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.”
Revelations is the " Hook " in Christianity . This is what keeps Christians going back for more .
Like drug dealers, they make it so you have to return.
I think people cannot envision life & creation NOT being made by another human named "God" and you would think as
no one knew how Jesus really looked like we accept the Italian artists version of this handsome tall bearded man
in flowing robes as true ,no room for a mid eastern fat man as Jesus in the fabled inn.
Many here also think the Bible was written in English when they fault this writer for
no actual quotes from the book or Revelations.
Translations are so far removed from the Hebrew that it is truly a joke as to how the Modern Bible reads today.
Whatever Churches and other religion's house of worship are still tax free and I guess in this day and age looking
at the hidden $$$$$$ wealth of religion ,that's a miracle.
Not to mention Aramaic was the language of Jesus which is almost dead now. The whole thing makes sense if you just look at it logically and I really do believe most theists really do see the silliness of it all when they really think of it. However fear is a dangerous thing and religion has always tapped into that fear in order to keep people on point. I mean, ever lasting pain and suffering sounds like a pretty horrible thing, so why not believe?
Pagels..leading Biblical scholar??? based on what??? She is a leading baffoon when it comes to her fabricated Biblical interpretation. This is pathetic...find a real Biblical scholar.
Uh – that would be based on years of highly praised research on primary sources, publication of hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and critical praise from her numerous peers in the field, for starters.
What is a baffoon ?
By "real Biblical scholar" do you mean one that tells you what you want to hear rather than the truth about the origins of the books of the Bible?
What, SPECIFICALLY, do you refute in her account?
Yes... Princeton, Barnard, Harvard and Stanford are all her alma matters... those certainly pale in comparison to the Tennessee upstairs evangelical college and culinary school or wherever the "real" scholars obtain their education from.
Uh, the only fabrication involved here is the Bible itself.
The Book of Revelation is a bad acid trip whose "message" changes depending on who is our newest enemy. Just give me some consistency xians, enjoy your day.
The book makes a great deal more sense when placed in the historical context provided by Pagels.
Only 4 myths? Oh come on there has to be way more...
I love reading all these people professing their faith as if the country they were born in and the family for which they were raised had nothing to do with which religion they “just know” is the right one. The same conversation is going on in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Korea except it is a different fairy tale with a different all knowing and loving ruler in charge waiting to punish those that do not bow before him.
99.9999% percent of the world’s faithful have never considered any other religion and I can only presume they also think the beliefs of those faiths are completely unfounded and insane… much the way I do, except I think that way of all of them not just the arbitrary one of several thousands that have survived these past 5000 years. Your religion was not a choice or a calling, it was a fluke of geography and if you were born somewhere else you would believe in another mythology than the one you do.
Exactly! Well Said.
i find this statement to be... well.... not based on any real fact. it is a personal opinion with absolutely no credibility. if 99.999 percent of people only follow the religion of the geographical region or the religion of that which their parents taught them then what would be the odds one would read this article? i do not follow after that which my parents taught me nor would i say that i follow the religion of the geographical area i live in. and i believe that all men have a sound right to choose what they want to believe and how so if an individual decides they do not wish to serve any God but instead serve themselves that is their business. and they should do so with zealousness. however i do not believe that individuals should make ugly statements not based in fact and obviously void of true understanding of what a certain religion teaches. ( ex: God is out their just waiting to destroy all who will not bow down to him. is absurdly void of understanding.) by all means choose whether or not you will serve ANY God you wish, or choose to serve none at all. i pray you would be as confident and faithful in your choice as i am but that doesnt mean we need to be ugly to one another because we dont understand one another
So the people of Iran all just happened upon Islam through their own free will after weighing the many options presented to them?
Sweet.... please point out all the white American southerners that worship Vishnu.
Sweet.... feel free to show me all the Catholics in Iran or find me all the Caucasians in Mississippi that are bowing down to Vishnu at the moment.
