beauty and the beast: empire in the book of revelation (part 1)

Over the weekend I gave a series of Bible studies at the Black Stump Festival entitled Beauty and the Beast: Empire in the Book of Revelation. In these studies I attempted to set out a fairly cursory overview of some themes in the Bible’s most misunderstood book by zooming in on three key characters—the Beast, the Prostitute and the Lamb—and applying the resulting interpretation to empire today.

I have been asked by quite a number of people for a copy of my notes. While my originals would have been quite indecipherable to anyone but me, I have attempted here to provide a rough version of my study in prose form. I don’t intend these to be highly detailed, much less scholarly, since they were given as a Bible study for all ages. Still, I hope they help out some of my readers.

Before getting into the notes I want to recommend a series of posts entitled Reading Revelation that my friend Josh Dowton has started writing over on his blog. Josh is doing his PhD in Revelation, and is far more knowledgeable on the subject than am I. His posts will no doubt be very helpful for those wanting to understand more about Revelation (and it happens to be great timing that he is currently in the middle of writing them!) In truth my many conversations with Josh have been a big influence on my own understanding of Revelation.

My original study was in three parts, but I will split these next posts into four:

Part 1—Revelation in Context
Part 2—The Beast: Might and Power
Part 3—The Prostitute: Seduction and Luxury
Part 4—The Lamb: The Witness of the Cross

Part 1: Revelation in Context

Revelation is a divisive book. The two main approaches I have experienced are avoidance and obsession. I have no doubt that I will say something that you will disagree with—prepare yourself for that now! My approach may even make you angry, if you come to Revelation with an entirely different view to that which I take. That’s OK, but I encourage you to listen anyway and see if what I am saying does in fact make sense of the evidence. In the end I’m not saying I have all the answers, just that I have done quite a bit of reading in Revelation and related topics.

When we study any text have to take a number of considerations into account. Two of the most important are the literary context (What kind of text is this? What is it saying?) and the historical context (What historical situation gave reason for the author to compose this text?). Revelation is no different in this regard to any other text. Sure, Revelation is complicated, but that doesn’t mean we should treat it as fundamentally different than, say, Luke or Ephesians in the way we read it. To do so (say for example when we avoid or obsess over Revelation) is to treat the book as if it were not really part of the New Testament.

Here are some assumptions I hold when reading Revelation:

  • Intentionality: that the humans who wrote and read this text did so for a reason
  • Humanity: that what they were trying to do matters just as much as the fact that God inspired it
  • Integrity: that we should not read Revelation in a way that approaches it with our conclusions already decided
  • Non-uniqueness: that we should not read it completely differently from any other NT text
  • Narrative coherency: that we should not read it with the Millennium, a mere few verses toward the end of the book, as the central interpretive feature that pushes everything else to a place of minor importance
  • Their Context: that what was going on in the world of the author and original audience shapes what was written and what it means. In this way the book should not be interpreted in a way that would make absolutely no sense to the original readers to whom it was written. Interpretations that make the whole book a prediction about our future automatically make it a book that would have no relevance or meaning to John’s audience
  • Our Context: that we should be very, very aware of our own background when we read this book – most of us are relatively wealthy, white, Western people. That’s fine, but the original readers were not, and we must take that into account


Author – John, probably not the apostle
Location – a letter circulated across the seven cities of Asia Minor mentioned in Ch.2-3
Date – probably the early-mid 90s CE

Literary Context
What kind of literature is Revelation? Like when reading a newspaper, we need to know what kind of text we are reading.

Revelation is a mix of three genres: 1) Apocalyptic, 2) Prophetic, 3) Letter/Epistle

I start with this because it is the genre with which we are most familiar – Revelation is a letter, just like many of the other NT writings. It is worth noting that the fact of Revelation being an epistle is the most obvious reason to abstain from interpretations of the book that claim it can only be understood by generations subsequent to the original recipients (like us). In truth it was written to a specific audience for specific reasons, and it must have made sense to them.

Revelation borrows a multitude of images from the Old Testament, and Richard Bauckham claims that, “Its continuity with Old Testament prophecy is deliberate and impressively comprehensive.”[1]

Images and symbols such as beasts, different cities, different trees and rivers, and horses and riders all echo Old Testament prophetic images, and we should be wary of divorcing Revelation from the Old Testament as with many contemporary approaches and interpretations. In terms of its prophetic genre, Revelation is very much in continuity with Old Testament prophecy in both form (vision and transmission) and themes (including resistance to empire, social justice, and hope for the coming of God’s universal kingdom on earth).

