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4 big myths of Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation has terrified and confused readers for centuries. Few agree on its meaning, but many have opinions.
March 31st, 2012
10:00 PM ET

4 big myths of Book of Revelation

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.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Christianity • Church • Devil • End times • Faith • History • Jerusalem

soundoff (8,460 Responses)
  1. Eric

    The author 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.”

    Did she even do a cursory reading the book she is supposedly illuminating? The death, sin-cleansing blood of Christ, and the resurrection are throughout the book of Revelation. You can't read past the first chapter without seeing it:
    Revelation 1:5b "Who washed us from our sins in His own blood..."

    Here are just a few more examples:
    1:18 "I am He Who lives and was dead"
    5:6&9 there "stood a Lamb as though it has been slain... You [the Lamb] have redeemed us by Your blood.. from every tribe, people, language and nation."
    The atoning blood and sacrificial death of Christ also mentioned in 5:12; 7:14; 12:11; 19:13.
    Scholarship is lacking in this author's current work.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:13 am |
  2. Dante Gateson

    Four myths? Doesn't even scratch the surface. What about the other 3,592 myths in that absurd book?

    April 2, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  3. watex1234

    Did Micheal Bay write this article? Sounds like he is making a movie.........

    April 2, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  4. Papageorgiou Nikolaos

    There is a 5th myth in all these you write in your article.That the island of Patmos is in Turkey.
    You can see on Google Earth where is this island.In Greece.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Thud

      You look at the map, then. Patmos belongs to Greece, but it is much nearer to the shores of Turkey than it is to mainland Greece. But, yes, Mr. Clark made an error saying that it is "part of" Turkey.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • TurkTurk

      Patmos is located in Turkey. Istanbul is no longer Constantinople. Get over it already! I've suggested that Turkey buy Greece to save them from their financial problems. Can you imagine The New Turkish Republic of Greece? Nice! Don't worry, just like the last time the Turks ruled your country, you won't have to convert to Islam, just pay your taxes.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  5. Islandwings

    I don't know why they call it the end of the world. Your beginning a new life with God or beginning a new life without God! It's your choice!!

    April 2, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • No need to believe

      Ok did you step back after typing this and read.... Out loud? At what point do people go crazy ya think?

      April 2, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • H Keck

      - – – – Um – or perhaps there are no gods. Thus, when you die, you die. Oblivion. - No one in the history of mankind has yet come forth with even an iota of evidence that such things as gods exist.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  6. Tim

    CNN and this Lady are both crazy.
    You think just because you come up with some type of slant on the bible, that it makes it true?
    Sorry you are wrong.
    You will be judge for giving people wrong information.
    You would think a large news agency would know better.
    Sad very sad.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • No need to believe

      You think that the bible is actually the word of God? Forget what they are doing .... That's insane man!

      April 2, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  7. Kenneth Paul

    John Blake, must be your alias so you can just spew crap with no repercussions? Probably just another Atheist looking for some camera time because mommy never breast fed him. How amazing your face will look on the days you will get to do reports on the millions of people who are suddenly missing without a trace in a blink of an eye. But I suppose you will blame that on a new Russian / Chinese super weapon that went wrong, or aliens? ATTENTION CNN! ..letting this nut spew his anti-patriotic hate and name calling is seriously pathetic on CNN's part. I use to watch CNN and trusted them to be "fair and balanced" but the past 4 years especially the past year it seems CNN is totally starting to go further left of the political spectrum

    April 2, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • nixliberals

      Do not judge even those who are spreading lies contrary to the Word. We must remember who saved us and pray for the rest and encourage and pray for each other. Anyone writing about Revelation would do well to remember the final passages, "For I testify unto every man that hear the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take way from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.". SURELY I COME QUICKLY. God bless us all

      April 2, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • Ron

      Take your meds, dude.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  8. Papageorgiou Nikolaos

    There is a 5th myth in all this you write in this article: That the island of Patmos is in Turkey.
    I can t give you lecons of geographie .Is google Earth for this>

    April 2, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • No need to believe

