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.”
Jesus gave me chlamydia!!!!!!
JESUS, I HATE YOU
God created STDs. Don't hate baby Jesus.
Happy Atheist Days. Today is April Fools Day correct? Well- A fool says in their heart that there is no God. New Flash Jesus is God!!!
Happy Atheist Day Fool!!! :)
Are you 12 years old, Brat?... if you think that is original OR clever, you must be.
Attention Bizarre... What does age have to do what I just said. Hmmm- You obviously are against the Lord.
Sad is all I can say. Very, very sad. Noticing here I hit a nerve in you. That explains the insults. Have a Happy atheist Day.
You are the fool, dear. Have a nice day yourself.
It took 2000 years and now someone figured out what Revelation means? Pagels along with Dan Brown are self-appointed decryptors of all wisdom for our generation. They are both members of the New Age Movement, more specifically neo-gnostics. If you believe them you are buying into a philosophy the disciples rejected 2000 years ago – gnosticism. You must also believe that Jesus was married, and that his divine legacy has been passed on to all who embrace "the secret knowledge." The Neo-Gnostics are the divine unravelers of all mysteries. Their self importance is unsurpassed! The reason they see things that no one else does is very simple – they are not there. Sorry – the Davinci code is pure invention.
So you've never actually read Pagels' work. I wonder how you feel able to comment on it.
I read all of the Neo-Gnostic writings including Holy Blood Holy Grail which Pagels idolizes
You people are so afraid of death, you've bought into this ludicrous fairytale where you'll live in a kingdom in the sky, with all of the people you love for all of eternity. NEWSFLASH: it's okay to be afraid of death. This is a healthy, natural fear, which is part of the human experience. Your delusions of grandeur are incredibly bizarre.
Dan Brown is a novelist. Novels are works of fiction. Fiction is not meant to be taken as literal truth. I've never heard that Dan Brown had started preaching that the interesting ideas in his novels were actual truth. As for Elaine Pagels, she's not preaching to anyone, either. She's giving the academic world insight into early Christianity. How Christians choose to deal with that insight is up to them.
People who think this book from antiquity is a guide to the future are beyond ludicrous. It's scary how backwards so many Americans still are.
Wow I did not know there were so many hateful atheists on CNN......
Just because people disagree with you doesn't make them hateful.
@Peter: However, they disagree in a very vitriolic manner
It isn't really any worse than the Christians telling people they are going to burn in fire.
The you must not have been reading the cnn belief blog for very long...
For all of you believers out there.....the book of revelation was taken almost word for word from Pliny the Younger's account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. If you are earnestly searching for the truth, they you can go to your local library, or Amazon, and order Pliny's account of the eruption, and read it side by side with the book of Revelations and you will see for yourself. In addition, the story of the great flood and Noah's Arc were taken almost word for word from the Mesopotamian saga, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Again, if you really want to know the truth, go down to your local library and get this book out, and read it side by side with the biblical story of the flood. You will begin to see a pattern, that the bible is in fact of collection of plagiarized stories, thrown together by a bunch of politicians at The Council of Nicaea, in order to enslave people, both mentally and physically. In light of these FACTS, it doesn't mean that God isn't real. It just means that perhaps the Bible shouldn't carry so much weight among Christians.
Happy Atheist Days. Today is April Fools Day correct? Well- A fool says in their heart that there is no God. New Flash Jesus is God!!!
Happy Atheist Day Fool!!! :)
Nah, Braise Him - braised lamb of god, yummy!
Um, isn't the entire book a myth?
I prayed and prayed, but my appendix still burst. Can I sue for malpractice?
Your appendix burst because Jesus loves you.
Yes, god has a plan and he works in mysterious ways. His plan includes lots of children starving to death and rampant disease all over the planet. But it's all about love. Mysterious love that seems to require lots and lots and LOTS of death and suffering. But hey, it's his ball and he set the rules, okay?
Haven't read the Apocalypse Explained (six volumes) and the Apocalypse Revealed (two volumes) by Emanual Swedenborg – the theologian of the Universal Theology of the New Church?
