The Bible That Borrows Part 8: The Global Superpower Bible

I need to talk about a painting.

Have you ever heard anything as ironic as a nationalist politician enlisting a foreign government to win a domestic political battle? Even an autocratic one with a history of meddling in other countries? I sure have.

I’m talking about Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1937 until 1975.

(What? Who were you thinking about?)

From 1936 until 1939, Spain suffered a civil war between Franco’s nationalist party and Spain’s pro-democracy party, and, to win, Franco enlisted the help of the Nazi military.

On April 26, 1937, it was Monday Market Day in the Spanish city of Guernica, a day when more than ten thousand people were out buying and selling in a city that was well known not to be housing soldiers or military equipment.

Despite this, and without any warning, the Nazi Luftwaffe unleashed a blistering aerial bombardment that destroyed virtually all of the city. It was horrific. Barbaric. Unjustifiable. And we now know that the Nazis considered this humanitarian tragedy as nothing more than target practice.

This bombing deeply affected a Spanish man living at the time in Paris. His name was Pablo Picasso (you may have heard of him). Picasso was the pioneer of “cubism”, a modern art style that deconstructs an object and puts it back together in a way that explores meanings below what might appear on the surface. Because cubism isn’t limited by the strictures of visual realism, it expands the expressive choices available to an artist. Because sometimes the best way to express an idea is to make someone’s head . . . an upright phallic symbol?

By 1937, Picasso had already been perfecting his method for three decades, and after the bombing, he took all that passion and genius and poured it into one massive project. He named it simply Guernica.

guernica.jpg

First of all, Guernica is huge. My friend took this picture the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The painting is twenty-five feet from one end to the other.

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Guernica certainly makes bold statements. Clearly depicted are civilians who have been distorted in ways that emphasize their suffering, defenselessness, and agony. Everything these people had invested into their city and into their lives was now gone thanks to a senseless and arbitrary German bombing round. “Didn’t I tell you that everything is meaningless?” you can hear Qohelet saying.

But, for every one statement Guernica might clearly make, it raises many more questions.

First, about the two animals: the horse and the bull. The horse near the center of the canvas appears in agony, but the bull to the left appears calm. In fact, the bull is the only calm-looking thing in the whole picture. Does the bull communicate hope for the Spanish people? Or does he represent the callousness and inhumanity of Franco? Or does he represent Picasso himself, who watched from Paris, but was powerless to do anything for his people? Is the bull the Spanish nation emotionlessly shocked? Does this bull have anything to do with any of the many previous Spanish bulls he had already painted?

(You could say there are a few bulls in Picasso paintings.)

Or is the bull just a bull?

As Picasso himself said (though no one believes him):

“…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”

“For what they are” might strike you as an odd way to describe anything that might appear in a cubist painting. But that’s the point. This is Picasso’s snide way of rejecting the need to paint something with visual accuracy to convey the truth of what the thing is.

(And yes, Picasso was perfectly capable of realism)

Regardless of what was going through Picasso’s head, I can say for certain that he wasn’t interested in telling you what the painting is “about.”

If nothing else, that’s boring.

But more importantly, that’s a claim that rarely stands up to any scrutiny.

The same horse and the same bull and the same eye or sun or whatever it is at the top with a lightbulb in it (the art police just read that and are making an arrest right now) can be hundreds of things. And should be hundreds of things. Even simultaneously. That’s what makes a great work of art great. It inspires many more questions than it does answers. And it allows different people to be impacted in unique ways—ways that allow the piece to explore the depth and breadth of the whole human experience.

(which is why contemporary Christian art and music are so bad)

It’s been nearly a century since Picasso painted Guernica, and we’re still asking questions about it. It still impacts people, though oftentimes in very different ways.

I believe this has something to do with the Bible, and that’s how I want to conclude this series.

Human

You may have gotten the impression that I have a low view of the Bible. You may think I’m just trying to wiggle out of it. That I see no room for the Bible in our postmodern world. That hidden behind this big project is nothing more than a lame and long-winded attempt to do whatever I want. That I want comfortable and safe religion. That all ideas are equally valid.

Without question, that’s certainly where I fit within the theological constructs that billions of dollars have been spent propagating, but the real truth is nothing like that at all.

When I think about the Bible, only the most soaring words come to my mind.

Inspired.

Timeless.

Authoritative

Eternally relevant.

Essential.

Ingenius.

Most Biblical traditionalists probably share in this list, and it’s not here that we differ. We differ on one more word.

Human.

