The Apocalypse of John is Irrelevant for America

One thing America does NOT have to worry about is divine wrath

The cusp of the second century saw Christian thought turned away from Rome (after first accommodating it as evidenced by the Gospels, Paul’s epistles and Acts) and began to show hostility not only to the Gods but to earthly (Roman) rule itself. This is the period of the second century apologists, and their writings are as much anti-Pagan polemics as they are apologies (explanations) of their own religion. But this attitude is present not only in the apologists of this period but in the other writings, such as the Apocalypse of John and 2 Peter. These show a Christianity in which eschatology (study of the end times), if not messianism, was still alive and well, and they present Christianity as the foe of the Pagan Roman Empire. This is, unsurprisingly, the period that introduces the Christian martyr stories. The Apocalypse of John, more often known as “Revelation”, is the only apocalypse that found its way into the New Testament, though there were many more floating around back in the day (and this included Jewish apocalypses like 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, and 4 Ezra). An apocalypse, as a genre, writes Bart Ehrman, is “a revelation of heavenly realities that can make sense of life here on earth.” [1] The word apocalypse itself comes from the Greek word for “unveiling” or “revealing” which rather changes the meaning of the modern genre of “post-apocalyptic” fiction, which renders the word as “universal or widespread destruction or disaster,” – probably not surprising, given the subject matter of the most famous apocalypse to survive: The Apocalypse of John. This book was about future catastrophes. But as Ehrman writes, the book must be understood within its historical context:

To most modern readers the Apocalypse of John seems mystical and bizarre, quite unlike anything else that we read…Its supernatural feel seems to vindicate its supernatural character.[2]

But historians recognize that it is not the only apocalypse ever written, and hardly the first. They are all quite bizarre. It’s the nature of the beast, if you’ll pardon the pun. And as Ehrman points out, “A historian who wants to understand this one ancient text, then, will situate it in the context of this related literature and explain its important features in light of the literary conventions of the genre.”[3] Few, if any of our fundamentalists, trying to ram the book down our throats, promising a destruction that has not arrived in 2000 years of waiting, will bother to do this. As he goes on to explain, an apocalypse was written by an apocalypticist, that is, a person who held a dualistic worldview, one which held that two forces were at work, good and evil and that there was no middle ground (sound familiar?). In the apocalyptic worldview, the current age (and this has been true apparently for 2000 years) is evil and God will make “a cataclysmic break between the ages” and destroy the forces of evil (apparently embodies by today’s liberals and progressives).[4] One thing apocalypses have in common is that they were “written in times of distress and suffering, whether real or perceived” and thus protested “the present order of things and the powers that maintained it.”[5]Enter Pagan Rome. Enter our own so-called “pagan culture” so often decried by fundamentalists. Given these facts, it is easy to see how stories like the Apocalypse of John play into Christian persecution myth. For example, we find Paul Keresztes making the following startling assertion:

At the time of Domitian’s Terror, Asia had a sizable Christian community in the predominately Greek and Jewish population. The non-Christian mobs zealously complied with Domitian’s desire for Imperial worship. They demanded the punishment of the ‘atheist’ Christians, who abstained from the cult. Leading Christians were probably thus punished, some put to death, others, such as John, the ‘author’ of the ‘Apocalypse,’ banished.[6]

Keresztes seems to be reading a great deal into our sparse sources by arriving at this level of detail. And appealing to the Apocalypse is circular as Keresztes is using the assumption of persecution of Christians under Domitian to date these writings and they therefore prove nothing. Church historian W.H.C. Frend also makes appeal to the Apocalypse of John, noting that it “suggests the possibility of anti-Christian outbreaks in Asia”. He sees in Rev. 13:16-17 “the existence of boycotts and trade sanctions directed against the Christians in the towns” as well as “the banishment of some of the leading Christians to penal settlements in the Aegean Islands.”[7] But in speaking of the Apocalypse of John (The Book of Revelation) and the First Epistle of Peter, to which many apologists appeal, T.D. Barnes says that “The execution of Christians in Asia Minor, which are attested in Revelation and the so-called First Epistle of Peter need not have involved any reference to the emperor.”[8]J.E.A. Crake issues a stronger caution:

It is very precarious to try to use the Apocalypse of John for historical evidence. Apart from the difficulty of dating the book, a difficulty that applies to some other writings of this period, the nature of the work itself is to conceal any obvious reference to contemporary history. The natural procedure is to use our knowledge of history to identify allusions in the book; it is almost impossible to reverse the process without arguing in a circle.[9]

