Copyright © 1992 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF THE REVELATION TO JOHN:
CONFLICTS WITHIN, FEARS WITHOUT
David A. DeSilva
THE work of sociologists of religion has opened new vistas for inquiry
into questions of NT introduction. The aim of this study is to explore
how work in sociology of religion leads to clarification of the social dimen-
sions of the Revelation to John, the Apocalypse. It particularly seeks to
clarify the role of John with respect to the seven churches to which he
addresses his work, hence his self-understanding as well, the social tensions
between these church communities and the larger social communities
around them, and the tensions within the church communities themselves.
From this examination of John's role and the tensions expressed in Reve-
lation, we shall attempt to understand the situation in sociological terms,
and in the same terms examine John's agenda for the churches communi-
cated through the Apocalypse. This will lead to an examination of the
social function of the Apocalypse in relation to the social history of the
period and finally to a reexamination of the social function of apocalyptic
itself. We must ground the whole of this inquiry in as precise a historical
reconstruction as possible if the social analyses are to be accurate, and so
we turn first to the problem of when John wrote his Apocalypse and what
historical situation occasioned it.
I. Historical Location
The author of Revelation clearly indicates his location and the location
the churches he addresses. He writes from the
approximately eighty-eight miles from the southwest coast of
to seven churches in the western portion of the province of
nature of John's ministry as an itinerant prophet. Most lie within a day's
or two days' journey of each other, that is, between twenty and forty miles.
Their proximity united them under the same imperial province, and hence
under the same governor, although, of course, their local situations would
not necessarily be the same.
The date of the Revelation, and hence of the nature of the situation that
occasioned it, is considerably more widely disputed. Scholars divide fairly
evenly between placing the work in the "Year of the Four Kings," AD 68/69,
and near the end of Domitian's reign, AD 94 or 95. The only other real
option suggested in the history of interpretation is some time during the
reign of Trajan, although some have seen in Caligula an early possibility,
however unlikely. What is at stake in the answer to this question is the
historical and social situation (or crisis, in one form or another) to which
and out of which the Apocalypse addresses itself:
The most weighty external evidence appears in Irenaeus, Against Heresies,
book five, where Irenaeus places the work "near the end of Domitian' s
reign," which would have been near the beginning of his own lifetime.
Eusebius accepts this testimony as conclusive. There appears to have been
no other tradition in the early church to counter it until Dorotheus in the
sixth century advanced the Trajan period as the time of its writing, but this
is a late development. Many scholars follow the Domitianic dating, but a
great number do so based on their conviction that Christians were widely
persecuted under Domitian. Mounce, Moffatt, Lilje, and most popular
commentators base their interpretation of Revelation on this assumption.
The greatest problem with this view is that there appears to be no pagan
historian to corroborate it. While Christian documents point to Domitian
as a second Nero, there is little evidence that Domitian persecuted Chris-
tians as Christians. A great many may well have been caught up in his
"dragnet," which made a name for him in Roman history as of "severest
cruelty," but for some other cause than their confession of the name.1 Such
might account for the references in the Martyrdom of Ignatius and others to
Domitian's reputation as a Christian-killer.
The connection of the crime of a]qeo<thj with crimes against the emperor,
as in the case of Domitilla cited by Dio Cassius,2 while not implying reli-
gious persecution of a particular sect, ought to call our attention to the
danger of professing a religion that excludes the Roman gods and the im-
perial divinity in an atmosphere where religious life and sociopolitical require-
ments overlap. The popular move in scholarship to exonerate Domitian
overlooks the evidence that, while religious persecution was not wide-
spread, the complex relationship of state and public Roman religious life
made it a perpetual possibility. Religious positions such as those taken by
the Jew or Christian would not be viewed apart from their political, and
therefore punishable, ramifications, were they to be brought to official
The lack of evidence for a particular persecution of Christians as Chris-
tians under Domitian leads other scholars to consider an earlier date for the
document, a time of known social upheaval and religious persecution,
namely, the period following Nero's reign. Scholars following this line of
1 A. A.
2 R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 33.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 275
thinking appeal unanimously to internal evidence, beginning with the argu-
ment advanced in Engels' essays on Revelation and early Christianity.3 The
most advanced arguments offered in support for this early date are to be
found in Robinson's and Gentry's works, which are wholly dedicated to
questions of dating.4 Briefly, the reference to the temple in Rev 11:1-2
indicates to some that the temple is still standing, and so points to a date
AD 70.5 Lipinski offers the striking argument that
of the apocalypticist moves without being transported v itvc iait, "in the
Spirit," is when he moves to measure the still-standing temple in Jerusa-
lem.6 The number of the beast given in Rev 13:18 is the sum of the addition
of the Hebrew letters in Nero's title, whether rsq Nvrn, which adds up to 666,
or the form without the second nun, which yields the well-attested variant
616.7 Most decisive in their argument is the "head count" of Rev 17:10-11,
whereby they arrive at Nero as the fifth (or sixth, counting from Julius
Caesar as Lipinski insists that the Jewish people would)8 of the kings that
were and Galba as the one "who is," thus giving a decisive date between
June 68 and April 69.9
In the endless repartee, all these claims are answered from the point of
view of the later date. One school adopts the idea that John used an earlier
apocalypse from the time immediately before the destruction of Jerusa-
lem.10 Another insists on the figurative understanding of the temple as the
understanding of the beast's heads.11 As Downing notes, the further ex-
planation of these heads as the
over-pressing the issue."12 Those who wish to press the issue do so by omit-
ting the three emperors Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, who together reign just
of a year.
count, and hence "to the ancient mind" such an omission is inconceiv-
able.13 From Suetonius' account of the social upheaval surrounding these
3 Friedrich Engels, On Religion
(ed. R. Niebuhr;
4 J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 221-53;
L. Gentry, Jr., Before
Christian Economics, 1989).
5 Mounce, Revelation, 35.
6 E. Lipinski, "L'Apocalypse et le martyre de
7 Engels, On Religion, 341.
8 E. Lipinski, "L'Apocalypse," 226.
9 Engels, On Religion, 340.
10 E.g., J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation (AB 38; New York: Doubleday, 1975) and E.
Lohse, The Formation of the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).
11 Mounce, Revelation, 220; J. Drape, Early Christians (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982)
12 F. G. Downing, "Pliny's Prosecutions of Christians," JSNT 34 (1988) 119.
three, however, it seems quite conceivable for "the ancient mind," at least
the "apocalyptic mind," to depict the period with its three emperors as the
deadly wound from which the beast recovered, and at which recovery the
world marveled and worshiped, no doubt in part out of gratitude and relief
for the center of the empire to be whole again. Any Roman thinking figura-
tively would have to agree with the interpretation of the tumultuous year.
If these three are omitted, then beginning with Augustus as the first head
of the beast, the count of the eight heads progresses down the series of
emperors to land on Domitian.
Ulrichsen pursues the problem of the reckoning of the seven heads to-
gether with the ten horns perhaps most completely. He asserts that the
counting ought to begin with Caligula, as "dieser Herrscher leitet die Zeit
des neuen Aons ein," being the first emperor after Christ.14 The heads tally
the major emperors; the horns mark every official regent, thus including the
three interregnum emperors. In both cases, Domitian is in view as the
presently reigning emperor (the sixth head and the ninth horn), leaving the
count open for a coming ruler under whom the incipient situation of crisis
will come to consummate tribulation. This conclusion is best supported by
the external evidence, as we shall explore below.
This sort of internal evidence must remain indecisive, as it can be pressed
into the service of either viewpoint. If a precise and correct date and situa-
tion is to be achieved, however, debunking some preconceptions of this
will be a crucial first step.
he attacks the Domitianic date on the basis of lack of evidence for a Domi-
tianic persecution of Christians, but fails to notice that the general assump-
tion not of the date but of the circumstances—general persecution—may be
what is truly misleading. Robinson strongly argues as well for the earlier
date based on his conviction that Revelation was written out of an expe-
rience of intense suffering (the only other option for him being that John
was psychotic!).15 Irenaeus himself does not attach the Domitianic date to
any particular persecution or devastation of the church.16 There is an under-
lying assumption that apocalyptic is always a response to a desperate social
situation, a sort of last hope of the despairing. It is often regarded as the
bitter consolation of a defeated people through the envisioning of the pun-
ishment and overthrow of their enemies and promise of reward outside the
boundaries of an unredeemable history.
