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.”
The Bible is just a collection of myths. The guy who wrote Revelation was bat s.h.i.t crazy or on a really bad LSD trip. It's a cheerful book. Jesus opens the seven seals, releasing death, famine war and a bunch of other very "compassionate" woes on mankind. Almost everyone dies horrible deaths. Evil stuff. Very evil stuff.
You sound like you live a miserable life.
Punishment only happens to those who continue in evil. Do you think a murderer should be punished ? What if you were wrongfully attacked and beaten by a group of people ? Do you deserve justice ?
You sound like you have read it.
Everybody wants to be me
Ya gotta pity folks that can't think for themselves.
why would you say that, larry? i have a wonderful life. i'm not weighed down by the pillars of religion - guilt, fear and ignorance. you should leave the cult, think for yourself. you won't regret it.
If thinking was a game larry would win hands down over you all week and twice on Sunday.
Sheila, punishment only to the evil? you would say any non-believer is evil? no matter that i volunteer at charities and used to run one that fed the homeless? yup, an atheist. but i'm evil and deserve to be tortured forever without end? that's a disgusting line of thought. hell is a disgusting idea used to promote guilt and fear.
do i think murderers deserve to face justice? absolutely. and if that was all your book said, i'd agree. but according to your "holy" book, g.a.y.s should be tortured forever as well as disobedient wives and children. have you actually read the bible? it's gruesome and unjust.
for a better set of ethics to live by, check out Humanism. i challenge any christian, jew or muslim to show how their ethics are superior through comparison.
I have been using this name all day on this sight and I have asked you multiple times since you started posting to change your nom de gurre to prevent confusion. Apparently you cant stretch yourself that much.
Just sayin has been around for months and will continue to be you unimaginative fop
Look it, if we peel back all the words and beliefs about religion there is just one thing that stands and that thing is god. Seeing all these responses means nothing whatsoever until there is proof of god and there just isn't any. So all the rhetoric and all the arguments are merely an emotional response to a very simple understanding of what is real and what is not real. God is not real, if you believe it is real than in terms of our natural world you are delusional and should consider getting some mental health.
Theological debates are arguments over the sti.tching patterns on the emperor's new clothes.
You are proof of God. You are a living breathing human being. You didn't create yourself did you ? Everyday, you see the sky, the sun, the stars and the moon. You see the grass, the trees, many types of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Look at all the animals. how is it that there are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes to an hour, and 60 seconds to a minute ? Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter ? The proof of God is everywhere, but you choose to close your eyes to his awesome creation.
@Sheila – Revelations 101
You are kidding aren't you? Who made me? Well, I'll tell ya, my father's sperm fertilized my mother's egg and guess what? So, now you will tell me that god created everything right? Ok then, who created your god?
@Sheila – Revelations 101
You are kidding aren't you? Who made me? Well, I'll tell ya, my father's sperm fertilized my mother's egg and guess what? So, now you will tell me that god created everything right? Ok then, who created your god?
sheila, your arguments are childlike: "you didn't create yourself, did you?" derp. atheists don't think humans created themselves. humans created God. you should take an anthropology class. you will learn a great deal. there's this thing called "Evolution". it explains the diverse life around us without having to say, "God used magic!"
Whether you believe in God or not, just stop for a moment and think about life for a moment. Really, what the hell are we all doing here and why are things the way they are? If God does not exist, I doubt that we will ever know.
that has always been how we "explain" what we don't know. God did it. when we didn't understand that the sun was a giant ball of hydrogen gas constantly burning itself up in nuclear fusion. now we know and no longer say "Goddidit." the answers we have right now from science are more satisfying than anything in religion, which at the end of the day is just saying, "umm... i don't know... magic?" we know through science that the heavier elements in our human bodies were made in the bellies of giant stars, at least 3 times bigger than our sun. as they die, they heat up enough to fuse molecules like iron together. we truly are children of the stars. to me, that is much more poignant than anything found in the bible/torah/koran. we are finding out who we are and where we came from by using our minds. religion is a road block offering false answers. who knows how many answers to life's questions we would have if religion wasn't in the way.
Exactly, which is why we need to help our fellow man and create a world of peace and joy instead of the one of war, greed and power that has been pushed by the religious powers for the past 3 millenia.
That's why some of us are such fans of science and scholarly research. It is the best way we have learned so far to begin working toward some of those answers. Science is a method of evaluating our ideas against observations. It works pretty freaking well. We are only limited by what we can observe and what we can imagine to ask.
beautifully said, Mandarax.
