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.”
Prayer changes things .
As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the LORD your God hands it over to you, ki-ll every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you.
this is one interesting book, i must say...lots of action
Yes the Almighty God cleaned up Israel just as he will clean up this world! You are just on the wrong side!! The side that loses!
Do you not wonder why little Israel can battle against Enemies that surround them and out number them many times over!!
God wins and Satan and his evil workers will lose!!
You just need to get on the right side while there is time, and quit making excusses for your sins!! They can be forgiven!!
Leo sounds nutz
According to "wikipedia", Elaine Pagel quit attending church after a close Jewish friend died. When tragic events happen some people embrace God more. Others blame God for the events for not bringing a different outcome and resent, despise him. I wonder if this is what is happening with Elaine Pagel ? Elaine, if your friend was a young child, she is cherished by the Lord, and if you accept his salvation, you will see her again in God's Holy Kingdom.
One mans delusion is a society's religion
Darwin had a similar event with his family....
Anybody, no matter how ignorant can write a page in wikipedia - it is the peoples encyclopedia. Do not mistake ease of access as access to truth.
Ah – the sound of antisemitism rears its head. A Jewish child is "saved" but the an adult Jew who has not accepted your version of the Bible is not. The books of the Bible are sadly littered with this kind of early church propaganda which dilutes the teachings of Jesus which are contained in his parables NOT in the added church dogma.
That night the angel of the Lord went forth and struck down one hundred and eighty five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. Early the next morning, there they were, all the corpuses of the dead. (2 Kings 19:35 NAB)
...jealousy...not a good trait in a god.....
He saved Israel from slaughter when he struck down the enemy. So if he saves one from the evil of another you call him unjust ?
Really? A creator makes everything. His creation ignores Him.
As Bill Cosby said on the Cosby Show: I brought you into this world; I can take you out. =>
Fortunately for us, God is gracious and actually bothered to make a way out for us (despite our ignorance, arrogance and constant disobedience). If people choose hell, instead, that is their (very odd) choice.
Are you going to let your wife know tonight that you are okay if she dates other guys?
wah...my children ignored me....wah....
The Assyrians were fighting against his people just as you are with Christians!! Read Revelations and see what happens when the Almighty God will finally judge the evil in this world!!
Wake up for you are like the Assyrians!! God wins and evil loses!
That's why it's called free will. You can choose Him or not.
I like the part about Nero burning christians to light his gardens.....the imagery is so so vivd....
@Sheila – Revelations 101:”He saved Israel from slaughter when he struck down the enemy. “
Interesting because he doesn’t seem to have given a flying fcuk for them in WWII. or was he just asleep at the switch? Gone senile?
To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. The whole Bible is the story of the Jewish people. God's blessing on them; how they forgot about Him; how He continued to love them despite this...
But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3For I am the Lord, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cusha and Seba in your stead.
4Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give men in exchange for you,
and people in exchange for your life.
5Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
6I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
7everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
8Lead out those who have eyes but are blind,
who have ears but are deaf.
9All the nations gather together
and the peoples assemble.
Which of them foretold this
and proclaimed to us the former things?
Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right,
so that others may hear and say, “It is true.”
10“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.
11I, even I, am the Lord,
and apart from me there is no savior.
12I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—
I, and not some foreign god among you.
You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.
13Yes, and from ancient days I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
When I act, who can reverse it?”
God’s Mercy and Israel’s Unfaithfulness
14This is what the Lord says—
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“For your sake I will send to Babylon
and bring down as fugitives all the Babylonians,b
in the ships in which they took pride.
15I am the Lord, your Holy One,
Israel’s Creator, your King.”
16This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
17who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.
20The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the desert
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
22“Yet you have not called upon me, O Jacob,
you have not wearied yourselves for me, O Israel.
23You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings,
nor honored me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with grain offerings
nor wearied you with demands for incense.
24You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me,
or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins
and wearied me with your offenses.
25“I, even I, am he who blots out
your transgressions, for my own sake,
and remembers your sins no more.
26Review the past for me,
let us argue the matter together;
state the case for your innocence.
27Your first father sinned;
your spokesmen rebelled against me.
28So I will disgrace the dignitaries of your temple,
and I will consign Jacob to destruction
and Israel to scorn
Prayer is delusional.
Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things will be taking a crap later, you will want to copy that.
Stop using my name de gurre and sullying it. I have been on this thread for a while now and you are confusing the issue with using my name. Use your imagination and get a name that is your own.
