Ancient Roman sources, some written before the traditional date of Revelation and some written after it, provide very helpful social and legal observations that shed indirect light on the conundrum of the perennial hostility of various cultures toward the followers of Christ. One could quote the Gospel of John where Jesus states, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18), but that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered regarding the reasons that people were hostile to Christians. One of the factors in the complexity of the issue is that the animosities against Christianity are rarely homogenous; they varied from generation to generation, from culture to culture, and from locale to locale. Moreover, if the public face of Christianity varied, then so could the responses to it. A modern example demonstrates how different the public face of Christianity could be even within similar locations. Within less than a half-century and within the same American State, two colleges associated with Churches of Christ existed, one (Cordell College, Cordell, Oklahoma) known for anti-Americanism during World War One and the other (Oklahoma Christian College, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) known for strong ties to conservative Americanism. Some Christians associated with Cordell College were persecuted/imprisoned during World War One for their pacifism, which would not have happened to anyone associated with more nationalistically oriented Churches of Christ Colleges.
However, the diversity of the charges against Christians differed not only because followers of Christ differed, but also because their critics differed. A Christian author named Marcus Minucius Felix, probably of the late second or early third centuries AD, had to refute charges that followers of Christ were cannibals, or practiced incest since they called one another “brother and sister.” The anti-Christian slur from Caecilius Natalis, the pagan detractor that Minucius Felix addresses, that Christianity is a “religion of [sexual] lust” is beyond the pale of belief, unless one wants to believe that same charge when it is made against ancient Jews by anti-Semitic Roman authors.
I want now to focus on one particular kind of criticism of early Christianity, namely that it was seditious and a threat to Roman national security. At Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), for example, fanatical anti-Christians brought political charges against the Christian mission on the basis of accusations whose accuracy (from a Christian perspective) would make a tabloid paper look like the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“ . . . a mob formed and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil” (Acts 17:5-8).
At one level, this slander brought against the Pauline mission in Thessalonica presupposed that a group of Jewish Christians in pagan Macedonia were actually going to try to make a fellow Jew named “Jesus” the Roman Emperor? Really?
Light can be shed on this episode from what is known about the Emperor Cult as well as local patriotism in the early Roman world. Until about forty years or so ago it was very common to hear ancient historians and New Testament scholars characterize emperor worship in the early empire as a dry, perfunctory, religious duty, devoid of any true devotion or personal loyalty to the emperor and his family. This older view has now largely been overthrown. This reversal of understanding arose from the discovery of more inscriptions and papyri, better understanding of imperial temples in urban landscapes, and less “monotheistic” assumptions about emperor worship.”
Based upon the major work left to us by the Roman Emperor Augustus (Res Gestae Divi Augusti, The Achievements of the Divine Augustus), we know that cities and provinces regularly took an oath of allegiance to the emperor and his family. One such “pledge of allegiance” was discovered in central Turkey, dating from the year 3 BC. Those inhabitants of Paphlagonia swear in the presence of “Zeus, Earth, Sun, all the gods and goddesses, and Augustus himself” to make decisions about friends and enemies based upon someone’s attitude toward the Roman Emperor and his family. Moreover, this loyalty to the emperor continues “all the time of my life,” and it is so comprehensive that it includes one’s “word and deed and thought.” According to this pledge, a loyal subject is to report not only possible actions against the emperor, but even words that are spoken against the emperor and his family.
This emotive oath include words of self-condemnation if the oath taker fails to uphold the obligations of loyalty mentioned in the oath. It is stated in these powerful terms of devotion, “I pray that there may come upon myself, my body and soul and life, my children and all my family and whatever is of use to us, destruction, total destruction till the end of all my line and off all my descendants.” It is little wonder, then, that such xenophobia and hysteria occurs in some locations when early Christian evangelists proclaimed that Jesus is Lord or King, terms also used to designate the Roman Emperor.
Link to English translation of Greek oath of allegiance
In my judgment one is better prepared to appreciate parts of Revelation if he has been exposed to The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. When a believer is exposed to The Chronicles of Narnia he knows immediately that he stands in the presence of the truest story of all stories, the “deepest magic” that exists. Narnia doesn’t need to be allegorized, de-mythologized, or particularized, it just needs to be told and experienced. Similarly, there is a profound depth to the magical language found by Revelation.
I suspect that the prophet John would be aghast if he were to see how the truth and magic of some of his scenes were dismantled and cast off by later literalists who had no sense, or at least no sense of the reality of the imaginative and magical depictions given by John. How could anyone familiar with the imaginative narratives and visions used by certain prophets of the Old Testament, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Amos, anticipate any less from the prophet John?
John’s scenes of the “four living creatures” who reside in the vicinity of God’s throne is a case in point. With total disregard for the details of accuracy, John tells a truth that does not rely upon literalism, and he understands that attempts at harmonization are more than inappropriate; they would be detrimental. John mentions the “four living creatures” in Revelation chapters four, five, six, seven, fourteen, fifteen, and nineteen, and almost all interpreters of this material believe that John’s imagery stems from Ezekiel chapter one. Unless the “four living creatures” of Ezekiel chapter one have died off and been replaced by an evolved species, then there really is no easy way to harmonize their descriptions in Ezekiel and Revelation.
If I can rather easily see that in Ezekiel chapter one each of the four living creatures had four faces, for a total of sixteen faces, while in Revelation each of the four living creatures had only one face each, for a total of four faces, then I am confident that ancient Jewish and Christian believers could see the same. John clearly was not so bereft of math skills that he could not see this noticeable difference.
In the prophetic imagination given to John (Rev. 1:1), these types of scenes are arrayed in Revelation to capture the heart, mind, and soul of believers. Those early Asian believers that John addresses, who face hostilities and perhaps death, are surely more energized by a tableau from the unseen world than by a rigidity of thought that smothers all reliance upon the deeper magic of John’s visions. The magical realities of these scenes of prophetic imagination sweep away the feeble efforts of those with little or no respect for the truths contained in prophetic imagination, an imagination that employs a spiritual dialect that easily converses with the profound magic of John’s Revelation.
I will end as I began, with a quotation from C. S. Lewis (provided to me by a friend and student of C. S. Lewis, Corey Latta). On the whole topic of the need for discourse about God and his truth to be expressed both in literal and imaginary language (cf. Letters to Malcolm 21) Lewis wrote, “The whole subject [of theology and God and feelings] was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could” (Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said).