THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - VOLUME 1 : by Philip Carrington, Archbishop of Quebec. Published by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


| HOME | |< | << | Domitian | The philosophers | Domitian and the Jews | The grandsons of Jude | The last works of Josephus | Baruch and Esdras | Some apocalyptic conventions | The Sibyl | The Apocalypse of John | The date of the Revelation | The return of Nero | The victorious word of God | The thousand years | The new Jerusalem | >> |


The Emperor Domitian appears in Christian history and tradition as a tyrant and a persecutor, and he has left an equally sinister impression in the works of Roman writers. Tacitus and Suetonius, who lived as young men under his' tyranny', may have been tempted to blacken his memory in order to please the subsequent emperors, but their writings leave no doubt in our minds that the unpleasant impression was justified. He was secretive and suspicious. He loved the exercise of power and he took seriously his claim to divine honours. He adopted the designation of' Our Lord God Domitian': deus et dominus noster Domitianus. Such a title might accord well with the adoration offered to an eastern king, but it would not be taken seriously in Rome.

Vespasian had restored the authority of the senate, and had respected the constitution as it had been settled by Augustus; but under Domitian the relations between emperor and senate progressively deteriorated. A rebellion on the German frontier in the year 88 or 89, headed by a general named Saturninus, was put down with difficulty, and a number of senators who were implicated in it were executed. The emperor was now on the defensive. He surrounded himself with guards, and organized a secret police. The reign of terror began.

From this time the senate was forced to comply with his will; and there were others who felt the force of his tyranny. In 89 the philosophers were expelled from Rome, and in 93 there was a second edict under which a number of the Stoics were put to death.


Stoic philosophy, with its sombre outlook and its feeling for self-discipline, made a strong appeal to the Roman mind. There was something about it which harmonized well with the rather puritanical traditions which were handed down in the patrician families. Often a Stoic philosopher was attached to a great household as a tutor and spiritual adviser; for conduct was now the main concern of philosophy. There was less interest in the classical systems of physics and metaphysics. The philosophers of the day were what was known as eclectics; they selected from the philosophies of the past. Many of them believed that the world was animated and controlled by a universal mind or spirit which ordered all things in accordance with reason. In morals they tended towards the Platonic view of a conflict between reason and the passions. Seneca, the tutor of Nero, is our main authority for this rather severe form of monotheism, and it was his unhappy lot to have to reconcile his idealistic views with his duties as a high dignitary at Nero's court.

The Stoic philosopher, feeling as he did that the divine reason was speaking in his breast, was bound to regard himself as the envoy of the deity to mankind. There was a tradition that he must oppose the rule of the one man over the many, whom he was prepared to regard as the kinsmen of God. He could hardly help becoming interested in politics. Seneca had been accused of complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy against Nero and was commanded to commit suicide. Other Stoics were put to death under Nero, including Musonius Rufus, who said that all men were made in the likeness of God. Even under Vespasian the philosophers suffered. Under Domitian more of them were put to death.

There grew up in this way a legend or tradition of resistance to tyranny which was not unlike the Christian tradition about the martyr; the Christian teacher Justin, fifty years later, paid homage to this tradition, and mentioned Musonius by name.


There is no reason to suppose that Domitian put out any special edict of a general nature against the Christians; but there is plenty of evidence that martyrdoms occurred in his reign. The Revelation is |334 sufficient evidence by itself. It mentions the name of Antipas, who died as a martyr at Pergamum, and it sees persecution coming in Smyrna.

It is also known that Domitian acted unfavourably towards the Jews. He exacted with some severity the half-shekel tax which the Jews used to pay towards the maintenance of the Jerusalem Temple but which was diverted now to the new temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill at Rome, which was dedicated in 81. Nerva, his successor, took some credit for abolishing this levy, which was an aftermath of the war of 66-70. It was an excellent conjecture of the historian Gibbon that the exaction of this tax served to make clear the distinction between Christians and Jews, since Gentile Christians would not be liable to pay it and would be quick to prove that they were not Jews; on the other hand, their position in the eyes of the Law might then become very ambiguous and uncomfortable.


