Pagels’ Revelation 2, On Violence and Utopia

To return to the questions in the prior post:  Who was this John of Patmos, as he identifies himself, author of Revelation, and why did he write this strange book? As all reputable Biblical scholarship makes clear, he was not the disciple of Jesus named John, and/or the author one of the four key texts in the New Testament, the Gospel of John.

John of Patmos was Jewish believer in the message of Christ, that is, not quite yet a Christian (more on that in a bit).  Given the time in which he was living, and the beliefs he had adopted, his idea that the end of the world was at hand was no mere fantasy of the delusional, but reflected real, and current events. He seems to have written, first and foremost, for the reasons he said he had- to warn “all who could hear” about what he believed was the coming end of the world.

He was writing around 90 AD, and may very well have been a refugee from the incredibly violent Roman siege, starvation, and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus had predicted the destruction of the famed Jewish temple in that holiest of cities- “that not one stone would remain”, and in essence it had happened. (Pagels believes this prophecy reported in the Gospels to be legit, and not, as some think a later embellishment R10).

The war in the homeland of the Jews, then called Judea, had broken out four years earlier as a rebellion of intensely religious Jews, known as the Zealots, who sought to throw out the Romans and establish a kingdom of the godly on earth. It was perhaps the world’s first truly civilizational religious war:  in part sparked by what many Jews considered to be Roman sacrilege of Jewish religious norms, whose rebels aimed at creating a religiously based political community to be ruled by their hoped for coming messiah. It was a revolt that was ultimately crushed by the Romans who in doing so took direct aim at the Jewish religion: desecrating its holy sites and burning its most sacred temple to the ground.

John may have seen this destruction himself, and even if he did not, he certainly had met the scores of refugees from the Roman war on the holy land. He would have heard, first hand, the stories of the destruction and sacrilege, the rape of Jewish women, the tale of the Jews under siege at the fortress of Masada who chose mass suicide rather than the murder or enslavement by the Roman army that surrounded them.  But this religious war would have only been part of John’s understanding of Rome’s violence against “God’s people”, he would also be confronted by the specter of Rome’s own cult of power, and its corresponding religious persecution.

In modern times, at least in Western countries, we tend to try to preserve a line, sharp or blurred ,depending on our particular national culture, between politics and religion. Political figures or movements that cross this line are usually criticized for using religion for political ends. In the Roman world, on the other hand, it was not merely that religion was co-opted by political forces- it was that religion possessed no real independent existence apart from the state.

As Pagel’s points out, the Imperial Cult of Rome, in which conquered peoples accepted and worshiped both Roman gods and the emperor, were a means by which conquered peoples showed their loyalty to the conqueror. To not give worship to Rome rulers and its gods constituted an act of political defiance. Any wonder then that Jews, and later Christians, aroused the suspicion of Rome, which sometimes resulted in the empire’s extremely cruel persecutions of these dissident groups even outside the religious wars between Romans and Jews. Such persecutions could include everything from crucifiction to being tortured and eaten alive by wild animals for public entertainment.

If the political world offered John plenty of endtime material, the natural world delivered as well. The massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. had not only turned people quite literally to stone, it had opened a vast crater that seemingly opened into the burning mouth of hell, and caused molten lava to rein from the heavens.

But if it is clear that we should not look at Revelation as a book that aimed its’ prophecy at some far-off human future, but instead was a dystopian perspective on the Roman Empire in  the present of its author, how should we make sense of John’s seeming obsession with the Jews, which is another underlying theme in the book? That is, how are we to understand that Revelation is told from the perspective of the Jewish fight for liberation and justice against the Romans when it author, John, seemingly has such horrible things to say about the Jews as well.

It was once typical to read John’s ravings about the Jews as an early example of Christian anti- semitism. A pathology, which as we all know, was to play such a disastrous role in later Western history. That’s how I always read Revelation, but Pagel offers an alternative explanation, one that seemed to make apparently nonsensical ravings such as ones against “those that say they are Jews and are not” scattered throughout Revelation actually make sense.

