Back in September I decided to test my Koine comprehension by reading Revelation in Greek. Why Revelation? Because I wanted to see if it would make more sense in Greek, if I would see connections, a pattern, or repeated themes in the Greek that I had not noticed in the English.
Turns out that this particular NT book was a good place to start for two reasons. First, much of the vocabulary used in Rev. chapter one was already familiar to me thanks to the lessons in my Greek textbook. This early success gave me the confidence to keep going as vocabulary that I hadn’t studied yet began to appear with more frequency. Second, many of these unfamiliar terms get repeated a lot in Revelation, and that repetition helped me quickly memorize new Greek words. For example, see it enough times and you too will remember that νεφελῶν means “clouds” or σάλπιγγος means “trumpet”.
The same week that I started in on Greek Revelation chapter one, I visited the local library, noticed the Elaine Pagels book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation on the “Just In” shelf, thought it might be helpful, and checked it out.
The book did help in the sense that it had me paying attention to the allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation. Pagels thesis is that Revelation was written by a non-Pauline Christian, one of those Christians who was opposed to such things as eating food sacrificed to idols, Christians staying married to pagans, and Christian converts remaining uncircumcised. The similarities between Revelation and the Pentateuch might be evidence of a Jewish-Christian author.
Paul referred to his opponents as ψευδαδέλφους (false brothers) in Gal. 2:4 and τινας ἀπὸ Ἰακώβου (some from James) in Gal. 2:12. Pagels concludes that Revelation was written by someone from that branch of Christianity, the branch that wanted to preserve Jewish purity practices and was actively contradicting Paul’s teachings.
The OT-ishness of Revelation was not what struck me when I read the Greek, however. Instead, the point to which I keep coming back and with which I continue to wrestle (even though it’s been over a month since I finished reading the Greek) is the number of times people prostrate (προσκυνέω) themselves before the Divine. The term is translated “worship,” which does not convey the sense of submission that the Greek προσκυνέω does.
References to prostration include--
The 24 elders (and sometimes the 4 living creatures) fall on their faces and προσεκύνησαν (4:10; 5:14; 7:11 11:16; 19:4)
John is given a reed and told to measure the temple including those who προσκυνοῦντας before God’s altar (11:1)
The faithful sing about a future time when all the nations will προσκυνήσουσιν before God (15:4).
An angel tells the nations to προσκυνήσατε themselves to God (14:7).
Christ assures the faithful of the church in Philadelphia that he will make the synagogue of Satan (liars who say they are Jews but are not) προσκυνήσουσιν themselves before his true believers (3:9).
The unfaithful προσεκύνησαν themselves before idols, the dragon, and the beast (9:20; 13:8,14,12; 14:11; 16:2; 19:20). An angel warns of the consequences of προσκυνεῖ before the beast and its image (Rev. 14:9). Those who did not προσκυνήσωσιν themselves to false gods and were killed as a result (13:15) will be brought back to life and will reign with Christ during the millenium (20:4).
Twice when an overwhelmed John προσκυνῆσαι before an angel, both times he is ordered to stop and προσκύνησον himself before God instead (19:10; 22:8, 9).
It wasn’t clear to me why all of this prostration left me feeling uneasy until recently when I was reminded of Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s concept of the kin-dom. The kin-dom is the right relationships that will exist between people when the teachings of Jesus are followed. It is an egalitarian ideal and is consistent with other feminist critiques of hierarchies. Because of the corruption of human hierarchies, the feminist theologians I studied in the late 1980s looked for models for God that replaced the very hierarchy in which Revelation was revelling. Dis-ease diagnosed.
Feminist theology exposed the problem with hierarchies. Eventually, the people at the top of these social constructions will try to claim God’s authority for themselves. They can’t stop themselves from committing this blasphemy because authoritarianism is the essential nature of a hierarchy. Furthermore, when the inevitable happens and they elevate themselves above others, they will expect their subordinates to show them due deference in one form or another. This condemnation of hierarchies was so thorough that it felt unseemly to attribute a hierarchy to God.
After reading Greek Revelation in conjunction with Pagels and in light of Isasi-Díaz, I realized that I was more comfortable with a horizontal plane of interpersonal relationships (Christian social ethics) and not at all comfortable with a vertical model of a God above humans who are face-first in the dirt. That uncomfortable, uneasy feeling was a clue that I needed to integrate the horizontal and vertical.
This is where Pagels is helpful again because she speculates on the attitudes the Jewish-Christians might have had toward the Roman Empire and its cultic practices. Pagels concludes that Revelation is an excoriation of a government that is trying to supplant the one and only true hierarchy. The readers are to reject the false pretentions of the Empire and prostrate themselves to God alone.
Feminist theology and Revelation both denounce human hierarchies, however they have different starting points. The feminist critique is based on historical evidence, “Look at what these hierarchies have done in the past! Based on past experience, this is what we can expect in the future if they are allowed to continue!”
The Revelation critique is based on a sacred history, “There is a God. This God is the Grand Poobah. This is the Truth whether folks accept it or not. (And most of them will not.)” Or in the words of Rev. 14: 6, 7-- “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. προσκυνήσατε to the one who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
The image of a divine King on a throne surrounded by face-planted humans still makes me uneasy. Rather than rejecting this image out of hand, since reading Pagels I am now trying to sit with the discomfort and await a resolution. The resolution will look something like a critique of all forms of human arrogance (including my own), a trust in a benevolent Παντοκράτωρ who has ordered all things, is ordering all things, and will order all things, and a commitment to cooperating with this on-going divine mission.