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.”
Leave it to CNN, to post yet another negative article about Christianity on the front page of their website. I have yet to see an actual positive article, which did not have some sort of slam one way or the other. I love when this author talks about finding the "secret" or "lost" gospels as if no one had heard of them before; they were rejected as heresy and for good reason. The arguments for Revelation happening during Nero's time are beyond weak in comparison to the traditional end times view and these points only help point out how Ms. Pagels is not one of the world's best biblical scholars, but one of CNN's best propaganda tools to diminish Christianity as much as possible. 95% articles against and 5% for does not good journalism make. Next time we will hear about the impact of Christianity in changing lives, rebuilding devastated communities and caring for the forgotten on CNN? Never.
I don't see how this article, or the book it covers, is even slightly negative toward Christianity.
A wonderful book by a wonderful intellectual.
If only more women were as brilliant as Elaine Pagels one could actually hope for a better future.
As it is, much trailer trash and frothing Bible-thumpers will call her an islamo-communist stanist hippie.
She hasn't studied the Holy Bible, and without the Holy Spirit to teach and to guide her, I doubt she will ever grasp it.
The bible isn't holy and there is no holy spirit. Grow a brain, it's just ancient mythology and superst!tious nonsense, nothing more. Period. End of story.
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
Matthew 12:31-32 KJV
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.
OK, this is just spam now. You're diluting an otherwise worthy message.
That all rests on the assumption that humans are as innocent as they think they are.
A Kingdom of Peace cannot exist as long as evil is allowed to exist. Evil must be subdued and destroyed. You have a choice to do good, or to do evil.
Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.
But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
Shelia, the desire to be right is the anthisis of good because it ignores fact, reason and the rights of others. If you want to do good (not be good) you must first give up this desire to be right so that you can act and do good.
Pretty interesting that Pagels...a student of Helmut Koester....picked up none of his understanding of the scriptures...sad...
This response fails to put forth an argument or any facts. It looks as though the author is merely name calling rather than doing the hard woork of reading the book and attempting to refute an opinion by puting forth a reasoned argument.
Tribulation: "distress or suffering resulting from oppression or persecution";
Great Tribulation = Great Oppression. Complete Tyranny.
Rev. chapter 13 – The beast out of the sea (NWO) will bring great oppression: A total "police-state".
The beast out of the earth with 2 horns (kingdoms) like a Lamb (ONCE Christian nations;US/UK)
BEGINS TO SPEAK LIKE A DRAGON.
And worships the "image" of the 1st beast (The 1 out of the sea).
Or begins to "love" the "police-state".
What is the US/UK doing?
Worshipping the "police-state"?
YOU BETTER READ REVELATION.
Gee. Since the dragon is supposed to be a mythical creature, how does it speak?
FSM probably thinks Moby Dick REALLY was just a story about a whale.
He has never heard of literary devices – such as SYMBOLISM.
The entire bible is nothing but ancient mythology, why single out just one part? Just ancient myths and superst!tious nonsense from a primitive culture.
So far all of Bible Prophecy has come true except that which is unfolding and yet to come as spoken of in Revelations.
Because Revelations is famously obtuse and difficult to understand, and because it is the subject of Pagels' recently published book. Which, by the way, makes it far easier to understand by placing it within its proper historical context.
I'm sorry CNN, but Elaine Pagels is not considered by most people to be "one of the world's leading biblical scholars."
Only by most biblical scholars.
Since everyone can believe what they want and demand to STILL be taken seriously I am declaring that my God, The emperor of Mankind(google it) is the true and only god that can save Humanity without the need of deities for he teaches that humanity will survive this universe and thrive into the stars only by it's own hands thur science and reason and that religion is an agent of chaos to divide and conquer our race and cause it's extinction Sounds alot better to me then wanting for some corpse to fall out of the sky.
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God.For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, I will bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing.”Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world?For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe.1 Corinthians 1:18-21
Your answer to justify nonsense is more nonsense?
I would like to teach Anderson Cooper the scripture. I pray for his salvation.
I doubt that he would want you to chant mumbo jumbo nonsense to an invisible fairytale man on his behalf.
I am pretty sure he doesn't need your assistance with anything. He seems to be doing very well on his own, without your judgements or your "gawd".
How did he get in this? Stalker much?
Here's an interesting listing of end time predictions, 220 of them. To the best of my knowledge, all have been false.
