What does the book of Revelation have in common with Ancient Greek Drama? I hope to cover this as we continue this 4th instalment of our exploration of the book of Revelation.
Last week, we briefly explored the fact that the book of revelation is a Christian example of a style of writing called apocalyptic which uses the symbolism and mythology of a great cosmic battle to unveil and unmask the domination system’s of this world and to portray God’s final victory over them. It was a style of writing that was deliberately written in code language during times of persecution and oppression, to encourage it’s readers to persevere in extremely difficult times.
In Revelation the domination system that is unmasked and portrayed as being under God’s judgement is the Roman Empire with it’s brutal suppression of Palestine in the Roman-Jewish War, as well as the beginnings of Christian persecution under Nero from 64 AD onwards.
The City of Rome is portrayed as a great prostitute seated on the back of a great beast. It is also called Babylon the Great because it’s oppression and violence echoed that of the Babylonian Empire which some 600 years earlier had invaded Judea, destroyed Jerusalem and destroyed the temple just as the Roman Empire ended up doing in 70 AD.
In writing Revelation, John, the writer, draws on the imagery and symbolism of some of these other apocalyptic writings including imagery and symbolism from the book of Daniel, but also from a book that doesn’t appear in the Bible, called the book of Enoch.
But Marshall Davis suggests that John also draws inspiration from the world of Greek drama.
The writer of the book, (as we have seen, quite possibly John the Apostle) was familiar with the city of Ephesus. It is the first city he addresses in his letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in chapter 2. Being familiar with the city of Ephesus, he would have been familiar also with the great amphitheatre of Ephesus, which was constructed with 3 rows of seven doors each. These doors were often used in performances to indicate acts and scenes. And so, the natural format for a play or a drama performed in Ephesus would have been seven acts with seven scenes. In the Ephesus theatre the three levels could easily be used to depict the three-storied universe of ancient world: heaven, earth and the underworld.
Marshall Davis suggests that the author of Revelation would have been familiar with these Greek dramas and wrote the Book of Revelation in this format, as though it was originally intended as a great drama or a play with seven acts each consisting of seven scenes. There is something very visual about the book which gives the impression of a great cosmic drama. Most of it’s earliest audience would have heard the book being read to them, which can be done in one sitting of about an hour to an hour and a half. It wouldn’t have been read and analysed in minute detail by a scholar sitting at a desk in a library, but rather it would have been listened as a community, hearing it and experiencing it’s effect on them as it was read out. There are still Churches in the Eastern tradition that would read the book out loud on an annual basis in the way that it probably was when it was first written.
And so what we are dealing with here is not so much a mystical vision that was simply dictated by and angel and written down, but rather a very carefully constructed literary work, written in the form of a letter, drawing on the Jewish Apocalyptic literary style, imagery and symbolism, and written with the structure of a great Greek drama of seven acts, with each act having seven scenes. The final product is what Marshall Davis describes as a cosmic drama, one of the greatest drama’s never to have been performed on stage.
I’d like to give a brief outline based on this structure:
In a brief introduction or prologue, John introduces himself and addresses the seven churches of Asia Minor as though he is writing a letter to them. Quoting from the book of Daniel he writes: “Look, he is coming and every eye will see him”.
Act 1 Seven Lampstands – a vision of Christ is described surrounded by seven lampstands symbols of the seven churches in Asia Minor, and seven short messages are written to each of those seven churches containing both warnings and encouragement.
Act 2 – The Seven Seals - After a vision of heaven with a throne in the centre surrounded by 24 elders and a glassy sea, the focus moves to a scroll with seven seals. As the lamb opens the seven seals a series of disasters unfold on the earth.
Act 3 – The Seven Trumpets – Seven angels are then given seven trumpets and again with the blast of each trumpet further disasters unfold upon the earth. At the sounding of the last trumpet, it is announced that the kingdoms of the World has become the Kingdom of God and of his Christ.
Act 4 – The Seven Pageants - A women clothed with the sun and a crown of 12 stars on her head and the moon under her feet gives birth to a child whom a dragon tries to devour but who escapes into heaven. A war breaks out in heaven and the dragon is cast down to earth. A beast with seven heads and ten horns emerges from the sea and takes control of the earth. From the earth emerges a second beast whose number is 666. As we have seen last week, the beast is the Roman Empire and the second beast whose number is 666 is Caesar Nero, the greatest symbol of Roman decadence, violence and oppression.
Act 5 – The Seven Bowls – Seven angels pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath and we are shown the judgement of the “great harlot” who rides on the beast and whose name is “Babylon the Great” aka the city of Rome. This is followed by the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ on a white horse. The dragon, which is now named “the devil” or “Satan” is cast into a bottomless pit for a thousand years, after which Satan is released and in a final battle is again defeated.
Act 6 - The Seven Judgements - All the dead are raised. The book of life is opened, and all whose names are not in it are cast into the lake of fire together with the devil, the beast, death and hades.
Act 7 – The Seven Promises – The New Jerusalem, dressed as a bride descends to the earth – a city where there is no more tears or pain or death. It has no temple because God is her temple. It will need no sun or moon because the glory of God will be its light and the Lamb will be its lamp. And through the city flows the river of the water of life, and in it grows the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. (Isn’t it interesting that the book ends not with people being beamed up to heaven, but rather with heaven coming crashing down to earth!)
The Epilogue concludes as the ending of a letter, with the promise that Jesus is coming soon.
And so one interpretation of the Book of Revelation is that it was written as a drama of Seven Acts with Seven Scenes to dramatically portray and point to the day when God’s Kingdom and Peace will reign supreme; that despite appearances, where violence and domination seem to have the upper hand, the one who is the Alpha, in other words the beginning of all things, will also be the Omega, the end of all things.
I would like to close with a brief reflection on the words of Jesus “Behold I am coming soon!”
This was a wide-spread belief in the early Church. To a people who were experiencing the turmoil and upheaval of the period they were living through, this would have been a source of great hope and comfort that their suffering was temporary.
Two thousand years of predictions by multiple generations of Christians that Jesus would be returning in their life-time have failed to materialise in a literal sense. St Augustine predicted Jesus would return in 1000 AD. Joachim de Fiore predicted 1266. Martin Luther believed it would be in 1558. Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymn writer and co-founder of Methodism believed it would be in 1794. They were all wrong. Like many who came after them, it does seem that the first generation of Christians sincerely believed that Jesus would return in their life-time. Clearly they were wrong. One would have to admit too that John, the writer of Revelation seems to have sincerely believed that Jesus would return soon for the sake of those suffering and struggling in the seven churches to whom he was writing. Clearly in a literal sense, John was also wrong. Jesus did not come soon as he predicted for those in the seven churches to whom he was writing. Some have suggested that the word ‘soon’ and John’s phrase ‘the time is near’ need to be reinterpreted. They would point out that God’s time is not our time for as the book of 2 Peter puts it “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet 3:8). But the original hearers of the book of Revelation in the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom the book was addressed would never have have imagined in their wildest dreams that when John told them the time was near and that Jesus would be coming soon that this could in fact mean “Maybe a few thousand years from now!”
But whereas in the book of Revelation, John writes of Jesus’ promise that he is coming soon, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am with you always!” and Paul writes: “Christ in you the hope of glory!”
Perhaps the promise of Jesus return was not meant to describe an historical event at all. What if it is meant to symbolise the coming of Christ in his fullness in each of our hearts and lives, the dawning of the fullness of Christ’s love and peace within our hearts.
John, the author replies: Amen! Come Lord Jesus! What parts of your life long for a deeper and fuller embrace of Christ’s Love, Compassion and Peace?