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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. Bruce

    The Book isn't so hard to understand. I've read it at least twice. It says what each bit of sybolism means.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  2. A Trained Monkey

    The greatest threat to mankind's existence is the deadly combination of
    ignorance, poverty, and religion.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  3. John Steriff

    Ha haaa! Pretty funny April Fools column!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  4. Paul

    First of all, John wrote the book around 96 AD, 26 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, so he could not have been refering the the end of his world. Secondly, historians like Justin Martir, Ireneo, Clement of Alexandria and Tertulian, all identify John (the apostle) as the writer of this book. Additionally he could not have been refering to Nero as 666, as Nero had ruled from 54 AD to 68 AD, how could John be refering to a long gone emperor? Also, although Revelation refers to God's war against evil, it also speaks of the results after that war...(Revelation 21:3,4) a world were every grief, oppression and death will be removed and mankind will enjoy the protection of God. Were Mrs. Pagels got her facts is suspect at best, I am surprised that someone would publish something so historically innacurate and misleading.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • MikeTheInfidel

      "historians like Justin Martir, Ireneo, Clement of Alexandria and Tertulian, all identify John (the apostle) as the writer of this book"

      Out of tradition, yes.

      And modern historians recognize it to be someone called John Mark, who is a completely different person.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  5. Rational1

    Yet another debate over whether a book of fairy tales is 4 % accurate or 1 % accurate. Get a clue. People keep saying that the bible is the "word of god", yet every serious scholar who has ever looked into it has said that most of the "books" in the bible were forged during the middle ages by groups that wanted to influence the direction of the church by "discovering" previously unknown books and passages written by the apostles.... No religious scholar disputes that a group within the church sat down and decided which "books" would go in the bible and which ones would be kept out. The collection of religious writings that didn't make it into the bible is huge, and what did make it in is frequently contradictory. Oh, and the idea that CNN is anti-christian is a joke. Count how many articles on CNN speak favorably about christianity (or ask rediculous questions like "Would jesus support health care reform" and compare that to the number of articles that call christianity (or any religion) into question, and the ratio you'll find is pretty stacked in favor of christianity. The only "war on religion" in this country (as some claim there to be) is christianities war on non-believers. This author is one of the most respected scholars in her field. Respected by christian scholars. Just because it differs from your understanding, doesn't make her wrong. It's her contention that a book of fairy tales with zero evidence to back up its claims is even remotely true, that makes her wrong.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Rational 2

      Ever wonder how 40 different authors could write sixty six books over a period of 2000 years and then those books would come together to form a "history book" of the world that starts with "In the begining" and finally ends with "And then the end will come". Only God himself could perform such a miracle, as He said, " who else can tell you the end from the beginning"? But of course today, we have these so called scholars, who are smarter than God. Time will tell, the "history book" seems to be unfolding as it is suppose to and the book of Revelation does indeed lay out the final events that have yet to come to pass. Blessed are those who read it and take it to heart!

      April 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  6. palintwit

    It has come to my attention that many colleges are now offering classes in Palin bashing. It would seem that there is a great deal of interest in exposing Sarah Palin for the doofus that she really is.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • AGuest9

      Too bad they couldn't expose others for the fools that they are. It might have prevented 9/11.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Thatsthat

      The particular university that comes to mind is Syracuse. Just this morning it found it's way into the headlines again. This time, not Bernie Fine or drug offenses by it's athletes, but for squelching free speech on campus. They made top of the list, along with Bucknell and Harvard. These pillars of society publicly promote diversity of thought, but as soon as you disagree with them, they want to shut you up. True hypocrisy. SorExcuse University. Just like the pharisees. It's amazing how these people can pretend to "lead" a community, and at the same time will cover up a scandal. Moral cripples, ethically anemic fractions of humanity with he money to put a spin on things to their favor. There will be campus problems directly because of this. The teacher need to be taught.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  7. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • That your problem

      Ok, any of the charity (physical) work will stop, the donations will stop, morality will stop, and then I will be free to do to you what I wish.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • AGuest9

      Unlike the Red Cross, the Cancer Society, the Heart Association, the Salvation Army, etc., I have never seen the Church do very much to help people, unless you mean lecture them that "if they had been better people, perhaps god wouldn't be punishing them so severely"?.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • AGuest9

      "morality will stop". If you NEED a book full of war, killing, abuse of women and intervention from an temperamental, jealous imaginary being that lives in the sky to establish a moral code, I wonder just how MORAL it really is?

      "I will be free to do to you what I wish". You are. I guess you don't believe in free will. How sad.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  8. Rob

    "is 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."
    Wow, so the original followers of Jesus would not be Catholics.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  9. Tom

    So now we are to take the most liberal lefty CNN as the keeper of what is true in God's Word?
    The fool has said in his heart, there isno God.
    FOOLS!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • MikeTheInfidel

      Being called a fool by someone who believes in this nonsense is not much of an insult.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • rational thinker

      If CNN is liberal.... the whats Fox News?? Center, and the most straight an rational folks ever??? lol, CNN is in the middle tending to the right! Open your eyes... is good to see a bit further than the imaginary world fox news and rush have designed 4 u

      April 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  10. David

    Does anyone care how a worthless weak kneed liberal site like CNN chooses to interpret the Bible? CNN is the last place you would go to for their irrelevant opinions on religion

    April 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • rational thinker

      If CNN is liberal.... the whats Fox News?? Center, and the most straight an rational folks ever??? lol, CNN is in the middle tending to the right! Open your eyes... is good to see a bit further than the imaginary world fox news and rush have designed 4 u ;)

      April 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  11. Follower of Christ

    Lets see folks..The bible says Eve was created, this one woman. Scientist have said our DNA traces back to one woman already. The Bible also says, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood" Hmm Scientist say life is in our DNA/Blood. Lets see what else, oh, "He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing." Scientist just claim that the universe is still stretching and earlier scientist did not know the Earth hanged upon nothing, only a couple of centuries ago, these scientist said the earth was flat, if they would read a bible they would know the Earth was round, "There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth.” (Isaiah 40:22) The ignorance is disclaiming the Bible, and casually saying "Oh-ok I did miss that" The list of bible facts goes on and on, the problem, there is so much hatred for the Word of God, that they refuse to accept or study it. But if you want to continue to believe that you evolved from a fish or monkey (even though no fossils exist marking each transition from fish to human or ape to human) then by all means, enjoy your life and just keep thinking that this amazing world was just an accident.

