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 have been to Island of Patmos. It is Greek Island, only the flag of Greece flies there. It is NOT in Turkey, a blatant error. Who reviewed this article? If common facts are wrong, how can anyone take this as serious scholarly work? I have no problem with Revelations being a symbolic history of the past, but get your geography straight. Please visit the places before writing a book about them.
If you have been there, then you know that it is spitting distance from Turkey. This is an easy geographical error to make. Quit making such a big deal about it. It's not like she reported Russian tanks moving into Atlanta or something.
The borders and boundaries of countries have changed radically over the centuries...check a map of the area from that era...once upon a time the American continents did not exist at all...
If one does not get the basic facts right, then the entire research is in question. That is why it matters. Its a sign of poor journalism or research. Was it mistake by Pagel or CNN? We don't know.
Yes, especially Pagels. Just another liberal, putting their own spin on history.
Where do you get the assumption that the writer is liberal? Is this factual or just because she has created a fear in your heart. Labels for others will only divide us and cause us to walk pass a person suffering as told in the story of the Good Samaritan. Enrich your heart for love in Christ who reminds us to love our neighbor.
There's a reason someone would reduce their belief in the Bible to myth, Mr. Duckworth. Because it is. At least someone has the decency and intellect to come out and say that maybe your silly, blind beliefs are wrong. Good for the person who wrote this, good for the person who wrote the book. Improving humanity, both of them.
Which one of you is not afreid to came faward an speak the true, for we blind an do not see the system that is in place to world domination,an who is to stand only he who has the power to take down anything that oppost to him,world domination is reel.my dear friends we are just simple souls in a world of confusion,were talks are just talks but no actions rest an eat play an work to you deid.old when you all would pay the price with you onw life.the end
What does "fawad" mean?
Your posts would be a lot easier to understand if you knew proper english and could spell.
I think by now everybody should have understood that faith cannot be beaten into the hearts and brains of non-believers. It's all about experience - whoever wants to dismiss or ridicule the bible, prayer, a life lived serving God, should feel free to do so. All the Church and its followers can do is to put the truth out there and make sure it's available to everybody. As St. Paul said: "I have fought the good fight. I have run the course. I have kept the faith." The certainty that speaks from these words can only be attained by prayer and the ceaseless attempt to find God in one another. Arguments, smart books, science will do nothing to explore our origins and our destinies...by definition.
Wait, wait wait...
You mean me this Bronze Age trip report upon which I've been basing my life is a bunch of nonsense... well shoot!
Bible prophecies are being fulfilled in our time. Do your research; don't rely on assumption, especially if you haven't checked for yourself.
@ mbw7 Yeah, like the prophecy where Jesus said his second coming would be during the lifetime of those who were his immediate followers. How did that work out?
CNN, you obviously have a distaste for Christians. Why not present the (positive) Christian viewpoint more often. I do see that you 'try' once in awhile to do that......but the trend of CNN reporting is negative toward anything positive in the Bible.
Yes, the world is flat...
The problem is this. Christianity occasionally does some good. Soup kitchens, food pantries, disaster work, those are all good things that Christianity does. Christians who do these things believe that they are doing God's work, and cite the Bible and their faith as justification.
The problem is, all of the negative things Christians do (don't say they are not True Christians, I will not accept a No True Scotsman) are also cited with Biblical justification. The Bible doesn't condemn slavery, it even gives instructions as to how God wants it to be done. This led Christians to justify to themselves owning and terrorizing other people for over a thousand years.
Your post entirely ignores that this article points out that the Book of Revelation is nothing more than a vindictive tale of a guy with an agenda. Doesn't that create some real problems for you? As in, the book that you accept as the inerrant word of God contains stuff that is entirely made up garbage?
So the person writing this article thinks they know more about the Bible than God himself? Just because they don't believe in God, they think they can just sit there and write an article and it has to be the truth? I know it's just opinion, but I'm getting really tired of these constant attacks about God and the Bible. If I were to come on here and try to "debunk" the Koran, I wouldn't make it out of my bedroom door before someone from the religion of pieces showed me their tolerance for my opinion! It also says in the Bible that you are all trying to disprove that in the last days Christians will be hated and persecuted even more. If you don't believe in God or the Bible, fine, but I for one am getting tired of hearing about it every day.
Endure and God Bless.
