Monday, 7 October 2013

A Graeco-Roman Reading of the Revelation of St. John. Just another (quirky) oracular text.

What is it about prophecies?  For millennia they have captured the imagination of human beings over the world.  From the earliest western literature describing Cassandra, until the on going belief in the end of the world, humans have been influenced or fascinated by prophetic works of all kinds.
I have been thinking a great deal about prophetic texts lately.  I had just been proof-reading my brother's honours thesis which discussed the Prophecies of Merlin in twelfth century Brittany (yes, there is a tradition that Merlin left prophetic texts - they were translated into Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth), so various prophecies were rattling around my head when I said that I'd lead a discussion on the Revelation of St. John at a casual discussion group.  
I am not a theological scholar.  I am not even a Christian.  So you can imagine the response from friends and family when I said that I was going to do this.  One friend actually questioned whether it was possible for a heathen such as myself to pick up a Bible.  I replied that I'd download the necessary text to my iPad to reduce the chances of contact burns.  All jokes aside, I actually own a copy of the New Testament in Greek from back in the day when I thought that I would be better off taking koine (New Testament) Greek instead of Classical because my studies focused more on the Roman era than earlier Greek history.  That was a silly undergraduate mistake because I was unaware of Roman hipsters (sorry, Second Sophistic writers) who all wanted to write like Demosthenes.  Despite this error, I still have my Greek Bible, so I dusted it off, downloaded a copy of the King James version of Revelations and started to read it as I believed a contemporary Roman might have.  
I quickly realised that there was no chance in Hell that I was going to read all 12,000+ words.  I was already confused, bewildered and a little bored.  I tried to mix things up a little and started to read what I thought might be some good pagan comporanda - the Sibylline Oracles - only to discover the only version left had been Christianised to a great extent.  Scratch that idea.  In the end I only read to to the end of chapter 8 and I set as the reading for the discussion chapters 5-8.  I figured that section which related to the seven seals was the most interesting for a Roman reading and everyone seems to enjoy the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (personally I prefer Dürer's print to the text, but you get that).
The discussion went well.  Everyone knew a great deal more about the Christian interpretation of the text than I.  When one friend started discussing the various choirs of angel I admitted that my knowledge only came from watching the movie Dogma.  It became pretty obvious pretty quick that most attendees had private, church-based schooling, and I was waving my state school education loud and proud.  My fallback position was always "I'm reading this as a Roman might have." Some friends who couldn't attend latter said they wished they had been there, and one friend in
particular requested that I share my preparatory notes.  This request has led to this blog post and I am going to include them below.
PLEASE NOTE:  If you are offended by a non-Christian interpretation of a Christian text, this blog post is not for you.  I am not trying to be offensive, but as a socio-cultural historian, I do believe that much can be learnt by reading Christian texts from a Roman perspective which can extend our understanding of Roman policies towards early Christianity.  This does not constitute such a study because it only relates to a small portion of one book.  Regardless of this fact I do think it can give some small clues to how a contemporary non-Christian audience might have responded.

My discussion of Revelations as a Roman
Despite setting the reading of chapters 5-8, I started with a few comments on the earlier chapters.
2.20 "Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols."
Romans would not have had a problem with a female prophet.  Some of the classical world's greatest seers were women:  Cassandra, the Delphic Oracle, the Sibyl.  As for fornication, Romans didn't see that as sinful.  A sexually predatory female?  Well Roman attitudes differed depending on her place in society and the individual's moral compass.  I found the attitude of "eating things sacrificed to idols" interesting.  The work also condemns others for this crime, but to a Graeco-Roman audience, this did not constitute a crime.  All animal sacrifices to the gods constituted a chance to share meat in the community.  Following the Greek view of animal sacrifice, it really creates the opportunity for a community barbecue.  In addition to this, it was not a crime for the less fortunate to take cakes and offerings left on an open altar - it was expected.  In some ways, it could have been considered an act of charity to leave such offerings to the gods.  
5.1 "And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals."
