Get the CD Now!

An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. It was the glory of the Roman Empire that it brought peace to a troubled world. Under its sway the regions of Asia Minor and the East enjoyed tranquillity and security to an extent and for a length of time unknown before and probably since. This was the pax Romana. The provincial, under Roman sway, found himself in a position to conduct his business provide for his family, send his letters, and make his journeys in security, thanks to the strong hand of Rome.

The Eastern world was deeply grateful for this peace and attempted a gesture of gratitude to the great figure across the sea to whom it owed it. And so emperor worship began.

The early emperors permitted it without encouraging it. It is a mistake to say with Rabbi Browne in This Believing World that, from Augustus on, they demanded it. [1] Suetonius says that Tiberius forbade temples to be built or flamens or priests appointed for him, [2] and a letter of Claudius, written to the

[1] Lewis Browne, This Believing World (New York, 1926), p. 108.

[2] Tiberius 26; cf. Tacitus Annals iv. 37, 38. In a letter to the ephors and the city of Gythion in Laconia, preserved in an inscription there (Rostovtzeff, "L'Empereur Tibère et le culte impérial," Revue Historique, CLXIII [1930], 1-26), Tiberius declined divine honors.


Alexandrians upon his accession in A.D. 41, says in reply to their proposal of temples and a priesthood for him in Alexandria:

I deprecate the appointment of a high priest to me, and the erection of temples, for I do not wish to be offensive to my contemporaries and I hold that sacred fanes and the like have by all ages been attributed to the immortal gods as peculiar honors. [1]

Later political lawyers, however, saw in the worship of the emperor a way of insuring the loyalty of the miscellaneous and heterogeneous peoples under Roman sway that now girdled the Mediterranean, making it, as Varro said, a Roman lake. They worshiped different gods but might all be asked to add this minor deity to their pantheons, as a way of expressing allegiance to Rome. So by Domitian's time emperor worship was indeed required. The force of the empire was now put behind the practice, and it was demanded of all. The Arch of Titus, built in Domitian's day in honor of his deceased brother, is erected "To the deified Titus, son of the deified Vespasianus"—names of blasphemy to any Christian mind. Yet these men were dead; it was for the living emperor that divine honors were now demanded.

It had always been a dangerous thing to be a Christian. Roman authority definitely designated those religions that might be practiced in the empire and Christianity was not one of them. Christian leaders, from Jesus on, had suffered death—Stephen, James, Paul, Peter—and the early church had had to resort to

[1] H. I. Bell, Jews and Christians in Egypt (London, 1924), p. 28.


various ways of disguising itself to survive at all At first it appeared as a sect of Judaism, a tolerated religion (religio licita); then as fraternal clubs, like the modern Misericordias in Italy. Christians had always been conscious of living on the edge of a volcano, for persecution might at any time break out against them. It is hardly too much to say that anyone might denounce them at any time as adherents of an unlicensed religion.

But now the danger had become acute. With the demand of emperor worship, the church and the empire were at war. For the church and the imperial cultus the worship of the emperor, were in direct collision. The prospect was a fearful one. No power of the ancient world had been able to stand against the Roman Empire; it had swept them all aside. And against it what chance had the little scattered groups of Christians, not yet even organized into a Catholic church?

Why not then, like practical men and women, meet the situation with a little compromise? A slight mental reservation was all that was needed. Why not burn the pinch of incense, make the affirmation "Caesar is a god," bow before his image, and go one's way? Surely that was better than giving up one's self, one's family, and in fact the whole church of Christ to a cruel destruction.

It was at this point in the progress of events that the prophet John of Ephesus stood forth with his ringing message of "No compromise!" He saw that a


Christianity that had to alter its principles in order to be preserved was not worth preserving.