Did you miss the part where several books were dismissed for political reasons? Are you aware that historians and theologians have searched for inaccuracies and propaganda for millions of years and that the translations even become suspect due to losing significant concepts of ancient language? Does questioning anything Biblical make you nervous? Faith can help...the message from Jesus Christ was to love one another....accusing scholars of insulting Christianity is handy, but, not what Jesus would do...he looked for the truth with love. The Bible has flaws and all of us do...Jesus was clear on that...through him and the love for his truth will calm your heart and help you realize that this is not an insult to the real message of Christ.
i never will understand why christians always get offended when people look at the actual historical context of who, when, how, and why the books of the bible were written. The new testament is a small selection of all the gospels written, and they were only chosen because they said the same thing and agreed with the church's agenda. There are many other books that were rejected that match historical norms much much better.
You have every right to believe what ever religion you want, but if you choose to ignore to understand why things were written, why teachings were started, why certain things were edited and rejected then you are choosing to be ignorant. The historical record proves that information that failed to meet the propaganda of the church was repressed, just like with every other western religion. Just because you feel that there is a single greater power that is omnipotent and they directly wrote the bible through people doesn't mean that everyone else has to have that view on the stories in the book.
Father forgive her.
Your father needs you to ask him to forgive someone?
Interesting article. I think that author does a good job summing up the actual history behind the manufacturing of the Revelation story. I just don't get how people think that this is the actual word of God, when it's authors were clearly human and had their own, selfish motives. The entire Bible is a myth. Any of its content that happens to actually pertain to the real, historical world is more by accident then design. Note that resurrection, virgin births, talking snakes, and rib women are NOT occasions where the Bible gets it right.
withoutgod, where is your proof that the stuff you mentioned didn't happen? Show me the facts that you are right and God is wrong.
The only "proof" that such things happened is the Bible. The Bible does not prove the validity of the Bible. That is called Circular Logic, and is not a valid argument. Additionally, I would have to quote Christopher Hitchens here, and say that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" as well as "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence". Furthermore, the burden of proof is on the maker of the positive claim. That would be you. There is no proof for the miraculous events of the Bible. In fact, recent archaeological evidence as well as historical indicates that the entire Exodus story is a fabrication. No slavery in Egypt, no plagues, no drowning of pharaoh's army, no wandering in the desert. The Israelites did not come into Canaan, they emerged FROM the existing tribes there. There was no great flood. The earth is not a circle. The earth is much older than 6,000 years. If this is the book that you are going to rely on as evidence for the historical authenticity of such events, you still have a lot of work to do.
Why not just admit that the whole damned Bible is a myth? If you've ever bothered to actually read it, it should be obvious.
It is not obvious to people who want to believe they will live forever. Snake oil is an easy sell to anyone who cares less about truth.
You both need to back off with your hostility. Let people believe as they will, according to their own sense of reason and life experiences. They have the right to decide their own destinies. Who are you to attack them for that. How arrogant.
Only in an age of ignorance would telling the truth be seen as arrogance.
It comes down to beliefs vs ideas: People will go to war and fight to the death over a belief no matter what proof they are shown to disprove their belief; Ideas on the other hand can be changed when logical and reasonable proof is shown to give a better answer.
Religion can give a good direction for people and a sense of meaning in their lives, but too many people focus on the divine and think that every teaching from their clergy, religious texts, and traditions comes directly from a greater power while failing to understand the basic direction the original teachings gave of how to treat others and act.
Its very apparent the days are closing in on the Enemy and his demise,,,,Now in his desperation he is resorting to less subtle ways in his attack and has resorted to posting online...,,,Very apparnt to those of us of Faith. Wake up people, you still have time to accept the LORD but it could end any minute for you..
this is the exact mode of brain washing... 1. tell you what to believe... 2. if you question the belief your going to hell... 3.or nows the same.
When the branches start to burn, the vipers jump out and bite.
In Revelation, Jesus tells us the dragon goes after the woman with a flood. As you probably already know, a flood means "many words".
Lol. Christians: 2000 years of "any day now."
Go get mental help.
Um, actually you have 6 months and 29 days to accept the lord. At that time I will be eating all of the unclean souls and such. Have a great Summer!
Sounds as though Elaine Pagels found a copy of Foy E. Wallace's "The Book of Revelations", published in 1966 and then prepared her article. "Her" alternative theory is not new, in fact there have been and currently are people, primarily non-congregational protestant gourps that believe the book is more about the early church and its tribulation during the Roman war against the Jews and little to do with the Hollywood Rapture End of World theories.
correction, I should have stated non-denominational groups, not congregationalist. The difference being that denominationalists general have a headquarters that defines the groups particular beliefs, whereas congregationists allow local authority and individual interputation of scripture, assuming the individuals actually take the time to study the scriptures.
