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.”
as a christian i feel this lady is inaccurate about her view in the bible. the bible is not meant to be taken into our mind but to be taken and meditate on it and focus on what Gods saying! also she got so focused on about finding facts and caught up in religion that she overlooked allowing God to speak to her and to focus on His truth!
Did you even read the article?
You "feel" she is inaccurate. Can you offer a cogent,logical rebuttal to ANY of the positions she shared ?
A book is always meant to be read with your mind open! otherwise some rocks or other souvenirs from the heaven would do the job just fine.
Did you even read the article? Can you offer any positive comments on the article. She has written postives articles about the Koran. Read the Koran
Elaine Pagels is neither a leading Biblical Scholar nor a particularly devout person of faith, though she does a sell lot of books amongst her cronies. Her ramblings herein are old school pontifications without foundation. CNN does itself a disservice when it gives such "populist" writers a forum in which to advance their less than reliable opinions. It's not that Ms. Pagels is unintelligent. It's that she is purposefully deciptive and dishonest. No modern scholarly writing, subject to peer review, follows her line of thought. At least not one who has actually read Revelation with an understanding of the faith (which is always conditional to one's proper understanding of a book of faith).
If you believe on "faith" that every word of any book is the true and unassailable word of God, you have disqualified yourself from being able to give an objective review of that book.
Yes, those hundreds of peer-reviewed articles she's written and the praise she's received from her peers in the world of biblical scholarship are all rubbish.
Root post is an instance of the <bad hominem fallacy.
Yeah....that PhD of hers was probably fake. No doubt they made a simple mistake in making her a professor of religion. Let me guess, she's not YOUR leading figure which probably only encompasses people of YOUR exact faith, therefore she MUST be wrong. As for being just a populist author...isn't the bible the number one selling book? Wouldn't that make you know who, a populist author?
Hallead: Deciptive? What kind of scholar are you?
The whole article is nonsense. Pagels is no serious scholar. "World's leading biblical scholars"...? No.
She is right about 666 signifying Nero.
She is right and read the Koran. She has also done a lot of research on Koran and given postive reviews about the Koran.
I feel so sorry for you–your entire opinion is based only on denial... and really, to base it on denial of a truely incontravertible fact makes you rather delusional too.... so sad.
How about the biggest myth of all: That Revelation is the literal word of God. God no more wrote that book than he did any other book in our out of the Bible. The books were written by humans, with human agendas and human fallibilities. That every word of Revelation is literally true is the biggest myth about the book that could exist.
(And I am a Christian and was a Biblical Studies major in college, so don't go calling me an atheist or hater of religion. I just don't believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.)
@Holy Man.. yes its written by humans, but not by their power or mind, but by God speaking through them and using them to write the things we know as the bible tooday!
@caleb, if God would inspire His words he would do that to Jesus who was His messenger and a prophet. why would He do that to "other people". Who would guarantee their truthfulness?
Psssst, there is no god, so relax and look at that "book" as fiction and you will be much better off. The ignorance of the so called christian community is overwhelming. I look upon the figure of jesus as a wandering hippy, who picked up the teachings of the Buddha and worked them over a bit. The only thing I see as 'beneficial" from the bible is the Sermon on the Mount, other than that I look at the rest of it as dribble.Don't take the think seriously at all. And if your staying in a motel, leave the thing outside your door.
@Sixdegrees<~~~ Also funny how you can say she backs up all her research with facts when she makes lot's of presumptions on that same research...Just shows how ignorant YOU are
Isn't it ironic that most people who consider themselves Christians no little about Christ and even less about the origins of the Bible?
That is just a load. Most Christians have read the bible. However, I would bet that you have not, nor have you read the book in question (I have).
AM NOT! I was watching Ryan Newman take advantage of a three-car pileup on a late restart to come around on the inside and win his first career victory at Martinsville, and NOT ONE OF YOU NOTICED I WAS THERE.
I come to CNN to get a different world view of the news. However, I found this article interesting and read it.
