Revelation Part 2: Rome and Social Setting

By: Robert Ward - Dec. 12, 2021


In contemporary North America, the mention of Revelation may evoke several reactions, from fascination to repulsion. This is in no small part due to the prevalence of interpretations that attempt to map Revelation’s narrative and symbolism onto our modern world. It is not uncommon for discussion of Revelation to turn to the Middle East, Russia, Covid, or US presidents. Interpreters like Hal Lindsey, LaHaye and Jenkins, and David Jeremiah have all tried to demonstrate that Revelation predicts our world is about to end. But this is just one interpretive scheme among many.

In their commentary on Revelation, Kovacs and Rowland identify interpretations on two axes: on one, interpreters focus on the past, present, or future; on the second, interpreters either “decode” or “actualize” their interpretation.[1] Decoding attempts to find direct parallels and equivalencies between the text and a given context, whereas actualizing attempts to reinterpret the text for relevance to a given situation. In this schema, the interpretation of Lindsey et al. would be decoding the text with a focus on the future. However, most scholars interpret the text differently; they may still “decode” the text, but they do so with a focus on the past. Rather than attempting to find modern clues of Revelation’s “fulfillment,” they suggest that Revelation was primarily referring to the period in which it was written. Certainly, it is more intuitive that John would be describing the circumstance of his intended audience, opposed to a period almost 2 millennia later. My goal is to describe the circumstance that prompted John’s writing, and to identify the primary antagonist: the Roman Empire.

 

Rome as Antagonist

While Revelation does not offer a direct description of life in the Roman empire, there are enough references to the Roman Empire at large (and Asia Minor) to draw the conclusion that the empire and its local manifestations are of primary concern for John. Here are two examples:

The Use of the Term Babylon

As discussed in part 1, “Babylon” is used to describe the Roman Empire; the rationale for choosing Babylon being that both they and Rome destroyed a temple in Jerusalem. Also pertinent, however, is the Whore of Babylon in Rev 17-18. The woman is initially described in 17:2 as “the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication.”[2] She is said to be sitting on a beast with seven heads and ten crowns. A few verses later, in an attempt for his symbolism to be “decoded,” John writes:

This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while.

Aune has argued that the woman is a parody of the goddess Roma.[3] He identified a sestertius (a small Roman coin)  from 71-79 CE depicting Roma sitting on the seven hills of Rome. He then argues that Rev 17 is alluding to Jewish texts about the historical Babylon which depict it as a woman.[4] He notes several potential parodies between Revelation and the sestertius’ depiction of Roma, including the following:

Koester notes that even if the readers of Revelation were not aware of the physical coin, the images John parodies would have been pervasive enough to be familiar to them.[8] The depiction of Roma would have been especially potent in Asia Minor, since the Smyrneans claimed to have been the first to worship her.[9]

The Economic Critique in Revelation 18

After the depiction of Roma in chapter 17, Rev 18 announces the death of the Roman Empire. In so doing, it surveys the various industries and imports that will perish with the empire, many of which would have exemplified Rome’s excess and evidenced its exploitation.[10] Bauckham suggests that John’s list draws from Ezekiel 27:12-24, which lists products Tyre traded; though John’s list is adapted to Rome’s situation.[11] He further laments the lack of care that many give to the list, saying:

No doubt this lack of interest in the concrete detail which John so deliberately provides, reflects, not only the average exegete's preference for theology over concrete history, but also a failure fully to recognize the thoroughly contextualized nature of John's prophetic message.[12]

 

With that in mind, it would be expedient to consider a few items from this list.

John does not take up slavery as a topic in its own right, but the way he tells of merchants selling human "souls"—and not just human "bodies"—along with gold, grain, cattle, and horses underscores the problems inherent in a society that turns everything into commodities that can be sold to meet the insatiable demand of the ruling power.[19]

Importantly, This means that John’s issues with Rome were not limited to the imperial court, persecution, or idolatry more generally; John’s critique extended to the economic systems of Rome in their own right.[20]

The Reason for Writing: Social Setting and Sociological Perspectives

While the fact that Revelation is writing in reference to the Roman Empire is more or less settled among scholars, the historical circumstances that prompt the writing is difficult to ascertain. Though at one time it was thought that Revelation addressed congregations who were experiencing persecution brought on by Domitian, scholars from the late 20th century have argued that there is little evidence for persecution under Domitian.[21] Thompson, one of the first scholars to support a reassessment, surveyed the relevant literature about Domitian from the first and second centuries and argued that a) there was sufficient reason to question the impartiality of some of the critics,[22] and b) there are provincial sources that speak positively of Domitian.[23] In Light of this, many scholars have abandoned the notion of Domitianic persecution.[24]

However, simply abandoning the notion of persecution is difficult to do, given its repeated reference to tribulations of one sort or another.[25] Middleton (who argues that martyrdom plays a central role in Revelation, and that John believed Christians will experience widespread persecution in the future)[26] attempts to construct a historical setting for localized persecution and martyrdom in the late first century. He begins by noting general hostility to Christians in the first century, and by calling to mind a section in Pliny the Younger written around 110 CE, in which he tests whether or not someone is Christian by telling them to sacrifice to the emperor: if they do, all is fine, but if not, they are to be executed.[27] Middleton then argues that the sacrifice test does not appear to have originated with Pliny the Younger, and that it may have been practiced much earlier.[28]

