Genesis Of A Church

October 15, 2020 Category: History, Religion


The Book Of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is—essentially—a series of phantasmagoric musings attributed to a (Christianized / Hellenized) Jewish hermit, who composed the tract while exiled on the Greek island of Patmos.  His nom de plume was “Ioannes” (Romanized to “John”).  Not much is known about him…other than that he had a penchant for graphic imagery and an ax to grind with the Roman Empire.  (Note the need to vilify the Roman god, Apollo in 9:11.)  As he was neither Greek nor Roman, he would have probably composed the tract in Aramaic.

Fast forward to the 4th century.  In order for the tract to accord with the new order (which, after all, WAS the Roman Empire), a bit of legerdemain was required.  The trick was to pretend that the object of opprobrium was, instead, Babylon: the dastardly foe of the Old Testament.  The anti-Kristos (foe of Christ) thus went from Rome (as explicated by, say, Irenaeus) to some ephemeral nemesis lurking just around the corner (in keeping with, say, the “deceiver” referenced in the Johannine Epistles).  The former was an oppressive Roman regime; the latter was—effectively—anyone who was against the official (Roman Catholic) creed.  Preposterously, it was those in power who were thenceforth portrayed as the ones under siege.

The persecuted thus became the persecutor.

For the intended readership, the idea was to harken back to the foreboding eschaton outlined in the apocalyptic—and equally metaphorical—Book of Daniel; and to do so while inveighing against the forces of darkness that were (purportedly) arrayed against Christendom.  Hence the target was, thenceforth, anyone who had the audacity to question the Roman Imperium’s sovereignty.  Pursuant to the Council of Nicaea, fire and brimstone was exactly what the Magisterium needed to keep the rabble in line.  So they seized upon the alarmism that suffused the Book of Revelation, and ran with it.  By evincing trepidation in the target audience, supplicants would be more prone to obeisance.

It is easy to forget the REAL context of this apocalyptic tract; as its original theme was elided the moment it was endorsed by the powers that be. For those hankering for a final reckoning, this (re-vamped) narrative was made all the more compelling by the tract’s montage of outlandish spectacle.  However, there were still some wrinkles that needed to be ironed out.

Getting this clandestine modification to seem plausible required ignoring the fact that the tract did not accord with the Gospels.  At certain points, John of Patmos contradicted the message propounded by Jesus of Nazareth (JoN)—most flagrantly in 20:4.  Apparently, not only could GOD judge mankind, but anyone who is a king on Earth could do so too.  Never mind that it countermanded Matthew 7:1-3; such a declaration was an implicit endorsement of authoritarianism.

Perfect.  Just pretend that’s what JoN really meant all along.  As it happened, the (re-purposed) “Book Of Revelation” was well-suited to serve a (pro-Roman) propagandistic role.  Because the screed could readily be put in the service of an authoritarian agenda, Athanasius of Alexandria vociferously promoted it.  Perish the thought that the book’s fabled author was a (Christianized) Jew who’s bone to pick was with the Roman imperium’s treatment of Palestine’s Jewish population (spec. since the debacle of 70 A.D.)  If taken literally, it could be used to scare the bejeezus out of EVERYONE.

Little was it acknowledged that the (actual) author was vehemently anti-Gentile.  (This irony seems to have been lost on Athanasius and his followers.)  The fact that THIS book—of all books—is the focal point of Millenarian Christian proselytization today illustrates how disconnected the ideology from anything that remotely resembled the ministry of JoN and his early followers (known, at the time, as “The Way”) has become.

And what of premonitions of an “anti-Christ”?  The numeral 616 (alternately referred to as the “psephisato” and “charagma”) represented Emperor Nero; not, as later supposed, a nefarious cynosure who would rise to power at some point in the future.  (The original numeral found in 13:18 was attested in the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus.  It was transplanted with 666 by Irenaeus in the 2nd century; which was then validated by Jerome in the 4th century.)

Regarding the trope, “whore of Babylon”, verse 5 of chapter 17 employs the moniker: “Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and of Abominations on the Earth”.  From whence did this dreaded woman hail?  Verse 9 refers to the seven hills for which Rome was renown.  Verse 18 then specifies that the woman is actually “the great city which reigns over the kings of the Earth”.  Clearly, this was referring to Rome; which the author considered a kind of Babylon redux.  In verse 18, a red “therion” (roughly translated as “beast”) is ridden by a harlot, who reigns over all the kings of the earth.