The WHOLE thing is a pack of nonsense, not just these four items.
The author of this article in an atheist posing as a Christian.if you dissect the word revelation. You will know the truth.
your Christianity has murdered millions and you blindly follow
@dk: Christianity has never murdered anyone. You should know better than to try to peddle a lie that large. Don't confuse wolves in sheeps clothing. Anyone can 'claim' to be a Christian. The author of this article is a perfect example of that.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." – 1 Corinthians 1:18
@CdrDave:”@dk: Christianity has never murdered anyone.”
As I recall there are several dead abortion doctors that might disagree with you, along with thousands of “witches” and “heretics” who were burned alive. Or were these all justified killings and not really murder?
Cursed be he who does the Lords work remissly, cursed he who holds back his sword from blood. (Jeremiah 48:10 NAB)
...I sense a pattern here.....ki-ll, ki-ll, ki-ll......
Thanks for educating these people about the history of their holy book. Some people think they can follow their own personal morals (which they claim comes from Jesus) without reading the bible or the history of christianity and they are automatically christians.
Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword. Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes. Their homes will be sacked and their wives ra-ped by the attacking hordes. For I will stir up the Medes against Babylon, and no amount of silver or gold will buy them off. The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows. They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children. (Isaiah 13:15-18 NLT)
this must be the god is great chapter...
Jespo, you must learn the whole bible instead of taking things out of context.
Congratulations – you're the king of misquoting verses completely out of context and meaning. Boy, I could have a FIELD DAY quoting BHO the way you just butchered that one...
if a man is good all year and beats his wife half to death once a year...all the good he has is washed away with that one act...you're a fool.
You're probably right Davie, but the meaning is the same. God kills who he wants killed.
@Sheila – Revelations 101:”Jespo, you must learn the whole bible instead of taking things out of context.”
So I must learn all of Nazi philosophy before I can say that how they slaughtered Jews was bad?
Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
I think you only covered the tip of the iceberg. But you are talking to the hand with these people. They are already brainwashed.
We will have to go after their children.
Clearly a world full of atheists is a better place?
Look at the mess the Godless have already made of this world.
Yes, Godless are the cause of all evil. Never mind that most of the earth does not believe in your bible.
Was that the Douglas Adams version?
yes to the douglas adams and atheist has made this world livable... almost all scientific advancement today that affords you a healthy comfy lifestyle... your cars, your medicine, your way of life was given to you by an atheist... you ignorant fools.
The fool has said in his heart – there is no God. God.
@James:”Clearly a world full of atheists is a better place … Look at the mess the Godless have already made of this world.”
Hitler’s army was all Christian. Communism is just another blood thirsty, dogmatic religion just like Christianity and Islam. Sweden is doing very nicely thank youl.
People will argue about religion until the ends of time. There will always be atheists. There will always be Christians. Religion is all about Faith. Believing in God... Im not going to call out any sides but everyone has there own beliefs. There are Muslims, Christians, Jews, Athiests count too. I dont think this is a good article because it just gets everyone worked up.
Christianity will die out just like the rest of the religions are and already have. Nobody worships Ra or Zeus anymore.
Ra and Zeus were never God to begin with.
For the same reason that you acknowledge Ra and Zeus were never gods to begin with is the same reasoning we use to derive clearly that this Jehovah or Jesus is not a god either. They are figments of the minds of man. Christians are Atheistic in regards to all other gods besides this confused trinity concept of theirs. We free thinkers just take that rationale of Atheism one step further and include the most delusional belief structure of them all.
"Christianity will die out..." LOLOLOL. S atan has been peddling this lie to gullible mankind since Christ walked the earth and I have news for you – you're wrong (obviously). There is more proof that C hrist is King than you exist. I don't believe you. Someone typed those words for you. Silly isn't it. Atheism can really run a brain into the dirt.
Stop using my name de gurre and sullying it with your ignorance: Zeus and Ra were G-d to the peoples who worshipped them. Use your imagination and get a name of your own.
