Four Big Myths of the Book of Revelation by John Blake

March 31st, 2012

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 in present-day Turkey.

“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.”

See also, Elaine Pagels’ article in The New Yorker on the book of Revelation.

Guest Blog: The Epiphany of Civilization by Michael DeLude

Michael J. DeLude

Hist 413-01 Blog Post

The foundation of law is the epiphany of civilization.  A civilization which aims to achieve a major force on the world stage must construct a codified system of laws that will allow society to flourish while limiting the amount of restraint placed upon the populace.  The formation of law in society is often an enigma wrapped in a mystery.  Often a law has mythical origins and a culture will use often use a deity or a collection of deities who “give” the laws to the people.  The most well known receiving of laws is the Ten Commandments.  All religious persons can retell the story of Moses on Mount Sinai.  Early civilizations used this mythical origin of laws to create fear in the populace and to provide a credible basis on which to found the laws.  The laws coming from a common, mortal human would most likely be disregarded and mocked.  Even secular laws can often find their origins within the paradigm of myth.  The Iroquois constitution and great law of peace is often credited with a major contribution to the American constitution.  The founding and creation of America has also become deified as George Washington assumes the role of the mythical lawmaker surrounded by a supporting cast of deities such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  This gives the American Constitution the credibility needed to allow it to flourish.  The credibility of a set of laws is one of the major questions that I wish to have answered following the conclusion of this course.  What makes one follow a law; what gives law it’s power to control?  Another question that I would like to have answered is how a system of laws is actually created as opposed to the mythic origins?  And finally what is the connection between all systems of laws (is there even a connection)?  These are the three “big ideas” of questions that I would like to explore in this course.  We are all effected by laws and each in our own different way.

The Ten Commandments as Scripture, Law and Scriptural Law

The Judeo-Christian scripture known popularly as The Ten Commandments appear in two books of the Bible: Exodus 20-1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21. [The links are to several different translations of the same text.]

Jews and various Christian denominations use one of three historical divisions of Exodus 20:1–17:

  • Phi. The Philonic division is the oldest, from the writings of Philo and Josephus, Jewish writers of the first century C.E., who labeled verse 3 as number 1, verses 4–6 as number 2, and so on. Denominations of Jews and Christians that generally follow this scheme include Hellenistic Jews, Greek Orthodox and Protestants except Lutherans. Most representations of the commandments include the prologue of verse 2 as either part of the first commandment or as a preface.
  • Tal. The Talmudic division, from the third-century Jewish Talmud, makes verses 1–2 as the first declaration, and combines verses 3–6 as the second commandment. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews
  • Aug. The Augustinian division (fifth century) begins the first commandment with number 2 of the Talmudic division, and makes an extra commandment by dividing the prohibition on coveting into two. Both Roman Catholics and Lutherans adopted the Augustinian method. Roman Catholics use Deuteronomy by default when quoting the Ten Commandments whereas Luther used the Exodus version.
The Ten Commandments
Phi Tal Aug Exodus 20:1-17 Deuteronomy 5:4-21
1 1 And God spake all these words, saying, 4–5 The Lord talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire … saying,
Pre 1 2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 6 I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
1 2 1 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 7 Thou shalt have none other gods before me.
2 2 1 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 8 Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth:
2 2 1 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourthgeneration of them that hate me; 9 Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourthgeneration of them that hate me,
2 2 1 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 10 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
3 3 2 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 11 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold himguiltless that taketh his name in vain.
4 4 3 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 12 Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.
4 4 3 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 13 Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work:
4 4 3 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 14 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.
4 4 3 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. 15 And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore theLord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.
5 5 4 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which theLord thy God giveth thee. 16 Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
6 6 5 13 Thou shalt not kill. 17 Thou shalt not kill.
7 7 6 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery. 18 Neither shalt thou commit adultery.
8 8 7 15 Thou shalt not steal. 19 Neither shalt thou steal.
9 9 8 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 20 Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.
10 10 9 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, 21 Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour’s wife,
10 10 10 thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

* All scripture quotes above are from the Authorized Version. See also the New Revised Standard Version.