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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. davidWA

    I'm gonna sine your pitty on da runny kine

    April 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  2. jeffr

    this is akin to arguing the validity of lord of the rings. all of it is hokum and history shows that quite well. maybe if we stopped bring so damn arrogant thinking some space daddy gives a lick about how we think or use our genitals, we could have peace in this world. but when you have peodophiles as popes and mad men as mullahs, i fear reason and logic will take a back seat to fairytales and biggotry.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  3. Rick

    We do things for money, power and fame, neither of which will accrue to Pagels for this book.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  4. vikhockey34

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlLSTIhMFUM&w=640&h=390]

    April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • GoRemote

      CNN, please trace this dude's IP address, and prevent the tragic events that will occur when the nut goes completely Postal....

      April 1, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • momoya

      Oh my, it might be too late for vik, the virus seems to have taken over his brain.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Mtheumer

      Someone should tell the Hindus and Buddhist.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Well, vikhoaxy certainly had one demonstrably false thing to say, to wit: "I really think..." No sign of any thinking was exhibited.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  5. beairdboy

    Wow, alot to think about. To the angel of the church of the USA. I know your works and yet you are so wealthy with this worlds goods. You call what's true wrong and yet you cannot even live the life you expect of others. My grace is sufficient for you. When the economy crashes and the church once again becomes rich through poverty then you will see my glory and walk in compassion. When the Vatican and the large evangelical church is out of money then you will know my provision as I will provide. This is not a prophecy it could be it won't happen. You can judge a prophet by the fruit of his word.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  6. Wholly Mary

    APRIL FOOLS! (and all of the rest of the year too)

    April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  7. Presian

    The bible sounds even more "out there" than the Harry Potter books.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • reason

      The Easter Bunny is a more compelling story. At least he poops chocolate eggs we can eat, and does not damn billions to eternal fire and brimstone for picking the wrong religion or being born in the wrong place in the world.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  8. SkipJunkman

    It's fake. All of it, fraud.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Faith is born of desperation and denial of the finality of death. It derives from the adult version of fear of the monster under the bed or in the closet. It is just as irrational.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  9. Laura Beam

    Faith that there is another life and a Savior leads Christians to ask and to search for truth. Faith that it is there without question is the basis of Christianity, yet we have to find our own way all the time believing in the basic faith that we cannot see or know all the details. We have to step out like Indiana Jones knowing there is substance beyond our sight. I believe there is a book of Revelation simply to give those with great mental ability to search, a book with all the answers laid out like "Dick and Jane Go to School" would not satisfy those scholars, yes, the Bible has something for everyone.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • sybaris

      "Faith that there is another life and a Savior leads Christians to ask and to search for truth"

      Actually that undermines "faith" and does not make any sense as Christians believe they already know the "truth".

      April 1, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  10. davidWA

    The bible is just a bunch of fairy tales. Anyone who believes in that crap is simply minded and not able to think for themselves. The world would be a much better place without religion.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  11. Ryan

    John, don't write about something you don't know about.

    "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 in present-day Turkey."

    That'll be the Apostle John buddy! He too was exiled to Patmos, where he wrote even more books.

    "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."

    If he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he's still a Christian.

    "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."

    They were "books", but they were not deemed to be from the same source. In other words, they were fabricated or not written by a disciple/student of an eyewitness or first-hand source who was at the scene as an eye witness. There might be several books, but only ONE revelation of John.

    I just read a few things, could have read the entire thing because you have A LOT of factual errors here. Poor journalism overall.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Really?

      And you have the facts? Please elaborate. I would have to assume the facts you have about the bible means that you were actually there when the book was written.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • momoya

      Ryan

      You seem to think that what you've learned in church about the bible is true–you're wrong.. If you're really interested in the bible's history and authors, it'll take a lot more academic study than what you've evidenced in your post..

