• Debating ‘Twelve Counterpoints’ Part 2: Revelation

    In Joel Pearson’s and my article No Evidence for Jesus Mythicism, point #11 was:

    Revelation’s only named earthly locales for Jesus are Sodom and Egypt (11:8), explicitly noted as “allegorical,” and Jesus is also placed in the sky, even at birth(12:1-6), without the setting receiving a qualification as only ‘allegorical.’ This pattern is easier to explain if the author held a Plutarchian belief in which the true abode of the gods is in the upper air and that stories can be told about the gods on earth if they are “allegorical,” than if the author believed Jesus was born on earth and only figuratively born in the sky.

    One critic of mine noted that Revelation 12 begins with:

    And a great sign was seen in heaven: a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she crieth out, travailing in birth, and in pain to be delivered.”

    Aren’t the opening words here evidence that the ‘woman’ and her ordeal are figurative, unlike what I stated? In other words, is the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” simply the constellation Virgo (a ‘sign’)? The woman is also sometimes depicted ‘on earth,’ so this conflicts with a purely constellational identity.

    Nor are such reductive identities needed for other characters in the book: Jesus says ‘I am the bright and morning star’ (22:16); though it is certain this is not meant in a literal identity sense. Indeed, Jesus cannot be the ‘bright and morning star’ even though the Sumerian goddess of the bright and morning star, Ishtar, was a crucified and resurrecting goddess.

    How is that possible? Plutarch spoke of how various material and impersonal entities resemble Typhon and Osiris who he insists are personal, celestial beings and while these impersonal entities like moisture resemble Osiris due to “common design” or simply being of a similar abstract pattern to Osiris (sections 56 and 64). The bright and morning star is thus a natural phenomenon that is ‘made after the likeness’ of Christ’s life (at least, that seems to be the ancient conception, though do keep in mind the attributes of a personal celestial god might have been inferred from natural phenomena). Similarly, the Draco-chasing-Virgo pattern (assuming this is all that’s described in Revelation 12:1-6) could be being used by John to infer some event in the life of Christ. If so, we must ask whether John was inferring something about a terrestrial personal being named Jesus or a celestial personal being (like an angel) known as Jesus (‘the angel of Jesus Christ’ as Revelation knows him). The latter being a credible option not simply by inference from Plutarch’s writings but also because of Revelation’s own content: Satan is associated with Draco the constellation but Satan is fundamentally a personal being in the sky and an angel, with only a metaphorical presence on earth (matching how Jesus is not presented on Earth when the cosmic drama switches from the sky to the earth and the woman is pursued by the dragon on earth, who after pursuing Jesus in the sky begins pursuing ‘her other offspring’ on earth—explicitly noted to be the early church [12:17]).

    While Jesus is mentioned explicitly as a celestial being, journeying down to earth is not detailed at all, nor is any historical Jesus mentioned, leaving the celestial hypothesis a live option. Or is it?

    “Revelation’s only named earthly locales for Jesus are Sodom and Egypt” – he needs to read the context more carefully: “and their dead bodies will lie in the street of ** the great city ** that is *spiritually called* Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” (The Greek word πνευματικῶς technically means spiritually but is often taken to mean figuratively or allegorically here) – the Great City isn’t allegorical – calling the city Sodom and Egypt is figurative (meaning the city isn’t really called either Sodom or Egypt). Hebrew texts (like Jeremiah and Amos) occasionally liken the people of Jerusalem to the people of Sodom and Egypt. The author is only expressing the idea that Jerusalem is equivalent to Sodom and Egypt here (as other authors did).

    The identity of ‘the great city’ in Revelation is puzzling and probably multifarious: that is, the ‘great city’ is not just one place, but many places: it is Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, Jerusalem… Any place and time that follows after the ways of Satan or becomes like Satan is the great city. And it follows that, since Satan is not literally on earth but is literally in the sky (‘the prince of the air’) the earth locations are secondary and the sky is the primary location of ‘the great city.’ Thus, the passage about Jesus being crucified in Sodom and Egypt may very well mean the sky, or ‘the devil’s domain.’ P.G.R. De Villers* (p.133) quotes a french commentator who says,

    “Our author deliberately gives Jerusalem the very name that designates the capital of the pagan world: it is the intention of this whole passage to show that the world where the prophetic ministry of the Church is exercised is at both the holy place where aspiring the faithful and the domain of Satan, the sanctuary delivered to the pagans.”

