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.”
Also, she tries to subtly make a point that this John didn't believe Jesus died for our sins, which is a pretty strange thing to say, since the book shows Jesus coming back to conquer. If he believed this way, it wouldn't make sense, and instead would put another prophet or leader like Abrahan or Moses in the position of Jesus, which would still be strange since Jesus in the story is obviously no mere human. She previously wrote a book on the Gnostic Gospels, and anyone can tell she is trying to push Revelations now somehow into that category.
Hey Gaseous Caesar! Why in the world do you believe what you write? Do you really think that way? jesus wasn't a mere human? Then what was he and how do you know? Was he another species?
The island of Patmos is part of Greece not part of Turkey. If this so-called Biblical expert can get something so basic wrong, why should anyone listen to what she has to say about Revelation?
It's like claiming to be an expert on the Koran and saying that Mecca is in Egypt. Why should anyone listen to you?
Well, because she wrote a book and CNN thinks she's swell and delightful...
I hate say this again, but Blake made the mistake about Patmos. Other reviewers of the book say its an island near present day Turkey. If she she that big of a mistake about what country Patmos was in and they caught her, the reviewers would have said something. Its been over 60 years since it was part Turkey, so they wouldn't have let that go.
It's not clear from the reference whether this misattribution of Patmos to Turkey rather than Greece was written by Elaine Pagels or CNN's John Blake. Does anyone have access to Pagels's original source material to check?
Your missing the point. Every week CNN tries to debunk Christianity one issue at a time. Look at their previous articles on slavery, racism, and others. Whenever they cover Christianity, they always have liberal, non-biblical pastor that they promote. In this case, it is just easier to confuse the reader. I mean 666 is Nero?....Nero died long before the book was written!
Either Blake mis-quoted Pagels, or Pagels herself is wrong, either way the quote being referenced does not use the phrase "NEAR present-day Turkey" it use the phrase "IN present-day Turkey", which is factually wrong.
On Judgement Day, everybody would face their creator. It's coming soon... believe me!
Why should I believe you?
Why should we? People like you have been saying this for 2000 years, and you've never been right once.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence...
Why should we believe you? Do you have any verifiable evidence to support your claims? How do you know it is your god that is comming back? How do you know it is not Thor or one of the Egyptian gods that is real?
Not all religions can be right. They make different claims and thus cannot all be correct. They can all be wrong.
Rub it long enough, it will come
Hey Grandma! Why don't you answer?
Wow this shows nasty atheists have nothing else to do on a weekend other than commenting on religious articles LOOOL
I know right! Such a huge time commitment!!!
Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.
Nasty? All I ask is for you to present any verifiable evidence that your god exists. How is that nasty?
At the time of these events, the Island of Patmos was part of Turkey. I believe that is what her statement means.
Patmos was part of the Roman Empire when the Book of Revelation was written. The Turks were still living in their Mongolian homeland at that time. Besides this so-called expert says "present-day Turkey."
Patmos is part of "present-day Greece." This "expert" is a fraud who doesn't even know where the Book of Revelation was written!
We will stop our logic and reasoning when you prove to us their is a god. BUT YOU CANNOT PROVE IT MORONS!
Prove to me there isn't a God "moron".
Man created God in his image: intolerant, s-exist, h-omophobic and violent.
Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord........................We will all see and agree on that day!
Yeah, not happening. Religion in all of it's forms is a myth greated by ane elited few to control the masses. It worked great until the masses became educated. Now that the world is a place of science, these fairy tales will finally go away.
Swap "Jesus" for "Allah" and shout that phrase in Arabic, and then tell me how uncomfortable that makes you feel.
Ironman you belong to North Korea! You will be the first one sent to hell with no warning
Grandma – you are wrong! Fuck Off!
How do you "know" this?
ralph, "Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord"
Sounds more like something that your megalomaniacal "Satan" character would desire and demand...
You sound like a judgmental little twit. Rotten fruit.
The author of the article and book should be hanged and sentenced to death !!!!
Why? Because her interpretation doesn't match yours? Wow, what a kind, accepting Christian you must be. I can really see those Christ-like qualities showing through.
The sad reality is that most people, especially Christians, suffer from presentism, and have already painted a picture for themselves of how all things were, are, and will be. Many Christians are not interested in facts. They'll cover their ears when told of anything that deviates from their solipsistic dispositions. I'm actually quite supprised and appalled at how little many Christians actually know about the history of their own religion. Just like they do with the Bible, they "cherry-pick" the parts of history and theology that suit them, and ignore the rest. It's not Christianity that's detestable, it's their ignorant followers.
The sad part is you will go to hell
The said part is that you actually think that about someone you've never even met.
I've studied history all of my life; certainly my favorite subject. I am a Christian, and I know about the history of the Bible, history surrounding the time frame of the Bible, etc.
I'm going to go to Hell? This is another profound attribute Christians possess that is extremely uninspiring: They WANT people to go to Hell. They WANT others to suffer.They believe in tribalism in the sense that they are the chosen ones. SO repulsive.
Nonsense! Only Christians go to hell while, for instance, Odinists go to Valhalla. Michael and I, though, are going to Vegas! But any of you who ARE going to Hell... don't worry. It's not as bad as it used to be. I've been there recently. They put in all new plumbing, new A/C and they even have cable now. It's not bad. Still going to Vegas, though.
