Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Transcript 29
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REVELATION: AFTER THE EGO DISAPPEARS
This text is a transcript of the full lecture of Prof. Frye on Sept. 15, 1981. Only the bold part is used in this version.
I've been distributing an analysis I've made of the Book of Revelation. I don't know whether everybody has a copy or not: I tried to see that there were enough.
Every passage in the Book of Revelation is a dense mosaic of allusions to and echoes from the Old Testament. The author is particularly indebted to the Book of Ezekiel, I think, and in Jewish mysticism there is a whole literature which took off from the opening vision in Ezekiel of the chariot with the four wheels. It was called Merkabah mysticism, and the Book of Revelation is perhaps the only Christian example of it, I don't know. In any case, it presents itself as having been written by someone called John, distinguished from the apostle of that name by the title theologos, the Divine, and he is said to have seen this in a vision at Patmos where he was exiled.
I think that if you look at the book in the way that I have tried to do you find that there are recurring sequences arranged in groups of seven, some of which are related to each other. If you look, for example, at the third series, the calamities of the seven trumpets, and compare it with the fifth series, the plagues or vials, you'll see that there are a good many parallels between the two. The parallels between them are partly accounted for by the fact that they are both based on the conception of the plagues of Egypt as something that will recur in the last day. I also try to locate the seven commissions to the author, and the seven hymns and the seven epiphanies, the spread-out visions he has; and if you find my analysis over-schematized, I can only say that I think the Book of Revelation is an over-schematized book, and that its extraordinary insistence on the numbers seven and twelve may have the significance that, by that time, seven was the number both of the planets and of the days of the week, and twelve was the number both of months of the year and of the signs of the zodiac, and that consequently seven and twelve represent particularly a world where time and space have become the same thing.
There is, as I see it, six series of seven events, corresponding possibly to the six days of creation, and being all comprehended in the seventh day of contemplation, which is the characteristic of the world beyond time.
I have previously spoken of the historical passages of the Bible as not being concerned with history as we know it, and as not concerned to adopt the ordinary criteria of history that we should look for in Thucydides or in Gibbon or in somebody who is quite explicitly writing history. That is because the Bible is concerned with another kind of action in human life altogether, and that other kind, which the scholars call Heilsgeschichte, sacred history, deals with the repeating events, or at least with the repeating aspects of events, which indicate the universalized meaning of history as distinct from the particular events which are the concern of the historian. For the ordinary historian, of course, everything in history is unique. No action exactly repeats in exactly the same circumstances. But the kind of history that you find for instance in the Book of Judges does show you the same situation recurring with different contents each time in order to bring out a more universal pattern. So that this form of Heilsgeschichte, which is also used for presenting the life of Christ in the Gospels, is concerned not with the past, which is dead, but with the past used as material for a present vision.
Now, what applies to the past applies also to the future. We are told by many scholars that everybody in the first generation or so of Christianity expected the end of the world at any time, and interpreted this as a literally future event, something that would happen about next Tuesday and would bring about the end of history as we know it. But it's possible that Biblical prophecy has the same oblique reference to the future that it has to the past, and that the future, like the past, is being assimilated into a present vision.
It is, I think, significant that many people, many great theologians, including John Calvin, have never known what to do with the Book of Revelation: it never struck them as a book they could make any sense out of. One person described it as a book which either finds a man mad or else leaves him so. That is of course quite comprehensible if you struggle with the wrong kind of literalism in reading it. In fact, one might also say the book is designed to drive you mad if you approach it with that kind of literalism in mind.
For many centuries it was accepted as a prophecy of the future troubles of the Church; and that meant that sinister symbols, such as the Great Whore and the dragon and the beast and the Antichrist figure, could be identified in any century by any commentator with whatever he happened to be most afraid of at the time. In Dante's Purgatorio, for example, the beast and the Whore are identified with the Avignon Papacy and the King of France. In some of the Protestant polemic of the Reformation, they were identified with the Roman Church, considered in that polemic as a continuation of a persecuting Roman Empire, with the Pope as an Antichrist figure, and the Whore of Babylon identified with the Roman Catholic Church. In the eighteenth century, Blake identified the beast and the Whore with a new development which he saw taking place in his own time which he called Druidism, and which we should call something more like totalitarianism, the kind of state dictatorship which is designed to crush all freedom and imagination out of human society.