Hegesippus, the collector of Jewish-Christian traditions, who lived in Rome sixty or seventy years later, states that Vespasian and Domitian both made investigations in Palestine about the descendants of David; and nothing is more likely, since it was known that many Jews were interested in the idea of a king from the old royal family. He says that there were some sons or grandsons of Jude the brother of the Lord, against whom information was laid. Eusebius quotes his words, and a later writer, who may be Philip of Side, « The de Boor fragment: see note at end of chapter 19. gives their names as Zoker (Zacharias?) and Jacob (that is, James). They were brought into the presence of Domitian by a Roman official called the 'evocatus', and Domitian asked them how much property they owned. They said that they only had property to the value of nine thousand denarii between them. It was in the form of land, which they worked themselves, paying the taxes out of the proceeds; and they showed him their tough bodies and horny hands as a proof of their statement. The area of this farm would not be more than nine or ten acres; thirty-nine 'plethra' they said.

The emperor then asked them about the Messiah and his kingdom, and they explained that it was not a worldly or earthly kingdom; it was |335 heavenly or angelic, and would appear at the 'end of the aeon', when the Messiah would come in glory to judge both the quick and the dead. He dismissed the case with contempt, Hegesippus says, and ordered the two men to be sent home, issuing a directive that the persecution should cease. They returned home and ruled over the churches, not only as ' martyrs', but as members of the Lord's family. Peace was established, and they remained alive into the reign of Trajan.

There seems little reason for doubting this story, which is full of good detail and is devoid of legendary features. It shows Domitian in an amiable mood, which is not how the Christian imagination would have pictured him. The payment of taxes was an acknowledgement of the worldly sovereignty of the emperor; the sovereignty of the Messiah was of another order altogether. The conversation between Jesus and Pilate in the fourth Gospel brings out the same points.


The Jewish general and historian, Josephus, was still living in Rome at this time under the patronage of the emperor, and in the enjoyment of considerable wealth. His enormous work, the Archaeologia, or Antiquities of the Jews, was finished not long before the year 96. It surveyed the whole field of Hebrew history from the earliest times down to 66, when the rebellion against the Romans had broken out. The events from 66 to 70 had been covered in his previous book, the Jewish War. The Antiquities draws on other sources besides the Bible, and its preservation of older Hellenistic Jewish material is of great value today. One of its purposes was to answer the many accusations and slanders which had been levelled against the Jews. It makes out as good a case as it can to show that the wars in Palestine were due to the extreme policies of small misguided minorities among the people. Josephus himself belonged to the aristocratic class which cultivated good relations with the Romans. His royal patron, King Agrippa II, held similar views, and was still reigning as king in northern Palestine under the Roman patronage. There was a rival Jewish historian in Galilee, Justus of Tiberias, who criticized Josephus severely both as a general and as an author; Josephus defended himself in a short autobiography which is attached to the Antiquities.

The Antiquities was also an 'apology' in the religious and philosophical |336 sense of the word; that is to say, a reasoned presentation of the case in favour of the Hebrew religion; but he also wrote a book Against Apion, the anti-Jewish writer in Alexandria, which meets his unfair history and false accusations.

In the Antiquities he is at great pains to exhibit the sublime character of Hebrew monotheism, the role played by Abraham as an instructor of the old oriental civilizations, the unfailing wisdom of Moses, the priority of the Hebrew prophets to the Greek philosophers, and many other points of Jewish propaganda which were soon taken over by Christian 'apologists' for their purposes. The picture which he gives of the national religion was so coloured as to appeal to the educated classes among the Greeks and Romans. He sometimes talks about God rather in the style of the philosopher of his day. He even goes so far as to compare the Pharisees with the Stoics and the Sadducees with the Epicureans.

Josephus was a sincere believer himself. His conviction that the destruction of Jerusalem was a judgement of God, which was brought upon the people because of their sins, was perfectly genuine. His references to Christianity are brief and formal; he practically ignores it; but it was Christian scholarship that preserved his writings, and men like Clement of Alexandria and Origen and Eusebius made use of them. There are medieval versions of Josephus, with additional material, which have given rise to interesting discussions among scholars; but it scarcely seems likely that they have any authentic information to add to what we have already.


