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.”
DebbieNJ: "Are YOU helping the poor as my atheist self does. When was the last time you donated to a food pantry?"
Self-righteous much debbie?
Nope, not all, just asking a question. Have you helped the poor?
Probably EVERYONE has done good deeds at various times in their lives – bad deeds too.
You dont need to proclaim your good deeds to us debbie.
Not proclaiming my good deeds, asking a simple question. One of Jesus' main points was to help the poor, blind, sick, etc. The religious right here in the US has a clear policy of the exact opposite. Do you have homeless people sleeping in your house? Do you feed the poor? Do you tend the sick? Simple questions you guys.......
I would guess bang is telling us no he does not do good works of any kind but expects that he will get into heaven by name dropping.
George Carlin is roasting in hell right now!!
...and loving it!
"From dust you came, to dust you shall return".
And…. we're sure because ?????
Wow, Henry, aren't you a pompous a$$ saying who is "hell"?
Athiesm is the new "it". Get with it!
Get with atheism, the new 'it'!
And then something newer comes along and the cattle leave the old 'it' for the newer 'it', and so on and so on......
That view is so sad... Christianity was the new it before, a couple of millenia ago; does this mean that you only love it because it's retro-hip?
2 Timothy 3
1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
6 They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, 7 always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. 9 But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.
im going to say that in the future we are going run out of natural resources and its going to cause a major war... that doesnt make me a prophet its just rational and logical conclusion to our current path of damage and pressure on those resources.. any person with a brain could come up with the same conclusion. same thing applies to a lot of the predictions of the bible there were religions and gods before the many christian religions and where are they now,ie they're in your kids 7th grade history class.. i really think its funny how quickly we blindly believe the bible but will dismiss say a modern day prophet or a fortune teller
When were the situations quoted in timothy NOT the case? By these standards, the last days have been occurring for many hundreds of years and maybe thousands. Our planet and its people evolve and continue on. Large numbers can die and others take their place and life goes on. There is little point going on about so called last days.
read " TORTURED FOR CHRIST " an autobiography of Richard Wurmbrands suffering in prison in Romania.
This man spent 16 years in prison in Romania being beaten and abused for preaching the Gospel when the communist
invaded Romania. He describes how the underground church finally broke the grip of the communist. You haven't seen
anything until you read this book. If you think things are bad here, Read this Book.
No torture required, just common sense and science.
I read 'Tortured for Christ' years ago and i still remember it being a truly great read.
@ i seriously doubt you would still have your convictions of NO GOD , if you were beaten and tortured
systematically for 16 years. And i'm sure you would be crying out to God for deliverance. So until you have walked
a minute even in this mans shoes, keep touting your intellect and hope one day it doesn't happen to you.
What are you trying to say. That you need to be beaten for 16 years for you to suddenly understand that there is a god? Are you kidding?
@ plucky , no ! you would have to read this book to understand how the romanians were helpless at the time
because of the desparity in the numbers of troops the communist invaded them with compared to their small
country. they couldn't win with reason or logic against the communist. and you get a good sense of how
even the communist hated their own system because it offered no hope. it's devoid of all belief in anything
except the government.
the point is that inspite of all that happened to this mand and the underground christians they held their beliefs
and finally broke the communist. if you really want to understand what happened. read the book.
@ b4bigbang , excellent ! i hope more people on this website will give it a read. GOD BLESS YOU.
When Good Friday becomes a federal holiday, we will then stop talking about religion in public anymore.
Christians have Christmas Day as a federal holiday! Maybe we should create a federal holiday for each religion's important days! Some tax payers may complain thougH!
Non secquiter bulls–t alert!
This article is scholarly malpractice. Following up on the fiction that was the Davinci Code, the author trots out all the old anti-christian falsities: the bible wasn't written by who you think wrote it and it doesn't say what you think it says. On top of that, the "real" books of the bible were suppressed by political operators. All nonsense. The overwhelming academic evidence demonstrates that the disciple John wrote Revelation and that it dealt with events still future to him. The first lie told by Satan in the garden was: "did God really say that?" – this author continues the father of lies deception.
Oh......you poor, poor, set upon Christians. My heart bleeds for you.
I agree ... well said, Alfred!
Good post Alfred!
passionate but alas misinformed...
It appears from the face of the post that the writer failed to read either the article or the book. Get back to us when you have done so–we would love a conversation
The Island of Patmos is in Greece. I understand if you can't find a religious scholar to edit these pieces, but could you at least hire a decent geographer?
Dear Joe, people are ignoring your post because the author of the piece was talking historically, not currently. Cover your ignorance.
Ninety five percent of all books ever written are fiction. What are the odds of which shelf the bible belongs on?
It's pretty much proven to be fiction, regardless of what most people might opine on the matter.
@momoya "It's pretty much proven to be fiction, regardless of what most people might opine on the matter"
=> "proven" would indicate that you are aware of some research demonstrating the bible is fiction? And that would be.. what?
What the bible says versus what the facts are.. Feel free to look them up.
@momoya "What the bible says versus what the facts are.. Feel free to look them up."