Another assumption made by
persecution of Christians in the province to which John wrote.17 The work
Ramsey and Bowersock concerning the imperial cult in
14 J. H. Ulrichsen, "Die sieben Haupter and die Zehn Homer. Zur Datierung der Offen-
barung des Johannes," ST 39 (1985) 15.
15 Robinson, Redating, 231, 233.
16 Downing, "Pliny's Prosecutions," 118.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 277
to interpret the social value placed on this institution and hence how re-
sistance to the institution might be an invitation for the society's rejection
of or even hostile action towards the nonparticipant. The likelihood for
persecution of Christians as Christians thus appears greater in the province
than in the capital.
Ramsey understood the province of
imperialism as the salvation of the territory.18 The ravagings of times past
gave way to a new peace and order which, despite the costs of taxation and
allowed the region to flourish. The imperial cult, instituted in
Minor at the time of Augustus, found widespread acceptance as a demon-
stration of gratitude. Bowersock further anchors the imperial cult in the
in place this system of honoring benefactors, whether that beneficence was
actual or anticipated.20
These cult practices were of notable political importance. They were a
means of communication between the society and its leader, a ritualized
expression of allegiance and petition for a favorable disposition. Participa-
tion reinforced the "public knowledge" of Roman greatness and domina-
tion, and, as Thompson rightly notes, provided at once a representation of
the emperor to the people of the province and a representation of the
people of the province to the emperor.21 The imperial cult was thus of
decisive importance in the maintenance of investment in the imperial sys-
tem and of the favorable disposition of the emperor towards the province.
Scherrer, following Ramsey, has returned to the thesis that the thirteenth
chapter of the Apocalypse reveals the inner workings of the imperial cult.22
The image of the emperor was brought out to a place of central impor-
tance, and sacrifices, libations, and the rest were made to the divus of the
emperor. This cultic experience was embellished with ventriloquism and
the best special effects of the day to impress upon the participant the mys-
terious power of the divine head of the political system.23 Hemer has as-
serted the practice of a participant receiving a white stone or some sort of
token as a commemoration of an experience of the cultic god, which might
stand behind possession of the "mark of the beast," though this inference
18 W Ramsey, The Letters to the Seven Churches of
19 G. W. Bowersock, "The Imperial Cult," in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition (ed. E. P.
and B. Meyer,
Bowersock, "The Imperial Cult," 171.
21 L. L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) 158.
22 S. J. Scherrer, "Revelation 13 as an Historical Source for the Imperial Cult under
Domitian," HTR 74 (1981) 406.
23 Ramsey, Letters, 98.
24 C. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches in their Local Setting (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986)
Such reconstructions have, of course, met with serious criticism. One
criticism that appears to be untenable, however, is that of L. Thompson.
Appealing to the manner in which the imperial cult blended in with the
local pagan festivities and rituals, and particularly the way in which the
imperial deity's imago took its place alongside the simulacra of the other gods
(a terminological distinction maintained by Pliny Secundus), Thompson
argues that it is unlikely that the imperial cult would have stood out in
Christian consciousness as a particular evil over against all the other cults.
Rather, he suggests that the greater issue "revolves around Christians'
relations to adherents of traditional religious cults rather than their relation
to the cult of the emperor."25
Thompson's point would be well made, if he simply offered a caveat not
to assume that Christians at the end of the first century regarded the situ-
ation as a battle of Christ vs. Caesar, as Ramsey concludes. As one considers
the more immediate social pressure and economic peril revolving around
participation in the trade guilds, with their patron deities and idolatrous
ceremonies, this caveat is strengthened. It remains noteworthy, however,
that the response of the alleged Christian to the imperial cult became a
the gods, it is the representation of the emperor which remains in the
foreground of his thought. The explanation of Revelation 13 as a situation
of trial where the crucial issue is worshiping or not worshiping the beast,
who by all accounts represents the emperor, in a cultic setting at the de-
mand of the imperial representative appears to force the conclusion that the
imperial cult provided the decisive criterion for political amnesty or a
martyr's testimony in blood.
The question remains, however, to what extent the imperial cult was the
issue at the time John wrote the Apocalypse. Suetonius informs us that
Domitian claimed for himself the title Dominus Deus, "Lord God," in regu-
lar written correspondence and conversation, and referred to his taking
back of Domitilla, his wife, as a "recall to my divine bed" (Domitian 13).
The troops apparently felt strongly enough towards Domitian to speak
feelingly of "Domitian the God" after his assassination, even though the
politicians expressed delight at the emperor's demise (ibid., 23). There is,
however, no mention of a persecution of Christians as Christians—a thing
for which Suetonius actually lauds Nero. Suetonius does, however, treat in
some detail a situation regarding the tax levied on Jews throughout the
empire as a sort of price for religious tolerance, and speaks of investigations
of cases where people hid their Jewish origins to avoid the tax, or lived like
Jews without being Jews (ibid., 12). The distinction appears to have been
unimportant in terms of religion, but of interest economically, that is, for
25 Thompson, Revelation, 164.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 279
Those who "lived like Jews without professing Judaism" may well in-
dicate those Christians who claimed exemption from the civic and political
rites surrounding the emperor-cult on the basis of their affiliation with
Judaism. Hemer sketched in the details of such a scenario:
The situation placed the Jewish communities in a position of peculiar power. By
disowning a Christian and informing against him, they might deprive him of his
possible recourse to toleration at a price, and render him liable to the emperor-
cult. . . . Individual Jews may have informed against individual Christians, or the
synagogue may have provided on occasion lists of bona fide members of their
congregations. The authorities, primarily concerned with tax avoidance, may
thus have had forced on their attention a powerful movement which appeared to
defy the emperor under the guise of a Judaism which the official Jews
repudiated. A systematic investigation would naturally follow 26
This scenario may well account for the references to the "synagogue of
Satan," the threat of imprisonment and tribulation, and the martyrdom of
Antipas found in the seven letters of Revelation 2 and 3. It is, however, only
an early stage in a larger process at work, a process that looks forward to
the total separation of synagogue and church, the resulting political and
economic vulnerability of the Christian communities, and the challenge to
resist the drives (both external and internal) toward accommodation to the
demands of the imperial world. The attention of the imperial officials is still
on the tax; the distinction between synagogue and church is just beginning
to dawn on all parties concerned. The imperial cult looms thus close to the
surface, but it cannot be said that it reaches its fullest significance for the
ginning of troubles."
Pliny's letter to Trajan affords us the first pagan reference to the trial of
Christians as Christians.27 Here documented for the first time is the moment
of decision between Caesar and Christ, one choice leading to pardon, the
other to execution. Here also appears for the first time the sort of situation
for which the author of the Apocalypse might be preparing. Nero's perse-
cution cannot provide a true clue to the date of Revelation. Limited to
emperor."28 There was no call for steadfastness, for not denying the name,
for deciding for the community. In Pliny's report we have outlined the sort
of situation where the word of Revelation actually becomes pertinent. We
will return to this situation under the examination of the social function of
Pliny's letter provides much information about the proceedings against
in the next
of the second century. The procedure is straightforward:
26 Hemer, Letters, 8-10.
27 Downing, "Pliny's Prosecutions," 105.
28 H. Lilje, L'Apocalypse (Paris: Payot, 1959) 40.
I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it, I repeat the question a second
and third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them
to death. For I do not doubt that, whatever kind of crime it may be to which they
have confessed, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be
punished.... All who denied that they were or had been Christians I considered
discharged, because they called upon the gods at my dictation and did reverence,
with incense and wine, to your image which I had ordered to be brought forward
for this very purpose, together with the statues of the deities; and especially
because they cursed Christ, a thing which, it is said, genuine Christians cannot
be induced to do.
Here was the beast "from the earth," that is, from the same land as the
recipients,29 acting as the agent of the emperor against the faith of Chris-
tians. The statues of the other gods recede behind the one figure who was
perceived to be behind this procedure, namely, the emperor.
The letter also reveals that once Pliny had begun to entertain these cases,
their number multiplied as many denunciations came, some even in the
form of an anonymous pamphlet full of names. Pliny gives the impression
in the peroration of his letter that the proceedings have had, besides the
effect of an alarming number of executions, the effect of an increased ardor
for associating with the imperial cult and temples of the Roman deities.
Pliny sees in this result the "setting right" of so many "given the chance
at recantation," indicating that he had some success in turning Christians
around, so to speak, back towards a sociopolitically acceptable religion.
