Last week I told you what I think the New Testament phrase, “the Good News,” is not. Over the final installments of this series, I’m going to tell you what I think it is.
But first I need to tell you about three sentences I read in a newspaper.
Few people subscribe to these things anymore. If you are one of those few who actually pay money so that professional journalists can keep our most powerful people and institutions accountable to you, then hats off. That said, among the few people who read newspapers, even fewer take the time to contribute to them.
But, on February 13, 2015, Boyd Thomas left this world behind and took the Letters to the Editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette up multiple levels.
Boyd Thomas not only apparently reads the paper, not only did he take the time to submit a letter to the editor, but the man noticed an error and submitted a correction.
We are not worthy of Boyd Thomas.
And I can’t blame him for his passion. If the book of Revelation was about President Barack Obama, that would be news I would want to know.
But here’s the thing.
To this day I feel so bad for him.
Boyd Thomas was off.
Like, deep space levels of off.
And it was not his fault. There is an enormous amount of material in books, on the internet, and in sermons that connects the book of Revelation to people and events of the last century.
I decided that morning, February 13, 2015, that I needed to figure out how to talk about the Bible, and that’s roughly what I spent the next year doing. What you are reading today is Part 6 of an idea that started mostly because of Boyd.
Today’s discussion is about John’s really weird final book of the Bible called Revelation.
No literary creation has been the subject of more empty, wasted, and toxic speculation. But I find that even people who are skeptical of readings like Mr. Thomas’s struggle to articulate viable alternatives.
To understand Revelation, you have to understand that it is one big league, colossal borrower. It is by a country mile the borrowingest (yes, borrowingest) book of the Bible. In the last five weeks, I’ve shown you all kinds of ways that the Bible borrows. Revelation is a great big stew of all of the Bible’s borrowing.
The Gospel of Augustus, the Son of God
If your Bible-reading mind hasn’t been trained to read the Bible as a thing that borrows from and speaks principally to its ancient settings, you will miss John’s message and plunge into the abyss of fire, brimstone, weeping, and gnashing of teeth where people for eternity are consigned to debate whether Barack Obama is the antichrist or the dragon or the beast of the Earth or the Beast of the Sea or Wormwood or Apollyon or . . . or the seventh king after the Antichrist.
You will miss the fact that all the weirdness of Revelation is actually a powerful and heroic story about real people in the Roman Empire.
I’m going to spend a lot of time on Rome’s starring role in Revelation, but first I need to take a step back. Even as Jesus instructed his disciples to submit to the emperor, the whole New Testament was a kind of direct assault on the Roman Empire. To explain how, I have to introduce you to an important cast of characters.
We begin in the year 49 BCE.
In this year, Rome is a Republic. Julius Caesar is the general of an army on the edge of the Roman Republic in Gaul. His military campaign has been successful, and the Roman Senate has ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. The Roman people—perhaps with a mind to the failed democracy in Greece—instinctively fear their republic descending into dictatorship, and thus it is illegal for a general on campaign to enter Italy at the head of an army.
49 BCE was the fateful year when Julius did just that. In that year, he “crossed the Rubicon” with his army and started a civil war. A war he won. The Roman Republic ended, the Roman Empire began, and Julius Caesar installed himself as “dictator for life” (today, that is a pejorative thing to say, but that was his literal title).
Only, Julius didn’t live very long: 44 BCE was the year that Brutus and the rest of the recently emasculated Roman Senate collectively stabbed him to death. A new civil war broke out, this time with three warring factions:
- The first faction included those who wished to bring back the Roman Republic and be governed by the Senate. This included Brutus and the rest of the Roman Senate.
- The second faction was that of Marc Antony, who was loyal to Julius Caesar, and who sought to rule as successor emperor. He is portrayed brilliantly in the 1953 rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (seriously, if you haven’t watched his funeral speech, fix that right now).
- The third faction was that of Julius’s adopted son, Octavian (later called “Augustus”), who also sought to rule as successor emperor.
In the end, Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide as a Roman army surrounded them in Alexandria, Egypt, and Augustus won the civil war.
Augustus’s victory came in no small part from a propaganda campaign he used to drum up support for his side. Coinciding with Julius Caesar’s assassination was an unusually bright comet, which remained in the sky for a week. Augustus seized on this and systematically propagated the idea that the comet was in fact his father ascending as a god to join the gods in Heaven.
