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

Part II: A Polemic against Hybridity


Using the Babylon and New Jerusalem symbolism, John has presented the reader with a black-and-white critique of the Roman Empire, a key function of which is to describe the exploitative economics of the Roman Empire. This dualism reaches its pinnacle in the appearance of New Jerusalem. Outside of the walls of New Jerusalem is everything associated with imperialism and empire, but within the walls there is none of this (Rev. 21:27). There is no spectrum; immediately outside the walls of New Jerusalem, complete alterity commences.

In John’s perspective, the Roman culture of imperialism and the Christian culture must be kept absolutely separate. In order to maintain the rhetorical vigor of this picture that he paints, the distinction between the Roman Empire and the ekklēsiai must be stressed to the absolute. Thus, any appearance of assimilation to Rome needs to be decisively countered. Evidently the imperial system of Rome had made inroads in some of the ekklēsiai of Asia Minor and so John constructs a thorough condemnation aimed at the Rome through the cities of Babylon and New Jerusalem, showing that by associating with the Roman imperial system, one is unavoidably mired in the imperial endeavors of the empire: its violence, opulence, idolatry, and economy. So while Revelation is appropriately viewed as resistance literature, it is also offensive literature aimed at excising any hybridity.

Hybridity in the Ekklēsiai

Postcolonial theory provides several concepts that described how in a colonized society there is a contentious integration of cultures that the colonized must navigate. Homi Bhabha, one of the pioneering figures of postcolonial thought, says that the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is best understood as one of mimicry, a concept closely connected with hybridity.[1] This idea behind mimicry is that when the colonizer’s culture is imposed upon the colonized, the latter will internalize and replicate it. Yet this replication is not a perfect carbon copy, but rather results in a hybrid mixture that, as Bhabha puts it, is “almost the same but not quite.”[2] This is known as hybridity. Essentially, Bhabha’s postcolonial theory cuts against the notion of a complete dichotomization between the colonizer and colonized. He contends that the attitude of the colonized vis-à-vis the colonizer is not one of unequivocal hostility, but one of ambivalence where resistance and collusion are both simultaneously apparent in the colonized subjects.

Mimicry is prevalent in Revelation.[3] In many ways, the Roman imperial order is parodied by John and parody is essentially mimicry with the intent of mockery. Robert Royalty has argued that John, by utilizing wealth imagery in his description of New Jerusalem, is simply reinscribing Rome’s ideology of wealth rather than being critical of it.[4] However, applying Bhabha’s insights on mimicry would suggest that Royalty misconstrues how John has altered the wealth imagery through his use of mockery and irony. Reading John’s narrative of Babylon and New Jerusalem with Bhabha’s concepts of mimicry and hybridity in mind shows that John indirectly represents the economic situation of his day, while mocking the entrenched assumptions about wealth, money, and power that underlie imperial economics.


[1] For Bhabha’s thoughts on mimicry and hybridity, see, e.g., Homi K. Bhabha, “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817”, in Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (2nd edn; London: Routledge 1994), pp. 102–22.

[2] Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”, in Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (2nd edn; London: Routledge 1994), pp. 85–92 (p. 86).

[3] The fact that Revelation co-opts Roman ideology and language is nothing new. For a thorough examination of the status quaestionis of the Roman imperial cult in Revelation, see Michael Naylor, “The Roman Imperial Cult and Revelation”, Currents in Biblical Research 8 (2010), pp. 207–39. See also Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[4] Robert Royalty, The Streets of Heaven: The Ideology of Wealth in the Apocalypse of John (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998).

