Sunday, August 3, 2008

Revelation: Understanding John's Apocalypse

LDS scholars and church members alike fail to notice vital elements of John’s New Testament book, Revelation. They see it solely as a eschatological writing—a revelation of future tribulations to befall the world in a period of physical and political upheaval immediately preceding the second coming of Christ.

While it is certainly all that, there is much more to discover. With the aid of a new perspective, the mystery of that book vanishes. Revelation becomes a pivotal document, a virtual 'Rosetta Stone’ of the cultural traditions common to 1st century Mediterranean and Middle Eastern peoples.

Let’s look at a summary of the situation that led to John’s vision. Christianity's early leaders, most notably the Apostle Paul, had expanded their missionary efforts far beyond Palestine and its roots in Judaism. Thanks to a revelation given to Peter, they initiated a campaign to win converts from non-Jewish or 'gentile' cultural groups, including Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Babylonians.

This put the fledgling church on the horns of a dilemma. Gentile religious and cultural traditions were very different from those of Judaism and Christianity. For example, the gentiles believed in a multiplicity of gods while Christianity taught of only one God. This and many other fundamental differences made proselytism difficult for the newly born religion. Yet, if the new church were to survive and flourish, it had to win converts.

What was needed was a strategy to find connections, common ground with the religious traditions of their 'pagan' neighbors to make Christianity more palatable.

John's Revelation was part of that strategy. His vision was an attempt to reconcile the cultural and religious traditions of the Gentiles with that of the Jews, melding them into a new, common tradition for the Christian church that would allow it to appeal to both communities.

Evidence for this is found in several examples of Revelation imagery, which are also found in ancient sources that predate John's writing, demonstrating the 'borrowing' nature of his account.
In Revelation, chapter 13, we read of a rather remarkable beast. "And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

"And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.

"And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed; and all the world wondered after the beast." (Revelation 13:1-3.)

When we consult sources outside the Bible and Israelite tradition, we find that this story is a rhetorical rendition of a Babylonian tradition. It depicts the epic myth of the celestial battle between the beast, Tiamat and the thunderbolt god, Marduk, as depicted in Babylonian fine art.

To assure the reader that this illustration and John’s depiction stem from the same, identical tradition, note the specific features of the beast: looks like a leopard, feet of a bear and a lion’s head or mouth. The wings on both Tiamat and Marduk represent their power to move about in the heavens as do the winged birds.

Astoundingly, we also see this beast — wounded head and all — depicted in Mesopotamian cylinder seal art hundreds of years before John described seeing it in vision.

This Babylonian ostracon clearly shows the multi-headed leopard form (note the spots) of the beast, as John described it - including the slash mark of Marduk’s sword across one of the heads.

After comparing these two examples of Babylonian art to the Revelation narrative, there can be little doubt that they both stem from the same mythical tradition of the battle between Marduk and Tiamat. This discovery allows for only one of two conclusions: Either this is a rather remarkable coincidence, or it is an instance of borrowing from older, pagan tradition by John. As we shall see from the next example, it was most likely a borrowing.

In his epic vision, John also reported seeing four other beasts in heaven. "And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle." (Revelation 4:7.)

These four are also seen everywhere in the Egyptian tradition that long predates John. Named after Canopus, an area in the Nile delta region, these jars were funerary furniture used to house various organs of the deceased during internment rites. The four creatures depicted on lids of these Canopic jars were said to be the sons of Horus. They are also found in the Joseph Smith papyri.

The Egyptians employed the heads of a baboon and a jackal rather than the Israelite designation of a calf (ox) and lion. This variation is typical from culture to culture and across time, just as the names of the same gods varied. But there is no mistaking that the four creatures seen in prophetic vision also adorned the burial art of Egyptians for many centuries before John penned his Apocalypse.

These two examples amply demonstrate John’s borrowing of pagan tradition and imagery for his own vision. As it turns out, almost all the imagery in Revelation can be traced to common religious traditions of that day and time.

This is a remarkable discovery.

John created an admixture of ancient cultural motifs and Christian beliefs that would give the ring of familiarity to doctrines of the early Christian church among any of his ‘gentile’ contemporaries—a calculated attempt to give Christianity the proper traditional underpinnings necessary to validate any religion, thus making it more acceptable to a much wider audience.

Given this alternative view, we can now see John’s vision with new eyes. Here is the answer to the riddle that is Revelation: The multitude of pagan gods became mythic characters and images in John’s vision—the strange beasts, creatures, kings, women and other icons—in a revised series of sacred dramas, each one calculated to show Christ’s place in those traditions.

© Anthony E. Larson, 2006

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