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 island of Patmos is in Greece, not present-day Turkey, as the writer suggests.
Snakes... don't talk as the bible suggests
Wow, John so nice to know that of all the people in the world you have been given the true meaning of the book of the revelation of JESUS CHRIST. Where have you been hiding all these centuries, ATTENTION PEOPLE, we dont need the HOLY SPIRIT to teach us we have John of Blake to guide us. PP
Top Ten Signs You're a Fundamentalist Christian
10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs - though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.
Here is one more... You feel pain when we see the poor atheists and anti-christ's trying so so hard to deny God.
and one more ....You rejoice when these poor atheist fulfill the prophecies that told us ahead of time how bad they would hate us because of Jesus
@What's lLeft Of Leo's Mind: 1. It's not that hard to deny god, he doesn't exist. 2. I fortell that the better football team shall be victorious in the super battle of the super bowl....see how easy that was...I just prophecized....any moron can do it...go ahead, try.
you are too narow minded.
I call name calling on Fr. Narcisco rather than the use of reasoned argument.
You've looked at all the negatives, it's an impressive list. God won't let you use the hypocrites or the Christians as an excuse though. It still comes down to you and God someday: face to face. He's going to ask you a list of questions, too.
You cannot understand the Bible until you accept Christ because it is only the Holy Spirit that can explain the words of God into your heart. The Holy Spirit is only sent to you by God once your accept Christ. So all these so called Bible interpreters are actually non-believers that always try to make Bible mysteries and Christians sound stranger than they are as they are totally lost. Even the Muslims cannot describe to you the face or body of their god. Whereas the Bible described how God looks like and even sent Jesus to show how much He loved us because of unbeliefs. Everyone will be invited to accept Christ's saving grace. Those that deny this gift will only blame themselves in the end when judgement day arrives, when everyone answers for their deeds especially those that made atheists that they are. When God knocks at your heart, will you let him in?
Now don't be mistaken: Those that hide behind Christianity to abuse anyone, they will be punished accordingly by God. Catholics are not necessarily Christians. There are very few of them that actually follow Christ.
I will translate this for everyone:
blah blah blah the one book I've read from the religion my parents made me be a part of and it says that everyone that doesn't believe in the book is wrong. And based on my years of experience on the subject and the mounting empirical evidence, this other group of people that actually claims to believe in the same book really don't and the invisible man that is the subject of the book will burn everyone forever even though he never actually shows up, but we are supposed to believe in him anyway because will really punish those other people because I know they aren't really true believers. And religion is awesome, why wouldn't anyone want to join my sect of nutbars?
After teaching Revelation for quite some time now, I would be embarrassed to publish an article like this and call it scholarship. Its assertions are about 5% accurate and 95% the figment of someone's fanciful imagination.
You are kidding right?
The problem is people actually believe these books.
Well that is almost up to the standards of the bible's contents which are 100% a figment of people's imagination.
The article is not scholarship; it is a review of a book that IS scholarship.
The "scholar" John who tried to write report this article and the "scholar" Elaine who tired to write this misleading "book", should try to use their scholarly brains and read the entire BIBLE. They are both terribly deceived, and they both will be terribly humbled when they stand before CHRIST and answer for calling HIS WORD a falsehood. Hopefully they both wll realize otherwise before its to late.
It's not exactly a fair fight when there are millions of pieces of evidence against religion such as evolution and other things*
Believers don't care about evidence.
If you actually open the bible and read genesis, there are TWO creations. Most bible scholars accept that Evolution as the first creation.
In the beginning created he THEM. Plural. And God doesn't have to detail every tiny step.
The second creation Adam said 'This time' she is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.
You people are really sad with how you hate on Christians but expect us to accept your opinions.
Most people are fooled and many were born into foolishness and some people fool others for whatever they can get be it spiritual or monetarily. The worst of the lot are those who claim to be spiritual prophets in sheepish pastoralships but are wolfish money grubbers searching for handouts in order to do with their ill gotten treasure troves that which they please! Although I fear God and His unknowable to us powers, I remain a spirit-filled soul within my heartfelt ideals.