But it is better not to think in terms of relating some kind of future to the author of the book at all. We might take an example from one of the Oriental literatures: there's a very remarkable scripture of Tibetan Buddhism whose English title is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This is founded on a conception of reincarnation: when a man dies, a priest goes and reads this book in his ear. The corpse is supposed to understand what is being read to him, and he is being told that he is going to see a long series of visions or epiphanies of gods, first peaceful ones and then wrathful ones, and that these are his own repressed thoughts coming to the surface, having been released by death. He is not to think of himself as in any way subject to their power: he has created them himself, and if he could only understand that, he would be delivered from them. He is adjured in every paragraph of the book to do the right thing, to become mentally conscious and deliver himself from the wheel of death and rebirth. And then the priest says resignedly, 'Well, you probably missed it again, so now you'll have this other vision, and don't miss it this time'.
Well, that is in a different context. But the relationship is not so unlike what is being revealed in the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is presenting you the ordinary material of Biblical prophecy, the overturn of society and the tremendous calamities of nature when the sun is turned into darkness and the moon into blood, the great earthquakes and famines and plagues and swarms of locusts and all the rest of it. But these are things which I think the writer is suggesting are going on all the time: it's just that our ordinary processes of sense perception screen them out, and that man creates what he calls history as a means of disguising the apocalypse from himself. So that Revelation, I think, is intended to mean exactly that: this is the revelation of what is underneath what we think we are seeing.
We begin with the address to the seven churches of Asia, and you notice again the emphasis on what we mentioned in connection with apocalyptic symbolism of the living stone. The reward for those who are faithful is a name engraved on a white stone, but the name engraved on the white stone is a symbol of the identity of the person himself: that is, the redeemed are transformed into stones in the Temple, and as the Temple is the body of Christ, the stones are as much alive as human beings are: in fact, they are themselves human beings. Similarly, later on in the book, an angel comes out, clad in a garment which the King James Bible translates as linen. But there is much better textual authority for lithon, stone; and so it's clear that the city of gold and jewels that emerges at the end of the vision is intended to represent a city burning in the fire of life, in which the gold and precious burning stones are living and immortal beings. They burn, but they don't burn up, and the fire is not a torturing fire but an expression of their own spiritual energy, like the halo on a saint.
At the end of the third series, we have the opening of the Temple, and the vision of the Ark of the Covenant. The word 'ark' is connected with a recurrent image throughout the Bible that is made only by translation. In the Hebrew text, Noah's ark and the Ark of the Covenant are entirely different words, but the Septuagint uses the same word for both, kibotos, and the Vulgate uses arca for both, and that is where English gets its ‘ark'.
So there occur sequences of historical cycles- ‘from ark to ark', to quote Robert Graves’ Christmas poem- where you begin and end with a world sunk in water. First of all, there is Noah’s ark, which represents the end of one cycle, the antedeluvian civilization, and this seed containing all the forms of new life carried on top of the deluged world. Then we begin the Book of Exodus, where Moses escapes the slaughter of Hebrew firstborn by being concealed in an ark or chest in the bulrushes near the River Nile. Then Israel goes through the Red Sea and brings the Ark of the Covenant through the desert. And as I explained earlier, the greatest triumph of David1s reign, from the narrator’s point of view, comes when he is bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, which is symbolically, you remember, the highest point in the world; so that the Ark of the Covenant in the city of Jerusalem, and later on in the Temple, is between heaven and earth, just as Noah's ark resting on Mount Ararat was also on the highest point of the world.
The New Testament begins with Christ born in the manger. In paintings of the Nativity you find an ox and an ass, which come from the opening of Isaiah, which speaks of the ox knowing his crib, his phatne, the same word that is translated as 'manger' in the Gospel of Luke. That is a reminiscence of Noah’s ark with the animals in it, and it is also the crib enclosing the infant of threatened birth, like the ark of Moses. So the opening of the Temple and the vision of the Ark of the Covenant in the Book of Revelation complete that sequence of cycles built around this conception of the small chest which is the sacred place.
