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Spring 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 1 · pp. 78–80 

Book Review

Imperial Cult and John's Apocalypse

J. Nelson Kraybill. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic, 1996. 262 pages.

Reviewed by V. George Shillington

J. Nelson Kraybill, now president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, provides us with a well-documented and clearly-written book on the Apocalypse of John. The fact that this revision of his doctoral dissertation at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia appears in the “Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series” speaks well for its academic quality.

Kraybill’s focused study of the textured images in Revelation 18 reveals a message to its Christian readers living in imperial Rome not to engage in trade with those in league with the corrupt system of the Empire. Kraybill sees the separation of the church(es) from the unjust state system as the persuasive feature of the book, with chapter 18 acting as the fulcrum for his argument. Revelation 18:17-19 serves as the key text for Kraybill’s thesis: “. . . all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, ‘What city was like the great city?’ And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out, ‘Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth!’ ” (NRSV).

Using his own version of social scientific interpretation, Kraybill carries out a close socioeconomic analysis of Revelation 18 and extends his results to encompass the burden of Revelation about Christians of the Empire “weighing the political and economic choices” (9) with which they doubtless were confronted. His chapter titles depict well the tenor of his discussions: A Dwelling Place of Demons, Nations Have Drunk Her Wine, The Merchants Have Grown Rich, Repay Her Double for Her Deeds, The Blood of Prophets and of Saints, A Healing of the Nations. John of Patmos warns against the lure of commerce and against joining {79} forces with those who would be rich within the pyramidal social structure of the Empire, evidenced throughout Revelation (74ff).

Kraybill argues that John sees the commerce of the Roman world tied in with the Imperial cult. “The concentration of merchant and guild offices at Ostia, in a port city where the imperial cult thrived, suggests imperial interests and ideology pervaded the shipping industry” (134). From John’s perspective, so Kraybill argues, commerce in the Empire requires (13:16-17) the “mark of the beast,” the mark that people had to wear “in order to buy and sell” (136). The mark appeared also on money used for trading. Moreover, “John may have refused to handle Roman coins simply because they normally carried the image and name of the current Emperor” (138).

In the end, what John envisions is a just society epitomized in the coming down of the New Jerusalem which will be “incomparably better than any Roman city” (211). In the meantime, Christians are to respond to social injustice in nonviolent ways after the manner of Jesus who confronted the powers of his time. Collaboration with the beast of Babylon, viz., Rome, dishonors Jesus who gave his life to redeem humankind from corruption and injustice.

I find myself hard-pressed to find any fault in this book. Kraybill has executed a masterful reconstruction of the socioeconomic political context for his argument about the burden and thrust of Revelation. At the same time, reconstruction, however well executed, runs the risk of creating a “world” more in line with the bent of the reconstructor than with that of the author. One wonders, for example, if John when he was writing on Patmos were as aware of the legendary wickedness of Tyre or the marine trade offices at Ostia as Kraybill is in his reconstruction for the reading of Revelation. Still, Kraybill has kept a close exegetical eye on the text of Revelation while carrying out his reconstruction. For that he deserves much credit.

Without much apology Kraybill admits that he “tried to view Revelation from the perspective of a first-century reader” (9). Admirable as that enterprise is, the community of readers of Kraybill’s book are left to draw their own inferences and conclusions about their own world of injustice in commerce. Kraybill’s Anabaptist/Mennonite worldview was probably an asset in deciphering the socioeconomic rhetoric in Revelation. With all that, he stopped short of drawing out the significance of his analysis for the modern church in the modern world of trade and commerce in which it is so heavily engaged, perhaps much more so than the church of John’s time.

While Kraybill consulted numerous sources, as evidenced in his {80} bibliography, I was puzzled by the absence of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s work, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Fortress, 1985). It seems to me that her work could only have enhanced Kraybill’s otherwise deft interpretation of Revelation.

V. George Shillington
Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology
Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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