Does the Roman Empire hold the key to understanding the book of Revelation? 6 October 2017
“There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.” Revelation 17
This evocative passage from the Book of Revelation is amongst the most commented upon of the entire Bible. The imagery used by the author is layered, complex, and seeping in apocalyptic mysticism. It is no surprise that Revelation has inspired countless artists and poets, and has left tomes of theological treatises examining its meaning.
Within biblical scholarship, it is generally accepted that in order to gain as much insight as possible from an ancient text, the social context must not be neglected. Revelation is no exception to this and whilst it is a powerful text, without any contextual knowledge, the intended meaning of the author cannot be deciphered. Images within Revelation, such as the beast, can be seen in a new light when understood with reference to the Roman Empire, a vast superpower of the era which cast a long shadow on the life of early Christians.
Revelation and the Roman Empire
When was the Book of Revelation even written? It is the first question a scholar of Biblical studies would want to address. Leonard Thompson narrows it down to 68-120 CE. This was a period where the church was still in development and the small numbers of Christians, who are a mixture of Jews and non-Jews, are developing and exploring their relationship to the Roman world.
It is written from ‘John to the seven churches that are in Asia’ (Revelation 1:4). In addressing seven, the number of completeness, our author in fact seeks to address all churches in the Roman Empire.
It is an apocalyptic text, a genre which unveils and reveals truths about God’s perspective during a time of crisis. During this period, Jewish influence was still very high and many of the images in Revelation are drawn from Jewish literature of the time. Furthermore, the apocalyptic genre is rooted in Judaism and the Hebrew Bible, examples of which can be seen in texts such as Daniel 7-12 and other non-canonical Jewish texts.
The imagery of Revelation may initially be confusing to a modern reader, however, knowledge of the prominence of the imperial cult provides some insight into the lives of the intended audience.
The imperial cult was a huge part of the social glue that held the people of the widespread empire together. Each city would compete for recognition from the emperor by building temples, showing loyalty and worshiping through the emperor cult. Religion and politics were almost undistinguishable as religion was a function of the state and worship of the gods was part of the duty of the citizen. One can see why this was an issue within Judaism and early Christianity, monotheistic religions which strongly oppose worshipping other Gods.
Many of the symbols in Revelation clearly map onto situations in the Roman Empire. A prime example of this is the seven letters, which follow the standard pattern of an ancient letter and contain many commonalities. The letter to Laodicea is just one example of a letter rich in local references. For instance, ‘You are lukewarm’ in 3:16, is likely to be a reference to the local water supply which was lukewarm and undesirable due to its location between a city known for hot springs and a city known for mineral baths. These local allusions remind us that the original context must not be ignored.
The Persecuted Church
Persecution of Christians and the subsequent theme of hope and the call to perseverance run throughout Revelation. It is unlikely that it was written during an official persecution but there is sufficient internal evidence to suggest some persecution and martyrdom. Many would have been persecuted for refusing to participate in the imperial cult, which is precisely what John is preparing them for.
John suggests that they should not participate and endure the persecution because those who worship the beast will drink the wine of God’s wrath and anger and will be tormented with fire and sulphur (14:10). This is followed by the ‘call for the endurance of the saints’ (14:12). This is the central theme running throughout Revelation, and it would have been immediately apparent to the early Christian readers. Revelation was, and still is a book of solace and fortitude to a persecuted church.
In looking at some of the issues Christians faced, the purpose of writing becomes evident. If Christians were expected to worship the emperor and did so in order to avoid persecution, then this raises a dilemma, a theological crisis, that Revelation intends to tackle. Simon Woodman, lecturer and theologian, believes that in response to these debates, John creates evocative and metaphorical images to convince his audience that Rome is corrupt, the emperor is evil, and pagan religions are to be resisted. John believes his audience are, as Woodman phrases it, ‘subject to a form of ideological slavery to the powerful forces of evil enshrined in the economic, political and social institutions of the Roman Empire’. The only freedom from this slavery is to become a slave to God, rather than the beast.
The Whore and the Beast
Amongst the numerous images in Revelation, one of the most well-known is that of the beast. The first image is of the beast of the sea was worshipped by all (13:4) and blasphemed against God, his name and those who dwell in heaven (13:6). The second is the beast of the earth, which deceives the inhabitants of earth (13:14) and gave breath to the image of the beast so that it could speak and cause those who would not worship the image to be killed (13:15). This imagery may strike us as abnormal but can be explained by the two primordial beasts which Thompson points out are prominent in Jewish and ancient Near Eastern Lore, one associated with water and one with the earth.