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

Part I: A Tale of Two Cities (continued)

New Jerusalem 21:9–22:9

Just as the vision of Babylon is anchored in the critiques of cities found in the Hebrew Bible, so too the vision of New Jerusalem is drawn from Jewish scripture, primarily Trito–Isaiah. John uses various literary motifs to construct his New Jerusalem narrative, including those of a new creation, paradise, pilgrimage of the nations, and a restitution of Jerusalem and covenant (see e.g. Ezekiel 37; 47; Zechariah 8; Psalm 46; Sirach 15; and Tob. 13:16), weaving them all together to create a unifying literary unit and endowing it with a novel meaning: this New Jerusalem signifies the faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ, not a physical city like the historical Jerusalem.[1]

Not everyone, however, agrees with this interpretation of New Jerusalem, instead seeing it as an actual physical city.[2] Barbara Rossing has put forth a detailed study on the two cities, reading Revelation as an example of deliberative rhetoric that employs the two-women topos to present New Jerusalem as an alternative to Babylon, tracing the literary imagery of Revelation to the Hebrew Bible and Greco-Roman wisdom traditions. She views New Jerusalem as a physical city rather and that it is not restricted solely to the faithful witnesses of Christ.[3] This interpretation, however, would seem to go against the description of the nations bringing their glory into the city only after they have obtained their clean robes—which according to Rev. 19:8 represent “the righteous deeds of the saints”—and are from there on out separated from the unclean (Rev. 21:24–27; 22:14–15).

Contra to Rossing and others, New Jerusalem is symbolic of God’s people, not an actual residence for them, and the identification of New Jerusalem as the Christian community is made clear in how the promises to the ekklēsiai in Revelation 2–3 are realized in the literary unit on New Jerusalem in Revelation 21–22.[4]

Revelation 2-3

Revelation 21-22

“tree of life” (2:7) “tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit” (22:2, 14)
“will not be harmed by the second death” (2:11) “[for those who do not conquer receive] the second death” (21:8)
“a new name” (2:17) “[God’s] name will be on their foreheads” (22:4)
“authority over the nations” (2:26) “they will reign forever and ever” (22:5)
“clothed … in white robes … will not blot your name out of the book of life” (3:5) “nothing unclean will enter [New Jerusalem] … but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27)
“a pillar in the temple of my God … and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem” (3:12) “the holy city, the New Jerusalem … the foundations of the wall of the city” (21:2, 19)
“give a place with me on my throne” (3:21) “they will reign forever and ever” (22:5)

What this means is that Christ connects New Jerusalem to whoever overcomes (Rev. 3:12), meaning that the readers should identify New Jerusalem as being “personal rather than topographical.”[5] This identification is made more unambiguous later when John sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2), followed soon thereafter with the angelus interpretus telling John, “I will show you the bride, the wide of the lamb” (Rev. 21:9), yet what John sees is a city, New Jerusalem, descending out of the heavens (Rev. 21:10).

Similar to Babylon, New Jerusalem is a city containing magnificent wealth. Yet the wealth of this city is not of the same nature as that of Babylon. Instead of the economic exploitation of Babylon, New Jerusalem is a place of economic justice, where the wealth is contained in the elements of city that are shared by all its citizens: the gates of pearl, the streets of gold, and the pillars and walls comprised of precious gems. New Jerusalem contains springs of living water flowing freely from the throne of God and has open inviting gates. One could perhaps go so far as to say that New Jerusalem is a free economy of grace, where wealth is freely obtained and voluntary given; it is a “gift economy” where “water, fruit, and medicine . . . are offered to everyone in New Jerusalem, even to those with no money.”[6]

A particularly conspicuous economic contrast between Babylon and New Jerusalem is the disappearance of the sea (Rev. 13:1; 21:1). There are several interpretations as to the significance of this detail, most of which refer back to another instance in which the “sea” is mentioned in Revelation. A common interpretation of the sea is in terms of mythological chaos traditions,[7] where the Hebrew creation myth has the ordering of chaos (represented by the sea), though this is not the sole or even necessarily the primary thought underlying John’s perception of the sea. A key function of the sea in Revelation is that it facilitates Babylon’s commerce,[8] a function that is specifically selected for destruction in Rev. 8:9 and 18:11–17, with Babylon’s destruction depicted in terms of a “great millstone” being thrown into the sea (Rev. 18:21). No more sea, no more maritime trade.


