Episode 81: Revelation

One of the most spectacular pieces of writing in the world’s religious texts, Revelation influenced generations of writers and theologians.

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The History and Contents of the Apocalypse of John

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 81: Revelation. [Musical Theme] Experts agree, the most heavy metal text in the Holy Scriptures. This program is on the final book of the New Testament, sometimes called the Apocalypse of John, or the Revelation to John. From Saint Augustine of Hippo to the heavy metal band Iron Maiden, from medieval interpreters like Hildegard of Bingen and Joachim of Fiore to 20th century Evangelical sensations like the film A Thief in the Night and the bestselling Left Behind series, and thousands upon thousands of paintings, woodcuts, sculptures and marginal illustrations, the Book of Revelation has always enjoyed a popularity disproportionate to its slim 22 chapters. Some of this popularity, as we’ll see, is due to the book’s visceral appeal to frustrated believers – its promises, in line with the violent oracles of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, that nonbelievers will suffer graphic and bloody punishments, and the faithful will enjoy an eternity of exaltation. But more broadly speaking, the book’s appeal might come from what one critic calls its “generative incomprehensibility” – in other words the capacity of its colorful but enigmatic imagery to encourage interpretations suited to the various ages that have read it.1

To the writer whom we call John of Patmos, who wrote Revelation, the book’s promises of the triumph of Christianity on earth were in line with first century Christian beliefs that Christ’s second coming was truly imminent – that it was going to happen any week, day, and hour, and that there was no time to lose. But to Saint Augustine, almost four centuries later, Revelation’s message was somewhat different – to Augustine, a resurrection was coming, certainly, but one had already happened, and as far as the coming one was concerned, well – that might be quite a ways in the future still. By the 1100s, to the theologian Joachim of Fiore, Revelation’s prophecies were a series of specific foretellings of historical events that had led up to the Crusades, the second and third of which dominated his lifetime. Since the mid-20th century, Revelation has by major religious communities in the Anglophone world often been understood as foretelling the rise of a global world order like the monstrous Rome depicted in the book, the carnage that will bring history to its end, and the rapture of a select body of believers.

Revelation has always been controversial. Coming to it as we are, after the Gospels, after the nuanced and forbearing theology of Saint Paul, and the theological deliberations of the later epistles, Revelation is a startling text. Christ’s words in the Gospels urge meekness, humbleness, neighborliness and love above all other ethics, and the Book of Acts shows Apostolic ministry work taking this message through Rome’s eastern provinces. The Pauline Epistles demonstrate Paul and likely other authors working carefully and conscientiously through the issues of salvation and Mosaic Law. The later epistles show a third and perhaps fourth generation of Christian writers pondering these same complexities while at the same time plunging more deeply into the Greco-Roman world and trying to control the unruly tendencies of their new religion. The first 26 books of the New Testament are largely measured, intellectual, compassionate, and charitable. But Revelation, with the fury and bloodlust of the Old Testament prophetic books, ends the show. Revelation promises, in grammatically lumpy Koine Greek, in a long catalog of gruesome scenes as seven seals are unsealed, seven trumpets are blown, and seven bowls are emptied – scenes that take up the majority of the book – that all non-Christians will be variously ripped apart by giant armored locusts and an angelic army, and crushed to pulp in a giant wine press, not to mention numerous other equally graphic punishments. Gone is the gentle, patient confidence of Christ in the Gospels, and the adept and tactical engagements with Greek intellectual history that we see in books like Acts and Philippians, not to mention later theologians like Clement of Alexandria and Origen. The author of Revelation, bypassing the ecumenical activism of almost every other book of the New Testament, carries forward the apocalyptic ideas of books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and promises posterity that only one subgroup of humanity will survive the purges of a wrathful god, and all of the others will be killed, and killed, and killed, until none are left.

A thirteenth-century illustration of John the Apostle sailing to Patmos. Today, the Apostolic authorship of Revelation is not widely held in biblical scholarship.

Due to its choppy Greek composition and graphic content, and its generally being out of step with the rest of the New Testament, Revelation has never enjoyed a seamless reception history. The church historian Eusebius, writing about Revelation in the first half of the 300s, explains in a gingerly fashion that “Some of us have set aside and rejected the book altogether, criticizing it chapter by chapter, and pronouncing it without sense or argument.”2 Martin Luther, many centuries later, was just as squeamish, writing that “there are many far better books” than the one that ends the Bible.3 But Revelation has always had its enthusiasts as well as its critics. And while much of its theology is idiosyncratic within the Bible – the book’s preoccupation with Satan and a final battle between good and evil are unique to Revelation – Revelation is as popular and influential today as it’s ever been over the nearly 2,000 years of its lifespan, its passages cited to claim that this or that political figure is the Antichrist or Whore of Babylon, that this or that trade partnership or national consortium signals the ascendency of a Rome-like world order, that the 144,000 select few saved in the book’s seventh chapter belong to this or that one true denomination of Christianity, and most often, that the exalted group described in Revelation’s final two chapters – the group enthroned in a glittery Jerusalem will, in fact, be they themselves and others who are parts of their belief system.

We will hear the story and visions in the Book of Revelation in a moment. What I want to do first is tell you a bit about the background of this frequently cryptic book – what we know about its origins, its author, and the time period in which it was produced. While now Revelation is deeply rooted into the history of Christianity, its inclusion in the Bible was not inevitable. Other apocalyptic literature, like Baruch and portions of Daniel, is apocryphal within the Protestant canon. And stunningly, over a dozen apocalyptic books from the Early Christian world survive today that are non-canonical – The Apocalypse of Paul, that of Peter, Thomas, Zephaniah, 5 and 6 Esdras, Sedrach, the Questions of Bartholomew, and there are more still from before Christianity existed, including fragmentary narratives among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and 1 Enoch. These texts, some of which may have been written in the same decades as the books of the New Testament, offer a kaleidoscope of visions of divine deliverance, but out of all of them, only Revelation managed to sneak in alongside the other 26 books of the New Testament. Out the welter of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature – the dozens of revelations – of the first and second centuries and a little before, which grew even larger after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and various Manichaean scriptures, the revelation of one person was eventually reprinted hundreds of millions of times – the revelation of a man who only calls himself John. [music]

The Background and Chronology of Revelation

The Book of Revelation, which tens of millions of people believe records a true prophecy of the end of the world, was probably born on a very small island about 35 miles off the southwest coast of modern day Turkey. The island, Patmos, is about seven miles from north to south, and four miles from east to west. A rugged and shrubby little swath of turf, Patmos is scarcely attested in works of ancient history, its northern neighbor, Samos, being better known. From Patmos, an island hopping traveler might sail to Samos or the Anatolian coast in a day, but as a place of residence, then as now, the Island of Patmos is remote and not very densely populated. Either a territory of the provinces of Achaia or Asia during the late first century, Patmos was largely off the imperial radar, and out of the Aegean’s main sea lanes.

Patmos - panoramio

The island of Patmos, looking north from near the so-called Cave of the Revelation. A rather modest and tranquil looking place to have generated such a controversial text! Photo by Raki Man.

We have good reason to suspect that Revelation was written on Patmos because its author tells us so. After an initial salutation in Revelation’s first chapter, the book’s author announces, “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 1:9). Little is known for certain about this man. At best, we can be sure that Revelation’s author knew the Old Testament’s apocalyptic literature quite well – more than 50% of the verses in Revelation’s 22 chapters involve allusions to and quotations of prior Jewish apocalyptic writings, most often those gigantic and always-popular prophetic books, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah.4 Scholar Leon Morris offers the common assessment that “Revelation was written in exile. The writer had no access to the tools of scholarship and apparently no opportunity for a leisurely scholarly approach.”5 The exilic background of the author is also attested in the church historian Eusebius, but the rest of the information we have about John of Patmos is largely conjectural.6

Early on, readers like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian assumed that John of Patmos was John the Apostle. There is, as we’ve seen, a confusing quantity of Johns in the New Testament, and in general, modern biblical scholarship doubts that a single Aramaic speaking Galilean fisherman wrote the erudite Greek of the Gospel of John, three Epistles of John, then forgot how to write eloquent Greek and set down the grammatically rougher Greek prose of the Book of Revelation. The Gospel and Epistles of John, as we discussed last time, seem to form a common ideology – one which scholarship calls the Johannine School, repeatedly emphasizing love, or the Greek agapē, as the apex of Christian ideology and practice. The Book of Revelation is cut from a different cloth, both in its Aramaic sentence constructions and its ruthless emphasis on the suffering of nonbelievers, over and above any sort of love. And so other early Christian theologians, including Dionysius of Alexandria, and drawing from him, Eusebius, cast doubt on the Apostolic authorship of the Book of Revelation centuries and centuries ago.

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, drawing from the work of the earlier theologian Pope Dionysius of Alexandria, acknowledges the sketchy origins of Revelation. Eusebius notes that although John names himself six times in Revelation, he never references keeping company with Christ, which, one would expect, likely would have come up. If John the Apostle had written the Book of Revelation, he might have said something along the lines of “So, that figure in Chapter 1 of Revelation with the sword coming out of its mouth wearing a golden sash that is the heavenly manifestation of Jesus – that figure really didn’t look like the Jesus I knew – the guy whose shoulder I leaned on at the Last Supper.” We hear no such things in the Book of Revelation, and so the author of Revelation, who once again most often gets called John of Patmos, has since the 300s generally not been thought of as the John the Apostle. Instead, the grammatically faulty Greek in which the book is composed has led scholars to the tentative conclusions that the book was written by an Aramaic speaker imitating the Hebraic Greek style of the Septuagint, and that Revelation was written rather quickly, although it’s possible that grammar and usage glitches in the text may be a strategic effort to create the urgent sense of receiving divine prophecy.7

So far, then, we’ve learned that Revelation was written by an unknown, possibly exiled, possibly Aramaic speaking person on a small island more or less in the middle of nowhere off the west coast of Anatolia. The text’s geographical references, as we’ll see in a moment, very strongly suggest someone from the west coast of modern day Turkey – this little territory is John of Patmos’ area of concern and demographic knowledge, in contrast to the more sweeping, Pan-Mediterranean geographical awareness of Paul and the author of Acts. Now, just one more thing before we jump into this famous book – let’s talk about its timeframe.