So other than demonstrating that he has a fine imagination, Keresztes proves nothing. Even Frend, who says that “Domitian was not a man to tolerate religious deviations”, cannot summon up much enthusiasm for a Domitianic persecution, concluding that “the persecution of Domitian does not appear to have amounted to very much.” For Frend, “When one discounts the senatorial prejudices of Tacitus and Suetonius, the emperor stands out as a shrewd but jealous-minded ruler, a strong upholder of public right and the state religion, whose prejudices and fears for his own safety increased with age.”[10]  The Sibylline Oracles (Oracula Sibyllina) seem to agree: they present a very positive picture of Domitian as emperor. In the twelfth book the Jewish author described him “as a universally popular ruler, the bringer of peace and the benefactor of the provinces, who was blessed by the God of Hosts and whose murder is implied to have been undeserved.”[11] Which brings us back to why the book was written. As Ehrman relates, “Modern interpreters usually appeal to details in some of the visions to pinpoint a date. For example, the Beast of Babylon in chapter 17, which, as we will see, appears to represent the city of Rome, is said to have seven horns on its head” which are said to represent Rome’s rulers. Five have come and gone, the sixth is in place but as Ehrman asks, “should we begin counting…with the dictator Julius Caesar or with his adopted son, the first emperor, Caesar Augustus?” If we begin with Julius Caesar we arrive at Nero but evidence suggests the Apocalypse was not completed until the time of Domitian (c. 95 CE): Babylon as a code word for Rome did not come about until after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (Nero died in 68 CE).[12] Babylon is certainly Rome and Rome is Babylon because it was Babylon that made itself the enemy of God by destroying Jerusalem and the Temple.  As Ehrman says, the entire point of the book is that Rome will be destroyed by God.[13]Of course, the Roman Empire did fall but it took many hundreds of years and the city was not leveled; it is still there and heavily populated and a national capital to boot, not to mention the home of the Papacy. Not much of a revelation, apparently. So, having been wrong about Rome we now see the revelation directed instead at the United States. This is despite every prediction since the apocalypse was written being proved wrong, including, as Ehrman humorously points out, “Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, former Seretary of State Henry Kissinger, Pope Paul VI, and Saddam Hussein!” Ehrman is 100 percent right when he says of the author of Revelation:

“His enemy was Rome and its Ceasars….This book is about how God was going to overthrow this emperor and his empire at the end of time (see especially chaps. 18-19) prior to rewarding his saints with the kingdoms in a new heavens and a new earth (chaps. 20-22).”[14]

Since Rome fell without the “end of time” ever taking place, we can rest assured that the danger is past. If the evidence of 2000 years means anything, it means that the supposed wrath of God witnessed by John (who was notthe John who wrote the gospel) was either the product of an over-active imagination or perhaps the result of substance abuse. It was absolutely not a revelation of anything that was to come after his own time, which means it’s time for fundamentalists to put it to rest and move on with their lives. As they say, “Move along, there is nothing to see here.”

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford, 2003), 26.
[2] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: An Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Third Edition (Oxford, 2004), 464.
[3] Ehrman (2004), 464.
[4] Ehrman (2004), 464.
[5] Ehrman (2004), 465.
[6] Paul Keresztes The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church. I. From Nero to the Severi (Berlin, 1980), 272. We find Sulpicius Severus repeating this tale about John in his Chronica, ch. 31: “Then, after an interval, Domitian, the son of Vespasian, persecuted the Christians. At this date, he banished John the Apostle and Evangelist to the island of Patmos. There he, secret mysteries having been revealed to him, wrote and published his book of the holy Revelation, which indeed is either foolishly or impiously not accepted by many.” The tradition is earlier repeated by Eusebius (EH 3.18) and before him by Irenaeus, whom he cites in this regard (Against Heresies, 5.30.3).
[7] W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965),  156-157.
[8] T.D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985),  150.
[9] J.E.A. Crake, “Christians and Roman Law” Phoenix 19 (1965), 64.
[10] Frend (1965), 158, 161.
[11] E. Mary Smallwood, “Domitian’s Attitude Towared the Jews and Judaism,” Classical Philology 51 (1956), 11. See also K.H. Waters, “The Character of Domitian,” Phoenix 18 (1964), 70.
[12] Ehrman (2004), 470
[13] Ehrman (2004), 472.
[14] Ehrman (2004), 472-473.

12 Replies to “The Apocalypse of John is Irrelevant for America”

  1. Curiously, this mirrors a controversy about the Russian Dracula Chronicles. Vlad the Impaler was clearly dementedly cruel even in times when demented cruelty was the order of the day, yet it is likely that a number of the deeds attributed tohim were in fact those of Ivan the Terrible, a contemporary ruler about whom the Chroniclers dared not write openly. They therefore attributed these deeds to a Muntenian ruler, of ill repute and already dead, so they could safely denounce them. This construct actually holds up a lot better if we postulate Domitian was not a nice guy.

  2. Apparently, Domitian’s reputation was created by his senatorial enemies, who plotted to kill him. The 99 percent of the day seemed to like him a great deal more than the 1 percent, if the Sibylline Oracles can be trusted. As K.H. Waters says (“The Character of Domitian,” 49), “the hostility of the dominant literary tradition arises from…the attitude of the senatorial class. Tiberius and Domitian were ‘bad’ because they failed to please the Senate.”