In this portrayal of the new heavens and earth without any seas—with the only water being the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 22:1) in New Jerusalem—John envisions an alternative economy to that of Babylon, one where exploitative trade in commodities is supplanted by one in which the water of life is given “as a gift” (Rev. 22:17). Thus, John issues an imperative to the reader to “come out” of Babylon and to “come” into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 18:4; 22:17). This is the “rhetorical key” to the vision of Babylon.[9] This exhortation to “come out” is not intended geographically as if the faithful should pack up and leave Rome, Ephesus, or one of the other cities in Asia Minor. Instead, the imperative concerns the discerning of the nature of one’s environment and to divorce oneself from any imperialistic spirit of that environment to be found in the economic, political, and religious spheres.[10] The reader is issued a command to enter through the open gates into the alternative city of New Jerusalem which provides an alternative social reality to that of Babylon.


[1] For a seminal article arguing this point, see Robert H. Gundry, “The New Jerusalem: People as Place, Not Place for People”, Novum Testamentum 29 (1987), pp. 254–64.

[2] For a survey of views on New Jerusalem, see Barbara R. Rossing, The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride, and Empire in the Apocalypse (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), pp. 1–16.

[3] Rossing, Choice Between Two Cities, p. 12 opts not to see the bride of Christ as the saints, and it is this breaking of the saints/bride link that leads to a physical interpretation of the New Jerusalem.

[4] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “The Eschatology and Composition of the Apocalypse”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968), pp. 537–69 has posited a chiastic structure to Revelation with the New Jerusalem being the corresponding item to the letters to the seven churches.

[5] Gundry, “The New Jerusalem”, p. 256.

[6] Rossing, Choice Between Two Cities, p. 152.

[7] David Aune, Revelation 17–22 (Word Biblical Commentary, 52C; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 2002), p. 1119.

[8] Jonathan Moo, “The Sea that is No More: Rev. 21:1 and the Function of Sea Imagery in the Apocalypse of John”, Novum Testamentum 51 (2009), pp. 148–67 (esp. pp. 159–60).

[9] Rossing, Choice Between Two Cities, p. 12.

[10] Cf. Aune, Revelation 17–22, p. 991.

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

Part I: A Tale of Two Cities (continued)

The City of Babylon in Revelation 17:1–19:10

There are several interpretations of who Babylon represents in the reception history of Revelation. The interpretation of Babylon as Rome has been a popular one throughout the centuries, with the Reformation era adding the twist that Babylon also represents the Papacy located in Rome.[1] A popular understanding nowadays, this one in evangelical Christianity, is that Babylon represents the actual city of the future eschatological Antichrist, with some even positing that it will be a rebuilt city of Babylon in Mesopotamia by the river Euphrates (in modern day Iraq).[2] A more recent reading contends that Babylon is in fact the first-century city of Jerusalem.[3] It is generally agreed upon, however, by most commentators, exegetes, and theologians—and it is the position taken by myself—that Babylon does indeed represent the city of Rome and the Roman Empire.[4]

Before John depicts Babylon as a city, he portrays her as a female prostitute in Revelation 17. The metaphor of prostitution is drawn from the Hebrew Bible where it signifies deviation from faithfulness to Yahweh by adapting to the powers that surrounded them in various ways, such as idolatrous practices, exploitative economics, and making treaties with other nations rather than relying upon Yahweh. This depiction of Babylon as a prostitute “clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls” (Rev. 17:4) is connected to the cargo list in Rev. 18:12–13, 16, indicating that John’s critique of Babylon is intended not as physical prostitution but as a metaphor critical of Babylon’s trade and economy. This is further supported by the connection of several passages in the Hebrew Bible where Jerusalem and other cities are likened to prostitutes (e.g. Jer. 2:20–3:20; 51; Ezekiel 16; 23; Hosea 2; and Nah. 3:1–7). These allusions show that while John’s usage of the prostitution metaphor certainly does not preclude an association between Babylon and the idolatrous practices of Rome (such as the imperial cult), it is also underlining Babylon’s economic transgressions.[5]

Further support for the highlighting of the economic system of Babylon is in the description of her destruction: Babylon will be destroyed due to her prostitution with the nations, prostitution with the kings, and the seduction of the merchants with wealth. Each of these reflects the social, political, and economic power of Babylon respectively. Additionally, note the dirge that the kings, merchants, and sailors pronounce due to the loss of Babylon’s trade in cargo: the Greek text (NA28) spends 51 words on the “kings” (Rev. 18:9–10), 161 words for the “merchants” (vv. 11–17a), and 72 words on “all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea” (vv. 18:17b–19).[6] To situate the mercantile class in the middle and allot to them the majority of the lament conveys that commerce is a key issue in John’s depiction of Babylon.

