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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. Apotropoxy

    If Revelation was written in the 60s CE, then the Anti-Christ would have been Nero.
    If, on the other hand, it was composed in the 90s then Domitian was the Anti-Christ. One was or the other, the "Anti-Christ" has come and gone a LONG time ago.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  2. carlsousa

    A very well written article. I see alot of could have been, might be, may have been thinking. Satan tried changing words around in the Garden of Eden also and look what happened then. If John Blake had done more homework, he would have found that some of the same things in Revelation can also be found in the sermon on the mount as well as II Theselonians. The book of Revelations at the end states not to alter a single word of that book but in this article, mans thoughts are injected into it with the mentality of, what if it doesn't mean this but means something else. Again, the same thing Satan did in the Garden. The Bible is the infallable Word. GOD does not make mistakes and HE doesn't think as man. Belief is knowing that what is written in the Bible is true. Not just parts of it but all of it. If we are to believe that a part of the Bible is not correct, how can we believe the rest of the Bible to be correct? By doing that, that would destroy total belief of the Bible, again a ploy by Satan. So write what you may but my family and I believe what the Bible says and that is exactly, without any alterations, what I will continue to preach.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • ObjectiveOpinion

      God does make mistakes. He made you.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • me123me

      I agree with you. One thing that people never realize is that there is no possibility that any human beings could have written the bible due to its complexity. That cant be said of other religious books.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      They can prove the buybull was written by man, they can't prove it was inspired by god. The fact that it is complex means nothing, plenty of texts have been just as complex and the authors are well noted as being man.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • El Flaco

      What complexity? The Bible is a compilation of short books from many sources. None of them are particularly complicated. None of them reveal any special knowledge.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  3. SteveM

    So much angst and analysis over a bunch of badly written fairy tales.

    S-

    April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  4. ObjectiveOpinion

    Don't waste your time reading the bible. It was created to help support the church, whose goal is to control and take money. If only they could have kept their priests from molesting little boys....

    Read 'The Hunger Games'. Much more interesting, and greater likelihood of being true.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • me123me

      Ok thanks for your opinion Satan.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @me123me: You're an idiot!! If Objective is dismissing the buybull, they are also dismissing your god delusion and thus satan. You want to make such an extraordinary claim, then provide the evidence to back that claim. Anyone who does not believe in god, does not believe in satan. Neither god nor satan can be proven to exist.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  5. joe

    The ignorant lead the ignorant to?

    Nowhere.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  6. me123me

    This is the most ridiculous articles i have ever seen. Why do they quote people who have no idea whatsoever. She misses one major fact. The book of revelation was authored by God and not by John. John was just writing Gods words. Its in perfect harmony with the rest of the bible. It says exactly what God intended aside from a few translation issues. I see all the atheists come out of the wood work whenever something about the bible is mentioned.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • avoiceinmyhead

      But who decides what goes into the Bible?

      You know what? I don't think John Blake wrote this article. God did.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • John

      really, are you that blind to think that the bible was not written by people for their own purposes. Open your eyes and cease the ignorance that is religious literalists like yourself

      April 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Why I Am...

      "Aside from a few translation issues"...and the plagiarism. The problem with all of you religious folks is that you are AFRAID to actually do some research on the bible...or whatever book your religion reads...and find out the FACTS. Here is a quick FACT for you me123me...The story of Jesus has been told so many times...so many years before the Christians decided to run with it...that when you research it...it will blow your mind...and make you start to think...wait though...the Bible said not to do that either. The Bible is an amazing book to read and live by...as long as you don't take it LITERALLY!!!

      April 1, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • getalife

      It is funny that the atheists should weigh in whenever the bible or god are mentioned. Why do you think they do that?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • AGuest9

      Well, getalife, something disturbing has happened in the past few years. The "religious" are constantly trying to teach their fantasies as "science" in our schools.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      We weigh in because it is the book that people use to commit atrocities in this world and prevent the world from moving forward. So tell us why you still believe in 2000 year old stories that have never been updated to meet the evidence we have today? Is living in the 21st century that hard to do? If you can't handle it, you best throw away your computer or start thanking the Atheists who are the reason you have it.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  7. derriquestuckey

    Pagels has once again proven her own point, that you can take a divine reference, and completely taint it with idiotic human interpretation. It takes a complete wacko to call somebody else one.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  8. aef

    Those that distort the bible will receive their due at the Great White Throne when the End of the World does occur..... just at stated in Revelation. The results are eternal! In the meantime, it is time for Christians to spread the Truth and Gospel. All of God's promises have been fulfilled and there is nothing left to be accomplished for Him to return and reclaim what is His. He is patient and long-suffering that none should perish. As the United States continues to distant itself from God, it continues to decline and fall as a nation. He gives us a free will.... just as this writer has chosen to slander and distort God and His Word. But one thing is sure..... Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord... and then Judgement will begin with no fancy lawyers to get you out of what you have done!