Sounds convincing, doesn't it? And If you don't pick up a Bible to test these assertions ,you could be easily sucked in by this article and become a blind disciple of the author . Do you want to be that? But next time Jehovah's Witnesses knock at your door and offer to study the Bible with you, take the challenge.( Better yet, don't wiat. Call your local Kingdom Hall and ask for a Bible study) In a short time you will be given the history that backs up the true authorship of not only Revelation , but the entire Bible, leaving you to ask the question, why did this author never refer to any scriptures in this article? And what ulterior motive does the author betray by leaving out scriptural evidence?
Typo: wait. Got it.
References to scripture and other sources are abundant in Pagels' book.
" true authorship of not only Revelation , but the entire Bible"
The books of the bible were oral traditions and myths eventually written down by many men, many known and unknown. These were gathered up by the Catholic church, translated into latin where necessary, and a vote was held to determine which books would be included in their new book "The Bible".
In short- no ONE single person "wrote" the bible, hence the many contradictions and conflicting tales within. Only a fool would claim otherwise. And only a fool would claim it is to be taken literally. Even catholics aren't that stupid.
Don't be afraid. Take the challenge.
I studied quite awhile with the JWs. Amicable people, much to be preferred over sulphur spewing evangelicals and fundies. But silly as geese all the same.
ugh... Repeat after me: "Scripture is not evidence". Things written down 2000 years ago, a fair deal of it long after the events 'occured' and some of it heresay or assumed to be genuine decades later and shoved into a book, are not proof of anything. There are a lot of contested books in the bible, if you just read the bible alone you'll never know what pieces are contested. You have to read all the things that didn't actually make it in and you have to study the history around them and even then the great majority of what is in the bible are totally unsubstantiated claims. Am I telling you they are false? I'm not, you go make your own conclusion.
Interesting how CNN decides on slow news days...like Sunday...to push anti-Christian themes. No matter where I end up, Heaven or Hell, I just hope I have a good view of the faces of those who don't believe when they stand before God. They're sure in for a surprise! And, no matter where I personally end up, I'll be laughing my head off when I see the amazed and horrified looks on their faces when they find out exactly how wrong they've been all their lives. What a hoot that's going to be!
I'm not seeing how this article, or the book it discusses which I have also read, are anti-Christian in any sense.
It's very un-Christian of you to take pleasure in other people's mistakes Cheryl !
THis isn't anti-Christian. THere are plenty of Christians that are smart enough to know that the bible was not meant to be taken literally. It's meant to convey a message. I really don't think God is as easy to understand as people would like to think.
"And, no matter where I personally end up, I'll be laughing my head off when I see the amazed and horrified looks on their faces when they find out exactly how wrong they've been all their lives"
How prideful and arrogant of you Cheryl. Sounds like you'll have the exact same expression on your face if this is any example of your nasty and snide personality.
Your comment illustrates the whole problem with religion. Always judging. I don't sense an ounce of compassion in your voice. Spoken like a true believer. Intolerant, and hypocritical. If your fairy tale lands of heaven and hell DO exist, (which they don't), I hope that I'm not sent to a place that's full of people like you. Heaven is sure to be a bore. Plus I'm sure that the music sucks up there. 10 bucks says there's no jazz.
Wow, that sounds pretty evil of you.
I was PO'd that they would publish an article propping up The Babble on a Saturday – how rude!!
Only a sociopath would feel glee while imagining other people suffering. I'm just sayin'...
And how is your brother responding to treatment?
It's already not compelling when there's an Old Testament, that Jesus had to come along and denounce; that a King decided for political reasons which "books" to include in the Bible; that Revelations is a lot of symbolism from a Turkish pastor denouncing the Roman empire, in a book that should not have been incorporated; that the part of the scroll that even says "666" has a hole in it. Jesus seems to have been a real person. I just wish he could have set people straight about morality, dominion of the earth, etc. Evangelicals are not people to depend on. People with non-supernatural views truly ARE.
Look up my name on google.
Muhammed is the only way to heaven
You are so wrong. Jesus is the only way to enter Heaven. He is the only sin sacrifice that allows us to be called children of the Most High.
These types of bald statements are the root of our problems here on earth–both of these religions encourage their faithful to love and be kind to others to help the helpless, but people insist on being right rather than good. So sad.
Attention...justsaying Not one person is good. We are all nothing but dirty rags compare to a Holy and Just God. Praise Him that He made a way for us to be washed clean and righteous.
16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Why do people refuse to follow Jesus is beyond me. Happy Atheist Day.
