Revelation addresses the ordinary challenges facing Christians under Roman rule, rather than speaking only to those enduring a time of terror. Some of the readers were struggling, but others were affluent and complacent. The book's visions seek to alter the way they see the political, religious, and economic dimensions of imperial life and to call them to renewed faithfulness to God and the Lamb.
Revelation is known for its pointed critique of imperial Roman power. Through satirical imagery, it portrays the city that rules the world as a tawdry harlot on a horrific beast, whose seven heads recall Rome's traditional seven hills (Rev 17:9). The ruling power conquers the nations and threatens the saints, while seducing the peoples of the world with dazzling prospects of commercial profits and lives of luxury. In scenes of cosmic conflict, the harlot is destroyed in a fiery conflagration and the Lamb defeats the imperial beast with the sword of his mouth. The horizon of the book extends to the new Jerusalem, but its visionary rhetoric sharply challenges the political, religious, and economic patterns of the Roman world in which its first readers lived.
The contrast between God and God's opponents is clear in the visionary world of Revelation. But it almost certainly would not have been so clear in the social world of its early readers. The book addresses Christian congregations in seven cities of the Roman province of Asia, where many Christians lived relatively comfortable lives. Some were poor but others were well off, some found themselves in conflicted situations while others blended more easily into society. For many, John's critique of the empire would have seemed strange and excessive. It would not have been obvious to them that the empire posed a threat to the faithful.
Revelation's visions would have functioned in different ways depending on the reader's perspective. For readers who were impoverished or intimidated by conflict, the visions may have affirmed what they already believed to be true: the empire was no friend of the faithful. But for those who prospered in the Roman era, the visions would have been a summons to see things differently, to recognize the political, religious, and economic patterns that ran counter to the claims of God, and to exhibit the resistance that comes from faith in the contexts where they lived.
CHANGING PERSPECTIVES ON REVELATION'S IMPERIAL CONTEXT
Interpreters have often assumed that Revelation was written under the specter of rising imperial persecution of the church. This is based in part on Irenaeus' comment that Revelation was written near the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian, who was assassinated in 96 CE. (Against Heresies 5.30.3). The final years of Domitian's reign were marked by violent action against those he suspected of disloyalty. After his death, he was condemned by the senate and his name was removed from inscriptions and public monuments. When vilifying Domitian, Roman writers charged that he had made excessive claims about his own divinity, arrogantly demanding that people call him "lord and god" and summoning his wife to join him on his "divine couch" (Suetonius, Dominan 13). In Christian tradition, Domitian was remembered as one of the persecuting emperors, second only to Nero in his brutality against the church (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.17).
This reconstruction of Revelation's context has endured because it seems to make good sense of the book's terrifying visions. The great seven-headed beast from the sea that John describes exhibits the kind of blasphemous arrogance traditionally associated with Domitian (Rev 13:1-10). This great beast has an ally, portrayed as a beast from the land and as a false prophet, who forces people to take part in the ruler cult and slaughters those who refuse to comply (13:11-18). Later, a brazen prostitute, who represents the city that rules the world, rides on the beast and is drunk on the blood of the saints and witnesses to Jesus (17:1-18). …