The domineering economic prowess of Babylon is a key feature of her portrayal in Revelation, both in the illustrations of Babylon as woman and Babylon as city. Babylon is the place where the wealth accrues to the wealthy elite and the merchants facilitate this transfer of wealth. The economic system of Rome favors indulgence for the wealthy, rather than basic sustenance for the poor masses (Rev. 6:6). The wealth of Babylon is inextricably tied up with exploitation which enriches those at the top and those who provide the means of trade (Rev. 18:3), leading to the commodification of everything, from luxurious items down to the very basics of life, even human beings (Rev. 18:13). While much of the cargo list in Rev. 18:12–13 can rightly be labeled as representative of Rome’s more luxurious imports, some of the commodities are everyday commonplace items (e.g. flour, wheat). What this indicates is that Babylon imports not just lavish goods, but everything; and this is the quintessence of an imperial economy.


[1] For a survey of the patristic literature, see G. Biguzzi, “Is the Babylon of Revelation Rome or Jerusalem”, Biblica 87 (2006), pp. 371–86 (pp. 373–74).

[2] See C.H. Dyer, “The Identity of Babylon in Revelation 17–18, Part 2”, Bibliotheca Sacra 144 (1987), pp. 433–49.

[3] See J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia: The New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (orig. pub. 1887; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), pp. 482–504, 563–69; Kenneth L. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Bethesda, MD: International Scholars Publishers: 1989), pp. 94–95, 240–41; and J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation (Anchor Bible, 38; Garden City, MI: Doubleday & Company, 1975), pp. 286–89. For a recent examination of whether Babylon represents Rome or Jerusalem, see Biguzzi, “Rome or Jerusalem”, pp. 371–86.

[4] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), p. 179; G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John (orig. pub. 1966; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), p. 214. Barbara R. Rossing, The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride, and Empire in the Apocalypse (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), p. 6 and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 89 both observe that the majority of scholars read Babylon as a critique of Rome and its imperial oppression, with the latter also noting that this position is congruent with the branding of Rome as Babylon in other Jewish and Christian literature, providing these examples: 4 Ez. 3:1–2, 28–31; 2 Bar. 10:1–3; 11:1; 67:7; Sib. Or. 5:143, 159. And, of course, 1 Pet. 5:13.

[5] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (The New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 86 says that “‘Babylon the Great’ is the entire corrupt economic-religious system.” Furthermore, Rossing, Choice Between Two Cities, p. 83 has gone so far to say that “the primary topic” of Revelation is the “contrasting political economies represented by Babylon and New Jerusalem.”

[6] For thorough analyses on the dirge of Revelation 18, see Richard Bauckham, “The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18”, in L. Alexander (ed), Images of Empire (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), pp. 47–90; Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), pp. 338-83; and J. Nelson Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplements, 132; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).

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

Long before the Christian movement became the religio licita of the Roman Empire, the book of Revelation confronted the violent pax Romana, the idolatrous imperial cult, and the exploitative economic system of Rome. Today, however, Revelation is used by many readers to construct eschatological timetables of nuclear war and to sell books about the coming divine destruction of the Earth, yet what Revelation really unveils are the systems of domination that exist in our world, the freedom to be found in Christ, and the realization of the love of God in humility and non-power.

This series of blog posts will proceed on the following two fronts: (i) the spotlight will be placed on Revelation’s two conflicting illustrations of polis—Babylon and New Jerusalem—in order to show how Revelation unveils the economic injustice of Babylon, calling the recipients of the letter out of this illusory system and into the alternative of New Jerusalem; and (ii) in order to draw out what John is attempting to convey with these visions of polis, postcolonial theory will be employed to show that John uses the Babylon–New Jerusalem symbolism to reinforce his polemic against the apparent hybridity that has occurred in the ekklēsiai of Asia Minor. Revelation provides us with a prophetic critique of empire and economic imperialism, calling us to choose between the ways of Babylon and New Jerusalem, not in an eschatological future, but in the historical present.