Creative literature was still being produced among the Jews for use in connexion with their religious life, but the new books were written in the name and person of some ancient worthy who had lived in the days of Ezra, or earlier, when it was believed that visions were still seen and revelations received from heaven.

This convention of pseudonymity is worthy of closer inquiry than it has yet received; it seems to be something more than the insertion of a false name and a few false facts into an otherwise realistic document. The element of make-believe or fantasy runs right through them. They are in the nature of popular drama or fiction. They seem for the most part to have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, or to depend on |337 Hebrew or Aramaic originals. They belong to the category of oriental religious romance, and have affinities with such works of fiction as Tobit and Esther, or even such imaginative histories as 2, 3, or 4 Maccabees. It has been shown that some of them, at any rate, were designed for use at the minor commemorations of the Jewish calendar, which were supplementary to the great fasts and festivals of the Law of Moses: for instance,

Tammuz 17 (midsummer). The golden calf worshipped in the desert: Jerusalem entered by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar or Titus. The Apocalypses of Esdras and Baruch ; The Epistle of Jeremy.

Ab 9 and 15 (midsummer). The 'rebellion' at Kadesh in the desert; the burning of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar or Titus. The Apocalypses of Esdras and Baruch ; The Lamentations of Jeremiah ; Solomon's Song.

Kislev 25 (midwinter). The re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Macca-baeus; commemoration of the Maccabaean martyrs. 3 and 4 Maccabees. (Hanukkah.)

Adar 13 – 15 (spring). Maccabaean victory over Nicanor; Mordecai and Esther in Persia. Book of Esther ; 2 Maccabees. (Purim.)

Could it be that on these popular commemorations, which were not regulated by the Law and coincided in three cases at least with the old pagan festivals of nature, there was a less solemn presentation of a less sacred literature on a more popular level? With some miming perhaps, or folk dances, or ritual dramas? In the case of Ab 15 (and the Day of Atonement), Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel, who died in the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, mentions dancing in the vineyards by the young people in white garments, the choosing of wives, and a song about King Solomon wearing the crown with which his mother crowned him on his wedding day, which is a quotation from Canticles. The popular demonstrations at Adar have continued into modern times, and other evidence of the sort could doubtless be found in the Rabbinic records. Were these apocalyptic books compilations of traditional material on traditional lines, but with new references to current history added or substituted from time to time?

The religious troubles of the time were presented in the form of drama or dialogue. The seer lies on his couch, like Daniel, and an angel descends to converse with him. He remonstrates with God in long rhetorical prayers; he laments; he is prostrated with grief or terror. The angel replies with mysterious words of rebuke or comfort, but |338 condescends in due course to answer his questions. He unveils the future. It is the time-honoured device of the play within the play, which induces the audience to identify itself emotionally with the seer, which is not the case with the authentic Old Testament prophets.

In his vision or revelation we encounter the favourite characters of myth and apocalypse; the remote timeless deity who is far above man's feeble intelligence; the spirit who descends from the higher realms, or sometimes the seer himself ascending to the throne; the dying hero or king; the weeping mother or bride; the mysterious symbols of the woman with child, or the growing seed, or the spreading tree; the beast or dragon who comes up out of the waters; the hero or king who slays the beast; and so forth. Running through it is the question of the destiny of the soul in a tragic universe; the destiny of Israel as God's favoured nation, and yet trampled down by the kings of the earth; the inexplicable fate of Jerusalem; the loss of the Temple. The answers come in eschatological symbols; the future is not really disclosed as a rule.

Such is the character of the pseudonymous books which were composed under Vespasian and Domitian: the Apocalypse of Esdras (Ezra) and the Apocalypse of Baruch. Both contain older material; both received later additions.