I thought the exact same of your comment, bootyfunk. Thanks.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlLSTIhMFUM&feature=relmfu DO NOT BE DECIEVED! PLEASE WATCH THIS OR CHECK OUT CHRISTSAVES88 ON YOUTUBE. REVELATION WILL HAPPEN! TRUST JSUS!
Better video about religion:
Dead guy who used to be funny sometimes.
you must exercise your imagination and get a name of your own, I am and have been using this one.
No you ain't those are the first posts using that handle. Otherwise prove it.
you can look back any number of pages and find my previos comments and request for you to use a different name.
It is so much easier to prove this than the existance of G-d.
It is easy to tell us a[part just sayin is the voice of Truth and reason while you are merely an ass hole.
Interesting interpretation. Good scholarship. Since Christianity is divided into so many sects, often at war (mostly in words) with one another, it is easy to understand how interpreations of scriptures can lead to heavy debate. Not being a Christian, and not being religious, I simply cannot see how all of this matters. If you believe in a God or Jesus, that belief – in the simplest of terms – should be enough to sustain you, without hating others, and feeling weakened in your beliefs by what others say. Historical data added to religious thought is fascinating, but most people who I have met- often ringing my doorbell to convert me- are so ignorant of their religion it is astounding. And fervent believers do not understand what a simple conversation is. Those people would read Pagels thoughts and instantly drop to their kneesin anger and pray. What a crazy sad world. I'll go back to my detective novels.
If a man kills a pregnant woman, no matter how far along she is, he is charged with 2 counts of murder. Why then, is abortion not the same?
If god created all of nature and an earthquake kills all the pregnant mothers does that not make god a murderer?
Prayer is delusional.
Good thing there is someone nearby to copy from. Need help tying your shoes or does mommy buy you velcro ?
Every statement from you is derogatory and shallow, you must get a name of your own, I am and have been using this one and you are confusing people about who is speaking. Surely, you have at least that much imagination.
I think our names are very different, opposite even.
stone copy, unoriginal, unimaginative and very lame. Describing both you and your handle
I think God can work in small, personal ways in our lives. Many of us feel God moves through our family and friends providing us with everyday miracles. I get off the boat when Christians propose that God organizes sweeping, cataclysmic events. Those are natural, non-human occurences explained by science.
Was John Of Patmos really Rick Santorum????
Both of them sound pretty frothy. All you need to know about Rick is at http://santorum.com
If science can prove does not exist then I will stop believing. Unfortunately for atheists, it cannot, and they absolutely hate that.
Actually, the existence of gods with certain specific characteristics can be disproven. That is the case with the Christian god, which has contradictory and inconsistent characteristics. For that and other reasons, Christian god actually has been proven not to exist.
Better try on another supersti-tion, Larry. Yours doesn't pass the test.
Why don't you believe in Allah, Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? You can not prove they do not exist either.
Jed, could you expound?
Please tell me where/when God has been scientifically disproven because that has never been officially stated anywhere by the scientific community. Even Stephen Hawking has said that science cannot disprove the existence of God.
Larry, just curious, how old are you? You are at most 12 years old or are terribly uneducated.
You have the burden of proof my friend. You claim god exists then you need to prove it.
And I would like you to prove to me that there is not a purple invisible man from Pluto that is causing you to think and act how you do?
Pretty difficult to prove a negative, isn't it?
i suggest reading A letter to a christian nation by sam harris, its an easy read filled with some very good points. There is no definitive way to prove something doesnt exist because theres nothing you can point out as evidnece i.e. how do you prove unicorns dont exist? theres just no possible way to prove it yet how many people do you know who believe unicorns are real?
Prayer changes things .
How was your poop with JustSayn?
How is thinking for yourself working out for ya? If you didn't have others you would have crap to say.
Pretty good. I ate a cheeseburger with salad dressing on it.
I do not want to be confused with the ignorance and shallowness being spouted by the person who is trying to usurp the name I have been using on this site.
Try thinking for yourself then you fraud .
Maybe you should just stick with Just Sayin. No confusion there.
By the way it had bacon bits on it too. Pretty original!
This author clearly has no idea at all what the book of revelation is about. Even the 666..., she is so wrong... 6 is a number indicating mankind's imperfection. Three times emphasizes completeness. In other words, the complete imperfection of mankind (against God). Yes, being a "bible scholar" does help, as does an understanding of Greek and Hebrew...
No, it's just a number. Sorry about your delusion.
Yes Jed, all books are filled with words and numbers which have a meaning. Otherwise there would be no need for books.
