Guido Reni Archangel Michael defeating Satan (Wikimedia)
Elaine Pagels' cover piece.
This article is a response to Elaine Pagels' latest book "Revelations: Vision, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation, Viking Press 2012, which gives an intriguing account of the history and politics and cultural nuances of the last and most controversial book in the Bible, augmented by further research on my part into some of the points raised.
The Book of Revelation of John of Patmos, an island off the Turkish coast, is an intensely imaginative and sweepingly grand portrayal of final end of days confrontation, amid a triage of life and hideous scenes of carnage and destruction, leading eventually to the establishment of the rule of God under Christ in the heavenly Jerusalem surrounded by the Lamb and the Tree of Life.
Nevertheless, Revelation did not invent the apocalyptic scenario and many of its fantastic scenarios and political diatribes lie in a continuum with a sequence of other apocalyptic revelations from Ezekiel through Zechariah to Daniel. It is resplendently surrealistic in its portrayal of angels, monsters, trumpets and horsemen of the apocalypse and contains overflowing allusions to the empires which have consumed Israel and the Christian movement over the period from Jesus crucifixion to the time John of Patmos wrote, also extending to the subsequent violent suppression of charismatic Christian movements, and in later centuries, in terms of the enemies of traditional religion and those 'heretics' who have challenged the established order.
Revelation is conceived and written some time between Nero and the end of Domitian's reign around 90 AD. Revelation's writing places it closer to John's gospel in its sentiment and polemic than Pauline Christian writing, but scholarly opinions are that John the Apostle, John the Evangelist and John of Patmos were three separate individuals. The textual structure is very different from John's Gospel, displays little or no knowledge of Hebrew and is written in a feral colloquial style of Greek language distinct from John's Gospel, which some people have claimed is intentional. However it displays Jewish sentiments, including the 144,000 corresponding to the 12 tribes and invocations concerning eating and sex which are closer to Jewish Christian practices than Pauline gentile Christianity.
William Blake The Number of the Beast (Wikimedia)
The number 666 could refer to Domitian as the archetypal tyrant in Nero's name and may derive from Hebrew gematria. Preterist theologians, who believe the account refers to historical events at the time of writing, adhere the idea that Nero is the man the number refers to. The the many headed monsters may thus reflect seven roman emperors and vanquishing of the dragon falls in a tradition running right back to Tiamat the original mother of chaos in the Babylonian creation myth. The Oxyrhynchus text fragment of Revelation and several other old texts have 616 rather than 666 and early church fathers also claimed the number was 616, throwing the numerology of Revelation into chaos.
The stark unyielding confrontation of Revelation, in a cosmic war between good and evil, in which the enemy is both without in the form of violent political dominion, and within in terms of heretics who claim to be believers in the true path, but are cursed as satanic, is highly polarized by comparison with other revelation accounts, many of which are more capable of expressing accommodation to the spiritual truth underlying the existential condition, despite the vagaries of mortal existence and political and religious injustice.
Such revelations include contemporary Jewish prophetic scriptures and several of the gnostic apocalypses, which envisage spiritual redemption in this world - Zostrianos, Peter and Salathiel the Jew, the Secret John and the Secret James. Many of these also are accounts by an author in severe distress about the world condition and whose resolutions of the crisis are significantly different from John of Patmos's final solution. For example Salathiel, who was a contemporary of John of Patmos faced a paradoxical challenge from the angel Uriel to his complaint about why God had allowed Babylon to oppress God's followers, giving him koans akin to those given to Job, although in the end Salathiel likewise comes to a judgment of fire and brimstone. However in the end he produces 90 books, some canonical and others secret and esoteric, reflecting an inner elect mystical tradition similar to that pracitsed by early Christians before the gnostic gospels were suppressed.
In the secret Revelation of John, Jesus, rather than appearing as the symbolic Lamb or a feudal Lord on a white horse, is a great shining light similar to Paul's vision, who shows him inner mysteries that God transcends anything we can understand and why people have mistaken the external appearances for the inner reality. In the Secret Revelation of James, Jesus is said to appear in human form a full eighteen months after his crucifixion and long after his presumed ascent into heaven in the Pauline accounts, presenting teachings to the twelve disciples for them to disseminate to the future generations. There are thus many different ways visionary prophets have envisaged apocalyptic revelation by no means all of them leading to scorched-earth division. Zostrianos rather than condemning the universe to triage, declares his own salvation through his sinner light "I realized that the power in me was greater than the darkness, because i contained the whole light." Peter in like vein is consumed by the light after falling fearful when approached by the priests and people with stones.
The Book of Revelation curses not just the beasts of political repression, but treats Christian 'heretics' just as much as agents of evil, thus acting both against the villains of dominion and other Christian movements with different spiritual approaches. It is thus a two-edged labrys, which can be conveniently wielded against any opponent inside or out.