      There is even a 6th myth in all of this... Christianity as a whole.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Steve Ogden

      Yes, I agree with you. In my experience, when someone (like this author) is wrong about a simple thing (like where is Patmos) they loose any credibility with the rest of what ever their argument. Thats why I used a Greek translation of the New Testament with a 5 volume translation dictionary to follow up when some preacher/pastor/priest told the congregation that something meant thus and so in the original Greek. About 25% of the time, they were just trying to lead the sheep astray. Glad you posted the truth.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:04 am |
  9. No need to believe

    CNN I feel you are oppressing my "freedoms", and placing "war on Christianity" by even putting this out there!....... Now you see how dumb that sounds..... You crazies got be kiddin me!

    April 2, 2012 at 1:38 am |
  10. Vasosv

    The island of Patmos has been and it is still Greek (not in present day Turkey)!
    First, CNN places Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus to Sicily, and now Patmos to Turkey. The largest (?) international news channel should know better.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • TurkTurk

      Patmos is located in Turkey. Istanbul is no longer Constantinople. Get over it already! I've suggested that Turkey buy Greece to save them from their financial problems. Can you imagine The New Turkish Republick of Greece? Nice! Don't worry, just like the last time the Turks ruled your country, you won't have to convert to Islam, just pay your taxes.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  11. 1willys

    Even after writing a book about it, Pagels has hardly mastered its meaning.

    could not have said it better myself.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:36 am |
  12. b4bigbang

    @Mandrax: then since neither the bulk of Christiandom nor the bulk of the govts believe its falling, where is this supposed emergency Harris was alerting us to?

    April 2, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  13. ALLAMERICAN

    The most precious gift a person has is the brain and it is controlled by evil and good. Every person makes a independent journey to understanding of what is good and that is the best way to learn and understand rather than listening to understand. Our society is strong with independent research and thats a blessing.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  14. Eric

    This woman is professing to be wise, but with her wild theories and fantasies, she became a fool.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • DebbieNJ

      And the bible isn't full of fantasies at all.......come on now !!! People turning to salt, walking on water, rising from the dead????? Are you kidding me??????? Parting a sea???? Geeeeshhh....

      April 2, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • No need to believe

      Remember when the sun use to a god in a golden chariot, and a dude hurling lightning bolts use to sleep with everybody.....far more interesting than a sperm whale swallowing some dude and a secluded nut job building a zoo boat!

      April 2, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • matt houston

      Wherefore did she profess any wisdom as you accused her? Then leave a reference of this transgression of hers that others may see your accusations as true and not bearing false witness. The only fool here surely is you by your empty accusations. I should guess you call yourself a Christian? No matter, whether you call yourself a Christian or not, it still does not take away your foolishness.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • Cricket

      Hmmm, I read and re-read the article, and nowhere did I find that Pagels claimed to be wise.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  15. No need to believe

    I love fairy tales...... And dragons!

    April 2, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • fsmgroupie

      I like the part in revelations where jesus' feet turn into brass and his tongue becomes a double edged sword.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  16. Mickey

    All worship people instead of the deity whose names are many are why this world is screwed up.

    The universal deity created this world and one of the commandments was/is "Thou Shalt Have No Other gods before Me"

    Stop praying to Jesus and Mohammed – and any other men. Maybe then the world will find Peace.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:24 am |
  17. Seth

    If you would like to learn about the bible from a true bible scholar, check out Chuck Missler.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • DebbieNJ

      Jenna – the bar is that low then?

      April 2, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • H Keck

      --A bible "scholar"? That's like being an expert on The Three Bears. Big Deal. Means nothing. Thomas Paine got it right when he said, “The study of theology … is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.”

      April 2, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  18. Anon

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsaRQDxmLqY&w=640&h=390]

    April 2, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • Jenna

      not so anonomous and not so original - it has been posted many times already today

      April 2, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  19. Joe

    http://archive.org/details/ElainePagelsAndMikeLiconaDebateTheGospelOfThomas

    April 2, 2012 at 1:19 am |
  20. Rob

    All of the books should be read for a greater understanding.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:19 am |
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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.