No need for books? ... What would the small minded use to start their bonfires with?
As mountains of logic are tempered with sociological contrivences, people become intertwined with augmentations of self-seeking variations toward ideals within self moralizing complacencies. Because Godliness augments one's vision, one can either be of Godly ambitions or you can be subliminally against any Godly ambivilence leaving one's heart soullessly muted. Alone we are ever within a singularity of oneness. No matter what one feels the facts are that oneness is a relativism not to be shaken. No matter one's social adaptations you will be ever a solitary singularity of oneness. Without God, one cannot cheat death's blackened darkness. Therefore, believe whatever one wants and become whatever you want to become in this world's seemingly felt treasured actions of togetherness which eases the mind's eye of revealing self-trusts.
I was raised in a born again christian. As an adult who see's these beliefs in my family, I am glad I am intelligent enough to see this born again belief as foolish nonsensical. If you read the bible it is full of contradictions and things that are not believable. Alot of different groups who call thenselves christians have beliefs that have nothing to do with the bible. For example Amish people do not cut their hair because it is Gods crowning glory. Their is nothing in the bible that says you can't cut your hair. Alot of beliefs in christianity are made up by man. Most christians beliefs are not even attainable. Born again christianity limits you as a person. It can be a very restrictive and confining way to live. I am glad I have chosen to live my life as I see fit and not try to be something that makes me lessof an authentic a person.
The bible teaches about people who try to live life with " ways that are their own". Not good. Jesus teachings are the only way, the only truth, and the life for all who seek eternity. There is no other way to obtain forgiveness of sins, and the Kingdom of Heaven.
Christendom's of today's Time, are seeking emotional infidelities and have engrained many people with a false sense of spiritual immoralities which in turn pastoralships can harvest the riches of money for said pastoralships to do what they please with said ill gotten gain. I am a God-fearing man whose soul filled heart cannot be shaken by today's Christendom's imperfections.
The sermon on the mount is illustrative of how Jesus wants us to live - kindness, helpfulness, not judgement and revenge.
OK Jespo what sin are you running from? Come on let it out man... we are here for you.
The law was laid down at a time of lawlessness, when people went poor they did not have welfare and sometimes had to sell family to survive.
Just as some poor had to give kids up for adoption.
We have laws that deal with this now! You can read them and try to twist all you want...
Don't believe in sin brother, just right and wrong. I'm just bringing to light those parts of the book people seem to gloss over as they beat their chests in adoration....the whole truth means the whole book...you cant forget one ity bity word of it because it's your god's word, so to say. See what you pray to for real, then seek to help me.
Leo: reply button fail?
They were laws for the times and part of the Old Covenant, the old covenant revealed the sin of man, and the new covenant is of Grace.
You really don't understand and really just hate Jesus and Christians. You are going to lose in the end!!
God wins, and satan and his tools are going to lose... get on the right side before it is too late...
say goodbye to Leo's mind...bye bye.....all mush, no intellect, thought or reasoning power left....crumbles after one post...NEXT.
I call name calling rather than reasoned argument on Leo.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
DO YOU WISH THAT WE SHOW UP ?????????????
PS – I can only hope that everyone will soon say "Yes!". In any case, that is my own publicly declared response to their kind offer of intervention. Please do show up soon! – Rick Carter
Who really cares? Nothing we do, say, or read is going to bring some new and amazing input into something that has been researched and rewritten a thousand times before. Nobody has figured anything more now than they did then!
He forgot the number one myth about the Book of Revelation: The Book of Revelation
Prove your statement
This is hopeless but I don't want to be confused with the ignorance being spouted by the person who is trying to usurp the name I have been using. Get a life– get a name of your own. People are confusing the trash you are talking with the reasoned statements I have made. get a new name!
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)
god is great?....he leads people out of slavery in egypt then enslaves woman to be subject to men all over again....not a very fair deal for women I say yet women still believe this filth....
The New Testament offers love, mercy and hope to all who are oppressed. In the time that Jesus lived, he liberated women. He did not once encourage slavery. People did and do - but not Jesus. Jesus lived and lives so that we may also live.
Mathew 15:25 – "She came to him, bowed down, and said, "Lord, help me!"
"Jesus responded, "It isn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs."
Yep, he had a real way with women, that Jesus guy.
lecentsky – you just show your ignorance. who were the 'dogs' he was referring to, or are you just about bashing and not truth?
I have not seen such faith in all of Israel, go your daughter is well (also in the same conversation.)
Any way you look at it, Jesus was an asshole.
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.