These books look back upon the recent destruction of Jerusalem by Titus with grief and horror. They question the goodness of God in bringing this calamity upon this generation and in creating so many human beings for misery and destruction. The dramatic form makes possible the frank expression of these sceptical views. No clear answer is returned; but faith is maintained. This world is for the many, but the world to come is for the few. It is not for the seer to inquire too closely into the purposes of God. We are reminded of the dialectic of predestination in Paul's Epistle to the Romans; for these authors fall back, as he did once, and as all pious Jews tend to do, on the doctrine of inscrutability. It was impiety, as well as folly, to question the purposes of Almighty God, whose love for his creation must excel all human love and compassion.

It is strange that these books, with their profoundly Jewish outlook, should have passed into use in the Christian church. The Apocalypse of Baruch, with the Epistle of Jeremy, is included in the Christian Apocrypha. The Apocalypse of Esdras, in a Latin translation, is appended to the Apocrypha of the western church; the Greek does not survive.


There are several conventions in this type of literature which are of interest. One is the picture of the ancient oriental sage, who lived so many centuries ago, peering into the future, writing down his vision of the things which are to come in the last days (a conventional phrase for the times men were living in), and sealing them up, or storing them away, to be revealed when their time comes. Another is the relation between the gift of vision and the practice of asceticism. These ostensible authors are represented as going apart into deserts or mountains to pray and fast. They eat herbs or flowers of the field; they abstain from domestic life. We cannot help thinking of a succession of instances from John the Baptist to Hermas and later, in which asceticism and prophecy are connected. Even in the Mishnah we read of Jews who fasted in order to obtain dreams. It was a common practice in certain Greek temples. The Montanists did it in Phrygia.

The idea can be traced back as far as Daniel, but hardly to the older books of the Hebrew canon. The worthies of the Old Testament fasted and afflicted themselves in order to express their penitence or show their humility or submission to God. Now we have a new kind of mysticism, probably of Syrian or oriental origin, which links fasting and virginity with the vision of heavenly beings or the revelation of divine mysteries. Such, no doubt, was the practice of the erratic Jewish teachers who are referred to in Colossians and the Pastorals. It harmonizes with the little we know about the ascetic Jewish sects.

The content of the vision had also been conventionalized. Esdras gives an affecting picture of an aged woman who laments over the death of her son who died on his wedding night; a picture which is in line with the myth and ritual of Adonis or Tammuz; but this woman is the holy city of Jerusalem, and the death of her son is the destruction of the city. The piece was made up out of ancient mythological features, and was set for the midsummer fast, when the Syrians mourned for Adonis and the Jews for Jerusalem.

And it came to pass, while I was talking to her, behold her face shone exceeding bright, and her countenance was like lightning, and I feared greatly ... and I saw, and behold, the woman was no longer visible to me, but a city that was builded, and a place of great foundations.
(2 Esdras, x. 25-7.)

|340 A similar vision of a woman who is also a city is found in the Revelation; and Hermas of Rome, after his period of prayer and fasting, was permitted to see a vision of an aged woman whom he believed at first to be the Sibyl; but it was explained to him later that she was the church, and that she was to be identified with a tower which was being built. The two images are also found in Ephesians, but are not combined into a myth.


The grief over the loss of Jerusalem, and the certitude about divine vengeance in the future, are expressed for the most part in cryptic forms which conceal the strong anti-Roman feeling which was present in the heart; but this feeling was expressed openly in the Sibylline Oracles, which purported to be pagan productions.

The Sibyl did not see visions. She was a wild incoherent creature who uttered dooms; a god spoke through her. Doubtless there had been real Sibyls in ancient Greece and Asia Minor, who prophesied at the temples; but we are concerned with the Sibyls of literature and legend, and particularly the ' Babylonian Sibyl', who was the imaginary author of some of the oldest oracles. Her verses dealt with myth and current history and things to come. In the days of the Maccabees, Jewish authors had taken up these pagan prophecies, and added more of the same style, in which they proclaimed a pure Jewish monotheism, and foretold the destruction of the godless kingdom, and the way the world would end. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, these verses were taken up again by Jewish poets and brought up to date. They were bitterly hostile to the Flavian emperors, and reserved a rather special position for Nero, who is said to have favoured the Jews.

