Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
 Supplementary Articles - No. 11: Revelation: The Gospel According to the Prophet John

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.

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Supplementary Article No. 11

The Gospel According to the Prophet John


On a Dark Aegean Isle

From Palestine and Syria there were several routes one could follow to reach the capital of the Roman Empire. One was by sea along the lower coast of Asia Minor and into the Aegean. At a point partway up toward Ephesus lay the small island of Patmos. To this isolated spot sometime in the latter first century, a prophet named John, who "had preached God's word and borne my testimony to Jesus," was banished by the Roman authorities. Here he underwent certain visionary experiences and penned the most famous apocalypse of all, now residing as the final document in the Christian canon, the Book of Revelation.

That this prophet and writer was the Apostle John found in the Gospels is an ancient view no longer held. Literary analysis shows as well that he was not the same author as any of those who wrote the Johannine epistles or the Fourth Gospel (John). Whether he is to be identified with the so-called "John the Elder" (or Seer) whose tomb is found at Ephesus and who may be the elder referred to by Papias, is unknown.

What form of Christianity is represented by Revelation? The book inhabits the fevered world of Jewish apocalyptic. John owes a huge debt to the Old Testament Book of Daniel, whose fantastic visions of the End-time he has borrowed and enlarged upon, reaching new horrific and punitive heights. John has also taken the famous figure from the vision of Daniel 7, the "one like a son of man," and if Revelation was written in 68 or 69 CE, as some suggest, this would be the earliest known adaptation of the Danielic figure in either Jewish or Christian writings (outside of the reconstructed Q, if the Q2 stratum of prophetic sayings were to be dated earlier). But Revelation also inhabits the world of Christ belief, for the figure of "Jesus Christ" is central, and to him have been attached a number of symbolic motifs and titles belonging to Jewish and Christian messianic expectation.

An Exclusively Heavenly Christ

Yet what sort of Christ is this? Revelation opens with these words:

God makes a revelation to Jesus, who in turn communicates it through an angel to the prophet John. John, in setting it all down in writing, bears witness to God's revelation and to the one transmitting it. This is as close as Revelation gets to any idea of a teaching Jesus—which is to say, not at all. The figure of Christ communicates entirely through spiritual channels, and with the exception of 3:3 (see below), nothing that this figure says bears any resemblance to the words of Jesus as spoken in the Gospels. For the author of Revelation, Christ is an entirely heavenly figure. As 1:1-2 makes clear, Christ is a spiritual intermediary between God and humanity.

There is little if anything in Revelation to suggest that the writer views his Christ as having been incarnated to earth. We know he envisions him as having died and risen, for Christ is said to have been "dead and came to life again" (2:8). But the circumstances of this dying and rising are never given. Even the concept of "rising" may be too strong, for no idea of a bodily resurrection is ever introduced. Such things belong to the world of the spirit and myth. John's Christ is equated with the "Lamb," one who was slain and has triumphed, again without an earthly setting specified. He is also equated with the Danielic "one like a son of man." These are apocalyptic and messianic motifs longstanding in Jewish thought; in that milieu, both are heavenly figures.

The same exclusively heavenly venue is allotted to the child of chapter 12, born to the "woman robed with the sun." In the writer's vision, this child is immediately snatched up to heaven by God to escape the clutches of a dragon (=Satan), there to await the outcome of great celestial upheavals. John gives no inkling that this child has undergone a life on earth (despite scholars' claims that this is "implied"), much less that he had a teaching ministry, or performed a sacrificial act, which latter is in any case allotted to the Lamb. And the elements of the woman/child vision are heavily dependent on hellenistic mythology, making the identification of the child with John's Christ vague at best. However, the relationships between the various prophetic motifs and characters in Revelation is generally a murky one, a feature which tends to be characteristic of most apocalyptic writing, and I will return later to this point and to the woman and child of chapter 12.

A Pierced Messiah

Let's look more closely at some of the things said of Christ in Revelation. Does 1:7 make an allusion to Jesus' Gospel prophecy (Mark 13:26, 14:62 and parallels) and to the historical crucifixion?