In the fourth series, the central apocalyptic vision, we get first of all an account of the birth of the Messiah. This account is the third one to appear in the New Testament, and as I said earlier, it’s the one that is so frankly and obviously mythical that there is no possibility of our ever getting it on our Christmas cards: it’s simply one that has to stay by itself. It presents the birth of the Messiah under the myth of the birth threatened by a dragon that tries to eat the child. Those central visions end with the last harvest and the last vintage, which are the bread and the wine of a demonic Eucharist- that is, demonic in the sense that it is the expression of the wrath of God rather than of the communion with God: man does not eat the bread and the wine, man becomes the bread and the wine and is eaten by the powers of death. The vintage in particular, the identification of wine and blood, has a ready-made association with warfare. The imagery again is derived from Isaiah 63, the image of the blood-soaked figure treading the winepress of wrath in the last day. That is a vision which came into the American consciousness through the hymn called the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic', and the title of a book like The Grapes of Wrath indicates how deeply it has entered American consciousness.
You notice that in the sixth series, there is a prophecy of a Millennium, which is nevertheless not the last thing to happen. The view of time in the Bible seems a remarkably childish one. In fact, it seems almost unbelievable that in the century of Galileo and Newton, the seventeenth century, there could still be archbishops working on the chronology of the Bible and deciding that the creation of the world took place in 4004 B.C., and that consequently the world will come to an end in 1996. The six thousand years of history correspond to the six days of creation, and the Millennium corresponds to the Sabbath, the seventh day. It takes the form of a thousand-year rule of the Messiah. After that, the fun starts, and in 2996 we begin the war with Gog and the Last Judgment.
Now, what that amounts to, I think, is that the author of Revelation is trying to incorporate the whole dimension of time into his vision. So I think that the author of Revelation, in trying to describe the end of things, is also trying to put the entire category of time from Creation to the end of the Millennium within a framework which actually transcends it. It is after the Millennium that events take place which are in a sense the end of time, because they mark the progression of the human mind from the category of time to the eternal or spiritual world that is something else altogether.
We notice that if we turn to the end of Revelation, the end of chapter 22, that when the final separation of things into a world of life and a world of death has been accomplished, and the tree and the water of life given to man in the beginning are now restored to him, there is finally the separation into a world of life and a world of death, and naturally nothing survives in a world of death. And in 22:10: 'And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand'. Two things in there: one of them is the conception of what might be called- I'm really using the word as a kind of coinage-an apocryphon, a secret book, the secretness being symbolized by the seals. There are references in Old Testament prophecy to a book which is sealed, laid up to be read and used when the time comes to read it. And a great deal of the vision of the Book of Revelation has to do with the removal of the seals of revelation, that is, the powers of repression or whatever it is that keep you from seeing what is going on. The conception is of a book which is secret, not so much because it is kept secret as because the mind of the reader insists on making it a secret.
If you find that difficult to understand, there is a possible example: if you're the type of mentality that wants to censor books because you believe them to be evil, then you try to remove them from people so they can't get hold of them. And if you want something that really does reveal the whole depth and power and horror of evil, you go to something like Shakespeare's Macbeth. But the way to censor Macbeth is not to remove it from people, but to prescribe it for high schools. There, a self-imposed censorship is turned on it, you see, and makes of it a secret book. Similarly with the visions of the Book of Revelation, where the author symbolizes the fact that he is communicating revelation by the image of the seals being torn off a scroll, one after the other, the powers of repression being removed. Then he is told finally, 'Now that you've written your book, don't seal that, because the time is at hand'. The word 'time', kairos, is a special word for time. It originally meant the notch of an arrow, and now means time in the sense of a special moment, as distinct from chronos, which is clock time. Kairos is the moment at which there is a passage open from time into something above time; and that is what is meant by this recurring phrase in the Book of Revelation, 'The time is at hand'.
And then precedes the commission to the author. Verse twelve: 'Behold, I come quickly; reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last'. It seems that while Christianity uses the term 'Word' in a very special sense when it talks about the 'Word of God', nevertheless it is connected with our more ordinary uses of the term 'word'. Here, God is being described as the Alpha and the Omega, that is, the beginning and the end of all verbal possibilities, the totality of all the things that it is possible to express with words.
And then, verse 16: 'I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whoever will, let him take the water of life freely'. So that, although this is the end of the Bible, it is a remarkably open end. The implication seems to be that there are two kinds of apocalypse or revelation that he is talking about. One is the panoramic apocalypse, the things which you see in vision as the powers of repression come off your sense perception, and which, because it is panoramic, you see as objective to yourself. Then there is the possessed vision, the vision of the entire Bible that passes into your mind as soon as you have read the last word. That is what Milton calls, in his treatise on Christian doctrine, 'the Word of God in the heart': that is, the Bible possessed by the reader. And to that he gives a much higher authority than .he gives to the Bible as book.