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.”
Just because the Author and his cohorts don't believe the book of Revelation doesn't give them the right to mystify or debunk it's TRUTH with ignorance, speculation, and skepticism. For those of us that are CHRISTIANS we know that the BOOK of REVELATION is indeed true! Regardless of the non-believers and their cynicism, Jesus Christ is coming back and will Rule and Reign on this Earth with his Church and the "elect of Israel" If your NAME is NOT in the Lamb's book of Life-(Jesus Book), then you will be cast in to the lake of fire! That is NOT a myth! Satan wants you to believe it's a myth so that he can take you to hell with him! Don't be deceived, THE DEVIL IS A LIAR! God is exalted and JESUS IS LORD!
Well said. I agree.
You are not Christian, You are a conned, blind, manipulated sheep who bought into the falsehoods of 1000 false prophets.
Why do I get the feeling that deep down inside you would actually find some sort of pleasure knowing that non believers would be summarily sent to a lake of fire, by your god, to writhe in agony for all eternity.
Keep waiting for your corpse god
Christians do not KNOW that the Book of Revelations is true... they BELIEVE it iss true. The author and her cohorts do not BELIEVE that the Book of Revelations has nothing to do with the end of the world, they KNOW it.
The bible says in the last days, "men will be lovers of themselves rather then Lovers of God". and that Christians will be persecuted for there beliefs, I would say in the last fifty years it has happened
As Lon as man has become self-aware, they have been trying to justify death... As long as Christianity has been in existence, they have been waiting for Christ to return. I was raised by in a "born-again" House-hold, I went to church 3 times a week and read the bible forward and back. I taught Sunday school, and took several theology course in College. One thing I have to hand it to Christians is their faith and beliefs. but I give Muslims more cudo's because they not only say" I would die for my religion" they prove it on a daily basis.... In short, I think Christians should stop waiting and start living.
side 1200 AD every Christian thought they where living in the end-time. Jesus was coming soon! Well here we are 2012 and still no Jesus? and are we really worst as a race? Are we truly living in a modern Sodom and Gamora? Just study a little history ( or watch History channel if you cannot read) and it should occur to you they we are much more civilized and advanced than our ancestors. " Men being lovers of themselves..." Come on... Mankind will always love themselves over a god. We are so concieted we had to invents gods because we never want to die....
if religion works for you fantastic! it helps a lot of people. just keep it to yourself.
Why the Hell anyone would believe something just because it was written down and passed through the generations is beyond me. To assume that these so-called prophets weren't schizophrenic nut jobs is one stretch. To assume that the information has a single shred of validity is another stretch. To assume that they were even being honest is another stretch. To assume their messages didn't have a completely different meaning metaphorically that is lost without a cipher is another stretch. I have no reason to believe in spirits or deities, but even if I did, to assume that these whispers in these mad minds of men were not from creatures that were not their gods or angels is another stretch. You know, there's a reason why tea leaf reading, astrology, numerology, and other forms of pseudoscience or new age material are taught in schools other than in philosophy classes...they are without any merit. To take the words of bronze-aged shepherds who ate of the wisdom derived from the dust of the deserts of the dead as any worthy truth worth paying attention to, in a time where the general consensus was that the world was flat, is perhaps the biggest stretch of all.
Well actually everyone has the right to debunk something if it isn't true and it should be encouraged to find the truth. The truth cannot be debunked. So what are Christians afraid of when people want to do further research before believing something? Everything should always be questioned and truth should be all our pursuit. The religious just have the fear that they may have wasted their lives on something that does not exist.
If I were living on a deserted Greek island with nothing to eat but raw shellfish, I would have "revelations" that St. John would have found amazing.
+3 (Perhaps John the Divine smoked some weed or ate certain mushrooms as well at Patmos.
It is funny watching crazy people argue who is better at it..........
(psss....there is a method to the madness. If you are smart, you will catch on soon. LOL)
Sounds like h e l l. Get use to it.
The media loves controversy. This article is total bunk and the only reason they printed it was to annoy people who have studied the Bible for years, and mislead those wiho haven't . Imagine how little they would have to print if everyone followed the teachings of Jesus.
Revelations is NOWHERE NEAR being Jesus's teachings, just the chaotic hallucnations of some crazy Jew lost on an island. There is nothing Holy about it.
