Urban Utopia

Eric Gilchrest (Revelation 21-22 in the Light of Jewish and Greco-Roman Utopianism) suggests that the conclusion vision of Revelation would receive a quite different reaction from its original readers, depending on whether they had been schooled in Jewish or in Greco-Roman Utopian traditions.

For a Jewish reader, the urban setting wouldn’t occasion surprise: “to the Jewish-minded auditor, John’s utopian setting would be expected, both its urban and rural aspects. certainly Jerusalem plays a key role in Jewish eschatological visions, and thus John’s use of Jerusalem imagery would be heard quite naturally in the Jewish ear—after all, this is the new Jerusalem. . . . John’s use of Edenic imagery signals the reader that the paradise which God created for humans has once again been reopened, and the tree of life stands at the center of the city bidding all to come and partake of its fruit—the same fruit that caused God to remove Adam and Eve from the garden of eden lest they eat from it and ‘live forever’ (Gen 3:22). even the mention of twelve angels standing guard at the twelve gates (Rev 21:12) reminds the reader of the cherubim who once watched over Eden (Gen 3:24; Ezek 28:14, 16)” (209-10).

A Jewish reader wouldn’t not that the scene was something more than a revived Eden: “It is both garden and city, but not just any city. It is Jerusalem. And as such, it continues into eternity as an extension of the narrative of God’s action in and to the people and place of Jerusalem.” This continuity of history and consummation fits Jewish conceptions, suggesting “an embrace of culture and human achievement, even if this city is said to descend from God himself” (210).

Greco-Roman (GR) readers, by contrast, excluded urban features from their visions of the ideal world: “the vast majority of afterlife utopias (as well as primitivistic utopias) were set in rural environments. one need only think of the Islands of the Blessed, the Elysian Fields, or the primitivistic utopian islands to quickly get the sense that utopia was supposed to be hidden from city life. Even those romans living in urban environments decorated their homes with green spaces meant to emulate a rural, paradisiacal environment” (210-1). A listener schooled in GR utopianism, might “entirely reject the urban nature of the vision opting instead to focus on the rural imagery” (211), as did the author of the Apocalypse of Peter. At best, “John’s GR–minded original audience would have done something similar by emphasizing the edenic qualities of John’s vision and spiritualizing the urban” (212).

This is a remarkable contrast, especially given that Greco-Roman civilization was so thoroughly civic/urban. It was an urban civilization estranged from itself, full of nostalgia for the simpler life of the farm.

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