He casts his message in the old Jewish apocalyptic type, thus veiling his meaning from matter-of-fact Roman minds by picturing empires and monarchs under the form of beasts and monsters. The art of the apocalyptic literature—the Book of Daniel, the Book of Enoch, and the like—was the art of the grotesque, symbolizing dynasties, reigns, and forces by weird creatures of fancy grouped in mystic numbers, especially in sevens.[1]

So commanding is this feature of the book that learning has almost completely ignored other traits no less important: the influence of the collected letters of Paul and of Greek dramatic art. The portal of the Revelation is formed by something entirely foreign to the apocalyptic type—a corpus of letters to Christian churches, seven in number, preceded by a general message, chapter 1, to all seven. It is impossible any longer to ignore the fact that this is a commanding testimony of the most massive kind to the existence and influence of the published Pauline collection. [2]

The elaborate system of solos, antiphonies, choruses, and orchestration—harps, trumpets, earthquakes, thunders, mighty waters, and hail—points just as

[1] C. C. McCown, "Hebrew and Egyptian Apocalyptic Literature," Harvard Theological Review, XVIII (1925), 357 f.

[2] If more minute evidence is desired, the use of Paul's characteristic epistolary formula cariV umin kai eirhnh appears here. Rev. 1:4, and nowhere else outside of Ephesians and the letters of Paul; cf. E. J. Goodspeed, New Solutions of New Testament Problems (Chicago, 1927), chap. iii.


unmistakably to the influence of the contemporary Greek drama, with its chorus of twenty-four. [1] The whole structure of the Revelation is highly dramatic.

The symbolic forms of the old apocalyptic vocabulary at once obscure the writer's meaning from outsiders and heighten his appeal for his Christian public. He has no need to conceal his identity under the name of some ancient worthy of the dim past, like Daniel or Enoch. The old Jewish view that the prophetic period ended with Ezra had made that necessary in the second and first centuries before Christ. But the early Christians believed that the time had come when the Spirit was poured forth upon all mankind, when their sons and daughters became prophets. Acts 2:17, 18; 21:9. A Christian prophet could therefore speak out in his own person like the prophets of old: "I, John, your brother and companion .... found myself on the island called Patmos, for uttering God's message, and testifying to Jesus," 1:9.

Contents. His task is to stiffen the churches of the Roman province of Asia against the danger of weakening before the rising persecution. The portal of his Apocalypse is, strangely enough, a group of letters,. or rather one general letter to the seven churches, with individual messages for each of the seven. In all these letters there is the same note—instead of being overcome by the persecution, the Christians must overcome.

The seven churches to which the Revelation is to be carried are scattered a few miles, perhaps a day's

[1] R. R. Brewer, "The Influence of Greek Drama on the Apocalypse of John," Anglican Theological Review, XVIII (1936), 74-92.


journey, from one another in the province of Asia. The letters to them form the prelude to the three visions which make up the body of the book.

As we approach these, we must think of the Revelation as of some stupendous super-opera, with three awful acts, each with its scenes of dreadful woe or bewildering beauty, with its solos, its choruses, and its antiphonies, and with its prodigious orchestration, for its accompaniments are not only harps and trumpets but the mighty peals of thunder, the crashing earthquakes, and the sound of great floods of water. In fact, it is only dramatically that the Revelation can be understood.

The first vision, chapters 4-11, is that of the Roll of Destiny. Caught up like Isaiah into the very presence of God, the prophet sees him on his throne, with all the heavenly court about him. In his hand is a scroll so packed with meaning that it is written not only within but on the back as well, but it is tightly sealed with seven seals. No one can open it; and yet it seems that it must be opened, for it contains God's plan for the redemption of the world, which has only to be opened to be realized. At last a lamb appears that is able to do this. Though the lamb is alive, it has been slain, for the prophet's idea is that Jesus by his death has released God's program for the world's salvation.