In terms of our original question of date and historical situation, Down-
ing has truly broken ground by suggesting that the Apocalypse was written
during the reign of Trajan, noting bravely that there is just no earlier period
that affords the evidence of the sort of persecution that the Apocalypse
might seek to address.30 Of particular importance to his argument is the
observation that Pliny has no recourse to precedents of trials and decisions
made with regard to Christians. After an exhaustive survey of Pliny's ex-
tensive, even pedantic, use of precedents in his letters to Trajan, or Trajan's
use of them in his responses to Pliny's inquiries, Downing concludes that "if
Pliny had had precedents, formal or informal, he would have used them,
... even if he also asked for confirmation of his use or innovation from
He concludes on this basis that Revelation (as well as 1 Peter) was occa-
sioned by this new procedure of Pliny and Trajan.32 This is again, however,
to work from the presupposition that the Apocalypse must react to such an
experience of suffering, rooted deeper again in the fundamental under-
standing of apocalyptic as the desperate hope of the defeated, positing a
29 Ramsey, Letters, 104.
30 Downing, "Pliny's Prosecutions," 105.
31 Ibid., 106.
32 Ibid., 113.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 281
future reversal of presently experienced oppression. It denies to Revelation
the possibility of being exactly what its author claims it to be. Its words are
"the words of this prophecy." It also denies a use of apocalyptic as an organ
for effecting social decision and action. It might be, as is the thesis of this
study, that our Apocalypse is not the theodicy of the already suffering and
defeated, but the posited "counter-definitions" that enable the communitas
to consolidate its own identity and to decide for its own preservation over
against the societas, even at ultimate cost. We will, of course, need to define
some of these terms as they are intended here when we turn to describe the
social location of the seven churches within the larger social groups.
While Downing may err with respect to the date, he calls attention to the
significant fact that such official persecution and such criteria as we find
in the Revelation first take place in this
under Pliny Secundus. If one accepts this as the most likely situation ad-
dressed or considered in Revelation, but also divorces oneself from the
assumption that an apocalypse is always born out of such a situation, then
one may reconsider the date attributed to the work by Irenaeus without
contest in the early church. Revelation would retain a date of AD 95 or 96,
"near the end of the reign of Domitian," but we would not therefore attach
the document to a particular official persecution of Christians as Christians
under Domitian, nor posit such a persecution on the basis of Revelation's
While this construal of the situation would answer the correct criticism
indicating a persecution under Domitian, it does not rule out the best
externally supported option due to the oft-noted presupposition regarding
apocalyptic. The evidence leads us to consider seriously the Apocalypse as
prophecy for the situation of the seven churches and as a call for the response
God would have them make. John has perceptively read the signs of his
times and, as an astute social analyst, has understood where the relation-
ship of the Christian communities and the political and social forces around
them were heading.33 On this basis he is able to look at present conditions,
foresee the likely future conditions, and deliver a word from the Lord that
seeks both to bolster the communities' counter-definitions of the cosmic
order and to outline a program for the survival of the communitas in the face
of the societas (which poses a threat to communitas on the double basis of
extermination and assimilation). The analysis of the social conditions repre-
sented in the so-called "seven letters" of Revelation 2 and 3 will supple-
ment the sketchy reconstruction of the historical situation presented thus far.
33 It is striking that even Robinson (Redating, 231, 251-53) does not allow John the possibility
of prophetic insight, such that the contents of the visions of chaps. 4-20 may refer to conditions
that are yet to challenge the churches, and for which John seeks to prepare the believers
through these visions. For him, these visions must refer to events and experiences in the 60s,
before the actual composition of the Apocalypse.
II. The Author's Relationship to the Communities
The identity of the author is another of the pressing questions of NT
introduction, but for social scientific purposes it is less important to identify
a name than to clarify the function served by that person. In light of this
recognition, it should be noted that the following discussion seeks to clarify
this second feature rather than answer the seemingly insoluble question of
authorship. It may well be that the figure who behaves more characteris-
tically as a prophet rather than an apostle (from a sociology-of-religion stand-
point) may in fact be the apostle John who knew Jesus "according to the
flesh." The discussion would then simply show that not all apostles relied
on their apostolic office in order to deliver the Lord's word to a congre-
gation in crisis (as did Paul so vehemently in Galatians) and that apostles
could employ the modes of prophecy and apocalyptic language freely in
order to deliver that word from the Lord.
Mounce, along with a few conservative scholars, still favors the apostle
John as the most likely candidate.34 There is much external evidence for this
view, as many of the early fathers affirm that John the apostle did indeed
write this book. Indeed, we are probably indebted to this affirmation for the
inclusion of the book in the NT canon.35 In the middle of the third century,
however, Dionysius of Alexandria is already questioning, Johannine author-
ship on the grounds of stylistic and lexical differences between the Reve-
lation and the Gospel and Epistles of John.
By the time Eusebius writes his History of the Church, one source of con-
fusion with respect to the identity of the Johannine documents has already
been identified as the result of the presence of two prominent persons
listing of prominent leaders by Papias, in which John the apostle appears
to be clearly distinguished from a presbyter named John. He cites also the
of two tombs in
3.39). On this basis, several scholars attribute the Revelation to one John
and the Gospel and Epistles to the other John.36 Gundry has carefully
demonstrated, however, that Eusebius' sources, namely, Papias and Di-
self that the distinction between John the Apostle and John the Presbyter
originates, due mainly to Eusebius' own Tendenz.37 Only Lipinski appears
to favor a theory that this apocalypse follows the practice of pseudonymous
authorship characteristic of most other apocalypses, claiming that the
34 Mounce, Revelation, 31.
35 Lohse, Formation, 229.
36 Ibid., 230.
37 R. H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and
Theological Art (
Eerdmans, 1982) 616.
THE SOCIAL. SETTING OF REVELATION 283
apocalypticist links his work to John the apostle and that this John was in
Some scholars, such as Drane, cite internal evidence as more persuasive
criteria for deciding the issue. The manner in which John portrays himself
simply as a "brother" (Rev 1:9) and fellow-sharer in "tribulation, the
kingdom, and patient endurance," together with the self-description of
John as a "slave" in the preface (1:1), appears to deny any qualitative
distinction between John and the recipients of the letter such as would cling
to the office of "apostle" or "presbyter." Paul the apostle and John the
presbyter, at least, seem willing if not eager to uphold this distinction.
Furthermore, the apostles are presented in the vision of the temple in New
Perhaps even more suggestive that this John was no bearer of a charisma
of office is the choice of genre itself. No canonical apostolic writing, genuine
or pseudonymous, speaks its message as the Revelation of John the Seer.
Paul, John the presbyter, and the authors of 1-2 Peter, James, and Jude all
find it sufficient that their message is supported by their name—and seek
to offer no other sort of legitimation save where that name's "charisma of
office" is called into question, as in Galatians 1 or 2 Corinthians 10-13.
Those whose office is sufficiently legitimated in itself, as apostle or presby-
ter, need no other sort of legitimation.
Our author, on the other hand, appears to base his appeal—his claim to
the right both to offer the counter-definitions and to define salvific action—
solely upon charismatic legitimation throughout the work. Mounce asserts
that there is an "implicit assumption of apostolicity in the authority of the
Seer's voice,"40 but then why would the emphasis rest on the charismatic
experience, the visionary and oracular nature of the work? One finds in the
Apocalypse not an assumption of authority, but rather the attempt (suc-
cessful, one might add) of a prophet to legitimate his message in the ulti-
mate, and therefore unquestionable, realm.
The book opens with the formulaic identification of the author and the
addressees, salutation, and benediction, in which is found articulated the
hope forming the common pillar between the author and the churches,
namely, the confession of the second coming. Immediately, however, what
is being reported is no longer the words of John, but the very words of Jesus
the risen Lord who speaks through the prophet, revealing his Word. John
is simply "in the Spirit on the Lord's Day," commissioned as so many
prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures were. Where a vision and call of God
were involved in Isaiah 6 and Jeremiah 1, here it is the Risen Lord who
38 Lipinski, "L'Apocalypse," 227.
39 Drane, Early Christians, 124.
40 Mounce, Revelation, 28.
appears and commissions the prophet to speak his words to the body of the
faithful (Rev 1:11, repeated in 1:19). It is thus Jesus who gives the counter-
definitions and outlines and calls for the faithful response. John passes on the
charismatic experience as a faithful prophet passing on the oracles of the
The author keeps the reader/hearer conscious of the oracular and visionary
nature of the revelation throughout the book. Every "and I saw" serves to
anchor the validity of the thing seen in the One who sends visions to the
prophets to warn and exhort the faithful of God. The risen Lord who is
coming soon is called upon at the end of the book (22:20) as the witness of
"these things," presumably referring to 22:18-19, the only warnings set
down by the author in his own voice. Again, no apostle would consider it
needful to invoke the Lord's witness to a blessing or curse, as the "name of
an apostle" would suffice, even when that name was under attack (again,
see Gal 1:8-9).
