Refusing to bow before the Beast

Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation,
by J. Nelson Kraybill, Brazos Press.

The book of Revelation can be cryptic, but it’s not really as impenetrable or strange as we sometimes make it out to be.

Much of what we portray as baffling in John of Patmos’ psychedelic visions would not have been even slightly ambiguous to those for whom the book was written. And since this is one of the first and clearest things John says in his Apocalypse, it should be one of the first things any reader of his vision should note when seeking to understand the book: It was written for specific, actual people in specific, actual churches that John lists by name.

The book of Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor near the end of the first century CE. There’s nothing mysterious about this — no symbolism or vision language at work in John’s statement of his intended audience. These were seven real churches in a real place and time.* Most of the strange allusions and extravagant imagery that sometimes puzzles modern-day readers of Revelation would not have been at all puzzling to the people who gathered for worship in those seven churches in that time and place.

John’s Apocalypse was written to them and for them, a bunch of provincial Roman subjects — citizens, merchants and slaves who gathered in houses and synagogues somewhere around 95 CE. None of them would have thought of themselves as living in “95 CE,” of course, but just as living in the reign of (probably) the Roman Emperor Domitian. That’s a name most of us either have to look up or to dredge up from some fuzzy memory of history class, but none of the readers addressed by John would have needed any reminders of who the emperor was at the time. Domitian’s face was on their coins and statues of him were everywhere. Oaths of loyalty to him were recited and hymns of praise to him were sung every day. His soldiers stood on the corner of every street, not far from a sign or seal or statue reminding everyone that this street, like every street, was built and paved and maintained by the grace and might of that same emperor, who alone is worthy of honor, praise and glory, king of kings and lord of lords, and he shall reign for ever and ever.

That’s one piece of the lives of those first-century Christians that we modern readers recognize. Even those of us who never paid attention in history class still know the lyrics to those hymns these ancient provincial subjects were required to sing in praise of the Roman emperor. We’ve sung those same words, or heard them sung, in the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s “Messiah.” Handel took them from the book of Revelation, where John of Patmos recorded them not as hymns of praise to Domitian or Titus or Nero, but as hymns of praise to the Lamb of God, sung by the angels, saints and martyrs in heaven.

Think about that for a moment. That reappropriation and redirection of those words of praise was a radically subversive act. It was a pledge of allegiance to someone other than the emperor and to something other than the empire. Christian worship, as envisioned by John of Patmos, was an act of rebellion against the emperor, whom John portrayed as a hideous beast. The worship of these early Christians was a politically revolutionary and dangerous statement, a declaration of a new identity and a new community in which “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.”

The politically subversive nature of early Christian worship is one of the central themes of J. Nelson Kraybill’s excellent introduction to the final book of the New Testament, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation.

Kraybill, who has served as president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, offers a distinctly Anabaptist perspective on the Apocalypse.** That’s appropriate, since as Kraybill shows, Revelation is probably the most Anabaptist book in the Bible. Kraybill is scrupulous, though, to keep his study of Revelation balanced in the context of the rest of scripture — contrasting John’s beastly image of the state in Revelation 13 with Paul’s more affirming ideal of the state in Romans 13. (And he even refrains from tilting the argument by pointing out how that wound up working out for Paul once he got to Rome.)

The great value of this book, though, and the thing that makes it an immensely useful resource for any modern-day reader of Revelation, is Kraybill’s extensive marshaling of the historic details that illuminate what the book’s imagery and symbolism would have meant to John of Patmos and to the first-century provincial Roman subjects to whom and for whom he was writing. Most of what initially seems opaque to us becomes very clear when we learn more about their world and context. For people living in that time and place, these symbols would have been obvious and easily understood.

For a sense of how this works, think of the monologue from any late night television show. You can watch Leno or Letterman or Stewart without needing an interpreter to explain to you the jokes or references. They’re talking about stuff that most of their viewers already know about.