The Old Testament’s Prophetic Books, as we saw a great many episodes ago, were largely born of tragedy, many being produced during the territorial invasions that stretched from the 800s down to the 500s BCE, and culminated with the destruction of the First Temple in 586 and the Babylonian Captivity. A central pattern in the Old Testament Prophetic Books’ 162,000 words is fury toward various imperial groups – Aram-Damascus, Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon – the later Book of Daniel foretells the fall of the Medes, Persians, and Macedonicans. John of Patmos, who knows the Old Testament’s prophetic literature quite well, had a familiar narrative model to bring forward to the late first century CE. Jewish prophets had been writing bloody oracles foretelling the annihilation of large empires for more than seven hundred years – Revelation, which demonizes the Roman Empire as a ten-horned beast and the city of Rome as a decadent whore, is a self conscious part of this greater narrative tradition, most heavily influenced by the monstrous visions in Daniel – visions of a lion with eagle wings, a four winged, four headed leopard, a bear with boar tusks, a monster with iron teeth, a ram with different lengths of horns, and a winged goat, all of which – again in the Book of Daniel – stand for the various nations and groups that bullied or harmed the ancient practitioners of Judaism. The Book of Revelation, as we’ll see, throws itself spiritedly into crafting a bestiary of early Christianity’s foes, most likely Rome beneath the Emperor Nero. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – let’s stick with the topic of chronology.

Domitian as Augustus cropped

A statue of the Emperor Domitian. A decent amount of evidence points to Revelation having been written during the reign of this emperor (81-96) (Vatican Museum, photo by Jackknife Barlow.)

Whoever John of Patmos was, he had a bone to pick with Rome. His Aramaic grammatical tendencies suggest roots in or around the Jewish heartland, which fought a war with Rome between 66 and 73, culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple and then the mass suicide at Masada a few years later. And the first potential timeframe for Revelation’s composition – the first of the two that usually get tossed around, is that was written in reaction to the bloody First Jewish-Roman War – an angry expatriated Christian’s manifesto against the forces that had destroyed his homeland’s capital. The second potential timeframe is the reign of the Emperor Domitian, who was on the throne from 81-96. While Nero was an awful emperor and may have been responsible for the massacre of Christians following the Great Fire of Rome in 64, Domitian was no picnic, either. Domitian’s most salient characteristic, to a religiously minded provincial like John of Patmos, would have been the emperor’s frequently attested need for worship, both within Rome and in its provinces.

The Roman historian Suetonius records how at public assemblies, Domitian demanded to be called “Our Master and our God.”8 Suetonius writes that Domitian demanded that “no statues. . .be set up in his honour in the Capitol, except of gold and silver and of a fixed weight. . .He held the consulship seventeen times, more often than any of his predecessors. . .Having assumed the surname Germanicus after his two triumphs, he renamed the months of September and October from his own names, calling them ‘Germanicus’ and ‘Domitianus,’ because in the former he had come to the throne and was born in the latter. . .In this way he became an object of terror and hatred to all.”9 That was again a description of the Emperor Domitian, who ruled from 81-96. Now while Suetonius is notoriously fond of sensationalism, and revisionist history has cast Domitian in a somewhat more positive light, the emperor seems by all accounts to have been harsh and toweringly arrogant, and at least one of the churches John of Patmos addresses at Revelation’s beginning was a center of emperor worship.10

So without going into laborious detail, that’s the background of the Book of Revelation as we know it – an exiled Christian we call John of Patmos, a small island in the southeastern Aegean, a long textual prehistory of fiery apocalyptic writing, and a compositional timeframe of roughly between 70 and 100 CE. Now, New Testament commentaries and scholarly works often attest that this is an especially difficult book of the Bible, but to be honest, I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s because I am (and if you listen to this show, you are, too), no stranger to the prophetic writings of Judaism. But if you’ve never read Revelation before in full, put briefly, the basic plot of this book is going to be that a self-proclaimed visionary is going to make a series of seven short speeches to seven churches, then have a vision of heaven, and then of the apocalypse. In this apocalypse, seven seals are opened, seven trumpets are blown, some multi-headed monsters appear, seven bowls get emptied, all the while with earth getting bashed and mashed and trampled, until finally, a battle is fought against Satan, who gets imprisoned for a thousand years while martyred Christians are brought back to life. Then, after that thousand year period, Satan is freed for three and a half years and a final battle is fought, after which heaven on earth appears. That’s the Book of Revelation in three sentences, but of course, whatever you make of the Bible’s swan song, it’s best to read it in a bit more detail, as we now will. And as before, quotations in this episode are taken for the NRSV translation, printed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible. [music]

The Opening and Proclamations to the Seven Churches

BambergApocalypseFolio003rAngelWith7Candlesticks

The Son of Man and the Seven Lampstands in the Bamberger Apocalypse (c. 1000). Artists have struggled with just how to depict the heavenly figure of Jesus with a sword in his mouth.

The Book of Revelation opens with the announcement that it is an ecstatic vision granted to its author from Christ, and that this author, a man named John, thereafter communicated the vision that he had widely. John himself then greets seven Christian churches of Asia Minor – these are the churches at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, promising these churches that their deity “is coming with the clouds; / every eye will see him, / even those who pierced him; / and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:7-8). The Alpha and Omega refer, as you may know, to the first and final letters of the Greek alphabet, thus offering a nice metaphor for Christ’s completeness.

John then writes that one day, he was on the island of Patmos, once again a small island in the eastern Aegean off the coast of modern day Turkey, when he had an ecstatic vision – the first of Revelation’s many such visions. John writes,
I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. (Rev 1:12-6)

This mysterious figure, usually interpreted as Jesus, terrified John, and John collapsed at its feet. We should note, briefly, that much of this description is copied directly from Chapter 10 of the earlier Book of Daniel, from around 160 BCE.11 Anyway, the figure of Christ in John’s vision, presumably after getting the double-edged sword out of its mouth, assured John he had nothing to fear, and explained the seven stars and seven gold lampstands. John learned that the stars represented angels, and that the lampstands stood for the seven churches of Asia Minor.

Then, in John’s vision, there began a series of seven statements from Christ to the seven churches in the western part of Asia Minor, statements that stretch over the course of several chapters. These seven statements to the seven churches, which we’ll look at in detail now, generally show Christ offering remarks of appreciation toward each church’s efforts followed by criticism – sometimes constructive criticism, and sometimes severe criticism. To the church at Ephesus, Christ said the Ephesians were doing their best, but that unfortunately they had “abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:4), encouraging them to return to the initial pious zeal they had once had. If they did so, the vision of Christ promised, they’d be able to “eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7), a reference to the forbidden tree in Genesis, called “the tree of life. . .and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9) in that earlier book.

Christ’s words to the second of the seven churches – the church at Smyrna, acknowledged the community’s poverty, and that it faced pretenders to the faith. To those at Smyrna, Jesus warned that some of them would face the trial of prison – ten days there. But, Christ added, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. . .Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death” (Rev 2:10,11). Continuing on to the third of the seven churches, Christ told its guardian angel – the angel of the church at Pergamum something similar. Those at Pergamum had held fast to their faith, but there were some worshippers at Pergamum who were taking wayward paths – we should note that Pergamum was a major site of Emperor worship within the Roman world. Christ’s advice to the third church was similar to the advice he gave the first two – shape up, and get a reward. In the case of Pergamum, this reward was “some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev 2:17).

Having variously promised the first three churches fruit from the forbidden tree of Eden, life after death, manna, and special white rocks if they shaped up, Christ went on to the fourth church – the church at Thyatira, a prosperous trading hub with many merchant guilds. Overall, Christ was a bit less satisfied with the church at Thyatira. This church, evidently, had pursued the teachings of a person whom Jesus calls “that woman Jezebel” (Rev 2:20). This Jezebel was likely a woman named Lydia whom Paul had converted – a merchant who dealt in purple fabrics and was functioning as some sort of community leader. The author of the Book of Revelation envisions Christ growling, Ezekiel style,
that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts. (Rev 3:20-4)

Those at the church of Thyatira, then, Jesus says, mustn’t follow this Jezebel figure, whose children he will kill, and if they do improve their behavior, as with the other churches, there will be rewards – specifically, Christ promises, “I will give authority over the nations; / to rule them with an iron rod, / even when clay pots are shattered – / even as I also received authority from my father” (Rev 3:26-8).

To the fifth of the seven churches – this one at the wealthy Roman city and regional center Sardis, Christ had even harsher words. Those at Sardis had taken a wrong path, and Christ threatened to sneak up on them like a thief. The few at Sardis who hadn’t gone astray, Christ affirmed, “will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy” Rev (3:4). As for the others, Christ proclaimed, they would have their names blotted out in Christ’s spiritual book. The sixth of the seven churches was the one at Philadelphia – a smaller and more modest town than Sardis. Christ told the Philadelphians that he knew they didn’t have a lot of power, and appreciated that they’d overall remained faithful to him. To the goodly Philadelphians, Christ declared that he was coming soon, and that if they conquered – we can guess a metaphor for remaining pious Christians up until their deaths – they would be pillars within the temple of God and have God’s name written on them when they passed away.

Finally, to the seventh and last church – the Laodiceans, Christ had neither outright praise nor criticism. Laodicea was a wealthy city, but Christ vowed that the materially rich parishioners of the church there should focus more on worshipping him, because notwithstanding their fine accoutrements, they were poor in spirit. If they could turn over a new leaf, Christ said, they would sit with him on his throne.

So, the seven speeches to seven churches that begin Revelation, to varying extents, criticize and praise seven Christian centers in a relatively small area along the Aegean coast of Anatolia, several of them Aegean sea ports and the furthest east being only about a hundred miles inland. As I said earlier, what we learn about the author of Revelation from the book’s beginning is that this was all familiar turf for him. With an insider knowledge of these seven worship communities, and a slight prejudice against financially productive urban centers, the author of Revelation has Christ condemning and praising these regions alternately. And with the more geographically grounded opening four chapters of Revelation complete, its author then turns on the fireworks and fog machines, and begins the first of a number of spectacular and ecstatic visions. [music]

John’s Vision of Heaven

The Four and Twenty Elders (William Blake)

William Blake’s The Four and Twenty Elders (c. 1803-5).

John, speaker of the Book of Revelation, having duly reported Christ’s words to the seven churches, then had quite a memorable thing happen to him. He ascended to heaven and had a spectacular vision. Ascents to heaven were common in the apocalyptic literature of Early Christianity and the Second Temple period. 2 Enoch, written in Greek in the first century perhaps a little earlier than Revelation, is a sustained vision of a journey up into heaven, and the Apocalypse of Peter and Apocalypse of Paul, written in the two centuries following Revelation, also include elevator rides up into the clouds.12 But let’s stick with the canonical Book of Revelation for now, which describes John of Patmos’ vision as follows:
At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing. (Rev 4:2-8)

This is the first of Revelation’s full scale visions, and it’s filled with references to Ezekiel and Daniel, and with numbers. A singular fascination with enumerated things pervades a lot of apocryphal Jewish writings on heaven – at one extreme moment in 3 Enoch we are told that Yahweh’s throne bearers have fingers that are 17 trillion miles long, and so all of the sevens and fours and sixes and associated symbolism in Revelation are coming from cultural traditions heavily invested in numerology – we’ll get into this a bit more later.13 In the Book of Revelation, in the passage we just heard, the 24 thrones and elders are often interpreted as the twelve Apostles, and twelve sons of Jacob and heads of the tribes of Israel, and the four creatures, with their triple sets of wings and large quantities of eyes, the amassed population of biological life on earth, human and animal. And in the divine assembly hall, the creatures and the 24 elders all knelt to a central throne – the throne of God.