It is not about what we did or we do. It is about what Jesus did for us. We need to tell this to the whole entire world. The world needs Jesus but they refuse to surrender to Him. The Lord said if you are a friend of this world then you are not my friend.
This world system is against the Lord. Why would I want to follow a corrupt world? I love Jesus way too much.
After having got that off your chest, do you feel more right or more good? Christ sought in his sermon on the mount to have us emmulate him and do good. Being right is not the begining of either hope or wisdom.
Love and Faint.. Love and Faith.. Love and Faith..
From cover to cover the Bible is a Holy Book about Love and Faith.
Having the correct interpretation or not will not be banning factor if you have Love and Faith.
But then again, those who have Love and Faith get decked from head to toe with a portion of the Holy Spirit (only a portion for their our good benefit.) And so, what’s the matter you????!!!!!!
Seems like nasty atheists suffer in closet and turn into Internet :evil:
How odd that you think that is funny...
Don't hurt yourself jumping to all those conclusions.
Laugh out out out loud?
It is interesting how "scholars" can be so un-scholarly. Dr. Pagels obviously is very learned and smart, but to genuinely believe the book of Revelation is not about the end of time, not written by the John the Apostle, and not written by a Christian is just about as naive as it gets. If she would look at the prophetic evidence of Revelation (and Daniel, Zechariah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) and see how prophecy has been fulfilled, then maybe the real truth of this book would be understood to her. Who knows, maybe she would actually come to know Christ personally. I'll pray for her.
I'm sure she appreciates your efforts.
Actually, the book of Revelations was taken from Pliny the Younger's account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
If you really want to know the truth, then go down to your local library and check out this book. Then, read it side by side with the Book of Revelations.
Based on your comment to be scholarly one should ignore evidence.
She spends a great deal of time in her book looking at all those details. Perhaps if you actually bothered to read it...
I like your response very much. As for Jen's reponse, anyone who refers ti it as the Book of Revelations (with an "s" on the end) obviously has not studies the book very closely.
A very, very typical response. I'd say to really discount her thoughts you might want to read her book. Revelations has been misinterpreted and reinterpreted by many, many christians as well, ones who disagree with one another about it's meaning. It's completely fair for her to doubt its content. And one thing she has researched well is that it wasn't written by the apostle John. You are just going to have to deal with it. And pray about your intransigence. Pride is a sin.
Wow. Most Christians, as far as I know, are clear on the fact that John the Apostle and John of Patmos are two different figures. I've never heard anyone, even a conservative Christian, claim that Revelation was written by the apostle John. I think you have some catching up to do.
Wow, from the responses above I'll say I touched a nerve!
I have a lot of atheist friends and we get along fine because we agree to disagree. I'm not saying Dr. Pagel's hasn't done research. I'm saying her research is skewed. She left faith at a young age-her research is going to be skewed from that point of view. At least concede me this point.
And for those who commented on ignoring the evidence regarding God/Christianity- look up the name William Lane Craig.
The atheists here are suffering Christians hold off for a page so they can catch their breath. lol
It is interesting how "scholars" can be so un-scholarly. Dr. Pagels obviously is very learned and smart, but for to genuinely believe the book of Revelation is not about the end of time, not written by the John the Apostle, and not written by a Christian is just about as naive as it gets. If she would look at the prophetic evidence of Revelation (and Daniel, Zechariah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) and see how prophecy has been fulfilled, then maybe the real truth of this book would be understood to her. Who knows, maybe she would actually come to know Christ personally. I'll pray for her.
If you pray hard enough she may also start to believe in the Lochness monster.
Better to spend some time looking up (Google, if you wish) Failed Prophecies of the Bible and examine the stuff that you believe.
Reading the comments here... it's sad seeing how unbiblical and unGodly many nonbelievers shows here.... no wonder why atheists are the most hated and mistrusted people in the U.S.... Show respect to believers!
Respect is earned. By terming all "non-believers" as "hated and mistrusted people" you are being disrespectful, unkind and definitely uncristrian to others.
Who are the atheists"hated" by MOM ?? It certainly wouldn't be by a "Godly" person like you would it ?
Why should I respect adults who believe in superst!tions that they should have left behind with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Zeus, Thor, etc, etc?
Sadly, I suspect I could have a more stimulating conversation with that Rottweiler than with some of the Christians posting here today.
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.