responses)
  1. no God

    Who wrote FAIRY TALES?!?!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  2. reason

    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.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Wagonc

      And mocking God and his set of rules, won't help your case much either.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  3. jma58

    It is all hogwash.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  4. Matt Mattson

    The Harbingers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CrcO6gshWQ are also set forth in Biblical prophecy.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  5. Keith

    Again, cnn attacking Christianity. This article is so ridiculous, as are 99% of them presented by cnn. When I read this stuff, I think, why bother responding to something that is so blatantly incorrect. But by reading the posts, people are being deceived and thus someone needs to contend for the Faith.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • dk

      Christians have murdered millions why shouldn't we attack you?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  6. Ellie

    F.Y.I. The Island Of Patmos is in Greece, not Turkey.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • james

      There was no turkey 2000 years ago. It was all greece.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  7. fairandbalancedfredo

    "It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it [the Book of Revelation], and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherencies of our own nightly dreams."
    –Thomas Jefferson, letter to General Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825

    April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  8. Mexirev

    This article is a bunch of JUNK!!! This is not an opinion, it is demonic misleading, pure and simple.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • WMoonFox

      Case-in-point.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Satan

      Of COURSE it is! It's all part of my Evil Master Plan to rule the world!!!! Oh, wait......I already DO! Bwahahahahaha!!!

      April 3, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  9. Max

    All I see here is "Pagels says". What is her proof? How do you know it's "Good scholarly research"? Why accept what she says just because you feel the need to jump on another bible burning bandwagon? And you think Christian's are blind followers.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • reason

      Not all books are based on blind faith. Some are based on evidence and reason.
      Maybe you should take a look at Pagel's book.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • occupymymind

      Agreed!!...i know we are suppose to bring others to Christ but in todays world with so much hate and so many "x -spurts" teliing you the bible is hogwash...i sometimes feel like saying...as for me and my house we will serve the lord..and lets just see how things turn out...smh

      April 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • occupymymind

      Just as every witness could tell a different story of the same event,you can have 10 equally qualified scholars tell you a different story of this book and thats why I prefer to listen to the ONE that inspired the writings in the bible

      April 1, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • WMoonFox

      It's not a "bible-burning bandwagon". She casts doubt on the interpreted meaning of one highly-controversial book, which barely made it into the bible in the first place. She does not discount the book, or the bible as a whole; but, rather, she discounts the "accepted" interpretation, recent and inflammatory as it is.

      Please bury your persecution complex... it does nobody any good, least of all you.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  10. NotASheep

    Religon IS responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands (remember the wholly wars). Just watch the news a you will see leaders of all religions spewing intolearance against those who do not believe in their faith. The Catholics and Protestants hate each other, the Jews and Moslims hate each other, need I go on! I for one will lead a life of free will and tolerance.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • occupymymind

      Thats like saying I hear sugar has killed thousands of people so i will no longer shop at a store that has products that has sugar in them...God has given you free will...this wasnt something you came up with and God himself has tolerance...so continue giving God all the praise and dont burn down the entire forest because you cant see the sky...there are whackos in everything

      April 1, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  11. max stevens

    i have actually studied the history and origin of the book of revelation as well as the other writings to which the author correctly alludes.
    it is obvious from the writing that the author writes without comprehending the bible as a whole work, while each book is a stand alone, there is a continuing testimony that is completely dismissed.

    it would take a book as massive as the one written above to go into detail of the errors above. i posted a question in a forum once asking how we can know history and the truth of it; getting answers such as that was thousands of years ago, we can never know.

    if that is prophetic of the rising generations mindset, they will not govern themselves or be able to discern truth and error as this above
    go in peace

