Category Archives: Revelation

An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

This post is a follow up from Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness. I may come to see this attempt to compare the structures of the myths as a sad misadventure but till then, let’s see what happens.

Detail from the Santa Maria sarcophagus (late second century?). Was Jesus depicted as a child because the myth declared him to be a child at this point or is he depicted as a child to merely symbolize the beginning of a new life beside the aged John the Baptist representing the old?

We begin with the “gnostic myth” of the advent of an illuminator or saviour figure that was announced by the second kingdom:

1. A prophet is said to be the beginning of the saviour figure who is presented as a child.

2. A bird takes the saviour to a mountain, presumably a wilderness setting

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

4. Presumably after the child has become an adult an angel appears to declare the saviour figure now has power and glory

5. The figure comes to the water.

The image below attempts to illustrate that particular structure. (For the understanding of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power and submission see the previous post.)

Next, look at a similar myth in the Book of Revelation, though we will simplify it for starters. This structure is illustrated in the middle column.

1. The prophet John is writing, or announcing, the advent of the child saviour figure from the time he is born.

2. An angelic voice declares that great power and glory has now come into being, presumably a proleptic announcement concerning the child. (The mother and child are separated; the mother will be a proxy for those who follow the saviour-child).

3. A bird (eagle) carries the mother of the child to the wilderness

4. The woman is nourished and cared for in the wilderness (by….?)

5. The water of chaos, a flood, attempts to destroy the woman but she is protected by the wilderness earth.

The larger structure is essentially the same as the gnostic myth but the middle two steps are reversed. This reversal appears to be a function of the splitting of the child from its mother (and rest of her seed).

The structure the previous two myths is completely inverted with the Gospel of Mark. Coming to the water or facing the water is now moved to the beginning, along with the prophet, and is no longer the culmination of the story. In this gospel the water has become a symbol of baptism which is a figure of the death of the old man (as per Paul). In the Gospel of Mark we have the narrative bookended by narratives of death and emergence from death, first symbolically in the water, then finally through the cross.

1. The prophet announces the advent of the man saviour.

2. The saviour figure comes to the water and as he emerges from it.

3. The saviour figure is addressed as a sacrificial victim — the inverse of the power and glory we saw in the other two myths. For “my beloved son” as a signal of a son to be sacrificed see Jon Levenson’s studies on the Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. But the power and glory is still latent because the saviour figure is still the son of God.

4. The spirit (identified as a bird, in this case the dove) drives or propels the saviour figure into the wilderness.

5. The saviour figure is nourished by angels in the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke add the mountain.)

The angels and the bird take on inverted meanings. The angels feed and nourish the saviour in the wilderness, thus doing enough merely to keep him alive after his long fast and encounter with Satan. There is no roaring declaration of the saviour being imbued with power and glory.

The bird has changed from an eagle to a dove. The eagle had the power to rescue and carry a person in flight. The dove drives the saviour figure into the wilderness but has already come to him at the moment he is declared to be the beloved son (for sacrifice).

The Gospel of Mark may be thought of as inverting the rival myths of a messiah or saviour coming with great power. The water has become a means of symbolic death and birth as a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed.

The earlier myth of power is not completely displaced, however. We see the saviour figure in the wilderness nourishing his followers by the thousands; he then ascendes a mountain before returning to walk upon the water to his disciples. Several details of this narrative indicate it is to be understood as a theophany, or perhaps even originally a post-resurrection appearance. The myth of power is not completely replaced but it is supplemented by an inverted form of the myth to take place first.

 

How a Spurious Letter “From Paul” Inspired the End Time Prophecies of the New Testament

This post is based on the theme of a chapter in St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions by Michael Goulder. I depart from Goulder’s own presentation in one significant respect: Goulder wrote as if 2 Thessalonians were a genuine letter by Paul (in which Paul writes about the future in a way he was never to repeat); I treat the letter as spurious (following many scholars in this view). At the end of the post I introduce an alternative scenario that might apply if more critical scholars are correct and the letter should be dated to the second century.

Goulder conventionally dates 2 Thessalonians to around the year 51. At the end of this post I quote a discussion by John A. T. Robinson in Redating the New Testament that supports Goulder’s date. I also post J. V. M. Sturdy’s response to Robinson’s work arguing for a second century date.

