John's Ironic Empire

By Barr, David R. | Interpretation, January 2009 | Go to article overview
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John's Ironic Empire

Barr, David R., Interpretation

John's Revelation wrestles with the question of how Jesus' followers were to live under the imperial domination of Rome. While some see John as establishing an alternative imperial system, attention to the irony with which the story is told reveals a more compelling critique of power.

The Book of Revelation is often read as a guide to the future, as a coded prediction of what will happen at the end of history. Read this way it is remains obscure, mysterious, and malleable to the political and social views of the interpreter. History is littered with failed attempts to use Revelation to predict history.1 But Revelation was not a fanciful dream of far-off events; it was a practical attempt to deal with some of the most pressing problems besetting Jesus' followers in the late first century. This essay will explore one of those problems, the dilemma of living in an imperial society.

Scholars increasingly recognize that the Roman Empire provides the ever-present context of early Christianity and its many writings, most especially die Book of Revelation.2 This context was not simply religious; it was also political, economic, cultural, and social. The NT writings provide a variety of responses to this imperial context, from 1 Peter's cautious advice of honor and submission (2:13-17) to Revelation's disparagement of Rome and call to resistance and subversion (e.g., Rev 13).3 In fact, scholars have begun in recent years to read the whole of John's Apocalypse as an indictment of empire. Anticipated in the work of liberationist thinkers like Allan Boesak4 and Pablo Richard,5 and in the feminist-liberationist scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza,6 critical reflection on John's relation to empire came to fruition in the groundbreaking study of Leonard Thompson7 and a full-scale commentary by Wes HowardBrook and Anthony Gwyther.8 Many others have joined the conversation, including very provocative work from the perspective of postcolonial studies.9 Several scholars have noted some fundamental contradictions in the Apocalypse itself: while it seems to condemn wealth, it fantasizes about a new city with streets of gold;10 while it condemns Roman culture, it shares the cultural fascination of watching blood spectacles;11 while it stands firmly against empire, it imagines a new imperial system with Jesus as supreme ruler.12

This essay will explore this dilemma of empire. It will first explore the practical issues faced by Jesus' followers as they lived in Asian society, then develop John's critique of empire, and finally raise the paradoxical possibility that in his fight against the empire of Rome John establishes imperial traditions of his own. It offers a reading of John's story in an ironic mode and suggests that John was not so naïve as many of his modern readers would have us think


When Pliny, in the generation after John, was confronted with charges against Christians, he admitted that he did not know what to do about them - he was not even sure that any crimes were connected with this name. But he did know a way to deal with them: he commanded them to break their connection with this group. If they refused, he had them executed, which seemed to him justified:

For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement.13

Make no mistake. The Roman imperial administration was a totalitarian system, exercising complete control over all aspects of the lives of its subjects.

But that control in John's time more likely worked through attraction than through coercion. There is scant evidence of imperial persecution of Jesus' followers in first-century Asia Minor; John only names one martyr although he imagines vast devastation.14 John's problem was not that his audience fled in terror from Roman oppression; it was that they were all too taken by the seductive power of Roman life.

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