Apocalypse then and now: The classic example of the Bible as wartime literature

Second of four excerpts from 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem' leading up to the symposium 'Religion and the Quest to Control Violence'

Photo/Mike Lovett

Interior detail of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

This is the second of four excerpts being presented by BrandeisNOW from James Carroll's new book "Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World." The book is a centerpiece of the symposium "Religion and the Quest to Control Violence" on Monday, March 14, in Sherman Function Hall. Following a talk by Carroll, leading scholars from the Brandeis faculty and around the country will discuss and critique Carroll's argument that religions represent human efforts to understand and restrain the impulse to violence.

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From Chapter 4: Apocalypse Now

As if resolving the great biblical and Gospel ambivalence about violence, the last word, and last book, of the Christian Bible is the Book of Revelation, also known as Apocalypse, the Greek word for "unveiling." Although a marginal reading of the Christian story (neither Orthodox Christians nor Martin Luther affirmed its place in the canon), Revelation represents one of the most powerful reactions to the Gospel, and it taps into a much broader apocalyptic stream that runs from Jewish antecedents like Daniel (as we already saw) to the movement sparked by John the Baptist to the first impulses of St. Paul - all the way forward to millenarian movements in the Middle Ages and Pentecostalism in the modern era. The apocalyptic imagination gives expression to the experience of crisis. Uncertainty, physical fear, social disorder, a radical sense of alienation, these are the seeds of the apocalypse, and the canonized Christian example of the genre is a masterpiece. In the faith of terrified believers, Revelation has always held a place of primacy. It reads like a battle manual, ordering "a spasmic paroxysm of divine violence by the returning Christ." Famine, earthquake, mass slaughter, rivers of blood, lakes of fire, a cosmic showdown between armies of good and forces of evil - ultimately the catastrophic end of the world. Never has violence been more vividly portrayed. But all of this was not the product of a fevered imagination. Dream-like visions, yet it was no dream. Revelation was written in the 90s, nearly halfway between Jerusalem's first destruction by the Romans and its final and total obliteration in 135. We have referred to the Bible as wartime literature, but as an example of that genre, this book is in a class by itself. War - real war, as experienced by raped women and orphaned children and maimed fighters and enslaved survivors - is its ground. Its meaning. Its alarm.

Revelation seems to reflect the preoccupations of Jesus communities in the cities of Asia Minor. Written by one who identifies himself as "John," living on the Greek island of Patmos, the text was addressed to those Christians as a promise and a consolation, an assurance to people on the losing side of a violent struggle that they would ultimately win. The decisive victory would be at a battle between God's armies and Satan's at Armageddon, which refers to a plain outside Jerusalem. In Christian memory, Roman persecution of the late first and early second centuries was for the most part aimed at the baptized, especially under the brutal Domitian, who rivaled Nero for psychopathic violence. Domitian's reign of terror ran through the period of Revelation's composition in the 90s. In effect, the battle of Armageddon had begun - the battle of Christian life in an empire that hated Christ. In fact, though, Domitian targeted Jews as much as Christians, and probably failed to draw much distinction between them. This emperor nurtured the antipathy toward Jews that his predecessors had indulged in a more or less unending war, which would soon reach its savage climax. Throughout the time of the Palestine-centered Roman war against the Jews (70-135), Jewish communities were targeted, as we noted, by Roman legions across the Mediterranean, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Cyprus. Expressly Christian martyrdom surely took place in this period, but that violence paled in comparison to the ongoing campaign that the empire was waging against the Jews wherever they had significant settlements. With Revelation, the Roman war against the Jews, which is astonishingly absent from the Gospels, makes its explicit entry into the Christian narrative, even if later Christians fail to read it that way.

Twentieth-century scholarship mainly emphasized that Jesus himself was an apocalypticist - the point of his being identified, or identifying himself, with the "Son of Man" from Daniel. Surely his vision assumed a great struggle between God and God's enemies, centered in the blasphemous imperial occupation of Israel. But Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels resisted a good-versus-evil dualism, upending such categories by criticizing the pious and befriending the ignominious. Jesus was historically minded, not mystically minded. Picking up the theme of his mentor John the Baptist, he expected that God's reign would transform the situation of God's people, not in some far-off future or a distant heaven, but in the near term - a transformation of Israel on the earth that meant the actual defeat of Rome. Jesus was wrong, but his first followers picked up the theme, with Paul especially giving expression to an urgent apocalyptic hope, defined as the expectation that Jesus "the Christ" would return soon to establish God's reign. Paul was wrong. In these disappointments began the transformation of Christian meaning.