      I admit that I read the article somewhat quickly, but I did not spot any inaccuracies.. Do your research on this topic, Ryan.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Gaunt

      You are wrong about nearly everything. Seriously, have you ever even read a book? Ryan, dont just make silly lies like that up and pretend you know what you are talking about: you dont and its obvious.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  12. John

    GOP and their supporters need to read the Bible. They have unfortunately created their own god. They need to stop listening to their Pharaoh Russ Limbaugh. They have no idea who Jesus was and what he preached.......

    April 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  13. quikstrong

    So she read revelation as a teenager and the read it one more time as an adult when she wrote her book on it. I can see how she is an expert.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Incorrect. I suggest you do more than give this article and Pagel's work a superficial, sneering glance and pay attention to what she actually has to say.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  14. Mike

    If this person's thesis is taken to be correct, then the Book of Revelations quite accurately predicted the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christian Rome and the ushering in of the Christian age.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  15. keith1952

    Finally someone with some sense. Revelation is nothing but a scary fairy tale.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  16. col45

    I don't like the new format of false representation of comments-hundreds of comments but only three or four posted. I have stopped reading CNNBlogs and comments until today and find you aren't showing all that you advertise as being there. I am done.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  17. tlburkhardt

    So she reads it twice and is a Bible scholar?

    April 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • keith1952

      I'm a Bible Scholar and she is closer than any Evangelical or Fundamentalist Church.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • PsiCop

      Uh, no. She's a Bible scholar because she's a Bible scholar, and has been for decades.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • George

      and thats at least one more time than you. Religion was created by man to controll man. Islam has a hermit that lived in a cave, judaeism had hand me down stories from the ancient Egiptians, Christianity had a bunch of drunks sitting around in dark rooms fondeling youg boys, All religions are murderous by nature and while they did bring civility to humanes the cost in lives to acheive that goal is still, in my mind questionable.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  18. the good Joe

    People will be interpreting the bible forever and no one will ever get it right. It was just a book written by a bunch of wine drinking fools with an idea of how to control the masses! End of story! the world will end in 4.5 billion years when the sun burns all of it fuel and dies! That is of course if we don't do it ourselves with plain stupidity!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If you believe in a god, good for you! Just keep it to yourself and I'll do the same! Except for this moment!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Nice

      Well said. It's really not that complicated.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  19. Karakaxa

    Hello, is anybody there? Patmos is a Greek Island, has been, is, and will always be.So much for Pagel setting us all straight with "facts"!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • the good Joe

      Yea but that Greek island was named after the bible guy!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FACT!

      April 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • keith1952

      You must not know where Turkey is

      April 1, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Jason

      You do know that during that age most people didn't have surnames. Instead they used their city or town of origin. In this case it was a island.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • dave

      You're right, basic details are wrong?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  20. Jill

    As a Christian and a believer in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, I can tell you that much of the book of Revelation is indeed a great mystery. but the Story is there. Jesus Christ will return. He reigns over evil and will crush it under His feet. Which side do you want to be on? May this Easter bring a peace in knowing the Father God of mercy, hope and justice, who will right all wrongs by the blood and mercy of His Son, my Saviour....Jesus Christ. He is risen!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • PsiCop

      If it's true that "he is risen," then where is he? If he has truly "reigns over evil," then why has he done nothing about it? What, exactly, is he waiting for? (Oh, and don't say, "God works in mysterious ways, I can't answer that," because refusing to answer the question only shows that your claim itself is indemonstrable.)

      The cold fact is that our world has "evil" in it ... the very "evil" you say your Jesus "reigns over" ... and is therefore inseparable from one in which there is no deity at all to "reign over evil" in the first place.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • sybaris

      "Jesus Christ will return."

      Right, the alleged Jesus man already predicted his return once "within this generation" and was a no show.

      Jesus was the David Koresh of his day, an Essene priest with a savior complex, nothing more.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • āryan 665+1

      pardon me for being so illiterate but, who is "Jesus Christ"? what or who is "God"? what is "Religion"? and what is "Christianity", "Buddhism", "Hinduism", "Islam"? and how is "Revelation" related to all these? i was born yesterday in the cave. could anyone explain these things to me please. hard to make any sense here. i'm thinking about going back to the cave.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
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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.