Books of knowledge were a common theme in antiquity, so a Roman audience would have found this idea perfectly normal.  Indeed, the original Sibylline books of prophecy were well known to the Roman audience; the story of the Roman King Tarquinius Superbus purchasing the books from the Sibyll was retold by Aulus Gellius in the imperial period, and following the destruction of the Capitoline temple to Jupiter by fire, Augustus sought to replace these by requesting all works reputed to be oracular brought to Rome and judged as either real or fake.  Those considered authentic were then placed in the new temple of Apollo on the Palatine attached to Augustus' house.
5.2 "And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?  [3] And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.  [4] And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon."
The questing theme is familiar throughout various folk-tales.  My mind immediately went to Arthur drawing the sword from the stone, and then to the opening scenes of the movie Thor.  On a more classical theme I thought of the Gordian Knot.  Alexander's "cheating" on the quest of the Gordian Knot by either removing the pin or slicing it with a sword stroke was familiar to all educated Romans, so the idea of worthiness to complete a task was by no means foreign.  The word angel comes from the Greek and means "messenger".  Most Greeks and Romans would interpret a winged messenger as Hermes/Mercury.
5.5 "And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof."
The reference to the Lion of Juda might have caused some concern for a Roman audience.  Depending on whose scholarship you follow, Revelations was written sometime in the first quarter of the second century.  Sure, it predates the Bar-Kochba revolt of the 130s, but Judaea had only been a province since the 70s.  The last thing a Roman of political power wants to hear is talk of Jewish nationalism, such as the "lion of Judaea."
5.6 "And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth."
The description of the lamb which is sacrificed here would have bewildered a Graeco-Roman audience.  In the classical tradition, you never sacrifice an animal which is less than perfect.  In fact, sacrificing such a misshapen creature would have been considered an affront to the gods.  The Romans were unaccepting of major birth defects:  hermaphrodites were were placed in a bag and washed out to sea, and the inspection of an animal for hidden internal defects by the haruspices was not only a religious act, but an act of fortune-telling.  
5.11 "And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;"
This play with numbers immediately made me think about the number of kisses Catullus wrote that he shared with Lesbia.  While the playful idea of confusing numbers is cute in a love poem, it also has a magical side.  To deny parties exact numbers (be it kisses or voices) creates magical security.  If your enemy does not have precise numbers, they can't use that information against you magically.
6.2  "And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer."
This description of the rider carrying a bow and wearing a crown could tap into a Roman fear of kingship and the Homeric idea that the bow is a weapon not used by the manly warrior.  All of the descriptions of thrones which appear throughout could appear as images of kingship, but thrones were not common "kingly" items like crowns in the Roman world.  Holders of magisterial positions sat on curule chairs, and Roman gods were carried in procession on special chairs, but nothing yelled "king" quite like a crown.  The description of Mark Antony trying to put a crown on Caesar's head during the 44 B.C. Lupercalia was seen as an act of trying to make Caesar king (the irony that Caesar's name went on to mean king in Germany and Russia is not lost on me).  As for the bow being a sissy weapon, don't blame me.  In the Trojan war, who was the mortal archer?  Paris, the pretty boy who started the whole thing who rarely went out and fought in hand-to-hand combat.  According to the Odyssey, Odysseus also uses a bow; but he's a trickster who can't be trusted.  Apollo uses a bow, but he's not much of a warrior.  He likes to sing songs and hunt with his sister more than fight.  Heracles uses a bow, yes.  And how does that work out for him?  He fought with the bow and died by the bow - the poison which killed him came from the Hydra which he later poisoned his arrows with.  In Greek mythology, true heroes fought in close contact; they proved their virility by risking their lives rather than taking shots from a distance with drones, oh sorry, arrows.
6.5 "And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.  [6] And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine."
The horseman who rides a black horse carries a set of scales.  Apart from the astrological figure of Libra (yes astrology was a big deal during this period), this figure could be interpreted in many different ways.  Thetis, or Justice, carried a set of scales in addition to her sword.  But the next line would suggest the scales were a reference to trade, especially the grain trade.  While the King James version translates the money as "penny" the Greek refers to the denarius, a Roman silver coin.  This was not the smallest denomination of Roman coins, but worth four of the smallest, the as. You could get measure of wheat for a denarius; and you could get three measures of barley for a denarius.  Barley is cheaper because it isn't as nutritious.  This is an accurate depiction of the grain trade in this period.
