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 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 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.

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