The arrangement of the seven churches to whom the author addresses
the vision returns here as an important observation. A fair number of
commentators regard these seven churches as representative churches, all-
though certainly not all use these representative churches as keys to seven
ages in the history of the church. This affirmation, based on the notion that
everything in the Apocalypse must conform to traditional apocalyptic numer-
ology, whereby "seven" indicates perfection or fullness, may actually ob-
scure a more adequate and substantiated explanation. These seven churches
were those particularly associated with John's "ministry" or calling as an
Such itinerant prophets, who mostly relied upon charismatic legitima-
tion, are a well-attested phenomenon in early Christianity. Paul's troubles
in the Corinthian church, particularly the later stages as attested in 2
Corinthians 10-13, were most likely occasioned by itinerant preachers.
That these built themselves up on charismatic legitimation is not left to
guesswork by Paul, who notes their opinion of their oratorical skill as
greater than Paul's, as also their physical presence as more appealing and
ecstatic experiences as more numerous and significant. These itinerants
boast in such characteristics and slight Paul as not measuring up precisely
in terms of charismatic legitimation, whereas Paul claims that an apostle
rests on a wholly other and superior sort of legitimation than these charis-
The Didache as well bears witness to a body of prophets within the larger
church communities. These must have been a familiar experience to com-
mand the space and attention of so brief a manual of church order and
teaching. The practice of itinerant charismatics was to move from church
to church, receive up to three days' provisions, and move on. If such a one
were to stay longer, that one was to be regarded as a fraud (a parasite like
Engels' Peregrinus). While there were several tests prescribed for these
itinerant charismatics to determine whether they were true or false, there
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 285
was considerable carte blanche given to them while speaking "in a trance."
As long as they asked for neither food nor money while in the Spirit, the
community was "on no account to subject such a one to any tests or ver-
ifications," for "every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be for-
given" (Did. 11).
The license of the prophet, as well as his or her authority to speak, was,
at least according to this teaching, guarded by the very threat of the sin
against the Holy Spirit, in which Spirit the charismatic prophet was pre-
sumed to speak. It appears all the more likely that John the Seer would have
belonged to this group of prophets. He understood his ministry to be to the
seven churches cited in Rev 1:11, which were conveniently enough ar-
ranged for an itinerant mission. Given the spacing, one might suspect it was
more a horseshoe circuit than a full circle (the hundred miles between
along which the prophet went back and forth, encouraging the churches to
keep a pure faith and pure walk in that faith, as he defined pure. There
were rival preachers who gained a hearing in these same churches, and
Just how John found himself on
remains a matter of dispute. The traditional view, cited in Eusebius, is that
was exiled to
activity in the churches, but later returned and continued on in his work
into Trajan's reign (Hist. eccl. 2.20). This view has been recently challenged
by Thompson, who is so completely convinced that no persecution of Chris-
tians as Christians occurred under Domitian that to conceive of an exiled
prophet is impossible. We are grateful to his debunking of the familiar
notes that there is no record of a penal colony on
evidence for an Artemis cult and two gymnasia.41 Here the work of Saffrey
is also helpful. Meticulously piecing together evidence from inscriptions, he
that Patmos was a phrourion of
the frontier of the Milesian territory.42 Hemer has also noted that the
traditional assignation of the sentence to Domitian by Tertullian is unlikely
not impossible, as Domitian is said to have passed
on the way to
Nevertheless, Thompson's argument loses force on both a grammatical
and judicial consideration. Thompson presses hard to explain John's pres-
e]geno<mhn to mean "I arrived," and argues that the preposition dia< is
here, not causal, thus "I arrived on
41 Thompson, Revelation, 173.
42 H. D. Saifrey, "Relire
43 Hemer, Letters, 29.
Word of God and the testimony of Jesus."44 It is difficult to see how the verb
may be stretched in this way, even though gi<nomai is a most flexible verb.
While the meaning "to have arrived" is allowed in BAGD when used with
the preposition e]pi<, the verb appears in Rev 1:9 with the preposition e]n.
With regard to the preposition dia<, Yarbro Collins notes that it is always
never purposive.45 Thus John was on
activity connected with the Word of God and testimony of Jesus.
and other historians of
with the sentences of relegatio ad insulam and deportatio ad insulam, the practice
of removing certain potentially dangerous persons from their sphere of
influence to some significantly distant island in order to curtail their activ-
ities. Given John's attitude about the
tives, not to mention the social consequences of following his exhortations,
it would not be at all surprising, nor even really blameworthy from a
political point of view, to remove this prophet from his circuit and relegate
to some sufficiently distant island within the province.
certainly be an option, although it was not a completely effective means of
stopping his mouth, so to speak. Saffrey finds an island with a military
garrison on it to be a very appropriate place for removing a troublesome
Que cette nouveaute ait provoque de l'agitation dans les milieux juifs de la ville
[de Milet], comme partout ailleurs dans les cites grecques de l'Asie, et que 1'a-
gitateur ait ete eloigne de la cite et garde en residence surveillee dans un lieu
commode pour cela, une ile minuscule ou l'on n'avait rien a redouter de son zele
intempestif, rien de plus naturel.46
In sum, we have in John an itinerant prophet who exercised his ministry
along the circuit of the seven churches listed in Rev 1:11. While he may in
fact be the apostle John whom Jesus called, he does not appear to rely on
apostolic authority to deliver the word from the Lord to the churches. He
anchored the message in the charismatic legitimation afforded by relating
it through visions and oracles from the risen Lord and the Spirit of God. It
appears from the practice of the early church that such would have gained
him an almost unconditional hearing, though of course not every prophet's
every message is received, let alone followed, by the community he or she
addresses. At some point prior to the composition of the Apocalypse, John
removed from his circuit to the
as, potentially, a politically dangerous dissident.
III. Social Tensions in the Seven Oracles
We turn now to an examination of Revelation 2 and 3, the so-called
"seven letters" to the seven churches. Mounce notes that these seven
44 Thompson, Revelation, 173.
45 A. Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984) 55.
46 Saffrey, "Relire," 391.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 287
"letters" resemble oracles from the prophets of Hebrew Scripture more
than NT epistles,47 which accords well with the identification of John as a
prophet. These oracles are highly formalized, consisting of all or most of the
following sections: address, Jesus' self-identification, commendation, re-
buke, exhortation, warning, and promise. Scholars such as Hemer, Charles,
and Massyngberde Ford draw much from each section of each letter to
contribute to their reconstruction of the social setting of each church. Even
the choice of attribute given to Jesus and content of each promise may thus
reflect some social reality, whether architectural, institutional, or cultural.
This present study will not compete with these commentators for compre-
hensiveness. Rather, it will focus chiefly on those sections of Revelation
informing our understanding of the social dimensions and particular con-
flicts at work: conflicts within the churches, conflicts between them and
other subgroups within the culture, and conflicts with the larger cultural
surroundings. The focus will thus be on the commendations, rebukes, and
exhortations, as these are the most revealing not only of these social forces
but also of the prophet's agenda for the churches. Architectural and cultural-
historical echoes are therefore often passed over.
Adela Yarbro Collins has done the best work in terms of identifying the
different strands and areas of social tension in the churches addressed by the
Apocalypse. She uncovers four sources: (1) the relations between church
and synagogue, (2) the relations between Christians and pagan society, (3)
seven oracles present a picture, however, which first asks the interpreter to
consider the factors slightly differently. We would propose the following: (1)
the hostility of the synagogue, (2) the external demand for conformity, (3)
the internal threat of accommodation, and (4) the internal threat of dis-
tortion of the counter-definitions that define communitas. This division may
represent more John's analysis of the social situation, and so provide a
closer key to the text itself, although Collins' argument is certainly not
disparaged here as an assessment of the larger situation. Each of these four
sources of tension will be examined in turn with regard to the content of the
oracles. We consider here only the shape of things as they exist as the
church's contemporary conditions at the time of writing or receiving the
Apocalypse, and not yet the shape of things to come and the faithful re-
sponse to them as contained in the author's analysis.
