The Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, has fascinated and puzzled Christians for centuries. With its vivid imagery of disaster and suffering – the Battle of Armageddon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the hideous Beast whose number is 666 – many have seen it as a map to the end of the world. Some say it predicts global warming, AIDS and even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But Biblical scholars, having studied the text and the social and political history of the time, have a different interpretation.
The author of the text tells us that his name is John. Christian tradition has taken him to be the apostle John, author of the Fourth Gospel. However, the John of Revelation does not claim to be one of the disciples or to have known Jesus. Stylometric analysis, a process which analyses an author’s style of writing, shows that the Book of Revelation and John’s Gospel display more differences to each other than any other two books in the New Testament.
What scholars can say about the John of Revelation is that he was a significant figure in the early church in the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). The text starts with a series of seven letters addressed to the Christian communities in seven important cities of the province – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. He mentions details about these communities that indicate he knew and was known to them. They also conclude that he was a Jew from Palestine as his use of the Greek language indicates that he was not a native speaker but of a Semitic mother tongue, and he is very familiar with the Hebrew Bible.
John tells us in the text that he’s writing from the island of Patmos and that he’s there ‘because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’. Christian tradition tells us that he was a prisoner of the Roman Empire, but again scholars disagree and say he may have been exiled to Patmos for being a bit troublesome or he may have gone there to preach. In any case he was able to write (or more likely dictate to a scribe) and circulate the texts to the Christian communities.
The Book of Revelation certainly contains some vivid and disturbing imagery and many have called it an angry text. John’s anger has traditionally been understood to be directed at the Romans for their persecution of the early Christians. Christians were certainly persecuted in Rome and the Emperor Nero blamed them for the devastating fire that destroyed much of Rome in 64CE, but there is no evidence for a systematic persecution of Christians in Asia Minor.
Rome was a society that worshipped many gods and goddesses, each with their own temples. In the first century BCE people began to worship the Roman emperors and temples were built in their honour. This was blasphemy to the early Christians who believed there was only one God and saw worship of other gods as idolatry. Academics believe that the development of this Imperial Cult made John angry and the Book of Revelation is a polemic against it and a warning to the Christians not to engage with it. The imagery shows that good triumphs over evil, that faithfulness will be rewarded and justice will be done.
They interpret John’s visions in a way that makes this clear. The infamous seven-headed Beast that rises from the sea demanding to be worshipped, symbolises Rome. By John’s time seven emperors had ruled over Rome and Rome was known as the city of seven hills. The number of the Beast – 666 – has always puzzled Christians and led to many speculations about who this could be. Scholars now believe that this was a matter of numerology – a popular puzzle in ancient times. The letters of a name were ascribed numerical value and added up to give a number – the name Emperor Nero adds up to 666. Historians believe that Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome may have entered the consciousness of early Christians making him a hate figure.
However, evidence from ancient manuscripts indicates that 666 may not have been the number of the Beast. In the late 19th century, British archaeologists working at the site of the Egyptian city Oxyrhynchus discovered a cache of papyri which were brought to Oxford, where academics have been working their way through them ever since. One of these papyrus fragments is of the Book of Revelation and gives the number of the Beast as 616. Working on the same principle of numerology, academics work out 616 to indicate the Emperor Caligula. Caligula had had a statue of himself erected in the temple in Jerusalem which had greatly offended Jews. If John indeed was a Jew from Palestine he would have known this.
The image of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is borrowed and updated from the Hebrew Prophet, Zachariah. The red horse symbolises war and destruction; the black horse symbolises famine; the pale horse symbolises death; but the white horse symbolises vengeance and salvation.
The word Armageddon is taken from al-Megiddo a place on the Jazreel Plain in modern day Israel. By John’s time many famous battles had been fought there and in the first century it was the site of the camp of the brutal Roman Ironsides. To John’s mind this would have been the perfect place for the final battle between good and evil.
So it seems that the Book of Revelation is not prophesising the end of the world but is a polemic against the Roman Empire. John frames his attack in a way that parallels other religious writings of the time and which would have made sense to early Christians. John was for first century Christians telling them to galvanise themselves against compromising with Rome, and that their faithfulness would be rewarded.
in BBC Religion and Ethics. Excelent site, visit it.