The idea existed that Nero still lived. A false Nero had appeared as early as 69, in the reign of Otho, but had been captured and put to death. Rather later, an Asiatic actor and musician of the name of Terentius Maximus, who resembled Nero, appeared in Asia Minor. He collected quite a following and took refuge in Mesopotamia. His claims were recognized by the Parthian King, Artabanus, who found him a convenient political tool; but neither empire was actually prepared for war. The new Sibylline Oracles espoused the cause of the false Nero and of the Parthian empire. They proclaimed the destruction of Rome.

|341 Sibylline verses were collected together, and some centuries after our period a mixed assortment of them was collected into a single corpus. Book III seems to be a second-century production, and is based on the old Babylonian Sibyl with successive Jewish additions. Book IV contains some oracles from the time of the Flavian emperors; it refers to the earthquake at Laodicea in 76, and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79. Doom is predicted for all the nations, and especially for Rome, which is given the mystic name of Babylon in one passage.

And a great star shall fall from heaven upon the dread ocean, and burn up the deep sea, with Babylon itself; by reason of which many Hebrews perished; holy and faithful were they, the people of the truth.
(Or. Sib. iv, 11.)

In some of these oracles, the instrument of vengeance will be the Emperor Nero, returning from the east at the head of Parthian armies.

To the men of Jerusalem shall come an evil storm-blast of war from Italy, and shall lay waste the great temple of God. .. then shall a great king from Italy [Nero] flee away like a deserter, unseen, unheard, beyond the ford of the Euphrates. ...

But when a flame of fire from a cleft in the earth [Vesuvius] in the land of Italy shoots out its light to the broad heaven, to burn up many cities, and to slay men... then the strife of war shall be stirred up, and shall come to the west, and the exiled man [Nero], lifting up a mighty sword, and crossing the Euphrates with tens of thousands.
(Or. Sib. iv, 11.)

This kind of literature, therefore, was political as well as eschatological, and we are not surprised when Justin Martyr informs us that the reading of the Sibyllines in his time was punished by death. The apocalyptic literature may have served the purpose of inflaming an anti-Roman feeling among the oppressed classes and nations.


The study of this literature shows us that the Revelation of St John was written in an idiom that would not be altogether strange in Jewish and Christian circles, and that it dealt with contemporary historical problems. In every respect, however, it forms a striking contrast with the Jewish apocalypses, and especially in the fact that it was not put forward under a borrowed name. No ancient seer wrote these visions, and ordered them to be sealed up and stowed away until the last times. |342 Their author was the great prophet of Asia who was well known in the churches; 'I am John your brother', he says, and insists that he is writing about what is happening now, or must shortly come to pass. 'Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book; for the time is at hand.'

The angel of his vision is no Gabriel or Raphael; he is the Lord himself, descended from heaven; we have here an advent or parousia taking place in the church. The book opens with the messages to the seven churches of Asia. It is the Lord's Day, and the prophet is in the Spirit. He sees the angel of the risen and glorified Christ standing in the midst of seven golden lamps, which are also seven angels. The seven angels are said to be the seven churches, and so are the seven stars in his right hand; the alternative symbols are combined in a single pattern. The glorious central angel, who is like a Son of Man, has messages for the churches, and the prophet is commanded to write down his words. He is the interpreter of the divine voice which should be audible to all; he ends each message with the same refrain: 'He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.'

The literal meaning of the word angel is 'a messenger'. In the higher religious thought of our period, it meant a spiritual power or impulse which made itself known or felt; thus Hermas speaks of an angel from the Holy Spirit coming to the prophet; it is a charge of divine energy which is personal in character; God making his impact upon man. « But the angel or impulse which comes to the prophet may not be absolutely identified with God; Rev. xix. 10; xxii. 9. It may be said that an angel represents its original and in some sense is its original. The seven angels represent the churches; for purposes of this poetry they are the churches; and so are the stars and lamps.