But imagine it’s 2,000 years from now and some archaeologist has just unearthed a Jay Leno monologue from 2011. Think of how much study and annotation would be required for this imaginary future scholar to understand Leno’s references to “Obama” or “Congress” or “SUVs” or “France,” let alone that joke about “Brangelina.”

That’s just the sort of thing readers of John’s Apocalypse are up against reading his words today. Kraybill provides us with all the annotation and context we need to understand those words.

Let me cite just one example of how this can deepen, enrich and clarify our reading of Revelation. The third horseman of the apocalypse, the rider on the black horse bearing scales, has traditionally been portrayed as “famine.” That portrayal — by everyone from Albrecht Durer to Hal Lindsey to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — has colored my own reading of this passage. I’ve joked before about how Larry Norman’s description of this famine — “a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold” — has come to be regarded as biblical canon for every premillennial dispensationalist “prophecy scholar” of the last 40 years. But Norman’s lyric also influenced my own idea of what this “famine” entails, in part because his words seemed clearer than the actual words of John in Revelation 6, which doesn’t mention “famine” at all:

I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”

Kraybill provides the historical context that clarifies what that means:

Ancient sources indicate that staple foods sometimes became scarce in Asia Minor in the first century. Exporters catering to Rome had bought up agricultural lands and converted them to olive groves and vineyards. Even emperors in Rome understood that this change in land use in the provinces inflated the price of grains needed to feed the local population and their animals. Suetonius says that once,

… upon the occasion of a plentiful wine crop, attended by a scarcity of grain, thinking that the [grain] fields were neglected through too much attention to the vineyards, [Emperor Domitian] made an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or but half of them at most be left standing.

The order was never carried out, and John’s vision implies that grain had become so expensive that people had to pay a full day’s wages for a mere quart of wheat (for human consumption) or for three quarts of barley (for animals).

We’re not wrong to think of that as “famine,” but it’s not the sort of famine that arises from drought or disaster. It is, rather, the kind of famine — a constant throughout history still widespread today — that is created by colonialism. It is the famine created by an economic system more interested in supplying the luxuries of the privileged elite than in supplying the necessities of the masses.

If that sounds to you like some kind of wild, radical political critique of economic oppression, then you’re starting to get an idea of what John of Patmos was saying.

This is another recurring theme throughout Kraybill’s book. Understanding Revelation is impossible without understanding the historical context of life in the Roman Empire in the first century. By providing that context, Kraybill takes us a long way toward understanding John’s visions. Yet Kraybill also insists that many of us are separated from the context of those seven churches by more than the passage of history. We are free, privileged and wealthy. They were not. To fully understand John’s message and its meaning, we have to try to read the book of Revelation through the eyes of the oppressed.

Throughout history, oppressed and outcast peoples have treasured John’s Apocalypse as a source of hope. That shouldn’t be surprising. That’s who apocalyptic literature is for. To understand the book of Revelation, you have to read it alongside people like those who were its intended audience. Don’t turn to some pampered PMD “prophecy expert” who’s desperate to inject a bit of cosmic drama into his life of purposeless ease. Turn instead to someone who’s living beneath the iron heel of the Beast. Such people have never been hard to find. They’ve always greatly outnumbered the rest of us.

After John describes his vision of “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations” — a vision fraught with all sorts of arcane details and symbolism, Kraybill notes that one doesn’t need to be an expert in ancient history to understand the broad meaning of the passage:

At the end of the harlot vision, an angel says bluntly, “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18). The first-century world knew there was no rival for that role: this vision is about Rome.

Everything in Revelation — a book written in the first century for churches in the first century — is just as bluntly about Rome. But just as the ancient empire of Babylon provided a template for John to understand the beastly power of Rome in his day, so too we can learn from John’s Apocalypse what that “great city that ruled over the kings of the earth” can help us to understand about the false reign of the Beast in our own day.

