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. Rainer Braendlein

    Dearly beloved, keep the faith in Christ in this godless world, reigned by rulers of the human robots Merkel and Obama.

    Revelation 1, 1-8:

    The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: 2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. 3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand. 4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; 5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. 7 Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen. 8 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

    The great topic of the Bible beside salvation is the suffering of the Christian Church, which she has to bear in an antichristian world. A man, who remains in his redeemer Christ, will face hostility in this godless world.

    However, Jesus Christ, who has suffered like no one before him and after him, has overcome the demonic world. Christ had a free human will and a divine will (two wills). Despite cross, rejection and suffering Jesus remained "in God". The great merit of Jesus was it that he remained in God, although he had to bear superhuman sufferings. Christ has rolled back the Fall of Adam.

    Adam abandoned God voluntarily, although he was made in a blissful state. Jesus remained "in God" despite infinite sufferings. Hence, Jesus is a "new Adam" or the first born of a "NEW MANKIND", a mankind, which has returned to its Creator and loves him on every condition, even if she has to suffer. Jesus is the beginning of a new creation, a creation in God.

    Jesus Christ is yet in the "Future of the Lord". Jesus has overcome the profane world by the Holy Spirit and God has honored him and confirmed him with the resurrection from the death and has made him ruler of the universe. The meek and humble Jesus, who sweat blood in the garden Gethsemane, because of endless trouble and horror, is ruler of the universe right now and his dominion can manifest very soon.

    "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen."

    God, the Father, delivered God, the Son, for the sake of our sins. He raised him from the dead for our justification. Everybody, who believes that and gets sacramentally baptized, becomes righteous: His sins are forgiven and he lives a life of practical righteousness. Despite the attacks of the godless world, the believer remains within his saviour and does works of righteousness. The meek and humble people on earth living in righteousness, will finally manifest as kings and priests of the Most High. God will reward them with very high ranks, because they kept the faith on a hostile, godless earth.

    The majority of the mankind will never believe in Christ, at least not in the true Christ. The majority will believe in the false Christ or Antichrist (The Wicked, Mohammed, the popes and others).

    The revelation is nothing else than an account of the intergalactic war, which blusters on earth between the true Christian Church and the profane world (secular society, churches, which have turned apostate, false religions like Islam, cults like Mormons).

    God tells the true believers through the Revelation: "Don't become worldly again, but remain faithful; I have overcome the world and will come soon and raise you to glory!"

    April 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      The Bible is the best BS story ever told. I see a lot of words in your post and it all adds up to a lot of illogical nonsense.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  2. Diogenes

    I love how spastic fundamentalist Christians get when their dogma gets questioned.


    April 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  3. scottosky

    The Prophets are false but the profits are real.

    The God fearing, God-is-on-our-side crowd. The nasty, preachy Christian swarm, the Islamic zealots. On the march! A mirror image of one another, perverted versions of the same belief system. The borne-agains, the multi-headed Christian evangelists, the radical Islamic Clerics. The false profits, with their multimillion-dollar compensations for bringing the message of peace, love and forgiveness ... no meanness, to the masses. I'd just love to be a Praying Mantis on the wall when these so called men and women of GOD go before the BIG DOG for their entrance interview. Think they'll be given the keys to the magic kingdom? Extremists, army's of fanatical Religious zealots, driven by greed, control and power in this life, intolerant of the very world God created. Preaching salvation and bliss in the next life for those who believe and eternal damnation and extermination to all non believers. The Theory of Evolution will not be tolerated; Charles Darwin is Satin; Science is the Anti-Christ; Global warming is a left wing conspiracy; Women are irrational, emotional beings incapable of thinking for themselves, and the "Sun isn't yellow it's chicken"... thanks Bob. Goose-step is resurrected before our very eyes(The Lion and the Unicorn).

    God! Protect me from your followers.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  4. Mark

    I've been led to believe there is a God. The more time I spent educating myself, the more I came closer to knowing God.

    Any real anthropologist will tell you that to reject religious doctrine is complete ignorance. You must look at every point of view (theistic and atheistic). I was a non-believer before I started my graduate studies, after that I had a change of mind.

