In my previous post I spoke of a leading Context Group scholar, Bruce Malina, who has a particular interest in understanding the New Testament through the minds of first or second century readers. The first chapter of On the Genre and Message of Revelation addresses at length the problem of reading the book of Revelation with modern assumptions and with only limited awareness of the thought-world of its original readers.
A striking illustration of this appears on page 104:
To call the Messiah “the light of the world” or to designate him as leader at the head of the periodic changes of the universe in the form of the constellation Aries would not be very different things.
In all my years of church attendance and piously motivated Bible study I never once thought to associate the image of “light of the world” with a heavenly constellation known to us as a “ram” (but as something slightly different in Jewish zodiacs of that time). But this is Malina’s point. In summing up his argument he writes:
In conclusion, we might note that astral lore was well known in the social world of our author.
So here is what Malina tells us about the cosmic lamb in Revelation against the background of ancient knowledge of astral lore. (I follow with Malina’s discussion of the place and purpose of literature like Revelation among the early Christians.)
Revelation 5:6 introduces the Lamb:
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb.
This Lamb is “in the middle of the throne of God”, that is, in the middle of the sky. It looks as if it had been slain but is nonetheless standing. Aries is standing yet with its head facing back in a manner that could lead observers to imagine its neck as broken. Yet it is standing.
John refers to the four opposing points on the horizon, and to what were believed to have been the twenty-four positions of planetary power. The four living creatures (like a lion, bull, human-faced, eagle-winged) refer to the opposing constellations along the celestial equator, probably the ancient Leo, Taurus, Scorpio — i.e. human headed centaur — and Pegasus. The surrounding 24 enthroned elders are the points of exaltations and depressions of the planets: twelve visible governing the world of the living, and twelve invisible governing the dead, and that were known since Babylonian times as the “Judges of the Universe”.
The Lamb is said to take control of the land by opening up the scroll in heaven. We learn that it is male (19:9), receives worship like God (5:8), is a warrior (6:16), conquers demons (17:14), brings peace (7:9), stands on the heavenly mountain (14:1) and judges (14:10), is eventually acknowledged to be the Lord of lords and King of kings (19:16) and rules his followers from the throne of God (22:1, 3). He is also the Lion of Judah, the root of David, who conquered (5:5).
Thus all the imagery associated with the Lamb is that of power, force, control, and conquest. If anything, the Lamb is depicted as a powerful, young male, hence as a young ram. (p. 101)
Aries is the Latin name for the constellation, which we associate with a ram. But originally the constellation was said to be a lamb. Even Aries derives from the Greek ares for lamb, or from eriphos for young ram or kid. Earlier meanings are also relevant because older knowledge was preserved alongside the new with each generation of those who preserved and studies this lore.
The ancient Phoenician name for Aries was Teleh, “male lamb, young ram” . . . . This label for the constellation was adopted by Second Temple Israel. It was used by Pharisees for this constellation according to Epiphanius . . . . Naturally in later Jewish zodiacs the constellation in question was always called Taleh, meaning “male lamb, young ram; young man” . . . . Arab astronomers maintained this Semitic designation, naming the constellation Al-Hamal, “the young ram” . . . . Given this tradition, it is no surprise that the cosmic Lamb behaves like a young ram. The Greeks had little difficulty in identifying Aries with a young ram. Lucian has one of a pair of contending brothers behave as follows: “Thyestes then indicated and explained . . . to them the Ram . . . in the sky, because of which they mythologize that Thyestes had a golden Lamb . . . “. Further, Aries (the Ram) is the first in the zodiac, the center and head of the cosmos as the astrologers say . . . . Nigidius Figulus, first century A.D., . . . calls Aries “the leader and prince of the constellations”; . . . “the Egyptians [Nechepso-Petosiris] say Aries is the dead”; and Nonnos . . . says that Aries “is the center of the whole cosmos, the central navel of Olympus”; Vettius Valens, Rhetorios, and Firmicus Maternus are quite similar. Further, the Greek words for lamb, sheep, and ram are often used synonymously, even in the same tradition. Boll cites the tradition of the “ram of Pelops” called variously lamb and sheep . . . . And in Ps. 113:4, 5, ram and lamb are used in parallel. (p. 102)
Manila cites Manilius and Firmicus Maternus to further show that at this time Aries was understood as being the leading sign in the zodiac, standing in the mid-Heaven, the astronomical term for the “head of the cosmos”.
We also have the Jewish New Year beginning with a celebration of Passover. This was in the month governed by Aries and involved the sacrifice of a male lamb.
Ancient Israelites were as interested in astrology as any other peoples.
Though they changed the names, the way of perceiving the reality and function of those beings [cosmic beings inhabiting the sky and impacting the earth, i.e. spirit, demon or angel] remained the same from one end of the world (Indus Valley) to the other (Spain). Israelites also readily identified planets with angels or good demons and saw the function of such astral beings either to act as deities or to serve as agents or assistants of the “Most High” God. Now in the Israelite tradition, this God could be known both from traditions deriving from the prophet Moses and from reading the sky. After all, did not Adam’s antediluvian offspring, Enoch, distinguish himself by such sky readings (see Heb 11:5 and the books ascribed to Enoch). . . . .
A range of ethnic groups in the Hellenistic age saw a proliferation of information deriving from observing celestial phenomena. It seems as though all Mediterranean peoples gratefully accepted the accumulated star lore developed in the ancient Mesopotamian region. . . .
All students of the sky would perceive the sky in terms of their distinctive ethnic traditional story . . . . (p. 8)
Hippolytus informs us that there were some who interpreted the sky in order to understand the Bible. With this cultural background, it is not surprising that John should seek an explanation for his Christian world by turning to the stars.
Revelation is not, Malina argues, a mysterious set of coded images pointing to end-time events. It is not, he argues, even addressing a setting where Christians are suffering dire persecutions. It is, rather, an explanation of the new Christian life and hope as taught and understood through the stars.
In sum, ancient human groups and their representatives sought to diagnose and deal with the socially unknown that impacted on their lives. Groups and persons believed they had access to those cosmic personages who controlled the socially unknown. And they gained this access either through the initiative of the celestial beings themselves (e.g. appearance of a deity) or through human initiative (e.g. a person prepares for ecstasy). Hence by means of such access, one might, on behalf of a group or its central persons (e.g. the king), contact those controlling beings and, thanks to their help, enter their space by means of visions, sky trips, and the like, with a view to learning directives and obeying. Such access was part of the social role of prophets, seers, magicians, astrologers, and astronomers. . . .
The information sought was not about some distant future but about present and forthcoming events that would impact their lives. In other words, there was nothing “eschatological” about astral prophecy, at least not in any unusual sense of the “study of the last things.” What mattered were existing, present things. . . .
This way of thinking was rooted in the belief that revelation and revealed wisdom are significant for the rescue of human beings from their cosmic situation, set in place due to some remote events. (pp. 44-45)
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