by R. F. Dietrich
Most of what most
people in the West know about “the Apocalypse” has come to them, mostly
indirectly, from “The
Revelation of St. John the Divine,” as the King James Bible
translates it, sometimes more generally referred to as “The Book of
Revelation.” And the title of that
book could just as easily and probably more accurately be translated as “The Apocalypse of St. John
the Theologian.” The Greek
word "Apokalypsis" actually
appears in the original title (of the earliest manuscript we have, that is),
a word that generally refers to “a revelation” but which by association with
this particular book came to have the more specific reference to “a
revelation of the End of Days.” And “Divine” in the context
But who were John’s enemies? The Romans, for sure, and Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, but the long assumption that this book is strictly a Christian polemic against non-believers in the divinity of Jesus may not be exactly correct. Instead this book more likely reflects a crisis contemporaneous with that brought by Roman persecution but perhaps thought more destructive, as it refers to an early fight to the death between two kinds of Christians, the original Judeo-Christians and the Pauline newcomers, the Gentile Christians, and those Christian Jews who mistakenly (from John’s point of view) tolerated the Gentiles and the changes they brought. The Judeo-Christians had been headquartered in Jerusalem (originally led by James the brother of Jesus, apparently) before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, and John seems to have been an expatriate follower of them in the Diaspora that followed who took exception to the impiety of the new Pauline Christians slowly but surely infiltrating John’s churches in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) and turning “Christianity” into a Gentile religion that was not observant of Judaic laws. In fact, Paul (formerly known as “Saul of Tarsus,” a city on what is now the south coast of Turkey) appears to have been kicked out of the Jerusalem congregation precisely over the issue of whether Gentiles were to be included or not. These two conflicting forces in the early Jesus movement agreed about the Romans as the common enemy, and both excoriated Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, but otherwise they were heretics to each other, and that’s why Gentile Christians may in John’s view be worse than outright unbelievers and deserving of the hell-fire and damnation he wishes for them, for they are misrepresenting Christ’s ministry in a way that John feels will destroy the true Christianity more certainly than the Romans might. It’s the enemy within more than the enemy without that John hates most. In short, the extravagant and extreme imagery of the Book of Revelation, characterizing John’s enemies as subject to fantastic punishment, may thus be best understood as the imagery of a political cartoon.*
At any rate, John’s “revelation,” his channeling of Jesus, was supposedly experienced in a cave on the Dodecanese Greek island of Patmos just off the coast of what is today Turkey and dictated by him to a scribe/companion named Prochoros (according to local monkish “tradition”). This occurred, most scholars think, in about 95 A. D., during the reign of Domitian when the heat of Roman persecution was suddenly turned up on the early Christians (mostly Judaeo-Christians) of Asia Minor and John himself was sent into exile on Patmos, presumably as punishment for his refusal to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, as Caesar saw it. John would be shocked at today's Patmos, now almost totally Caesar's and flocked to by cruise-ship tourists, some of whom bathe nude on the beaches despite posted prohibitions by local monks who are still trying to keep up appearances:
PATMOS, really three islands connected by land bridges, looks rather like a replicating virus, with the largest island at the top giving birth to a smaller island below and that island giving birth to an even smaller island below that. But naturally this three-in-one configuration was thought confirmation of “The Trinity” by those who in the 4th Century voted to include this book in the New Testament (a close vote, by the way, partly because many of those voting against remembered its origins as a polemic against Gentile Christianity), although the different sizes of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost islands must have created some knotty theological problems. John's island was the one in the middle, where he not only had revelations but did battle, it’s said, with “devil women” (to John, a redundancy).
Similarly, according to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, this island is also where a mad black scientist, angry with Allah, invented the devil white race (another redundancy?).
Busy place! Wonder what's in the Ouzo there?
According to tradition, John was on Patmos for only 18 months before returning to Ephesus on the mainland, but during his exile he so feared the Roman threat and the possibilities for backsliding and even heresy among the Christians (mostly Judaic-Christians) on the mainland of Asia Minor (the "Seven Churches") that he dictated his revelation from Jesus partly as a warning against that and partly as a bolstering of the faith by promising an impending Day of Judgment that would reward Christians (Judaeo-Christians?) who held steady, even to martyrdom, and doom “heathens” to eternal hellfire. Given the scarcity of Christians (of either the Judaic or Gentile sort) at that time, John seemed to mean that 99.999999999% of the world’s population was automatically damned and doomed to eternal hellfire because they were "heathens," whether they knew it or not. Today the "heathens" are perhaps down to about 80% of the world's population at any given moment. Quite a roast, at all times!