In the days before politicians had Twitter accounts, they had to be more creative.
Augustus’s method was kind of genius: coins. In addition to the fact that coins, by their very nature, spread so quickly, the emperor has a monopoly on their production, design, and message.
This coin minted by Augustus is one example. The front depicts Augustus. The back depicts Julius Caesar ascending as a comet into the heavens. Thanks to that comet, Augustus could (and frequently did) call himself “the son of god”.
Heard that phrase?
Augustus also minted and popularized the phrase, “I saw the son of God ascend to the right hand of god the father.”
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Acts c7
Augustus also minted and popularized the phrase, “There is no name, except Augustus, by which men can be saved.” What about that?
There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. Acts c4
You can see that, as Augustus employed this propaganda campaign as a weapon in his scorched-earth battle for the throne of Rome, the New Testament authors freely employed his propaganda devices to describe a different kind of throne. Where have you heard me say that before?
But there’s more.
Each time Augustus conquered some new territory, he sent a proclamation throughout the cities of the empire announcing his new conquest. Each official announcement that his military had made a new conquest was called a “euengelion” (ἐυαγγέλιον), the word from which we get “evangelical” or “good news”.
The followers of the first-century Jesus movement took this phrase—a phrase that had been used to announce military conquest—to announce a new kind of power that was forcing its way into the world. A power that had no need for a military.
But there’s more.
If the governing authorities of a city in the Roman Empire confessed “Caesar is Lord”, that city would officially be designated an “ecclesia” (ἐκκλησία).
This is the word we translate “church.”
“Jesus is Lord.”
These words and phrases, which have been in the Christian lexicon for two thousand years, didn’t come out of nowhere. We have Augustus to thank for letting us borrow them (actually, he didn’t let us borrow them, but he’s dead, and I’m betting he can’t stop us now).
Domitian, the Beast
It’s important to see how the New Testament borrowed from Augustus because, long after Augustus, the New Testament continued to borrow from the Roman Empire. To show you how, I need to fast forward about half a century and introduce you to a few more characters.
After Emperor Nero (more on him later) committed suicide, a competent general named Vespasian assumed the Roman throne. Vespasian had two sons, Titus and Domitian, and he seems to have considered Titus superior to Domitian both intellectually and morally. As such, he favored Titus for government offices with actual responsibilities, and—perhaps not to offend his other son—bestowed on Domitian various honors that carried with them little authority or responsibility.
Vespasian appointed Titus as commander of an army that would absolutely demolish the city of Jerusalem when Israel revolted against Rome in 66 CE. And when Vespasian died, Titus assumed the throne as emperor.
Meanwhile, Domitian grew up on the sidelines—jealous, insecure, and vindictive.
If you’ve seen the movie Gladiator, you have a picture of what the relationship between Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian probably looked like. Even though that movie is a fictionalized story of Marcus Aurelius and his son, Commodus, the family dynamics you saw in the movie probably looked about the same.
So, when Titus (mysteriously!) died and Domitian assumed the throne, you could be certain that Domitian wouldn’t manifest any symptoms of long-held, deep insecurity.
Domitian made his wife refer to him as “My Lord and Master.” He issued an imperial edict that all statues of him be made of solid gold. His letters began “Our Lord and Our God commands you.” When Lucius Saturninus staged a small rebellion on the edge of the empire in Germania superior, Domitian quickly put down the rebellion and paraded the head of Saturninus around Rome.
Thank goodness this man never have a Twitter account.
Pay attention to what I’m about to say next, because understanding Domitian’s official displays of power is the first of two keys to understanding the whole book of Revelation.
So let’s talk about them.
Domitian’s hallmark was his arena games. In 86 CE he founded the Capitoline Games, a kind of Olympic contest comprising athletic displays, chariot racing, and competitions for oratory, music, and acting. Everybody who went to them was required to wear white togas.