6.8. "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
I found the description of Death on a pale horse interesting.  The gods of death and the underworld, the chthonic gods, are normally associated with black animals.  You offer white beasts to Zeus and Apollo, while you offer black beasts to Hades/Pluto.  Someone asked what the Greek said, and a number of us, me included, were surprised that the Greek was χλωρος (chloros) "pale green".  My only suggestion of explanation was the pale green people sometimes turn when they are about to throw up.  A more sensible member of the group pointed out that in Homer "chloros" is used to describe the colour of honey.  Either way, a Roman might have found the description a little strange.
6.12 "And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; [13] And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.  [14] And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places."
Earthquakes were nothing new to the Mediterranean world.  In Italy, people would be remembering both the earthquake which hit Pompeii during the reign of Nero and the eruption of Vesuvius later in 79.  This imagery can be compared with Pliny the Younger's description of the Vesuvius eruption and the effect it has on the moon.  Nothing in this description would have seemed strange to a Roman audience.  In addition, earthquakes were omens.
7.1 "And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree."
The Graeco-Roman world knew that the earth was not flat and that it did not have four corners.  Yes, there were four cardinal points, and yes the winds were seen to come from those points.  But if a Roman was reading this literally they would have thought the author was a confused imbecile.  
8.2 "And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets."
Numbers appear throughout all of Revelations, but the number seven seems to recur the most.  Numerology was common in the ancient world and most often associated with Pythagoras.  Yes, that is the guy we all know from trigonometry in high school mathematics: he thought he was Apollo reborn and believed in numerology.  I really wish my teacher tried to explain that at school.  In Pythagorean numerology, seven was the number of "life and law".  The trumpet was the σαλπιγξ "salpigx" or "war trumpet".  This word was also used to refer to thunder by the poet Pindar, and it was an epithet of Athena at Argos.  Again, thunder or trumpet blast out of clear sky was a well-known Roman omen.
8.4 "And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."
The description of smoke ascending to a god would not have surprised a Graeco-Roman audience.  The provision of burnt fat wrapped around bones provided in Greek sacrifices was based on the smoke rising into the sky to be received by the gods, especially Zeus.
8.5 "And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake."
Disembodied voices, thunder, lightning and earthquakes were all omens in Roman culture.  Roman history is littered to references about warnings being delivered in this way.  The same can be said for speaking beasts which also appear throughout Revelations.
8.7 "The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up."
Again, descriptions of rains of fire and blood (even stones) can be found in Roman histories, especially Livy.  They were interpreted as omens.
8.8 "And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;"
Mountains burning can only be a reference to a volcano, and as stated above, the damage these could cause had been experienced the previous century.  It is worth noting that while classical society understood earthquakes, they did not understand the true nature of volcanoes.
8.11 "And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
I do not know which star is referred to as "wormwood".  The Greek word is αψινθος "absinthe", which we know today as the drink made from the artemisia plant which was popular with various artists for its possible psychotropic properties at the end of the 19th century such as Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.  Before the fear of reefer madness, the establishment feared the madness associated with absinthe.  The drink is still illegal in some countries.  Artemisia or wormwood was well known throughout the Mediterranean: some varieties were used in cooking and in drinks, while some were known to have been poisonous.  The idea of water becoming undrinkable owing to wormwood would have been understood.
8.12 "And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise."
As stated above, this would have reminded Italian readers of the eruption of Vesuvius.
Conclusions:  Much of what was included in the Revelation to St. John would not have surprised a non-Christian audience.  Many of the omens included appeared elsewhere in other oracular texts.  The criticism of some behaviours would have confused a Roman audience, as might have the different manner of sacrifices described.  On the whole, non-Christians could have read this and seen it as an oracular text, just like those which already existed.  The descriptions which could have been interpreted as Judaean nationalism would not have been well received by the Roman government, and monotheism would continue to confound non-Jews and non-Christians for some time to come.  Regardless of this, Revelations would have ticked enough boxes to be considered an oracular-style text in the Graeco-Roman world.

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