This is the strangest of the three genres for Christians because most have never read apocalyptic texts except for Revelation and parts of Daniel.

So what is an apocalyptic text? There is lots of debate, and often the statements of scholars are quite hard for non-theologians to understand. Here is an example from J.J. Collins:

[Apocalyptic is] a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldy being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.[2]

Such a statement is at best difficult for the average Christian to understand. Simply put, apocalyptic is a genre which tells a story about a person’s visionary experience. In this story the world is imagined symbolically. The reason for the symbols is that it forces the audience to look at the world in a different way.

Apocalyptic comes from a Greek word (apokaluptō) meaning simply “to lift the veil” or “to reveal”—apocalyptic texts reveal something otherwise hidden from human view, but which can be seen from a heavenly perspective, or God’s perspective (hence 3:17; “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”)

It is important to note that John’s Revelation is not original, but is one of many apocalyptic texts from the same time period. These texts were not about the future, but were written to explain the difficult circumstances in which the people addressed found themselves in their own time. The only reason these texts ever look to the future is to help explain the present and to offer hope. The audience of an apocalyptic text is always a marginalised or oppressed group in the midst of a traumatic experience, and apocalyptic texts are intended to help them view the world through a different lens so that they can endure through their suffering.

The symbols, hard as they are for us to understand, would have been a part of the language of the audience. We know this because John’s symbols are not always original. For example:[3]

… and the blood flowed from the winepress, up to the bridles of the horses, for 1600 stadia. (Revelation 14:20b)

… and there shall be blood from the sword as high as a horse’s belly and a man’s thigh and a camel’s hock. (4 Ezra 15:35-36, probably contemporary to or possibly earlier than Revelation)

And the horse will walk up to its chest in the blood of sinners, and the chariots will sink up to its height. (1 Enoch 100:3, c. first or second century BCE i.e. earlier than Revelation)


And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, And Death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them. (Revelation 20:13)

And the earth shall give back those who sleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it, and the chambers shall give back the souls which have been committed to them. (4 Ezra 7:32, probably contemporary to or possibly earlier than Revelation)

And in those days the earth will return that which has been entrusted to it, and Sheol will return that which has been entrusted to it, that which it has received, and destruction (Abaddon) will return what it owes. (1 Enoch 51:1, c. first or second century BCE i.e. earlier than Revelation)

It should be clear that Revelation stands in a tradition of apocalyptic writings.

In summary, it seems John saw a vision but wrote it down in a way that would poetically capture his marginalised audience by the imagination, pulling them into a participatory response affecting their worldview and behaviour. It “revealed” what was otherwise hidden from human sight—God’s sovereignty over even an oppressive situation. John used numerous literary techniques, not least symbols and imagery to do this, but he did not invent most of his material, rather he used that which was already part of a previous apocalyptic tradition or social reality with which his audience would already be familiar.

Historical Context
If John’s audience was marginalised and oppressed, who was the oppressor?

The answer is quite obvious—the dominant power in the world at the time of Revelation was the Roman Empire. It is important to realise that Revelation and the rest of the New Testament originate in a world overshadowed and dominated by the Roman Empire. This Empire was ever present in the world of the New Testament, even when the text seems to be silent about it. The Empire provided the social, political, economic and religious context for the New Testament, including Revelation.

Revelation was probably written in the 90s CE, under the reign of the emperor Domitian. While contemporary films often give us a glorified perspective on the Roman Empire, the historical reality is not so simple or pleasant. By the first century Rome’s empire spread from present-day Britain, France and Spain across to Turkey and Syria and down to North Africa, ruling over approximately 60-65 million people of a diversity of ethnicities and cultures.

This hierarchical Empire employed an economic and political system that meant vast disparities of wealth and power – for the 2-3% who were aristocrats/elite life was generally comfortable, but for the remaining non-elite life was “at best livable and at worst very miserable.”[4]

This system was held in place in the context of what is called by social scientists an advanced agrarian society. There were no banks, so wealth and power did not exist in cash but rather in land and labour. The Roman world was not a democracy and rule was held in place by the elite through owning the vast majority of land. They consumed some 65% of the land’s production, exploited cheap labour with slaves and tenant farmers and imposed tributes, taxes and rents.[5]
Taxes were usually paid in goods, and a peasant would have to hand over about 20-40% of their produce (catch, crop, herd etc.).[6]
To not pay taxes was rebellion against the Empire because it failed to recognise its sovereignty.