Kraybill is an invaluable guide to readers of Revelation who want to learn from history. Those who do not wish to learn from history … well, you know the rest.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* This is a useful gauge for the credibility and coherence of any modern interpreter or expositor of Revelation. Someone like our friend Tim LaHaye, for example, insists that John’s Apocalypse must be read “literally” as a prediction of “literal” future events. But this supposedly literal approach collapses for LaHaye before he even gets through the first chapter in which John of Patmos addresses those seven specific churches in Asia Minor. Those churches, LaHaye asserts, are not literal churches — they’re symbols representing seven future ages of history. That’s a completely arbitrary claim not supported or allowed by anything at all that can be found in the text. But what’s really amazing is how casually and immediately LaHaye betrays his own claim to be treating the text “literally.”

** You might have guessed that from his name if you’ve ever heard anyone play “the Mennonite game.” I don’t know if J. Nelson Kraybill is any relation to Donald B. Kraybill, a scholar of the Amish and author of the classic book The Upside-Down Kingdom, but I’m going to guess he probably is. The whole basis of the Mennonite game is that all Anabaptists seem to be some relation to one another. Tracing out that six-degrees connection is a common pasttime for Brethren and Mennonite Christians whenever they meet someone new.

“Schwarzengruber? My cousin Amos married a Schwarzengruber. …”

“Amos Yoder? In Lancaster?”

And they’re off. The Mennonite game would make a great iPhone app, except of course that Anabaptists can’t really be considered early adopters when it comes to things like iPhones.

  • Randy Owens

    OK, but other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?!

    (Yeah, Life of Brian was already mentioned, but not that particular bit, so….)

    —-

    So, does this mean the Four Horsemen should really be called Conquest, War, Capitalism, and Death?

  • Anonymous

    Maybe more Conquest, War, Excessive Self-Interest, and Death. Which is gettin’ pretty redundant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.condrey Steve Condrey

    What you describe is endemic to literary criticism in general.  The author is *never* the final authority on his or her own work, because the author’s opinions will die with the author, leaving the work for future generations.  Or so the theory goes.  Personally I always thought it was a way for English teachers to buoy their egos by trashing their students…give me math and science any day!  At least when I’m wrong there I know _why_.

    PMD has always been a political animal.  100 years ago when Billy Sunday was pushing it, the big bad Antichrist nation was Germany.  Later on during the Cold War it was the USSR (and maybe China playing Tonto to the Soviet Union’s Lone Ranger).  I remember seeing very nicely-produced books during the first Gulf War outlining why Saddam Hussein *has* to be the Antichrist because the war was prophesized in Daniel (????)  Of course, after the war ended, these books disappeared, and the nice lady at the church bookstore couldn’t even remember they existed.

    Now it’s European unity and the United Nations, even though both authors are unaware of the massive cracks that have been showing themselves in both institutions of late.  It almost seems as though they’re saying ‘we’re right because we say we’re right, and John of Patmos isn’t around to tell us what he meant so our interpretation goes’.  I have a vision of my own…of two giant millstones specially tailored for the necks of two hack authors…

  • Albanaeon

    Or military-industrial complex, Shrub’s daddy issues, Randroids, and Death?

  • Albanaeon

    The sad thing is, for me, that the cultural issues that were relevant at the time and all the historical context is far more interesting to me than the babble L&J put forth.  Probably because their forced narrative doesn’t hang together very well to begin with, but also I like to get glimpses of the people that can come through when you really try to get into what a time was like.  It’s like meeting new people, even though they are long dead.  For all the ten headed monsters and demon locusts, people really are more interesting, in the long run.  You learn things.  About them, their times, and about you and your times.  A glimpse at the great span of history.  But it always gets buried in the pyrotechnics people like to throw up to disguise singularly unpleasant ideologies.

  • Lori

     Isn’t John of Patmos supposed to be a different person than John the Apostle (who’s not really the author of the epistles of John)?  Or at least it’s highly debated that they were the same? 

    I’ve never heard a hardcore Biblical literalist argue that the John of Revelation was a different person that the John of 1st, 2nd & 3rd John. 

