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.”
Having spent my youth being growled at with quotes of John 3:16, having had countless trips to Baptist churches, conversations with pastors, laymen, Billy Graham on a first class flight to L.A., Dr Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland, pentecostal revivals, having read Wycliff Bible Translator, countless extemporaneous christian literature, and last of all the Bible through and through at least a dozen times, I still came to the same conclusion as when I was 18 that the Bible is the grossest assault against intelligent life on the planet. How it survived as a good read is unfathomable
Christianity and its holey book merely represent a successful meme, nothing more. As for quality or veracity of bible content, both are actually lacking.
It has survived because at least in the U.S. the indoctrination (brainwashing) begins early with Vacation Bible School.
It is still funny that the faithful don't realize that they were born atheists and what they subscribe to is mostly due to the influence of their environment and not out of some "divine" inspiration. Any person that says otherwise is being dishonest.
It's quite evident that you found it a very good read.
Your biased reporting is too biased to even suggest that this is a report.
This is pure propaganda.
By the way, thank you for bringing this up on Holy week.
Just remeber this, Revelation does say "God wins, you loose!"
Funny you should put it that way.
Religion, the ultimate ponzi scheme.
Ponzi scheme? I think your uneducated period.
God also said in The Book of Revelation "Thou shalt learn how to spelleth"
Unless you can cite specific problems with the report, and back them up with facts, you fail, John
HOLY WEEK next week!
Don´t forget going to church on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday!
Will do! Be sure to look for me and save me a seat next to you!
Sunday, Bloody Sunday. Don't forget to slaughter your firstborn for god. Although you might get nailed for animal cruelty.
All days of the week named after Pagan Gods, I take it you meant Monday.....grammar, silly detail...lol
What do you expect from an article written by a non-Christian about one of the books of the Bible.
Actually non/former christians on average know more about the bible and why they don't believe it than most christians do.
The writers of the Bible should be nominated for a Hugo Award. It can go up against some of the great writers as Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Arther C. Clarke, L. Ron Hubert, Terry Brooks and many more. It seems the Bible is more fantasy than reality. More fiction than fact.
that is actually incorrect about the fiction over fact. The mere thought of religious commandments alone 3,500 years ago was radical in it's thinking and far more than anything Imhotep or Hipocrates came up with and these alone are what we govern the modern world after. Historical battles have been written in the Bible. Obviously you aren't very learned.
Point taken 3,500 years ago things were different. But ever since then the Bible has been written and re-written many times, by many so called religions and unless you can get an original copy and know how to read the original dialect it can be considered more fiction than fact in today's world.
I love how CNN founded by an atheist has articles like this..................so pathetic just like the comments.
I should first say that my critique is concerning what this author says that she says. So, if he has mistaken what she has said, then it would be out of hand. Ok, down to business: 1. Her insistence that Revelation is not about the end of the world seems to need a little balance. Obviously, she would be correct on those who see it as a completely futuristic book, but we have to keep in mind that this is prophecy which also speaks in some measure to us. For instance, we know that the second coming has yet to take place. She seems to possibly stand in the same camp which would look at Revelation as simply a sociological critique against Rome by a Jew who lost his heritage (i.e. Adela Yarboro Collins). I would first say concerning this idea that it is way overstated. John critiques the Jews (i.e. synagogue of Satan) and is thoroughly Christian. He also uses imagery and language which is pagan or Greek. Thus, his concern for 'Jewishness' is overstated. Revelation is clearly written to a very mixed Christian audience about the world in which John lived, but much of it still leaves us with future expectation. Now, we could debate as to whether John was aware that his prophecy would not be completed in his lifetime, but that would be a different discussion. 