This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the sixth of twenty-six short reflections.
When I was young and had not read The Book of Revelation one of my brothers suggested that John was on some kind of drugs and had a psychedelic experience – and probably a bad trip, at that. After reading it, though, it is pretty clear to me that Revelation is actually a creative melding of images and themes from the Hebrew Bible in the context of a charismatic experience of Jesus as the risen Lord. It may not be the kind of thing that my brother or I might come up with, but for John, steeped as he was in the prophets and being inspired by the Spirit, it was a natural result.
As mentioned in earlier posts in this series, John the Divine, author of The Book of Revelation, was influenced by both Paul and the Community of the Beloved Disciple. However, arguably the greatest influences came from the prophets, especially Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. There is hardly an image or metaphor in the whole of the book that cannot be traced back to the Jewish scriptures. Indeed, it is likely that, like Paul and the Beloved Disciple, that John of Patmos was originally a Jew from Judea or Galilee, someone who could read and speak Hebrew at the synagogue, spoke Aramaic to his neighbours, and learned Greek as the language of the colonizing Greeks and Romans.
Jesus is portrayed as the Son of Man ben-‘adam in Revelation. We are introduced to this vision of Jesus in the first chapter:
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
This echoes the vision of Daniel:
9 As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened . . .
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed. Daniel 7.9-11, 13b-14
In the gospels we are told that Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man, so the the Christian interpretation is that the one who is “like a human being” is Jesus. The identity of the Ancient of Days in Daniel is less clear; it is God, but which person? In some interpretations he is God the Father. Certain authors in Orthodoxy argue that it is Jesus in his role as the divine judge. In Revelation the two are conflated, and Jesus, like the Ancient One, has white hair and is attended with what looks like flames.
This is but one example of how John uses the Jewish traditions he received. John, like Paul, was Jewish, and knew his Hebrew Bible. Like Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel, John did not see himself as creating a new religion. Christianity was not a faith replacing Judaism, but rather a continuation and its fulfillment. The extension of salvation to the non-Jews was an exceptional grace that built upon universalizing trends long present in Judaism.
Tomorrow I will note a few more of these images derived from the prophets.