@Capt. Sheffield: Thanks for trolling, poltroon.
If the author can't even reference the correct history of the island of Patmos, what makes anyone think she is any more accurate with her other research? Sloppy...
i think that's John Blake's fault. I haven't read the book but I've seen other reviews that state that Patmos is an island near present day Turkey (not that it's part of Turkey) which is true. You would think that if Pagel had said it, the other reviewers would have made a big deal of correcting her.
"He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos in present-day Turkey." Nope. She does not say NEAR present-day Turkey, she says IN present-day Turkey, huge difference and factually wrong.
Almost everything in every CNN religeous "story" has been tainted with complete lies. The writer of the book the Revelations of Jesus Christ, was very much a Christian. John, whom we call John the Revelator, was tortured several times for his Christian beliefs. After being boiled in olive oil(a fairly common punishment for those brutal times) he was condemned to the Isle of Patmos. Obviously John the Revelator was no coward, as is implied by this author's comment that John was afraid to call the Roman Emporor by his name. What I find to be scary is the fact that hard-core political Liberals think they are actualy fit to interpret the Scriptures.
And Blake paraphased her words. If you look back, they are not in quotes. Obviously we need someone who has the book to tell us.
This type of reasoning is called a "false syllogism."
America is a Christian country; those who don't believe in the bible should not be allowed to be U.S. citizen. Period.
Anyone that believes in The Babble, or like books of cult mythology, is mentally ill and should not be allowed to vote.
Not sure if trolling, or if ignorant about basic U.S. history.
Yes, and women shouldn’t vote. And people of color should have separate bathrooms, right?
What YOU say is UNAMERICAN, sir.
The likelihood that America is a Christian nation is directly proportional to the number of occurrences of the words "Jesus", "Christ", "God", "Bible", and "Christianity" in the US Const¡tution.
No. America was NEVER intended to be a Christian country. This is evidence throut the writings of the Founders but is made MOST clear in the Treaty of Tripoli. This treaty was submitted to the US Senate (and was approved by them) by Pres. John Adams but the first draft was written under Pres. George Washington. So the treaty and all of it's wording was approved of by two Presidents and the Senate and House at that time. It was signed at Tripoli on November 4, 1796 and at Algiers on January 3, 1797. It states in the treaty "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." Now would you Christians PLEASE stop spreading this absurd and pathetic lie? (probably not)
Last post, the Book of Revelation is not a myth, it is not history, it is about the future. If you read you will find things like a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem, and the coming judgment, and the book of deeds being opened, to also include the book of life. The book of life describes one who has accepted Jesus by faith and invited Him into one's heart; that persons name is written in the book of life.
From websource: The Book of Life is mentioned throughout the Scriptures: Exodus 32:32; Daniel 12:1; Luke 10:10; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12; 20:15. These passages tell us some very interesting facts.
The Book of Life has the names of all members of the human race who would ever live from the time of Adam and Eve, to the last person in human history. The reason it has the names of all members of the human race is because Jesus Christ died on the cross and paid for all the sins of all members of the human race, from Adam to the last person in human history. Therefore, because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross, all members of the human race are potentially saved.
When a person dies, and has not accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior through faith, then his name is blotted out of The Book of Life.
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire
You are lying, none of that will happen. The Earth will be destroyed by some unknown force on December 21, 2012, and if you don't believe that, I will go make a roast beef sandwich.
That indeed is the Truth, Edward. Well written.
Here's the websource, I like the way it clearly explains things:
folks may argue and disagree, but I liked the simplicity in its explanation, that's all.
God bless people who still fear, love and revere Him. Good post, Edward. God bless you, Sir, and God bless America.
Nice Edward very nice, I like a man that knows his bible and that will defend the word of God. May God bless you Edward .
This article made me laugh! Those that swear "666" refers to Nero are absolutely brain dead. Nero had been long dead already, and even the next emperor had already died. Also, the way in which these people claim Nero is based on gematria, which was not even used in Christianity, nor in most jewish circles. These are extreme stretches.
I thought the entire book was a myth?
W.T.F do Atheists here do on Sunday afternoon rather than going out and take fresh air?
They could only find 4 myths? The whole thing is a myth.
Now go to hell
"Seperation of Church and State makes me throw up"
At the basis of most religions are fundamental moral truths.....the problem is not religion itself, but was has been and will always be the weakest link.....Man!
If a man still prophesies, his parents, father and mother, shall say to him, "You shall not live, because you have spoken a lie in the name of the Lord." When he prophesies, his parents, father and mother, shall thrust him through. (Zechariah 13:3 NAB)
You don't think that the fact that there's not a shred of any evidence for any god is the weakest link?
I HOPE ALL JE,WS B.URN IN HELL AND THEY WILL !!
That is a higly evolved and christian view of things – NOT. People like you are the reason that religions around the world are far more a tool of evil than good. Not oinly that, those stories don't exist and there is no gawd.
Where is this hell you speak of? How do you know what it's like? Do you have pictures? Eyewitness accounts? Wikipedia entries? How many Starbucks do they have? Can I rent a car?
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.