Pagel sees John as on the losing side of an argument about what Christianity was to become. Was it to present itself the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, concentrate on the conversion of fellow Jews, and retain Jewish law for converts such as dietary laws and the practice of circumcision? Or was it to open itself fully to non-Jews- the Gentiles- concentrate on their conversion rather than the conversion of fellow Jews, and largely abandon Jewish law for religious practices that would be more attractive to non-Jews?

Pagel sees John of Patmos as taking the position that Christianity should remain as close as possible to the Judaism it claimed to fulfill, whereas the apostle Paul, whose side ultimately won this debate, wanted, in a sense, to walk away from traditional Judaism and spread a new faith among the Gentiles.

So John in his Revelation is aiming at two primary targets: the Roman Empire, and those in his new religious movement centered on the figure of Jesus Christ (the Paul faction) who wanted to redefine the faith to embrace the Gentiles and abandon almost all of traditional Judaism.John’s seemingly anti-semitic statements can now be seen not as attacking the Jews but those early Christians who were abandoning much of Judaism and setting their sights on converting the pagans.

With this in mind we can start to answer the question of what all his crazy symbolism might mean. The Beast in all likelihood is the Roman Empire, with the “Whore of Babylon” being the great city of Rome itself, both after all,  sit upon seven hills. The Beast’s “seven heads” are likely the last seven emperors of Rome up until the madman emperor,  Nero.

The infamous Nero, who had murdered his own mother and was rumored to have deliberately set afire the city of Rome, could easily play the part of the last head (emperor) of the seven headed Beast (Rome). Nero had died of a self-inflicted wound to the head- just like the wound suffered by John’s Beast, but was rumoured to be still alive and plotting his return. A rumor John may have known and believed.

The so-called “mark of the beast” which people need to be able to “buy or sell” is probably a cryptic reference to Roman coins which often had images of the Roman emperor, Roman gods, or both, and which many observant Jews of the time faced a moral dilemma in using. (Though Jesus with his “Render what is Caesar’s unto Caesar and what is God’s unto God”, apparently, did not.)

The “false prophet” figure of the antichrist, though John doesn’t call him that, is likely a reference to one of the figures on the Paul side of the where-do-we-go-from-here? debate among early Christians. He might also be the author of a lost alternative end-of-time narrative to John’s own. Pagels shows us just how common these narratives were at the time, an obvious reflection of the enormous pressures society was undergoing at that time.

The figure of Jezebel is also likely one of these figures of early Christianity, and Pagels here too brings prominent Christian preachers who were women lost to time, or erased from official history back into view. Talk of  Jezebel’s “fornication” by John Pagels sees not so much as a puritanical slur as a reference of this prophetesses’ tendency to aim her preaching at “unclean” pagans.

This still leaves us with plenty of questions in terms of John’s symbolism, but a more practical question is how John’s Revelation came to be in the Bible at all if it was indeed a rival to the ultimately winning (Paul) side of the debate among early Christians regarding the future of the faith?

In fact, Pagels points out that including Revelation in the officially sanctioned books that make up the New Testament was highly contested and controversial. At the end of the day, Revelation had a number of opposing strengths that would lead to its eventual inclusion in the Bible.

For one, it offered hope, and ultimate justice and in doing so became popular with Christians who were even more brutally persecuted by the Romans during the 2nd century than they had been when John penned Revelation. The Romans considered the Christians “atheist” in that they didn’t believe in the gods, and though neither would admit it, Christianity and atheism have been the flip-side of one another ever since.

What was worse for the Romans is that this atheism was rapidly spreading and in sections of the population: slaves, women, the poor where such beliefs might foment revolution. The fact that many Christians would not disavow their beliefs, would suffer horrible tortures and death rather than pay homage to the emperor and the Roman gods, or would refuse to curse the name of this agitator- Jesus- whom the Romans had proved to be a charlatan when they crucified him over a century before, made Christians appear like dangerous fanatics in the eyes of Roman magistrates, a cancer on the Empire that needed to be stopped before it became impossible to do so.

