Refusing to bow before the Beast

Refusing to bow before the Beast September 12, 2011

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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!