You could add the Gospels of Matthew,. Mark, and Luke, plus Revelation, and make that 224.
Except only one of those books you mentioned is prophesy, while the others were written after the event. So, you need to rethink your math!
Uncle Benny, ask me a question on prophecy or the scripture. What is it you want to know ?
There is no such thing as prophecy. Just ignorant babblings and rantings by ignorant people.
read book of daniel. Whats funny is how many people bash how the bible is a myth but yet scientists and scholars can't explain how he was able to prophecy over 400 years into the future and be exact in every detail. Also every prophecy since Israel has become a nation which was a prophecy as well is coming true. If we do not see the end in by 2080 then it is false because Jesus said no one from the generation of Israel becoming a nation who was born shall pass before the end has occured. I'll pray for this professor to gain more knowledge and for those blind in truth because the end is coming and i don't mean this year either. If the bible is a myth then how do you explain they found Mt.Sanai and also have evidence of the whole top of the mountain being burned and also drawings on rocks at the bottom of the mountain of a golden calf and these drawings were dated little more than 3000 years ago. Not to mention Sodom and Gomorrah was found and burnt.
To all the doubting Thomas':
Here is a prophesy for you:
WW3 coming soon to a planet YOU LIVE on.
Many books in the bible warned you about it, but EVERYONE IGNORED the BIBLE AS FICTION.
Ignorance is death not bliss.
Elaine Pagels is a "Professor of Religion", yet has never actually studied and learned the Christian Holy Bible. So how well could she teach and compare any religion ? Poor excuse for a college professor. College Professors should be well studied in their fields.
Agreed. I have studied Revelations for years, but am not a seminary graduate, and pointed out various flaws in just this article. No need to read the book, I know she is a hack!
Classic ad hominem – attack the person rather than the arguments. I'd be willing to bet she has studied the Bible (as well as other sacred texts) far more than you have.
Unbelievable how you folks get the name of your own darn book wrong. REVELATION. No wonder you get so much else wrong.
Just because she doesn't agree with your twisted version of things doesn't mean she isn't well studied. I noticed you didn't list any of your credentials to be qualified to dispute her interpretation of things.
Credentials ? What is man that I should trust in his "witness". Jesus never needed mankind's credentials. He WAS the word of God. My salvation through Jesus Christ is of the highest credentials, as will be all that accept him.
Ed, she obviously hasn't studied the bible well.
I want to thank you for waking me up today. I totally disagree with the premise of the article and find it fundamentally flawed, and malevolent – but I have appreciated reading what people are thinking in response. I am devastated by the absolute lack of faith and belief here, but these are the days in which will encourage the praying to pray – there is a God, most surely and He hears us.
It's a tough life and we are all living it. Our perspective on this reality can be our undoing or our salvation. Working to tear down truth is nothing to be proud of no matter how eloquently it is written.
Maybe you will be back here again next week with more of the same. I pray not. But even so, make your choice with conviction. If we are wrong – then be utterly wrong, but if we are right, then there is that path's reward... you in your byline, mine to God's glory.
If you are stupid, believe the author of this article.
If you believe in Christ and that His disciple John wrote Revelation, then read it for yourself.
YOU WILL FIND IT IS about the end of the world as we currently know it.
Revelation chapter 9 is about A NUCLEAR WW3 and it is coming TO YOU VERY SOON.
You can thank the liars in OUR OWN GOVERNMENT when it happens to ALL OF US.
Please stand up for YOUR COUNTRY on 11/11/2012 and PEACEFULLY PROTEST this country's:
ATTACK THE MIDDLE EAST AND ASK QUESTIONS LATER POLICIES.
No, if you are stupid, believe the bible.
Where in the Bible does the word nuclear appear?
Prove it. You can't. So go away.
You will see the proof soon enough, I am sad to say.
There are many descriptions of nuclear destruction in the bible.
READ IT. Or scoff all you want – BUT AN ALL OUT NUCLEAR EXCHANGE IS COMING.
Everyone wanted a prophesy, well you now have one.
IT could even BE THIS YEAR. Just look at the Iran situation.
Daniel had his dream about end-time events IN IRAN!
But, as you say, "the bible is just madeup junk:".
The literal word "nuclear" was obviously not in the Hebrew vocabulary.
But a nuclear device and exchange is described to a tee in Zech.5
I find it interesting that CNN has a "Belief Blog" section when it is becoming increasingly obvious they are only interested in questioning beliefs,not exploring them.
