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.”
Patmos is a modern-day Greek island; not Turkish. Mistakes like this reduce your credibility as a researcher
Who are you talking to? In her book, Pagels spends time discussing the ever-shifting rule of Patmos over time, by Rome, Turkey, Persia, Greece and its periods of independence. Did you not note that this article is about, not by, Pagels?
Are you blind? "He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos in present-day Turkey." .
The history of religion has shown the origins of Christianity are not substantially different than any other, even the cargo religions of the pacific Islands .. All Hail John Frum, he will return with corned beef in a can on Feb. 15th., the year is not known but it will be soon!
I'm still waiting . . . for Spam !
It's incredible how many "experts" come out of the woodwork to spout their psychobabble when something challenges what their money-grubbing "preachers" want them to believe.
Stop supporting Israeli aggression.
Research israels crimes against humanity.
Sounds like the writer was on drugs or had a nightmare that he thought was real. Hell, I had a dream once where I thought that "God" was a floating head in the room commanding me to do stuff. It freaked me out until I realized that I was dreaming and woke myself up. The Bible is b.s., plain and simple.
I had a bad acid trip that was similar...
How many times are they going to reevaluate and reinterpret the bible? They should have stopped writing after; In the beginning.....
The Bible – A Fairytale book of rules brainwashing millions. Obliviously used to help create war, kill, hate, judge and discriminate.
"Satan's right hand man"? Your user name supports your stance. The serpent in the garden did the same thing you are doing...contradicting God's Words.
This is one woman's opinion. . .
Well, no. Pagels is widely respected and makes compelling arguments, backed by evidence and reference, and there are many other scholars in the field who strongly support her work.
... after years or research backed up by historical facts.
I've seen stuff on the history channel and the learning channel on this particular secion of the bible, and frankly, have read it myself many tmies over. Mainly what I see in it is symbolism that can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. It's not something you can expect to take literally (unless you're doing some hard and heavy drugs), and while interesting, doesn't make a lot of sense.
Pagels' book, however, does manage to make good sense of it, or at least very large swaths of it. Viewed in its proper historical context, it is much more approachable.
Not likely that there is anything of value here. The other books in the bible have some value, this is just the rage and rant of a lunatic, amplified by other lunatics through the centuries.
Organized religions, – all of them, – are killing us. So much violence committed in the name of God. I don't care who you are or what your religion is; you know this is true. The only question is will you finally admit it to yourself and make the change in yourself to clear your thinking. Join those of us that would like to live in peace, not in a world that is dominated by a violent contest between people of differing faiths. (and NO – it wouldn't be better if everyone would just accept Jesus as their Lord and savior – so don't just try to blame this on the non-christian religions – remember the Spanish Inquisition?)
Let's not also forget that religion tried to kill the likes of Galileo when he proved that the earth revolved around the sun. Science, facts and critical thinking are what religion calls the devil. Religion cannot stand up to the light of thought. Also agreed that the idea we should all accept a "savior" to fix the problems are absurd. Most christians are some of the meanest and uncaring people I know.
Can hardly believe this line:
Look at Rev. 1:5:
5* and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood,
I'm still not seeing where he says that. Did you leave it out?
Yes, that is clearly incorrect. However, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus may have been seen by John as atoning for the sins of the land of Judea and of the people of Israel for not keeping the covenant faithfully under Roman rule. John may not have seen this atoning sacrifice being made for all men, Jew and Gentile alike, as Paul saw it.
And then again, at least John was accepting of "God Fearers", those who abstained from fornication, that is eating things sacrificed to idols (a communion with the deep things of satan as he saw it, mocking Paul). However, the Pauline Church probably felt like 2nd class citizens, those who had not born the heat of the day:
Mat_20:12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
The quality of Pagel's book is highly suspect. Having read Revelation a few times over the years I can see some glaring errors she makes. I wonder why CNN staff writers bother to present such poorly informed drivel here. I'd rather have a well written analysis by an atheist than some poorly researched garbage as this.
By all means, then, please do as Pagels does and present your arguments, backed up by evidence and references. "It ain't right!" doesn't hold up very well, though.