Wood, alternatively, suggests that Thompson’s construction is likely incorrect for two reasons: first, the Flavian dynasty (of which Domitian is a part) was regarded as a period of stability after the 60s CE; in fact, Domitian’s critics praise the Flavians. If Thompson was correct that the bias against Domitian was due to political pressure to discount the Flavians, why would the critics praise the Flavians?[29] Second, the historians writing during Domitian’s reign would be no less susceptible to political pressure than those writing during Nerva and Trajan.[30]

Two reservations toward Wood’s argument should be noted: first, he simplifies Thompson’s argument. Thompson argues that Nerva and Trajan wished to be perceived as the beginning of a “New Era” immediately following the reign of Domitian; while that does include a contrast of Nerva and Trajan to the Flavians overall,[31] the Flavian Dynasty may have been seen as in decline, culminating in Domitian. There is no need to portray the entirety of the Flavians in a negative light. Second, Thompson provides examples of historical incongruencies between Domitian’s critics and Domitian’s reign.[32] For instance, the critics suggest that Domitian commanded some to refer to him as “lord and god;” however, there is only one recorded instance of such a thing, which may have been an attempt to flatter Domitian.[33]

Importantly, Yarbro Collins has noted that from within a community, the objective reality of oppression is not as important as its perception: “the crucial element is not so much whether one is actually oppressed as whether one feels oppressed” (emphasis original).[34] Collins suggests that Revelation primarily functions to alleviate stressors associated with the perceived crisis that the Seven Churches faced by transposing them into the world that John constructs.[35] Thompson categorizes her construction as a “crisis theory” that constructs a symbolic alternative to the real world, such that the two worlds (symbolic and real) are seen as separate from one another.[36] He proposes instead that the symbolic world John constructs depicts the world as it really is, compared to the false world offered by the Romans.[37]

Whether the seven churches experienced systematic persecution and martyrdom is unlikely, though possible. However, that does not mean they did not experience oppression; at the very least, they were perceived negatively by the surrounding communities, who reacted approvingly when Christians were persecuted.[38] From John’s perspective, Christians were pressured to cooperate with a culture that he thought was wicked, and so he commands them to separate from the empire around them.[39]

 

 

Bibliography

Aune, David E. Apocalypticism, Prophecy, and Magic in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.

———. Revelation. Word Bible Commentary vol 52C. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017. EPub.

Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. London: T & T Clark, 1993.

Carter, Warren. “Revelation and Roman Rule in First-Century Asia Minor.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Book of Revelation, edited by Craig R. Koester, 133–151. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible Commentary vol 38A. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 2014.

———. “Roman Slave Trade and the Critique of Babylon in Revelation 18.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70:4 (2008) 766–786.

Kovacs, Judith, and Christopher Rowland. Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2013.

Kraybill, J. Nelson. Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse. Sheffield, Eng: Sheffield Academic, 1996.

Middleton, Paul. The Violence of the Lamb: Martyrs as Agents of Divine Judgement in the Book of Revelation. London: T & T Clark, 2018.

Thompson, Leonard L. “A Sociological Analysis of Tribulation in the Apocalypse of John.” Semia 36 (1986), 147–174.

———. The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Vasser, Murray. “Bodies and Souls: The Case for Reading Revelation 18.13 as a Critique of the Slave Trade.” New Testament Studies 64:3 (2018), 397–409.

Wood, Shane J. The Alter-Imperial Paradigm: Empire Studies and the Book of Revelation. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2016.

Yarbro Collins, Adela. Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984.

 

[1] Kovacs and Rowland, Revelation, Chapter 1, section 5, para 4.

[2] All scripture quotations taken from the NRSV.

[3] Aune,  Apocalypticism, Prophecy and Magic, 240–249.

[4] The texts he refers to are Jeremiah 51 and 25, and Deutero-Isaiah 47. Ibid, 245–247.

[5] Ibid, 247.

[6] Ibid, 248.

[7] Ibid, 248.

[8] Koester, Revelation, 685.

[9] Aune, Revelation, chapter 1, section 4, para 9

[10] Bauckham, Climax, 347.

[11] Ibid, 351.

[12] Ibid, 351.

[13] Ibid, 353–354.

[14] Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce, 104–105.

[15] Bauckham, Climax, 363.

[16] Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce, 107.

[17] Bauckham, Climax, 370.

[18] Vasser, “Bodies and  Souls,” 402–403.

[19] Koester, “Roman Slave Trade,” 785–786.

[20] Bauckham, Climax, 348.

[21] Thompson, “A Sociological Analysis,” 153–154.

[22] Ibid, 155.

[23] Ibid, 162.

[24] Carter, “Revelation and Roman Rule,” 138.

[25] Examples would be the reference to Antipas in 2:13, or martyrs more generally in 6:9.

[26] Middleton, The Violence of the Lamb, 14.

[27] Ibid, 39–43.

[28] Ibib, 43–63.

[29] Wood, The Alter-Imperial Paradigm, 137–138.

[30] Ibid, 138–139.

[31] Thompson, Book  of Revelation, 111.

[32] Thompson, Book of Revelation, 102–109.

[33] Thompson, “A Sociological Analysis,” 155–159.

[34] Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis, 84.

[35] Ibid, 166.

[36] Thomopson, “A Sociological Analysis,” 165–166.

[37] Ibid, 166.

[38] Ibid, 169.

[39] Rev 18:4.





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Robert Ward

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I completed my BA in Christian studies in 2018, and I am currently a graduate (MA) student in New Testament in Hamilton, Ontario. My research interests include: Old Testament textual criticism, Revelation, Apocalyptic literature, Bibliology, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.


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