    April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  12. Daniel Robshaw

    Elaine Pagels's comments above are just another attempt by the liberal, anti-Judaeo christian news media to belittle and cast doubt on God's Word. She says, that Revelation "doesn't even say that Jesus died for your sins." Evidently, Pagels didn't read Rev.1:5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood. Also, in the above article, John Blake, CNN writer says about E. Pagels, " even after writing a book about it, she has hardly mastered its meaning." If Pagels doesn't understand it, why in heaven's name does CNN put her article out there? Many of us who have been washed from our sins in the blood of Jesus Christ believe in the rapture, 1 Thess.4:13-18, and shortly after that the events described in Rev. chapters 5 – 22 will Literally be fulfilled.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  13. dk

    the world needs an anti-religion agenda... if you want to practice your insanity please keep it inside of your house not out in the public your religious world views has held the world in the dark ages long enough.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  14. manlin105

    Atheists will one day know that there is a GOD.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  15. Reality

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:

    Pagels today and before her the following:

    "Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll branded Revelation "the insanest of all books".[30] 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." [31]

    Martin Luther "found it an offensive piece of work" and John Calvin "had grave doubts about its value."[32]
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  16. Dixon

    *****TO ALL THE C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N-S-:

    Just curious: How many homeless people do you have living in your homes? What? None?!? Jesus EXPLICITLY states whatsoever you do the least of his people, that you do unto to him. So why do you leave YOUR Savior cold, hungry and homeless on the street?

    Jesus also COMMANDS you to sell everything you own. Have you done that? Of course not.

    Jesus says the "first will be last and the last will be first." Too bad you don't listen to the person you claim to worship.

    Spare us all of your ridiculous hypocrisy.

    Peace!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Nii

      Spare us you poor reading skills and religious bigotry too. We practise to understand the Bible. You read a little and believe you understand too. Are u not being delusional sending coal to Newcastle?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Reality

      Many contemporary NT scholars have analyzed thoroughly all of the NT passages. Matt 25: 40 for example is a single attestation i.e. found no where else in the scriptures making it nil historically. e.g.

      http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?ti
      tle=425_The_Last_Judgment and Professor Gerd Ludemann's book, Jesus After 2000 Years.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Dixon

      @Nii: I was educated at elite faith based schools for 12 years. Instead of coming at me, why don't you explain why you INTENTIONALLY leave your Savior cold, hungry and homeless?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Dixon

      @"Reality" LOL... you're actually trying to say it isn't credible that Jesus said that?!?! HAHAHAHAHA

      Too bad the part where he commands you to sell everything you own is in two separate Gospels. Nice try.

      In fact, according to YOUR Bible, it is IMPOSSIBLE for Jesus to have even been born! Did you know this? Of course you didn't because you let others tell you what the Bible means instead of thinking for yourself.

      When looking at the only two Gospel writers who deemed it important enough to talk about the birth of your Savior: Matthew says Jesus was born when Herod was King of Judea. Luke says Jesus was born when Cyrenius was Governor of Syria. Thus, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR JESUS TO HAVE BEEN BORN during the administration of these two rulers because Herod died in the year 4 B.C. and Cyrenius (aka Quirinius in Roman history) did not become Governor of Syria until 10 years later. Herod and Cyrenius are interrupted by the entire reign of Archelaus, Herod’s son. Between Matthew & Luke (once again, the only 2 who thought Jesus’ birth was important enough to actually write about), there is a clear contradiction of at least ten years, as to the time of Christ’s birth. They were absolutely clueless.

      The Bible is an antiquated book written by uneducated men. The facts are that 5th graders today know more about the world in which we reside than did the simpletons that wrote the Bible. You'd NEVER let a 5th grader dictate the course of your life, but when it comes to the Bible, then you are fine with it. It is absolutely mind-boggling.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • occupymymind

      smh

      April 1, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  17. BigSir

    Why are you so afraid of the history surrounding the Bible? Your intelligence is a gift. It can help you in life. Use it.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  18. Andy

    The island of Patmos is part of Greece.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  19. frootyme

    Be a good human first, before you paint your religion as superior to other's. Anyone who argues their God is superior to others looks stupid to me.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • occupymymind

      Id always prefer to look stupid to others for exclaiming my God is God than to have any other Gods before him

      April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  20. thomas

    you were brained washed by your parents fool

    April 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
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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.