1. Hostility of the Synagogue
The oracles to
against the Jewish synagogue and the record of the synagogue's hostility
towards the Christian churches. The sunagwgh< is clearly represented as a
separate social entity from the e]kklhsi<ai, even lexically. We enter here
47 Mounce, Revelation, 84.
48 Collins, Crisis, 4-7.
upon the problem of the need of Judaism during this period to consolidate
its identity over against sectarian movements and the claim of the nascent
church upon the title "True Israel," the body of those who were “Jews
inwardly,” in Pauline terms, and thus the true chosen assembly. The rella-
tionship between the church and the synagogue was thus especially strained
as both groups were struggling with questions of preserving their identity
over against the larger society, and the two groups had competing ideo-
logical claims which, under the circumstances, made these two groups
hostile towards one another.
The break between Christianity and Judaism, as Cohen notes, was not
an event so much as a process.49 Nevertheless, there were periods within
that process where the distinctions became more acute. Cohen argues that
the birkat ha-minim, the so-called "benediction" inserted into the synagogue
liturgy which cursed all heretics and sectarians, was not an assault directed
at Christians, particularly Jewish-Christians within the synagogue, in order
to drive them out. It was, rather, an expression of the renewal of Jewish
identity and unity and a denunciation of any sectarian movement which
would threaten that solidarity.50 Nevertheless, such an inclusion into the
liturgy may well reflect an attitude towards "sectarian" groups which
might move the synagogues to act in a hostile manner and, one might say,
in a cathartical manner against these groups.
The general denunciation of sectarianism must necessarily include, re-
flect, and encourage the particular incarnations of this attitude in partic-
ular denunciations of particular sectarians. The sect of Jesus, the crucified
Messiah, would be an appropriate recipient of this hostility, all the more as
the members of this sect laid an exclusive claim to the name of “Jew” When
John says that the members of the synagogue "who say they are Jews but
are not, but are lying," it is clear that in his mind the identification “Jew”
is reserved, at least spiritually, for the followers of Jesus.
This hostility from the synagogue appears to have taken some penal
at least in
testing is related in some causal way to the "slander of those who say that
they are Jews," then we may see in Revelation the emergence of a complex
social problem that could conceivably have severe consequences in the
years ahead. It is generally agreed that Christians would have only begun
to be endangered from official powers after it was made clear that these
were no longer Jews. The Jewish people had received the favor of Augustus
in the establishment of Judaism as a religio licita in the empire. The Jewish
people were thus allowed to practice their religion freely under imperial
rule and were notably exempted from the usual requirements of the empire,
49 S. Cohen, From the Maccabees
to the Mishnah (Library of Early Christianity 7;
50 Ibid., 227.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 289
namely, images of the emperor being imported for the purposes of extend-
ing the imperial cult as the vehicle of assuring allegiance. Throughout the
empire, Jewish citizens were free from such obligations and free to pursue
their own religious devotions.
Where the aegis of Judaism is removed from the Christian movement,
however, so is the status of religio licita and the relative safety of the new
religion with respect to official intervention. In their fervor, therefore, to
absorb sectarians within the synagogue or remove the recalcitrant ones, it
is highly likely that Jewish propaganda made it clear what constituted
Jewishness. The rabbis' thoughtful proceedings were claimed by the popu-
lar contingent in the sort of energetic self-definition and consolidation, the
sort of powerful investment in a given set of boundaries, which often in-
cludes denunciation of those outside the boundaries. Identity is often most
basically expressed in terms of "we are not they, they are not us." While
this served the necessity of the times for Judaism, finally providing a solu-
tion to the turmoil following the fall of
very axis mundi of the religion, the temple, it could easily have been re-
garded as "slander" by the author of Revelation—dangerous slander at
that, as it brought with it for the first time the attention of local authorities
towards a potential newly illicit religion.
The particularly forceful and venomous language employed in Revela-
tion, not far different from that in the Gospel of John but a very far cry from
Paul's earnest desire for his fellow Jews, seems to indicate that, in this
province at least, the break is at last decisive and its full implications
beginning to be felt. The denunciation of the synagogue and the promise
to the church at
them and guarantee to make that love manifest to the synagogue both
speak to a fresh and final sense of rejection and self-doubt.
2. External Demands to Conform
The external demands are less accessible through the oracles, as John's
concern is not to delineate these so much as attack the internal components
that advocate giving in to these pressures, even affirming that such would
remain a faithful response. Two such external pressures are clearly in mind
in Revelation, however, based on chap. 13 and what is generally known
about business in pagan society. The first is, of course, the imperial cult, and
the second, more immediate, is the ever-present economic pressure of the
Enough had been said with regard to the imperial cult. There is no
evidence to suggest that this has already become a widespread problem at
any point in the first century, especially as the Romans have hitherto been
vague about the relationship of Jews and Christians. The two groups tend
to be grouped together, most notably in the accounts of the riot among
“Jews” over some leader named “Chrestus” (read, Christus), resulting in
expulsion of all ethnic Jews from
The former amnesty that had been provided through Roman laxness
with regard to theological distinctions between Jewish sectarian move-
ments and, of course, to determining for themselves when a sect ceased to
be Jewish appears to have evaporated, however. The synagogue has taken
up this task and the Christian assemblies clearly stand outside the walls of
Judaism, however obstinately they cling to the title “Jew” Once the dis-
tinction was made and publicized in some form by the "slander of those
who say that they are Jews," the danger of being exposed to the demands
of the imperial cult was near, and conflict would be inevitable.
Pliny noted well that Christians "could not be induced" to "curse
Christ." Paul had said more than fifty years before to the Corinthians that
“no one can say by the Spirit of God, a]na<qema ]Ihsou?j.” Moffatt had
noted insightfully that the imperial cults presented the problem of con-
flicting claims, ku<rioj Kai?sar and ku<rioj ]Ihsou?j. Here, perhaps for the
first time, the church would face the challenge of making the ancient con-
fession in the face of the consequence of being judged guilty of a political,
criminal offense and pay for it with one's life. This would certainly lift up
the imperial cult in John's concern far above the other pagan cults.
Before the break with Judaism was finalized, neither the pagan cultic life
nor the imperial cult would be forced on the Christian. Now that there was
every indication that Roman confusion with regard to the distinction be-
tween Jew and Christian would be quickly resolved, it was the political
cult, the cult with the power of life and death because administered by the
local governor, which stood out as the place of a decisive standoff. When
would it happen? These things would "shortly come to pass," according to
John, and the astute social analyst was quite correct. Within fifteen years,
confessing or cursing Christ, offering or not offering incense to the image of
the emperor "as to a god," would become a life and death issue, a con-
scientious and rigorous trial, almost inquisition, for the Christian commu-
While Revelation 13 looks forward to an inevitable clash of confessions,
made a possibility by the recent consolidation of Judaism over against
sectarianism, the present situation presupposed by Revelation 2 and 3 con-
cerns the trade guilds and the question of Christian involvement with the
guilds' ceremonies, which revolved around the cultic sacrifice to the patron
deity (and no doubt to the emperor) and partaking in the sacrifice, and thus
the "god," in a common meal. While the former issue is political, the latter
issue is economic and social. This presupposition is based on an identifi-
cation of the internal tensions reflected by Balaamites, Nicolaitans, and
Jezebel, and on what is known generally about economic life in Hellenistic
The question appears much earlier in the history of the Christian move-
ment within Paul's Gentile mission. In
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 291
focus as the question of whether or not to eat food sacrificed to idols, evoking
one answer from a prominent party within the congregation that "an idol
is nothing," and so partaking of such food can carry no spiritual value,
beneficial or detrimental. Paul divides the issue into several parts, the first
concerning whether or not to eat at the tables in the idol's temple, the
second concerning buying food on the open market, and the third con-
cerning eating what is set before one as an invited guest at someone's
residence.51 It is the question reflecting the social considerations which
interests us here.