=>I found an enormous amount of information about the reliability of the textual transmission throughout history, I also found many statements like "Many details remain unconfirmed, however no historical detail in the Old/New Testament has ever been proven to be false."
however, I found no research claiming to have "disproved" the historicity of the bible..
You mentioned that it had been "proved", where?
The island of Patmos is Greek, and it is a mistake, I hope, that in the article it is placed in Turkey!!!!.....
".....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 in present-day Turkey..."
Too funny – yup... after WWI, there were compromises made :)
Ms. Pagels asserts: "He [John] doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins.”
Oh, no? What about: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain.... And they sang a new song: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:6, 9)
THIS is what passes for an expert on Scripture with CNN?
No, he is correct.. The bible is a bunch of myths piled up in one book.
LOL. Well said.....oh there are plenty of holes in this article.....an ignorant one track mind reading just the book of Revelation without even bothering to check the rest of the books of prophecy. And of course, all the atheists say "amen". The Bible calls them "willingly ignorant".......in other words "dumb on purpose".
Carl, don't bother. CNN puts garbage like this on the curb to rile people up. The author of this article never even read the bible, and the people who criticize it haven't, either.
I've read the bible 7 times and I am now an atheist.. You're wrong.
You took this out of context and used it to serve your purposes. Of course this is what most Christians do. That's why there are so may versions of Christianity.
Excellent comeback Carl!!!!
Excellent comeback Crad!!!!
"THIS is what passes for an expert on Scripture with CNN?"
I hate to point out the obvious but you seem to need it: the article was not written by the author of the book under review. Cover your ignorance.
Er... "call them as I see them", was that directed at me? If so, please note that the reviewer (John Blake) is quoting _Ms. Pagels_ as saying "He [John] doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins.”
John Blake is not very learned on the topic of Revelations or any apocalyptic books in the bible for that matter. The book of Daniel alone reads like the Book of Revelations. Blogger John Blake is ignorant at best as is most bloggers are.
Alas....Pagels is quite ignorant.
I call name calling instead of reasoned argument! This is what passes for intelligent conversation?
This is all the author of the post is capable of..look at his post below this–it is merely "yawn". That is all he able to do; so sad.
Revelations is no more & no less insane, irrational, inept, irritating, ignorant, and idiotic than any of the other "books" of the Judeo/Christian/Muslim mythology. It all reads like something you would get if Stephen King layed-out a premise and basic outline to a high school Creative Writing class, fed them all varying mixtures of hash, 'shrooms, peyote, LSD, crystal meth, and heroin then edited it all together without his glasses while totally blown-out on Absinthe. Hmmm, I think he'd need Alzheimer's and a pre-frontal lobotomy, too, 'cause I doubt even stoned & blind he do THAT bad a job of overlooking all the self-contradictions. I think ol' Steve'd know it really wasn't meant to say "blood" would run to the depth of a horse's bridle in the Valley of Megiddo; it comes out the back-end of a bull!
Hahaha. Totally agree.
One myth about the Book of Revelations: It's based on truth.
What is the significance of this subject? Why no one is writing about the many verses in the Qura’n that kills innocent people everyday.
Pay attention Sean, and keep up. That was last week, but it will roll around again.
So are so called christians killing inocent people every daycontrary to their belief and supporting wars. Aren't they including you hypocrite?
Gee, Sean.....the q'uran kills people? How can in inanimate object take an action? Inform us, please
The book of Revelation recited from memory Tom Meyer
i listen to Revelation everyday. I understand Revelation by holding that I don't understand Revelation.
But what i do understand, or what i like to believe I understand, I would love to share with anyone.
If you have any questions about Revelation, call me
818 570 2122. This is a screening voice mail.
Leave your message. i will call you back.
I was born and raised as an atheist and converted to Christianity 5 years ago. I´m so happy now Thank God!
Good for you, be happy and be GONE !!!!!!!!
Silly truster. Too bad God won't teach you grammar.
Silly truster? Whats that mean?
Crud, it means you should watch this carefully.
I doubt you.
Love that Carlin bit, April :)
I have a cool idea. Just sit and copy paste the george carlin clip over and over and over and over and over and over and over and on and on and over and over and on and on and over and over and over
I beleive in Jesus & the word too. Align yourself with those who believe.
And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, as ye go forth out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.
Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.
What made you make this change?
Chris: Quoting a book to those who do not accept the validity of the book is only so effective as a discussion technique. Unless, of course, you are just hoping the big guy in the sky is listening, so he doesn't go all medievel on your a$$
A book published in 2011 written by Aaron Bradshaw called Joyful Apocalypse provides profound insight to the symbolism in The Book of Revelation. Beautiful Christian doctrine clearly explained in the symbolism. Great read well worth your time and $$$. Available at Amazon.
This is far better. Just watch it. HD now too.
Dude. This video is getting old. Seriously.
... And over and over and over and over you have no orginal idea of your own and over and over you ran out of things to say over and over and over and over you are bored over and over and over you have nothing left to say over and over
i just finished The Year Of Living Biblically. Good read
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.