For the source of these pronouncements we need look no further than scripture. The clouds motif is lifted from Daniel 7 whose "one like a son of man" comes with the clouds of heaven (7:13). The rest of the verse is a close adaptation of Zechariah 12:10b: The identical juxtaposition in both documents of the two ideas of piercing and grieving makes it certain that Zechariah is the source of Revelation's idea, not the story of Jesus of Nazareth. There is, in fact, a lot to be gleaned from this passage. First, we realize that we are once again in a milieu of faith which has derived its inspiration and information from scripture. Christ and the features that have been given to him are a product of the study of the sacred writings, not a record of history. Second, we are in a type of Christ belief related to Paul's antecedents, the more primitive circles he built upon: these viewed Christ's sacrifice not as a universal atonement, but as a paradigmatic experience mirroring Israel's own and entailing guarantees of exaltation for the elect whom Christ represents. (I'll examine this idea of paradigm shortly.)

The original passage in Zechariah, critical scholars are largely agreed (see the discussion in the Anchor Bible, Zechariah, p.336-342, and Harper's Bible Commentary, p.751: "Some reference to apparent persecution and resulting mourning, as that has been caused by the Davidic house, is introduced in 12:10."), alluded to something now lost to us, in that the rulers in Jerusalem, on the day of the Lord ("that day"), will feel pity for someone they have previously persecuted and "pierced," probably a prophet, someone whom they shall grieve over "as for a first-born son." But to a later age reading it (they too would have lost sight of the original allusion), this passage would have suggested some pregnant ideas. The Hebrew actually has "they shall look on me whom they have pierced"—which later Greek translations 'corrected' to "on him," to bring it into line with the pronouns "him" in the rest of the verse. The original wording may have suggested that the Lord was saying that he himself had been the object of the piercing. While the Septuagint, in light of this, seems to have chosen to interpret the Hebrew verb as meaning "mock" instead of "pierce" (for God himself could hardly be spoken of as having been pierced), others, under the influence of current philosophical ideas, might have read into this a reference to a subordinate heavenly figure—in fact, a "Son," since the final phrase of the verse uses this very simile, "first-born son." Without going into all the possible niceties of interpretation which this verse could have been subjected to in the hothouse of the period's immersion in scripture, we can say that passages of the sort like Zechariah 12:10 could well have been a principal source of Revelation's idea of the Christ who was pierced, the Lamb who was slain.

Indeed, such passages were probably the source of the concept in early cultic Christianity that the spiritual Christ had been crucified (in the spirit realm, to which scripture gave a view). Isaiah 53:7, interpreted messianically, told of the "sheep that was led to the slaughter." The sacrificial lamb was a symbol deeply imbedded in Jewish tradition, going back through countless Passovers to the Exodus legend. As for the conquering Lamb, this too is a motif to be found in Jewish apocalyptic, as reflected in the Testament of Joseph (19:8), part of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. (See Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. J. H. Charlesworth, vol.1, p.824.)

A Paradigm Without Mercy

That the Christ of Revelation plays a paradigmatic role is supported by the book as a whole. In the opening sections of my Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ As "Man", I discuss the essentials of myth in the ancient world and the principle of "paradigm." Here, heavenly savior figures are seen to undergo experiences in the upper spiritual realm which parallel, and have parallel consequences for, those of believers/initiates on earth who are joined to them in sacramental ways. This is the concept which lay behind the Graeco-Roman mystery cults, of which early Christianity was a Hellenistic-Jewish expression. But in its 'pre-Pauline' form (continuing even after Paul), this paradigmatic principle existed in its original 'pure' state, one we see in Revelation. Whereas Paul envisioned the possibility of something resembling a universal salvation, including the eventual conversion of all the Jews to Christ, no such merciful universalism is present in John the prophet's mind.