  • Randy Owens

    I agree that, if I were going for accuracy, “Excessive Self-Interest” or some such would be more accurate than “Capitalism”.  But “Capitalism” would do a better job of making wingnut Christianist heads explode, so I’m sticking with that.

  • Hawker40

    I’ve never heard a Biblical literalist argue it, but I know the Catholic church refers to “St. John the Apostle” (one of the twelve), “St. John the Evangilist” (writer of letters) and “St. John the Divine” (writer of Revelation).
    Oh, and the unknown person called John who wrote the 4th Gospel.

  • Lori

    Man, the Catholics make that a lot more complicated than the folks I know. I’ve heard people discuss whether the John who wrote the gospel of was the same guy as the letters and Revelation, but I haven’t seen any further split.

  • Leum

    Isn’t John
    of Patmos supposed to be a different person than John the Apostle
    (who’s not really the author of the epistles of John)?  Or at least it’s
    highly debated that they were the same?

    Okay, my knowledge of NT authorship is essentially limited to a single, introductory class, but here goes. The Gospel of John was traditionally attributed to John son of Zebedee, but probably wasn’t written by him, nor is John son of Zebedee the “beloved disciple” who features prominently in the Fourth Gospel. The beloved disciple is believed to have founded a community of (I believe Jewish) Christians. One of these Christians wrote the Fourth Gospel. Then the writer of the epistles of John found two versions of that gospel and redacted them and wrote the prologue. The prologue of the Fourth Gospel was sufficiently similar (in Greek) to the epistles of John that the gospel became identified with him.

    John of Patmos writes in a completely different style of Greek, one that uses long words and poor grammar where John the epistler wrote in very simple Greek and impeccable grammar. Among biblical scholars there is no debate: John of Patmos is not John the epistler.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Way back I bumped into an ebook stored on Project Gutenberg that was a reproduction of some book written in the 1800s which had a completely different interpretation of Revelation. The person’s idea was that it portended conflict within the Catholic church.

    I can’t find the original post I made about it so I can re-link to the ebook which rather annoys me. :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    Fred, I really can’t afford to keep buying all these great books you recommend. :)

  • Skiriki

    So… “Revelation” in this instance should be read as “expose”? As in, “Expose of the rotten core of the Roman empire and its excesses and how they end up harming everyone”? And that John of Patmos was kind of Michael Moore of his own time, except instead of award-winning movies, he wrote letters to his audience? I’ll buy that.

  • Parisienne

    Sadly the Young Ones clip seems to have disappeared from Youtube – but to me the Four Horsemen will always be Death, War, Pestilence and the other one.

  • Anonymous

    In terms of context, there’s also the point that Domitian’s father and brother had been the military commanders who suppressed the Great Jewish Revolt of 67 and completely destroyed the second Temple (his father took time out in the middle of this to launch a coup and make himself emperor). So John’s recent memory would have included (locally) earth shattering events as well as day to day oppression, and indeed events which seemed to validate various off the cuff remarks attributed to Jesus. It must have felt like the end times for real if you were a Christian in those days.

    [And now for something completely different: https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-k97IfmWWa80/Tm8a2bPvgEI/AAAAAAAAANI/qSF4TkLBZGw/h301/bizarrobelieverjerkcolor-630x750.jpg.]

  • Tonio

    But RTCs generally don’t sound like they’re warning non-believers of a dangerous situation. They sound instead like a taunting child: “Awww, you’re gonna get it!” Or else they sound like they treat the concepts of salvation and damnation as tribalist.

  • Tonio

    speaking as the person who put the bridge out in the first place.

    Yes. If RTCs want to convince non-believers of good intentions, they could petition their god to do away with the punishment of eternal suffering after death. Or at least publicly label the punishment as unjust. I might at least listen to an argument about the punishment being just if the crime was, say, the slaughter of billions.

  • Tonio

    Hell doesn’t exist except possibly as something you create for yourself.