It is Revelation not Revelations. That is what the book is about: The Revelation of Jesus Christ. The Father told the Son what was going to happen in the future. Jesus wrote 7 letters to 7 churches after he was risen from the dead.
Nearly 90% of all Westerners are force-fed Christianity at birth and grow to be Christian adults. By that logic, exactly who is it that needs to follow Jesus since it seems that everyone and his mother does? You sound like these people who like to blame societies failures on lack of religion when in actuallity society is saturated with it and has been for a loooong loooong time. Maybe its time we tried a world with "less" religion and less of these archaic absurdities associated with it.
LIES!!! Revelations is nothing but horses#it that the Evangelists and the con artists that run the show have used to sell their mindless followers all sorts of books and sidetrack them from Jesus's true message.
Revelations is the tool of the money changers of the Great Temple, invented by SATAN himself to profit from the ignorance and idiocy of those who claim to be Christian but live a life of hate againts all their brothers. Not you nor half the posers here are true Christians. You are all the Morning Star's unwilling minions, tongue speaking fools that cannot see you are being dragged into the bowels of the Beast.
You are evil incarnated. You are Belzebuth's Ambassador. You are the Angel of War and Death. You are the Anti-Christ's Prophet. You are NOT in God's side.
logan5, Communism is basically when man tries to govern himself without God. IT is atheistic in nature because it say the state is you god. Your rights come from the state not the creator. What happened in communist countries? Stalin(USSR) and Mao(China) ki11ed millions of people in peace time because they disagreed with them politically. Mao ki11ed about 70 million and Stalin ki11ed at least 20 million. That atheistic world is mostly what this world has seen. You have no idea how lucky you are to live in a nation built on the idea that we are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable Rights.
Mighty7, What you have said about The Book of Revelation is exactly what the Qur'an says. I strongly disagree with you. If you are to rip pages out of the Bible by what authority do you do this? Do you have perfect knowledge to know which pages to remove? What other pages will you remove?
Governing without god is communism? When was the last time Jesus sat in with congress?
The four horsemen are merely references to four seasons, The four living creatures represent the four cardinal point is the Jewish zodiac back when Scorpio was depicted as a bird. Then you have Taurus the bull, Aquarius the man and or course Leo the lion. The reference to the rooms (or astrological houses) full of eyes relates to stars and their positions. The whole thing is about events based on astrological dates and times a very long time ago. Nostradamus used the same form of cryptic hidden meanings. Revelations is no great mystery, people simply watch to much TV and or listen to too many fairy tails. Rather than actually doing their own legitimate research. And yes I agree most all of this took place a couple thousand years ago. So what in Revelations is relevant to today? We are currently at the end of the age of the gentiles; we know this because of the reestablishment of a Jewish nation, as was predicted in revelations. Could this all just be coincidence? Maybe not. Do your own research; make up your own minds! I did, and then wrote my own book.
The thing about predictions is all you have to do it wait long enough until something happens that is similar to what was stated, then you blow it out of proportion and call it evidence. Viola! See it's all true! NOT
And you know this how?
God told him. How else? Can you prove otherwise? Seeeeeee. that's how religion works.
Would God tell him that He lied when he inspired the Bible? NO. Elaine Pagels is in disagreement with most Bible scholars.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus Christ
So we should pray to Jesus, then? Wait, but didn't God say, "I am the Lord thy God...Thou shalt have no other gods before me."? I'm confused... Maybe Jesus was trying to undercut his dad...
humans have been around for a few thousand years.......lets check back again in 250,000 years and see what manner of phenomena we worship then (lol, just something else we don't understand to explain that which we can't) Christians are so warm and fuzzy I just want to hug them all! Forget your mind invented deities and do something good in your life
Jesus was sent to the world to redeem it. IF you except Jesus, then you have accepted the gift of forgiveness offered by God; otherwise, you are guilty of your sin which you are unable to pay for yourself.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. " John 3;16
Sounds like the banking industry, Borrowing our money from our govt, and then loaning it back to us while getting their own cut.
People simple do not understand scripture. No where in the bible does it say that Jesus is God. Jesus simply states that he is Gods Representative, in so much as if a king sent his son to perform on his behalf in in another land, wherefore the son is acting on the fathers behalf with full authority. We do this today with ambassadors we send to other nations. Those American (for example) ambassadors for all practice purposes are the USA when they are in a foreign land, they have authority to negotiate treaties and so forth, those ambassadors could honestly say that if you have seen them you have seen the American people.