How many have heard the conspiracy theory that the U.S. did not actually put a man on the moon? I did not believe it till today. I mean really, how could such stupid, uneducated, mindless people put a person on the moon. I mean really, how?
That was almost 50 years ago, John, before our educational system was gutted by those who profit from ignorance. Perhaps it is your own ignorance that leads you to believe a conspiracy theory rather than understand that populations change with time.
hmmmm.....so this PEOPLE would dispute the Vatican and all of the Oxford theolo? so whats this PEOPLES iq anyways? for if i am to dispute the PHDs then i need some personal InFo on this PEOPLE??? although Revelations is entirely interpertation math, mark, luke and john do also correspond and that mistake to begin with says something...the person who wrote Revelations would be biting off their on arm due to it would add to, although she mentioned prophet possibly, but the book contains quotations of Christ???? karen armstrong has some good points also but in the end most need more than blind faith and i truly believe that predestination points far more to a prime mover....which is going to be a commonly realized fact within my lifetime...its just to common now adays
The pharmacy called, your medication is ready.
This is rather old news for anyone enlightened and educated, especially in the ways of the Gematria. However, let's hope these truths are disseminated now to a larger audience thanks to such publications.
Yep, unfortunately, Christians didn't use gematria, as well as most Jewish circles. That's why is it so ridiculous to ascribe Nero as the interpretation of 666! Even "educated, enlightened" people know if Nero died long before this author wrote this book (as well as the next emperor after him), it would have made him a total laughing stock!
The Book of Revelations reads like a book made by someone with a serious mental disorder and/or under a heavy amount of mind altering drugs.
Actually, Pagels' placement of the book in its proper historical context makes it much easier to understand.
"John" was the first Cheech, or was he Chong?
And the pathetic little fundies are out in force defending their own parochial interpretation of this book of hate that they so warmly embrace. Christianity is slowly but surely losing its true final battle with humanistic rationality.
I feel bad for non-Christians.... Convert now or you will go to hell. Up to you!
I feel bad for Christians. Believing lies, thinking that an eternal celestial North Korea would be paradise, thinking that cruel dictatorship is love, and that being a slave is desirable. Brainwashed and indoctrinated into a system of intimidation, lies, threats, ignorance, and manipulation. There is no hell. There is no heaven. It's all a bunch of made up non-sense. Even Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin thought so, along with Abraham Lincoln a little later on. In God We Trust is a silly concept, seeing as many of the most prominent Founding Fathers were not Christians.
Funny I heard a Muslim say something similar to that to a Christian the other day. And I heard a Jew say something similar to that to a Muslim. Turns out they all think they are right which is why they are always at war with each other.
Convert to Catholicism or Protestant? Then after that, which one of the thousands of denominations is the correct one with the correct interrpretation of the bible?
I feel sorry for you. I hope one day you will be free of your religious delusions.
I feel bad for mindless Evangelicals who are unable to think critically and question the pablum their pastor pushes every Sunday.
It would be great if religious types would let it be up to me, instead of forcing their dogma on everyone around them.
This guy is an atheist that continues to post stuff to make Christianity look bad. Read his other statements and it will make sense.
I feel bad for this guy. He's deluded. just sayin'
The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.
Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you live your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.
I can't use almost any of the same words in comments on here; they say I have already said it, and don't upload it. How you've been able to say the same thing almost 10 times in this section during the last few hours makes me wonder if some bloggers get special treatment.
"they are myths from stone age societies" Well, sure, unless you want to consider the Renaissance and its grandchild, the enlightenment and all of the humanity that came from them, then sure, Christianity reflects the "stone age."
GauisCaesar, it helps not to use vulgar language.
Ben, technically Biblical times were in the Iron Age.
As a Christian, I will not be offended by this during the holiest week for Christians when CNN does the same "act of journalism" about Islam during Ram
adan...I will not hold my breath...
Yes, you have war, abuse of children, the crusades, suicide bombers and all other wonderful fruits of religion to be offended by.
