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 twenty-first of twenty-six short reflections.
It is a common statement in academic considerations of ancient apocalyptic literature that it is produced by communities in crisis and trauma. They are invariably powerless, and so they call upon God to make things right. In many cases they do not trust their supposed religious or political leaders because they are hopelessly compromised with collaboration with imperial overseers, or corrupt, or both.
This is different from ordinary prophecy, as practiced by the historical Isaiah or Jeremiah. Isaiah prophesied to the kings and people of Israel to turn from their ways. He was a priest, already a member of the religious elite, and he had hope that Hezekiah might listen to him and act in accordance. Likewise, Jeremiah preached about the coming of the Babylonians, and he was a true prophet because the destruction he predicted came to pass.
The writers of Apocalyptic do not think to change or transform the political and religious leadership. As far as John the Divine is concerned, Rome and the Empire is beyond redemption, and is fit only for destruction. He never discusses the religious leadership of Judea in Revelation, probably because he was writing and editing after the Jewish Revolution was over and the Temple was no more, but most likely because, in his mind, they were irrelevant. His conflict is with the individuals influencing the churches in the seven cities to whom Revelation is addressed, and those who persecute the followers of Jesus there.
This is true of the book of Daniel. While it purports to be the experiences and visions of a Jewish man who alternately suffers and prospers in exile under Babylon, Medea, and Persia in the Sixth Century BCE, most scholars not wedded to biblical fundamentalism see it as having been written anonymously in the middle of the Second Century BCE, about a century and a half before Jesus.
In 175 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to the throne of the Selucid Empire, one of the four Hellenistic Empires that took over from Alexander the Great when he died without an heir in 323 BCE. It had been founded by one of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, Seleucus I Nicator. Based in Babylon, it encompassed Syria and Palestine, what is now Iran and the eastern part of Turkey, as well Afghanistan and the Indus valley. Its regular competitors were the equally Hellenistic empires of Ptolomaic Egypt, Phrygia in Asia, and Macedon and Greece, as well as the Maurya empire of India. By Jesus’s time the Selucid Empire had been swallowed by the Parthians from the East (an Iranian people) and the Romans from the East, establishing a boundary that moved back and forth across what is now the modern border between Iraq and Syria.
That downfall was not envisaged in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, although he did much to weaken the realm. He invaded Ptolomaic Egypt, and the author of the First Book of Maccabees writes,
20 After subduing Egypt, Antiochus returned in the one hundred forty-third year. He went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. 21 He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. 22 He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. 23 He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures that he found. 24 Taking them all, he went into his own land. 1 Maccabees 1.20-24
In order to strengthen the Empire he enacted a policy of Hellenization:
41 Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, 42 and that all should give up their particular customs. 43 All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. 44 And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, 45 to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, 46 to defile the sanctuary and the priests, 47 to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, 48 and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, 49 so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. 50 He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” . . .
54 Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, 55 and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. 56 The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. 57 Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. 58 They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns. 59 On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering. 60 According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, 61 and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.
The First Book of Maccabees describes how the Judas Maccabeus (Judas the “Hammer”) and his brothers led a revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes and established a renewed Jewish kingdom, reconquering Jerusalem in 164 BCE, and cleansing the Temple. Indeed, Hannukah, which ended just yesterday, commemorates this event.
All of this was in the future for the author of Daniel – all he knew was that the emperor wanted to wipe out and assimilate the stubborn Jews, who appeared to prefer death to abandoning the ways of their forebears. So Daniel envisions a beast arising who is arrogant and “made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them” (Daniel 7.21). However, one like a Son of Man is sent by the Ancient of Days to the world and
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 7.14
How this happens is not absolutely clear, but later Daniel hears:
There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. 2 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12.1-2)
The author felt powerless, so that only a direct intervention from God could save him and other faithful Jews from the genocidal depredations of the Selucid Empire. As part of that intervention, along with the coming of the Son of Man, was the day of resurrection and judgement. This was a radical hope in the face of extreme violence and anguish. As it turns out, the Maccabees took history down another course, but the lessons of the Book of Daniel were so salutary that it made its way into the collection of Sacred Writings known as the “Writings” or Kethubim, the third division of the Hebrew Bible. When it was translated into the Greek of the Septuagint some 100 years before the time of Jesus it had already received some additions. When the technology of books moved from scrolls to codices, Daniel was placed among the older prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve.
It is obvious that John the Divine knew Daniel, and he picked up multiple themes, including the beasts, the book of life, the resurrection, the day of judgement, the coming of the Son of Man, and so forth. John reinterpreted it to his context, which may have been that of the persecutions under the short-term successors of Nero in the Year of the Four Emperors, although a case has been made for Revelation being written in the reign of Domitian (81-96). Regardless, John also picked up on the apocalyptic hope. The Roman Empire was so powerful and so contrary to the values and beliefs of the followers of Jesus that he could only imagine it being destroyed by a direct breaking in of the divine. For John, this had already been accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection. In the thought of Paul, the return of Jesus to establish the kingdom had been delayed, so that he, Paul, and the other apostles would be able to proclaim the good news to the gentiles. Paul, essentially, was on an extraordinary mission to help save as many as he could from damnation. John the Divine does not get into that part of things, but perhaps he had an inclusive understanding of God’s mercies.
How might we understand this? I think there are at least three ways.
- The first is to read it literally – that the kingdom is going to come, and all who do not belong to Jesus or are somehow saved by him (with or without faith in him, but by his faithfulness).
- The second is to understand that the victory has already been won, and that in Christ we are already in the kingdom, that we are already living the resurrected life, and that the new heaven and the new earth is a goal to which we are moving. Thus, one does not read Revelation literally, but rather in mystical and symbolic terms for the lives we live now. This is what I understand is the Orthodox approach. The kingdom was established in the resurrection of Jesus, and has been manifested somewhat by the Christian transformation of the Roman Empire and such “saintly” rules as Constantine the Great.
- The third is to combine the two, and to affirm the “already but not yet” aspect of Christ’s coming into the world and the transformation of the world.
Thus, we are not obliged to necessarily understand the world quite as either the unknown author of the Book of Daniel or John the Dive would have understood it, but we are to see their diagnosis of the world’s ills and to ask where we find ourselves in the present situation. Allan Boesak did this for South Africa in the era or apartheid, and Daniel Berrigan and William Stringfellow did it for the United States in the ’70s through to the ’00s. Chris Hedges does that now. I think I do it when, in my dissertation, I discern the genocidal theologies that justified the colonization of Canada, the United States, and other parts of the world. Christians do it when they challenge Trump, Putin, Johnson, and Xi to acknowledge their lies and the damage their policies have done to the weakest of the world. It seems like nothing can stop them (just as right-wing American Christians think people like me are complicit in destroying all that is good and holy about the USA), and so we struggle to maintain hope. In the face of global warming, global pandemics, the growth of inequality, the rolling back of democratic regimes, and the way in which politicians seem to act with impunity, what can we do? So the times feel rather apocalyptic.
Those of us who dare to call ourselves followers of Jesus are a people of hope. We believe that in Christ the victory has been won, that it will be won, and that we are winning it now. The struggle does not end – in this broken, fragile world we are called to take up our crosses and follow Christ, but, at the same time, because of our hope and faith with Christ, this yoke, this burden, is paradoxically light and easy.
Tomorrow I am going to return to the topic of time, and a major rule about how to read the Book of Revelation.