I totally agree..this is loaded with presumptions and no facts. A totally ignorant author and there will be some totally ignorant readers who will take it as fact. Agree that Revelations is full of symbolism, but the writer, John, was describing the future as told by God himself as a warning...so a giant wasp like creature to John at the time of writing, could very well be a tomahawk helicopter to us. No one knows when this will begin, but if any of the Old Testament prophecy is any indication of the truth, it is at hand and the book of Revelations bears witness as to what to expect. One of the first prophecies was that Israel will become a nation again...and it has..so look to the skys my friends, for your future draweth nigh.
She's wrong on so many levels, I'm not going to bother listing them all. The Apostle John, under inspiration and guidance of Gods holy spirit through Christ, wrote the book of revelation. Christ deciples living at the time John penned Revelation, didnt 'see their world crashing around them', as the author puts it. I believe she makes reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Christians had already been warned of this by Christ himself and most likely had departed, when the Roman army left after they had surrounded Jerusalem. (Luke 21: 20-22) Revelation had messages that concerned congregations at the time it was written, but also for true Christians living today. There are many symbolisms such as 'Babylon the Great', 'The Harlot', and 'The Beast'.
Babylon the Great and 'The Harlot', are used to symbolize the false religious element that would exist during the time of end. 'The Beast' represents the govermental authourities, more presisely, 'THE UNITED NATIONS' (Formely 'The Leaque of Natoins) . (Revelation 13: 11-17) The 'Harlot that rides on the back of the 'Beast', represents the false religious elenment of the world that has commited 'spiritual fornication' with the 'Kings of the Earth', while at the same time 'claiming' to represent God through Christ. (Revelation 18) (Matthew 24: 5, 11 23-24)
So the book of Revelation IS about the 'End', not of the Earth in a nuclear, biolgoical war, or from a astroid, but rather the destruction a wicked system of things. True Christians pray for it.
So the book of Revelation IS about the 'End', not of the Earth in a nuclear, biolgoical war, or from a astroid, but rather the destruction a wicked system of things. True Christians are looking forward to it.(Revelation 21: 1-4)
Satan is given the power to run the beast systems. So, we must look to the Book of Job to see what will happen when he is allowed to be in "charge". Let's see..he destroyed Job's:
Now, do you accept Truth or not? Look around. God does NOT lie.
No, "gawd" doesn't lie. Just the people that created the fairy tale and those who continue to propogate it century after century. Something can't "lie" if it doesn't exist.
IIRC, all the misfortunes that befell Job (the worst of which actually befell his FAMILY, but nobody cares about them) were the result of a conspiracy between Satan and Yahweh. For some reason, the latter never gets blamed for his part in the deal.
Incidentally, I googled "turth7" and discovered it was a piece of fanfic published in 2002 by "sweetkitty". That you, kitty?
Ah! So you're saying Bush/Cheney was the problem the entire time!!
Satan and Lucifer are not the same. Satan challenged God to test Job's faith, not Lucifer (the devil). God tested Job's faith to prove a point to Satan, not Lucifer.
Since man started walking on two legs he has denied what is self-evident. He is born, he lives, he dies, and death is forever. All religion is derived from this denial.
You said the key word "man". Man's number in the Bible is "6". Unless you connect to God, you will always remain just a man.
"Overcome the Earth"
Revelation is one of the hardest books in the Bible even for Christians to understand. It has powerful imagery and an apocalyptic vision for the culmination of God's creation. Trying to understand every word of it, however, is a fruitless enterprise and probably not the intent of the original author, whether divinely inspired or not.
How can one ever truly understand the fiction created in another's mind?
SixDegrees, the only position that matters is God's position. Elaine is but another sinning misguided human. Why should I be concerned about her position ? Can she raise the dead, heal the blind, make the mute speak, the deaf hear ? Can she grant eternal life ? No, she can't. She is just someone trying to make some money off of writing a book, for all her credentials, fails to have wisdom. Her book doesn't benefit anyone. It only destroy the one true hope of lost souls.
I don't know why you are so concerned with Pagels' position. But you keep posting on it, without troubling to actually back your arguments with fact or reference as she does so scrupulously in her writings.