The games would begin with twenty-four priests who would take off their crowns, bow down before Domitian and recite, “Great are you, our lord and God. Worthy are you to receive honor and power and glory. Worthy are you, lord of the Earth, to inherit the Kingdom. Lord of Lords, highest of the high. Lord of the earth, God of all things. Lord God and Savior for eternity.” Actually, these same twenty-four singers generally followed Domitian everywhere while reciting the words, “Our Lord and our God, you are worthy to receive honor, glory, and power.” At the games, these priests would lead the whole white-robed crowd in a singing worship service and a waiving of palm branches.
After the priests finished leading the crowd in worship, Domitian would summon the leaders of each of the provinces of the Empire. In front of the thousands of spectators, he would tell them what things he approved of and what things they needed to change—lest he march his great big army into their province and wipe them out. Once these public displays of power were complete, the games would begin.
We’ll get back to the games shortly, but there were other displays of power that are important for our purposes.
That’s Domitian depicted with a scroll in his hand. The scrolls in the hand of Roman emperors were another display of their power. They were said to contain all the authority of the emperor. A popular saying of the time was that only the emperor was “worthy to open the scroll.” So, not surprisingly, scrolls show up in many statues of Roman emperors.
Sometime between 77 and 81 CE, Domitian’s infant son died. Domitian, never one to miss an opportunity to buttress his power from the heavens, fashioned the legacy of his deceased son into a god. And, like Augustus, he used coins for this purpose. These coins portrayed his son as sitting on the earth and holding seven stars in his hands. Also, like Augustus, Domitian got some mileage out of the “son of god” idea—only this time he was the father and his son was the “son of god.”
Domitian established the city of Ephesus as his “Neokoros”, or worshipping center. Again, Domitian desired to be worshipped as god, literally as Jupiter. As you would enter the port of Ephesus, you would be greeted by a massive twenty-five foot statue of Domitian. Next, you would see a massive temple with each of the columns depicting the gods of the Roman pantheon. Of course, on top of those columns was a statue of, who else, but Domitian. Below is a depiction of the temple in Ephesus.
Next to the temple was the “agora”, a marketplace where people in various trades—seamstresses, stone masons, metalworkers, traders of silks, spices, and produce—made their living and depended on for their survival. Domitian understood their dependence on the agora, and so exploited that dependence to set up yet another display of power. Domitian declared that any person wanting to do any kind of business in the agora first had to acknowledge Domitian as god and then make an incense offering to him.
Once you had made an acceptable display of worship, you would receive a mark—probably some kind of ink stain—and only then could you sell your goods in the agora.
In spite of all these displays of power, Domitian had one distinct problem. A small and relatively poor group in the shadows of the Empire refused to make the offering.
And it is with this group that Domitian went to war.
The Apocalypse of John
As I said earlier, this is where John’s Revelation comes in.
Around 90 CE, John was a pastor of the church of Ephesus—that neokoros and pride of Domitian—when Domitian exiled him to the island of Patmos.
To explain why John wrote Revelation, I need you to see how so much in John’s Revelation so strikingly looks like Domitian’s trademarked displays of power.
Remember Domitian’s twenty-four priests who would lay their crowns before Domitian?
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power.”
Revelation c4 v9–11
Remember Domitian’s deceased son who was depicted on coins with seven stars in his hands?
And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
Revelation c1 v16
Remember how Domitian would summon the leaders of the various provinces and publicly evaluate their service to the empire?
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Revelation c2 v1–7
Remember the saying that only the emperor was worthy to open the scroll?
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Revelation c5 v1–10
Remember how everyone at Domitian’s games were required to wear white robes?
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'”
Revelation c7 9–17 (note: this “elder” is quoting Isaiah 49)
Remember from Part 3 when I showed you how the Qumran community insisted that Habakuk’s references to Babylon were really about Rome? John also treats Babylon as if it were Rome.
A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
Revelation c14 v8
With a mighty voice he shouted: “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit.”
Revelation c18 v2
Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: “Woe! Woe to you, great city, you mighty city of Babylon! In one hour your doom has come!”
Revelation c18 v10
I often hear people describe what Heaven and Hell will be like by reading Revelation. As I think you are probably beginning to see, that’s probably misguided—unless God needed ideas for designing Heaven and decided to model it after Domitian’s empire.
And speaking of “misguided”, it’s time we talk about one of history’s biggest head scratchers.
Revelation is famous for the “number of the beast”, 666, and people have wasted more brain cells on this enigmatic number. You, however, will no longer be one of these people because you now know how the Bible borrows.