2 Thessalonians appears to be a letter written by Paul. It disarmingly warns readers to be on guard against letters that appear penned by “himself” yet are in fact forgeries. The letter proceeds to warn readers not to be misled by preaching that the Kingdom of God was “at hand” but that a sequence of events had to happen first. One must expect a delay in the coming of the end.

Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message [word] or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.

Luca_Signorelli_-_Sermon_and_Deeds_of_the_Antichrist_-_WGA21202
Antichrist, Luca Signorelli

Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?

And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.

Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming  (2 Thess. 2:1-8 NASB)

How could anyone have believed that “the day of the Lord” had already come? Goulder’s explanation:

The idea has gained force in three ways:

  • Christians cry it out during services in moments of ecstasy (by spirit);
  • they appeal to the Bible (by word), perhaps especially Malachi 4.5, ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes’;
  • and a letter has been received claiming to be from Paul.

(p. 85. My formatting. Goulder discounts the likelihood of forgeries on the assumption that the letter was written at a time when churches were very small and carried and authenticated by well-known persons.)

So let’s see how the author of this letter, the one writing in the name of Paul, introduces and sets out his view of prophecy to the churches.

He divides the prophesied scenario into three phases. One of these is the “here and now”; the remaining two belong to the future. read more »

The Mysterious John of Revelation

Curiously only one of the five books in the New Testament attributed to John bears the name of John. Many believers and conservative scholars maintain that the Gospel of John, the first, second and third letters of John, were authored by the apostle John despite the author’s name nowhere appearing in those texts.

It is of course the nature of religious history that people will believe it without necessarily having the kind of source-based authentication that generally historians are looking for. And so there is always a tension between what a religious tradition may say about the past and what the historian may say about the past. (Tom Holland, in John Cleary in conversation with Tom Holland, about 26 mins)

And so it goes. Tradition has assigned the name of John to the Gospel and three letters of the New Testament. Perversely, it may seem, the book that does claim to be written by John is one that critical scholars doubt came from the same pen as anything else attributed to John.

A study of the authorship of the Book of Revelation opens up a number of interesting methodological curiosities of New Testament scholarship. But for most part here I will set out the reasons why critical scholars widely believe the book of Revelation is not from the same author, or even “theological school”, responsible for the Gospel of John.

Saint John on Patmos
Saint John on Patmos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Book of Revelation makes unambiguous claims about the identity of its author. It came from God via Jesus Christ who commanded John to write it all down:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John . . . .

I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,

Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.

And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;

And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.

And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:

I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.

Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter . . . .

The setting on the isle of Patmos and the identity of an author (or scribe) as a persecuted exile appropriately sets an atmosphere of fear and dread, relieved by a moment of seclusion to be with God alone and to receive his messages uninterrupted. He identifies himself as one of the saints who is being trodden under foot — another motif common to this genre of literature. This is all part of the literary conceit of another Daniel (or any persecuted visionary prophet) being pulled aside by God and struck down to humbly soak up the glories and mysteries of the heavenly realms that would leave lesser mortals dead. The setting is as much atmospherics as are the eyes like fire and the seven headed beast. Yet New Testament scholars will so often be found referring to the author being a persecuted exile on Patmos as if this were a veritable fact of history.

A face-value reading guided by the light of church tradition leads many readers concur with the following: read more »

The Christ of John’s Revelation — Nemesis of Paul’s crucified Christ (Couchoud continued)

English: Illustration to Book of Revelation Ру...
Image via Wikipedia

This post continues Couchoud’s account of the nature of the Christ found in the Book of Revelation and how he epitomizes the “false Christ” that Paul denounced his apostolic rivals for promoting. Couchoud has been tracing the rise of Christianity from the Enochian community in “pre-Christian” times and the evolution of the Christ idea in his work The Creation of Christ. Jesus Christ, he argues was a figure that evolved from meditations of the Jewish Scriptures and related Second Temple apocryphal literature. Paul’s Christ was a heavenly being into whom he projected his own life of sufferings and attributed to them saving power once embodied in God himself. Jesus was really another image or aspect of God himself. But Paul’s rivals were based in Jerusalem and they envisaged a very different sort of Christ. The continuing visions of this conquering and far-from-humiliated Christ by one of those “Jerusalem pillars”, John, is the subject of this post. The previous post in this series examined The Book of Revelation’s damning allusions to Paul’s Christ and teachings. Keep in mind that all of these Christological divisions pre-date any thought that Jesus had visited earth. According to all early prophets and apostles Jesus was an entirely heavenly being whose coming — first coming — was eagerly anticipated by the devout. The complete series is archived here.