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.
I consider myself a believer in the Bible and in particulary in the New Testament......BUT......I absolutely agree with you on your point about casting "billions of people into eternal suffering."
If God was to literally cast BILLIONS of His children into a real lake a=of fire and brimstone, to burn there for eternity, He would go down as the most cruel child abuser in the Universe!
I also agree with you that we will be judged on what we do....how we live our life.....and be rewarded (thus punished) accordingly. I believe "hell" is a state of mind and is more a state of reflection on where we could be than where we are..for all eternity.
Your arguments against religion in general are surprisingly uninformed for someone who purports to champion reason and truth. There are some good arguments against religion, but none of yours falls into that category. Sent to hell for "choosing the wrong one?" That's a strawman; go do your homework. Stone-age? Nope, wrong period; go do your homework. Myths? Sorry, wrong genre; go do your homework. "Trying to explain the world?" Nope, that's maybe 2% of the point of extant organized religions; go do your homework. Finally, you seem to imply that religious people are irrational, sub-rational, or otherwise cannot possibly have used reason in arriving at their conclusions; this is at best ignorance and at worst an ad hominem; go do your homework. Be careful to study your opponent's strongest points, not his weakest, before you claim to represent reason for your own views.
This author in all probability has never had a "revelation" of who Jesus really is. Therefore i highly doubt she's an expert on interpreting the Book of Revelation. Just because you've studied at some prestigious school, have a degree, and perhaps some CNN clout doesn't mean you've been to Calvary and gazed upon the one who died for you. I'd suggest you get a revelation of the Christ and stop trying to turn away folks from the Word of God. I mean come on really? You've nothing better to do.?
It is noble to help people get past their religious delusions.
So Jim, are you that "expert"? Tell me then why your religion is right and everyone else's is wrong?
Randall, how do you personally know what is right and wrong?
Prayer is delusional.
Thank God your not my parent!
Then we are a most hopeless and miserable human race. no end of death, destruction. We die and are no more. No punishment for the wicked. no reward for righteous. Heaven and hell do not exist. We have no purpose to be alive. That's a world w/o Christ and prayer. Very dreadful indeed.
Why is your religion right and the next mans wrong?
Re-read my post sir. I never once stated that or implied that. Furthermore I don't require or have the need for you to like my post or agree with it. Non believer's are always putting out what they think, I'm a christian and will do the same. I have rights to say what I believe just as well as anyone else does. Just because I'm a Christian doesn't indicate i'm crawling under a bible or church pew somewhere and waiting for the "Rapture' Nope I'm here, I have a voice and I choose to use it. Have a blessed day.
"He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos in present-day Turkey."
Correction: Patmos is an island in GREECE; not Turkey.
Elaine Pagels? Not worth commenting on.
but you did.
And yet you still felt the need to comment. Are you capable of grasping the irony here?
Put your bible down and stop analyzing it with a magnifying glass. If you derive your life's credo from this fictional volume, you are sad indeed. Read something factual, and learn something!
You must not have studied much history. Plenty of the Bible is an accurate historical record used even by academics.
"Plenty of the Bible is an accurate historical record used even by academics."
No. Biblical scholars ≠ academics. Go to a history department at a university and tell the history professors they should use the Bible as accurate record. They will laugh you out of the room.
Wow. Then why do archaeologists go dig where the biblical record tells them a site was located?
I am by no means religious, but the bible has a ton of history, metaphor, deep meaning, cultural significance, and is the writings of some of the greatest philosophers who have ever lived. Ironically, comments like yours show that you are pretty much as poorly educated as bible thumpers or evangelicals who take everything so literally and use the bible as a weapon against groups they have something against.
The bible is highly factual and highly accurate. When you study and understand what the bible is saying, it is amazing and eye-opening as to how accurate and true everything is. The same goes for the book of Revelation, it deals with future events but a lot of it you can actually see playing out right now as we speak. It would be better for you to understand and seek out really what is contained in this book, in doing so you may actually "get a life"... literally. Never insult the bible by calling it fictional.... Your life was created by the same God who put together the Bible. One day, many will realize how Almighty God is. My advice to you and others who believe the bible is fictional....stop insulting Christianity and study the bible in detail to understand whether it is fictional or highly real.
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.