I think the Bible is human. Inspired, yes, but also human. Very human. I want to go back to the words I included earlier of Dr. Peter Enns, who wakes up every morning and asks questions about the Bible that I would never even think to ask:

Supposedly, it is unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific. God is the God of Truth. He would never stoop so low. Uh…actually…yes he would. God is all about stooping low—way low. That’s how God rolls—at least the Christian God.

If God became human and dwelt among us—specifically, if the Word took human form—then why is it so surprising that God would also allow his text to take on human form?

A God that allows himself to be written about this way is a God with a high view of humans and their thoughts. A God with a high view of human progression, even when it is less than perfect and has to evolve over thousands and thousands of years.

After all we’ve seen, I don’t find it plausible that God for hundreds of years inspired people  in the amazingly creative ways we’ve seen for weeks—only to end in the first century. I am in love with the text of the Bible, and I try to be faithful to it, but what I see in the text of the Bible is less a command to halt and more one to go. Less of a target and more of a trajectory.

Today, our idea of faithfulness to a text operates a lot like how a person would use an instruction manual to assemble a table. If you and I are faithful to the same instruction manual, your finished table will look the same as mine.

But what I’ve tried to explain over the last two months is this: That tribe whose name means “one who wrestles with God” understood faithfulness to the text to operate how art critics study Guernica. We treat the text like an instruction manual. They treated it like a painting. To the ancient Hebrews, the text was expansive and mysterious. Its meaning could drastically change depending on one’s perspective. Finding its meaning sometimes felt like wrestling. And it certainly could mean multiple and even contradictory things at the same time.

We often talk about the Bible as the place for “the answers”, and I agree.

Do you remember in Part 4 how Jesus would answer questions with more questions?

This is how the Bible answers questions too. It raises questions. Just like a Picasso painting, it raises questions, and that is the point.

That is the answer.

Answers support those at the top. Questions support those at the bottom.

And the Bible is not meant to comfort those at the top. In fact, this is one of the few things in the Bible on which you absolutely can rely.

Empire

If the Bible is unified on anything, from start to finish it denounces empire.

We miss this because we read the Bible from such a different place than did its writers. Brian Zahnd puts it really well.

I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.

One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite! This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets. They wrote from a bottom-up perspective.

Imagine a history of colonial America written by Cherokee Indians and African slaves. That would be a different way of telling the story! And that’s what the Bible does. It’s the story of Egypt told by the slaves. The story of Babylon told by the exiles. The story of Rome told by the occupied. What about those brief moments when Israel appeared to be on top? In those cases the prophets told Israel’s story from the perspective of the peasant poor as a critique of the royal elite. Like when Amos denounced the wives of the Israelite aristocracy as “the fat cows of Bashan.”

The Old Testament really does take aim at Babylon and the New Testament really does take aim at Rome. I demonstrated this in Part 6 with Revelation, but you also see it strikingly in the Gospel of Mark. Virtually every word of the Bible was penned under the abuses of some global superpower, and its writers for hundreds of years focused on them like a laser beam.

However, while the Bible is concerned with Empire, the impulse of Empire takes many forms, and the word is much bigger than its most obvious one. The impulse is the same regardless of whether it is big and obvious or small and ordinary. You struggle with it in your own life.

Adam and Eve ate from the tree for power.

Cain killed Abel for power.

Nimrod built the Tower of Babel for power.

Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews for power.

Goliath challenged David for power.

Solomon married hundreds of women for power.

Solomon built thousands of chariots for power.

Jonah sought vengeance on Nineveh for power.

Nebuchadnezzar built his kingdom for power.

Alexander the Great build his kingdom for power.

And each time the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he tempted him with power—even empire by name.

When you use other people to further your own purposes, you are participating in Empire. 

One of the consequences of both believing that Jesus is God and that the scriptures are a human creation that borrows heavily from human ideas is that when you get past the noise of Jesus’s indulgences of Judaism, you find an attack on this way of life.

Control.

Manipulation.

Power.

Greed.

Envy.

Abuse.

Posturing.

Dominance.

Exploitation.

Revenge.

Insecurity.

Fear.

The seduction of Empire can be found wherever you find people. It is the worst in ourselves, and it brings out the worst in others. It never tires of destruction. Virtually everything you will ever regret for as long as you live will arise out of the impulse of Empire.