Regarding the numeral associated with the dreaded “therion”, any attempt to engage in “gematria” is a fool’s errand (read: a complete wast of time).  This leviathan symbolized a hegemonic kingdom or empire, in keeping with the idiom’s use in chapter 7 in the Book of Daniel (in which there were four beasts—representing the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans).

In the opening verse of chapter 13, we are told that this “beast” from the sea had ten diadems on each of its ten horns.  Such cartoonish hyperbole signified prodigious power.  Here, the sea indicated primordial chaos, which was often associated with some sort of serpent.  To take ANY of this literally is to disregard what was already a well-established semiotic convention going back to the Assyrians.  The Abrahamic idiom of a BEAST seems to have been directly lifted from the Ugaritic “Baal Cycle”, composed during the Bronze Age. *

To fully understand the metaphorical nature of the exposition in the Book of Revelation, it is necessary to recognize its antecedents.  John of Patmos was clearly inspired by extant Jewish lore—especially the eschatological reveries in the Book of Daniel.  (The Books of Isaiah and Ezekiel were also influential; and even the Book of Enoch may have played a role.)  Note that Judaic “Apocalypse” literature had been quite popular throughout Classical Antiquity.  (“Apocalypse” is the Greek term for “Revelation”.)  The material typically involved a grand cosmic battle…and some sort of Messianic figure who overcame pagan oppressors and ushered in an eternal kingdom of god.

Stylistically, Apocalypse literature was characterized by fabulous metaphor, and was designed to be as provocative as possible.  The Book of Revelation is no different.  For a tract that only takes a half-hour to read, the author was able to fit a large amount of audacious claims.  (If the Book of Daniel and the Illuminati Trilogy had a child, it would probably look like the Book of Revelation.)  From people with the “seal of god” emblazoned upon their foreheads to an array of celestial pyrotechnics, the book seems to strive at every turn to maximize its own preposterousness.  So it’s worth considering some of the content.  What follows are some highlights:

Passages like 2:26-29, 3:11-12/21, and 20:2-7 offer a sumptuous montage of heady statements intended to disguise the anti-Roman nature of the message.  It is no wonder, then, that the text is festooned with a potpourri of hallucinatory images and bizarre symbolism.  The fact remains: almost NONE of it was meant to be taken literally.  (Can one really “speak like a dragon”?)  When we see JoN riding on a cloud, holding a sickle, with a golden crown on his head, and a sword coming out of his mouth, we might suspect that we’ve gone through the looking glass.

Amidst all the mayhem, there is a constant trepidation about “sorcerers”…followed by good tidings of an angel wrapped in a cloud with a rainbow over his head.  “The holy one, the true one,” we are told, “has the key of David.”  What might this mean?  Perhaps a precursor to the “mafteah” of Solomon (made famous by the grimoire, the “Clavicula Salomonis” in the 15th century)?  Nobody is quite sure.  The Messiah then declares, “I have the keys of Death and of Hades” (presumably after taking the sword out of his mouth).  Such passages mean anything the reader wants them to mean.

Also populating John’s hallucinatory prognostications: Lots of trumpets, a menagerie of hybrid animals, and a slew of arbitrary numbers (12 and 10 and 7 and 4 and 1/3). **  There are also oddly specific tabulations (a list of 29 trade goods; 12,000 people in each tribe; 200 million soldiers; and 7,000 people killed), as well as durations of time that are all approximately the same (3 1/2 years; 42 months; and 1,260 days).  And remember, all 12 x 12,000 = 144,000 people who are admitted to the heavenly realm must be VIRGINS.  (There is an odd fixation on fornication throughout the book; perhaps because the author was himself celibate.)

As expected, there is a climactic battle waged at Megiddo in Samaria (Palestine).  And don’t forget the plagues, the locusts, the blood moon, and the bottomless pit of fire.  Meanwhile, the city of Jerusalem is a cube made entirely of gold that comes down to Earth out of heaven…surrounded by gigantic jasper ramparts.

And, of course, there were the four infamous horses (each with its own horseman), accounting for the first four of the seven seals (seals that existed on some sort of celestial scroll):

  • A white horse, representing conquest
  • A black horse, representing compensation for life’s labors
  • A bright red horse, representing violence (stemming from tribal conflict)
  • A pale green horse, representing death

Splendid.  What about a blue stallion, representing pestilence or famine?  Or perhaps an orange mare representing badminton and eating truffles?  What of a steed for life?  A steed for love?  Nope.  Such things were evidently not part of the plan.