How is placing the text of the bible into proper historical context not exploration?
You cannot explore belief without questioning it. Basic science.
Belief blog? That's a joke. It's a Christian blog. And as with all Christians, they have no respect for other beliefs (or lack of them).
And what exactly is wrong with questioning beliefs? Are your belies so fragile they can't stand up to a little questioning?
Pagels may be a scholar, but she is not a Theologian. It's dangerous to attempt interpretation of the book of Revleation without considering the larger context of the Bible. The Scriptures give valuable clues that help to unlock the symbols John's visions. The mere history of what is going on at the time this book was written is only a part of the picture. Unfortunately, a lot of people who don't even read the Bible (or only give it a cursory reading) won't see the dangers in this interpretation.
I agree on one thing . . . the book of Revelation is not ONLY about the end of the world. It is a book of the history of the battle of God's church from the time of Jesus CULMINATING in the end of the world. Many of the prophecies in Revelation have already come to pass. Unfortunately, authors like Pagels only serve the Devil's purposes in drawing attention away from the warnings contained in this Book so humanity will be left unprepared when they most desperately need to be. The authors of the popular "Left Behind" series have done the same thing by dramatizing and literalizing many of the symbols – also without considering the larger context of the entire Bible.
If you wan to know what Revelation is all about, read the ENTIRE Bible and let it's symbols interpret itself. It's not as hard as you think.
Funny how Pagels' enormous expertise only becomes dangerous when her assertions don't match with your own.
Chas, come on, most of us here have read the bible. It's sadly hard to avoid in America. And if your god is personal and loving as I suspect you would claim, why should we fear such a horrible outcome in our future? And why is "Satan" so hard for your omnipotent being to quash? As they say, pretty feeble god you've made for yourself there.
Suggest you re-examine your beliefs. I suspect that they are entirely without a real foundation.
Dangerous? Blind acceptance of ancient mythology and superst!tious nonsense is what's dangerous. Thats the kind of thing the leads people into flying airplanes into buildings and molesting children.
Prove it. No, I won't accept your blind faith as proof that a book written by one backwards Middle Eastern tribe to subdue another can tell about the end of the world.
She isn't a scholar. She's a journalist out to make a buck from the ignorant. Her theories and claims are mocked by academia.
"sinbot: She isn't a scholar. She's a journalist out to make a buck from the ignorant. Her theories and claims are mocked by academia."
And can we anticipate that you will cite references from the academia that you claim are mocking her? All I have seen is high praise for her writing and scholarship. Unless by "academia" you mean Bob Jones University.
Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She has a Ph.D. in religion from Harvard University. What is your definition of scholar?
Christians are praying that this article is an April Fool's joke.
Its funny that this was the article...that came out on April Fools...a day revered by Atheists all around the world...
Really? You've never pulled an April Fool's Day joke? How sad.
And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.
And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.
Matthew 10:21-22 KJV
I find it interesting that that Pagels a so-called biblical scholar only read Revelation twice: "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..."
its the only one she wanted to read...
And you thoughtlessly took that at face value, of course.
Pagels has spent her entire life studying biblical texts in primary form, using the earliest existing examples of them as source material. She has been published countless times in peer-reviewed journals. Her depth of knowledge of this material is undisputed, and exceeds that of all but a handful of like scholars, with whom she is equal.
Having to read it even once is bad enough. As works of fiction go, which it is, it's not even well written, nor very interesting, and it has had too many contributing authors.
Six degrees....She thinks Patmos is in Turkey, its in Greece. She thinks the book doesn't say that Jesus is died for our sins, while verse 5 very specifically says just that. She also takes from other sources and says the author meant Nero as 666, but Nero had died way before then, as did his successor. She obviously doesn't research very well!
Some people have superior comprehension and don't need to keep reading the same text over and over to figure it out.
Imagine if Doctors resorted to just reading medical literature just once ...and hoped that was good enough to interpret diagnoses...
"Patmos is situated off the west-coast of Turkey and the continent of Asia. It is one of the northernmost islands of the Dodecanese complex. It is further west than its nearby neighboring islands."
It's because she isn't a scholar. She' a journalist putting on a hat which does not fit.
one story, authored by one individual, the true intent known only to the the author, depated and disputed by thousands in the span of hours, yet it is so hard for many to believe that even without the internet this could have happened to the bible over the course of centuries.
Maybe you should break that up a bit and try again.
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.