The vision was seen on an island called Patmos, not far from the shore of Asia Minor. John was on the island 'for the Word of God and the witness of Jesus'. Irenaeus and other writers in the second century believed that John had been condemned to banishment on the island as a Christian under Domitian. This second-century belief that John's confinement on the island took place in the reign of Domitian is confirmed by the internal evidence of the Revelation itself, which was certainly composed at this time, though it incorporates so much older material.


Three stages can be distinguished in the composition of the Revelation, or three strata of material which have been worked into it. The first is the old Jerusalem material, which was directed against the 'great city' where God's witnesses were killed and their Lord crucified; some of this may be as old as the time of Caligula, when the 'wild beast' which represented the world power wore the features of that monarch. Then comes the intermediate period, when the wild beast wears the features of Nero, and the action of the apocalyptic drama is determined by the tragic events of the sixties; it is probable that a continuous text of some sort came into existence in the reign of Nero's successor Vespasian; but it was completed, in the form in which we now have it, in the reign of Domitian. This is the third stage.

In the earliest stratum the prophet receives his call from an angel to prophesy again upon many peoples and nations and tongues, and many kings; and it is the many kings who give us the clue to the chronology. As the book is now, it contains three rather extended and elaborate visions, which belong in their present form to the last stages of composition, in each of which the prophet is again instructed by an angel. The first is the vision on the island in chapter 1, with which we have already dealt; this vision sanctions the book in its final form. The second is the vision in the desert in chapter xvii; this vision explains the historical setting. The third is the vision on the mountain, in the last chapters, in which he sees the New Jerusalem which is coming down from heaven.

In the vision in the desert, the prophet is shown the figure of the 'great harlot' who is also a city; a parody of the mother or virgin who is also a city. Her mystic name is 'Babylon'. She is seated upon a scarlet wild beast, which is allotted seven heads, which the angel says represent seven kings; 'five are fallen, one is, and one is yet to come'. The wild beast is easy to interpret; it is the imperial world-power, and the heads fall into line with history fairly easily, too. The five who have fallen are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero; Galba, Otho and Vitellius are ignored; the one who now is, is Vespasian; the one who is yet to come is Titus. A great number of commentators accept this explanation.

The allotment is confirmed by the statement that the seventh Caesar |344 will endure only for a short time; and this is Titus, who only reigned for two years, 79 to 81; but our author, or his angel, goes on to speak of an eighth Caesar, who is Domitian, saving his symbolism by saying that 'he is one of the seven and goeth unto destruction'. He could not alter the number of heads, which was fixed as far back as the prophet Daniel.

It is perfectly clear that these notes must have been added to the text after Domitian came to the throne, when the vision on the island was composed as a prologue to the book as a whole. The substance of the book was not altered, however; it continues to speak as if from the reign of Vespasian; Nero is in the immediate past, and Titus in the immediate future. The historical standpoint of the book is still the standpoint of the sixties.


In order to bridge over the historical gap between the sixties and the nineties, our author makes use of the myth of the return of Nero, which could no longer be expected in the normal course of history. It now takes the form of a return from the realms of the dead. Domitian, the eighth Caesar, is Nero over again; for Nero was the typical form of the bestial idea. 'The wild beast which thou sawest, was and is not, and shall ascend out of the abyss ... even he is the eighth, and goeth unto destruction.'

Many scholars make use of the Nero expectation to explain the reference to the River Euphrates in chapter xvi, and the maich of the kings from the east which we suggested might refer to the march of the Syrian legions from the Euphrates to Rome in the civil wars of 67 to 69. They suggest that this means the return of the living Nero with the aid of Parthian armies, which is what the Sibyl hoped for. The words of John himself which we have quoted above envisage a very different idea; the return of Nero from hell in the person of the eighth Caesar; that is to say Domitian is Nero over again. But there is an ingenious suggestion by which these views can be reconciled. Perhaps in the sixties the seer did look forward to the return of the living Nero, and later on in the nineties, when this had not occurred, he transformed this expectation and adapted it to the new circumstances.