Although in 1:5 John says that Christ "freed us from our sins with his life's blood," this is not a universal salvation. The "us," as he goes on to say, is a select group, "a royal house who will serve as the priest of his God and Father." The peoples of the world who "lament in remorse" are not saved, despite some commentators' attempts to twist the writer's words throughout the book into such an implication. In fact, the implication that does come across in Revelation is the parallel between the slain Lamb, whom the world will regret having pierced, and the persecuted believer, the suffering elect of Israel whom the people of the world have also pierced. These latter people will definitely rue the mistreatment they have meted out when they are visited by war, slaughter and assorted destruction accompanying the end of the world. As the hymn to God in 11:17-18 says:

This "recompense" is part of the parallel between the Lamb and the suffering elect, for both will have shared in a future glorification which is a direct consequence of their own suffering. The paean to the Lamb in 5:12 says: First of all, given the writer's dependence on Daniel, it is certain that he intends this in the same way that the "one like a son of man" is promised such things in Daniel 7, where he stands for the saints of Israel. They shall, like him, receive from God "sovereignty and glory and kingly power . . . so that all people and nations of every language should serve him" (Dan. 7:14). But the advance that Revelation's Lamb has made over the Danielic figure is that he is worthy of his reward because he was slain, an idea the writer of Daniel never thought of, or at least did not voice. The parallel extends to the people of long suffering Israel or her pious elect, persecuted and slain by the godless and immoral Babylon, which for the prophet and his contemporaries stands for Rome and her predecessors in conquest. Like the Lamb, they too are worthy to be rescued out of their slaughter, to receive their destined glory and rule over the nations in God's new Kingdom. In the classic paradigmatic parallel, both parties, the heavenly and earthly counterparts, must pass through the same crucible of suffering as a prelude to their glorification; and Christ, as the "first-born of the dead" (1:5), is a guarantee for the rising of the righteous.

There is an interesting evolution to the idea of paradigm lying behind Revelation's picture. One of the fundamental ideas of Jewish apocalyptic is that triumph is achieved through suffering and apparent defeat. This reflects a rationalization of the Jewish experience: 'We have the only God. He must be intending great things for us. And yet we have suffered and endured subjugation. This can only be because of our own sins and because such subjugation is the necessary avenue to the inevitable exaltation.'

The earliest expression in Jewish thought of a parallel relating to the question of deliverance centered on the legend of the Exodus. As God once delivered us out of slavery from Egypt, the thinking went, he will again do the same. The Exodus was the great past paradigm for the future, and was no doubt largely created—or embellished, following the Babylonian Exile—to serve that role. (Present need always creates past myth.) It was required in order to guarantee the future parallel. In the Exodus, too, a sacrifice played a part. The slaughter of the Paschal lamb protected the Hebrews from God's final persuasive plague on Egypt, the destruction of the first-born. The Passover lamb became a symbol of a kind of redemptive sacrifice.

Once Platonic-type philosophies took hold, however, the idea that history contained the paradigm for future hopes evolved to include the concept that heaven itself contained it, as reflected in the scene in Daniel 7. Scripture was now read accordingly. The Messiah, from an expected human deliverer to be raised up by God at the End-time, became for some interpreters a heavenly being now operating in the spiritual realm, a divine counterpart to the earthly elect-in-waiting. The Lamb became one of the symbols of this heavenly Christ. His sacrifice and triumph in the spirit world (such as is told of in the christological hymn—probably pre-Pauline—of Philippians 2:6-11) guaranteed the redemption of the elect on earth whom he represented. This may well have been the original seminal concept which produced Christianity.

The destiny of those whom the Lamb champions is clear from the prayer to God in 5:9-10 and is portrayed as the ultimate result of the Lamb's sacrifice:

This final idea is the centerpiece of apocalyptic: the reversal of the age-old order, the revenge of the oppressed and deprived. The apparent "universalism" of these verses is no more than a hyperbolic nod to those non-Jews who have adopted the Jewish God and observance. (Alternatively, though most commentators regard John's milieu as Jewish-Christian, these communities may perhaps have been largely gentile, originally growing out of an attachment to Jewish circles and thoroughly imbued with their ideas and heritage; this would be a way of validating themselves as co- or new inheritors of the Jewish promise.)