Jesus was understood as affirming the present reign of God, and as defining his purpose as one of bringing life, life to the full, here and now. "The time is fulfilled" was his watchword. "Blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see." What you see in front of you - here and now in his own person and in his ministry. The technical term for what Jesus preached is "realized eschatology," the End Time having broken into the present time. As such, in the words of the scholar James D. G. Dunn, this teaching "forms a decisive break with the apocalypticism of Jesus' time" - a break, probably, even with his mentor John the Baptist. The present is absolute because God is present. Jesus preached nothing but the immediate nearness of God.

In this preaching, therefore, earth was not devalued in favor of heaven, fleshly life was not devalued in favor of spiritual life, nor was "this" life devalued in favor of afterlife. This can be seen in the one pronounced difference between Jesus, who loved socializing at banquets, and John, who renounced sumptuous fare in favor of locusts. But as the years passed and the various traumas inflicted themselves on those who followed Jesus - from his brutal death to his failure to return after the resurrection; from the destruction of the Temple two generations after Jesus to the obliteration of Jerusalem yet another two generations later - those followers found it impossible to cling to what had to seem a facile belief in the immediate nearness of God, in the good things of life. Indeed, God had never seemed more absent, and that is why the spirit of a flesh-denying (present-denying) apocalypticism informed their recast hope. After Jesus, and despite his carefully recorded preaching of the present reign of God, the religion that was formed in his name partially carried the characteristics of an eschatological sect within Judaism. That shows itself in parts of the Christian scripture (for example, in the way the destruction of Jerusalem is "foretold" in Mark 13, and in the earliest writings of Paul, 1 and 2 Thessalonians), but where it really finds expression is in Revelation.

As the violence of the Roman war destroyed the mother community of the Christian movement in Jerusalem and threatened other communities elsewhere, an urgent apocalypticism once more seized the religious imaginations of Christians, as it had seized the Jewish religious imagination in such crisis. (Even though the books of Daniel and Revelation are the only two clear examples of the apocalyptic genre in the canonical Bible, there were dozens of such works circulating among Jews and Christians in the biblical era.) And central to that religious vision, in the 90s as much as two and a half centuries before, was the warrior God, engaged in a dualistic cosmic struggle, a final battle, against God's enemies.

War is the problem to which the apocalyptic vision responds, but it does so as a justification and celebration of war as the proper answer to war. It is as if the thousand-year-old biblical struggle against the tragedy and cost of brutal coercive force as experienced at the militant crossroads of so many empires and armies has been distilled to an essence of killing. Revelation offers a formulaic summary of the human condition as defeated in the long struggle against violence: the human race doomed to a mass suicide from which it can be rescued only after the fact, and magically.

The first coming of Jesus was as a Lamb, but, having been slaughtered, in Revelation the Lamb comes as one bearing wrath, a killer Lamb. The Lamb, so the book says, summons 144,000 armed fighters to Mount Zion, and the Lamb is named as the target of the armies of evil. The vision is notable for combining the historical Jesus, the anointed Christ, and the Lord who will come again soon - but this complex affirmation is mainly accomplished in the language of symbols. None is more pointed than Jesus as the Lamb. The scene of the Lamb's appearance is expressly sacrificial: a temple, an altar, the killing table. This Lamb is victorious precisely in being put to death; the victim is the victor. And his victory extends to all who have been victimized. The book's author stands before the sacrificial altar and writes, "I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?'" And the promise comes in reply that the enemy is "soon to be killed."

The Bible began, as we saw in Chapter Three, when exiled Jews reinvented their religious identities in Babylon, in reaction to the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Monotheism came into its own then, with the Oneness of God experienced as a principle of unifying peace among all nations. With this sense of God's Oneness, humans had a deity against whom to measure their own impulses and work to change them. Hebrew religion was revivified as a religion of compassion and empathy, its god a God to be honored in acts of loving-kindness toward the neighbor. But that memory of Babylon is reversed in Revelation by a present experience of a "new Babylon" - a reference to Rome, the destroyer of the second Temple. Babylon One and Babylon Two: the twice-ravaged Jerusalem brackets this ultimate revelation. And, against the great insight into the Oneness of God, and therefore the Oneness of all that exists, the first eff ect of this new revelation is to see the cosmos itself as broken in two. With apocalyptic literature, dualism - the idea that creation is split between equally powerful forces of good and evil - takes the religious imagination hostage.

The more humane notion is that experienced oppositions represent an interior self-alienation, not the structure of a bipolar reality. But such self-alienation is a first consequence of violent threat, never more than when a war has entered the death zone where a people are fighting for survival. In the death zone, it is kill or be killed. Of course, in a situation of such life-and-death peril, the enemy is experienced as evil, and of course, in that extremity, the experience is magnified from the local to the cosmic. That magnification is built into the survival mechanism: this is all there is, and if God is on our side, it is inconceivable that God can be on the enemy's side. Consequently, there is no Oneness. At the heart of existence there is radical conflict. This conflict. Kill!