John is carried up from earth to heaven where he beholds the glorious setting of the Eternal and Formless God (Rev. iv. 2-6):

Behold a Throne was set in heaven
On the Throne was One seated.

He who was seated was in aspect as a Jasper and a Sardius;
A Rainbow round about the Throne
In sight like an Emerald.

About the Throne were four-and-twenty thrones,;
On the thrones were sitting four-and-twenty Elders,
Clothed in white raiment,
On their heads crowns of gold.

Out of the Throne came lightnings
And the crash of thunder.
Seven Torches of Fire burned before the Throne
Who are the Seven Spirits of God.
Before the throne a sea of glass
Like a crystal.

Jesus is found to be dwelling in such a setting as this, forever sharing the glory of God’s throne. This Jesus is now described.

John is present at the mysterious liturgy which comes before the great drama. A scroll sealed with seven seals is in God’s hand. None in heaven, nor on earth, nor in hell, can open it. Further on its name is given as the Book of Life, the Book of the Slain Lamb.* [* Rev. xiii. 8 (the Book of the Life of the Lamb) ; xvii. 8 ; xx. 12 (the Book of Life).] This is the complete record on which the names of the elect are inscribed since the beginning of the world. When the seven seals are opened, the judgment will begin. Jesus alone can open them for to him belong the elect. Before the ages he redeemed them with his blood. He is the Sacrificed Lamb of Isaiah, the ram “slain from the beginning of the world” (Rev. xiii. 8; cf. I Peter i. 20: “foreordained before the foundation of the world, ” a corrective to John). He appears in the midst of God’s throne (Rev. v. 6):–

I saw in the midst of the Throne and of the four Cherubim,
In the midst of the Elders,
A Lamb, as though Slain,
With Seven Horns and Seven Eyes,
Who are the seven Spirits of God
Sent forth into all the Earth.

The Shape of the Lamb is the eternal shape of Jesus. In heaven he is the divine Ram, as Jahweh was originally a divine Bull. The Lamb takes the Book to the sound of a new song (Rev. v. 9-10):–

Thou hast the power to take the Scroll
And to open the Seals of it,
Because thou wast sacrificed,
And bought for God with thy blood
Men of every tribe, speech, nation, and race,
Whom thou hast made for our God a Kingdom of priests,
Who shall reign on Earth.

While the first six seals are being opened, warning events take place (Rev. vi. I) :–

I SAW the Lamb open one of the seven Seals;
I HEARD one of the four Cherubim
Say in a voice of thunder,
Come!

I SAW; behold a white horse;
He who rode him
Held a Bow.
To him was given a Crown:
He went forth a conqueror to conquer.

After the conqueror come a red horse, a black horse, a green horse; their riders are war, famine, and pestilence. The martyrs of old whose souls are beneath the heavenly altar cry out to God for vengeance. 

Up till now I have attempted to post my own outline and paraphrase of Couchoud’s argument. But I see here I am beginning to quote him in full and for whatever reasons I have decided to scan the remainder of this chapter and copy Couchoud’s words in full for the remainder of this post. This makes it a bit long, but it is out of copyright (hence not illegal) and sharing some of Couchoud’s style (even in translation) as well as his argument may not be a bad thing. I will use the default WordPress fonts and formatting for the full copy of Couchoud’s pages 87 to 108 of The Creation of Christ, Volume 1. The running chapter heading is THE SACRIFICED LAMB. (I have changed some of the coding for the footnotes.) Any bolded text for emphasis, and the colour coding for ease of breaking up the text on a computer monitor is my own doing. read more »

Earliest divisions in the Christian movement (Couchoud continued)

I liked this novel better than Couchoud’s “Divisions” chapter. I suspect it gives some more realistic aspects of these early Christian years.