The practice of eating of the food sacrificed to the idol at tables within
temple does not simply reflect cultic activity. "In the
time, such meals were still the regular practice both at state festivals and
private celebrations of various kinds."52 Such common meals were an im-
portant aspect of the life of the trade guilds of a particular city. It was a
social occasion gathered around the guild's symbol of their patron deity,
religious only insofar as the individual's commitment to the guild and the
solidarity of the guild were expressed and reenacted in religious form. Mod-
ern labor and trade unions have found another language, but represent a
similar social body.
Membership in one or another guild was very important for economic
survival, all the more so as we recall the widely held view that early Chris-
tianity was comprised largely of artisans and craftspersons. The issue, of
course, was how far one could compromise one's dedication to Christ as
Lord for the sake of economic survival. Christians did not live in ghettoes,
but among the pagan society.53 As they could not form an effective com-
mune, they had to come to terms with how to live at peace with their
environment while remaining faithful.
peril to the spiritual state of the believer. Those who knew "that an idol is
nothing" could simply live out of that knowledge in their freedom. Paul,
however, did not share that view. The outward witness of allegiance to
Christ had to be preserved for him, and so nothing which could be inter-
preted as "partaking of the table of demons" was allowed, despite what
economic hardships such a course of action would bring. John, like Paul,
could not conceive of any assimilation in form to pagan society apart from
assimilation in actuality. The public acknowledgment of the idol, as surely
as the confession that "Caesar is Lord," was a public denial of Jesus, which
brings us to a consideration of the internal tensions faced by the commu-
nities and addressed by John.
51 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987)
52 Ibid., 361.
53 J. Moffatt,
"Revelation," in The
Expositor's Greek Testament (5 vols.;
mans, 1990) 5.357.
3. Internal Tension—the Gospel of Accommodation
The oracles to
of the congregations to "false teachers" in one form or another. John delin-
eates false apostles, Nicolaitans, disciples of Balaam, and followers of Je-
zebel. Exactly where the distinction between heterodox teaching and
practice is to be made is not at once clear. The oracles to
it appears, it is not being preached and debated—it is simply being lived.
John's attitude towards the other five churches is one of sympathy, com-
mending their patient endurance through laboring and tribulation, pre-
sumably results of their attempts to follow a faithful response within their
with no opening word of commendation for any attempt made to remain
faithful to "the testimony of Jesus" in the face of social pressure.
John commends the church at
selves apostles but are not," for the church has "found them to be false"
(Rev 2:2). The community has effectively defended what it regards as the
"gospel" against the perversion of that message through "another gospel"
(Gal 1:6). Here John exhibits his first concern with regard to keeping the
internal boundaries clear and the counter-definitions of the communitas
fixed. The internal definitions cannot bear attack and change at such a
crucial time of external social pressure.
"False apostles" appear not to be the greatest internal threat, however.
These appear once, and as effectively blocked and excluded. The attention
given to the Nicolaitans, and the attitude taken towards them, indicates
that here we have a present and persuasive threat to the boundaries and
definitions of the communities. These, along with those "who hold to the
teaching of Balaam" and the followers of “Jezebel, who calls herself a
prophetess,” are all depicted as morally deficient—they "eat food sacri-
ficed to idols and commit fornication" (Rev 2:14; 2:20). In light of the
situation described concerning the economic pressures of trade guilds, and
in light of the fact that "teaching" (didaxh<) is used with regard to the
activities of the Nicolaitans and Balaam, these groups must also represent
a doctrinal affront to the communities, or at least to John. Indeed, Yarbro
Collins insightfully declares that these represent another group of itinerant
prophets who present an alternative interpretation of the gospel and there-
fore an alternative response to the social order vying with John's for "canon-
ization" as the "faithful" response.54
Drane and others have viewed the Nicolaitans as a Gnostic group.55 No
doubt this position derives from the two references to Nicolaitans in Ire-
naeus and Clement of Alexandria. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 1.26.3) only says
54 Collins, Crisis, 88.
55 Drane, Early Christians, 128.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 293
that this group lives "a life of unrestrained indulgence," specifically eating
food sacrificed to idols and practicing sexual immorality, "for which the
Word speaks of them as hated." It seems quite conceivable from this por-
trait, however, that Irenaeus himself only knows about the sect from the
references in Revelation 2 and 3, as his picture adds nothing to this and
even refers to the passages (as "the Word"). Clement (Stromata 3.4) speaks
of a legend concerning Nicolas, one of the seven deacons of Acts 6, who
remarked once that "the flesh must be treated with contempt," a phrase
which he meant as instruction towards guarding against jealousy, but
which the Nicolaitans took up as a call to demonstrate contempt for the
flesh through moral abuses. Here, however, Clement is clearly speaking in
refutation of a contemporary group, and the whole argument reflects an
unhistorical development of tradition. It is probable that later Gnostic
groups invented the tale as part of the "secret teachings" and found in the
Nicolaitans heroes who were suppressed by the "children of darkness."
The question has been raised whether or not to regard the Nicolaitans
apart from the disciples of Balaam and Jezebel. The common content of
their teaching, at least its effects as described by John, suggests a close link
between these groups and figures. Moreover, as Moffatt notes, niko-laoj
(the first root referring to conquering, the second meaning "people") is a
rough Greek equivalent for Mf flK ("he wears out the people"), suggesting
an identity of these groups.56 The syntax will bear regarding the Nico-
laitans as the manifestation of those who follow the teaching of Balaam. The
OT portraits of Balaam and Jezebel afford the best key to their position and
therefore threat to John.
narrative does not dominate his memory. Rather, the short and obscure
reference in Num 31:16 remained his epitaph. The name of Balaam, son of
Beor, was attached to the apostasy of
25:1-3, wherein the Israelites "began to play the harlot with the daughters
tion to bow down to their gods and eat of their sacrifices. The rabbinic
tradition preserves a reference to the disciples of Balaam as the opposite of
the disciples of Abraham ('Abot 5.29). Balaam became thus a figure for
apostasy, the false teacher, and is particularly connected with teaching the
Midianites to convince the Israelites to "eat food sacrificed to idols and
practice immorality." The Deuteronomic danger associated with this is loss
of identity as the "people of God," becoming indistinguishable from the
nations around them. Against this threat the purity codes and ceremonial
law sought to defend. The great threat was the threat of syncretism, and
thus of losing ethnic and religious identity, and consequently losing the
blessing and promise of God.
56 Moffatt, "Revelation," 352.
John casts the Nicolaitans as "disciples of Balaam," an especially appro-
priate choice as the issue again appears to be a literal participation in the
sacrifices to pagan deities,57 an element of membership in the trade guilds.
Some commentators regard the practice of fornication as part of the en-
tertainment of these feasts, but one must hold the spiritual dimension
clearly in mind as well, namely, forsaking a faithful relationship to Jesus,
Indeed, the symbols of virgin and harlot in Revelation are best understood
in these terms, rather than being reduced to a glorification of celibacy and
asceticism. The asceticism for which John calls is not, as Troeltsch would
say with regard to the Catholic Church, against sensuality, but rather, as
Troeltsch would say with regard to sectarian movements, against partici-
pation in the world." It is a lifestyle asceticism, an asceticism of allegiance
reserved for the Lord and the communitas.
The Nicolaitans, then, advocated accommodation to the society. It is not
inconceivable that their teaching descends from the Corinthians' notion
that "an idol is nothing," and therefore participation in an idol feast would
be without spiritual significance. If it were thus no denial of the gospel, nor
affront to the lordship of Jesus, why should the Christian community suffer
economic hardship and even social ostracism? The way for the community
to survive would be through accommodation in form while preserving the
essential meaning unharmed, or else the community would simply be com-
pletely marginalized and eventually could no longer survive.
It was obviously a persuasive argument, as the Nicolaitans gained no-
Jezebel in the Hebrew Scriptures affords some light on our “Jezebel, who
calls herself a prophetess.” Jezebel supported materially the prophets of
tification with them and obvious endorsement of them, she became a virtual
prophet of Baal herself. John may be indicting, therefore, a woman of
prominence who has opened her house to the Nicolaitan prophets, sup-
porting them in the same way as others supported John in his itinerant
As so many women of means in the early church, such as were able to
open up their houses to churches and apostles, she no doubt was an im-
portant figure and voice in the Thyatirian assembly. For both theological
and economic reasons, she advocates the stance preached by the Nico-
laitans concerning how to relate with the pagan society and its pressures for
the sake of the survival of the community. Those who "commit adultery
with her" and "her children" are violently threatened and condemned by
John in this oracular denunciation precisely for their compliance with her
way of thinking, for embracing an open relationship with the pagan society.