Unlike the assumptions of Catholic Christianity, Revelation does not fit neatly into a continuum with Pauline beliefs and casts a portrait more consistent with Jewish observances. Invocations against heretics include Jezebel who might be identified with one of the prominent Christian female charismatics and those who eat food sacrificed to idols and practice 'fornication', suggesting Pauline gentiles were also regarded as diabolical. Fornication may apply to Jews marrying gentiles and thus include the entire sweep of gentile Christianity. The invocation against unconsecrated food likewise runs back to the disagreements between Paul and Peter and James at Antioch over the gentile Christians eating un-kosher food and not keeping the Jewish observances.
Although these invocations against heretics may have included Pauline gentile Christianity on the writer's part, they were centuries later to be used against those Christians who didn't adhere to the Catholic party line, once Athanasius, who did support the inclusion of Revelation, although virtually all of his contemporaries did not, issued his edict against apocryphal works and the gnostic gospels were suppressed. However Christianity didn't exist as such when John of Patmos wrote, being coined first as a term of abuse and then claimed by Ignatius calling himself Christophoros (90-110).
Revelation dwells strongly on political elements casting opposing forces into cosmic battle in reflection of Rome oppressing the Christians resulting in martyrdoms under emperors such as Nero, just as it had laid siege to Jerusalem, climaxing again in a second wave of martyrdoms in the early 300s. Consequently Justin, Iraneus (160-180) Tertullian and others of the New Prophecy, a revival of end of days sentiments, adopted Revelation as a prophetic expression of the times. These sentiments continued to be fed by violent suppression of the Christians up to the early fourth century, including Perpetua, whose tragic visionary tale is told so beautifully by Elaine Pagels in "Adam, Eve and the Serpent" (pp 34-40), thus having a catalytic effect on the notion that the Book of Revelation was a truly prophetic account of dire travails of the Christian community.
Then Constantine in 312 suddenly caused a revolution to Christianity as the state religion. When the Arian controversy with Bishop Alexander occurred, Constantine attended the convention at Nicea in 325 in person to try to convince all parties not to dispute on insignificant points. Athanasius at the tender age of 18 as secretary to Alexander then settled the dispute by setting out the Nicene Creed and Arius was exiled. Subsequently other original thinkers, such as Pelagius, although supported by Julian of Eclanum, met a similar fate.
Athanasius embarked on a long political career, becoming the governing prelate of Egypt by guile and relentless contestation with his opponents. When Alexander died a council of 50 bishops convened to choose a successor, but seven others met separately and ordained Athanasius, who quickly sent a message to Constantine, quoting a decree from the city council as proof, which was hotly contested. During his 46 years as bishop Athanasius was deposed and sent into exile five times, furiously writing against his enemies, gaining the title "Athanasius against the world", and being accused of blocking grain shipments from Alexandria to Constantinople and even murder.
However, particularly in Egypt, there was an established tradition of spiritual discovery through individual meditative exploration which became coordinated into a monastic movement by Pachomias who gathered such seekers into cooperative male and female communities ad had a large community near Nag Hammadi.
Although such seekers followed Christian practices, there was at this time no established New Testament canon, so the practices of such communities included using a variety of texts involving spiritual exploration embracing the Nag Hammadi texts as well as those such as Revelation that have become part of the canonical scripture. This provides a more balanced picture of spiritual explorations at the time, which encompass texts lying outside Christianity such as the Discourse on the Eight and Ninth to Hermes Trismegistus and enigmatic gnostic works such as Thunder - Perfect Mind in which the contrary elements set in cosmic opposition in Revelation are instead in complementation in the paradox of existence.
The Pope and below Martin Luther each decried as antichrist
in the spirit of Revelation
However, when Pachomias died of the plague in 346, Athanasius took the opportunity to reign in these wilder explorations in favor of a strictly Catholic approach. In 367 Athanasius defined what can and can't be read, including Revelation among his approved canon. Athanasius, to cement his claimed definition of the canon, declared that No one may add to or remove from this list, just as John of Patmos had done in Revelation itself effectively condemning anyone who might have a differing interpretation.
Luther as antichrist
Nevertheless nearly all of his contemporaries excluded it. Cyril did not include it, and Eusebius called it both universally accepted and illegitimate, placing it both among the canonical and condemned texts. Dionysus called it unintelligible, irrational and the title false. Syrian Christians rejected it because the charismatic Montanists had embraced it, considering it a work of heretics. This degree of controversy continued into later centuries with Martin Luther condemning Revelation as "Having no Christ in it" although later espousing it because it could be used to advantage against the Catholics.
Eventually this canon came to be confirmed at the Council of Carthage 397 finally giving Revelation approved status ad the closing chapter of the end of days mirroring the beginning of days in Genesis thus making a fitting, if gratuitously violent apocalyptic ending to what would have seemed an insipid collection of Pauline epistles without it.
In later centuries the protestant supporters of Luther (although he initially decried it) and with him Calvin, would use it's sentiments against the Pope as antichrist and the Catholics in turn would do the same against Luther illustrating one another in copies of their respective bibles, just as it still stands today in the minds of fundamentalists as the prophetic oracle for our own apocalypse in the time of mutually assured destruction of nuclear confrontation, being better dead than red, or victorious over the heathen other in a final confrontation between Christianity and Islam or merely the victory of believers over the forces of materialism overtaking a flawed and degenerating world.