Under conditions like this, for Christians, John’s Revelation didn’t read like prophecy- it read like the news. But then everything changed.

In 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. By the end of his reign Christianity would be the official religion of the empire that had tried to destroy it. Christian churches, not pagan temples, would be paid for with the taxes of Rome. Pagans, rather than Christians would find themselves under state persecution.  A betting man would have wagered that The Book of Revelation which had preached against the Roman Empire had had its day. Yet here, another strength of Revelation makes its appearance- that is the ambiguity of its symbolism. John never says “I am talking about the Roman Empire”, “the Whore of Babylon is Rome” etc. You can project onto Revelation any enemy you wish, which also means you can deny that its characters represent some particular power or person as well.

The person almost singularly responsible for getting the Book of Revelation included in the Bible was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.  Athanasius was an impassioned proponent of a hierarchical and universal (catholic) church. His election to the position of Bishop in Alexandria in the early 300s was contested and the issue ultimately decided in his favor by Constantine with whom he had close connections. Many in the Egyptian church fought this decision and Athanasius fought a 40yr struggle to bring them to heel.

In this fight Athanasius found in Revelation a potent weapon. John’s warnings against “false prophets” would be used in Athanasius’ hands to mean any group of “heretics” that did not submit to the will of the Church which was now firmly aligned with the Roman Empire. This Athanasius was a major figure among the group of Church and Imperial officials that would create the Nicene Creed, the declaration of belief that Catholics recite at the beginning of religious services to this day. He was also a key player in the decision of what books were to make up the official Christian Bible, and he would argue for, and win the inclusion of Revelation.

This still leaves us with the last question, namely, what does The Book of Revelation mean for us? Here I will step away from Pagel and speak for myself. What it certainly is not is some sort of actual prophecy to be applied to our own time. Yet, given the ambiguity symbolism in the story, and its proven ability to be projected upon just about any political or religious environment, Revelation is likely to be used, or rather misused, in this way until human beings stop imagining the end of the world. A scenario that will probably only come about when there are no longer human beings around to worry about such things. That is, the end of Revelation, or some variant of it, will only come about once the world, at least for us human beings, really has ended.

As I have pointed out in the past, other myths that explained the world in terms of a battle of good against evil, that would end with the victory of the good and represent the end of history predate The Book of Revelation, but it is primarily this book that still holds us in its spell.

John’s strange images of violence, destruction, and evil incarnate take us into the world of our worst fears, but his story ends with the birth of a new world, and the end not merely of this particular experience of suffering in this specific time, but the end of all suffering, and, at least for the just, for all of time to come. In his vision not just human beings stop hurting and killing one another, but animals stop doing so to one another as well. The bloodshed of John’s end-times is a type of catharsis that purges, once and for all, the elemental relationship between violence and the living world. Revelation, as Pagels points out, is a vision of both our worst fears and most fervent hopes.

It is probably this idea of ending violence through violence that has proven to be the most deadly legacy of Revelation. You can see it in the revolutionary reigns of terror in both the French and Russian Revolutions where killing was justified on the basis that violence was being made a thing of the past- a new state to be reached, it was claimed, once the current violence was over. You find this same dangerous nonsense in “wars to end all wars” or “the war on terrorism”, which given that terrorism is a tactic amounts to “the war on war”.  The idea that violence waged against violence will be one that the side of “good violence” is destined to win is a dangerous illusion that has resulted in the most dangerous of gambles with the very survival of humanity.

Violence is good for only two things that I can think of: self-defense, and to stop other violence as it is occurring or right before it is about to occur. Violence can not end violence, and it effect is often exactly the opposite, it can only stop the violence of another group in its tracks. Violence is, thus, a purely negative force, and despite what you might have learned in your political science classes it is never the basis of anything. Even the cruelest of states use violence not as a basis of their power but as a means of making sure no one but those willing to collaborate with them is actually able to organize. As the Romans knew well there is no basis for empire without a sea of willing collaborators.