The First Six Seals are Opened

What happened next was just as strange and surreal, and like much of the Book of Revelation, reveals an unusual affection for the number seven. God, seated on his central throne, was gripping a scroll. The scroll was sealed with seven seals. It was obviously a matter of some consequence, but the whole assembly looked at the foreboding document in a state of paralysis, as no one was willing to take a stab at opening it. Then a lamb appeared – a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. This morphologically unusual lamb was a celestial incarnation of Christ, and this lamb retrieved the scroll with the seven seals from God. All present agreed that the lamb could open the scroll, and a song of benediction was sung, and the lamb then undid the first of the seven seals.

William Blake - Death on a Pale Horse - Butlin 517

William Blake’s Death on a Pale Horse (c. 1800). The color of this horse is often translated as white, but the original Greek word indicates pale green.

The opening of these seven seals happened gradually, and the scroll, we should note ahead of time, contained God’s plan for the apocalypse and general salvation of Christian believers. Behind the first four seals were the figures popularly called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first horseman was an ambiguous figure – John writes, “I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Rev 6:2). This first figure astride the white horse, not to be confused with the fourth horseman, Death, has been interpreted as Christ, riding out to conquer, and also, merely the destructive human activity of conquest itself. When the second seal was opened, another horseman appeared – his horse was “bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another” (Rev 6:4). The third of the seven seals revealed a rider astride a black horse, carrying scales and usually interpreted as embodying famine – especially famine resulting from war and economic instability. The fourth of the seven seals, once opened revealed “a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him” (Rev 6:8). This final, fourth horse, the figure of pestilence, rounded out what was hidden in the first four seals, and John, looking at all of them, intuited, “they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence” (Rev 7:8).

The initial four of God’s seven seals, as we’ve just seen, revealed some pretty bleak contents – four horsemen who were going to rend the earth asunder and kill most of the human population. The fifth of the seven seals, however, revealed something a bit more positive. This was a mass of Christian martyrs, or “souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God” (Rev 6:9), who, although they weren’t immediately rescued and sent to heaven, were given some nice white robes and told that things would get better soon.

The opening of the sixth of the seven seals then promised more general annihilation. John saw an earthquake. The sun turned black and the moon turned blood red. Stars fell out of the night sky like frozen figs falling during a winter storm. The sky peeled off the earth like a giant scroll, and all humanity scattered into deep caves and beneath mountain rocks. Four angels stood at the earth’s corners and held back the winds, keeping Earth in stillness. It wasn’t quite time for God to finish off mankind, though, for an angel called out and said that 12,000 of each of the 12 tribes of Israel, or a total of 144,000 sons of Levi, Joseph, Benjamin, etc., needed to be marked specially so that they didn’t get killed.

The narrator John of Patmos – and we’re still on the sixth of seven seals, by the way – John, still standing in the throne room of heaven as this prophetic vision was taking place, next saw a giant assembly appear in the throne room – “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white” (Rev 7:9). We can assume that this assembly was the amassed body of all of Christ’s worshippers. This large mass of people, all clad in white, bowed to God, and John soon learned from an elder that all of the newcomers were “they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 8:14). [music]

The Seventh Seal and Seven Trumpets

The seventh of the seven seals, just in case you, like the author of Revelation, just can’t get enough of the number seven, began the process of the seven angels of the seven churches blowing seven trumpets, which thereafter caused seven planet-destroying things happen. Initially, an angel fired up some incense, and then threw a censer on the ground, causing thunder, lightning, and an earthquake. Then, the trumpet blowing commenced. The first angel’s trumpet caused a storm of hail, fire, and blood to destroy a third of the earth and its trees, and all of the grass on the planet. The second angel’s trumpet caused a giant land mass to slam into the ocean, a third of which turned into blood, killing a third of the planet’s sea life and slaughtering a third of all the people out on ships. The third angel caused a falling star called Wormwood to crash into a third of Earth’s rivers, ruining all of them, and causing mass death to those who depended on the rivers for sustenance. The fourth angel’s trumpet caused a third of the sun, moon, and starlight to go out.14 That’s four out of the seven trumpets, and things would soon grow worse.

MS Hunter 398 fol. 21r detail - Fifth trumpet

An anonymous 15th-century manuscript illustration of the locust army. In my opinion the chainmail-clad slug-men have a less imposing effect than the author of this illustration perhaps intended.

The fifth angel’s trumpet bored a hole into the planet, and smoke poured out of its shaft, and then monstrous locusts emerged from the bowels of the earth. John writes, “In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lion’s teeth” (Rev 9:7-8). These creatures also had scorpion tails, and their king, we are told, was called Abaddon, Hebrew for “Destruction.” Whoever their king was, the locusts were instructed by God to kill everyone who didn’t have God’s special mark on them, and they went to work. If this sounds familiar, by the way, you may be thinking of the 10 plagues that stretch between Chapters 7-12 of Exodus, and how the Jews of Egypt were instructed (Ex 12:7) to smear blood on their doorframes to spare themselves from Yahweh’s killing of the Egyptians – similar stuff, different testaments. Anyway, back to Revelation, this killing by the locust battalions in Revelation wasn’t enough – there were still some more trumpets to blow. When the sixth angel blew his trumpet, four more angels, generals of an army, led, we are told, of “two hundred million” (Rev 9:16) angels on a campaign to massacre all non-Christians. This army got to work, and John tells us that they were a striking lot to look at: “the riders wore breastplates the color of fire and sapphire and of sulfur; the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths” (Rev 9:17). The tails of these angelic horses, we learn, were snakes.

Some of humanity was, surprisingly, still left alive at this point, and did not repent. A giant angel came down from heaven and roared like a lion – so loud that distant thunder rumbled. John heard words in the thunder’s sound, and was about to write it down, but was advised by an angel not to. This angel held a small scroll, not to be confused with the large scroll with the seven seals on it. The angel told John to eat the small scroll, warning that it would be both sweet and bitter, and John ingested the scroll, indeed finding it both. This scroll, by the way, is often interpreted as a metaphor for God’s plans for Earth – sweet for Christ’s worshippers, bitter for the rest of humanity. Once John gobbled up the scroll – and we’re still on the seventh of the seven seals and the sixth of the seven trumpets that were blown at the opening of the seventh seal – John was given a measuring rod.

He was instructed to measure the temple at Jerusalem, as part of a ritual designed to safeguard the pious of Jerusalem during the apocalypse. John was told that part of the apocalypse would involve two steadfast prophets who would be filled with temporary powers, and afterward be killed by a subterranean beast, and mocked by unbelievers. Then, however, the prophets would be resurrected and lifted up to heaven, after which an earthquake would devastate those who disparaged the prophets, and thousands would die in divine punishment. With this little interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpet blasts complete, John returns us to the main narrative of his vision of the apocalypse. The seventh angel finally blew his trumpet. Voices sang, and the 24 elders voiced a hymn. As John tells it, “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Rev 11:19). [music]

The Pregnant Woman and the Red Dragon

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun

William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (c. 1803-5). Blake’s artistic style was well-suited to the Book of Revelation.

With the seven seals cracked open and the seven trumpets blown, the central part of the apocalypse could continue to proceed. At this time in the narrative, the outset of Chapter 12, by the way, John had a vision of a pregnant woman, up in heaven. This is an important part of the rest of the Book of Revelation’s setup, so let’s hear a few verses this portion of the book, again quoted from the New Oxford Annotated Bible:
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. (Rev 12:1-6)

This was a striking vision – most often interpreted as a glimpse of the Virgin Mary pregnant with Jesus and harrowed by either the primeval Leviathan of Job or the Satan of later Christian tradition. A pregnant woman keeping her child safe from a marauding god is the subject of two major Ancient Greek stories – that of Leto, Apollo, and the Python, and more famously, Rhea, Zeus, and Kronos. But so as to not get distracted, once again, John saw a pregnant woman harrowed by a red dragon, and God stepping in to protect the child.

Two More Monsters Emerge

La bestia che sale dal mare, Battistero di Padova

The Beast of the Sea (often thought to be emblematic of the Roman Empire), by Guisto de’Menabuoi (c. 1370).

Then, in John’s long vision of the apocalypse, things really started to get crazy. The Angel Michael, known from Second Temple literature like the Book of Daniel and the Enochian corpus – Michael led a battle against the aforementioned red dragon in heaven, and the dragon lost. Afterward, to quote John, “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12:9). This bit, by the way, is one of Milton’s main sources for the poem Paradise Lost, and later apocryphal literature like the Questions of Bartholomew and the Life of Adam and Eve fashioned an extensive back story for Satan. Anyway, once chucked down to earth in the Book of Revelation, the dragon didn’t give up his evil plots. He went after the previously pregnant woman he’d been pursuing earlier, but she was saved when two eagle wings sprouted from her back. The dragon tried to kill the woman by belching forth a river from its mouth, but the earth opened up to divert the waters, and the woman was safe. Irate, the dragon “was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who kept the commandments of God and held the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 12:17). The story of the red dragon and the pregnant woman is often thought to be an allegory for how Satan came to earth to prey on the otherwise pious followers of Christ.

It turned out that beleaguering honest Christians like the pregnant woman was only one of the dragon Satan’s pastimes. The dragon, John saw, also kept company with “a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority” (Rev 13:1-2). This second beast, lurching out of the seawater alongside Satan, is almost always thought to represent the Roman Empire. John emphasizes the beast’s power and omnipresence in the world – its authority over so many different peoples, and how so many worshipped it. And then a third beast appeared – this one out of the earth. The first beast, the dragon, was Satan – the second, the leopard slash bear slash lion, was Rome. And the third and newest beast was an emblem of false prophecies, symbolically having the horns of a lamb, like Christ, but speaking with the voice of a dragon – the dragon once again being Satan. The beast of false prophecies deceived and corrupted, and its number, John tells us, was 666. Evidently each beast was wearing some sort of a numbered apocalypse jersey. The “666,” by the way, comes from an ancient practice of assigning letters to numbers based on their order within the alphabet, a practice called “Gematria” in Hebrew. We don’t know how exactly the author of Revelation came up with 666, but the most common explanation is that it is a Gematria-based cipher for the name Neron Caesar in Hebrew, or the Emperor Nero, who was, according to some ancient sources, a persecutor of Christians, and according to all sources, a disgusting and awful human being.