    I’ve heard that from a few theologians. WingedBeast is right about how Jesus described Hell. From what I can see, there’s no way to know if the theologians are right or if the literal-Hell crowd is right.

  • Tonio

    The person’s idea was that it portended conflict within the Catholic church.

    There are some fundamentalists who believe that Revelation is not about the Roman Empire but about the Catholic Church.

  • Lori

     John of Patmos writes in a completely different style of Greek, one that uses long words and poor grammar where John the epistler wrote in very simple Greek and impeccable grammar. Among biblical scholars there is no debate: John of Patmos is not John the epistler.  

    Well, ya learn something new (about stuff you don’t really care about) every day. This blog is a constant education. 

    I confess this one makes me a little sad though. I liked my version better. Unlike some people, I’m not going to hang onto just because I like it better though. 

  • http://agirlcalledraven.blogspot.com sarah

    Woo Mennonites! I lived with a couple of Mennonites for a little while. If this post hasn’t convinced you of their general awesomeness, maybe this will: they play life-sized versions of Dutch Blitz at Mennonite conferences.

    Anyway. I always appreciate posts like this, because, as a sort of lit-crit person, I’m convinced we have to read everything in context. You can’t really read the Bible like a New Critic.

    Also, my copy of The Upside-Down Kingdom is somewhere on my bookshelf.

  • Tonio

    I suspect that most of the Mennonites in my community are Old Older, using only propane-powered appliances and eschewing electricity and automobiles. Did the ones you lived with follow the same practices? These aren’t Amish, who live in another community nearby. Our family regularly buys goods from the farmers in both groups.

  • Truthteller

    Nice Write up.However it is important to note that  Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations is not Rome:
    Babylon is the opposite of Zion:Zion is the system(world order) of God:Babylon is the system(world order) of man.It comprises of all the religious,economical,political etc systems of man on earth which seek to exalt themselves over God:http://truth.co.vu/beastident 

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    According to that page, the Statue of Liberty is the Whore of Babylon?

    9_9

  • Anonymous

    Does that mean you’re Good Jackie?

  • Mark Z.

    WingedBeast is right about how Jesus described Hell.

    WingedBeast said this: “But, biblically, Jesus did speak of Hell as an eternal lake of fire.” And this: “God as creator of Hell and the one who says that the human default is to go to Hell unless they go to the father through Jesus”

    Both are clear cases of projecting the popular sound-bite theology of modern evangelicalism back onto Jesus.

    There are several passages where Jesus mentions a future judgment. There are also places where Jesus mentions some awful fate awaiting the unrepentant. Sometimes this involves fire, sometimes not, but nowhere is it a lake of fire. He doesn’t say that God created Gehenna (in fact he seems very uninterested in what Gehenna is), or that “the human default is to go to hell”. You can look this up. The Gospels are not that long.

  • Tonio

    My reference to WingedBeast’s post was limited to the part about Jesus and not about any default state for humanity. You have a point about Jesus not mentioning a lake specifically. In any case, it doesn’t matter whether the Christian god created Gehenna, because the omnipotent god would have the power to do away with it if the god wished. It’s reasonable to conclude that the god sees Gehenna’s existence as a good thing. I repeat that the concept of eternal suffering after death is absolutely unjust and unwarranted.

  • Gao

     And eternal suffering is never mentioned by Jesus.  He states that the place was eternal, as in there will always be a place of judgment.  If you look up the Jewish concept of Gehenna, you’ll find that it was usually mentioned as a place of destruction more than a place of eternal torment, though there are a few mentions of some people being there forever due to very specific sins.  One part of the Talmud even states that except for 5 people, the place is more like purgatory, where people pay for their sins before being released.  To my knowledge, Jesus never contradicted this Jewish idea, and at least in the Synoptic Gospels, he’s pretty clear that actions are what keep you from it, not faith.