As one seal after another is broken, the most woeful portents appear in heaven: the angel of invasion, the angel of war, the angel of famine, [1] and the angel of

[1] Famine prices are given for wheat and barley, 6:6; the added warning about oil and wine probably refers to Domitian's regulations "ordering the vines in the provinces to be cut down, nowhere permitting more than one half of them to remain" (Suetonius Domitian 7).


death. Other portents follow the breaking of the other seals. At the breaking of the fifth, the martyrs underneath the altar cry for relief. At the sixth, there is a terrific earthquake. The slaves of God are marked on their foreheads, and a mighty army of martyrs praise God for their deliverance, for God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

When the seventh seal is broken, seven angels with trumpets stand forth to blow, and at each blast some new disaster happens. The reader is to see that he is not to be disturbed by news of war or famine or pestilence; these are only the minor accompaniment to the progress of God's program for the world's redemption. Before the seventh trumpet blows, the seven thunders lift up their voices to utter things that must not be recorded; but when it blows, marking the climax of the vision, for the three sevens are passed, loud voices are heard in heaven saying, "The sovereignty of the world has passed into the possession of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever."

The "sovereignty of the world" belonged to Rome. No one disputed that. It had maintained that sovereignty against all comers for centuries. No kings or coalition of kings had been able to challenge it. But now above the imperator (the autokrator) stood the Omnipotent, the Pantokrator, 11:17, who had at last assumed his rightful power and begun to reign. The act closes with a tremendous coda—the vision of the


temple interior—and with a mighty crash of music, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a great storm of hail, the full cosmic orchestra marks the end.

The second vision, 12:1-19:10, is the Dragon War. The victory of the Kingdom of God is assured, but it has yet to be won. There is war in heaven, Michael the archangel leading the heavenly host against Satan. Satan is cast down to the earth, where the war is renewed. The Dragon takes vengeance on the church and her children. The prophet takes his stand on the seashore and sees coming up from the west out of the sea an animal symbolizing the empire with its worldwide dominion and its enmity for the church.

Then down from the land, from the province of Asia, comes another animal, representing the local priesthood of the imperial cultus. It compels people to worship the first animal. Without its mark or name no one can do business, buy, or sell; perhaps referring to the use of the oath by the fortune of the emperor to attest contracts and other legal documents. As every letter of the Greek and Aramaic alphabets was also a number, any name might be represented by adding up the numerical values of all its letters, though this would of course convey the name only to those who already knew it. The number 666 in Aramaic letters could mean Nero Caesar, and probably veils a still deeper allusion to Domitian, whom the church was indeed finding a second Nero, a Nero come to life again.

In contrast with the animal of Rome and his


worshipers the prophet now catches a glimpse of the hosts of ransomed saints singing their new song before the throne, with the names not of the emperor but of the Lamb and his Father written on their foreheads. An angel flying in mid-air proclaims the fall of Rome which he conceals under the name of Babylon because it played the role of persecutor to the Christian church as Babylon had done to the Jewish.

The seven bowls of the wrath of God are poured out upon the world, each outpouring being attended by dreadful disasters. As the seventh angel empties his bowl upon the air, a loud voice from the throne declares that all is over, there is a terrific earthquake, and Babylon falls.

An angel takes the prophet away to see the fallen city. He beholds her as an adulterous woman, covered with jewels, drunk with the blood of the martyrs, and seated on a scarlet animal with seven heads and seven horns. The seven heads are seven hills, on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings: five have fallen (the five Julian emperors, from Augustus to Nero), one is reigning (Vespasian), the other has not yet come (Titus), and when he does his stay must be brief.

How does the prophet know that the seventh king's reign would be so brief? Obviously because it had been brief. Titus reigned less than two years. But this would bring us to the times of Domitian, which is just what the whole setting of the book demands. The eighth king, who is also one of the seven, is evidently


Domitian, who as a persecutor of the church seemed to imaginative Christians another Nero.[1]

Then in a colossal spectacle, chapter 18, the burning of the fallen city is described. Around her at a safe distance, like so many choruses of mourners, are gathered four groups—the kings, the merchants, the dealers, and the navigators, who had grown rich through her luxury and extravagance. "What city was like the great city?" they cry, "for in a single hour she has been destroyed."