To continue the story, after taking a good, long look at Satan, the beast of Rome, and the false prophet beast associated with the number 666, John turned to see something a bit more cheery. Upon Mount Zion was the Lamb of Christ, with those 144,000 pure and blessed people who had been saved by special atonement, singing a special and secret song to the music of harps. Angels, meanwhile, flew overhead. One announced that the hour of God’s judgment had come. Another called out that Babylon had fallen. A third said that any who worshipped the beast of false prophecy would face the wrath and torments of God. Voices from heaven then called out that the privileged few who had been saved were indeed blessed, and that it was time for them to rest from their labors. And close by, on a white cloud, Jesus sat enthroned, holding a sharp sickle. An angel told Jesus to swing his sickle, and Jesus did so. Another angel appeared with a sickle, and a third who had power over fire showed up and said it was time to “gather the clusters of the vine of the earth” (Rev 14:18). And in a gruesome image, humanity was harvested into a wine press and crushed to blood and gristle, as John of Patmos writes “the wine press was trod outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles” (Rev 14:20). [music]

Earth is Further Ravaged

Thus far in the Book of Revelation, sinners and non-Christians have been struck down by a storm of fire, hail and blood, killed at sea when the ocean turned to blood, died of thirst when rivers turned to wormwood, suffered in a sunless darkness, been ripped apart by locusts, devastated by an army of 200,000,000 angels, and most recently, smashed into a cataract of blood and gore by a giant wine press. Hard to imagine there would be too many left by this point, but I guess there were, because the non-Christian portion of humanity was assaulted by a whole new sequence of onslaughts.

Now, it’s been a while since whoever wrote Revelation used the number seven, and in Chapter 15 of this final book of the Bible, the author begins making up for lost time. Seven angels appeared with seven plagues, wearing seven golden sashes, and they were given seven golden bowls all brimming with the wrath of God. Over the next part of the narrative, these seven bowls were emptied onto sinners and non-Christian all over the earth, maiming and killing unconverted men, women and children in various ways. And I’ll note ahead of time that much of this is redundant considering what happened when the seventh seal unleashed the blowing of the seven trumpets earlier in the narrative. Anyway, the first of god’s bowls of wrath caused disgusting and painful sores to appear on nonbelievers. The second turned the sea to blood, killing every living thing in the ocean, and the third turned all rivers to blood, at which time an angel exclaimed, “You are just, O Holy One, who are and were, / for you have judged these things; / because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, / you have given them blood to drink. / It is what they deserve!” (Rev 16:5-6). The fourth of God’s seven bowls of wrath turned the sun into a scalding ball of fire, which incinerated nonbelievers. The fifth was poured on the beast that was Rome, causing its blasphemous population to chew their own tongues and curse God for their punishments. The sixth bowl was dumped into the Euphrates, drying the river up “in order to prepare for the kings of the east” (Rev 16:12), possibly a reference to opening the way for invasions from Rome’s Parthian nemesis to the east. The seventh bowl, finally, was emptied into the air, and the sky split with thunder, and Rome shattered into three parts while cities all over the world fell into ruination. Hundred pound hailstones descended from the air and crushed those who were not Christian to death.

Herrad von Landsberg whore babylon

Herrad of Landsberg’s Whore of Babylon (late twelfth century).

With the seven bowls drained, John’s narrative moves into one of the most famous figures in Revelation, the figure called the Whore of Babylon. An angel appeared and told John of Patmos, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk” (Rev 17:2). John followed the angel, and thereafter, John tells us, “I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery” (Rev 17: 3-5). And on the woman’s head was written “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations” (Rev 17:5). Now, to give you a standard allegorical reading of this rather memorable personage and her mount, the figure that the Whore of Babylon sits on has appeared before – the beast that appeared after the red dragon of Satan also had ten horns and seven heads, and it was a symbol of the Roman Empire. As for the woman herself, an angel with whom John spoke offered him a very opaque and convoluted explanation for the Whore of Babylon and her mount, but I’m content to introduce the conventional interpretation. This is that the Whore also represents Rome – maybe the city more than the empire, since cities were gendered as women in antiquity, and the seven heads of her beastly mount may stand for the seven hills of Rome. An angel with whom John speaks makes this explicitly clear, saying, “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (Rev 17:18) after promising her disgrace and destruction. Following the introduction of the idolatrous Whore of Babylon, an entire chapter of hymns of vengeful joy celebrate her destruction, foreseeing plagues ravaging her, fire burning her, all in righteous retribution for her corruption and persecution of Christian martyrs.

Now I will pause for just a moment here, as I did back in Episode 75, and say that the Book Revelation has had a profound effect on the way that posterity has viewed Roman civilization, as though all there was to Rome was sex and violence and vice. It’s little wonder that one of Christianity’s favorite Roman authors was Juvenal, who lays into the vices and excesses of Roman society with the same snarling fury of Revelation, and who lived and wrote at roughly the same time Revelation was being written. Juvenal, however, though he unleashes more fury against his society than the gently satirical Horace, or the arrogant and aloof Seneca – also, potent social critics of Rome – although Juvenal can be ireful, he can also be compassionate, as can the other two. Revelation, on the other hand, is totally condemnatory toward Rome, and totally out for blood, and Rome will perhaps forever be tainted as an irredeemable and decadent civilization due to Revelation’s smear campaign, and the intellectual history that it fostered.

Anyway, the defamation and destruction of the Whore of Babylon, which resulted in a long celebration in verse, was now complete, and John’s vision proceeded. He saw a rider on a white horse, a figure Revelation calls “The Word of God.” This figure wore many crowns, and its eyes blazed with fire, and its robe was wet with blood. With it were heavenly armies, clad in white astride white horses. They amassed, and an angel called up into the sky, telling birds to gather “to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders – flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great” (Rev 19:18). The angelic army fought an earthly army, and the seven headed beast of Rome and the false prophet creature associated with the number 666 “were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Rev 19:20). As you can imagine, the angelic army prevailed, and indeed, in a line that could have come from Homer, “all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Rev 19:21).

Now the red dragon called Satan was at this juncture still running around and doing stuff, and had to be dealt with. John fills us in on what happened:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. (Rev 20:1-2)

This thousand years number is important, because John of Patmos tells us that he witnessed Christianity’s initial martyrs ruling alongside Christ for a thousand years, a period which John calls “the first resurrection” (Rev 20:6). There is a noun that we often use, which is “millenarianism,” which was born due to this little section of text right here in Chapter 20 of Revelation. Basically it means that after a thousand year period following some prior event, Christ will return and the apocalypse will proceed, getting rid of the unbelievers and exalting Christians. Chronologically speaking, Revelation presents us with a puzzle here in Chapter 20, as the entire book, with its seven angels, seven trumpets, and seven bowls of wrath all making it sound distinctly like John is having a vision of the actual, final end of the world, only he finds out that even though lakes of blood were spilled from the wine press of God and the planet was more or less completely destroyed, it’s all a prelude, and there’s still going to be a thousand year hiatus. Revelation, in other words, presents its reader with a chronological conundrum, and various interpreters and spiritual communities have generated ways of reading the raw materials of the book’s text.

To stick strictly with the text for now, after Satan’s 1,000 year imprisonment, John learned that the devil would be released from prison, then come out as a deceiver, gathering up dark forces for a plot against humanity. But then, in John’s vision “fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:9-10). And after the 1,000 year delay, with Satan’s permanent defeat, finally, would come Christianity’s actual last judgment, which is described as follows in Chapter 21.
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (21:11)

Couple of things to notice there – a pretty strong emphasis on salvation by good works, and also what is most certainly the Bible’s most explicit and sustained description of eternal damnation after posthumous judgment. Having seen all of this tumult, fire, and bloodshed, John then had the pleasure of a rather different set of visions. [music]

Corporeal Resurrection in the Final Two Chapters

York Minster - New Heaven

The Great East Window at York Minster (1405-8) shows the corporeal resurrection foretold in the closing chapters of Revelation, and the rise of a new Jerusalem.

For that select few not cast into the lake of fire, John saw, things looked pretty pleasant. Earth and heaven were reborn anew. An exalted version of Jerusalem arose, like a bride, with the groom being God. God, John saw, would dwell among the mortals, and death would be no more. John saw that Jerusalem “has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the twelve gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites” (Rev 21:11-12). John saw that someone on the heavenly engineering team was fond of jewels and finery, as Jerusalem glittered with rare materials.
The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass. (Rev 21:19-21)

The city, John writes, was impervious to the corruption of outsiders, and through it flowed a bright and crystalline river. At the river stood the tree of life, which blossomed with different fruits every month. Night, John learned, would come no more, for God would always light the city. And with this surprisingly short final description of all the blessings that would befall Christians after the Second Coming – a single chapter following 21 chapters of strife – John’s vision ended.

John then tells us, “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’” (Rev 22:8). John learned that his vision had come from Jesus himself, who emphasized that his holy city was closed to “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev 22:15). And in some of the Bible’s final words, clearly in reference to the Book of Revelation itself, Christ told John, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (22:18-9). Hearing Christ’s warning to keep the Book of Revelation exactly as it stands, John writes, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen” (Rev 22:21). And that’s the end. [music]

The Apocalyptic and Historical Trauma

So that was Revelation. And before we toast our cups to finishing the Bible, we ought to discuss the history of this book a bit. I want to open the discussion with a quote from scholar Timothy Beal, who captures the multiple dimensions of Revelation very nicely. Timothy Beal writes that,
no biblical book— perhaps no religious book— has been so simultaneously revered and reviled as Revelation. Many hail it as the pinnacle of prophetic vision and imagination, the cornerstone of the biblical canon, and, for those with eyes to see, the key to understanding the past, present, and future of the world and its creator. Others denounce it as downright diagnosable, the work of a highly disturbed individual whose highly disturbing dreams of inhumane and often misogynistic violence should never have been allowed into the Bible in the first place.15

Reactions to Revelation, in short, have been varied. Because as I said earlier, in Revelation, the ecumenical, pacifist tenor of the Gospels gives way to the full throated fury of apocalyptic prophecy, and the unifying open arms of Jesus Christ to the darkest passages of Amos, Zephaniah, Zechariah, and longer Prophetic Books. If Revelation weren’t part of a known body of Jewish apocalyptic literature, in which the massacre of out groups and the glorification of in groups is a standard narrative trope, we might indeed find it unsettling. As is, Revelation is merely idiosyncratic within the New Testament, unusually influential due to its relatively short length and prominent placement, but not so out of place when set adjacent to Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the like. It is indeed disturbing at times, but Revelation is disturbing in a way that has become prosaic after the Bible’s previous 1,377 chapters, 250 of which are Prophetic Books, often trumpeting similar oracles, and another 436 of which include the Pentateuch and Historical Books, in which visions of butchered enemies are not uncommon.