You should pray to God in Jesus' name. He is like your lawyer so to speak.
Elaine Pagels has perfect god like understanding, NOT! A very large number of the best bible scholars disagree with Elaine Pagels.
I agree. Why did they pick Pagels? Why not a more respected Biblical scholar instead of such a controversial one? If they were looking at the Hebrew Bible, they would probably consult a Jewish scholar and if the Koran, a Muslim scholar. Why didn't they find a Christian scholar?
There is an anti-Christ. I worked for him.
thinking of converting, but not really sure if Gods are real. The christian god seems ok (maybe a bit heavy handed) or would a sun-God be better? (Apolla or Ra perhaps, am in FL) thanks
Zeus is the way to go.
most areas of Earth of at least one true god, so you really do have some good options (try Buddhism then you can pick another too because they let you have two!)
hmm, goin; to be some hellfire a cookin' this evening
No. Do not. Our faith is flawed, our religion a joke. I quit.
Ask them and see who answers. It worked for me. Ive been a Christian for 27 years now.
Personally, I would suggest Pastafarianism.
@Susie "Ask them and see who answers. It worked for me. Ive been a Christian for 27 years now."
Elaine Pagel's writings have been highly controversial for years. They've gotten bad reviews from some leading scholars. My personal view is that she likes to support theories and speculations that undermine traditional Christianity.
Undermining Christianity is not a difficult thing to do. Matter of fact, the belief system pretty much undermines itself. As an author and researcher it would be grossly irresponsible for her not to expose the biggest hoax in human history and help us see it for what it really is.
Free will is always going to be a test of our spirit-Be silent and listen and you will understand whats important. Thank you LORD for the blessings we have.
Shouldn't this article be called something like "Author Destroys their Reputation in Attempt to Debunk Book of Revalation"?
Are you claiming that debunking the Book of Revelation is something that's actually "hard" to do?? LOL
Ohh CNN... Why don't you just give up with your daily, subtle attack on Christianity? You can't win. America is something like 75% self-declared Christian. None of these things you listed in this article are myths.
Are you really trying to insist that just because the majority actually believes and fears this stuff then it must be true? Seriously, please try and do a little reading before you post. To claim that something is true simply because the majority deems it so is a logical fallacy known as "Argumentum Ad Populum" AKA "the Bandwagon Fallacy." Would love to see what support you have proving these things aren't myths!
CNN is a joke. They rarely cover salient news stories. All they care about are their ratings, and they don't do that very well.
Make up your mind CNN do want to be a real cable news network, a gossip rag, or the new 700 Club? Let us in on it so we'll know what to do with you. As for me, I always ask the Jehovah's not to waste their pamphlets on me.
If you can't figure out why topics like this are news worthy then its probably best you refrain from viewing web pages where you are required to exercise a little critical thought.
An excellently written and theologically profound treatment of an very difficult topic. Thank you!!
Not so sure about that. The article lists the anti-Christ, the Battle of Armageddon and the dreaded Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as major myths then proceeds to say almost nothing about them. I'm sure the Greek citizens of Patmos will be very surprised to learn they live in Turkey.The writer goes on to say that there are four big myths about Revelation and then goes on to talk only about three.
Sorry but I found the article to be less than informative.
I always thought Revelation was nonsense. Just like the rest of the Bible. (By the way, I commenting here because religious fanatics keep commenting on science stories, especially anything about evolution. Fair is fair, right?)
People don't know the meaning of fair. It's always nice to see people picking hard dividing lines, when they only have a fraction of understanding. Finite approximations transformed to infinite absolution. Believers and non-believers alike share a commonality–faith. Faith is the only thing that makes man equal. Ephemeral pursuits, to be seen by others as having wisdom, which is only inevitably a summation that manifests as follar of deeper understanding.
THANK GOODNESS we dont let CNN correct our religious views... wait.. no one actually comes to CNN for spiritual guidance right?? Right??? No one actually does that right? Like no one? Please tell me no one does...
Seriously no one comes to CNN for that right? Like CNN? Really?
Of course no one comes to CNN for that. Thats what FOX News is for.
Patmos is an island, but is NOT in Turkey. It is NEAR Turkey but is very much under Greek control!
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.