Read the text below. I emphasize the parts you really need to not miss.
The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.
Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
Revelation c13 v2–3, 11–18
Most people agree that when John refers to the “dragon”, he was referring to Satan. I think that’s correct.
So what about the “beasts”?
I mentioned Nero earlier, an emperor who crucified Christians and lit them on fire to give light to his outdoor dinner parties. Nero killed himself by having his servant stab him in the head with a sword. Nero is John’s “first beast.”
The “second beast” is the one who made people worship him in the agora before they could engage in commerce. This is obviously Domitian.
So, we have the “first beast” and the “second beast”, but who is “the beast”? The one whose number is 666?
666 is brilliant. If I may, it is a wickedly smart number.
The beast is not Hitler. Not Stalin. Not Barack Obama (in the time I spent writing that sentence, I feel like I aged multiple years).
The text tells us it is a person, and you have to add up some numbers to identify his name.
The Hebrews used their alphabet to add just as the Romans used their alphabet. 666 is both (1) the number you get when you add up the Hebrew numerical values of Nero’s imperial name and (2) is the number you get when you add up the Hebrew numerical values to the standard abbreviation of Domitian’s name.
The fact that the letters of Nero and Domitian can add up to 666 has caused scholars for centuries to debate which of them to which John was referring.
So, which is it?
Remember, there are two beasts, but John doesn’t specifically tell you the one to which “666” applies.
And that’s because it’s both of them.
John is telling his readers—those residents of Asia minor who had already lived through Nero’s reign of terror and who still proclaimed “Jesus is Lord”—that Nero got his power from Satan, that the spirit of Nero is back, and his spirit is now living within Domitian. From the perspective of those helpless followers of Jesus Christ who had survived Nero’s reign of terror, and whose trades were dependent on access to the agora, Nero’s “fatal head wound” was healed.
Nero was back, and his name was Domitian.
This is brilliant, inspired writing.
But also heartbreaking and terrifying writing.
When people heard the Apocalypse of John read aloud for the first time, they didn’t wonder if his letter could be adapted into some crappy novels.
Or whether his letter had anything to do with Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.
The first hearers of his letter got to contemplate the fact that many of them were either going to worship Domitian in the agora or die.
I think they wept.
The Battle in Heaven
I mentioned that there are two keys to understanding Revelation. Let’s talk about the second key.
In Part 2, I introduced some of the Babylonian literature with which the conquered Israelites came into contact. In Part 5, I introduced Greek literature. But between the rule of the Babylonians and the Greeks were the Persians. In this time, Israel would have come in contact with a Persian literary genre called apocalyptic. Several features distinguish virtually all apocalyptic literature:
- A revealing of either (a) what is happening in the Heaven now or (b) what will happen on Earth in the future;
- A dream or vision guided by some heavenly being, such as an angel;
- Pseudonymity (that is, the author claims to be some well-known ancient person, but is actually someone in the present who merely uses their voice for authority);
- Wild and highly symbolic imagery;
- A dualism in which everything in the present and in all of history of the world falls into good or evil, and the two are locked in a cosmic battle;
- Pessimism that evil in the present age cannot and will not improve until an age to come;
- Some great deity that in the future will to intervene in history and overthrow the forces of evil; and
- An imminent transition to the coming new age.
Here’s a short, but representative excerpt from Persian apocalyptic literature if you still don’t want to just take my word for all this.
“O Ormazd, I ask you concerning the present and future
How shall the righteous be dealt with,
And how shall the wicked be dealt with,
At the last judgement?”
Ormazd, the Wise Lord answers: “There will be three saviors sent to earth by the Wise Lord before the final, inevitable battle that will result in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, the Last Judgement, and the resurrection of the dead. First will come a period called the Period of Iron, in which demons will attack the earth relentlessly, sparing no one. They will be more interested in causing the faithful to suffer than in killing them. the darkness will be so pervasive that the light of even the sun and moon will be dimmed. At that time a shower of stars will occur to herald the birth of the first saviour, the champion of the faithful, named Anshedar.”