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

      You're kind of an idiot.

      "The bible says Eve was created, this one woman. Scientist have said our DNA traces back to one woman already."

      One woman who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, and was a member of a TRIBE of humans – not the "first woman."

      "The Bible also says, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood" Hmm Scientist say life is in our DNA/Blood."

      DNA is in every cell in your body, not just your blood. And "life" isn't a thing that's somewhere in you.

      The rest of what you said is garbage as well, which is what is to be expected when you base your beliefs on an ancient book written by ignorant nomadic shepherds

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

      '"He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing." Scientist just claim that the universe is still stretching and earlier scientist did not know the Earth hanged upon nothing, only a couple of centuries ago, these scientist said the earth was flat, if they would read a bible they would know the Earth was round, "There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth.” (Isaiah 40:22)'

      Except that it's the *Bible* that believes the world is flat and supported upon pillars. Scientists have not believed anything like this for over 2,000 years.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Rational1

      Um... Scientists have stated that mitocondrial DNA has traced back to one woman (mitocondrial DNA only traces to women), but is easier to check than "full" DNA. I could expose your other points as well, but what's the point. You'll go on believing whatever you believe independant of the actual facts (you are looking for facts to back up your belief, when you should be looking at all facts and then using those to help create your belief).

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

      "if you want to continue to believe that you evolved from a fish or monkey (even though no fossils exist marking each transition from fish to human or ape to human)"

      Maybe you ought to actually read a biology textbook sometime, because you have no idea what evolution is about.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Pam

      No Mike, you are the idiot.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Aezel

      "Scientist have said our DNA traces back to one woman already." Nope. It traces back to a common matrillineal ancestor. You clearly don't understand what that means, or how genetics work. You fail.

      "if you want to continue to believe that you evolved" I don't "believe" our ancestors evolved. I KNOW they did. You see, evolution has irrefutable evidence facts that support it, unlike your delusional nonsense you spew.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • DANTE

      You are a complete and utter idiot

      April 1, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

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

      Prayer changes absolutely nothing. Look at Africa and tell me that prayer is answered.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  13. Followe of Chirsy

    Lets see..The bible says Eve was created, this one woman. Scientist have said our DNA traces back to one woman already. The Bible also says, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood" Hmm Scientist say life is in our DNA/Blood. Lets see what else, oh, "He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing." Scientist just claim that the universe is still stretching and earlier scientist did not know the Earth hanged upon nothing, only a couple of centuries ago, these scientist said the earth was flat, if they would read a bible they would know the Earth was round, "There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth.” (Isaiah 40:22) The ignorance is disclaiming the Bible, and casually saying "Oh-ok I did miss that" The list of bible facts goes on and on, the problem, there is so much hatred for the Word of God, that they refuse to accept or study it. But if you want to continue to believe that you evolved from a fish or monkey (even though no fossils exist marking each transition from fish to human or ape to human) then by all means, enjoy your life and just keep thinking that this amazing world was just an accident.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  14. Annonymous 71

    This is not a JOKE. If you want insight pray. Have a great day everyone!

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

      If you want real insight, ignore the mumblings of long-dead mystics and look to science.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  15. Reality

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:

    Thomas Jefferson omitted Revelation 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 8:45 am |
    • AGuest9

      I'm just amazed that he was able to write during that opium trip.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  16. Drew

    CHRISTIANS, PLEASE READ THIS:

    The author didn't do herself any favor by implying that these ideas were hers or were original.

    The simple fact is, what the author articulates is the traditional interpretation (exegesis) of Revelations. The idea that Revelations is a book of prophecy is a new idea (Dispensationalism) popularized by an Englishman named John Nelson Darby who was laughed out of England, but came to America and set up a bunch of seminaries...

    If you do the research, and you will see that the radical interpretation of Revelations is the prophetic one.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Reality

      "Tis" the Book of Revelation not Revelations.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  17. indyfan2

    The idea that Athanasius used John's book to further a particular tenet is in keeping with the history of Christianity throughout the ages. Many Christian sects were suppressed and or destroyed in the early years by people who thought they had the answere or realized they could gain wealth and power by using the word to further their agenda. Much like tele-evangelists to day. For many its all about power and money not truth.

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

      Yes! Now read the history of Bishop Athanasius

      April 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  18. Nii

    I don't mind history one bit as a Christian. Hypothesizing and conjecturing is not history however and it doesn't help to say it is smart to accept her opinion when she says she doesn't understand what she is doing.

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

      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 8:48 am |
    • Nii

      So! Were those people St John the Divine or Christ? The Prophet Daniel had a similar sealed prophesy, so what?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  19. Liz

    There is only one word to describe this sad shot-in-the-dark guess work: WRONG.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  20. Matt

    The Catholic church performed their sermons in Latin because the unwashed were too dim witted to understand theology on their own. Luther's greatest disservice to Christianity was to publish the book for the masses.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • AGuest9

      It was easier to pull the wool over their eyes.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:19 am |
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