Those who lived through the Roman destruction of Jewishness in Palestine, centered on ravaged Jerusalem, naturally understood what happened as having happened to the whole world. To them, that is what Jerusalem was. And this was experienced not only by the Jews living in besieged Jerusalem but by all who understood themselves in its terms - certainly including the post-Temple rabbis and Jesus people. For their heirs, Jews and Christians both, the destruction of Jerusalem is what gives us our religion, and the destruction of Jerusalem, despite all else, defines the heart of our religion. In Revelation, this is made explicit when the destroyer emperor Nero, who launched the Roman war against the Jews and first ordered assaults on Christians in Rome, is specifically identified as "the beast whose number is 666." But Nero is named as one on whom revenge must be inflicted. War requires war. Here is the irony for Christians, though: this clear, apocalyptic demonizing of the imperial beast morphed quickly into a demonizing of the Christians' fellow victims of that beast, with other New Testament texts resolutely refusing to portray Romans in a negative light - even the Passion narratives, with Romans rendered as supremely reluctant executioners.

Within a few years of Revelation's anti-Roman division of the cosmos between the forces of God and those of Satan, the fourth and final Gospel, also attributed to John and composed a decade or so later, reproduced this dualism, but did so, as we saw, by defining as the "sons of Satan" not Romans, but Jews. Good-versus-evil apocalypticism was conscripted into the argument between Jesus-believing Jews and those Jews who rejected Jesus, which is why the Gospel of John represents the most extreme denigration of "the Jews" in the New Testament. Again, the bipolar structure of the Christian imagination, especially once Gentiles dominated the Church after the Roman war eliminated most Jewish Christians, defined the cosmic struggle as against Jews, who were cast in the role of the paradigmatic negative other against whom the Church affirmed its positive identity.

Against God's enemy, in Revelation, Jesus himself is seen setting the avengers loose, for the Lamb's function, in John's vision, is to open each of seven seals on the fate-defining scroll that God holds in his right hand. With each opened seal comes a savage assault, culminating in the ghastly "four horsemen" of conquest, war, famine, and plague. But it is not only Rome against whom this fury is brought - "Babylon the Great" - but the entire sinful world. The cosmos-destroying Jesus, treading the grapes of wrath, "the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty," transforms all creation by its destruction. Redemption comes through violence, and this, finally, is what makes violence sacred.

Christians of tender conscience have wanted to reject Revelation as not being truly representative of their religion. But this unambiguous sanctification of revenge and doom only proves the truth of biblical inspiration - biblical inspiration bound by what is true - "human nature being what it is," in our mantra from Thucydides. The apocalyptic mindset, with its dualism, carries this pessimism to a whole new level with the division of time into the present age of wickedness and a future age of glory; its division of space into the doomed world here "below" and the joy of heaven "above." Temporal dualism and spatial dualism combine to denigrate the here and now, a denigration that has proven to be history's most potent source of violence against the earth and its inhabitants - violence carried out in this world in the name of another world; life assaulted for the sake of afterlife. Only in the hereafter does God's reign of justice, mercy, and peace apply. In the by-and-by, therefore, anything goes.

Revelation makes explicit the perversion that implicitly infects the other foundational texts of Christian faith, especially those that end scapegoating by scapegoating. Revelation's inclusion in the New Testament gives the lie to Christian claims to be only a religion of love, and forecasts the bloody mayhem that will be the mark of Christian sway almost everywhere it holds - certainly including the Crusader kingdom, but also including, centuries hence, the republic whose "grapes of wrath" battle hymn is drawn from this text.

The Jesus who rebuked Peter for drawing his sword now arrives with a sword coming out of his mouth, and while that image had a symbolic reference to scripture, which is elsewhere called a "two-edged sword" for being just and merciful, Christian readers of Revelation saw a weapon pure and simple, not a symbol. Indeed, the text has Jesus giving up his tender role as Lamb to come down from heaven on a white warhorse, assuming the role of grand marshal in the transcendent battle of good against evil. And the sword of Jesus swings not just against Rome but against every living thing. This is the apocalypse gone berserk. The consummation of history, which in Isaiah was to be God's heavenly banquet, "a feast of fat things, full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined," has become, in the ultimate Christian vision, a feast for vultures encircling a vast smoldering ruin: "the lake of fire that burns with brimstone"; a wasteland of corpses, "and all the birds are gorged with their flesh." And where does this eschatological travesty take place but in an otherwise golden city that is expressly defined by the absence of the Temple: "I saw the holy city . . . and in the city I saw no Temple, for its Temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb." And what is this fire-purified, sword-swept place but our "New Jerusalem"?

Excerpted from JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM by James Carroll. Copyright (c) 2011 by James Carroll. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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