If you’ve actually read “Revelation” from beginning to end, which most Christians have not, you may have found yourself surprised by its erudition and allusiveness, given that it presents itself as a spontaneous “vision.” This library and literary quality will become especially apparent if you read an edition of the New Testament that indicates, usually in a center column, all references in the text to the Old Testament, an amazing number in the case of this book. The object of such editions of the Bible was to colonize Jewish scripture, to show that the whole point of the Old Testament was to prefigure the New Testament.
Well, whoever John was (and it’s unlikely that he was the same man who is referred to as the “beloved disciple” of Jesus in the New Testament or the one who wrote the Gospel of St. John, despite what the tradition claims), he was undoubtedly Jewish and knew Jewish scripture backwards and forwards. And one thing he knew is that he had not invented “the Apocalypse,” for apocalyptic formulas and imagery appear in many books of the Old Testament, from which he frequently borrowed or to which he frequently alluded. “Apocalypse Now!” seems to have been an increasingly popular call for some Jews from the time of the Babylonian Exile on (from 586 B.C. on), even after the exile Jews were allowed by Cyrus the Persian to return from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 B.C., for what they returned to in the centuries to come was mostly invasion by and intolerable subordination to other peoples, such as the Greeks and the Romans.
But does this mean that the Old Testament “Hebrews” John quoted invented “the Apocalypse”? No, indeed, for historical records make clear that much Jewish scripture refers to and/or is an adaptation of even earlier scripture and literature of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Canaanite peoples. In this case, the Jews seem to have gotten their ideas about an apocalypse mainly from Persian religion, most likely from what we call “Zoroastrianism,” which Jews came in contact with in many parts of the ancient world, as it was for centuries the dominant religion of the area.
Nobody really knows the origin of any human idea, but as far as historians have been able to determine, the inventor of apocalyptic thinking was Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism. Who was Zoroaster? And what exactly is “apocalyptic thinking”?
“Zoroaster” is the name the Greeks gave to a Persian religious prophet named “Zarathustra,” although even that is a translation. Nietzsche tried to revive the original name by titling one of his more outlandish books Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), but “Zoroaster” still seems to be preferred. Zoroaster or Zarathustra, when and where did he live and what was he about?
the Greeks gave us the wrong name, so too they may have gotten Zoroaster's
dates wrong, which was not hard to do in that
pre-scientific day and age.
Almost every reference work you consult will tell you that Zoroaster
existed in the sixth century B.C., but they do this because they’ve relied on
the ancient Greeks for their dating.
Knowledgeable scholars who have closely examined the few writings of
Zoroaster that have survived do not believe that, linguistically and
culturally, they belong to sixth century
Whatever the case, apocalyptic thinking, and all the formulas that derive from that, seems to have blown into Zoroaster’s mind at a time when he and his people were under great stress. And that is requirement # 1 for those who aspire to be serious apocalyptic thinkers. You have to believe that your world is about to come to a catastrophic end unless the gods intervene and turn catastrophe into triumph. Apocalyptic thinking is extremely desperate thinking, last-ditch thinking. And of course human subjectivity rules. The world at large may be under no special threat, but all that matters is that you perceive it as severely threatened, or at least that the world as it matters to you is so threatened, as with the Jews at many stages of their history, and as with the early Christians (Judaeo or Gentile) who were few in number, and as with anyone at any time who thinks things have come to such a badness that only divine intervention will save the day by bringing an end to the world as it is and replacing it with a better world.
Now very little is actually known about Zoroaster, but, if he existed literally, it seems he was a member of a pastoral, Indo-European tribe which at some time had found its way to the northeast corner of what is today’s Iran (where also, our geneticists tell us, ancestors of most people of European descent spent some time before wandering on). More aggressive and war-like people were pressing upon Zoroaster’s people from all sides, and apparently he foresaw the extinction of himself and his people unless God intervened. Zoroastrianism had a number of gods, but chief amongst them was Ahura Mazda (or Ormazd or Ormuzd), and it was to this god that Zoroaster appealed for an apocalyptic intervention, including a Judgment Day that would separate the sheep from the goats, the saved from the damned, once and for all, thus bringing to “the saved” a sort of heaven on earth, what later came to be called a “New Jerusalem.” God knows, the Old Jerusalem, of all ages, needed to be replaced, and still does!