But if we can step back from this dangerous illusion in Revelation that violence can end violence we can see what I believe to be the true and lasting value of that bizarre book.  In a way that would have never occurred to the Romans who held violence to be an elemental, inescapable, and even praiseworthy feature of the world [these Romans who,  after all, built their famous Coliseum as a house-of-horrors to entertain vast crowds with animals killing animals, animals killing humans, and humans killing humans] that there was something wrong with this state of affairs, that a more perfect world would be one in which violence, even the natural violence of animals, never occurred.

But John, in his confrontation with the Roman Empire could see this, and was thus able to take a moral and imaginative leap into a world that was not, into a utopia, where violence was gone from the world. This is the same type of leap that was taken from a very different perspective by the Indian religion of Jainism that till this day practices nonviolence against all living things. Both Revelation and Jainism accuse the violent character of the natural and human worlds of being immoral on account of such violence, and imagine in its place something new.

A world purged of violence is without doubt utopian in the sense that it will never be realized, but the fact that so many of us have come to believe that violence is fundamentally wrong, that we have purged or tried to purge it from all the places where Roman civilization found it to be natural: from the family, from the economy, from criminal justice, from even our relationship with animals can give us hope that the arc of history moving away from violence, an arc that John of Patmos helped identify, is more than just the delusion of a madman but a destination we, with effort, can continuously move towards, if never reach.

Pagles’ Revelation 1


Readers of this blog who take note of how much I talk about the Book of Revelation might be forgiven for thinking I had perhaps lost my grip on reality, that soon I might be found wandering the street with a sign around my neck informing the world that “the end is near!” or might be on the verge of joining the church of Harold Camping with the hope that next time he will get his dates right.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, I perhaps find the Book of Revelation as fascinating as those who believe it to be an outline of the human future composed by the mind of God. For me, Revelation is the first, and without doubt the most powerful dystopia ever written. The vagueness of its symbolism is its strength. For what other narrative is so flexible that its penultimate villain- the Anti-Christ- can be grafted onto historical figures as diverse as the Roman Emperor Nero, Pope Boniface VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte,  Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.

We should not forget either that the Revelation narrative was sometimes used by the “good guys” of history such as Bartolome de Las Casas who fought for the rights of Native Americans against his Spanish countrymen, or could be found in the hearts and minds of the Union armies during the Civil War who sang:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,

He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,

So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,

Our God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Revelation has proven the most powerful dystopian narrative in history whose value is as varied as the humanity that is its subject inspiring saints, poets, madmen and murderers. Thus, I awaited with some anticipation to get my hands on the religious scholar Elaine Pagels’ recently released Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Pagels is a brilliant historian of religion who writes in a style accessible to the lay reader, and in her work she sets out to tell us the origins of this strangest of books.

For those who have never read the Book of Revelation, or have read it and don’t quite remember what exactly it says,  below are the basics. Please bear with it, for later on, with the help of Pagel we will snap the whole thing into place.

The author of Revelation , John of Patmos, announces at the beginning of his book in a tone that clearly implies the imminent occurrence of what he is about to unveil:

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things therein: for the time is at hand. [emphasis added]

In powerful words John speaks in the voice of God and indicates that the story he will tell is the end of a drama that began with the creation:

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, what was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

John then reports how he was given his prophecy, which come to him in visions that he was told by God to convey by letters along with “warnings” to the seven churches of Asia.

In his letter to the church of Ephesus John warns against “them which say they are apostles and are not”.  To the church of Smyrna he warns against “those who say they are Jews and are not”. The church of Pergamos he warns against worshipers of the pagan god Baal. Thyatira he warns against “that woman Jezebel who calleth herself a prophet”. Sardis he cautions to keep on the right path. To Philadelphia John again makes this strange warning against those “which say they are Jews and are not” but are instead of “the synagogue of Satan”. [Quick note: this has often been interpreted as deranged anti-semitism on the part of John, and that is how I have always read it, but Pagel is going to offer a whole new explanation for this nonsense, so again, stay turned].  Lastly, John warns the Laodiceans about their “lukewarm” faith.