57 Mounce, Revelation, 98.
58 E. Troeltsch,
The Social Teaching of the Christian
Churches (2 vols.;
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 295
Mounce, citing Caird, concludes that "the sum total of the Nicolaitans'
offense is that they took a laxer attitude than John to pagan society and
religion."59 This laxer view, however, came at a dangerous time for the
community, a time when the social pressures were mounting in a way that
the Nicolaitans did not see, which could result in total absorption of the
Christian communitas into the pagan environment if the boundaries were not
fortified. Such, at least, was John's analysis.
The examination of tensions surrounding wealth and deprivation carried
out by Collins provides a window into the broader social tensions surround-
ing the communities addressed by Revelation.60 John, however, has a dif-
ferent perspective on wealth and poverty, calling for examination. There is
a sociological reason for his attitude towards wealth, grounded in a theo-
logical one, but it is not the one commonly attributed to the hostility of the
poor against the rich.
and conspicuous consumption. The city lacked for nothing until the day of
its visitation, as it were. From our discussion above, it seems clear that the
only road to riches was the way of accommodation and compromise. When
the boundaries of the community could be abrogated, the members of the
community could freely participate in the pagan economy, in league with
because, on the one hand,
blood of the saints who held up an alternative definition of life, and, on the
other hand, material prosperity had been purchased at the cost of main-
taining "the testimony of Jesus."
The oracle to
reconstructing the city's setting and conditions. It is intriguing that John
as if to say that the church and society shared everything in common and
that there was no basis on which to address the church in terms which the
whole society would not share. The appeal to the images of the lukewarm
and nauseating water forming their water supply, the medical achieve-
ments of the school in the city, and the civic sense of pride in their riches
and need for nothing (an allusion to the city's ability to rebuild itself only
thirty years earlier without imperial aid),61 all depict the Laodicean Chris-
tians first as Laodicean citizens. From this posture they are called to trade
in their civic identity for a renewed Christian identity.
They are to trade in their shame in Laodicean wool for white garrnents,
their riches for the "gold tried in the fire," and their pride in their medical
school for "eyesalve" so that they might see their peril as John sees it. In
all this, it is their pride in their wealth— "for you say, I am rich, I have
59 Mounce, Revelation, 98.
60 Collins, Crisis, 94.
61 Mounce, Revelation, 123.
prospered, and I need nothing'"—which John attacks as the source of their
spiritual condition. The response of the Lord to those who remain in this
condition will be to "vomit [them] out of my mouth." This "wealth" John
calls "poor" and "wretched" (Rev 3:17), while for their poverty John calls
the Smyrnean assembly "rich."
Here the true nature of the tension between wealth and poverty in John's
mind reveals itself to be precisely that, in the social situation, wealth at-
taches itself to accommodation and assimilation, while poverty attaches
itself to those who seek to maintain the boundaries against the external
social pressures, and who thus have no defense against economic embar-
goes. John considers that the economic pressures will only increase now that
the official status of Christians is becoming manifest as a religio illicita, hence
the boycott on buying and selling without the mark of the beast envisioned
in chapter thirteen and noted as such as early as Engels.62 The churches
cannot be allowed to believe the societas' definition of what constitutes desir-
able wealth. Only if they accept John's attribution of true wealth to the
faithful who suffer economic hardship and social ostracism for the sake of
the "testimony of Jesus" will the churches survive the economic pressures
that will rise along with the political pressures in the decades to come. For
most tender promise.
IV. Social Definition—the Church as Communitas
The term communitas has been applied to the Christian communities, or
e]kklhsi<ai, throughout this study for it is particularly appropriate to the
social nature of the church within the context of the larger environment,
referred to as societas. It has been assumed as a technical term, and it is now
time to define more precisely what it signifies.
Peter Berger has given significant theoretical background to the under-
standing of the early church's situation. "To be in culture means to share
in a particular world of objectives with others," these objectives having
their origin in the process of objectification.63 "It is well-nigh impossible in
the long run to keep up alone and without support one's own counter-
definitions of the world."64 Along these lines, we can depict the Christian
communities as sharing in a set of objectives, namely, the worldview, view
of history, and hope contained in the eu]agge<lion, but this set of objectives
is different from the set of objectives shared by the larger, "outsider,"
non-Christian society. The church is thus a body which serves as a "plau-
sibility structure" for the "counter-definitions" of reality.
62 Engels, On Religion, 340.
63 P. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York: Doubleday, 1967) 10.
64 Ibid., 39.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 297
Berger speaks of the "apotheosis" of the nomic constructions which up-
hold the larger society, that is, the complete objectification of the pagan
worldview into the cosmic realm.65 "The ruler speaks for the gods, or is a
god, and to obey him is to be in a right relationship with the world of the
cult, the political institution expressed in religious form. This was an es-
sential part of the definitions of reality, together with the many cults to
pagan deities, which gave order, form, and meaning to the societas. The
Christian communities, however, espoused a set of meanings that denied
the objectives of the society, and so became a deviant subgroup, a foreign
body within the larger body, participating in an alternate definition of
Thompson cites Berger's classification of "public" and "deviant" knowl-
edge as a key to understanding Revelation:
When compared to that "public knowledge" transmitted through institutions,
myths, and rituals involving the town fathers and their social order, the Book of
Revelation reveals "deviant knowledge": that is, its knowledge deviates from the
knowledge given and generally taken for granted in the social order. . . . It is
deviant in its source, . . . in its assessment of the social order, . . . and in its
The Christian communities had from the very beginning been called into
existence through the revelation of this "deviant knowledge" and so
stepped out of the world and definitions of the societas and into the world
and definitions of a communitas. The preaching of Paul called people to live
between the accomplished resurrection of the crucified Lord and the return
of this risen Lord at which return all the faithful would share in the resur-
rected life. He called them to live under a set of definitions (which others
have called doctrines) which turned the society's attitude towards death
and the present life on its head and also rearranged the focal points of
history around the figure of Jesus. The communitas was thus called into a new
set of norms and called to follow a new set of behaviors and values attaching
to those norms.
It became what Bainbridge and Stark might have analyzed as a "sect"
in terms of its new relationship to the society.68 True, there was no real
"church" figure against which to measure it (not even Judaism) any more,
but this is precisely why Bainbridge and Stark's work is so much more
valuable than the work of Troeltsch. Sectarian tendencies are manifested
with regard to the surrounding society, and not only with regard to other
religious bodies claiming the same religious heritage. The early church
65 Ibid., 27.
66 Ibid., 34.
67 Thompson, Revelation, 181.
68 W. S. Bainbridge and R. Stark, "Sectarian Tension," Review of Religious Research 22 (1980)
quickly came to the point where it felt the mutual rejection of sect and
society, as early as the Corinthians began to address the issue of member-
ship in trade guilds and participation in idol feasts. For them it was an issue
of maintaining relations with the societas.
The preachers of the counter-definitions such as Paul, however, engi-
neered social boundaries to coincide with the boundaries of the worldviews.
Thus began the spiral of increasing hostility which later won for the Chris-
tians (as indeed the orthodox Jews as well, who shared the basic status of
communitas in the diaspora) the charges of Manic, "godlessness," for their
rejection of the gods of the pagan ko<smoj, and "haters of the human race"
for their antisocial behavior, most likely in regard to nonparticipation in
trade guild and civic feasts and festivals.
The communitas comes to a period of consolidation. External pressures are
perceived to be very great, and indeed the circumstances indicated in the
seven oracles, including the martyr Antipas, the firstfruits, as it were, sup-
port this perception. The communities are faced with an important ques-
tion—how to survive through the situation. The question is one of identity,
or of definition, and one of action. The Nicolaitans have presented one
appealing option. These have apparently redefined the mythos of the gospel
so as to allow for a course of action which will lead the communities back
towards a peaceable and profitable relationship with the society.