The apocalyptic thinker imagines that the world is full of “bad people” (possessed by "evil spirits," in Zoroastrianism) who must be “cleansed” from the earth so that the earth can be a proper home for “the righteous” (those possessed by "good spirits," in Zoroastrianism). Apocalyptic thinkers tend to talk a lot about that which is “pure” and that which is “impure,” which is a development from the Zoroastrian melodrama of a war between "the forces of light" (Luke Skywalker) and "the forces of darkness" (Darth Vadar). The “righteous” and “their kind” are of course “pure.” Others are “impure” and must be “cleansed.” Genocide in the mode of melodrama, in short.
example of Nazi Germany, which took its apocalyptic sense of history, its
Nordic and anti-Jewish “Final Solution,” right out of the New Testament and,
ironically, the Jewish prophecy that made straight the way. St. John was so intensely angry with his
fellow Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in Jewish scripture
that he damned them as Satanic, consigned those who didn't convert to eternal
hellfire, and thus opened the door for all the purges and pogroms to
come. Hitler just ran with a ball
hiked to him by the Church and the
And thus too the former “Yugoslavia,” where Moslems, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Roman Catholic Christians saw each other as “impure” and would have “cleansed” the earth of such “impurity” if we had let them. Thus too today’s Israel/Palestine, where they’re fixing for a fight to the finish, after first getting the whole world involved in taking sides in a "Holy War." But not to worry--everything will be just fine after we kill all the Evil Doers.
another key element of apocalyptic thinking, from Zoroaster on—the war to end
all wars, the “Holy War”
that the Bible calls “Armageddon.”
Actually, the Bible doesn’t call it that; it just says
that the “Hill of Megiddo” (which is what “Armageddon” means) marks the
general area where the armies involved will gather before marching on to
Jerusalem for the battle.
believe in that final “Holy War” too, and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re
presently in. Osama bin Laden and his
surrogates lead a Moslem army, so to speak, convinced that the West must be
“cleansed” of infidels and brought to a Judgment of God. Some Shiite Moslems apparently think the
place where the war will begin is in what we call
Note that the chief originators and promoters of apocalyptic thinking are all male, however many females have since been attracted to this thinking. It seems the male imagination naturally turns to thoughts of all-out war. That’s always the best way to settle things, isn’t it? Last one standing, that sort of thing?
And note too that although theoretically it is always expected that God will start the Apocalypse, in practice it is always men who try to start the battle, in hopes of encouraging God to make His move. And that is why all actual attempts at an Apocalypse have been man-made, not God-made, and probably always will be. Osama bin Laden is just the latest hoping to get Allah to act like a real man. What drives the apocalyptic male nuts is God’s seeming reluctance to mix it up.
This leads to a consideration of the subtext of apocalyptic thinking, which will explain why men feel that they have to start the apocalyptic ball rolling. Consider what is being implied by apocalyptic thinking. It is implicitly a criticism of God! What apocalyptic thinking is really saying is this---“God, you really screwed up when you made this bad, bad world. We righteous people want a better world, one that recognizes our righteousness and rewards us properly for it. Quit stalling and make us a better world! And get rid of all these awful people who don’t see things as we do! We want to live amongst nothing but saints like ourselves!”
There is of course not a single religious leader of any apocalyptic-minded religion who will admit that this is the subtext of their apocalyptic thinking, for none of them would be caught dead criticizing the very God they are hoping will save them. So subterfuge is called for.
Sometimes the subterfuge takes the form of twisting the hate-filled Book of Revelation into an ironic expression of God's Love in His determination to destroy evil. A reverse symbolism is imposed by some in which the violent, warlike, hellfire imagery of a sadistic, vengeful warrior Jesus is read as a purely metaphorical expression of the extreme means to which a loving God will go to save your soul. "We had to destroy the village in order to save it," is the way it was put in the Vietnam War. And then it was Baghdad’s turn for a little “shock and awe”! But of course that is not the way symbolism works. The symbol and the thing symbolized cannot contradict; they must belong to the same linguistic field, positive or negative. If one wishes to claim that this is paradox rather than contradiction, the same rule applies—you cannot use “hate” to mean “love.” Or rather you can, but you defeat your ends by using words so irresponsibly and exposing your real feelings!
Another subterfuge is to shift the blame for a poorly made world ("poorly made" from the human perspective, of course, but one must grant that the universe seems to have been modeled after a demolition derby by a “creator” with the mentality of a 12-year-old boy who loves explosions! Or perhaps a better analogy for the universe revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope is that of a pool table “break”). Because there has always been a great reluctance on the part of the pious to blame God for the awful world they insist He created, they are forced to pretend that it is “Satan” or the “bad people” who have messed it up (especially that damned Eve and her apple! And that whore Mary Magdalene's another bad apple!), and thus their constant appeal to God that His divine patience with such “badness” come to an end. How long, O Lord?
The answer to "how long?" ironically appears at the end of “The Lord’s Prayer”: “Forever and ever, world without end, amen.” And so those who are thinking of piously gathering at some “holy place” in the expectation of a biblical Apocalypse coming to pass and perhaps an escape from it through some special door of “salvation” had better settle in for a long wait. To pass the time, recommended reading is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
*This very plausible argument is to be found in Elaine Pagel’s book Revelations, Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking), which has been well reviewed in The New Yorker of March 5, 2012 (p. 78) by Adam Gopnik.