2. She, of course, is correct concerning 666 not indicating the devil or Damien Nero is a possible candidate for the number 666, but I have heard good arguments for others as well. I think that the old argument concerning Jewish numbers which correspond to the letters may be incorrect. After all, the number is six hundred and sixty six. There are plenty of arguments for other emperors. Incidentally, her argument for Nero and the later dating seems to indicate that she does not see this as a prophecy at all – this idea would fly in the face of everything that is indicated in the text. She seems to believe this was a historical sociological reactionary critique that was written after the events took place. This "other John" is disappointed and bitter over what took place to his country and the lack of justice in his world since the messiah came. In this way, what she says I cannot agree with at all. 3. & 4. Are just completely retarded and unfounded. The view that she puts forward regarding John the "not really Christian who hates Paul and doesn't recognize Jesus or the other Christian writings" is obviously one that does not fly in the biblical academy today. This is a completely idiotic argument which has no basis in reality or history. As a scholar she should know that one cannot take an apocalypse and try to argue from it that there is no evidence of direct usage from Paul or the Gospels. Her indication that other books were 'supressed' by the Church because they disagreed with what they wanted to say even though they were widely used is just completely historically inaccurate. Revelation was accepted because most believed that the disciple John wrote it, and the others were rejected because they were only sparingly used in various borderline Christian sects (like Gnostics) which were heretical and were both not written by a disciple or the disciple of a disciple and were in radical disagreement with what the eye witnesses (the disciples) said was true. The way that she pushes the Gnostic writings and others is completely dishonest and unscholarly. I honestly have no idea why she would claim such outlandish things. I think that this is really where her liberal bias comes it, and quite frankly it is completely unscholarly. It reminds me of when I heard a professor say in a lecture that he doubted one of the miracles in the Bible because he looked information up on the internet which disagreed with the Bible ;-0 I mean really? The sad thing is that there is a kernel of truth in what she seeks to critique (i.e. the Left Behind Series and the futurist position) but that will likely be totally ignored because of the biased and completely unfounded argument that she cases it in.
Unless you have read the book in its entirety I would have trouble with some of your analyses. It is not that Dr. Pagels " believes someting, but because of her research, she has determined that some matters concerning Revelation are so. My pastor and I are looked forward to reading the book, which I have ordered
Pagels, one of the world's leading biblical scholars; you, a churl clamboring after three letters on your name. Not only does no one care about your tract (go write your own books, will ya? spare us your prolix drivel), your name will never be linked with the homage, "one of the world's leading biblical scholars." You have to earn that. Spewing an adolescent rant doesn't earn you anything.
As if your caveat at the beginning protects you from well-deserved scorn. And learn to use paragraphs. There's a good lad.
The writers of the Bile should be nominated for a Hugo Award. It can go up against some of the great writers as Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Arther C. Clarke, L. Ron Hubert, Terry Brooks and many more. It seems the Bible is more fantasy than reality. More fiction than fact.
That is why I deeply believe in the mythology of The Silmarillion. Do not mock this religious book otherwise you will hurt my feelings.
Hmmm... An arugment for reason and logic, I wonder if the message of the Bible will appeal to you? All from the new testament : The greatest is love. Love thy negbiour as thy self. Be humble and serve your fellow man (Jesus washes the feet of his disciple) Forgive those who hurt you, before you say your prayers. (Jesus say of those who crucified him – 'Forgive them Father for they do not know what they do) A parable of how much God loves us (A shepherd will leave the other 99 sheep and go and look for the one that is lost) and many such examples..... While at the same time, can say that many Christians and church goers do not follow the Bible, and give what otherwise can be a great message of how to live a good Christian life, something to deride. The message of love and wisdom can transform one, like nothing else can.
This is nothing more than;
A fast buck author playing on the ignorance of the masses. If you bother to open to the book in question, the first five words are, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ..." OMG, this is how stupid this woman really thinks the public is. Forget it; some of us have actually read it. Next please...
This is nothing more than; A fast buck author playing on the ignorance of the masses.
Switch author with Joel Osteen/Jimmy Swaggart/Jim Baker/minister/preacher/Oral Roberts/pastor etc., etc and it's all the same.
I really don't know why people insist on arguing over this complete nonsense.
and it's 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , what are we fighting for , it's off to vietnam , open up the pearly gates , were all
going to die.
Really sorry that you feel this way. Why choose dark or light? Derision and hate over love and compassion? Understanding over dogma. Your name conveys someone who is anti something. Pray that you are touched by the graces of love, peace, humility, joy and the wonder of life.
