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Apocalypse then
by Thanos Kalamidas
Issue 9
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The Revelation of St John the Divine and the Book of Job
St John the Divine
Penguin Books Ltd, 2005
Since the lingua franca of Christ’s period was Greek, the four evangelists and the other contributors to the Bible all wrote in Greek and since I am Greek and spent at least eight years of my life learning Ancient Greek I am one of those very lucky people who can read the Bible in its original language.

I know that the way I’m approaching a text like the Bible is unorthodox and might raise some objections from the religious readers, but the truth is that I am an agnostic myself. Still, I always thought that the Bible and especially the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, is a book that anybody who’s interest in history and literature should read it and by ‘read it’ I mean a few times till you start understanding the beauty of the language and the pictures the authors gives you.

John wrote the Apocalypse in the last part of his life while he had withdrawn from the cosmic life and he lived in a small cave on the Greek island of Patmos; the book is not easy to understand due to its extravagant symbolism. Symbolic language, however, is one of the chief characteristics of apocalyptic literature, of which this book is an outstanding example. Such literature enjoyed wide popularity in both Jewish and Christian circles from ca. 200 B.C. to A.D. 200.

The book contains an account of visions in symbolic and allegorical language borrowed extensively from the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel, Zechariah and Daniel. Whether or not these visions were real experiences of the author or simply literary conventions employed by him is an open question to be answered and, of course, the church doesn’t help with any kind of research.

This much, however, is certain: symbolic descriptions are not to be taken as literal descriptions, nor is the symbolism meant to be pictured realistically. One would find it difficult and repulsive to visualize a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes; yet Jesus Christ is described in precisely such words. John used these images to suggest Christ’s universal (seven) power (horns) and knowledge (eyes). A significant feature of apocalyptic writing is the use of symbolic colors, metals, garments and numbers (‘four’ signifies the world, ‘six’ imperfection, ‘seven’ totality or perfection, ‘twelve’ Israel’s tribes or the apostles, ‘one thousand’ immensity).

The language of the book is also to be taken symbolically and not literally. The cries for vengeance on the lips of Christian martyrs that sound so harsh are in fact literary devices the author employed to evoke in the reader and hearer a feeling of horror for apostasy and rebellion that will be severely punished by God.

The lurid descriptions of the punishment of Jezebel and of the destruction of the great harlot, Babylon, are likewise literary devices. The metaphor of Babylon as harlot would be wrongly construed if interpreted literally. On the other hand, the stylized figure of the woman clothed with the sun, depicting the New Israel, may seem to be a negative stereotype. It is necessary to look beyond the literal meaning to see that these images mean to convey a sense of God’s wrath at sin in the former case and trust in God’s providential care over the church in the latter.

The Book of Revelation cannot be adequately understood except against the historical background that occasioned its writing. Like Daniel and other apocalypses, it was composed as resistance literature to meet a crisis. The book itself suggests that the crisis was a ruthless persecution of the early church by the Roman authorities; the harlot Babylon symbolizes pagan Rome, the city on the seven hills.

The book is, then, an exhortation and admonition to Christians of the first century to stand firm in the faith and to avoid compromise with paganism, despite the threat of adversity and martyrdom; they are to await patiently the fulfillment of God’s mighty promises. The triumph of God in the world of men and women remains a mystery, to be accepted in faith and longed for in hope. It is a triumph that unfolded in the history of Jesus of Nazareth and continues to unfold in the history of the individual Christian who follows the way of the cross, even, if necessary, to a martyr’s death.

Though the perspective is eschatological - ultimate salvation and victory are said to take place at the end of the present age when Christ will come in glory at the parousia - the book presents the decisive struggle of Christ and his followers against Satan and his cohorts as already over.

It is remarkable that even though the entire book describes is the end of the world as we know it with thousands to die is still a book full of hope for the believers or the ones who will reform even at the very last moment.

Returning to what I emphasized at the beginning of the book, another remarkable contribution of the book for modern scholars is the use of the Greek language. John was not the poor fisherman who followed Jesus but a well-educated youth who was comfortable in Greek and Latin. Comparing him with the other evangelists you can see the easy use of the Greek language even to the most difficult syntax of the language giving the most complicated meanings.

Studying his language and examining closely the words we can notice how much semantics have changed the words in Modern Greek or comparing them with the text of the Ancient Greek classics. I have and I am a great supporter of the introduction of John’s text into the schools not from its theological angle but as a linguistic study.

Historically now, the author of the book calls himself John, who, because of his Christian faith, has been exiled to the rocky island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony. Although he never claims to be John the Apostle, whose name is attached to the fourth gospel, he was so identified by several of the early church Fathers, including Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian and Hippolytus. This identification, however, was denied by other Fathers, including Denis of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom.

Indeed, vocabulary, grammar and style make it doubtful that the book could have been put into its present form by the same person(s) responsible for the fourth gospel. Nevertheless, there are definite linguistic and theological affinities between the two books. The tone of the letters to the seven churches is indicative of the great authority the author enjoyed over the Christian communities in Asia. It is possible, therefore, that he was a disciple of John the Apostle, who is traditionally associated with that part of the world. The date of the book in its present form is probably near the end of the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96), a fierce persecutor of the Christians.

Finally, John’s Apocalypse is full of futuristic pictures. I’m sure the book has often inspired science fiction authors and these pictures are playing constant games with the reader’s imagination. There are a lot of books analyzing and explaining the book and equally a lot of translations even from Greek to Modern Greek. For the readers who can read in Greek, one of the best translation or as it author calls it, ‘paraphrase’ is the one the Greek contemporary philosopher Mr. Elias Petropoulos has done.

You see, even an agnostic like me when separated from the theological side, can appreciate the Bible. And not only, for me, is John’s Apocalypse a book everybody should read, it also belongs at the top of my all-time favorite book list.

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