I understand that there are some really wild 'srooms growing still in the island of Patmos ....
Four big myths about the book of revelation. You mean there are four bigger myths within the myths of the book of revelation? Like how the entire bible is a myth just like any other "holy" book and/or work of fiction?
Nice try CNN! You and your "owners" will do everything to try and discredit the word of GOD. We do not believe any of your lies.
It's not exactly a fair fight when millions of pieces of evidence such as evolution and other things. While the only thing religious people have for evidence is a 2000 year old book with as much historical factuality as Harry Potter.
They are just deliverin' the facts lady!
Just because YOU believe it is the WORD OF GOD doesn't make it so.
yes, indeed. Nice try CNN....show your true color. Just like Dan Brown
Prayer is delusional.
The whole book is a myth. And by "the whole book" I'm talking the WHOLE book. The bible. MYTH from start to finish.
have u read the Bible?
Esp. the part about "love your neighbor as yourself".
Obviously, this will not happen while you are around.
You only care about YOU.
If people think posting videos of stand up comedians telling jokes about how God doesn't exist is going to help make their point, then I don't know what to say. I mean, how can you argue with that?
I was scared to read the Book of Revelation for a long time, fearing that I would read things that would disturb me. However, becoming more secure in my Christian faith and my salvation over the last few years, I decided to read Revelation with an open mind. It was not scary after all, because for those who believe, the battle has already been won. Events that we cannot begin to understand or comprehend will happen at the end of times, but for many who do not currently believe in God, instead of recognzing the importance of establishing their fath, they scoff at Revelation (and the whole Bible for that matter) as being a fairytale. No one knows when Jesus will return but the Lord Himself. Instead of wondering when the end is near, it is important to live each day as if it could be your last. Are you living for others, or are you living selfishly and vicariously? One reader posted that if God wanted all people to believe in Him, that he would have made the Bible more easy to read. The opposite is true in fact; when Jesus spoke to the crowd, He spoke in riddles, and in parables, knowing that true believers would not need the Truth to be sugar-coated or dumb-downed. True believers would be willing to put their pride aside to earnestly listen to what was being said. The same is true today. We allow our superiority to overshadow our dependence on needing a Savior. So many people think that they are too smart, too intelligent, or too powerful to need a God. Faith is not saying that you are less of a person; faith is recognizing that humility and humility are among the highest of characteristics, just like Jesus displayed throughout His life. And for any atheist who declares that Christians have turned them off from Christianity... anyone who claims to be a Christian but who is shallow, mean-spirited, selfish, or arrogant is not really a Christian. I'm sorry for those who have used that as a guise.
And some people actually think for themselves.
We are all given the freedom to think for ourselves. But sadly some will not recognize the truth, believing that they would rather live for their own selfish desires and thoughts.
Why do you believe the bible is the word of god?
this is well said God came for his children he didn't come for the unbeliever
@ sqeptiq – I believe that the BIble is the word of God because God said in Revelation 22:19 – "And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." I believe in the word of God because I tried for many years to live my life on my own, by my own choices and desires, and always fell short. I was unhappy, confused, and lost. Many people believe that turning your life over to God is a sign of weakness. But the desires, goals and intentions of humans are often flawed. I no longer trust my own will, but have learned to trust God's perfect direction for my life. I pray this for everyone, but so many people turn away from the abundance that God has to offer them.
"One reader posted that if God wanted all people to believe in Him, that he would have made the Bible more easy to read. The opposite is true in fact; when Jesus spoke to the crowd, He spoke in riddles, and in parables, knowing that true believers would not need the Truth to be sugar-coated or dumb-downed."
Speaking in riddles and parables is something that con-artists do. When people want to sincerely communicate an idea, they speak clearly and to the point.
