Reading In and Around the Bible: Three More NT Epistles; Revelation

Final post of notes about my first reading of the New Testament.

List of previous posts:
Intro and sources used (Oxford’s edition of the New Revised Standard Version, the King James Version via Steve Wells’ Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, Stephen M. Miller’s Complete Guide to the Bible, Isaac Asimov’s Asimov’s Guide to the Bible); Matthew; Mark; Luke; John; Acts; Paul #1: 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Galatians; Paul #2: 1 and 2 Corinthians; Romans; Paul #3: Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy; Hebrews, James.

(Also, before finishing these notes on the NT, I’ve wrapped around to do close readings of the OT: Genesis #1; Genesis #2)

1 Peter is just 5 full pages in NRSV. Miller, in his Complete Guide, spends 6 pages discussing it. (Virtually every guide and commentary I’ve seen on the Bible dwells far more on the NT than on the OT. Well, those by Christians, obviously.) The theme here is that suffering should be welcomed, and will be repaid in heaven; and more about the imminent return of Jesus.

  • 1 Peter 1:18-19, earlier epistle writers may have been distancing themselves from OT blood rituals, but not Peter: “You know that you were ransomed… but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” (It was always important to sacrifice only non-blemished animals.)
  • 1:24, and this is true because of selectively quoting Isaiah: “All flesh is like grass…” (cf. a Simak novel)
  • 2:18, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” Just a couple hours ago I was listening to Fresh Air, with Terry Gross, interviewing historian Wendy Warren about the slave trade of the early New England colonists, and how slavery was taken for granted and justified by the Bible. (Social progress proceeds *despite* religious believers who adhere to ancient, antique, texts.)
  • 3:7, “Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex…
  • 5:13, Asimov points out that the reference to Babylon is not literal, but a metaphor for Rome.

The next book, 2 Peter, is taken to be written not by the apostle Peter nor by the author of 1 Peter, but given that name by some anonymous writer to give it a kind of authority. Oxford: “Such pseudepigraphical attribution is frequent in the Bible and in other ancient literatures.” (p2132). Its structure, on the contrary, is very close to Jude. This is only 4 pages in NRSV.

  • 2 Peter 1:20-21, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The writer clearly would like this to be true, so that no one would question his or scriptural authority – but (as Thomas Paine shows) a great many, perhaps most, of the citations of OT prophecy in the NT are twisted or taken out of context to some degree. Prophecy is, the evidence shows, very much a matter of interpretation.
  • 3:8, So why hasn’t the second coming happened? “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Say what? Is this to say nothing in scripture can be taken at face value? (And how does the writer know this?) This is very much like Alice in Wonderland, where (someone else’s) words mean whatever the present writer wants them to mean.
  • 3:10-13, how the world will end in fire, leading to “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home”. One can see how the compilers of the NT, a couple hundred years after this letter was written, wanted to retain this message, that don’t worry, the second coming will come eventually. Unfortunately, this is one of those passages some Christians like to cite to justify pillaging the Earth and taking no action against climate change—because this earth is expendable and will be replaced by a new one! (Here is where Biblical belief is actually dangerous not just to believers, but to the rest of us.)
  • 3:16, Referring to Paul’s writings, “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” If you point out the parts that are incredible, you’re unstable and doomed to destruction. (Don’t think, just believe!)

The three John epistles are taken by have been written by the author of the fourth gospel. They’re all very short, all hitting familiar notes of the antichrist coming at any moment, the warnings against false prophets, and the entreaties to love one another.

  • 1 John 2:18, “Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.
  • 2:22, what then is an antichrist? “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son”.
  • So… all nonbelievers are antichrists; despite which, what John claims therefore follows in 2:18 was not true (the world didn’t end).
  • 5:19, “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” God is on our side [says every rival faction in history]; the others are wicked.

I don’t have any specific notes on 2 John, 3 John, or Jude. They’re all quite short.

Finally we come to Revelation, a controversial book that many church leaders rejected. It’s a symbolic, sadistic, fever dream by a zealot who relishes the destruction of all non-believers – Rome in particular. It reads like a bad fantasy novel, and its themes are completely at odds with the relatively gentle, merciful Jesus of the gospels. It’s absurd and incredible all the way through, so I took only very selected notes.

Coincidentally, as I was reading this book five or six weeks ago, David Brin published a post on his blog called The Politics of Religion (wryly noting that by that time “All of the Republican
candidates who claimed to have been chosen by God have now dropped out.”), with a section about how Jesus was “hijacked by John of Patmos”, i.e., the author of Revelation.

The core illness separating the now-dominant fundamentalist movement from Red Letter Christians swirls around the screed where latter-day thumpers go, to stoke their rancor — the Book of Revelation (BoR). 

Barely added to the early Christian canon, over strenuous objection by the era’s top sages, and despised by later scholars, such as Martin Luther, this froth of cackling sadism is diametrically opposite — at every level of morality, compassion and intent — to the homilies of Jesus. 

Those who express hand-rubbing yearnings for the world to tumble into armageddon, as soon as possible — in the BoR’s forecast bloodbath for all-but-a-very-few — thus disqualify themselves from any say over the use of our nuclear stockpile, which was designed by scientific geniuses to end major war, not to end the world

The Book of Revelation is a Rorschach test, exposing those who yearn for an insane deity, not the Creator of Maxwell’s Equations and a gorgeous, galaxy-rich 14 billion year ongoing-bang, and the refractive laws that give us rainbows… as well as the gifts of Beethoven and Schweitzer and liberty and tolerance and the joyful ambitions that fill a child’s heart.

For all that, what Revelation certainly does is provide a dramatic conclusion to the sequence of increasingly dull NT books, and I suspect that was in part why it was included.

Just a few specific notes:

  • Asimov, p535, details how the significance of the number 7 derives not so much from Jewish creation myths, as earlier Babylonian astrology.
  • Revelation 13:18, the number of the beast “is six hundred sixty-six”. Asimov, p555, explains the numerological origin of this number, how Roman numerals were aligned to the letters of the name of some particular villain the writer of Revelation was impugning. A leading candidate was Nero, but depending on how his name was spelled out, the letters added up to either 616 or 666, and early copies of Revelation had the 616. Asimov thinks Nero was an unlikely target, however, being likely already dead 25 years when this book was written. In any event, the number 666 was appealing for its missing the magical 7 not once, but three times.
  • Author relishes the destruction of Rome, 19:3, “…the smoke goes up from her forever and ever.” (Of course, Rome was not destroyed as imagined, and ironically remains today the center of the Christian church.) (Also, there’s a Tiptree title here.)
  • 20:3, Satan is consigned to a pit for a thousand years, “After that he must be let out for a little while.” Huh? Asimov, p555, explains this as a bit of mystical symmetry involving the seven days and how each day is like 1000 years. Whatever.
  • 21:1-2, the “new heaven and new earth”, after the first ones passed away, is a “new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…” It’s all about Jerusalem, the whole world.
  • 21:12, and this new city “has a great, high wall with twelve gates…” Why are there gates at all? This is a new, perfect world! Failure of imagination.
  • 21:16, Moreover, “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal.” An enormous *cube*, 1500 miles on a side! (KJV translates the number as 12,000 furlongs on a side; NRSV notes the measurements are multiples of 12 and are symbolic.)
  • 22:20 as elsewhere, “Surely I am coming soon”.

Asimov ends his 1969 volume thusly:

And with that assurance—still unfulfilled nearly two thousand years later—the New Testament ends.

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