    **Can someone prove to me right now that there IS NOT a God. **

    And don't give me your scientific theories; I've learned them all. Don't say the Big Bang theory allows for there to be no need for God.

    Give me 1 thing just 1, that will PROVE God does NOT exist based on your intellect, don't use the Bible, use your own "scientific knowledge."

    April 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • SkipJunkman

      You're silly.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • SkipJunkman

      Also the burden of proof is yours.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • proof

      You misunderstand. You don't prove a negative. Prove you aren't me. Prove I am not god.
      You have to prove god exists. But you are asking science to prove what is an issue of faith. If it weren't faith, why would faith mean "belief without proof."

      April 1, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • weaselboy77

      It is never my intent to disprove anyone's belif system; it is always my intent to quash anyone else's intent to foist their belief system upon me. I will raise sword or fist or gun against anyone compelling me to comply with what I should or should not do based on what they deem to be their own 'proper belief', save perhaps for The Golden Rule which amazingly, is embraced by every holy icon of every religion or belief system, irrespective of its origin.
      I think the only differences between every single religion (except perhaps Satanism, if that truly exists) are proper nouns, verbs, translations, and interpretations.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • sxs

      Here we go again. However you choose to animate your faith, should you need a faith, feel free. Science and religion are as useless as a "prove to me god does not exist". To each his own. That is the beauty of it. Unfortunately, some can't leave it at that.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Eric

      You aren't required to prove something doesn't exist. That's illogical. It's bound upon the person claiming existence to demonstrate that something does exist. For instance, prove to me there weren't flying unicorns. How do you do that? It's irrational and illogical to look at it the way you do.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  5. Jesus Christ

    Okay people, give it a rest. You're making me look bad here..

    April 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  6. jaysargos

    who cares??????????????

    April 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  7. PABLO

    Listen so that when you are in hell don't say that no one told:

    April 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • rmtaks

      There must be a hell if they are letting Evangelical Christians imbed videos on the comment section.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  8. Bob

    JOHN BLAKE is NOT a theologian, NOR is he a Bible scholar, NOR is he an historical scholar. He's a propagandist of the character of Joseph Goebbels, and CNN is giving him this front page religious platform in an attempt to destroy biblical faith. That makes JOHN BLAKE a false teacher and a very evil person. He's going to learn the truth one day when he stands before the judgment seat of Christ and is thrown into the lake of fire. Jesus said he would rise from the dead, and He did. Jesus said that He would one day throw the wicked and unbelieving into Hell, and He will. And there are none more wicked than those who pervert the words of Christ, thereby calling Him a liar. John Blake thinks he has power now because he's on CNN, but He will find out what eternal power is when He stands before Christ. Christ's power is that which called the universe into being. Think that's a myth? Just wait. It's a God-awful high price to pay if you're wrong. And you ARE in fact wrong.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Diogenes

      "You are, in fact wrong."

      Prove it.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Zicke

      hahahahhahahahahhahahahahahahahah okay sure

      April 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      Prove to me that "Jesus rose from the dead". You have a news article? Picture? Corroborating third party evidence? Nope. All you have is a silly book that tells you to believe something which is outrageously nonsensical.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  9. kebcarerra

    The end will continue to come for another two thousand years and then another. Jesus was born from a virgin. The earth is 6000 years old. Moses parted the red sea. Noah took two of each animal into his ark etc.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  10. SkipJunkman

    Nobody knows if GOD IS FAKE. But it's obvious that christianity is complete bull.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Bob

      Your arrogance is astounding. One of the earlier presidents of Harvard law school said that there was more evidence that would stand up in a court of law, for the reserrection of Jesus Christ than for any other event in history. I think that any reasonable person would rather go with the president with Harvard law school than with someone who, like a coward, says ananamously says that Jesus is Bull. And by the way, you have no idea how much power Jesus has. Saying that Jesus is bull is like saying that the heavy weight champion of the world is a weakling and that you want to fight him, only multiplied by a billion. In Jesus' words, "unless you repent, you will all likewise perrish."