Part I: A Tale of Two Cities

A key truth that John aims to impart to his audience is that there are two rival realities: Babylon and New Jerusalem. While these two cities are presented in a temporal sequence with New Jerusalem succeeding Babylon, this is not to indicate an actual chronological sequence in time, but is rather to assign a decisive prominence to New Jerusalem and a renunciation of Babylon. Literary features of the two visions set the cities in contrast. First, both cities are personified as feminine figures—a “prostitute” and a “bride”—in the standard depiction of city personifications in Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman literature.[1] Second, both visions are introduced by an angel of the seven bowls, the angelus interpretus, who takes John “in the spirit” to a location where the city can be seen (Rev. 17:3; 21:10). And third, both cities are introduced by the same construction found nowhere else in Revelation (with the addition of one phrase in the introduction to New Jerusalem that is shown below in square parentheses):

Καὶ ἦλθεν εἷς ἐκ τῶν ἑπτὰ ἀγγέλων τῶν ἐχόντων τὰς ἑπτὰ φιάλας [τῶν γεμόντων τῶν πληγῶν τῶν ἐσχάτων] καὶ ἐλάλησεν μετ᾿ ἐμοῦ λέγων· δεῦρο, δείζω σοι

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you…” (Rev. 17:1)

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls [full of the seven last plagues] came and said to me, “Come, I will show you…” (Rev. 21:9)

Additionally, both literary units finish with three similar features: First is the declaration of the vision’s veracity (“these are the true words of God”, Rev. 19:9; “these words are faithful and true”, Rev. 22:6); second is the pronouncement of a blessing (“blessed are the ones called to the wedding feast of the lamb”, Rev. 19:9; “blessed is the one keeping the words of prophecy of this scroll”, Rev. 22:7); and third, each unit concludes with a very similar account of John trying to worship the angel, with John falling at the angel’s feet and the angel decrying such behavior telling him to “worship God” (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9). It is clear that the two literary units were composed in such a way in order to promote a clear contrast between the two cities.


[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), says that “whoring and fornication” function “as metaphors for idolatry”, with the use of feminine figures being “part and parcel of the prophetic apocalyptic tradition” (p. 14), and that the feminine imagery is “conventional language” used to describe cities because “then, as today, cities and countries were grammatically construed as feminine” (p. 95). Barbara Rossing, “River of Life in God’s New Jerusalem: An Eschatological Vision for Earth’s Future”, in Rosemary Ruether and Dieter Hessel (eds), Christianity and Ecology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 205–24 (p. 209) says that the language of the woman being “desolate” and “naked” are descriptors of an urban landscape, not a female body, and that “its primary polemic is political and economic, not gendered.” Other interesting studies that examine the prostitution imagery of Babylon from a feminist postcolonial perspective include Jean K. Kim, “‘Uncovering Her Wickedness’: An Inter(Con) Textual Reading of Revelation 17 From a Postcolonial Feminist Perspective”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 21 (1999): 61–81; and Shanell T. Smith, The Woman Babylon and the Marks of Empire: Reading Revelation with a Postcolonial Womanist Hermeneutics of Ambiveilence (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014).

Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon

The keystone of the Mormon Church is the Book of Mormon. When I first read it, something that stood out to me (apart from the anachronistic appearance of Deutero–Isaiah) was the question of why it didn’t mention key parts of Joseph Smith′s restoration of the gospel (e.g., polygamy, the ordinances of the temple, and the restored priesthood). However, I’ve come to realize that when Joseph Smith penned the Book of Mormon he was more interested in answering some theological disputes that were floating around in that time period, notably, that of the Native Americans as Israelites, proper baptism practices, and the relationship between works and grace.