It is a pity that Mr. Blake et al provide argument against the authenticity of Revelations, yet ignore its consistency with the book of Daniel, Isaiah, and many books of prophecy in the Old Testament. The inspired truths are twisted in this article by opinion and denial. I would imagine that there was plenty of discussion on including this and several books that made it into, or were considered for, the Holy Bible. The 66 that are in it, written by dozens of authors over several hundred years, fit together like nothing uninspired humans could reproduce (even with electronic media as we have today). God beckons us, but does not force us, to follow him. In your heart, there is wisdom and truth. We choose our eternal destiny. Opinions and debate do not change the outcome.
These parallels are discussed extensively by Pagels. Although the appearance of earlier mythos in subsequent work is hardly indicative of anything other than awareness of those works, as the author of Revelation certainly was. It's a weak argument that has been rejected as such since the early 200s.
Myth #5, that the book is called "Revelations".
There are only two problems with your perspective. First, and most obviously, the books of the Bible fit together because they were selected on that basis. It's like the GOP telling us there's no such thing as climate change, and then cherry-picking a few things to "prove their case" while ignoring all the other evidence. That same statement could be used to justify ANYTHING.
Second, we do need to consider the author, the times, and the meaning of words. Directly translating anything is always dangerous, simply because some words don't translate, and because meanings change. As recently as 50 years ago, a "moderate" politician was a good thing...not too extreme in either direction. Now, a "moderate" is something much different. Just ask anybody in the GOP.
Revelations is about as accurate and dependable as the long-term weather forecast. Anything much more than "light during the day and dark at night" is pretty suspect. This article simply shows why!
They "fit together" only because a council decided which books to include. The Gospel of John also almost didn't make it. A lot of the Church Fathers thought it was too gnostic. Both books were favored by heretic groups, but they're probable the two most popular NT books amongst evangelicals. Funny how that works, huh?
Veith? Wonderful only in that it avoids actual scholarship and pretends to be the equal of it. Start with his Genesis conflict and move on to The Ne Word Order. He might as well label it as fan fiction or marketing. So little actual scholarship, he might has well have become a DR. online for $25. Wonderful for him. He doesn't have to do any actual homework.
The raputre; the biggest extortion attemtpt in history. Like PT Barum said there is a sucker born every minute.
please crawl back into your hole.
I never understood why the priests added the book of revelation at all. The new testament contains loving words to describe what Jesus taught. And then comes a book that was clearly written by someone that had eaten too many mushrooms.
For, the same reason fear is always used, power, money, control.
I'm not sure whether this article is true or not but it makes much more sense than the literal explanation of revelation. Now someone needs to write a similar explanation of genesis because I'm positive thats a bunch of baloney.
Genesis is based largely on even older Mesopotamian stories. See the Gilgamesh Epic.
Genesis? There is plenty of scholarship on that, who it was written by, the actual textual contradictions, duplicate flood stories with different endings. It's there and pretty easy to find.
What would we do without your enlightenment on the book of Revelation?.....I say that in jest.
Dixson likes to hear himself speak doesnt he? He reminds of a South Park episode. What a pathetic life he must have no one likes him in the real world.
I'm an atheist, but i enjoy reading the book of revelations, its a very interesting perspective on the way the world is depicted to end in the bible.
The whole bible is a great read.... a bronze age soap opera if you will. It has war and death, talking snakes and betrayal, a vindictive creator and a great flood and many other crazy and bizarre stories. Anyone who likes entertaining literature should give it a go. Just imagine if Tolkien had lived 2000 years ago, we would all be worshiping Frodo instead of Jesus.
I can't wait till the day I go meet my maker so I do not have to hear or read this none sense anymore. I laugh at this! I am so glad my faith is strong to see through all of this. Fools will believe Fools...and how ironic it's April Fool's day! Be blessed I will be praying for all of you!
This book is on Jesus' reading list. He'll love you a little bit less when he learns that you didn't read it.
Laughing at this is not the same as being right, nor is misspelling nonsense, and it's certainly not the same as being right. Faith - the real kind - without home work gives you no insight or intelligence. It only allows you to laugh at what you do not understand and can't actually argue against.
Must be Eastertime. The naysayers abound as usual.
Nope... we are around all the time and we are growing as more and more people finally admit to obvious insanity of the whole ruse.