Throughout the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament, members of marginalized minority groups wrote oracles foretelling their foes’ downfall with a vividness and enmity inspired by the various historical traumas that they had faced. And as Christianity reached its 200th and 300th birthdays, the Book of Revelation, as it gradually became canonized, assured believers that their martyred brothers and sisters in the faith would indeed rise again, and that the colossus that was Rome would face a reckoning. The Decian Persecution of 250, and then the much more horrific Diocletian persecution that flared up between 303 and the passage of the Edict of Milan in February of 313 showed Rome adopting institutional policies to derail and destroy Christianity, events which make the more sporadic persecutions of John of Patmos’ generation seem far less severe by comparison. As always, with the apocalyptic literature of Judaism and Christianity, perhaps the greatest remark of respect we can bestow onto it is that while ancient Jews and Christians wrote bloody and vengeful stuff about their persecutors, books like Ezekiel and Revelation weren’t appearing out of nowhere, and were for their authors a means of coping with personal and historical trauma.

But something happened later – over the course of the fourth century – that might have surprised John of Patmos. Rome did not, in fact, get pummeled by the knuckles of a 200,000,000 strong army of angels. Rome started to convert, its emperors coming beneath the control of powerful bishops during the Constantinian and especially Valentinian dynasties.16 And thereafter, the monstrous, ten horned beast lumbering out of the ocean, and the Whore of Babylon on its back were the wards of Christianity, and the Jedis were piloting the Death Star. And as centuries passed, regardless of the visions John of Patmos had reported seeing in the Bible’s final book, judgment day, always just around the corner for every generation, still hadn’t taken place. [music]

Early Reactions to Revelation

As Christianity took hold on Rome’s executive level over the course of the late 300s, church officials central to Christian Rome now had to deal with the fact that Revelation quite plainly vilified their civilization. They did this in different ways – the historian Eusebius, Constantine’s biographer, celebrated the first Christian emperor’s role in making Rome Christian and presiding over the Council of Nicaea in 325, offering an unconditional thumbs up for the fusion of church and state. A couple of generations later, Augustine’s City of God attempted to distance any worldly institution, including the Roman Empire, from having any grander theological consequence.17 In general, fourth and fifth century Christian writers certainly understood that Revelation was written during, and referencing Rome’s pre-Christian past. But aside from understanding the tacit truth that Rome had evolved, in the fourth century, as well at other points of interpreting the Book of Revelation in history, the book’s readers began change the monsters that had once been stand-ins for Rome into different groups of nefarious others.

For instance, Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria for much of the fourth century, is the earliest figure on record to give us the current 27 canonical books of the New Testament, ending his list with Revelation. And though Athanasius was a founding father of Roman Nicene Christianity under Constantine, Athanasius had no problem with Revelation, interpreting its demonic images of Rome as allegories of his own ideological opponents – specifically, Arian Christians – rather than the Empire that John of Patmos’ generation had seen pulverize the Second Temple three centuries earlier, in the year 70.18 Revelation’s monstrosities have, in fact, served many interpretive agendas. As scholar Timothy Beal puts it, “This approach, reading Revelation’s diabolical Roman monsters as other kinds of enemies – theological, ideological, political, social, you name it – has continued to this day. . .Revelation has proven to be a veritable othering machine: put my enemy in and he comes out infinitely more bad, an incarnation of ultimate evil, at which point it becomes clear that this cosmos is not big enough for the two of us.”19

There was another problem with the Book of Revelation as Athanasius formally identified it as part of the New Testament in the mid-300s – a problem I mentioned a moment ago. This was that Revelation’s promises – its promises of an imminent return of Christ (1:3, 20:7, 20:12, 22:20) were starting to look a little iffy as Jesus’ 400th birthday drew near. Into this controversy – the controversy as to when this apocalypse thing was actually supposed to happen – stepped a figure who is perhaps only second to the Apostle Paul in his long term impact on Christian theology – Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine was 56 years old in the year 410, when Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome, 15 years into his bishopric, which he would continue to hold for the next two decades. Already during these years in the heavily Christian territories of North Africa, which has been called the Roman Empire’s “Bible Belt,” there was an unusually keen sense that the end of days was drawing near.20 This was a place and time that believed in a literal reading of Revelation’s 20th chapter. Let’s talk about this chapter – Augustine read it a lot – really just the first six verses of Revelation’s 20th chapter, which introduce the idea of millenarianism. Millenarianism, still a central doctrine in a number of modern sects of Christianity, is that notion, based on a few verses in Revelation, which is follows. (1) Christ will put Satan in a holding tank for a thousand years. (2) During this thousand years, Christian martyrs will be resurrected and exalted alongside Christ – this is called the “first resurrection.” (3) At the 1,000 year period’s end, Satan will be released for a period of three and a half years. (4) A battle will ensue between Christ and his Saints and then the armies of Satan. (5) Christ will win, and Satan will be tortured forever. (6) A “second resurrection” will take place, all dead will be brought back to life and judged. (7) Those whose works are found lacking will be damned for all eternity, whereas those who have behaved well will live with God in a revivified version of Earth, in a bejeweled version of Jerusalem. That’s it – those seven points are millenarianism as we encounter it in Revelation. Take it or leave it, that’s what the Book of Revelation says, in verses tremendously important to some Evangelical Christians, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other modern denominations.

To return to Augustine, in the intensely millenarian turf of North Africa round about the year 400, there was a sense that the “first resurrection” was perpetually just around the corner, with the Western Empire ever more visibly on the decline. The problem was that the bare facts of daily experience kept contradicting Revelation’s promise of a “first resurrection” just around the corner. And Augustine’s book the City of God, published shortly before Augustine’s death in 430, worked carefully to reinterpret Revelation’s statements about when this “first resurrection” was going to take place. According to Augustine, the “first resurrection” had already happened – it had happened with the coming of Christ, the resurrection spoken of in Revelation was a spiritual one, enabled by Jesus’ manifestation on earth, and the imprisonment of Satan was the doubling down of the impious in spite of Christ’s birth.

Through his figurative interpretation of Revelation, Augustine argued that the so-called “first resurrection” was already underway. And to avoid the problem millenarianism has so often had – namely that apocalypses have quite stubbornly refused to take place – Augustine said that the thousand years mentioned in Revelation were more figurative than literal – a guesstimation, or, more properly, woven into a mystery too profound for human minds to comprehend. Augustine dealt with other issues related to Revelation – the so-called “Book of Life” mentioned variously throughout Revelation, the issue of what age and size people will be when resurrected (incidentally, bald people get their hair back, by the way, and everyone’s blemishes and scars will disappear, and flabby people will become nice and fit), how decayed bodies would be reconstituted, and other matters still, besides these. But with even this brief introduction, you can see how Augustine jumped in and tried to obviate some of the long term questions that had been, and would continue to be asked about the Book of Revelation over its long history. [music]

Later Reactions to Revelation

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen in the Wiesbaden Codex (c. 1200) receiving a divine vision.

In spite of Augustine’s best efforts, though, the following little tidbit of text from Revelation, “When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison” (Rev 20:7) wasn’t so easily dismissed as a foggy allegory. Revelation had been a central text in Christianity since the second century, but as the year 1,000 came and went, new generations of Revelation enthusiasts came to the forefront to give their two cents on Christianity’s main apocalyptic text. One of these was the German Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who lived from 1098-1179, and whose Scivias, a collection of 26 visions of the apocalypse, reported sudden, intense and multisensory apprehensions of divine truths. Hildegard, one of the most important Christian mystics of the Middle Ages, burst into activity in her early 40s and never slowed down afterward. Her writings on Revelation showed that, just as John of Patmos in Revelation eats a scroll from an angel, Hildegard devoured Revelation itself, and the cadences, images, and language of the book come up throughout the 26 visions she reports having in the Scivias. Just as John of Patmos had taken fantastic imagery of beasts from Daniel, which had borrowed from Ezekiel, Hildegard depicted a female figure with a sharp toothed head in its crotch as an emblem of the Catholic church under assault, eventually picturing how this creature, covered in excrement, detached itself from the church and tried to enter heaven, but was denied. Whether in Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, or Hildegard of Bingen, apocalyptic literature’s visions of monsters span the gamut between ominous on one hand and cartoonishly ridiculous on the other – Hildegard’s are certainly some of the more genuinely unsettling.

Hildegard’s contemporary Joachim of Fiore, born around 1135, a Benedictine abbot who worked in southern Italy, was also quite fond of Revelation. Joachim of Fiore believed that Revelation was the tool that unlocked the Christian Bible. His allegorical reading of various parts of Revelation held that the book had foretold a long history that led up Joachim’s own contemporary Saladin, who fought Crusader armies in the eastern Mediterranean throughout the late 1100s. In a series of interpretations and minutely detailed diagrams, Joachim of Fiore aligned the Book of Revelation’s incessant numbered lists of things – seals, angels, trumpets, horns, heads – with a spider web of historical events, events that somewhat unsurprisingly demonstrated that Revelation had foretold all of the major events that had led up to the twelfth century.

But while Hildegard of Bingen and Joachim of Fiore found Revelation at the center of what it meant to be a Christian, Martin Luther, like Eusebius some 1,200 years before him, found the Book of Revelation to be of questionable value. Luther wrote in his 1522 German translation of the New Testament – incidentally one of the most important books ever to be published – a preface to Revelation. In this preface, Luther said that the author of Revelation
seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly – indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important. . .Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep.21

While Luther was no fan of Revelation, then, oddly, the only illustrations in Luther’s New Testament – well known ones done by the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder – were of the Book of Revelation, illustrations modeled on Albrecht Dürer’s illustrations of Revelation from the previous generation of artists. Now, we can’t get into the subject of visual art too much due to the nature of this program, it will suffice to say that in the ocean of visual art inspired by Revelation, Cranach’s adaptations of Dürer show that even over the course of a single generation, the way that the book gets interpreted changes dramatically. Dürer’s painting The Large Turf, which happens to hang on my living room wall, is a naturalistic depiction of a small bank of grass and weeds – his even more famous Revelation illustrations give similar naturalistic details to even the fantastic monsters that skitter and thunder through Revelation. Cranach, working a generation later, made Revelation’s creatures more abstract, strange, and hallucinatory, showing that even in the visual arts, and even when one artist is using another artist as a model, interpretations of Revelation can differ dramatically.