Smith also used the Book of Mormon to sacralize America, an idea which I don’t think was that uncommon in nineteenth-century America, with other religious figures and movements also portraying America as being a sacred land that has a sacred history and a divine destiny. This can be seen in how the Book of Mormon refers to the Americas as the “land which is choice above all other lands” (1 Nephi 2:20). In fact, the Book of Mormon takes such sacralizing thinking further, providing the reader with what is essentially an American-based history of antiquity. On top of this, you have Joseph Smith teaching that not only was the United States the site of the Garden of Eden (somewhere around Jackson County, Missouri), but it was also the location of the Zion/New Jerusalem (he was given a revelation that Zion would be built in Independence, Missouri, see Doctrine and Covenants 57:1-3).

Personally, I think Joseph Smith’s theological agenda was quite flexible and what was really important to him was his vision of the making of Zion with himself as its leader. He did, after all, have ambition that seemingly held no bounds, such as running as a candidate for the President of the United States in 1844. Additionally, a Council of Fifty was formed in order to develop a world government in preparation for Christ’s return, with Smith being anointed king over the House of Israel.

It was through Joseph Smith that Zion was to be established in the last days for humanity’s salvation. In the pursuit of this goal, Joseph Smith and his followers attempt three times to establish what can only be described as their own city-state, first in Kirtland, Ohio, then in Independence, Missouri, and finally in Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormons thrived in Nauvoo, leading to a Nauvoo legion being formed (consisting of about 5,000 members at its peak), led by the “Lieutenant General” Joseph Smith. Smith′s successor, Brigham Young, was responsible for the most successful attempt of building Zion to date (or, at least, a type of precursor to Zion), leading many of the Mormons westward to Utah, founding Salt Lake City in the late 1840s.

One last thought: In 2015, the Mormon Church released photos of the seer stone that Joseph Smith used in his “translation” of the Book of Mormon (see this article). While the idea that Joseph Smith put his head into a hat containing this stone in order to translate the golden plates (containing the Book of Mormon) may seem quite bizarre, I don’t think it is necessarily so. I mean, the Hebrew Bible has people receiving divine revelations through something that resembles a game of chance (the Urim and Thummin), and even through a fleece of wool being laid out on a threshing floor to see if it gets covered in dew. I think non-Mormon Christians only find Smith′s stone-in-a-hat method weird because it seems like folk-magic (with no biblical pedigree), while something equally bizarre like the Urim and Thummin gets a pass simply because it is in the Bible.

I think it is good that the Mormon Church has taken this turn of transparency. Perhaps it will mean the coming generations of Mormons will grow up with less of this type of picture …

smith_translating_mormon… and more of these types:



The seer stone Joseph Smith supposedly used as a conduit for revelation from God.

Theology and Art: Chagall’s Crucifixion in Yellow

Yellow Crucifixion, 1942 (oil on canvas) by Marc Chagall. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion reworks the themes of his White Crucifixion by attempting to communicate the immense suffering the Jewish people endured in Europe. He does this by utilizing the icon of the crucified Christ, again having Jesus being distinctly portrayed as a Jew. Chagall is linking the suffering of European Jews with the iconic image of the crucified Christ in order to provide a lucid portrayal of the suffering that the Jews—Jesus’ people—were experiencing. The yellow accent of this painting, found in the blazing inferno of the background, probably signifies both the flames of the crematoria and the yellow Star of David which Jews were forces to wear by the Nazis. While the green of the angel and Torah scroll signify hope.

To emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, Chagall juxtaposes a large green Torah scroll to the crucifixion of Jesus and has him wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and wearing tefillin or phylacteries (little black boxes containing verses from the Torah), with the accompanying prayer bands on his left arm. Jesus and the Torah scroll are illuminated by a candle being held by an angel flying through the air and blowing a ram’s horn, a symbol of salvation that was blown on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and certain other holy days. As with many of Chagall’s crucifixion paintings there is a ladder representing Jacob’s ladder (see Gen 28.10-19). Here it could perhaps be said to be providing the crucified Jesus a means of ascending to the Torah in the heavens.