A minor correction to the article: Paul was not an apostle (never met and was actively persecuting the Jesus sect at the time of Jesus' death) and was outside Jerusalem in 70 BCE preaching–that is why todays Christianity is imbued with his ideals–he was a survivor and could continue to spread his view when others, who were closer to Jesus in life, died in the battle of Jeruselem and its fall-out. History is so interesting.
Many Christians view Paul as an Apostle b/c Jesus actually came to him. Therefore he is viewed as the 12th Apostle, replacing Judas.
And I don't view him as an apostle, because I think he completely fabricated this encounter with Jesus. Why? Well why would any con man make up a story that ended up reaping him riches beyond comprehension?
Jesus first twelve disciples lost Judas Iscariot not Judas(also Jude the writer of the Epistle by that name). JUDAS ISCARIOT was replaced by MATTHEW not Paul. They were known as Apostles what we now mostly call missionaries or evangelists. Paul was an Apostle because of his mission work.
Paul called himself an apostle just like every pastor and priest called themselves a man (or woman) of God. Doesn't make it so, however. We only have his word that he encountered Christ.
I prefer verdookianism and the enchanted evening of face stuffing to base my faith on!
The Easter Bunny is a more compelling story. At least he poops chocolate eggs we can eat, and does not damn billions to eternal brimstone for picking the wrong religion or being born in the wrong place in the world.
REASON seems I cant repeat this enuf 2 you! De Xtian God requires u 2 LOVE UR NEIGHBOR AS URSELF. This proves that u love Him with all ur being n He grants u salvation 4 this. The type god u are describing isnt ours. Salvation is not based on religion. Read the GOOD SAMARITAN n Romans chapters1&2
Most Christians think Jesus is the only path to salvation, but if you do think the Christian god will accept people to heaven based only on being good, then there is not much reason to believe in Christianity.
It amuses me that there are no actual quotes from the book of Revelation in this article. Journalist integrity at its finest!
I would have liked to see a longer article. The book itself is filled with such references.
Here is a quote from Revelation 4:6.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.
How can anybody take this seriously?
You're easily amused, and all too quick to dismiss. When it comes to actual educated scholarship as opposed to knee-jerk self-gratification, you score big in the no-credibility department. Quotes is the deal breaker? No, I think shallowness is.
Reason, John was using the language of his day to describe the indescribeable. For example, there are passages in Revelation referring to some sort of giant insect descending from the sky with a stinger that stings with unending pain. Ever see some of our military helicopters? Do they not look like huge insects? Well John hadn't seen a helicopter, thus he described what he saw the best he could.
For a wonderful expose on the book of Revelation and an academic argument against this person's view Google video Dr. Walter Veith's "Total Onslaught" Series. Wonderful!!
The guy who believes that cavemen lived 6000 years ago and rode dinosaurs? Yeah, he's credible.
Veith got bucked off a dinosaur pretty hard, I hear. That and how he got bitten by that snake he insulted in conversation seems to have hurt his thinking abilities.
Let's just suppose that we put you in Africa surrounded by a pride of lions with a slingshot and a couple of spears. I'll bet every single item I own on the lions for the win. Now are you really going to attempt to assert that spears and stones are going to stop a 2 story tall and 4 story long T-Rex?!?! LOL I'll even give you a shotgun and I'll still take the T-Rex since you'd likely never even fire off a shot as you'd be soiling your pants running for your life.
There was a tiger at the SF Zoo a few years back that killed a teen who was taunting it. The tiger made an incredible leap over a moat and sunk its claws into the concrete in order to climb out. A police officer shot the tiger at close range 3 times (twice in the chest) and was quoted as saying afterward, "The bullets didn't even slow her down. She just had this look on her face like, 'Are you kidding me?' " So a police officer shooting a 243 pound tiger at close range couldn't stop it and yet you are listening to an individual who believes that uneducated man with primitive spears is going to stop a 15,000 pound T-Rex?!?! I don't even know what to say. Simply mind-boggling.
You should change your handle to "Yeah Buddy, I'm Delusional" as it would be far more apropos.
Veith could not have any less credibility as a scholar. As a propagandist, perhaps, but he's still pretty transparent to be taken seriously
Thanks for the warning, guys. I won't go near Veith's works if he's yet another reality-denier.
Yeah. The dinosaur bronco bustin' riders were Adam & Steve!!!
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.