It is Saoshyant who will preside over the last judgment. The wicked humans and Ahriman, the Evil One, will be consigned to hell forever, even as the Wise Lord rules uncontested over the universe. All death, disease, and suffering shall cease forever. The earth will be re-created and the blessed will enjoy immortality in new Paradise.
Can you see each of the features I identified? And are you seeing the points of contact with John’s Revelation?
Remember, all of the concerns found in the Torah have to do with this life. The Torah is optimistic about Yahweh’s creation. But as time went on, the Jews looked around and if things were ever good, they weren’t anymore. For several centuries, their land—which itself is an integral part of ancient Jewish theology—had been the subject of a kind of hot potato game among the world’s great empires. For a short time, Israel got back its land and independence, but its religious institutions increasingly were seen as corrupted by gentile influence.
To the Jews, the present world had become irredeemable, and a new world was what was needed. And, if you can believe it, the Jews got to the result they wanted by borrowing from Persian literature like that which I just showed you.
The second century BCE and onward was a hotbed of Jewish apocalyptic literature.
The following are just some examples of apocalyptic literature that was produced in this time; in each of these works, some author of the then-present time would purport to speak as some ancient character.
- The Book of Enoch
- Apocalypse of Abraham
- Apocalypse of Adam
- Apocalypse of Baruch
- Apocalypse of Daniel
- Apocalypse of Elijah
- Apocalypse of Ezra
- Gabriel’s Revelation
- Apocalypse of Lamech
- Apocalypse of Metatron
- Apocalypse of Moses
- Apocalypse of Sedrach
- Apocalypse of Zephaniah
- Apocalypse of Zerubbabel
A great example from the Qumran community I mentioned in Part 3 was its so-called War Scroll. The Qumran community and John the Baptist unsurprisingly were distinctly apocalyptic.
The book of Daniel, especially its second half, is the most prominent apocalyptic in the Old Testament. Conservatives—whose flat way of reading the Bible I’ve been combatting for the last six weeks—generally claim that Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE and presents a future prophecy of Greece conquering Persia. But Daniel is so much like the rest of the long list of apocalyptic literature that most scholars have concluded that it too was probably written in the 2nd century BCE. At least with respect to the apocalyptic second half of Daniel, that’s my view as well.
There is a good if not great chance that John the apostle was intimately familiar with this genre of literature. He probably grew up with and had the book of Daniel memorized by the time he was thirteen. He was almost certainly familiar with the War Scroll, with the Book of Enoch, and with the rest of the apocalyptic library I referenced above.
And when Domitian imprisoned him on the island of Patmos, he wanted to write a message of encouragement to those Christians in Ephesus and the rest of Asia minor whom Domitian was presently slaughtering or about to slaughter. It was a seemingly hopeless time when good and evil, light and darkness, righteousness and wickedness were uniquely discernible.
So he borrowed.
He wrote an apocalypse.
He borrowed from Judaism, he borrowed from Babylon, he borrowed from Persia, he borrowed from Greece, he borrowed from Rome.
He wrote of the Great Babylon, a global military super power that was ruled by a mighty beast. He wrote of a vulnerable, white-robed people who would face impossible odds. He used Domitian’s displays of power to describe a new and better kingdom, a kingdom not of force and aggression, but of mercy, equality, love, and compassion. He wrote about a war between the armies of both kingdoms. He wrote of the throne of the universe and loudly proclaimed that Domitian and his military might did not sit on that throne.
As Brian Zahnd was inspired to write just hours before this installment posted:
Instead of an insecure power hoarder, on the throne of the universe sat a slaughtered lamb. And, instead of the power-granting, mysterious tree of knowledge of good and evil from the mythological Genesis, at the end of empire was its opposite—the tree of life.
And this is what happened.
Within one generation of John’s apocalypse, Ephesus had become almost entirely Christian.
For all the borrowing that can be found in Genesis, it was prophetic after all.
15 thoughts on “The Bible That Borrows Part 6: The Roman Bible”
Chris, I normally skim through long posts, but with this one I devoured almost every single word. The content and your writing style held my attention throughout. Looking forward to reading more! (And as I understand it, I’ve started sort of at the end, so I have a good deal of catching up to do, but it will be enjoyable, I’m sure!) Thanks!
It means so much that you would read this long thing and leave such positive feedback. Thank you x 1000.