Rome was able to enforce such heavy taxation through its legionary system; the Roman army held together order through coercion. This was probably typified in the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” which after a couple of centuries of warfare was a period of relative peace in the Roman Empire stretching from the late first century BCE to the end of the second century CE. This “peace” was kept intact through brutal military repression against anyone who would threaten it. In the absence of rebellion legions were placed throughout the Empire ensuring obedience and loyalty because their presence would remind people of the threat of military action. All up the Roman military machine consisted of 25 legions of about 6,000 troops, with the expense bill for their food, shelter and supplies being footed by non-elite taxes.

The elite, in addition to everything else, also controlled communication, or “media.” This would include designs of coins, the building of monuments and building construction all of which communicated elite Roman values and shaped the way people perceived the world. This system was headed up by the emperor who was always male and thus embodied the male-centred and -dominated societal structure. He was called “Father of the Fatherland” (pater patriae), “lord” (kurios) and “saviour” (sōtēr). People were required to have “faith” (pistis) in him, which meant loyalty or faithfulness. When he returned home to Rome from a trip his arrival ceremony was called a parousia, and when a new emperor was crowned the announcement message was called the “gospel” (euangelion).Power was secured for the emperor by claiming the divine sanction and favour of the gods, and imperial theology “proclaimed that Rome was chosen by the gods, notably Jupiter, to rule an “empire without end” (Virgil, Aeneid 1.278-79).”[7]
This sanction for emperors was recognised through the imperial cult which was embodied through temples, images, rituals, personnel and theological claims honouring the emperor.

Though this is a vast diminution of the Roman world in which Revelation originated, it gives us a snapshot of what life may have been like for John’s communities. Some commentators have argued that Revelation was written in response to an empire-wide systematic persecution of Christians. The picture is often painted of evil emperors ordering the torturing and killing of Christians, sometimes in the Colosseum, if they failed to recant their faith in Jesus.

There is no actually no evidence for this. It is well known that Rome was generally very tolerant of religions in their Empire, and in fact were quite pious, with soldiers worshipping the god of the locality they were in at the time. It is also true that though there was an imperial cult dedicated to the emperor, it was not compulsory. Persecution of Christians occurred locally, but not systematically across the empire at this time.

The problem for Christians was not that they held different religious beliefs, but that they denied the sovereignty of Rome and the emperor over the Empire. It is no surprise then that a new movement which referred to an alternative “Lord,” “Saviour” and “Father,” who put their “faith” (loyalty) in him, who proclaimed a “gospel” about him as King, and who promoted a different “kingdom/empire” was persecuted.

Rome was OK with you so long as you weren’t a political threat.

The Christians did not oppose Rome because Rome persecuted them. Rather they opposed Rome because they needed to oppose those systems of power that oppressed people and sought to displace God.

This portrayal of the context of Revelation is of course very brief, and only a scratching of the surface. To sum up:

John wrote Revelation in the apocalyptic tradition, to a specific set of communities, using common apocalyptic symbols to portray the world in a new way, forcing his audience to take a new perspective. He did this to confront the oppression and marginalisation that his audience was experiencing under the Roman Empire. As people who challenged the violence and exploitation of the Empire, worshipping another King as they did, the Christians were targets for local persecution.

So what is Revelation trying to say? I think John wrote Revelation to encourage his audience that God was in fact ultimately sovereign, even if it could not be seen clearly in the present. Imperial power would eventually be overcome, and in the meantime people must endure to the end, resisting the empire, its propaganda and its way of life. John wrote Revelation to raise the question—How should followers of Jesus, who was crucified by the empire but raised by God, negotiate Rome’s empire in their daily lives?[8]

In other words, How can the Church be the Church in the face of powerful and seductive empire?

Look out for Part 2 of this series.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology Of The Book Of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 144.

[2] J.J. Collins, “Apocalypse: The Morphology Of A Genre,” Semeia 14 (1979): 9.

[3] Examples come from Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy (London: Continuum, 1993), 40, 56-57.

[4] Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 3.

[5] Carter, The Roman Empire and the NT, 3.

[6] Carter, The Roman Empire and the NT, 3-4.

[7] Carter, The Roman Empire and the NT, 7.

[8] Warren Carter, “Accommodating ‘Jezebel’ and Withdrawing John: Negotiating Empire in Revelation Then and Now,” Interpretation 63 (2009): 32.

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Posted on October 3, 2012, in Biblical Studies, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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