Babylon and New Jerusalem: A Polemic against Hybridity (Part V)

Part II: A Polemic against Hybridity (continued)

The economic critique of Babylon begins not with Revelation 17, but with the critiques found in the letters to the seven ekklēsiai in Revelation 2 and 3. Here we see the wealth of Laodicea being labeled “poverty” (Rev. 3:14–22), while the lack of wealth at Smyrna is regarded as true wealth (Rev. 2:8–11). Why does John mock wealth here and reverse the status of the wealthy and the poor? The answer lies in how the economic, political, and religious systems in Roman times were inextricably tied up with one another.[1] While in modern Western culture religion operates separately from economics and politics, in the Roman Empire these concepts were tied together. In order to preserve the pax Romana, the pax deum had to be assured through the carrying out of religious rituals; economic strength depended upon adherence to religious observances. Additionally, religious piety directed towards the Roman imperial cult was how Roman cities supported the Empire and gained imperial favor for themselves. Throughout the Roman provinces, minus the notable exception of the province of Judaea, there was strong competition for imperial favor by competing for coveted titles of neokoros. Cities won these titles by showing their loyalty to the Emperor, demonstrated through the displays of loyalty and divine honor to Roman emperors known as the imperial cult.

John objects to the fact that some of his readers are eating food offered to idols (Rev. 2:14-15, 20) because, in doing so, they are effectively propping up the religious and economic orders of the imperial culture.[2] In Asia Minor, the church at Pergamum is criticized for the teachings of “Balaam” and “the Nicolaitans” (Rev. 2:15; cf. Num. 22–24), while the church at Thyatira “tolerate[s] that woman Jezebel” (Rev. 2:20; cf. 1 Kgs 18:1–19). The context suggests that the teaching of Balaam is the same as the teachings of the Nicolaitans, and that Jezebel is a name specific to an individual at Thyatira, with the teachings of this individual being described in identical terms to that of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:14–15).[3] The Nicolaitans are those who chose to assimilate themselves to the norms of polis, including consuming meat in socio-religious situations. In Revelation, the Nicolatians are the epitome of hybridity and John desires to excise them from the ekklēsiai, for it not only supports the corrupt economic system of Rome but it is also a symbol of integration and interdependence with Rome; it is this hybridity that John so loathes.

Yet, in calling on the members of the ekklēsiai to have no part with these expressions of Roman power and patronage, John is placing them in a precarious situation where they are living on the margins of standard Asian culture, thus they may very well face social and economic maltreatment, and in certain instances, even death. To endure the burden that this would create, John knows that the members of the ekklēsiai would require a solid bond with one another, and that despite the blemishes in the various ekklēsiai, they were the proper communal context that contained the opportunity for the alternative reality to the Roman order. Rather than relying on the economic system of Rome, which was entirely corrupt, the ekklēsiai were to think of themselves as a faithful alternative.

Summary

Though I did not go into a lot of detail, hopefully this has shown how the postcolonial concepts of mimicry and hybridity allow us to scrutinize the rhetorical dualism in Revelation. The resolve of John in regards to the purity of the ekklēsiai of Asia Minor and his determined efforts to dissociate himself from his proximate others—the Nicolaitans, Jezebel, Rome—are a reaction to the peril of hybridity that was confronting his subaltern. By participating in the cultic meals, the members of the ekklēsiai are symbolically endorsing the Roman imperial order. Therefore, John relates the visions of Babylon and New Jerusalem to show the stark contrast between the Roman order and that of faithful witness to Jesus Christ. Those inside New Jerusalem are overcoming empire; those outside the walls are colluding with and profiting from the imperial order, and also likely engaging in imperial vices (Rev. 22:14–15). Yet there is a porous boundary between the two cities in that the walls have large perpetually-open gates (Rev. 21:25), allowing “those who wash their robes” (Rev. 22:14) to enter the city through metanoia (Rev. 2:5, 16, 21; 3:3, 19). In a nutshell, the attitude of John in regards to participation in the standard civic life of a Roman polis is one of separatism and resolute rejection, going to great lengths to reveal how the Roman Empire is the utter antithesis of “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev. 11:5). In contrast to the death-dealing economic exploitation of Babylon, John presents the reader with New Jerusalem, a life-giving economy.

Footnotes

[1] A well-known example of the intermingling of the religious, economic, and political spheres is to be found in the “mark of the beast” pericope, where we are told that “no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark [of the beast]” (Rev. 13:16–17).

[2] Steven J. Friesen, “Satan’s Throne, Imperial Cults and the Social Settings of Revelation”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27.3 (2005), pp. 351–73 contends that John’s usage of imperial cult imagery is not due to persecution under the Emperor Domitian, but is instead utilized to make his audience consider the connections between religion, economy, and imperialism.

[3] G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John (orig. pub. 1966; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), pp. 38–40; David Aune, Revelation 1–5 (Word Biblical Commentary, 52A; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997), p. 188. For an argument that Balaam and the Nicolaitans are different, see Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 192–93.

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