There is no exaltation or salvation for the world as a whole. Nor should we expect such a thing. The view of the paradigmatic heavenly figure conforms to the Jews' view of themselves and reflects their feelings and motivations, a response to centuries of domination by others who did not acknowledge the true God. To expect that the Jews would view their own suffering as a necessary prelude to the salvation of their godless subjugators is totally unrealistic—which has not prevented modern scholars from trying to see things this way.

This is why there can be in Revelation none of the later, more syncretistic Christian concept of Atonement (the product of a kind of Jewish and gentile chemical reaction): no vicarious suffering out of love to expiate the sins of mankind. The theory of sacrifice in Revelation is that of the so-called "Maccabean understanding" which is reflected in the late apocryphal document 4 Maccabees: that the blood of Jewish martyrs had a merit which God could apply to the nation as a whole. The blood of the Lamb had merit before God and thereby freed the elect from their sins (1:5), the sins which had led to their suffering. It purified them from the impediment which had stood in the way of their destined elevation by God. The Lamb's sacrifice would also have had an Exodus understanding, in that his blood purchased their freedom from slavery, as had the Passover lamb.

No doubt another passage from scripture had an influence here as well: Isaiah 53, which speaks of the suffering servant who "bore our sufferings on himself," and on whom "the Lord laid . . . the guilt of us all." Scholars have only recently come to accept that for Jews, such passages as Isaiah 53 did not signify any concept of vicarious suffering for the world at large. (See Harry Orlinsky, The So-Called Servant of the Lord in Second Isaiah, and Morna D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant.)

Love for the broader world, or mercy, are features not to be found in Revelation, on the part of Christ or anyone else. Scholars who try to read into this document ideas too sophisticated and enlightened for its milieu and its writer, are engaged in wishful interpretation. John Sweet (Revelation, p.126) uses the phrase "redemptive love," but nowhere is the Lamb's act styled in any such terms. How Sweet can say things like "the Lamb's death . . . (brought) God to man and man to God" in the face of passages which trumpet "the vengeance of the Lamb" (6:16) and the cry of dead souls to "avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth" (6:10) is a mystery. Sweet may also be guilty of the most self-righteous groaner in the recent history of New Testament commentary: "The spirit of the cry [for vengeance] seems regrettably pre-Christian"!

The hymns in praise of the Lamb in chapter 5 say nothing of love, but concentrate exclusively on power and rule, and the fate of humanity as a whole is one of unmitigated and merciless destruction. This is sectarianism at its most rabid. The prophet has admittedly thrown salvation open to non-Jews who have "passed through the great ordeal" (7:14), but this seems to signify nothing more than gentiles who have converted to the sect's beliefs and stand by their faith until the end; they share in the benefits of the Lamb's blood and are part of the elect. They, too, shall reign.


Messianic and Apocalyptic Motifs

The writer regularly refers to "bearing testimony to Jesus." In 19:10 he declares that those who do so are inspired like the prophets. Here once again is that universal motif found in all early Christian expression: giving witness to, in the sense of declaring one's faith in something; a faith, as this verse makes clear, based on inspiration, the work of the Spirit. There is no suggestion in Revelation of apostolic tradition, no information from or about Jesus passed on through a human chain going back to the ministry of Jesus himself. Knowledge of the spiritual Christ comes through spiritual channels.

This prophet is urging upon his readers his own vision about the coming end of the world. He would have had every reason to appeal to the tradition that Jesus himself had made predictions of an apocalyptic nature during his ministry. Indeed, he would have had every reason to quote them. He could surely have made use of some of the prophecies recorded in Mark 13 and Matthew 24-25. (Any general similarity in content is due to both being derived from the common thought-pool of Jewish apocalyptic.)

