Myth and Symbolic Resistance in Revelation 13

By Friesen, Steven J. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Myth and Symbolic Resistance in Revelation 13


Friesen, Steven J., Journal of Biblical Literature


The goal of this article is to examine the use of myth in Revelation 13. I contend that John drew on a range of mythic traditions from Jewish and Gen tile sources. Comparisons with the use of myth in other apocalyptic texts and in imperial cult settings lead to the conclusion that John deployed myths in creative and disorienting ways for the purpose of alienating his audiences from mainstream society. In other words, he engaged in symbolic resistance, by which I do not mean hopeless support for a lost cause but rather the dangerous deployment of myths in defense of a minority viewpoint in a particular social context. In order to get to that conclusion, however, I must explain what I mean by myth, lay out comparative material from the mythology of imperial cults in Asia, and then examine the use of myth in Revelation 13.

I. Remythologizing Studies of the Book of Revelation

The starting point for the argument is a simple observation: myth has almost disappeared as an interpretive category in studies of the book of Revelation. The last sightings were recorded in the 1970s by Adela Yarbro Collins and John Court.1 One reason the category has gone into hiding is fairly obvious: in colloquial speech, "myth" normally has a pejorative meaning, referring to "an unfounded or false notion," "a person or thing, having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence."2

There are also more serious and more subtle reasons for our lack of attention to myth in Revelation. One is that myth has often been portrayed as a primitive attempt at scientific thought. This view of myth grew out of Europe's colonial encounter with other parts of the world. Myth was not thought to be inherent in the Christian tradition, or at least not a crucial part of the tradition; it belonged instead to the religious life of conquered, "primitive" peoples.3 This imperial, evolutionary view of the world permeated the Western academy and can be seen in such landmarks of twentieth-century biblical studies as Rudolf Bultmann's project of demythologizing. Demythologization was based on the assumption that myth was a primitive worldview that had been superseded by Western science.

According to mythological thinking, God has his domicile in heaven. What is the meaning of this statement? The meaning is quite clear. In a crude manner it expresses the idea that God is beyond the world, that he is transcendent. The thinking that is not yet capable of forming the abstract idea of transcendence expresses its intention in the category of space. . . .4

The waning of interest in myth in studies of Revelation precisely in the late 1970s, however, was due to another, related reason: the growing international dominance of the United States after World War II and the resulting dominance of American academic concerns. Prior to World War II, European scholarship controlled the disciplines of biblical studies and comparative religion. Ivan Strenski argued that fundamental theories of myth from that periodespecially those of Ernst Cassirer, Bronislaw Malinowski, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Mircea Eliade-were constructed on the basis of specific European concerns.5 He showed that their theories of myth all grappled in different ways with primitivist sentiments in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. The theories of myth that they developed responded to contemporary political and nationalistic claims about national identity and the attachment of a particular Volk to their homeland.6

After World War II, dominance in the international economy, politics, and culture shifted from Europe to the United States, and the intellectual center of gravity in NT studies slowly shifted as well.7 Dominant culture in the United States, however, is predicated on the dislocation and/or decimation of native populations. So theories of myth that wrestled with European nationalisms and ancestral connections to land were clearly out of place in this country, where discontinuity with native populations and the seizure of their land are crucial aspects of national identity. …

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