I’m thankful to live in such a time of enlightenment, but this is a mystery that has eluded so many of our great minds. When we lower others and raise ourselves, when we repay hurt with hurt, when we retaliate, when we hide all weakness, when we seek revenge, when we take an “eye for an eye”, when we do the right thing only when it’s safe to do so, when we hoard our resources, when we apologize only when they apologize, when we view people only through the lens of their usefulness to us, when we engage in the never-ending toil of controlling our own world, we perpetuate the cycle of Empire.

And it kills everything in sight.

It kills our friendships.

It kills our communities.

It kills our environment.

It kills our joy.

It kills our souls.

It is our burning hellfire and brimstone. Our weeping and gnashing of teeth. Our Gehenna.

Not somewhere distant and outside of this world, but right here.

So, what is the opposite of Empire?

Love.

Love is.

Love drives out all of the worst impulses of Empire.

What I’m about to say is a total cliche, but we’ve really ruined the word “love.” I use it to describe the long shadows in the late afternoon on a golf course. I use it to describe expensive Trappist beers. I use it to describe fancy tacos. Hippies since the 60s have used it to describe a world without responsibility or consequences. Elvis couldn’t help falling into it. It’s a booty call Drake used to get on his cell phone.

But love has nothing to do with any of that. Most people run far away from true love. Love is less seductive than Empire, and, while it might be the best thing, it’s also the hardest thing.

Nazareth got it right that love hurts. Haddaway got it wrong that it will no more.

What is love, but to care for someone else as if they were you? To treat all people as if they are equally important? To sacrifice things for the betterment of people who can never repay you? To forgive people for the worst they’ve done to you as you would hope others would forgive you for the worst you’ve done? To give them the dignity you wish they’d give you?

If there is anything in this world that requires faith, it is love.

In Empire, everyone is is given a rank and is trying to advance. Everyone is always in a kind of war.

But in love, we are all equal.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

I Corinthians c13

What Jesus commands us to do is to love. In so doing, we tear down every last vestige of Empire.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

When we see all people as equals—that is to say, when we learn to love—we become distinct among a people driven by the desire of Empire.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

John c17

Purity Culture

That said, most Christians think of Christianity primarily in terms of cleanliness and purity. Most Christians think of Heaven as somewhere else that requires being pure enough to enter, and that life on Earth is about positioning to be pure enough for Heaven.

No doubt, the literal words to support these ideas are found in the text of the Bible, but we have to decide why they are there. Is purity the thing, and love is just one part among many parts? 

Or is love the thing, and purity is the vocabulary that Jesus’s first disciples knew to talk about it?

Again, I concede that if you want to find purity culture in the Bible, the words are there for you. You’re not going to catch me off guard simply by quoting a Bible verse (as many have tried to do).

But let’s recall what led us to today:

  • The first five books of the Bible (and probably several more) are not historical, but were written to support the temple cult in Jerusalem.
  • We inherited baptism from the Essenes. The way the pesher writers took Old Testament texts way out of context to make new points was how the New Testaments writers also wrote.
  • Jesus indulged many of the ideas of the Pharisees while he taught on the Earth.
  • Jesus’s teachings on Gehenna (Hell) were based on the invention of Jewish rabbis who tried to find Socrates’s ideas in their text.
  • John’s vision in Revelation takes the form of Persian apocalyptic themes and describes Heaven and the battle in Heaven almost exclusively in terms of the propaganda images he had seen throughout the Roman empire.
  • The idea of the Holy Spirit was a theological construct of the Pharisees, who believed that wind was spiritual.

In light of everything we have seen, I don’t think purity culture is what Jesus came down to reinforce.

That he came to talk about new ways to sin.

That what was really needed was the Jewish Day of Atonement (which was already forgiving the sins of the Jewish people) being made permanent.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Read it carefully, and notice how Jewish ideas from the Torah and from the inter-testamentary period were used to talk about love.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

….

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgmentIn this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

For John, it was completely natural to weave the ideas of love and purity together. He could not help but read into Jesus’s teachings on love the Jewish convictions with which he grew up.

But, in light of the many times that Jesus would use Jewish ideas to actually stray from Judaism, I have strongly concluded that we as 21st century Christians are heirs to those to whom purity was the language they knew to talk about what was actually the real thing.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians c13

Paul’s conception of God was thoroughly grounded in his years of study under Gamaliel. His training was of a depth and sophistication that modern readers can scarcely comprehend. He would have memorized Leviticus by the time he was eight. By the age of fourteen, he would have answered questions using a Jewish technique called a remez, which is the use of an incomplete part of a text, assuming the audience’s knowledge of the whole text would allow them to deduce for themselves the fuller meaning of a statement. Students of the text like Paul were so grounded in the text that they would have entire conversations in remez. People don’t grow up under that kind of system and simply abandon it.