The one reference to anything resembling Jesus' words in the Gospels, namely, about the thief coming at an unexpected moment (3:3 and 16:15), includes no suggestion that Jesus had spoken something like it during an earthly ministry. In 3:3 the writer puts the idea into the mouth of the visionary Christ dictating the letter to the church at Sardis; the accompanying directive to "remember what you received and heard" refers to the current teaching given by prophets like John. Later, in 16:15, the warning seems to be placed in the mouth of God, or is an author's aside. The saying was probably common in the eschatological repertoire of the day. No hint is given anywhere that Jesus himself during an earthly life had made such pronouncements about the end of the world. (We might note that the two references to the "thief" image to be found in the New Testament epistles, 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 2 Peter 3:10, similarly make no identification of the saying with an earthly teaching Jesus.)

As scholars have pointed out, the language throughout John's vision is entirely that of the Old Testament in its epiphanies (appearances) of divine figures to humans. Christ's first words to the prophet are:

There is no sense here of a Gospel background, no implication that this Living One had previously revealed himself to a generation of people in an earthly incarnation. The death and renewed life he speaks of have the ring of the mythological, not historical events undergone by a human person. The "First and the Last" is drawn from a Hellenistic title given to the ultimate Deity. The fact that Jesus uses it of himself (and John also places it in God's mouth in 1:8) shows that he is speaking as part of the Godhead, fully identified with the Father. The Christ who dictates the proclamations to the seven churches is a wrathful, thundering, mystic-laden figure, dispensing promises of reward and punishment like an Oriental despot. From the Jesus meek and mild of the Gospels, who sacrifices himself selflessly for the salvation of the world, he is light-years away.

In the first scene in heaven, an elder declares the Lamb worthy to break open the scroll with the seven seals. In what terms does this elder choose to describe the figure of the Lamb? Unfortunately, not by anything that would clearly identify him with the Gospel Jesus. He is "the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David" (5:5). These are messianic titles based on scripture (e.g., Genesis 49:9 and Isaiah 11:1), illustrating yet again that the figure of Christ has been derived from the sacred writings, even if some Christian interpretation could make him quite different from the Messiah of traditional expectation.

We might note that when Paul, at the opening of Romans, makes the first of only two references to the "fleshly" side of Jesus' nature, he too chooses this element derived from scripture, that God's son is "of David's stock." (For a detailed interpretation of such passages, see Supplementary Article No. 8, Christ As "Man", section II.) This traditional designation of the Messiah was so firmly entrenched in Jewish thought that it had to form part of the picture of him, regardless of whether Paul's and John's Christ was now seen as one who moved entirely in the spiritual realm. (The lowest celestial sphere and the demonic powers who controlled it were considered part of the realm of "flesh," and Christ "entered flesh" when he took on the spiritual equivalent of human form and was crucified in that sphere. See Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?, as well as Article No. 8.)

As I discuss at length in Article No. 8, our modern minds might well wonder how an entirely spiritual being could be "of David's stock" or "from the tribe of Judah," but we have to realize that we no longer live in the thought-world or the perceived universe of the ancients. For minds like Paul and John the prophet, not to mention most mystics and philosophers of the day, the material world they lived in was only one dimension of reality, the observable half of a larger integrated whole whose other half was hidden from the senses. That other half was referred to as the genuine reality, the "intelligible universe," meaning accessible to the intellect. It contained the higher parallels, the more perfect reflections of lower embodiments on earth. For a deity in that upper spiritual world to be "of David's stock" was wholly conceivable, even if it was one of God's "mysteries" and knowable only through interpretation of and faith in scripture.

The upper world determined and controlled the sensible half of things, the "perceivable universe." While for many the philosopher's mind was the key to unlocking the door to that true reality, for others the avenue lay through various religious experiences and marvelous spiritual practices, such as speaking in tongues and undergoing visionary journeys into the upper realms. God's Spirit was seen as providing revelation, and above all, scripture in its coded writings contained God's message about spiritual realities and heavenly processes. It may be impossible for the modern mind to get inside Paul's or John's head, products of a long-dead thought system, but that a spiritual Christ in a spiritual realm who was in some way linked to David was a part of their larger world, can be seen from the record—when that record is divorced from later Gospel inventions whose presence cannot be detected within it.