    There were in fact several plots against Domitian; at least three hatched in the senate. The first plot came in 83 and another in 87. The revolt of Saturninus, the governor of Germania Superior, took place in 89 and though not hatched in the Senate was certainly cause for alarm and a reminder that an emperor’s position was a tenuous affair. And of course, as final proof of the justification of the Domitianic treason trials of 93 (used to show what a terrible tyrant he was), we have the assassination of Domitian just three years later, in 96, by enemies (where else?) in the senate! It was not without reason that Roman emperors tended to become paranoid. Domitian’s fear for his life was not unfounded.

    The senatorial class of the first century had not gotten used to the idea of an emperor and their own loss of power.

  3. I’m still pondering the article, which by the way, is rich and revealing…

    But I have a query which has been on my mind since yesterdays “sword” fight over “Occupy the Bible”; how have the fundamentalist christian “scholars” contributed anything, any real knowledge to enrich the life and soul of humanity since the theory of “evolution”? (Fundamentalist; not all Christians, Muslim, Jews…just the fundamentalist sects)

    In particular the past 5-600 years; those discoveries made by “scientist” who blew the bats out of the belfry in terms of the planets moving around the sun, gravity, lightening striking (church steeples), evolution…all those things that “god” controlled that man was never allowed to “question” or figure out HOW they worked, but, only “why” they existed for fear of reprisal, punishment.

    little stuff like that….

    It seems that the bizarre stories…”modern genre of “post-apocalyptic” fiction, which renders the word as “universal or widespread destruction or disaster,” of a wrathful, Christian revenge only exist because humans changed their minds due to evidence, facts, rationale, and logic…and of course, science. If this is all they got, then indeed,…”means it’s time for fundamentalists to put it to rest and move on with their lives. As they say, “Move along, there is nothing to see here.”

  4. *clarification:

    I used the initial time frame of “evolution” as the landmark piece where American fundamentalist evangelicals chimed in…and then, moved back to all the others in history (primarily of the christian variety of fundamentalism) who opposed science over doctrinal “certainty”, prior to the American/English movements.

    Sorry for the lapse…

  5. I find it hilarious when people have to keep grasping to fulfill the Bible with history. Being as you say nothing happened after the fall of Rome, Christians were left to their own devices to constantly define their own countries as being part of the end times as described in the revelations. Our own fundamentalists do it today as they prepare for Jesus’s return by trying to take over all aspects of our society. My own opinion of that is, that they are far more interested in power than they are the return of some Jesus who by now they probably don’t believe in it all. After all the United States could be easily compared to Rome. But then again so could England and France during their respective on top of power times. There have been many dominant countries since the end times were supposed to happen and all of them could’ve said that they were fulfilling the book of revelations.

    It seems to me by now that most introspective people would understand that the book of Revelation was all about Rome. The entire New Testament is all about Rome And getting out from underneath of Rome’s rule.

  6. Hrafnkell.

    Your posts are truly enlightening and inspiring. Thank you so much for shining the bright light of knowledge on shadowy cobwebbed mysticism.

  7. To tag onto what SinghX said, I recall reading somewhere that the OT Devil morphed from a rather prankster-like character–as in the story of poor, sorely afflicted Job–into absolute evil when Israelites’ fortunes took a turn for the worse.

    But SinghX’s comment now makes me wonder if the Devil’s elevation to master soul-snatcher may have been a deliberate means of distracting the faithful from scientific challenges to church doctrine.

  8. Isn’t this a thought provoking article? We all come to the same conclusion, but via different corners of the puzzle in an attempt to put the pieces together in order to see the entire picture…

  9. A little history to illuminate the conflict between the Christians and Rome. Judaism was considered as an ancient religion by Rome and, as such, was protected. Jews were not required to worship the Roman gods or the emperor. They were allowed their own worship in the temple/synagogues. At first, Christians were considered a sect of Judaism and were protected. As non-Jews were brought in there was the controversy concerning whether they had to become Jews and be subject to the Law, as described in the Act of the Apostles. The ultimate decision was “no, they did not have to become Jews”. That had the effect of declaring Christianity a separate religion. The later Gospels start taking up an anti-Jew tone. This meant that the Christians were no longer protect and thus did have to worship the Roman gods and Cesar. Rome insisted, the Christians said “No”, and the conflict was on.

  10. Some clarification: the Romans never required anyone to worship anything. The Roman conflict with any group, including the Christians, was about maintaining the peace. There was no law against being a Christian in the early empire, and that includes the periods of supposed persecution under Nero, Domitian, and others. It just didn’t happen. If Christians were punished in the first three centuries (up until Diocletian and the Tetrarchy) it was because they ran afoul of local ordinances and were punished as criminals, not because the government was persecuting them. Even burning incense to the genius of the emperor wasn’t about religious belief; it was about demonstrating your loyalty to the emperor. The conflict was purely political – not religious.

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