    One thing is for certain: the great city is not Jerusalem. De Villers again:

    “Now it is clear that this pronouncement in chapter 11:8 makes little sense as the reference is to the earthly Jerusalem, especially if the book was written in 90 A D after the destruction of the city. Charles (1920:288) wrote: ‘Jerusalem was, therefore, the city meant both by the original writer and also by our author. And yet the latter cannot have taken the entire section literally, for Jerusalem no longer existed in his time.” (p.133)


    “The literal reference to Jerusalem is of course immediately questioned preceding remark that the city is also allegorically…Sodom and Egypt. Scholars who related this phrase to Rome rather than Jerusalem, claimed as proof other verses in The Apocalypse of John in which the great city refers to Rome – according to their reading of this (16:19; 17:18; 18:10ff), as well as the inexplicable fact that Jerusalem would hardly present a threat to the readers of the book, should be denoted by a symbol. In the time of this book, the only real threat to the community would be the Roman state. It would, according to them, be understood why Rome would be represented by a symbol, because Rome could be dangerous to Christians…

    ’the expression great city that is the moral and spiritual equivalent of Sodom and Egypt refers clearly the oppressive power of Rome since the Romans were legally responsible
    for the execution of Jesus.’

    “Scholars who identify Rome as the referent of the great city, struggle to interpret the phrase that the city was the place where the Lord was crucified then see Rome as the guilty partner to the death of Christ, or to the extended death of Christ through the crucifixion of Peter. The two witnesses in this instance would be Peter and Paul.
    “All these attempts try to make sense of the symbols by relating them in some way or other to a specific historical referent. By doing this, scholars are in fact inverting the purpose of the author with his symbols. They move away from the symbolic and exhaust the meaning of the symbol by finding a historical referent for it.

    “The phrase that the great city is ‘allegorically’ called Sodom and Egypt, is, as was said, a clear indication of the symbolic nature of this passage. This is confirmed by an investigation of the ‘great city,’ which is mentioned in 16:19, this time in connection with Babylon, although without identifying it explicitly with Babylon. Later, in chapter 18, where the great city is repeatedly men-
    tioned (18:10,16,18,19,21), the identification with Babylon is clear (cf v 10 and 21). The meaning of chapter 11:8 should be determined in the light of these references to the great city. How intricate the relationships, syntagmatically and paradigmatically, become, is clear from 17:18 is identified with the harlot of chapter 17. Now the city, the harlot, symbols like Jerusalem, Sodom and Egypt become a unit-forces which are responsible for the persecution of the church- and should be read together (syntagmatically and paradigmatically) to determine their individual meanings adequately. To my mind the key to the meaning of the city can be found in the explanation the author gives in 17:18 and 15:

    And the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth (17:18).
    The waters that you saw, where the harlot is seated, are people and multitudes and nations and tongues (17:15).

    “All this indicates how elusive symbols in The Apocalypse of John can be. They do not really function as allegories, referring to historical events and characters. This, in turn, makes it very difficult to determine historic references of symbols and the social situation of the book.”

    Ultimately, I am not absolutely certain that Revelation places Jesus’ life in the sky or in an unspecified location on Earth (either option is compatible with mythicism), though the celestial Jesus is a viable hypothesis and eminently supportable. One thing I do feel very confident in is that we cannot positively infer that anything like the standard gospel story, with Jesus literally dying in Jerusalem, was on John’s mind when he wrote Revelation. It simply is not evident anywhere in the text. The only ‘brothers’ of Jesus Revelation knows of are “those who keep the commands of God,” with literal brothers nowhere in sight. Contrary to what many seem to believe the book of Revelation cannot offer us any positive evidence for an historical Jesus, thus widening the silence of Paul, Hebrews, and 1 Clement.


    *Villiers, P G R de. “The Lord Was Crucified in Sodom and Egypt. Symbols in the Apocalypse of John.” Neotestamentica22, no. 1 (1988): 125–38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43070348.

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    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."