It is likely that there is no purple horse because that particular color symbolized worldly kingdoms, and was therefore associated with Rome.  Of course, if the author had been writing in advocacy of the Roman Empire (as the Nicene revisionists insisted), he would have been MORE apt to include Tyrian purple in his color palate, and been obliged to incorporate something symbolizing the Vatican into semiotic scheme.  Alas.

Later, the white horse makes another appearance, this time with a rider called “Faith and Time”; and then “The Word of God”; and then “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”.  Presumably, this rider is the Messiah…making an appearance in his highly anticipated “second coming”.  It is here that JoN has a sword coming out of his mouth…and is leading “armies of heaven” (all of them on their own white horses, of course).  Apparently, John of Patmos was riffing off of Matthew 10:34-36.  (Casting JoN as a WARRIOR seeking CONQUEST was a bit of a stretch, but the author was pissed.)

One might wonder: When, exactly, will all this pandemonium come to pass?  According to 10:6, once the author penned the words (in the closing years of the 1st century), “There will be no more delay.”  No more delay?  “The time is near,” we’re told in the epilogue (written as a kind of benediction).  “I am coming soon,” the Messiah notifies the world (again, after having taken the sword out of his mouth).  What’s going on here?  Perhaps John of Patmos didn’t consider two millennia a “delay”.  But that can’t be it.  For the author was certain that the Roman Empire (“those who pierced” JoN) would still be around to ACTUALLY SEE the Second Coming.

Memo to Christians: the Roman Empire no longer exists.

It’s worth emphasizing that this tract was more an expression of wishful thinking–by an aggrieved author–than it was an articulation of prophecy. It was a jeremiad, not a mantic premonition.

To reiterate: A narrative adjustment was required if the contentious tract was to serve its new purpose.  Instead of the (formerly pagan) Roman Empire, it would be dissidents within Christendom who were cast as the ultimate villain.  (No longer was imperious ROME the nemesis; it’s those pesky HERETICS that we all need to worry about!  But fear not; they’ll get what’s coming to them.)  And so it went: Rather than the “whore of Babylon” (Rome); the designated enemy was rendered Babylon itself.  Christian Rome was now to be seen as the proxy for righteousness; and anyone who dissented was deemed to be in cahoots with insidious forces. This is PRECISELY the message that Athanasius and the new impresarios of the re-branded Roman order were looking for.

As is often the case with metaphor-laden exposition, apologists are keen to import their own meaning into the text; and then pretend it was there all along.  Regrettably, when symbolism is taken to such heights, it opens the door to endless exegetical shenanigans.  Those who are now besotted by enthralling Millenarian premonitions insist that this eccentric text means precisely what their agenda demands it should mean.  It seems they expect their audience to be just as credulous as they are.  John of Patmos—whoever he was—would be rolling in his unmarked grave.

{*  The serpent leitmotif actually dates back to the Sumerians.  The Akkadian / Assyrian “Tamtu” (rendered “Th-M-T” in Ugaritic) involved the infamous “Tiamat”, as featured in the “Enuma Elish”.  This lexeme was rendered “Tehom[at]” in Hebrew—referring to a dark abyss, which was—sure enough—associated with primordial waters and a serpent.  (Also note: the Babylonians believed in An-Zu / Imdugud: a giant, fire-breathing, lion-headed eagle.)  The Greek term, “therion” is often understood more as a BEAST; as it was a take-off on the mammalian nature of the four creatures that had been featured in chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel: a winged lion (representing the Babylonians), a bear (representing the Persians / Medians), a winged panther with four heads (representing the four Hellenic kingdoms: Seleucid, Ptolemaic, Thracian / Anatolian, and Macedonian), and the most horrifying of all: a ten-horned predator with preternatural claws and teeth (representing the Romans).  Like the more serpentine “Tiamat”, they all emerge from the sea.  Such cartoonish chimeras were intended to be menacing.  Were they actual monsters?  No.  They symbolized various worldly nemeses.  Note that elaborations on the Book of Daniel were not uncommon—as with, say, “Bel and the Dragon”.}

{**  SEVEN seems to play the most significant role.  There were seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls.  The Lion of Judah is—oddly—depicted as a seven-horned lamb with seven eyes.  And there were messages for churches at seven key cities: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyateira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.  (Strangely absent from the list were Hierapolis, Antioch, Damascus, and Alexandria.)  Reading too much into this or that number sets oneself up for endless eisegesis.  One’s time would be just as well spent reading tea leaves.}

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