Not believing in god is not about acknowledging my needs/being selfish. It is about acknowledging reality and making informed decisions. The bible was not difficult to read at all. However, it smacked of hypocrisy and contradicted itself so many times that I decided it was rubbish. I was raised to believe, and the content in the bible was a keystone in my decision to cease believing. If it is the infallible word of god, god must be a psychpath considering all of the blood he/she/it demands. Even if I suspend my disbelief to continue this thought exercise, a paradise created by that monster would most likely be a hellscape to me. No thanks.
No evidence. Disgusting primitive treatment of others. No thanks.
I actually disagree. I believe that con-artists would speak in smooth, clear words in an effort to draw the weak and impressionable in to their web of deceipt. The anti-Christ will be one of the smoothest speakers that the world has even seen, people will believe that he or she is good and noble based on the message that they convey. Jesus did not speak in parables or riddles to trick His followers, but He did so in an effort to weed out the true believers from those who just wanted a quick fix or an easy answer, or who really were not intending to earnestly turn their lives over to him. Jesus spoke in a way that convicted the true believers, but was scoffed at by the intellectual elite who believed that they did not need a Savior. Atheists talk about being intelligent and thinking for themselves and the Bible contradicting itself (which I do not believe to be true, I beileve that every word of the Bible is the Truth and is breathed by God,) and that we should base our lives doing what feels "right" to us. Well, if we all lived our lives doing what we felt is "right," then the world would be a mess wouldn't it? What if what someone feels is "right" is to kill their neighbor? We cannot base what is right or wrong on our own views; their has to be a universal Truth. You said that not believing in God is simply acknowledging reality – look at the reality around us. People living their lives for their own needs and desires. People around the world are hungry, poor and suffering, while others continue to buy the fanciest cars and latest technology, designer clothes and continue to build onto their houses. People keep Jesus on a safe place up on the shelf while they commit adultery, fornication, murder, are mean-spirited, arrogant, or rude to others. They want Jesus taken out of their government, prayer out of schools, they want God out of every aspect of their lives, and then cry "Where was God" when tragedy strikes. God is not a pyscopath. If there was ever a time He called for justice, it was due to the wickedness and disobedience of the world. But God so loved the world that He sent His perfect Son as a sacrifice to save a sinful world, and yet people continue to reject that theory as being true. Until you have Jesus in your heart, you will continue to scoff and not understand the Truth. But my reality is that we will all face Judgement one day. The thief who was crucified beside Jesus recognized the Truth. He saw that Jesus was praying for the same people who were killing him, he recognized that he was the Savior. Jesus said "Today, you will be with me in paradise." Where will you be when you die?
If you believe in God then great. If you don't, then awesome. Why not go do something productive instead of arguing over something none of us can prove or disprove?
Why don't you take your own advice?
Because I like to argue.
Never argue with a fool. They'll drag you down and beat you with experience.
I have very little knowledge of pagels,but from a spirtual perspective it is purely nonsense the way she is thinking and feeling.to have some information on the bible and talking like that shows lack of understanding and how she is trying to convince people of here crazy ideas.i hope that people who know the bible will speak up and let others know that pagels ideas i pure hope of not really knowing the complete bibe teaching.
yes, and your gibberish-laced remarks sound so refreshingly astute that we should be so lucky to have a derelict like you enlighten us a little.
Clarence ... you are completely ignorant of the history of the bible
Dear Madams and Sirs:
Please try to refrain from using run-on sentences. Poor grammar only further highlights your stupidity.
Could you try reposting that in English?
Thank God the CNN Belief Blog is here to guide us through the darkness.
yes, indeed. thank God
I'm sorry, but asking Elaine Pagels, a member of the notorious Jesus Seminar, to evaluate the Book of Revelations is like asking William Ayers to evaluate Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.
Perhaphs you could elucidate?
There's no S in Revelation.
If the pseudo-biblical/-scholar Elaine Pagesl want to be taken seriously, she would publish her claims in peer-reviewed journals of biblical scholarship. Until she does, She is akin to the young-earth creationists, who publish lots of pop-press stuff, but aren't taken seriously by any actual scientists.
But she does.
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.