We suggested very strongly that the 'great harlot', whose mystical |345 name was Babylon, should be identified with Jerusalem, as the centre of the Jewish diaspora and the persecutor of the saints; but most scholars hold that she is to be identified with the Rome of the Neronian persecutions, since the Sibyl uses this name for Rome, and so apparently does 1 Peter. They can point to the fact that she is said to be drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs, that she is the' great city' who reigns over the kings of the earth; that she is enriched with a great luxury trade; and finally that the seven heads of the beast on which she is seated are seven mountains; but these heads or mountains belong to the beast, not to the woman. « In the Mishnah Jerusalem is said to be built on seven hills. The destruction of the city of Rome by the beast, who undoubtedly represents the Roman empire or imperial power, can be explained by the Sibylline form of the Nero myth; it is the Emperor Nero with his Parthian armies who destroys Rome, though this idea must of course have been abandoned when the Revelation received its final form.

The great majority of commentators accept the traditional view that Babylon in the Revelation means Rome; but the same compromise has been suggested in this case; perhaps the prophecies about Jerusalem as a persecuting city, and the prophecies about Rome as a persecuting city, have been transferred from one to the other, or fused together in the processes of editing through which the book as a whole has passed. Scholars differ on many points in interpreting this difficult book, but there is no difference of opinion on two great principles. The first is that the author of the Revelation plunges deeply into contemporary history, and so provides a commentary on the events of his own time; the second is that this commentary is expressed in images which are drawn from the old oriental tradition of mythological thinking, which was the parent of gnosis and apocalypse and liturgy, all of which contribute their quota to the Revelation, and are indeed inseparable.

Many scholars think that the John who gave the book its final form need not be the author of what we have called the earlier strata. The old Jerusalem visions may have been the work of an earlier prophet or prophets; and the apparent confusions might be explained in this way. But it is very generally agreed that it is an artistic unity as it stands. One mind gave it its present form and breathed his genius into it.


It would not be possible to attempt an 'explanation' of this amazing book, but we must take it into account in constructing the history, and in this respect it has often received less than justice. Its intellectual power and towering imagination must be obvious to all, and so must its immense influence upon Christian liturgy, art, hymnology and inspirational life. It is possibly the best expression we have of the faith and hope which burned so ardently in the breasts of the first Christians. It cannot be relegated to a minor position as a by-product of the Christian genius.

Its principal concepts are timeless. Contemporary movements were recognized as examples of recurrent types which had been observed and depicted by previous masters of the art, particularly Ezekiel and Daniel. The 'wild beast', for instance, is not a study of any particular Roman Caesar; it is the Roman world-power, which was, so to speak, incarnate in each of them; but even the Roman world-power was only one in a series. It was the contemporary form of a phenomenon in history which had been observed many times before; like so many of the imaginative concepts in the apostolic writings, it had been 'spoken of by the prophet Daniel'.

It is a study of the animal type of human polity, which knows no divine law superior to itself and seems to be devoid of justice and mercy, expressing its essential nature in the figure of an autocrat or conqueror who gives himself the airs of a god. In course of time it works its own ruin and 'goeth unto destruction'; but in due course it reconstitutes itself; it 'rises from the abyss', revealing itself in a new autocratic figure exactly like the last. It had appeared even in the streets of Jerusalem itself.

Against the kingdom of the beast John places the kingdom of the man. The heavens are opened and a king rides out on a white horse, accompanied by many of his own kind. His eyes are like a flame of fire and on his head are many crowns. His clothing is dipped in blood; his own blood that is, for this is he who trod the wine-press outside the city, « A relic of the harvest symbolism; see Revelation xiv. 20 (= Isaiah lxiii. 3), where the identification is first made; a passage which definitely refers to Jerusalem. and of the people there was none with him. He and his legions are clad in white linen, pure and clean. Out of his mouth goeth a sharp |347 two-edged sword. On his thigh, where the conqueror's sword should rightly be, there is nothing at all but a name written: 'King of kings and lord of lords' (the title of the Persian or Parthian monarch). But this conqueror is no soldier-king, after the manner of Cyrus or Alexander; we are looking at the victory of the bare unarmed truth. He has no weapon but the word that goes out of his mouth; and his own name is called the 'Word of God'.