Adela Collins, a distinguished scholar who has devoted her career to studying Revelation, explains the most popular interpretation of these images; ‘The beast from the sea is sometimes Rome as an Empire and sometimes the Roman emperor; the beast from the land represents the allies of Rome in Asia Minor, the provincial elite who took the lead in establishing and maintaining the imperial cult.’ Although this is simply an interpretation of the allegory, when we consider the contextual evidence, it is certainly convincing.
The mark of the beast unifies people (13:16-17) and is a contrast to the seal of God, an alternative source of unity for Christians. Collins explains that this idea of a mark that determines one’s fate is traditional and reflects verses such as Ezekiel 9 but it also had contemporary cultural associations which enhanced the image.
It also helps to know about the ancient science of Gematria, or assigning numerical values to letters of the alphabet, which was popular in the Greco-Roman world. The number of the beast, ‘six hundred sixty-six’, is the number of a person (13:18). John uses this literary device because it would have been well known to his audience. The most compelling interpretation is that both the Greek and the Latin of ‘Neron/Nero Caesar’ are numerically equivalent to 666 and the variant reading of 616. Here we see yet another instance of contextual knowledge providing us with the key to understanding.
The genre of apocalyptic literature was often coded so only the intended audience would understand. It was important that should a copy of the book of Revelation find its way into the hands of a Roman official that it does not directly implicate early Christians into sedition or treachery. An example of this is the reference to Rome as Babylon which may not have been understood by Roman authorities. The whore of Babylon can be interpreted in light of common images in the Roman world. Professor Craig Koester of the Luther Seminary points out it was common to depict vice as a seductive woman and virtue as a modest woman. Imagery of a wicked city being a whore is a common motif in prophecy within the Hebrew Bible also. Jewish authors saw analogies between the destruction of the first temple by Babylon and the destruction of the second temple by Rome. For John, Babylon represents the satanic empire, the antithesis of the kingdom of God; and Rome is the new Babylon.
Then, the mystery of the beast is explained: ‘The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction.’ (17:8). Both this verse and 13:3 draw on legends concerning Nero, who was thought to have committed suicide and was rumoured to come back from the dead. Ben Witherington stresses that symbols are flexible; the author of Revelation would have known that the meaning of the beast is not limited to Nero, but he certainly exemplifies it. Here the key point is that the Revelation is hammering home the message – “worship God, not the beast (the emperor), as the beast will go to destruction”.
Missing the Point?
However, Revelation can, to some extent, be understood and appreciated in many ways without the aid of contextual knowledge. Throughout history, many have related to the images in Revelation and felt comfort in applying them to their current situation.
However, not paying attention to the historical context has led to many misreadings of the text. For example, some Millenarian cults have tried and failed to predict the end of the world. As Woodman asserts, the images could be seen, as allegories for the ongoing cosmic battle between good and evil. From this perspective, they do not represent any stage of human history so attention should only be given to the spiritual meaning of the words. However, whilst this perspective may be useful in some ways, it also takes away from the point that God has won and Christians will be saved if they remain faithful.
Richard Bauckham concludes in his work “The Theology of the Book of Revelation” by writing that ‘Revelation’s future eschatology serves to keep the church oriented towards God’s world and God’s future world.’ In other words, it has perpetual relevance. However, he also strongly advocates looking to the original context for understanding; ‘Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today.’ And there are those of course who see Revelation not as a book about the past and the Roman Empire, or even the now and the cosmic battle of good and evil, but about the future. It is for some an eschatological text, a book about what will come. From this perspective, context is not key.
Does an understanding of these points mean the social context loses its importance or do they help strengthen it? It could be suggested that social context loses its importance as Revelation could be used in any period to keep the focus of the church on God. However, I believe each of these points can only be aided by knowledge of the original context. As Hirsch argues; ‘Interpretations that do not take the original historical context seriously express the significance of the text to various readers, but cannot claim to express its normative meaning or range of meanings.’ Collins’ warning seems relevant, that ‘without a precise knowledge of the books setting, the interpreter is in danger of serious misunderstanding’.
So understanding the Roman Empire at the time of writing does provide a key to understanding Revelation. It provides a richness and added layer of appreciation when we encounter the images of the Beast of the Sea and the Beast of the Earth in popular culture, and helps us locate the sometimes sublime and sometimes savage imagery of the Book of Revelation.