CNN this is such a pathetic article. I could spend the entire night refuting almost every word, but it is not worth my time. Just read the book of Revelation for yourself to educate yourself. It is not as hard to understand as it is made out to be. You can read it online at Biblegateway.com. Select The New Living Translation or New International Version, which are easy to understand. Here is the link to get started http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+1&version=NLT
So you're like the comic book guy with the bible.
I think "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking is much better reading and it actually means something.
But have you done a critical analysis of the text in its historical context? That is what Pagels does. The results are fascinating!
As one who is writing his dissertation on Revelation, let me just say that much of what this woman argues is just idiotic. She shows some of her bias in her comments concerning the inclusion of the book in the NT canon and her comment that it was not John the disciple who wrote it but a mystic "John". The book actually was debated early on by some but all of them were accept for maybe the Gospels. Her notion that it is still debated is just not true amongst the vast majority of scholars. This assertion might be true among a very small minority that I have not ever encountered, but who knows. The idea of the "other John" is an old and worn out notion which completely ignores the evidence. The Church fathers believed it to be John and archeological evidence has long disproved any notion of another John. The guy who started the "other John" theory simply made it up without any evidence to support his thesis. In fact, he made completely false statements like that there was another tomb of the "other John" in modern day Turkey. However, archeologists have never discovered any evidence of any of his claims. Keep in mind, I have been learning under one of the people who has disproven this idea – Mark Wilson. Her dating of Revelation is also suspect, and her matter of fact style is deceptive. There is little evidence to support a later dating, but the date is still debated – this is something that she should have indicated. I will write in a minute concerning her 4 points.
Hey Jesus effect,
If you are writing your dissertation about Revelation I have a very good book you might like, I can send part of it electronically as a preview.
my email address is randy703 at gmail dot com
Fact: No one who wrote anything in the New Testament ever meet "Jesus" all the books were written decades after his death, even Paul never met him, he had a vision of him as he was walking along a road, its complete hogwash. No one except people who know nothing about history believe any different. Ask yourself if you believe that Zeus or Horus or any of the countless Mediterranean sun gods are real, and if your answer is no, then you will understand why your religion is false also.
It is well known in academic circles that John the Evangelist and John of Patmos are two different people, writing in two different centuries. Also, the Book of John, though often ascribed to John the Disciple, was likely not written by him. Where in the world are you "writing a dissertation" where that isn't known? Nothing in this review suggests Pagels' new book is offering any new analysis of the material already well-accepted by academia for decades.
Jesus said to love your enemies, love your neighbor and help the poor.
You don't need Jesus to do that
Are YOU helping the poor as my atheist self does. When was the last time you donated to a food pantry?
Many of your post have been very caustic and unkind–does that mean you don't follow Jesus?
Yes, this is the true message from the Bible. Don't understand why somebody would make an assumption that just because you quote the Bible, you would not.? @Debbie, what are you rebelling against? do you expect somebody making a statment from the Bible to say that 'I have given food for the poor, or donated x amount of money' and then go and make a statement? The Bible says, 'when you do good, let your left hand know what your right it doing' I wish you joy, positivity and fulfillment.
Yes, he did. This is relevant to this article... how?
Gotta love CNN's articles during Holy Week. Typical.
Wasn't the Temple of Solomon made of stone? So how does that get "burned down"?
It is quite obvious you are uneducated in the building of Solomon's Temple. The temple was not all made out of stone. A great part of it was made out of the cedars of Lebanon.
@ sybaris. Your suggestion is sound. However, studying anthropology, will it give you the answers to the meaning of life? What purpose you are here on earth? Logic and reason are both good while looking for solutions that can be obtained using it, however to apply it to something beyond the realm of logic and reason is a fruitless endavour. Try applying it an emotion of love, joy, laughter to give daily life examples. Somethings cannot be explained or reasoned, for they are beyond the bouandries of such applications.
Hey, mac –
Isn't it obvious that I'm "obviously uneducated on the Temple of Solomon"? Thanks for the info, and for the mac-attack!