The only thing that is really important, if you believe in something or don't believe in something, is to be good to each other. A little bit of kindness goes a very long way.
Who says you can't be a liberal and believe in Christ? I do and I am.
I am a conservative, and agree you can be a liberal and be a Christian. I do not however think it is wise to go to a liberal, non-biblical church like Joel Osteen. You end up worshiping a God that only does what you want him to do, a God that doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible.
If you say you're a Christian but vote for a Liberal President. Politician or Party that advocates, supports and encourages abortion, I would question your choice. You can't be a BIT of a Christian and just choose the "bits" you like. Either you are or you're not. Sorry.
@FaithFull<~~~~ I also believe everyone makes their OWN decisions to sin or not...who are you to decide that? Or do you want to pass a religious law and start being like those extremist countries?
I was doing fine on this until I got to the part that read, "Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars.."
Now, THERE'S a myth for you....
This lady is not a biblical scholar. They call her that because she wrote a book on the Gnostic Gospels, as you can tell she is trying to turn the Book of Revelations into one of those. She also says Patmos is in Turkey (its in Greece), the 666 refers to Nero (he and the next Roman emperor were dead when this book was written), and that the book doesn't mention that Jesus died on the cross for sins (the fifth verse in the book actually says Jesus died for our sins). No, she is no scholar...she obviously lacks any historical clarity, theology, or straight-forward reading.
She's just another wannabee Theologist who hopes her "thoughts" will be made into another rubbishy effort of fiction like the Da Vinci Code! Someone should tell her kindly that it ain't going to happen!
A PhD in religion from Harvard. Head of the department of religion at Barnard College for almost a decade. Seems like she would be an expert to me.
I hope America turns into theocracy soon... Santorum a big start for it!
For those keeping score at home, this pathetic semi-coherent driblet is typical of the original work this poster comes up with when he or she is NOT pasting in that long, clearly copied, but grammatically correct collection of lies about atheists. Which reminds me, it's been about 2 pages, so another one is probably due again.
Nothing ever happens that is discernible as being "from the hand of God." So what would be the point of turning America into a Muslim country governed by Sharia laws?
Is this the same troll as "Atheism is bad for vegatables" toad?
Absolutely, JT. And just sayin, and several others.
Hey, if you are not literate enough to actually read my posts (that address individually each comment they are attached to) that is fine but please, do not engage in general bashing without adressing as single salient point (in another exchange I am not particiapting in) –that is disengenuous.
Your name isn't "just sayin"
Hurry! You can still make the final session of General Conference! Go to lds.com. Click on General Conference!
My suggestion is a simple one. Each and everyone of us need to research the answers for ourselves. Get your hands on a bible and read it. But the only way it will make sense is if you first repent and accept by faith who Jesus was and is. Then God will open your eyes to His message. If you are unwilling to do so, still research and find the answers out for yourselves. Use a bible commentary, ex. http://www.blueletterbible.org. Here you will find commentaries from a number of various authorites on the bible. The one I have found to be the most knowledgeable on this particular subject is Sir Isaac Newton. He was a great scientist and a dedicated student of the bible. He uses both the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation of the New Testament. Two of Sir Isaac's quotations are found on the previously stated website.
On the Bible:
"I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by men who were inspired. I study the Bible daily."
"Atheism is so senseless. When I look at the solar system. I see the earth at the right distance from the sun to receive the proper amounts of heat and light. This did not happen by chance."
Please have an open heart and mind and allow God to guide you to the answers you are looking for.
Each and everyone needs to get hold of a copy of Pagels' book. First, you will have to read it. That is all.
Hey Laurie? The planet was not made for us. We were made by the planet. Earth has radically changed several times during it's development, and the life forms that developed, survived and evolved did so by adapting to the conditions of the planet, not the other way around.
Laurie, you say that the only way the bible will make sense is if you have already put all of your faith and belief into Jesus. If you have already done that, you have the basic answers you want. It's not an open-minded way to "research". How does this help a non-believer? You are suggesting that someone put faith into something they may know nothing of.
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.