The Revelation to John

The Revelation of John was written by a member of the Christian church who identifies himself as John (1:4). He had been driven into exile to the small island of Patmos of the West coast of Asia Minor, possibly sometime during the persecution under Domitian (ruled 81-96), although equally possibly under the reign of Trajan (98-117). John's exile immediately conjures up parallels from the Old Testament of the Exile in Babylon and, as the responsible power, Rome is consistently identified as Babylon. The author considers himself and his fellow Christians to be in a position similar to the Jews when they were persecuted under Antiochus Epiphanes and likewise resorts to Apocalyptic language including cryptic references to the Babylonian Exile to threaten judgement upon the offending powers and to promise redemption to the suffering faithful. (6:9-11) (7:13-14) and especially (14:8-12) (17)

The Revelation to John is Apocalyptic literature in the tradition of Hebrew Apocalyptic like the Book of Daniel with adaptations to Christian needs. It shares Apocalyptic's use of visions and symbolic language. Once again these characteristics help to assure needed secrecy during a time of great persecution and it similarly encourages the faithful. "Here is a call for the endurance and the faith of the saints" (13:10). By emphasizing the deliverance of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked the faithful are assured of their reward. This, of course, necessitates an emphasis on the resurrection of the dead since some of the faithful had already died and evidently so would others if they continued to resist the imperial injunctions. The attitude to Messianism has changed somewhat since it is now held that the messiah has already come and will be seen again in the last days. Nor does Revelation share the pseudonymous character of OT Apocalyptic. John does not assume the guise of a major figure of the past in order to assure the authority of his message. Perhaps this reflects the democratic nature of the early church in which all were equal in Christ. Authority is claimed, rather, by the visionary nature of the revelation (1:9-11 Compare Isaiah 6:1-2).

There are other connections to Old Testament Apocalyptic. The Book of Revelations is primarily a literary rather than an oral form--the Apocalypse was circulated as a letter to the churches of Asia Minor.

The four assumptions of Old Testament Apocalyptic are somewhat altered to accommodate to the situation of early Christianity. Once again religious fulfillment is held to be possible only independently of foreign domination. However, it is not Israel which requires its fulfillment now but the Christian community. The willingness to face death--and death itself--is once again seen as a means of escaping and opposing the oppression of the Emperors. Once again it is by means of Divine intervention that the community will finally be redeemed--the catastrophic intervention of the last days. The supernatural restoration of the city of Jerusalem is anticipated as a symbol of the establishment of the kingdom of righteousness (21:1-22) but this time the Temple is omitted from the restoration as a mark of the Christian belief that Jesus had superseded the Temple ritual of traditional Judaism. (21:22)

The assumption that the rules of reward and punishment have been revealed to the prophets through the visionary revelations is developed into the revelation of the significance of actual events to the author whose position as a new prophet is authorized by his calling and visions similar to those of Isaiah chapter 6 and Ezekiel chapter 1. In this way the tradition of prophecy normally assumed to have ceased with the return from Exile is continued with John's revelation (1:1-3). (22:6) The revelation draws more on the Old Testament text than any other book of the Bible. There are thirty-four direct references to the Book of Daniel in the Revelation; 49 to Isaiah; 31 to Ezekiel; 21 to Exodus; 23 to the Psalms; 16 to Jeremiah; 10 to Zechariah (that's 184 direct quotations!). Also referred to are Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Kings, Proverbs, Hosea, Joel, Malachi, Amos, Job, Maccabees, and Micah.

It is the symbolic language of the Revelation which is both its strength and its temptation. This language allowed the secrecy necessary to transmit such messages at such a time and gave the additional impact of certainty and assurance implied by secret knowledge (a characteristic which the Gnostics and Mystery religions had also exploited). In a different situation, however, when the immediate subjects of John's message are no longer so immediate the temptation to apply his symbolism to contemporary events often results in procrustean applications. The beast of 13:11-18 has variously been identified as soviet Russia, the trades unions, and the Pope, among others.

A close inspection of the symbolism of the Revelation in its first century context can reveal much of its import. John's obsession with the number seven is interesting. It was a number of great mystical significance to the whole Mediterranean world at this time and had superseded, to some extent, the significance of the annual/tribal number twelve which had stood for completeness. One specific referent of the number was the seven branched menorah, the candlestick or lampstand (note references to lampstands at 1:12 and 2:5) characteristic of Judaism, which was especially connected with the festival of Hanukkah commemorating the re-dedication of the temple in 164 BCE after the "desolating sacrilege" of Antiochus Epiphanes. The seven churches, the seven seals, the seven bowls etc. all serve to remind the knowledgeable reader of the resistance of the Jews to the persecutions under both the Babylonians and Antiochus IV and the final restoration of their Temple and ritual in both cases.

The specific number seven aside, the objects of John's symbolism can sometimes be divined. The woman in scarlet and purple (which were recognized colors of imperial Rome) of chapter 17 is identified as Babylon, which will certainly be the imperial power, Rome. The scarlet beast full of blasphemous names upon which she sat would then represent the Roman empire, founded in violent oppression and steeped in a multitude of polytheistic cults. John Hayes' suggestion (Introduction to the Bible, 459) that the seven heads represent the seven hill of Rome is quite reasonable in the light of 17:9. Hayes' further identification of the seven specific emperors is a little more dubious, but the general principle that they represent Roman emperors seems well-founded. This same is true of the identification of the beast whose number is 666 with Nero. It would take an expert in Hebrew language to assess the reliability and acceptability of the Hebrew transliteration of "Nero Caesar" and thus the applicability of the numerical value. However, once again the general principle that this number does apply to an emperor who persecuted the Christians does meet academic acceptance. Also widely accepted is the identification of the two beasts of 13:11-18 with the empire and the Imperial Cult.

Although persecution had been experienced before in the churches there was nothing like that under Domitian (81-96 CE). Nero had led a bloody pogrom against the Christians in Rome in 64 CE--to divert attention from his own guilt in burning the city according to Tacitus. However, Domitian insisted on the veneration of his statues on pain of death all over the empire. The churches mentioned with the exception of Laodicea and Ephesus are new to us--Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia. (Note that there are seven of them, the traditionally significant number.) These churches were evidently founded years earlier and already had a history but now are apparently declining in faith and John intends to reinforce their dedication in the face of this new threat. Domitian liked to be addressed as dominus et deus and insisted on the empire-wide establishment of his imperial cult. This led to empire-wide persecution and is usually assumed to give the most probable dating for the writing of the Revelation.

What can be said with certainty is that the central message of the revelation to John is addressed to his contemporary Christians as an exhortation to hold fast to their faith and not to give way to the demands of the imperial cult. His message is based in terms of the Old Testament drawing especially from Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Joel and Zechariah, giving the now familiar example of the resistance of the Jewish nation to foreign domination in the face of suffering and persecution. This does not constitute a prediction of world history for centuries to come, in fact John seems to expect, as did so many early christians, the imminent intervention of the Divine in mundane history--in other words the end of history. But it should be noted that the early church was aware of the argument that "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years" (2 Peter 3:8).



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brennie@westminster.edu