The takeaway of this historical discussion of Revelation’s reception history leading up to the sixteenth century is that different eras and different temperaments have received the book with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm, from Eusebius, who found that Revelation revealed nothing, but was really quite obscure, to Augustine, who tried to run interference on the book and assure readers that a thousand years didn’t really mean a thousand years in the way that we expect them to, to Hildegard of Bingen, who went to town one upping Revelation’s grotesque and colorful visions, to Joachim of Fiore, who decided that the book identified a whole network of major salient historical events that had led directly up to him. Historically, for the first fifteen centuries of its life, Revelation’s blockbuster effects and striking differences from the rest of the New Testament made it as attractive as it was revolting. While as the capstone of the Bible, it continues to be relevant to all Christian communities, Revelation has taken on special importance to some Evangelicals, and is associated with something called rapture theory – something we should talk about briefly now. [music]

Revelation and Rapture Theory

In a marathon that I run just about every year, there’s a guy who hangs out around mile 25 – just a mile before the end, dressed in battered brown robes and wearing a fake silver beard and wig. This gentleman holds a large handmade sign that says “The end is near.” It’s always a funny image – a biblical prophet looking man heralding the looming finish line of a marathon, and the contrast between apocalyptic foretelling on one hand and Gatorade and neon shorts on the other hand always makes me giggle – every year I make sure to swerve over and give him a sweaty and wincing high five. But that sentiment – “the end is near,” is seriously held by tens of millions of people in the world today, and one of its most influential modern iterations is once again called “rapture theory.” Now, rapture theory is an idea that’s a sacred truth to some people today, and a punchline to others, so I’ll just try and give you some facts about it. The most important early figure in rapture theory was a nineteenth-century theologian called John Nelson Darby – the Anglophone world in general had a lot of millenarian energy during the 1800s. Darby’s ideas made their way into an extremely influential book called the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909 and becoming increasingly popular during World War I – a book important to American fundamentalism. The Scofield Reference Bible drew increasing interest in certain Christian circles to ideas in Revelation – for instance, God’s singling out only a limited number of humans to save, and moreover God’s relationship with mankind, and the end of days.

The actual Book of Revelation, however, unless you treat it to some sort of exegesis, never describes rapture – the ecstatic ascendency of favored Christians up into heaven to be with God – I mean we just read the book together – the culminating vision is definitely of a cleansed and purified earth, at the center of which is the glittery and elevated city of Jerusalem, and salvation is corporeal resurrection on a newly sanctified earth.22 There are brief visions of rapturous ascents to heaven in the New Testament in, for instance, 1 Thessalonians (3:17) and 1 Corinthians (15:51-2), but, as with other concepts central to Christianity but not deeply rooted in the Bible, the notion of the rapture has taken on a life of its own.

One of the directions that the notion of rapture, and more generally contemporary Evangelical interpretations of the Book of Revelation have taken has been a political one. There is in the Book of Revelation a deep rooted enmity for the size and power of the Roman Empire. Scholar N.T. Wright, in a volume designed for Christian Bible Study, writes of Revelation that
This book in fact offers one of the clearest and sharpest visions of God’s ultimate purpose for the whole creation, and of the way in which the powerful forces of evil, at work in a thousand ways but not least in idolatrous and tyrannous political systems, can be and are being overthrown through the victory of Jesus the Messiah and the consequent costly victory of his followers.23

Before Christianity partnered with Rome, and later became its own ascendant hegemony as Catholic organizations gathered more power and influence, Christianity was in the place and time of John of Patmos a fragmented and nascent religious movement – much of the energy of the seven messages to the seven churches that open the book are sharp invectives against the materialism of Roman commercial hubs in the provinces.24 To John of Patmos, Roman persecutions were a real and existential threat to his religion, whose ancestral capital had just been destroyed during the late Julio-Claudian dynasty. Thus, we can certainly all agree that Revelation depicts the titanic Roman Empire, most likely under the Flavians, as a malicious and oppressive force. But like so many other elements of Revelation that have been airlifted from the book and interpreted in different contexts, Revelation’s vision of a minority band of worshippers locking arms against a giant, intercontinental nemesis has taken on a life of its own – especially during our lifetimes.

Over the twentieth century, Revelation’s a model of a small body of believers beleaguered by a despotic world government became part of the American religious right’s rhetoric against globalization, international trade consortiums, and more generally legislation engineered at the federal, rather than the state level. In Evangelical popular culture over the past two generations, the motif of believers as insurgents against a vast world order has deep roots in Revelation. One of the most influential Evangelical films ever made, A Thief in the Night, came out in 1973. The film takes Revelation’s prophecies literally – in it, the rapture has taken place, the exalted believers have been spirited up to heaven, and a young woman and her husband are left behind in a fallen world dominated by a single world government. This movie, part theology, part horror story, was popular for a generation of American evangelicals. Revelation lies at the root of the immensely popular Left Behind series, sixteen novels published between 1995 and 2007, which essentially offer a drawn out and more empowered version of A Thief in the Night – a network of underground Christian resistance fighters called the Tribulation Force faces off, frequently with grisly and explosive violence, against a globalized government headed by the Antichrist.

It’s unusual for a single work from antiquity to have such a pronounced and specific influence on the modern world, so I thought I’d take us just a little bit closer to contemporary history than we normally go. Rapture theory today is very diverse – there are many denominations and believers who are inspired by Revelation’s message of the faithful being exalted, but simultaneously wince at some of the book’s darker junctures, and there have been so many ways of reading and interpreting this book, many of them by brilliant exegetes, that what I have told you in this program is just part of the book’s long story. But to turn once again to the ancient past, and the subject of Revelation in antiquity – rather than its role in modern culture – let’s revisit Patmos – and the week or two in which the Book of Revelation was written, some time in the last decades of the first century, and imagine the person who sat down and wrote it – what else might have been on his desk, and what he might have been thinking at the time. [music]

The Apocalpytic and Dream Vision: Genres with Infinite Literary Freedom

We heard one critic earlier, at this episode’s outset, discussing Revelation’s “generative incomprehensibility.” A lamb with almost insectoid eyes, a mass of 24 devotees in heaven, beasts with multiple heads and horns, a heavenly Jerusalem on earth, shining with a labyrinth of inset gemstones – Revelation seems to beg for interpretations of its tiniest details. Its enigmatic nature, and its need for reader response was shared by what was once a large body of apocalyptic literature. In John of Patmos’ time, the nascent Christian movement, propelled in the Gospels by books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, was flowering into dozens of apocalyptic works. Canonization in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries pushed these works into the periphery of Christianity’s awareness, but today, in the wake of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi library, we once again have a broader grasp of the widespread apocalyptic literature of John of Patmos’ world – the three Books of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Sibylline Oracles, the Apocalypse of Thomas, the Questions of Bartholomew, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, 5 and 6 Ezra, the Apocalypse of Sedrach, and surely many, many more that we don’t know about. Even just the surviving works, written during the early Christian period or a little before, show that Revelation was part of a genre, and if we want to learn about Early Christianity, these books have a lot to tell us. As scholar R.H. Charles wrote over a century ago, the apocalyptic literature written by Second Temple Jews and early Christians was a product of a changing world – a world that placed as much influence on individual as it did on community. Charles writes,
The Old Testament prophets had concerned themselves chiefly with the [the vindication of the community] and pointed in the main to the restoration of Israel as a nation and to Israel’s ultimate possession of the earth as a reward of their righteousness. But later with the growing claims of the individual, and the acknowledgment of these [individual claims] in the religious and intellectual life, the latter problem pressed itself irresistibly on the notice of religious thinkers, and made it impossible for any conception of the divine rule and righteousness to gain acceptance, which did not render adequate satisfaction to the claims of the righteous individual. It was to this difficulty in particular that Apocalyptic addressed itself, though it did not ignore the former. It strove to show that alike in respect of the nation and of the individual the righteousness of God would be fully vindicated.25

Apocalyptic literature, then, helped reconcile individuals to the privations that they had to endure. Just as ancient Mediterranean religion had evolved from indigenous community rituals centered on agricultural cycles and animal sacrifices, and toward more transplantable, salvation-oriented ideologies, apocalyptic literature in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek changed as well. It was no longer just about the exaltation of the worshipper’s community. Apocalyptic literature soon became – not in Revelation, although we can see it taking place, but in the later Apocalypses of Peter and Paul, for instance – about the deliverance of the individual herself.

But apocalyptic literature features far more than tearstained writers envisioning the way that things are some day going to get better – whether for their communities or themselves. As you may know, the word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek apokálupsis, which means “uncover,” or “reveal.” Thus, the term “revelation literature” would probably be more apt than “apocalyptic literature,” as while all apocalyptic literature contains extraordinary visions of unearthly things, only some apocalyptic literature contains visions of the end of the world. Prophetic literature, and revelation literature, whether the visions in Hosea of the 700s BCE, Ezekiel of the 500s BCE, of Daniel and 1 Enoch in the 100s BCE, John of Patmos in the first century CE, the Apocalypse of Paul in the 100s, the Sybilline Oracles and Apocalypse of Thomas in the centuries that followed – these works had conventions, certainly, but they also had room for elaborate authorial invention. As a genre, revelation literature encouraged writers like John of Patmos to record ornate and fantastic visions that demanded reader interpretation, just as the genre of medieval dream vision let writers like John Gower, Marie de France, Chaucer, Langland, Lydgate and the Pearl Poet report cryptic revelations in dense and elaborate lines of verse and prose.

There is something that all of these writers of visionary experience share – from Ezekiel to Bede to the authors of Roman de la Rose, to John Bunyan and Percy Shelly. The dream vision is an elastic form that permits a great degree of artistic license – the right to record anything and everything that an author can put into words, from Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels to the polyglot wickerwork of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. And because of the sheer freedom that apocalyptic writings permit, the genre is like a capsule of modernism within antiquity – an ancient species of art that, like Cubism or Neoplasticism, demands an audience interpretation due to its ambiguity. Moses, in the Pentateuch, is none other than Moses. The Whore of Babylon, however, has been thousands of people, and the work of interpretation has an allure that more expository narratives do not offer. I remember the first time that I really thought about interpretation – exegesis is the appropriate word with the Bible, but interpretation will work in this context. When I was in the seventh or eighth grade, like seemingly every eleven to twelve year old in America of my generation, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One of my acquaintances, a precociously intellectual young man, struck up a conversation with me about Tolkien outside of our social studies classroom. Did I know, my friend inquired, about the symbolism behind the Lord of the Rings? I said I didn’t. Was I aware, I was asked, that the Shire was emblematic of Great Britain? I shook my head. Did I know, my friend asked, that Mordor was a symbol of Nazi Germany? I said I did not know that. Did I know that the One Ring was a symbol for the atomic bomb? I said I had been unaware of this, as well. My twelve-year-old friend had it all worked out – the Gondorians were this, the Rivendell elves were that, Mirkwood was this place, the Mines of Moria were that, and it was all a great big allegory for the conflagration that had been World War II. If I remember correctly, I was polite on the surface – it seemed like a pretty erudite conversation to have there by some rosemary bushes in the 1990s while some nearby kids in Soundgarden and Nirvana T-shirts played hacky sack. But in my head, later, during PE, I stewed on it. What if, I wondered, the orcs were just goddamned orcs?