Now the story gets interesting. John sees four heavenly beasts with the faces of a lion, calf, man, and an eagle each with six wings and “full of eyes within”  surrounding a throne on a “sea of glass”  praising God. Around the throne also are seated 24 “elders” clothed in dazzling white and also singing praises to God.

On his throne, God holds a book in right hand locked shut with “seven seals”, only a slain lamb, the symbol of Christ, is able to open the book. This is the book on which the end of our world is written. The breaking of the first seal brings forth a white horse representing conquest, the second a red horse-violence-, a black horse-famine-, and a white horse-death. The breaking of the fifth seal reveals those who have died in the name of their faith who cry for the justice and revenge of God upon their tormentors.
The sixth seal triggers an enormous earthquake, the sun goes black, the moon becomes as red as blood, and stars fall from the sky.

For the great day of his wrath has come; and who shall be able to stand?

Angels descend from heaven to mark God’s chosen with a seal that will offer them protection from the horrors to come 144,000 are so marked. The story gets even harder to follow. At the breaking of the seventh seal  angel’s blow trumpets and all hell breaks-loose, so to speak, the angles pour out vials causing all kinds of horrors and monsters to descend upon the earth where a gaping abyss has opened up.

John now shatters all human conventions of past, present, and future. He sees a woman in heaven bathed in sunlight crying in labor giving birth to a child. (Mary, giving birth to Jesus which had happened a little less than a century before John wrote)  Satan, emerging from the abyss, makes chase to kill the child and battles Michael and the Angels of heaven (something that “took place” before the creation of mankind). To his side Satan calls the two figures we all remember from Revelation, the Beast, and another figure who has become known as the Antichrist.

The Beast has “seven heads and ten horns” and is obviously some sort of political power for he is said to have power “over all kindreds and tongues  and nations”. The Beast has been “wounded by a sword but did live”. The second figure, the Antichrist, makes his appearance. He is a sort of miracle worker who convinces the masses to worship the first Beast. The Antichrist decrees that everyone:

….. receive a mark in their right hand or in their forehead:
and that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

John then let’s us know that if we are wise enough we can actually figure out who this beast is:

for it is the number of a man: and his number is six-hundred threescore and six.

John then sees seven more angels pour yet more cups of horrors on the peoples of the earth. One of these angels takes John to see a woman sitting on a scarlet colored beast- again with seven heads. Upon her head is written:


And we are informed that the seven heads of the beast “are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth”.

John tells us how Babylon will be destroyed and how the merchants that have grown rich from her and those that have felt her pleasures “cinnamon, and, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil… and the souls of men” [emphasis added] will lament her fall.

God, on a white horse, and his armies descend from heaven and destroy the Beast, and end up chaining Satan in a bottomless pit for a thousand years. After this period Satan is released who will again deceive the nations of the earth including “Gog and Magog” at the four corners of the earth.  A last great battle for the meaning of the world ensues. The forces of good win. The great generations of the dead of humanity rise from under water and earth: their physical bodies reconstituted. The wicked of the world receive God’s justice, condemned  to a lake of fire.

After this last epic battle between the forces of good and evil, the resurrection of the dead and last judgement, John’s prophecy turns from a horrifying dystopian vision to poetic image of utopia, a reality that promises moral closure, a final end in which the world has made sense: the evil punished, the good rewarded, and all that haunts us has passed away. The world as we have known it with its deceit, desire, pain, and suffering is at last gone replaced with something entirely new and beautiful:

And God will wipe away all the tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away.

The holy city of Jerusalem, the seat of this new world, is composed of dazzling jewels on a sea of glass.

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon… for the Lord God giveth them light and they shall reign forever and ever.

That then, is the Book of Revelation, we are left with questions: Who was this John of Patmos? Why did he write this strange book that has haunted us since? What does its crazy symbolism: this Beast, and Antichrist, and Jezebel, and Babylon and all the rest mean? And lastly, the most important questions, what does it say to us? What does it mean, for us?

We will need Pagels’ help to answer these questions, and I will pick it up there next time.