"After that I heard what sounded like the loud shout of a great multitude in heaven saying, 'Praise the Lord.'" The choruses of elders and of animals about the throne respond. A voice from the throne itself replies. The full ensemble with the full orchestra thunders back the tremendous climax: "Praise the Lord; for the Lord our God, the Almighty, now reigns." So ends the second vision, like the first, with the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God.

The third vision is the New Jerusalem, 19:11-22:5. The armies of heaven on white horses stream forth after their champion—the Word of God, Faithful and True. The animal and his vassal kings speedily fall before them, and Satan is hurled into the abyss. He is released after a thousand years to make one last effort against God's people. It fails, and the stupendous spectacle of the judgment passes before the prophet's eye. Upon a great white throne sits One from whose presence earth and sky fled so far that they could not

[1] Juvenal calls Domitian Nero (Satires iv. 37, 38), as does Martial (Epigrams xi. 33).


be found. The books were opened, and the sea gave up its dead.

From these lurid scenes the prophet turns to the brighter future—the new heaven and the new earth. God's dwelling is with men .... and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. The New Jerusalem, the Holy City, comes down out of heaven to be the bride of the Lamb. It is a place of unspeakable splendor, dazzling with gold and pearls. A river of living water issues from the throne of God and of the Lamb and runs through the city. On both sides of it grows the tree of life, and its leaves are a cure for the heathen. His people will fill the city, and there they will reign forever and ever.

The Revelation is a great document of Christian faith. To the harassed and fearful Christians of Asia all this brought comfort and courage in their dreadful situation. It reminded them that the empire was not all powerful as it claimed and seemed to be, but that God was above it and would yet bring his kingdom in on earth. It revived their waning hope in the ultimate triumph of the will of God.

Problems. Within these main divisions, it is true, there are strange sections—digressions, interludes—that seem to reflect older situations and Jewish atmospheres. The problem of the interpreter is to find out how they are meant to bear upon the persecution situation addressed in the book, rather than to trace each of them to its source in the history of ancient apocalypticism. Certainly they do not suffice to show


that the Apocalypse was generally based upon an earlier Jewish apocalypse now lost; and as in the case of Shakespeare and his sources, we arc more concerned with the use John of Ephesus made of his materials than with where he may have first come across them.

The Revelation was written in Asia, in the circle of Ephesus, probably in part at least on the island of Patmos, in the later years of Domitian, [1] when his embittered character was making it more and more difficult for so many of his subjects, as Pliny [2] relates. It was in consequence of his harsh treatment of members of his own family that he was finally assassinated by Stephanus, the freedman of Domitian's banished and widowed niece, Domitilla, in revenge for her wrongs, A.D. 96.

It was to be read publicly in each of the seven churches, for a blessing is pronounced, 1:3, upon him who reads it and upon those who hear it read. It was probably not intended for permanent church use, but its great claims as the work of a Christian prophet, writing at the dictation of Christ himself, and its undoubted spiritual power, especially in the times of persecution which were all too frequent, preserved and finally, though only after much controversy, [3] canonized it in the New Testament.

[1] This is also the testimony of antiquity. Irenaeus says of the Revelation, "It was seen not long ago but almost in our generation, toward the end of the reign of Domitian" (Refutation of Gnosticism v. 30. 3). This judgment is twice quoted by Eusebius (Church History iii. 18. 3; v. 8. 6).

[2] Letters i. 12; ix. 13, etc.; cf. also Suetonius Domitian 10, 11, 17.

[3] Eusebius, Church History vii. 25.



Brewer, R. R. "The Influence of Greek Drama upon the Apocalypse of John," Anglican Theological Review, XVIII (1936), 74-92.

Case, S. J. The Revelation of John (Chicago, 1919).

Charles, R. H. The Revelation of St. John (2. vols.; New York, 1920).

The HTML for this chapter was crafted by Wally Williams.

Go to the Table of Contents for An Introduction to the New Testament

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.