A Birth Without a Life

Another resounding silence on the Gospel Jesus was touched on earlier. In 12:1-6, amid the great portents of the End-time drawn by John, we have the vision of the "woman robed with the sun," the woman who, threatened by a great dragon, gives birth to "a male child destined to rule all nations with an iron rod." John makes no attempt to integrate this vision into any traditions about Jesus' earthly nativity, traditions which should surely have been familiar by the end of the first century, when Revelation was probably written. Immediately after the birth—which is portrayed as a heavenly event, not an earthly one—the child is "snatched up to God and his throne" and the mother flees into the wilderness. There is not so much as a nod to Jesus' entire life on earth!

Later (12:13) another reference is made to this male child, and if one looks at this passage and compares it with the reference to the sacrificed Lamb a few verses earlier (12:11), one sees that no connection is made at this point between the Lamb and the male child. Besides, the birth of the child seems to be a future event, part of the writer's vision, while the Lamb's slaughter is already accomplished.

Commentators have scrambled to explain all this discrepancy with the Gospel story and often end up acknowledging that the scene has nothing to do with Mary and Jesus, but reflects Jewish messianism mediated through Hellenistic mythical motifs. It relates to Jewish apocalyptic mythology about the miraculous birth of the Messiah, who simply bides his time in heaven until the End. The vision speaks of the child's escape from Satan, but it also embodies fantastic details from the myth of Isis and Horus (or Leto and Apollo), about the goddess who flees with her newborn son from a dragon (Typhon). Other interpreters relate the woman to Eve or to an ideal, glorified Israel.

But such commentators fail to carry these admissions to their logical conclusion. How can Revelation be a Christian document (in the orthodox sense) if the child destined to rule all nations is not linked with the sacrificed Lamb? How can a Christian writer present a picture of mother and Messiah which is so at odds with the story of Jesus' birth and life as it should have been known to believers of his time? The conclusion has to be that the author of Revelation, whether we style him Christian or Jewish, has no knowledge of Mary or anything to do with the birth of Jesus. If he possessed such traditions as are familiar to us from the Gospels, they would inevitably have imposed themselves upon his crafting of this scene involving the Messiah and his mother. Whatever the sectarian position which this document represents, it jumbles its mythical motifs of child, Messiah, sacrificed Lamb and the Danielic "one like a son of man" with no suggestion that any concept or picture of Jesus of Nazareth lies in the background to unify them.

G. Beasley-Murray, in his commentary on Revelation (Revelation, p.199f), simply turns a blind eye to the whole problem. He notes that some interpreters deem it impossible that a Christian could have exalted Jesus to heaven as soon as he was born, and so they take the "birth" of the child as symbolizing Jesus' death and resurrection. This is bad enough, but Beasley-Murray prefers a different explanation: that since the author "knew" that his readers would understand all which implicitly lay behind his deficient mythological drama, he was content to let it "stand for" the entire Christ event. (Sweet, op.cit., p.197, appeals to a similar 'explanation'.) When anything can be made to stand for whatever one wants to see in it, silence and contradiction obviously evaporate as a difficulty!

Beasley-Murray (p.200, n.1) also points to the christological hymn of 1 Timothy 3:16, which "passes straight from the birth of Christ to his resurrection," as similarly containing "no mention of the life and death of Christ." Apparently, this silence "stands for" the same thing as it does in Revelation, providing a comforting confirmation of the elements he and others insist on reading into documents which have curiously left them out. One silence is used to support another silence, together constituting 'proof' of the thing they are silent on: a good example of a common sort of New Testament math.

