Friessen, S.J. Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John – Reading Revelation in the Ruins

This book is divided into two parts, the first of which provides an informative discussion of the different imperial cults (plural) in Asia Minor mainly based on the material remains that have to date laid testimony to them. Although the subject is discussed in great detail, it does not really bring to life the impressive and (for its opponents) arrogant presence of imperial Rome in Asia Minor. For example, in their In Search of Paul – How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, Crossan and Reed draw a much more vivid picture of the different aspects of Roman domination in the East and of the aversion and hostility this evoked in its Jewish opponents.

The second part purports to show how we can read Revelation in the ruins of Roman imperial presence in Asia Minor. However, the discussion does not predominantly focus on this relationship. This second part is mostly a self-contained discussion of Revelation which contains a fundamental ambivalence. The discussion moves back and forth between a historical and a mythical position. Every time the author discusses an aspect of the anti-Roman content of the text he later waters down this position. The historical focus of this book is thus eventually weakened too much. Major Roman elements like the staging of Vespasian and Titus in Chapter 6 and the description of the Roman army during the war against the Jews in Chapter 9 are missing. Equally important oppositional Jewish/Essene elements are also absent: Paul’s staging in Chapter 10 and Jesus’ in Chapter 11 for example, and the description of the birth of Essene messianism including the role of Qumran in Chapter 12. Also the pivotal ‘great catastrophe’ is not identified as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the fall of the city.

This brings us to Friessen’s discussion of myth in Revelation. Understandably the author has great difficulties clarifying the concept of myth in this book, since, in my opinion, it is simply absent. The Apocalypse of John mainly presents history but not overt history because this would have been suicidal for its author and his audience. The major conflict between the Jews and the Romans and its future settlement are the subject of Revelation, and for safety reasons this story has been encoded for use in a hostile Rome-dominated world. Friessen rejects the literal interpretation of Revelation while I think this is the only way Revelation can make sense, if at least encoded history is included in this literal reading. Obviously the scenes in heaven and the imagery of the future New Jerusalem are exceptions to this ‘coded history’ predominance as these subjects can only stem from John’s imagination.

Friessen’s argument from the outset is that John was not specifically anti-Roman but anti-empire. However, I believe John opposed the Roman empire and favoured a future Jewish/Essene empire. Like most other apocalyptic texts, Revelation expresses the hope for a violent reversal of the dominator/dominated positions. This makes Revelation an important politico-religious work.