      April 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • dying

      Xians use evidence (the Harvard president say so) only when it suits them and eschew it when the evidence is to the contrary.
      Which Harvard president? Was she or he even a lawyer? Evidence in what court? Evidence that Jesus existed or that he was the son of god?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      @Bob.... There is NO EVIDENCE that Jesus rose from the dead. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. If this claim were ever tested in a court of law it would get thrown out before it even made it to the trial stage because any reasonable judge would see that there was nothing to support the claim.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  11. Brian L.

    It would really enhance CNN's reputation if they simply reported all sides of a story... This piece reeks of an agnostic bent and is a poor excuse (and yet another example) of what we allow to pass for journalism today.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  12. Jonathan Young

    THIS, is what is separating us & society as a whole... people can't accept the fact that ALL religion is man-made and truly we don't understand exactly WHO or WHAT "GOD" is, BUT... we all believe in some form of God or super-being so therefore we all should believe in what you want and follow your own spirit. We are all different and sacred, open your minds. There's a PLACE for all people.. good and bad!

    April 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      Not all of us believe in god or some super-being. Don't paint me with that big brush of ignorance.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  13. † In God We Trust †

    † IN GOD WE TRUST †................... ALL OTHERS GO TO HELL

    April 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • so close

      Your threat almost saved me. And then... I thought about it.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      You're a wacko. Seriously, go get some help.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  14. retrostar1000

    When you are done reading the Bible I would recommend Alice in Wonderland or Bambi for more good fairy tales.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  15. Jonathan Young

    THIS, is what is separating us & society as a whole... people can't accept the fact that ALL religion is man-made and truly we don't understand exactly WHO or WHAT "GOD" is, BUT... we all believe in some form of God or super-being so therefore we all should believe in what you want and follow your own spirit. We are all different and sacred, open your minds. There's a PLACE for all people.. good and bad.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      Not all of us believe "in some form of God or super-being". This is a nonsense statement. YOU believe there must be something "out there" that fits this description, but not me. And I'm not alone. My life is just fine without believing in a god and I don't need this crutch.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  16. Andy

    How about Moses talking to a burning bush and the bush talking back to him? Why are these articles which make religion look ridiculous always about Christianity and Islam and never about Judaism?

    April 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • child

      right... it is a myth.
      wrong... not in the Book of Revelation.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      The myth of Christianity is based on the Myths of Judaism, so it doesn't matter which ones we talk about – we're discussing myth.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  17. colleen

    FOUR MYTHS??? Were not talking myths when it comes to the bible. ARE YOU KIDDING!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • momoya

      The article only discussed four of the myths among the thousands in the babble.. Be patient, we'll get to all the other myths as we go.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • bloat

      You would need a bigger book than the bible to discuss all of the myths in the bible. So these 4 are a good start.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  18. Believer of Christ

    Romans 1.18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, nhave been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,1 in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • rmtaks

      Every believer in every religion can quote from their book like this and what they all have in common is that they have no proof besides the fact that their book assures them that it is in fact true.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      Quoting nonsense from a book of myth is not a defence. Face the FACT that the bible is a book filled with historical and logical inaccuracies and myth.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  19. Kathleen

    This is just good press for her to sell another book. If you have really read her books and read about her, she is not a Christian. It is so wonderful that she has reached the heights of intellectual loftiness in the USA, but most of her books and works are based on observattion, research and history. Anyone can do this and be proven/disproven. A degree from Harvard or Princeton does not make one an "expert". I have enjoyed her novels, because that is what they are. Nothing more nothing less. Kind of fluffy and nothing terribley deep, mind or soul/spirtual changing. Good observation of the Bible and her opinion. I can honestly say I doubt her books will be thought of thousands of years from now, but the BIBLE will and has remained the #1 book across time. That I can be assured of-GOD and his WORD will live on. I have read the CNN online Sunday edition of religion for awhile. I do wish they would actually tackle other religions with such fervor as Christianity. I should say-they try to reflect opinions that are against Christianity If they actually wrote about any other world religions, they would be polically correct I am sure. Shame on CNN for not being fair and balanced.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • but....

      Her books may go away, but this comment will live forever.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  20. † In God We Trust †


    April 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

      I believe you're wrong, so I'm ok!

      April 1, 2012 at 11:37 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.