It is the same name that is given to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, but with what a difference of effect. The prophet sees Jesus as the supreme force in human history; but his victorious advance proceeds along the evangelical level, in the expansion of the gospel, in the ministry of the prophets, and in the faith of the martyrs; in witness to the Word. He thus records his conviction that the heavenly king will triumph over the earthly tyranny, and that the man-power of the church will not fail in the day of judgement and crisis. Our survey of the second apostolic generation would have been seriously defective without this kind of evidence. We would have noted the rise of curious heresies, the consolidation of the ministerial order, the development of a literary tradition, and the increasing emphasis on a glorious worship; but we might have missed the central fact that the proclamation of the gospel in faith and power, and the consequent defiance of the world, went on in the witness of men who loved not their lives even unto death.

It is this writer who first speaks with inspired confidence about the dead in Christ. ' I heard a voice from heaven which said, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: Yea, saith the Spirit, may they rest from their labours.'


John has no doubt that the Word of God will be victorious over the kingdom of the beast. He has a sublime faith, like that of the Matthaean gospel, in the justice of Almighty God working itself out continuously in history. He uses the concepts which became traditional in Christian eschatology, but he does not hold out any prospect of a grand climax all at once.

He sees the outcome of the great war between the forces of Christ and the forces of the world-power. Christ will be victorious, and the wild beast and his prophet will go into the lake of fire; the old pagan empire will pass into oblivion; 'it goeth unto destruction'. But he |348 interposes a long period before the final judgement of all souls; a period of a thousand years. The figures in the Revelation are never to be taken literally, and this one would seem to mean a long age in human history. He deals with it in obscure symbols, as is natural. Satan is bound but not disposed of; he is laid in the abyss, but at the end of the thousand years he will rise again and there will be further conflict.

Furthermore, during this thousand-year period the souls of the martyrs will receive their just reward; they will be given 'judgement'; they will reign with Christ; and this is the 'first resurrection'. On this slight foundation are built up all the grandiose expectations in later apocalyptic of a 'millennial kingdom' of Christ upon this earth; but that is not what is said; it is the souls of the martyrs which receive their reward as priests of God and of Christ; a very different assurance from the bodily resurrection which was promised to the Thessalonians by Silvanus and Paul.

As for the church on this earth during this period, nothing is said. He only speaks of the camp of the saints and the beloved city which will be assailed, at the end of the thousand years, by the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth. Let who will interpret this discreet symbolism.


We are in the highest realms of poetic mysticism when we come to the vision on the mountain, of the bride of the Lamb, or new Jerusalem, which balances the ugly figure of the harlot city which we believe to represent the old Jerusalem; for the city of God is seen at one time on earth suffering, and at another descending from heaven, and finally in its glory. Like the other great concepts in his gallery of visions, it will not fit into the limitations of time and space; it transcends them. It is at once the martyr-church on earth, and the company of saints in heaven; the author never seems to draw any distinction between the two; and yet it has proved a satisfying concept in all ages for the martyr, the mystic, or the simple believer. It is Israel, it is Jerusalem, it is Paradise, it is the apostolic company, it is perhaps the pagan city of the gods. The genius of the poet infuses every word and every sentence with pure spirituality. It is not of this world; for it needs no sun nor moon to shine upon it, and he sees no temple in it; the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are temple and glory and illumination enough. It is in this |349 world, however; for the kings of the earth bring their honour and glory into it.

The shining symbols which go to make up this splendid vision are parted out among the seven churches of Asia in the messages with which the whole book begins; and there are other symbols which adhere closely to it; the new name, the key of David, the hidden manna, and the bright and morning star. It would be supposed that it would be obvious to all that this is poetry and not prose, and that whoever materialized it would do so at their peril; but the Christian mind in Asia and Phrygia could not quite rise to it. They brought it down to earth; they cramped it into the thousand years; they localized it. It had to wait for Augustine of Hippo, and Bernard of Morlaix, and Christina Rossetti and spirits of that sort to enter into its mysteries. Indeed, it may be that its day has not come yet.
<< | top | >>