James Joyce in a c. 1918 photograph. Joyce certainly understood the critical attractiveness of denser and more opaque prose.

While Lord of the Rings has enjoyed a modest degree of this sort of allegorical interpretation due to its stature, the prophecy and dream vision genre, by definition, demands interpretation. And more generally, there is an inverse relationship between immediate comprehensibility on the one hand, and the attractiveness of a work of art to critics and interpreters on the other. Take a picture of a golden retriever, and there’s not too much to say about it. Take a photo of some aluminum cans, pencils, and a mouse trap and get it up at an exhibition with the words “Dog: Mixed Media” and you have built an interpretive playground. Write a prophecy that the world is going to end on October 22, 1844, as the very popular American theologian William Miller once did, and you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. Write an opaque account of a long series of visions of vivid but uncertain figures, like John of Patmos once did, and you have a prophecy that’s more than likely to stand the test of times. There is a famous story about James Joyce, whose novel Finnegan’s Wake is possibly the longest and most learned dream vision ever written. The American author Max Eastman asked James Joyce, in an interview, about Joyce’s notoriously difficult style. And, with a smile on his face, James Joyce said that he wrote the book in the way he did in order “To keep the critics busy for 300 years.”26 John of Patmos, whose prophetic vision survived the culling of so many other apocalyptic visions as canonization took place, has kept biblical exegetes and other readers busy for far, far longer than this.

We can think of Revelation as the word of God – a final vision of Christ’s second coming, as the text has been interpreted for centuries, and will continue to be interpreted long after we’re gone. But just as Virgil responded to the traditions of Theocritus and Homer, and Ovid processed and refashioned Classical Greek drama; just as later Prophetic Books of the Old Testament echo earlier ones in theme in language, just as Mark piggy backs on the Prophetic Books’ visions of a messiah, and Matthew and Luke borrow verses from Mark, John of Patmos participated in a long tradition of apocalyptic Jewish and Christian literature. I am in no position to say what is and what is not divinely inspired. But having read so many of the apocalyptic writings that lie behind Revelation, I can say that John of Patmos had read a lot of them, too, and that Revelation’s world of fire, blood, gemstones, and monsters is by no means unique to the Bible’s final, ineludable book. [music]

Toward Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism and Manichaeism

Well that, folks, was the Book of Revelation. And we have now been through the Bible’s 1,399 chapters in Literature and History, including, in past and upcoming bonus episodes that may be published by the time you listen to this, apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature, as well. And while it’s tempting to close that back cover of the New Testament with the sense we now understand Early Christianity, and while of course we have made pretty decent progress toward doing so, we still have some work to do.

On one hand, we have yet to delve into a vast discipline called patristics – a catch-all word for the study of church fathers who lived and worked over the course of the first five centuries CE. Covering only a part of these five centuries, theological libraries today commonly have a collection called The Ante-Nicene Fathers, a 10-volume, 6,500 page omnibus of writings spanning the work of Christian theologians between about 60 and 325 CE. In this enormous mass of text, the new religion rattles and sparkles and shimmers, beginning with the epistles of the Apostolic Fathers – very early bishops who had purportedly known the Apostles themselves, and culminating with Christian writers of the third and early fourth centuries. Across the span of the early patristic writings, we begin to see the Catholic Church consolidating as an institution, and important doctrines – like the Trinity, and Original Sin, and posthumous individual salvation, taking on forms more decisive and complete than they do in the New Testament. If this podcast were a history of Christianity, that collection I just described – The Ante-Nicene Fathers, would be our home for quite a while.

But we’re going to do something a little bit different. We will, on down the line, go through some of the highlights of patristics – to me figures like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Origen are far too interesting and occasionally odd to pass over in complete silence. But before we do that, I’d like to change course for a few episodes. A while ago, when I first began to learn about Early Christianity, and some related theological movements of the first few centuries CE – this was about a year after graduate school – I discovered some stuff that was new to me. It started with a popular history of Zoroastrianism. That led me to the Penguin Complete Dead Sea Scrolls, which led me to some of the Enochian literature. That in turn led me to the HarperOne Nag Hammadi Scriptures, and I went through the whole thing. And those led me to a lot of the New Testament apocrypha – the apocryphal gospels, the apocryphal acts books, the apocryphal apocalypses I keep mentioning in this episode – this is a very large body of material, too. I dug through what Manichaean scriptures I could find in translation – more have been published in the past decade since. And as I read these texts, I wondered, with all my heart, why more people didn’t know about them.

As we move through literary history together, I can understand the fact that Menander isn’t a household name, as important as Menander was to the progress of ancient drama as a writer of Greek New Comedy. I can understand that the poems of Catullus and Propertius are never going to be read by most people, as dense and packed with allusions as they are. But some of the texts that survived in the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible and the Nag Hammadi library and other Gnostic codices, and the Zoroastrian Avesta – the discoveries and modern translations of these texts should have roared into the history of modern Christianity, and really changed everyone’s understanding of the religion’s genesis, and historical formation. Instead, they remain the territory of specialists, often only available at present in outdated translations, and otherwise still lost to those of us who don’t know Hebrew, Koine Greek, or more pertinently, Coptic, Ge’ez, Middle Persian, Parthian, and more.

In our long lead up to the New Testament, I think we did a respectable job considering some of the book’s possible ideological roots in the cult religions and philosophical traditions of the Ancient Mediterranean. But the New Testament, while it’s the heart of Christianity, is still only a part of Christianity, which continued to grow and develop over the formative centuries of the Roman Empire and Late Antiquity. Over these centuries, as Christianity blossomed across the Mediterranean, North Africa, Anatolia, Europe, and the Middle East, it absorbed stuff, and it produced stuff, that for various reasons not very many of us know about. So as we move into the next three shows in this season – shows on Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism, we’re going to consider a whole new set of traditions that were vital parts of the Early Christian world, and in some cases may have influenced the shape that the religion eventually took.

The reason that I went on that aforementioned reading adventure was because when I closed the last page of Revelation for the first time, and put the New Oxford Annotated Bible back on my bookshelf, I still had a lot of questions. I had been waiting, for instance, to learn more about Original Sin. Paul had mentioned it briefly in the fifth chapter of Romans (5:12-21), but I’d thought there’d be a lot more. I wanted to know about the Trinity. The Book of Matthew mentioned a Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Chapter 28 (28:19), but that was about it. I wanted to get to that part in the Bible where they explained posthumous salvation.27 Instead, in Revelation, I read about a collective corporeal resurrection on earth during end times. Incidentally, centuries after the birth of Christ, around 207 CE, the theologian Tertullian was still writing about pious Christians all going to Hades immediately after their deaths to await the eventual resurrection described in Revelation, an unconventional idea by today’s standards, but one that’s nonetheless well supported by the actual text of the New Testament.28 Anyway, you get the point. We expect the books that we read to go one way because of what we’ve heard out there in the world, and then we get them on our desks and discover different things, and it’s all part of the fun.

In later years, I learned that the answers to most of the questions that I had about the Bible could be found in the pages of the first five centuries of Christian theologians. I learned that the aforementioned Tertullian was the first to formally put together the idea of the Trinity, for instance, that the Nicene Creed of 325 really started to help settle arguments about the nature of Christ, and that about a century later Augustine began was setting down his influential writings on Original Sin. To be respectful to the Bible, the seeds for all of these ideas are there – I had just expected them to get a little bit longer treatment in the New Testament than they actually did.

And while the patristics – the 6,500 pages of the Ante-Nicene Library and far more works besides –were the somewhat longwinded answer to most of my questions about Christianity, they didn’t answer everything. I wondered how and why a Jewish religion that rose up in the first century with a doctrine of apocalyptic general salvation had eventually embraced a doctrine of immediate posthumous personal salvation. And I wondered about the ideas of good and evil – good deities, and evil deities – ideas that are not Greek or Roman, and not explicit in the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament speaks of wickedness in terms of apostasy and opposition to the Israelites, but not in terms of a horned and hoofed nemesis out to get us. And these questions – the search for why Christianity absorbed a doctrine of posthumous salvation, and why Christian writers were writing about Satan and good and evil – these questions were what led me to Zoroastrianism. We’ll get to Zoroastrianism in a moment and in the entirety of the next episode – but for now, by way of transition, let’s talk about Satan.

1-Luzifer

Franz Stuck’s Lucifer (1890). Satan’s presence in Christianity may have been in part due to Zoroastrian influences.

Satan is not in the Old Testament. The snake in the Book of Genesis is a snake, like the trickster beasts in Aesop’s Fables, a work not unlikely also set down around the century of the Babylonian Captivity. The adversary figure in the Book of Job is just a secondary divine personage with whom Yahweh speaks. Christian interpreters have retrojected Satan into both roles for almost two thousand years, though he is not, in the Biblical Hebrew, actually there. In the New Testament, Satan is a strange figure, showing up as a sort of desert vagrant in the Gospels, where Jesus swats him like a fly, buzzing around the epistles from time to time, and then, all of a sudden, appearing as a terrifying crimson monster in the Book of Revelation. The devil, who more or less slacks off for the entire Bible, leaps into the narrative for the final 1% of text, and eventually had a staggeringly disproportionate influence on Christianity, considering his fairly minor role in the scriptures. By the time Christians were writing biographies of desert hermits like Paul of Thebes and Saint Antony the Great in the mid to late fourth century, Satan was often getting more page space than Jesus, showing the extent to which he had become ascendant in the imaginations of some Christians by the time of the Constantinian dynasty.