It’s always been curious to me how we equate “apocalyptic” literature with an “end times” even though the word itself refers to an unveiling, an uncovering, a reveal-ation. I appreciate the work you’ve put into these posts. I’m chewing on things.
You’re definitely correct that there is nothing in the literal meaning of the word to require an end of times. We associate apocalyptic literature with end times because of the literature itself. It’s really remarkable how tight the characteristics of apocalyptic literature can be found from one such text to another. I’m not aware of any literature that takes on these forms that doesn’t also assume an end of this age that is to be followed eminently by an age to come.
Thank you for the research and discipline required to do this kind of writing. I have no doubt that there are numerous references that John alluded to which are rooted in the culture of the Roman Empire. I think it is a mistake to see this book divorced from the judgment that was soon to unfold upon the Roman Empire. I don’t give any credence to those who view this book as primarily addressing future events.
I do have questions about your usage of the term ‘borrowed’. Since I don’t know your background and theology, I don’t know exactly where you land on your views of Scripture and inspiration.
Because I have heard historians and liberal theologians frequently use the term ‘borrow’ in a way that undermines the traditional views of inspiration. Such historians cite examples of someone outside of the Bible using a phrase, saying or story that sounds very similar to a Biblical phrase or story and they conclude that the Biblical author simply borrowed and adapted it.
They use those examples to undermine the concept of divine God breathed inspiration. For example, they might refer to the flood accounts found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and conclude that the Biblical author borrowed and adapted the story. The bottom line is that they reject the Biblical story as authentic. Such an approach to Scripture, in my view, ultimately undermines the reliability of Scripture.
I appreciate your research regarding Rome, Titus, white robes, etc. I hold that those things could all be true and John is simply using their reference points to point to the true King of Kings and those who wear the true white robes. If this is what you meant, I’m right there with you and saying ‘thank you for pointing out these references’.
Hi Chris! I wanted to tell you that Dan and I have really been enjoying reading through your thoughts and research via this blog. We’ve had so many good discussions in the past couple months around topics you’ve introduced. I am hoping you can help me with something. While this historical context for Revelation is the most logical explanation for the book I’ve heard EVER, I’m hoping to find more information about some of the details. Can you help me find source references for Domitian’s Capitoline Games, the garb and songs sung during them? Thanks!
Thanks, Marline! There are several books that I found helpful, but Ethelbert Stauffer’s “Christ and the Caesars” is one of the best.
Hello! I also enjoyed reading this, and I would like to do some further research. You suggested Christ and the Caesars as a resource, but Amazon reviewers complained that Stauffer doesn’t cite anything (especially alarming when making such claims about borrowing). Are there other books/scholars to substantiate what is being said here? What are the other books you alluded to? Thanks!
Lindsay, I’m so sorry! I saw this weeks ago and meant to respond. Here’s some good supplemental work on Revelation: (1) Reading Revelation Responsibly, by Michael J. Gorman, (2) Revelation For Everyone, by NT Wright, (3) The Theology of the Book of Revelation, by Richard Baukham, and (4) Reversed Thunder, by Eugene Peterson. Sorry for taking more than two weeks to respond! And thank you for reading!
I really appreciate the blog. Growing up I was taught to read the bible ‘literally’. Later in life, I nearly disregarded the Bible entirely because I couldn’t reconcile what I read and how I was taught to interpret what I read, with the idea of a loving God.
That said I find alternative viewpoints on the Bible very compelling.
In this post you state the following:
“Once you had made an acceptable display of worship, you would receive a mark—probably some kind of ink stain—and only then could you sell your goods in the agora”
Do you have any references for where that idea came from? Or is that more speculation vs. something we think we know because of historical writings etc…?
Either way, I’m with Marline – most helpful explanation on revelation I’ve ever heard. I’m hoping to dive a litter further into the details myself so if I adopt the view I can also properly defend it.
I appreciate the insights from your post. I am also curious about references in order to do some more research. Where did you find the quote that was spoken to Dominitian “Great are you, our lord and God. Worthy are you to receive honor and power and glory. Worthy are you, lord of the Earth, to inherit the Kingdom. Lord of Lords, highest of the high. Lord of the earth, God of all things. Lord God and Savior for eternity.” Also do you have a reference about the emperor and the scroll?
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