Unfortunately this is not my favourite chapter in Couchoud’s book The Creation Of Christ. But I’ve set myself a target and I have to get through this one to finish the book, so here goes. (The series is archived here.) (I personally suspect the stories in Acts are inspired more by Old Testament and Classical analogues than historical reminiscences, and motivated more by anti-Marcionite/pro-Catholic interests than disinterested archival dedication — though not totally bereft of historical re-writing at points here and there, but this post is for Couchoud so I’ll get out of the way for now.  Except to say I believe Earl Doherty’s model is a much more satisfactory explanation for the “riotous diversity” that characterized what emerged as “earliest Christianity”.)

But one point in C’s favour is his attempt to synchronize what he reads in Paul and Acts with political events in the broader empire.

Once again any emphases etc in the quotations is my own.

Couchoud says the apparitions of the Lord Jesus can be dated (via the writings of Paul) to the beginning of the reign of the reputedly “mad” Roman emperor Caligula  — 37-38 c.e.

These visions, he continues, all occurred in Palestine. Paul’s was the exception — and it was subject to doubt among his critics. (The last of the visions, according to Paul — says C — is to be dated 14 years before his own journey to Jerusalem, i.e. around 51 – 52 c.e.)

Of these visionary experiences, Couchoud suggests they conferred on the Jerusalem pillars a unique status:

They conferred on the community at Jerusalem and on its chiefs, Kephas, James, the Twelve, an unequalled title and right to decide all that might be postulated in the name of the Lord Jesus.

We know the names of some of these earliest visionaries: read more »

The First Signs of Christianity: Couchoud continued

Couchoud thought that John the Baptist epitomized and popularized the Jewish hopes for a coming Judge from Heaven — as shown in my previous post in this series (the entire series is archived here).

Christianity was born of the travail of the days of John. The Baptist gave it two talismans with which to bind souls:

  1. the advent of the Heavenly Man in a universal cataclysm,
  2. and the rite of baptism which allowed the initiates to await, without apprehension, the Coming of the Judge.

(p. 31, my formatting)

At first the teaching spread like wildfire but without John’s name attached to it as its IP owner.

Before long the teaching became enriched with various kinds of additions. First among these additions were new names for the Heavenly Man: Lord, Christ, Jesus.

Lord as a title was derived from Psalm 110:1

The Lord said unto my Lord,

Sit thou at my right hand,

Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

To whom could this have been addressed? Surely not to the Messiah, the Son of David, waited for by the Pharisees. David would not have called his son “my Lord.” It must have been to the Son of Man who, according to the Revelation of Enoch, was placed on the throne of his glory by God Himself. (p. 31)

Since David as an inspired prophet makes it clear that the Son of Man is enthroned at the right hand of God and calls him Lord. So believers could also call the Son of Man their Lord.

(Note that the title “Son of Man” was used as a Greek expression, too. Think of Christianity as moulded very largely by Greek speakers.)

Christ, Christos, “is a somewhat barbarous translation of the Hebrew word which means consecrated by unction, Messiah.” read more »

Heavenly Visions: the foundation of Paul’s Christianity

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is an important ic...
Ladder of Divine Ascent: Image via Wikipedia

The New Testament epistles inform us that the original Gospel was a revelation from God. That means it did not originate by means of spoken tradition relayed from historical events, by word of mouth, from eyewitness or preacher to others. Rather, one might almost say that the medium itself was the message: the revelation or vision was, in a signifcant sense, the Gospel and conversion experience.

Thus Paul — thought by some scholars to be the real founder of Christianity — says that he was not taught the Gospel by men. “In Galatians 1, Paul claims that he did not receive the gospel from a human source. . . . In Galatians Paul speaks of his conversion as a revelation (apocalypse [1:12])” (Segal, 1990: 35, 36)

I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. . . . But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. (Galatians 1:12, 16) read more »

The Book of Revelation, its original meaning and modern misunderstandings

Professor Bruce J. Malina has had a special interest in understanding what was in the minds of the those who wrote, read (and heard being read) the New Testament literature, and in recent posts I have glimpsed a couple of sections of his On the Genre and Message of Revelation where he guides readers to understand this book the way its original audience may have understood it. This post looks at Malina’s explanation and history of the name and genre of the book, and why Malina believes it has been misunderstood and misread because of ignorance of the literary and religious culture that produced it.