V. Social Significance of John's Desired Effects
John the prophet finds something particularly threatening in the teach-
ing of the Nicolaitans. Their path appears to him an internal weakening of
the underpinnings of the worldview of the communitas, a path which would
lead to a blurring of the distinctions between community and society and
the eventual absorption of the community into the society. True to the same
line of thought and social action that guided Paul in a period of expansion,
John insists that the life of the church as communitas must be preserved over
against the life of the societas. John's program consists of a purging of the
communities of elements of internal innovation and suggestions of com-
promise, and a fortification of the boundaries through a re-presentation of
the essential elements of the counter-definitions and its assessment of the
social order (cf. Revelation 17 and 18). Based on this, he can call for a
response of heightened energy against the external pressures to conform,
both the present economic pressure and the soon-to-be-manifested political
In this interpretation, apocalyptic Christianity in John is not divorced
from its appearance in Paul. The social assessment is much the same, only
more forcefully portrayed in John (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25; 2 Cor 2:15; 4:18; 5:7),
and the basic parts of the worldview and view of history coincide. The
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 299
difference is in the social conditions of the Pauline mission and the pro-
vincial churches at the end of century. What was once a movement in
expansion is now faced with the crisis of consolidation, made necessary by
the manifestation of the break with the synagogue to Roman officials. The
pressures upon Paul and his communities were considerable, but not crush-
ing. For John, the matter has gained considerable gravity, and the escala-
tion of the hostility demanded an escalation of the boundaries and stronger
social interpretation of the opposing forces, society and community.
John must be considered a true prophet in the Weberian sense, even upon
the crucial point, namely, that a prophet announces a break with the
established order.69 John does not originate this break, but the need for
deciding for a new break or a stance of continued break with society is
present and John's is the voice announcing it. His call to sustain the liminal
existence of the communitas is a prophetic call.
Berger noted the need for plausibility structures if one wished to main-
tain the plausibility of any worldview.70 These plausibility structures are in
fact social structures subscribing to the worldview. For John, then, the
commitment to maintain the communitas would be equivalent to holding fast
to the norms and definitions of the gospel, for were the communitas to be
assimilated into the societas, the counter-definitions would no longer have
any plausibility structure upon which to rest—no social body subscribing
to them. The call to maintain communitas became a call to remain faithful
to the risen Lord, and the result of remaining faithful to the risen Lord
would be the continued commitment to communitas.
A sect begins as and remains a voluntary community, according to
Troeltsch, "formed by awareness of stepping out of ordinary social, eco-
nomic, and religious associations and by individual commitment to the
‘body’."71 The task for the prophet is to motivate continued commitment
to the body and excite desire to remain outside of those formerly ordinary
associations. He does this in part by communicating the called-for response
in terms of salvation. Salvation, or "personal legitimation which is in ac-
cord with the ultimate standards," which are in fact "in essential conflict
with the institutionalized worldly order,"72 is gained by holding fast, by not
denying the name, and by rejecting the innovations introduced by the
Nicolaitans (Rev 2:10, 22, 25; 3:8). The Apocalypse is not a theodicy in its
primary sense of offering an explanation for why faithful behavior is visited
with evil. Instead, it turns these apparent frustrations of the order into
expectations. The one who is faithful is to expect suffering and even death
as a result. There is, however, the promise attached to this behavior in every
oracle, and of course in the vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem at the con-
clusion of the book.
69 M. Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon, 1963) xxxv.
70 Berger, Canopy, 45.
71 Troeltsch, Social Teaching 1.339-40.
72 Weber, Sociology, xlix.
Berger offers an explanation of the "good death" as dying "while re-
taining to the end a meaningful relationship with the nomos of one's so-
ciety—subjectively meaningful to oneself and objectively meaningful in t:he
minds of others."73 For this reason, Moffatt is correct when he points to the
actions of the deiloi< of and a@pistoi, the "cowards" and "faithless ones,"
who bear witness to the meaning of the nomos of the society and deny the
meaningfulness of the counter-definitions of the community.74 The nomos
is only as plausible as it stands in the face of death. Therefore the highest
ideal for John is that of the martyr, the "witness" (ma<rtuj), who expresses
commitment to the definitions of the community at great cost, even at the
price of dying.
One might ask whether or not Berger's concept of alienation comes into
play here. Is the self identified with the socialized self (that is, socialized iin
the community's counter-definitions) to the point where freedom of choice
is restricted and personal action appears a function of necessity? John seems
to call for this sort of identification when he rejects the options for personal
action presented by the Nicolaitans, along with the preachers themselves.
Through the Apocalypse he teaches the churches not to regard these as
options at all, but only the faithfulness unto death, the one response of
John's desire to excite this sort of commitment to the communitas was not
without clear social significance. He attributes to the posture of "holding
fast" and "not denying" the absolute value of "overcoming," of victory
over the world. Was this what fed the Christian's resolve as she or he stood
before Pliny neither denying the name nor submitting, which resolve he
punished simply as contumacia? Nevertheless, such a confrontation main-
tained the identity and counter-definitions of the Christian communitas most
effectively against the society's offer of "recantation."
To this end, John focused not only on individual commitment and de-
cision, but also on the important need for reminder. Berger situates the
origin of liturgy in this need of people to be reminded of the cosmic order
undergirding the society.75 Yarbro Collins insightfully discerns how this is
operative in the Apocalypse as well. The Apocalypse aims at the liturgy of
the church and on its own incorporation into the worship life of the com-
munity.76 The book itself is full of hymns and litanies of one sort or another,
as the litany of the fall of
God and the Lamb in Rev 4:8; 5:9-12; 11:17-18; and 15:3-4. Indeed,
several of these have survived into the canticles of the Protestant Episcopal
Church, in the Order for Morning Prayer. That the whole book may have
functioned thus is evident from the opening benediction upon the one who
reads and those who hear.
73 Berger, Canopy, 44
74 Moffatt, "Revelation," 312.
75 Berger, Canopy, 40.
76 A. Yarbro Collins, "The Revelation of John," CurTM 8 (1981) 12.
THE SOCIAL SETTING OF REVELATION 301
The Apocalypse represents more than a single appeal, in all likelihood.
The initial resolve of the recipients to "hold fast," that is, to remain faithful
to the counter-definitions of the communitas and bear this witness before the
authorities of the societas, receives regular support through the incorpora-
tion of the work into the liturgical life of the communities. The prophetic
work of John might thus have its most far-reaching effect on the church,
serving the function of evoking the hearers' commitment to continuing and
fortifying the identity of communitas over against the societas, thus to main-
tain their unconditional allegiance to the God revealed in Christ against
both the coercive and seductive drives towards compromise with the im-
VI. Social Function of the Apocalypse
The trend in scholarship that regards apocalyptic consistently as a re-
sponse to suffering and persecution will no longer afford fruitful results.
This trend has seen in the stark dualism and other-worldly promises of
apocalyptic literature a hopelessness for this world, even a relinquishing of
hope for defeating the enemy of the faith this side of death.
As we have seen in John's Apocalypse, however, the language of complete
renunciation of participation in and hope for the world applies only to the
external pressures of the societas. What is called for, however, is complete
commitment to participation in the communitas and its hope. The aim of the
Apocalypse is the preservation of the communitas in all its social distinctive-
ness alongside the societas. The Apocalypse calls for the consolidation of the
community's identity in a particular way, one that is most interested in
preserving the counter-definitions (the internal boundaries) and the exclu-
sive participation of those who subscribe to them. It thus enunciates those
definitions once more and interprets the social situation so as to call for a
response aiming at strengthening the boundaries and leading to the pres-
ervation of the plausibility structure, the communitas. The importance of the
other-worldly hope and the deliverance from the "second death" is that
these enable the members of the community to choose the course of action
and maintain the set of definitions that keep the communitas' identity and
boundaries clear, and so preserve the life of the community as well as its
message (gospel, or counter-definitions).
The Apocalypse functions., therefore, not as theodicy. It is not the at-
tempt of John the Seer to console the churches regarded by him as his field
of ministry. It is not the attempt to fit meaningless suffering into some
meaningful cosmic order. The Apocalypse is a social challenge to the seven
churches to maintain their liminal status against the mounting external
pressures. The Apocalypse is a call not to "give in" to the "powers that be"
grounded on the counter-proposal that these powers that are shall not be
forever, and that therefore one may respond to the eternal Power, the Lord
Christ, who stands at the heart of the community's counter-definitions.
John functions as a prophet, looking at the recent developments in the
status of the church now that the synagogue has made a decisive declara-
tion against sectarianism. He perceives the shape of things to come, and
seeks through the medium of apocalyptic to deliver a word of the Lord
which will prepare the churches to meet the coming crisis effectively, that
is, in such a way as to preserve communitas rather than to accommodate to
the societas. His Apocalypse is a call for radical, social action, for choosing
life in the margins of society rather than assimilation.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
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