Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Revelation: a Book Report (Part 2)

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

In my first report on the book of Revelation, I gave a summary of the story and imagery—a bizarre nightmare vision of strange beasts, plagues, cosmic war, etc.  For this part, I would like to discuss interpretations of this book, the last in the Blble.  Throughout the ages, Christians have seen in Revelation a vision of their own conflicts and concerns.  Perhaps the most popular recent example of this was the best-selling series of novels called Left Behind, which offered a conservative, evangelical interpretation.  Even in this “conservative” interpretation, the authors did not take the book literally.  The “beast” was not a dragon, but a man.  And the monsters were often seen as people, nations, or even military weapons.

For my interpretation, I will not be engaging in such speculations.  Rather, I will take a historical-critical approach, trying to understand what the book may have meant in its original context.  I am using as my main source a book by scholar Elaine Pagels called Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.  Here we go.


Revelation as Anti-Roman Literature

Scholars today generally date the book of Revelation to around the year 90 C.E.  It’s author, John, was probably not the author of the gospel of John (their literary styles are very different).  The John of Revelation was a Jewish Christian living in exile on an island off the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).  The likely reason he was in exile from his homeland Judea was because, a few decades earlier, there had been a brutal war between Jewish nationalists and the mighty Roman empire.  Ultimately, in the year 70 C.E., Rome invaded Jerusalem and destroyed it, including the holy temple, the center of Jewish worship.

After this national tragedy, many Jews were scattered throughout the Roman empire, and John was likely one of these.  Because of these recent socio-political events, John clearly hated Rome.  Pagels writes, “Horrified by the slaughter of so many of his people by Rome, John put his own cry of anguish into the mouths of the souls he said he saw in heaven, pleading for justice.”

Arch of Titus in Rome, showing spoils of the sack of Jerusalem.

John, like other Jewish Christians of his day, believed that Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Messiah, would return soon and set things right.  Writing at the end of the first century, many Christians probably wondered when this second coming would happen: “Now two generations had come and gone—and John, along with Jesus’ other followers, must have wondered how the prophecy had failed.  For when John traveled through Asia Minor, he could see evidence everywhere that the kingdom that had actually ‘come with power’ was not God’s—it was Rome’s.”

The might of the Roman empire could be seen throughout John’s world in the myriad temples to Greco-Roman gods, and the massive statues of emperors and generals.  John’s letters to churches in Asia minor reflect this reality.  For example, in his letter to the church in Pergamum, he refers to “Satan’s Throne.”  This was likely a reference to the great temple of Zeus in that city.  John sees the world of his day as dominated by an evil empire of Satan, represented by Rome.  He encourages the Christian communities to hold fast to their faith in the Jewish Messiah, and not to capitulate or compromise with this evil empire.

The Great Altar of Pergamum is reconstructed here at a Museum in Berlin.

Drawing from Jewish prophetic literature (like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), John presents an alternative vision of the future in which the forces of good and the followers of Jesus would triumph over Satan and Rome.  If you recall, this was one function of Hebrew prophets—to speak to the suffering community of Israel, living in exile in Babylon, and to tell them that God would one day set things right.  Ultimately, John’s prophecy shares this hopeful outlook.

References to Rome (which John refers to as Babylon) permeate the book of Revelation.  Perhaps most tellingly is the number assigned to the “beast” of the earth—666.  In Hebrew numerology, which assigns numbers to letters, this number can spell out emperor Nero’s imperial name.  Thus, the beast is Rome, Satan’s kingdom on earth.



Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature

Understanding the historical context of Revelation yields valuable insights, but there is another context that is perhaps equally important—it’s literary context.  The book of Revelation falls into a genre of literature circulating in the fist century known as “Apocalyptic Literature.”  Perhaps the earliest example of this genre is the biblical book of Daniel—in which the prophet is given a divine vision of the future that is also meant to give hope to those living in a present crisis.  Daniel was written in the context of Greek persecution of Jews in the 2nd century C.E., and it saw a future glory for Israel that transcended their present troubles.

Four Beasts from the Apocalyptic Visions of Daniel.

Though often dealing with the end of the world, apocalyptic literature is more accurately defined by historian Elliot Wolfson as “the revelation of divine mysteries through…visions, dreams, and other paranormal states of consciousness.”  In 1945, a major discovery was made in Nag Hammadi, Egypt of a collection of ancient writings that included about twenty examples of “apocalyptic literature” not included in the Bible.  These texts are helpful from a literary standpoint, to show how John’s revelation fits into this genre.  I would like to briefly discuss a few of these other “revelations.”

The Revelation of Peter describes a vision the apostle Peter had while standing in the temple in Jerusalem, when people were about to stone him to death.  Jesus gave him a vision of light, to help him overcome his present suffering.

Fragment from the Apocalypse of Peter.

The Revelation of Ezra, written by the Jewish prophet Salathiel is told form the point of view of the ancient Jewish leader Ezra, who lived to see the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 B.C.E.  Salathiel was actually writing around the same time as John of Revelation, and he too refers to Rome as Babylon.  His point, like John’s, is to comfort Jews who’d experienced the destruction of the second temple—by writing a vision of hope.

The Revealtion of Zostrianos, written about 50 years after John’s revelation, tells the story of a young man named Zostrianos who had a visionary experience in the desert that helped him overcome a crisis of faith.

The Secret Revelation of John is set shortly after the death of Jesus.  The disciple is grieving and, in the midst of his grief, he is comforted by a vision of the heavenly Jesus.


Thus, a main feature or purpose of these apocalyptic writings was to give comfort to suffering individuals and/or communities of faith.  In the first century C.E. in a climate of suffering and loss, these kinds of writings proved hugely important for communities of Christians, Jews, and Jewish Christians like John.

Thus ends my book report on the Bible.  Thanks for reading!

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