Professor Malina’s words are also applicable to the challenge by mythicists to professional scholars and nonprofessional students of New Testament interpretation in general. (Malina is not a mythicist, and the association is my own. Note Thomas L. Thompson’s observation that HJ scholars have always begun with the assumption that there is a historical Jesus to talk about.)

The approach to the book of Revelation adopted in this book in terms of the Hellenistic conception of the sky is a radically historical one. The goal is to understand the document in terms that would have made sense to a first-century A.D. audience. Only such a historical approach can be considered fair and adequate to the prophet’s concern about “anyone taking away from the utterances of the scroll of this prophecy” (21:19).

The task of helping a modern audience understand the book of Revelation, however, faces numerous obstacles. As is the case when working with all ancient documents, the obstacles derive not from the book of Revelation itself, but from both nonprofessional and professional students of the Bible who bring their own scenarios to their reading of the book (see Malina 1991). On the other hand, the historically minded interpreter must overcome  the nonprofessional’s uncritical acceptance of spurious information both about the genre or type of the work and about the experience it purportedly describes. For many nonprofessionals the book of Revelation has become a repository of predictions concerning the end of the world. This has been a quite common perspective ever since Pharisees and Christians sought to determine the “true” age of creation to determine the beginning of the seventh millennium — the Sabbath of the cosmos (see Landes 1988). (p. 10, my emphasis and paragraphing, links are to the Google-book previews.) read more »

The Cosmic Lamb and the Light of the World

Cast of the Farnese Atlas globe, ca. 1930 Rome, Museo della Civiltà Romana, inv. M.C.R. 2896 http://brunelleschi.imss.fi.it/galileopalazzostrozzi/object/CastOfTheFarneseAtlasGlobe.html

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.) read more »

Born of a woman in heaven: cosmic origin of the Messiah

Blake's The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clo...
Image via Wikipedia

Professor Bruce J. Malina, a leading scholar in the Context Group, has written a book on the genre and message of the book of Revelation in which he interprets it as an astral prophecy. This is from the dust jacket blurb of On The Genre And Message Of Revelation: Star Visions and Sky Journeys (1995):

As one of the pioneers of applying social criticism to the biblical text, author Bruce Malina has helped revolutionize the way we think about the text and our models for interpretation. Now in a compelling new study—and one that will surely be his most controversial—Malina offers a completely new lens for viewing the book of Revelation. Malina contends that John the Seer’s milieu was one of intense interest and fascination with the sky, especially with those “beings” in the sky—constellations, planets, comets, sun, moon, and zodiac—that controlled the destiny of the Earth and its inhabitants. He asserts that John has his own interpretation of the sky that follows not the Greco-Roman astrological myths but the Jewish and Christian story of God’s salvation in Messiah. John thus stands as an “astral prophet” who interprets the sky in accordance with what has taken place in Christ. This vibrant reading of Revelation is buttressed by innumerable ancient literary and archeological sources that demonstrate that John’s world was indeed one enamored with the sky and its significance for planet Earth.

According to Revelation 4:1, John the Seer looks in the sky and observes an “open door.” Then the “first voice” invites John “up” to the heavens to witness what must take place. “In the spirit,” John describes what he sees in the sky. Is John really looking at the sky? . . . . . . Is John the Seer’s language of special numbers, brilliant colors, heavenly thrones, elders, angels, sun, moon, and stars more in keeping with descriptions of the sky than with apocalyptic visions? Bruce Malina thinks so, and he builds an unusually impressive case that will surely stir the interpretive waters surrounding John’s Apocalypse. On the Genre and Message of Revelation does what Bruce Malina has done so well for decades: he challenges Western readers to think like ancient Mediterraneans, to slough off biased, scientific presuppositions, and to explore the world of Jesus and his followers with a new map, one that leads to a richer understanding of the New Testament witness of Revelation.

Malina explains his view of the genre of Revelation: read more »