I have just been doing some writing on the anthropology of the Book of Revelation, and it is quite a challenging topic. In exploring how a book depicts human existence, you might (for example, in Paul’s letters) look at theological terminology or (for example, in the gospels) explore the narrative construction of reality. Neither of these is really an option for Revelation, because of its distinctive form—a mixed genre letter/prophecy/apocalypse in vision report form constructed from a series of disconnected narrative segments.
So I have focused instead on the depiction of the human agents within the text. One thing that has been very striking, which I don’t think I had really appreciated before, is the sheer variety of human life depicted. Revelation offers a dramatic and differentiated description of humanity in general, mentioning specific roles and titles (kings, nobility, generals, the wealthy, the mighty in 6.15; merchants, sea captains, seafarers, sailors, traders of sea goods in 18.11, 17) and well as more general ‘gradable antonyms’ (pairs of terms at opposite ends of a spectrum) that use Semitic contrast to indicated the whole of humanity (rich and poor, great and small, slave and free, 13.16). On top of that there are numerous groups and individuals in the messages (not ‘letters’; all of Revelation is a letter) to the seven assemblies—Antipas, those holding the teaching of Balaam, Jezebel, the Nicolaitans, those who are a ‘synagogue of Satan’. I am not sure there is a document in the New Testament which such a varied collection of characters!
But once we start to explore these characters, things begin to get interesting. Who are these groups and individuals, and what did they do? Take the Nicolaitans, for example. They are mentioned in a number of the church fathers, but we are not provided with any more information than we find in the text of Revelation:
But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Rev 2.6)
Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (Rev 2.15).
Our earliest commentator on this group is Irenaeus, in Against Heresies 1.26.3:
The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus:But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
His first claim, that this group are followers of the Nicolas mentioned in Acts 6.5, seems to have been inferred simply from their name, rather than on any external evidence. The second major claim is that they practice immorality and eat food offered to idols—but Irenaeus seems to have inferred this from their juxtaposition with ‘those who hold to the teaching of Balaam’ in Rev 2.14. The connection between the two is the ‘likewise’ in 2.15—but this word refers to the ‘holding to the teaching of…’ rather than to the content of the teaching itself. The summary of Balaam’s teaching doesn’t bear much relation to the account in Numbers 22, but it a typical characterisation of it found in other writings of the time (including 2 Peter 2.15 and Jude 11).
The bottom line, then, is that we simply don’t know. On one of our favourite TV quiz shows, QI, there is once in the show when Stephen Fry offers a ‘trick’ question—not trick in the sense of having a clever answer, but a trick in the sense that nobody knows the answer. Contestants have a ‘Nobody Knows’ sign and they get points if they wave it at the right moment. This is one of those moments: who are the Nicolaitans and what did they teach? NOBODY KNOWS. That has not, of course, prevented people presenting papers on them (I heard one a few years ago at the British New Testament Conference) or even writing whole books! But all of this is speculation. Given the etymology of the word (‘conquerors of the people’) I strongly suspect that John is in fact coining the term to highlight a dangerous teaching, and that there probably wasn’t a recognisable, existing social group with this name at all.
This highlights a persistent feature of the interpretation of Revelation. Considering historical context in reading Revelation is very important, and has become popular since the work of Ramsay a hundred years ago and its recovery by Colin Hemer 40 years ago. But there are many things we don’t know historically, and there are limits to our historical insight. Oddly, popular commentators often ignore the things we do know (such as the identity of the man’s name encoded in 666, Rev 13.18) but build fantastic castles of theological fancy based on things we don’t know.
Antipas was the bishop of Pergamum, ordained by the Apostle John, and his faith got the attention of the priests of Asklepios. He had cast out so many devils that the demons had been complaining to pagans, saying, ‘You’ve got to do something about this Antipas’.
The pagan priests went to the Roman governor and complained that the prayers of Antipas were driving their spirits out of the city and hindering the worship of their gods. As punishment, the governor ordered Antipas to offer a sacrifice of wine and incense to a statue of the Roman emperor and declare that the emperor was “lord and god.”
Antipas refused. Antipas was sentenced to death on the Altar of Zeus… “They would take the victim, place him inside the bull, and they would tie him in such a way that his head would go into the head of the bull. Then they would light a huge fire under the bull, and as the fire heated the bronze, the person inside of the bull would slowly begin to roast to death. As the victim would begin to moan and to cry out in pain, his cries would echo through the pipes in the head of the bull so it seemed to make the bull come alive.”
This is all gripping stuff, and makes Revelation seem suddenly relevant to contemporary life—especially when you realise that the evil socialist Barak Obama modelled his convention stage on the altar of Zeus which is the throne of Satan! But in fact all of the detail is speculation; we know nothing historically about Antipas or the nature of his death. What it does do, of course, is serve the political and theological purposes of the writer!
So what do we learn from the Nicolaitans? (I had planned to call this post ‘What have the Nicolaitans ever done for us?’). There are two quite striking things about John’s depiction of the early church communities in the seven cities that he selects (from the much larger number that has Christian communities—I haven’t yet found a convincing theory as to why these seven). The first is that they are a very mixed bunch. Just like the Pauline churches, there are plenty of things under dispute, and on some similar issues—sexual morality (unless this is a metaphor for idolatry), food offered to idols, and the Judaizers (‘synagogue of Satan’). If you think the church you belong to is a rather mixed bag, you are in good company!
But the second striking thing is that, despite some unequivocal words of judgement, John does not expel or exclude those caught up in this teaching—or even promulgating it. It is not even clear, for example, that ‘Jezebel’ has been excluded from the communities; rather to the contrary, the risen Jesus emphasises that ‘I have given her time to repent’ (2.21), and her followers have the same opportunity. I am tempted to think that John’s failure to tell us the content of this teaching is quite deliberate; the issue is not so much the teaching itself so much as how we relate to things that are misleading.
Despite the strong binaries elsewhere in Revelation, John’s strategy for seeking a ‘pure church’—there is no doubt he has such a strategy—has this distinctive relational dynamic, in line with his identity as a pastor who knows his communities. He urges the communities to reform their understanding and renew their teaching in line with Jesus, the ‘faithful witness’. But he is reluctant to expel and exclude.
I cannot help observing that our own strategies tend to be exactly the opposite. Many of the voices calling for purity appear to want to achieve this by excluding those they disagree with, redrawing the lines of membership. But other voices, concerned to avoid such exclusion, also avoid the call to reform the teaching of the church and the urgent need to be faithful to the truth.
Yesterday, in the liturgical calendar, we celebrated the feast of St Mark, and prayed this collect:
who enlightened your holy Church
through the inspired witness of your evangelist Saint Mark:
grant that we, being firmly grounded
in the truth of the gospel,
may be faithful to its teaching both in word and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I think it is a prayer that John would have been happy to pray—and one that perhaps we need to take more seriously.
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