Satan, as Milton shows us in Paradise Lost, and Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, has a certain dark kind of heroism, a relentlessness like that of Prometheus, like Sisyphus. But nonetheless, as you, too, have surely thought before, in the cold logic of monotheism, Revelation’s dichotomy of good and evil, and the angels and demons bursting through turnstiles to get into the story and give us a fittingly spectacular Armageddon – all of it, especially when you read stoic theology of the same period, when you read intellectually muscular Christian theologians like Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria from a couple of generations on down the line, Revelation feels a little bit retrogressive – a step back toward the polytheistic operas of Homer, and away from the monotheism of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Satan, Revelation tells us, will be defeated. But then, as once again I bet you’ve wondered at some point, too, if God is omnipotent and omnipresent, then why is he letting a semidivine renegade sociopath skitter around and cause trouble until judgment day? And speaking of judgment day, what need does an omnipotent deity have for angels or a final rumble at all? Wouldn’t this ultimate tidying up of the cosmos happen by a snap of some Trinitarian fingers, and not by a comic strip of Old Testament style plagues, hundreds of millions of angels, and a chainmail clad insect army? Where is this doctrine of Armageddon, as a battle, coming from in Revelation, all of a sudden? How did the graceful monotheism of the Gospels – which tell us that not even a single sparrow could fall from the sky without the knowledge of God, a providential monotheism that shows clear ties to old Greek stoic doctrines of a pantheist universe – how did this advanced theological system become the Homeric slugfest and general violence of Revelation? Early Christian literature beyond the Bible – books like the Questions of Bartholomew and the Life of Adam and Eve – these apocryphal books tell us that Satan rebelled because he was jealous of God’s creation of humanity, making Satan sound a bit like Hera in so many Greek myths – an envious ancillary being taking his insecurities out on humans due to spite toward a higher God’s fondness toward mortals.29 So, from what source is this vertically cleaved dualism between good and evil, and God and Satan suddenly erupting into the final 22 chapters of the New Testament? Well, Christianity’s adoption of Satan, and retrojection of Satan into key junctures of the Old Testament – the story of how this happened is both mostly lost and surely quite complicated, but somewhere in the mix, in Jewish theology over the course of the second and first centuries BCE, was Zoroastrianism.

By the time John of Patmos wrote the word “Amen” that ends Revelation and most Christian bibles, Zoroastrianism was likely over a thousand years old. Zoroastrianism has waited in the wings of the Literature and History podcast for these past eighty episodes, partly because of the uncertain chronology of the texts that we now have from it, and partly because it reached its apex in and after the third century, though it was far older than this. But in the next episode, it will finally be time for us to meet this great living religion, which may have arisen as early as 1500 BCE. Through the entire lifespan of the sacred writings of Judaism and Christianity, Zoroastrianism was a presence in the east – during the Achaemenid period, or 550-330 BCE, the Parthian period, 247 BCE to 224 CE, and the Sassanian period, from 224-651. Tens of millions of practicing Zoroastrians, over these centuries, believed in a single god called Ahura Mazda, and an embodiment of evil called Angra Mainu. They believed in Ahura Mazda’s seven spentas, or aspects, and in performing works of good. Zoroastrians believed in a bipartite afterlife, in which the good would be rewarded and the bad would be punished. Somewhere along the long road of Zoroastrian history, scriptures began to chronicle a savior figure called the Saoshyant, born of a virgin, and a final battle between good and evil called the Frashokereti, during which earth would be purified and evil destroyed. The Book of Revelation shares nearly all of this, only with a different set of names. The chronology of Zoroastrian texts is again complex, and I’m not going to try and make some argument that X definitely came from Y in any direction during the long shared history of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity. Instead, in our next program I just want to take you through some of the Zoroastrian primary texts and see what we can make of them.

When we talk about the relationship between Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and their younger relative Christianity, the word “influence” isn’t quite the right word to use. These three monotheisms have a joint history so old that it’s buried beneath the rubble of the Bronze Age Collapse, and a theological interoperability so extensive that we rarely hear Jewish or Christian texts even talking about Zoroastrians, let alone condemning them. Zoroastrian wise men, or magoi, in Greek, come from the east to bring baby Jesus gifts in the book of Matthew. And in a book that John of Patmos knew well, Isaiah, Cyrus the Great, the most famous Zoroastrian Persian in history, is afforded the unique title of “anointed” (45:1), which means “messiah,” making him the only non-Jew in the Old Testament to receive this lofty title – the same thing that Christ, or Christos, means in Greek, by the way – “anointed.”

We have already heard some peripherals of the story of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity in this podcast – a demon called Asmodeus in the Book of Tobit here, entities of light and darkness in the Community Rule and War Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls there, apocalyptic oracles in the Prophetic Books here, and the entire Book of Revelation there. But in the next show, we’re going to learn the fundamentals and some of the central texts Zoroastrianism, a religion that, while it only has a small and scattered handful of practitioners today, was for a thousand years the most widespread and well attested religion in the central part of Eurasia. So join me next time for a good, long look at Zoroastrianism and a sampling of some of its primary texts. A couple of quick matters prior to closing.

An outstanding book podcast, and highly recommended by L&H!

We don’t do ads on this show, but I do try to promote good work for free that I think is relevant to what we do here. On that note, I want to recommend a podcast of a personal friend of mine – that is Zach Davis’s program Writ Large. In a sentence, Writ Large is a podcast about books, ancient, modern and everything in between, not unlike the BBC’s In Our Time. Episodes of Writ Large feature interviews with prominent scholars and great audio production – they’re roughly 30 minutes in length, and although Zach’s organization has been at it for less than a year, they already have almost 60 programs released. That podcast again is Writ Large at writlarge.fm – the show has episodes released on some of my favorites like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, just to give you an idea of some of the contents. Alright, well I have a quiz on Revelation at literatureandhistory.com if you want to see if you can remember the details of the Book of Revelation. For you Patreon supporters, I’ve recorded William Blake’s 1794 “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” a long and in some ways delectably blasphemous work that’s certainly rather different from the New Testament. That recording ended up being a quite a project in and unto itself – there’s a little introduction in case you’re unfamiliar with the work, and in addition to William Blake’s dark and infernal theology, you can even find out how the American rock band The Doors got their name. There’s links to all of the stuff I’ve just mentioned in your podcast app for this episode. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. I have a song coming up if you want to check it out, and if not, see you next time.

Still here? Well, I got to thinking about Satan, and at the risk of offending all of the Satan worshippers out there, I decided to write a song about him. Got to thinking that the Overlord of Hell and Red Dragon of Armageddon sure had had a lot of great music written about him, and I sure couldn’t top anything by Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden. While I was in a state of despair, comparing my modest vocal prowess to that of Ozzy Osbourne and Bruce Dickinson, my friend called me to complain about his roommate, who’s kind of a slob and lazybones. And then I got an idea – and that idea was, what if Satan were your roommate? What kind of roommate would the devil be? So again, no offense to those who do make blood sacrifices to the devil or even just occasionally pray to Lucifer before an important business meeting – let’s be honest we’ve all done it – but this tune is called “Flying on the Wings of a Goat.” Thanks once more, and I, along with the wise lord Ahura Mazda, and whole Zoroastrian assembly will see you next time.

[“Flying on the Wings of a Goat” Song]

References

1.^ Beal, Timothy. The Book of Revelation. Princeton University Press, 2018. Kindle Edition, Location 537.

2.^ Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History 7.25.1-4. Printed in Delphi Collected Works of Eusebius. Delphi Classics, 2019.

3.^ Quoted in Beal (2018), Location 1558. Always a bulldog for salvation by faith alone, Luther would have been put off by Rev 2:26, 3:2, 20:12 and 22:12, all of which reference salvation by good works.

4.^ See Beal, Timothy. The Book of Revelation. Princeton University Press, 2018. Kindle Edition, Location 723.

5.^ Morris, Leon. Revelation. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 20. IVP Academic, 2009, p. 33.

6.^ Ecclesiastical History 3:18.

7.^ See Morris, Leon. Revelation. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 20. IVP Academic, 2009, pp. 32-5.

8.^ Suetonius. Domitian (13-4). Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 12576.

9.^ Ibid.

10.^ Morris (2009) lists a number of passages in which the monster representing Rome demands worship, just as Domitian is reported to have done – these are Rev 13:4, 12, 15-16; 14:9, 11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4.

11.^ Daniel 10:5-6, 9-10.

12.^ Forbes, Nevill. “Introduction to 2 Enoch.” The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Volume 2. Edited and introduced by R.H. Charles. Apocryphile Press, 2004.

13.^ 3 Enoch 17, 18, 22 and 26 are especially fond of numbering things up in heaven.

14.^ Curious, since they had already gone out in (Rev 6:12-13).

15.^ See Beal, Timothy. The Book of Revelation. Princeton University Press, 2018. Kindle Edition, Location 201.

16.^ Ambrose’s veto of the return of the Altar of Victory in 384 and his censure of Theodosius after the Massacre of Thessalonica less than a decade later mark this turning point in the later empire’s executive history.

17.^ On Augustine and Eusebius’ writings on the Christian Roman empire, see Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe 300-1000. Macmillan International, 2010, pp. 62-3.

18.^ The Life of Antony certainly depicts Satan pure and simple as the titular character’s nemesis, but Antony’s enemies are Arians.

19.^ Beal (2018), Location 807.

20.^ Fredricksen, Paula. “Tyconius and Augustine on the Apocalypse.” Printed in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Richard K. Emmerson and Bernard McGinn. Cornell University Press, 1992, p. 31.

21.^ Quoted in Beal (2018), Location 1558.

22.^ Early theologians like Irenaeus and Tertullian appear invested in the notion of corporeal resurrection particularly in contradistinction to Gnostic ideas of the heavenly ascents of believers. Irenaeus, for instance (Adversus Haereses 1.9.2), emphasizes the incarnation described in the opening verses of John, the corporeal and non-docetic Christ being a fitting savior for humans whose bodies will rise again on earth.

23.^ Wright, N.T. Revelation: 22 Studies for Individuals and Groups. IVP Connect, 2012, p. 5.

24.^ A Leon Morris puts it, the book was written “to a minority with problems of its own about the realities of power.” Morris, Leon. Revelation. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 20. IVP Academic, 2009, p. 18.

25.^ Charles, R.H. “Introduction.” Printed in The Book of Enoch. Oxford, 1893, p. 23.

26.^ Quoted in Ellman, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 703.

27.^ The closest is Luke 16:22-6, which we discuss extensively in the next episode.

28.^ Tertullian, in De Anima 55, reads Matthew 12:40, 1 Cor 15:3, and 1 Peter 3:19 as having described Hades as a subterranean holding tank for all Christians, except for martyrs, who are fast tracked to the pleasures of heaven immediately after their deaths.

29.^ The Questions of Bartholomew and Life of Adam and Eve give us a back story a little more complete than that of Satan’s analogs Samyaza and Azazel in the Enochian writings.