The "One Like a Son of Man"

Revelation's use of the phrase "one like a son of man" shows that this writer could have known of no tradition that Jesus on earth had referred to himself this way, for he uses it in its pristine form, drawn directly from Daniel 7; he does not turn it into a title such as the Gospels do for Jesus: "the Son of Man." In 14:14, this figure is portrayed simply as an angel, in a scene with "other angels." This angel is ordered by a second angel (Sweet fusses over the question of whether it would be proper for an angel to give orders to Christ) to harvest the earth—meaning its humanity—with a sharp scythe. Unlike the earlier use of the term in 1:13, it is difficult here to make a link between the "one like a son of man" and Christ, so that John J. Collins (The Apocalyptic Imagination, p.83) denies such a link altogether, identifying him simply as an angel, which is one of the interpretations sometimes made of the figure in Daniel 7. This lack of consistency, an unconcern for logical coherence and relationships in the presentation of a variety of material which has been put together in chaotic fashion, is one of the hallmarks of apocalyptic writing as a genre.

Thus, when we reach 19:11 and find yet another figure who is described as "he who shall rule (the nations) with an iron rod," this time a Rider referred to as "the Word of God" and seemingly to be identified with the Lamb (since both are "King of kings and Lord of lords"), we are unsure what relationship he bears to the child of chapter 12, who is also said to hold the same destiny of iron rule. There are those who claim, given Revelation's apocalyptic nature just described, one lacking logic and consistency, that both the child and the angelic "son of man" must be thrown into the common pot, that all these varied visionary descriptions are different views of the Christ. It is just that they have been uncoordinated, their contradictions allowed to stand, their hodge-podge inclusion simply for dramatic effect on the part of a writer whose palette contains colors from the entire spectrum of ancient mythology and visionary imagery.

Maybe so. But that this extravagant canvas can be aligned with the Gospel Jesus is extremely dubious. Had all of these various motifs and images been derived from an historical figure, that figure would have imposed a semblance of unity and coordination on John's multi-faceted picture. As it is, the writer has plucked an assortment of ideas from the mythology of the day and pressed them into service for his end-of-the-world scenario, and because these ideas related to a variety of speculations about the spiritual realm and the spiritual figure some believed lay at the focus of End-time expectations, the lack of unity and alignment among these ideas was natural and created no problem. It is only for us, who have since had an historical Jesus added to the mix as the supposed object of all these manifestations, that a problematic confusion exists.

Crucifixion in a Great City

It is often claimed that Revelation does contain one reference to a circumstance of Jesus' historical life. In 11:1-13 the author incorporates what are probably two earlier Jewish oracles originally spoken during the tribulations of the Jewish War. The first relates to the Temple and the abandonment of its outer court to the invading gentile. In the second, two prophets shall prophecy in the Holy City and then be slain. . . .

Is John using these oracles literally, or only as a symbolic representation (in a piece of writing saturated with symbolism) of the people of God being rejected and attacked by the godless world? As for verse 8's "great city," many commentators regard this as symbolic, and not a literal reference to Jerusalem. For example, John Sweet (op. cit., p.187) suggests that it represents the social and political embodiment of rebellion against God; "its present location is Rome." P. E. Hughes (Revelation: A Commentary, p.127) takes it as denoting "the worldwide structure of unbelief and defiance against God." G. A. Kroedel (Augsberg Commentary on Revelation, p. 226), while regarding the city on one level as Jerusalem, sees it "not as a geographical location but a symbolic place," representing the immoral, idolatrous, oppressive world. It is, then, a symbol of the corruption personified by great cities in general, the godless world "where their Lord was crucified." This says no more than that the sacrifice of Christ was the responsibility of the forces of evil and those who reject the gospel, a mystical concept which may have had no more historical substance than this in the mind of the writer.

We might also note that the clause "where their Lord was crucified" could be taken as tied primarily to the "allegorically called Sodom and Egypt" (the Greek phrase is literally "spiritually called"), and would thus be a step removed from any literal material "city," even were the latter to be understood as Jerusalem.

