The paradox of John’s use of Scripture has been pointed out by many, many scholars who write on the book of Revelation, namely that John’s prophetic work is replete with allusions to the Jewish Scriptures, but seemingly never quotes from them. From chapter 1 through 22 there is virtually no block of verses that is fully intelligible without viewing it through the lens of the OT Scriptures. We will never know about the people in the pews of John’s congregations [similar to today] whether they grasped most of John’s imagery and allusions, but we can affirm with certainty that for the prophet John the Scriptures were the necessary foundation for his message, his theology, and his ministry against the undulating forces of assimilation overwhelming some of the congregations of Roman Asia.
It is no coincidence that in a time when the Hellenistic-Roman cultures contemporary with the early church were attempting to force the followers of Christ into their mold that Christian leaders drank deeply from the wells of Scripture in order to resist this assimilation to ungodly ways. Given the thematic connections between Revelation and the Synoptic Gospels, John in all probability was aware of Jesus’ own remarkable reliance upon Scripture during his post-baptismal temptations (Matt. 4:1-11).
It is helpful to see John’s own dependence upon Scripture during a time of persecution and the martyrdom of saints with what others did in similar circumstances. The period of Seleucid hegemony over the land of Israel by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175-164 BC) comes to mind. A pogrom against all Jewish religion and practices was begun (167-165 BC), including the desecration of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the threat of death to all who opposed. These events of oppression began the Maccabean Revolt by Jewish resistance fighters. They both fought against Seleucid oppressors and Jewish sympathizers with paganism. The recapture and purification of the Jerusalem Temple began the Festival of Lights (=Hanukkah).
Antiochus IV Epiphanes
Berlin Museum Wikimedia Creative Commons
What is interesting about the Seleucid attack upon Judaism is that the orders of Antiochus IV Epiphanes was not only to suppress Jewish practices and laws, but to destroy their Scriptures. The policy was described this way in one contemporary source,
The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns (1 Macc. 1:56-58).
Clearly the total destruction of the Jewish Scriptures was high on the list of those leading this attack upon God’s people, in all probability because they knew that without their Scriptures the Jewish people were vulnerable to syncretism and the abandonment of their faith.
Moving next to the period of the so-called “Great Persecution,” begun in AD 303 under Diocletian, we have firsthand testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to the church building-by-church building and house-by-house search by pagan officials. While searching at church buildings the Roman government was looking for valuables and church property; all of it was taken and sold, and the price went to the government. Except, they were also insistent to demand all the church’s writings and Scriptures. These had no market value, obviously, and were simply destroyed. Leaving the church buildings they then went to the homes of any church leaders or officials who might own or possess copies of the Scriptures. In the records from one North African location, a pagan official, “Felix the perpetual flamen [=Roman priest of Roman gods] and guardian of the state” went from house-to-house demanding all copies of the Bible. According to the official proceedings his demands to Christians went like this,
(1) “Bring forth whatever Scriptures you have, that you may obey the decree.”
(2) “Bring forth the Scriptures. [We know] You have more.”
(3) “Look and see whether you have not got more. Bring them forth.”
(4) “Go in and search whether she has not any more.”
During this “Great Persecution” some Christians in North Africa cooperated with the attitudes and directives of the 2nd beast described by John in Revelation 13:11-18. Some denied Christ, some betrayed other Christians, and some just reported to the State where copies of the Scriptures could be found. Fellow Christians reported to the government, for example, that the Christians Felix, Victorinus, and Projectus had copies of the Bible. When Felix the perpetual flamenand guardian of the state “came to the house of Felix, the worker in marbles, he brought forth five codices. And when they came to the house of Victorinus, he brought forth eight codices. And when they came to the house of Projectus, he brought forth five large and two small codices.”
Some Christians knew how foundational the possession and knowledge of the Scriptures were, and they refused to cooperate; they abandoned their own lives and welfare for the sake of the congregation’s possession of Scripture. The official record continues,
Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius and Catullinus:
“Show us the lectors [=readers of Scripture].”
Marcuclius and Catullinus said:
“We do not know where they live.”
Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Catullinus and Marcuclius:
“If you do not know where they are living, tell us their names.”
Catullinus and Marcuclius said:
“We are not Traitors; behold we are here. Order us to be killed.”
Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said:
“Let them be taken into custody.”
When in AD 303 a Christian bishop from the African town of Tibiuca refused to surrender the “books and parchments” which were under his care as bishop, he was sent, as was usual, to Rome to be beheaded [Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995, pp. 145-48 for these ancient texts].
|Diocletian, Emperor AD 284-305
Wikimedia Creative Commons
Although the particular forms of resistance necessarily differed among the Maccabeans, John the prophet, and faithful Christians during the time of the “Great Persecution,” they all shared the common conviction that knowledge and use of Scripture were tantamount to faithfulness among congregations of God’s people. Although the State certainly wanted the revenue from selling the possessions of individual congregations, it often first and foremost sought copies of Scriptures to destroy in order to deprive Christians and congregations of them. The famous church historian Eusebius (AD 263-339) had lived through persecutions and reported seeing the hostile pagan government burning the church’s Scripture in the agoras. As the pagan Emperor Diocletian himself knew, “every Christian community, wherever it might be, had a collection of books and knew that those books were essential to its viability” [Gamble, Books and Readers, p. 150], an insight into Christian viability by a pagan Roman Emperor that seems lost on significant sections of modern Christendom.
The removal of Scripture from the life of God’s people will subtly, but inevitably, detour God’s people from the small and narrow, one lane, road down which it travels on its journey to eternal life, and will redirect it to the high-speed, pick-your-own-lane, bespangled with distracting billboards, kind of freeway that routes one to eternal destruction (Matt. 7:13-14). Loss of reliance upon Scripture, whether through seduction or brute force, will always fertilize the seeds of assimilation and syncretism.