It is truly amazing how people can become as delusional as you clearly are. I guess that 6th grade education wasn't enough to grant you rational thinking.
"Can she raise the dead, heal the blind, make the mute speak, the deaf hear ? Can she grant eternal life ? No, she can't."
Can anybody? No they can't. Only in mythology.
"Can she [make] the deaf hear?" Probably not, because that's not her field of expertise. But scientists who DO specialize in audiology have been making remarkable strides in that area. As always, progress comes from science, not religion. Deafness was never cured by prayer or laying on of hands, but it IS being cured by technology.
What makes her a fraud any more than the writer of revelations? You surely can put together a better argument than that, Sheila. This author is writing in the context of a modern world better understood than the world John of Patmos lived in. She is a well known scholar who goes to the trouble of researching her topics, putting together her theories, and presenting them to the public perhaps to reveal truths lost over the centuries. Please, join us in the modern world where the Earth is round. I promise, it will not hurt a bit and it does not require you to let go of your faith but only look at the world with an open mind.
I am a bit surprised how this article gets a simple fact wrong "island of Patmos in present-day Turkey". Patmos is an island in Greece. Please get check your facts right otherwise you guys and CNN looses credibility.
Pagels herself spends some time on Patmos' tangled affiliations over time, including rule by Turkey, Rome, Persia, Greece and bouts of independence as well.
It is politically a part of the nation of Greece but it is geographically much closer to Turkye, being only a few miles offshore.
Praying is like a rocking chair – it`ll give you something to do, but won`t get you anywhere.
Thats not been my experience. Why do you take that particular stance?
Too bad you feel that way. Maybe...try it?
"(23) ... Verily, verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.
(24) Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full." —John 16:23-24
OK, I'm not a true believer, so this wasn't aimed at me. But for those of you who ARE, notice that you've got a rock-solid guarantee from 2/3 of the Trinity here. So go ahead, ask for something benign and obviously praiseworthy, like a zillionaire to donate a million bucks for a homeless shelter in your hometown. Be generous. Give 'em till next Friday. YOU ARE GUARANTEED TO GET IT! The Bible says so! No ifs, ands, buts, asterisks, or fine print: WHATSOEVER ye ask.
Run the experiment, then you'll see why we scoff at you.
John of Patmos is anti-gentile christian expansion??? The book ends with a gathering from every tribe nation and tongue too large to number ... serves as the climax of the story told in the book. Doesn't sound very anti-gentile to me!
John of Patmos doesn't mention the death of Jesus as the heart of the Gospel??? In the opening section (Rev 4-5) he is described as one who appears as a lamb ... a lamb who was slain ... as he takes his place on the divine throne. Those who stand around the throne are said to stand in robes that have been dipped in the blood of the lamb slain ... obvious reference to the fulfillment of the Passover imagery from the O.T. in Christ.
Maybe reading the book only twice, as author of this article suggests, is not enough to write a book that claims to finally get it right!
The tribes mentioned are seven in number. Sound familiar? That would be the seven tribes of...Israel. You know – Jews. Not gentiles.
Once you've mulled that over for a bit, perhaps you can explain Martin Luther's hostility toward Revelation, saying "there is no Christ in it."
SixDegrees – Even granting that you have the correct understanding of "tribe", the greek word translated "nations" is "goyim" ... also the most common word for "gentile". There is no one who has studied the original greek language and its syntax in the first-century would would not recognize the coupling of these three terms as a way to suggest that every people group is included ... of which Jews are but one.
As to Luther, he added some good and some bad, as do we all. Thankfully the crux of Christianity does not rest on him but on the Christ who is portrayed in the Bible culminating in this book.
by the way ... there are 12 tribes of Israel ... not seven. And there is no mention of seven or twelve in the climactic passage of Rev. 19 -21. It simply says "every".
Science strives to overcome ignorance. Religion perpetuates and exploits it.
You are boring.
In following your comments, I suspect you have a personal history leading you to your statements. Whats your story?
Calvin writes: "You are boring."
It is perhaps also boring (maybe even trite and cliched) to note that the sun rises in the east every morning. Still true, tho.
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