O. S. Wintermute, in a study of the Apocalypse of Elijah (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, p.748, note 'w'), observes that the term "great city" is frequently a pejorative expression, and was most often applied to the metropolis of a detested enemy. Comparing Revelation, he admits that its author always uses the term to refer to Rome. However, he insists that the one exception is here in 11:8, "where it is used to describe the city in which the Lord was crucified." This is a good example of the practice of denying the acknowledged evidence on the basis of preconception. Wintermute would no doubt follow his argument full circle and declare that because the reference is to Jerusalem, this proves the writer is referring to the historical Jesus.

As for the reference to the "twelve apostles of the Lamb" whose names are inscribed on the twelve foundation stones of the New Jerusalem (21:14), this is a mystic number and not identified with any historical figures. This is indicated by the context: the heavenly Jerusalem possesses twelve gates bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and a city wall with twelve foundation stones; upon these stones are inscribed "the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." (Such "apostles" could have been envisioned as being of the type of John himself, namely prophets of the spiritual Christ.). It was probably such symbolic thinking which created the tradition that Jesus had had twelve disciples during an earthly ministry.

Finally, the reference to "the Lord's Day" (1:10) can as easily be to the Jewish Sabbath as to the later Christian Sunday, and commentators are in fact split as to its meaning.


Despite the apologetic efforts of those seeking to rehabilitate this document for the modern mind, it is difficult to see Revelation as anything more than a paroxysm of hate created by a mind bordering on the psychotic. The early church long resisted placing it in the developing canon of inspired writings. John the prophet has cast his spiritual Christ in his own joyless and vengeful image. The voice of this Messiah is his own, ready to punish for every slight, every rejection the prophet has suffered in his missionary work. The group of seven cities to whom proclamations are issued at the beginning of the book are all located within a few days' journey of each other in western Asia Minor and undoubtedly represent the circle of John's preaching activity.

That all Christian prophets of John's day were quite so fulminating and vindictive is perhaps doubtful, but the work should give us a good picture of Christ belief in certain circles (Jewish-Christian?) of that period and geographical location. While some favor the year 68 or 69 as the date of Revelation's composition, before the Jewish War reached its destructive climax, most scholars date the book in the mid-90s. This is probably the better date, if only because the earlier one presumes that John, from his exile on Patmos, was conversant with ongoing events in Palestine and was influenced by them, whereas no Palestinian focus is evident in the book. Other reasons for dating the writing some time after the Jewish War include the use of "Babylon" for Rome, an allegorical epithet which likely took a little time after 70 CE to be applied to the modern-day destroyer of Jerusalem and the Temple; plus the presence of allusions to the legend that Nero was not dead and would return with a conquering army from the east, an idea which, again, is unlikely to have arisen so soon after the emperor's suicide in 68.

Those beliefs of John and his preaching circles envision a spiritual Christ in heaven who is "the Living One," God's intermediary channel. He is also the Deity's agent, whose task is to engineer the events of the End-time. He has undergone sacrifice in the higher spiritual world, an event revealed in the sacred writings (though Revelation tells us far less about this than other early Christian writings). Through that sacrifice, Christ serves as the paradigmatic guarantor of the faithful believer's elevation to power in the new Jerusalem when the End arrives. All these beliefs fit perfectly into the varied and widespread religious views of the time, evidenced in Christian circles by the New Testament epistles themselves, about a mediator-Son who is an aspect of God and his instrument of salvation (the name "Jesus" has the meaning of "Savior"), one who operates in the spirit realm and is revealed through inspiration and scripture.

The arrival of this Christ John declares to be imminent. "I am coming quickly," says Jesus in the closing lines, displaying words and sentiments which give no impression that this will be anything other than his first coming to earth, the same as that conveyed by all the other expressions of an anticipated Parousia throughout early Christian literature. "Come, Lord Jesus," John calls with his final breath, echoing the Aramaic plea of Paul at the close of 1 Corinthians: "Marana tha — Come, O Lord!" For a world that has known the new Lord Christ only through visions and God's revelation of him in scripture longs finally to see him in person with its own eyes.