    April 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  9. paul

    the island of patmos is not in present day turkey as you sugest Is in Greece

    April 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  10. 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 9:16 am |
    • Mike

      Could not have said it better myself...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Geebs

      Wow!!!! I've been miraculously transformed by your reasoning!! Now I see the light!! (Angel of light)

      April 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  11. Stephen

    Good reading, but I do not buy this lady one bit. I put this in the Da Vinci Code file...entertaining, but not true. One person's opinion.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • El Flaco

      This author speaks the original languages in which the books of the Bible were written. She has spent her life studying the literature, history, arahaeolgy, and politics of Biblical times. You cannot possibly compare your ignorance with her knowledge.

      I had a woman argue with me once about windshield wiper spray. She argued to me that windshield wiper spray was antifreeze that came from the radiator. When you ran out of windshield wiper spray, she said, that meant that it was time to refill the radiator.

      I said, "But that's simply not true."

      "Well," she replied, "I have a different opinion."

      April 1, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • AGuest9

      El Flaco, and she makes basic, GLARING errors. Who's to say that her research isn't equally flawed?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  12. Jason

    I would disagree about the writer of Revelation...

    Yes we don't know exactly who this John. But it is quite possible it was John the apostle who traveled with Jesus. To discount St John is very annoying to me both as a historian & a Christian.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  13. peter

    there is a god, at least in mt opinion. who is right remains to be seen. will i be in this so-called paridise ar nashing my teeth. althoug thethought of eating flesh and drinking blood just sounds very crusade like. some say nobody kills like a christian. and nobody takes as many people with them as an islamic "extremist". pray to whomever you pray too. believe whatever you believe. who am i to tell you if the man or woman you believe in is the correct one, i am just a man.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  14. ANDY

    THE ISLAND OF PATMOS IS IN GREECE, NOT TURKEY. PLEASE HAVE THE AUTHOR CORRECT HIS ARTICLE.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • avoiceinmyhead

      Patmos is within the political border of Greece, but it is just off the Turkish coastline. Check the map.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  15. Nate

    It sounds as if someone is trying to explain away the wrath of God in order to feel better. I hope I'm willing enough to face the truth that I change myself for the better before I "heap to myself a teacher, having itching ears." 2 Tim 4:3.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  16. palintwit

    Jesus, Sarah Palin and her loyal hordes of teabaggers all believe that Dale Earnhardt Sr. was one of the greatest athletes that ever lived.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  17. Bhawk

    thanks for the book review CNN. Its always good to read other peoples opinions about various things. People who listen to others either come away more confirmed in their belief or with a new belief none of which is bad. I have found that those that get anger over a challenge to their belief system arent very convinced in what they themselves believe.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Turth7

      Did you know that Jesus taught to NOT listen to others? God and Jesus are very, very clear – "they are to be taught by God". This is what the churches are not teaching!

      Man's number in the Bible is "6"!!!! The belief in man to save you, the "godhead" of man is 666!

      April 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  18. Cruzader

    A simple comic book with a lot of action, fiction and deceit.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Rocafella

      Create fear–control the masses–The Book of Revelation does exactly what it was designed to do.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  19. ERIC

    the wholly babble is full of fairytales, including the book of revelation

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

    Christianity was invented by Jews to keep Europeans under control and make us hate eachother. We Aryans need to return to our pre-christian pagan traditions, we need a nature based religion. We must band together under a common brotherhood.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Ho

      That is what the U.S. military does, band together sect, faith, and religion under on commons brother hood then kill, maim and destroy for God and our Country.
      Happy now???

      April 1, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • DANTE

      Yes! The Crusades and Inquisitions prove that christianity is a tool of control, fear and imposed ignorance. Return to Pagan roots, investigate ancient philosophies and drop this Roman hating flash mob called a religion.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • El Flaco

      Christianity was not invented by Jews. Christianity was invented by Romans at the Council of Nicea, in the fourth century, at the order of Emperor Constantine.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:27 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.