@CdrDave:”"Christianity will die out..." LOLOLOL. S atan has been peddling this lie to gullible mankind since Christ walked the earth and I have news for you – you're wrong”
Get real. Look at the decline of Christian power over the last 1000 years. 1000 years ago the head of the Christian church could destroy kings with a word. 500 years ago kings were pretty safe but Christians could burn witches, heretics, and Jews alive. 100 years ago burnings were out but they could still have you ostracized from your job and your town. Today Christians can’t stop abortion, birth control, teaching of evolution or even bill boards saying god does not exist. What part of “Christians have been rendered totally impotent” don’t you understand
If even then you remain hostile toward me and refuse to obey, I will inflict you with seven more disasters for your sins. I will release wild animals that will ki-ll your children and destroy your cattle, so your numbers will dwindle and your roads will be deserted. (Leviticus 26:21-22 NLT)
WHAT A NICE GUY
So you take God out of context, then call Him mean. Interesting.
so you take god out of context in the next chapter and call him good...interesting
Trying to reason with a true believer is like trying to eat soup with a fork.
Interestingly it isn't the believer who lacks reason.
Trying to convince an atheist of the truth before he drives over the cliff when we know the bridge is out is like trying to eat soup with chopsticks.
Stop using my name de gurre and sullying it with your ignorance. Get a name of your own–it is confusing people.
Original? Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things will be taking a crap later, you'll want to copy that.
I bet you'll be taking a crap at the same time. I will leave you to yourself.
Please stop using my name... people will think that I have lost it and can no longer think. Use your imagination and think up a name thaqt is not being used.
Waste of time to read ANYTHING about genuine Christian faith on CNN – especially the Bible.
I got more from atheists on the belief blog that I got from 21 years in the RCC!
You can tell everything you need to know about a leader by checking out his followers. Devout Christians – as seen on TV – don't do much of a job presenting their boss in a favorable light.
@North – comparing Christianity to the joke you see on television called 'televangelist' (most of them) s like me comparing the term "good leader" with Obama. The two just don't fit because they're not equal. Don't be deceived that easily. When Christ's disciples asked him what would be the sign of the end, the first thing he responded with was "Don't be deceived." Deception is RAMPANT in our day and age. As provable as the Bible is, and has been for thousands of years, people are disbelieving it because "CNN told me it was made up" instead of LOOKING for themselves. If you want absolute proof of the Bible, look at today's headlines and then compare to the prophecies of Daniel, Ezekiel, and yes....Revelation.
WOW!!!! A bunch of nonsense!! I will Be Praying for you. Jesus is at the door, he is coming very soon. People need to start Repenting. If you don't know Jesus, call on him and he will be there, no matter what you have done, he will forgive your sins, ask him to come into your life, he is amazing! Loving, caring, forgiving and will always be there for you & will never let you down. Time is running out. Reach out to him now. God Bless you.
I used to think the same thing...while I was a young child. The entire world is growing up and away from religion at a rather fast pace, and for very good reasons too. Praying to Jesus is as effective a method for influencing the outcome of reality as my praying to a Twinkie.
Just out of curiosity, what will happen if I miss him when he comes? Can you elaborate? Thank you.
No Odin is the way to go, or Zeus...... Strange how you would consider anyone who believes in or worships them would be a fool, yet anyone who doesn't believe your myth is lost or unenlightened....
I thought the whole thing was a myth? It is perplexing that some humans still place credibility in a body of work written about seventeen centuries ago. A lot has changed in the annals of human civilization and scientific revelation since then. Maybe it's me, but it seems a bit outdated. I think humans flatter themselves when they claim they are special enough to warrant a creator. But with a cerebral cortex the size of theirs, I suppose they can imagine anything. As long as they do not lose track of reality, humans should be ok in the near future.
I admire your ability to distance yourself from humanity. I work at it too but have only managed a mild sociopathy.
I think humans are silly when they 'flatter; themselves enough to think that tools they invented (science, math, reason) can lead to comprehension of the divine one way or another. All of these are mere human folly–useful for immediate worldly needs but truly meaningless beyond that.
"A lot has changed in the annals of human civilization and scientific revelation "
So according to you, with every tick of the second and every year that disappears from the calendar, God becomes less relevant for no reason but that man changed. No wonder the Bible says the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.
Voice, a god is only relevant to those who believe that one exists. Humans have progressed despite those who attempt to hinder their intellectual evolution, not because of them.
This is the truth said by the holy Qoran 1450 years ago that Bible and Torah are corrupted and being the word of some unknown people.
Well, what if the Quran was corrupt from its origins?
Toad you need to read and understand the Qoran then you will realise it is not corrupted.
I expect anything written 2k yrs ago in different language than we use today to be a confusing, and thus subject to various interpretations. Some things, however never change - I find it interesting that it did not take long for politics to take over the whole thing and 'repurpose' the message. Not at all surprised in the least, however.
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.