  • Gao

     And eternal suffering is never mentioned by Jesus.  He states that the place was eternal, as in there will always be a place of judgment.  If you look up the Jewish concept of Gehenna, you’ll find that it was usually mentioned as a place of destruction more than a place of eternal torment, though there are a few mentions of some people being there forever due to very specific sins.  One part of the Talmud even states that except for 5 people, the place is more like purgatory, where people pay for their sins before being released.  To my knowledge, Jesus never contradicted this Jewish idea, and at least in the Synoptic Gospels, he’s pretty clear that actions are what keep you from it, not faith.

  • Woodsider

    But at the time that John of Patmos was writing, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t yet exist. That structure for the Church was still a few centuries in the future. As was the split into Western and Eastern churches,along with Western and Eastern portions of the Empire. (And the Protestant Reformation was still more than a thousand years away…) 

    Ignorance thy name is American Non-Denominational Protestantism.

  • Vulpis Contra

    Maybe more Conquest, War, Excessive Self-Interest, and Death. Which is gettin’ pretty redundant.

    As long as it’s not People Covered in Fish.

    Nice Write up.However it is important to note that  Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations is not Rome:
    Babylon is the opposite of Zion:Zion is the system(world order) of God:Babylon is the system(world order) of man.

    I think I saw an anime like that once.

    Doesn’t John keep inserting the phrase “let the reader understand” as he’s describing everything? Even as a bitty evangelical I caught on to those as a big neon sign saying THIS IS A METAPHOR.

  • Patrick Phelan

    As long as it’s not People Covered in Fish.

    Well, whatever the identification of the four horsemen, I think we can agree on one thing: they’re right bastards, all four of them.

  • Steve

    J Nelson Kraybill and Don Kraybill are first cousins. Their father’s are brothers. (I just asked Don.)

  • Anonymous

    Ha! The Mennonite Game has nothing on Jewish geography. Ever seen a man born in Germany meet a woman born in Los Angeles, while both are in Venezuela, and figure out that they have a cousin in common in Tel Aviv?

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    We’re not wrong to think of that as “famine,” but it’s not the sort of
    famine that arises from drought or disaster. It is, rather, the kind of
    famine — a constant throughout history still widespread today — that is
    created by colonialism. It is the famine created by an economic system
    more interested in supplying the luxuries of the privileged elite than
    in supplying the necessities of the masses.

    i.e. a Cash Crop Economy for Absentee Landlords.  The agricultural version of the Curse of Oil.

    I remember a biography of George Washington Carver that mentioned various deficiency diseases (pellagra, beriberi, maybe scurvy) being endemic among poor Southern sharecroppers while every square inch of arable land (right up to the doors of the sharecroppers’ shacks) was planted in King Cotton.

    Throughout history, oppressed and outcast peoples have treasured John’s
    Apocalypse as a source of hope. That shouldn’t be surprising.

    It is to me.  After several years’ immersion in The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay back in the Seventies, it is literally impossible for me to see ANY sort of hope in Revelation — only grinning lip-smacking annihalation.

    At the end of the harlot vision, an angel says bluntly, “The woman you
    saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18).
    The first-century world knew there was no rival for that role: this
    vision is about Rome.

    Not seven artificial hills bulldozed in the flatlands of Iraq on the site of Babylon on the orders of a Romanian Robert Redford?  (“It’s Prophesied, It’s Prophesied…”)

  • Hawker40

    Actually, yes.  Well, a man born in Lebanon and a man born in Chicago, meeting in Vancouver Canada, and found out thier cousins were co-owners of a communal farm in southern Isreal…

  • Apocalypse Review

    Actually, yes.  Well, a man born in Lebanon and a man born in Chicago,
    meeting in Vancouver Canada, and found out thier cousins were co-owners
    of a communal farm in southern Isreal…

    Now there’s a “small world” story! :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/l.andrew.spencer Leonard Andrew Spencer

    All this talk about propane and the apocalypse reminds me of just one thing.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mukGRN23yeQ

    THATS A CLEAN BURNING HELL I TELL YA HWAT!


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