As much as I say my understandings have evolved, I will never completely abandon my upbringing.

Likewise, Jesus was a Jew and the first interpreters of his teachings were Jews. Jesus used the language they knew, and his first advocates filtered his teachings even further. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the first things people wrote down about following Jesus arose out of the language of Judaism. Our heritage is important, but our heritage is not the thing.

On the surface, it would be easy to assume that I read the Bible the traditional way (and that is how most non-believers classify me). I participate in many of the traditional rituals associated with Christianity. I’m part of a church congregation. I was baptized, and agree that we should baptize new believers. I believe in sin. I believe in punishment for sin. I take communion every Sunday. I pray enough to demonstrate that I think there’s something to it. And I even strongly prefer old church songs to new ones.

But I’m careful to avoid making Christianity about any of them. As Jesus once said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” We were meant to live in community, and “the church” was the counter-narrative to the cult of the Roman Empire. But Jesus Christ did not die and raise so we could replace old rituals with new ones.

Jesus died and rose again to show that the old understanding of power and dominance was going away, and that a new kingdom of equality was rushing in.

Shalom

In the last two months, I’ve done the best I can explain an understanding of the Bible that (1) I think is more true to what it actually is and (2) certainly is different than its traditional understanding. I’ve loved doing this, and I already miss it.

But, if what I’ve written has resonated with you, I want to offer a few parting words of shalom.

First, you are going to encounter resistance. I see a lot of “us-versus-them” in our churches, and, unfortunately, I often get placed into the category belonging to “them.” It is vital that you not become the very thing that you are working against.

It’s not unreasonable to interpret the Bible in the ways I’ve argued against. Don’t assume that people who do so are dishonest or less intelligent than you. The words to denounce what I’ve argued are in the Bible, and when we talk about translating the culture within which the words of the Bible were written, we’re not dealing with an exact science. Everything we do is always our best guess.

Engage with those who find you threatening. For the rest of your life, you can never stop listening. You must always assume that you are wrong about something. For one thing, people won’t listen to you until you’ve listened to them.

But also you are wrong about something!

Second, even if you radically change your idea of the Bible, I think you should consider maintaining the same fellowship you had before. I have, and I don’t regret it.

Of course, when you invest yourself in a congregation that views you as suspicious, a lot more is required of you. You will have to be on guard always. Anything you do wrong will be reduced to “that goes to show how everything he thinks about the Bible has been a sham this whole time.” It means constantly and actively listening to ideas you disagree with. When I listen to other people express their thoughts, I’m constantly converting them in my head so that I can agree with them.

If I’m being honest, this takes enormous amount of energy.

But, we as a society are too polarized. We spend far too little time around people who disagree with us. We’re not good at talking with people with different views. Remember, even when you don’t change an opinion, you frequently change a mind. When you give someone the dignity of listening to them and genuinely seek to understand them, and when you then intelligently and boldly explain your view, you create an impression in the other person’s mind that they should do more listening too. You sow mutual respect.

And, in a small way, you make the world a little better.

Finally, it’s important to remember that everything we do is about people. People will generally do what they believe they should do, and this means that our ideas require a lot of attention. I’m not impressed when people suggest that we should just spend our lives “doing instead of thinking.” But, nevertheless, we don’t live for ideas. Ideas are not the thing. People are the thing.

This means you need to shut up sometimes.

Don’t remain silent because you think your ideas will challenge people. Don’t remain silent because you think people won’t like you if you tell them what you think. Don’t remain silent because people might hurt you.

But some people aren’t in the right place for this whole thing. Sometimes it’s the right time even when it will cause you pain. Sometimes it’s the wrong time even when it will elevate you. It’s not about you, it’s always about them

As Jesus constantly demonstrated to his disciples, Jesus has great faith in your ability to discern how to love. Set your mind to it, and you’ll know what to do.

Peace be with you, friends.

New here? How about starting from the beginning?

The Bible That Borrows Part 6: The Roman Bible

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.

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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.

320px-S0484.4.jpg

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.”

Heard that?

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.”

“Evangelical.”

“Good news.”

“Church.”

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.

(haha, right)

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.

domitian-scroll.jpgWe’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.”aureusglobestarsbabydomitia.jpg

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.Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 3.50.43 PM.png

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.

666

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 livedThe 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.

Domitian lost.

Part 1 Part 7