Whoa has this dumb lying idiot with her atheist political agenda even read revelation. How ignorant., It does to say christ died for our sins and it does not contradict the other parts of the new testament and it is clearly meant to be me far more profound then something in johns current time. And patmos present day turkey? Turkeys not an island. This lady is just pulling garbage out of her buttto advance extremist anti christ views. Everything thats been written apparentlyt in her book is just crap. Maybe she could study and appreciate the bible if it were not for her already biased sacreligious views.
Maybe you could study anthropology and appreciate reason if it were not for your already biased religious views.
Name call in people over the age of 8 indicates a lack of intellectual stamina. This observation coincides with the rambling and almost unintelligible rest of the rant. When you put something together that can be responded to do post again. Meanwhile, remember: God is love, Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, and most importantly judge not lest ye be judged. Come to the discussion with God in your heart and it will be easier to understand you and believe you are a Christian.
You should read up on Patmos and John of Patmos. Patmos itself is in Greece, but the John who was imprisoned or exiled there was originally from Turkey (hence "exiled"- he was not in Turkey at the time, he was in Greece, on the island of Patmos).This is clearly stated in the Book of Revelation itself (see the opening of the text).
Why are people so disturbed about the use of metaphor and myth to discuss things that are cosmic and divine? I think it is wonderfully brilliant to encode modern experience into a discussion of God and our place in the cosmos. Understanding that cultural context provides so much more meaning to the words and images set out by the author, and really gets you thinking about what salvation and damnation really mean. Using real analysis to read and understand a text adds so much more it- especially for those who believe in God.
Teach your children well, their parents hell and maybe a few will never want to step foot into hell's kitchens.
Whatever bad things happens to you is a sign of lack of belief in God.
Really? So those hungry children, those kids born with cancer......it's their fault, right? What a great god you have.....
It is a sign of human imperfection, nothing more, nothing less. All are sinful including those who know and except Christ.
Really? if somebody robs me, it's because I don't believe in God enough? I totally disagree. I can be Christian and not take the bible literally word-for-word. I think it's obvious that the bible was ment to be a guide.... Am I a bad Christian because I don't get that confused with science?
So...Jesus' crusifiction is a sign that he failed to believe in God? Are you sure?
Sorry, you give religion a bad name. Bad things happen, but not because you don't beleive in God. Bad things happen to people who are religious, devout, and follow and practice religion in word and spirit. Bad things happend to Jesus's followers, apostles and disciples as well. We see in our daily lives many people who suffer while leading an upright and a Godly life, and are regular church goers. While those who do wrong are happy and go unpunished. There is more in life than your simplistic view of God, life and religion. Its better to practice love and understanding than to divide and condemm. I guess those closest to God are the humble and those who love and serve others, and not who preach dogma. Be blessed.
I respectfully disagree. "Bad things" don't happen because a lack of faith. Things happen. How we deal with the things that happen should the strength of our character, including our faith.
And wow, I'm getting too tired to type properly. My apologies for the errors in that last post.
I feel sorry for people who think their own personal interpretation of the Bible is right and God Himself is wrong. I'm no bible bashing Christian but my faith leads me to believe the Bible over than some idiot who wrote a book downplaying the Bible or some idiot writing for CNN. If Revelation said something is going to happen then by all means it's going to happen. I suppose this Pagel person has some doubts about Noah's flood too huh?
Just like Judas and Lucifer there will always be one who leads many astray.
Nah, she's just a chaired professor of religion at Princeton. And why would placing a text in its cultural context do anything but add to our understanding of its meaning?
" I suppose this Pagel person has some doubts about Noah's flood too huh?"
ha ha ha the global flood that never occured? (i.e. there is NO gelological evidence of a global flood)
you do realise that your religion isnt the only one to have the only "flood story" and it was most probably ripped off from a previous flood myth (most likely The Gilgamesh flood myth)
I suspect you also believe the "ark" was found on Mt Ararat too? lol
read a book that isnt the bible one day?
The real myth of the Book of Revelations is the Book of Revelations.
If you read your Bible you would know the name of the book is Revelation without the "s".
And if you read the Book you would know it is an odd ancient myth.
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.