The crucified Jesus is surrounded by scenes of pogroms. There is a burning shtetl on the right with distressed figures above it. Below this is found a Jew wearing traditional Jewish clothing (and a placard) and a fleeing woman with her child, reminiscent of the story of Jesus’ flight to Egypt as a child (see Matt 2.13-15). Similarly to White Crucifixion which had a ship carrying Jewish refugee, there is also a ship carrying Jews in Yellow Crucifixion (on the left side). There is an important difference in that this ship is depicted as sinking into the waters. This undoubtedly refers to the sinking of the Struma in 1942. The Struma was attempting to deliver nearly eight hundred Jewish refugees to Palestine, however the ship was detained in Turkey due to the British not allowing the Jews to disembark at Palestine. This led to the ship being destroyed by the Soviets a couple of months later in the Black Sea, with the occupants either dying in the torpedo blast or drowning thereafter (there was one survivor).

Interesting tidbit: Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann mentions this painting as being his muse while writing The Crucified God, a book which has been called a Christian theology after Auschwitz. He says:

In front of me hangs Marc Chagall’s picture ‘Crucifixion in Yellow’. It shows the figure of the crucified Christ in an apocalyptic situation: people sinking into the sea, people homeless and in flight, and yellow fire blazing in the background. And with the crucified Christ there appears the angel with the trumpet and the open roll of the book of life [Rev 14.6]. This picture has accompanied me for a long time. It symbolizes the cross on the horizon of the world, and can be thought of as a symbolic expression of the studies which follow. (The Crucified God, xxii; see also Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place, 191)

Chagall’s Crucifixion in White

Crucifixion in White (1938, Chagall)

White Crucifixion, 1938 (oil on canvas) by Marc Chagall. The Art Institute of Chicago.

White Crucifixion, painted by Jewish artist Marc Chagall in 1938, was completed at about the time of the infamous Kristallnacht, “night of crystal” (i.e., the night of broken glass). This two-day spree of persecution against Jews in Germany and Austria, ended with at least a hundred Jews being killed, thousands wounded, and hundreds of Jewish businesses and synagogues destroyed.

In this painting Chagall stresses the Jewish identity of Jesus. Note the explicit Jewish imagery in the painting, including the menorah, the synagogue, and Torah scroll. Dominating the painting, however, is the crucified Jesus who wears a head-cloth and loincloth made from a Jewish prayer shawl (a tallit). He is illuminated by a beam of light from the heavens above and that of the menorah below. In the light of the crucified Jesus’ halo there is found the title “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Hebrew, as well as its abbreviated form in Latin, “INRI”.

The crucified Jesus is surrounded by scenes of pogroms. On the upper left side of the painting there is a village having been plundered by the armed forces (carrying red flags), with some of the refugees forced to flee on a ship (the image of a ship is repeated several years later in Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion). On the right-hand side of the painting there is a synagogue and its Torah ark set ablaze, with a mother and child in despair below. At the bottom of the painting, on both sides, are figures fleeing these persecutions, clutching at their Torah scrolls and religious books in order to protect them from desecration and destruction. The figure on the left (in blue) wears a sign saying “Ich bin Jude” (I am a Jew), and the one on the right (in green) is supposedly a recurring figure in Chagall’s paintings, representing a wandering Yiddish Jew. The three male and one female figures (wearing traditional Jewish clothing) situated above the cross are said to perhaps depict the mourning of the three key Jewish patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and the matriarch, Sarah.

Jackie Wullschlager, author of Chagall: A Biography (Knopf 2008), calls this painting “a work of Jewish martyrology that transforms into an emblem of contemporary tragedy” (380). She also says that “this Jesus is already dead, a motionless figure of suffering, head bowed, eyes closed—a silenced Jewish prophet” (381). And that is all the crucified Jesus is in this painting; Chagall was not a messianic Christian who was attempting to portray Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah. White Crucifixion is a portrayal of Jesus as a suffering man and Jew, rather than as Christianity’s divine figure of redemption and salvation” (ibid). Chagall was utilizing the archetypal image of the Christian faith to provide a universally recognizable symbol of suffering and injustice, particularly as a symbol for the suffering of the European Jews in the Holocaust.

Interesting tidbit: Pope Francis has stated that this is his favorite painting (“Pope Francis: Twenty Things You Didn’t Know About Him,” London Telegraph, online edition, 14.03.2013).