Anyone who wants an overview of a modern Christian theological interpretation of the Apocalypse will find many interesting propositions in Margaret Barker’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ, published by T&T Clark (www.tandtclark.uk) in 2000. Barker is former president of the Society for Old Testament Study. This academic association, founded in 1917, has mainly British members but also knows foreign participants from Christian and Jewish backgrounds. Barker makes frequent use of her knowledge of Hebrew prophecies and the circumstances in which the early Christian congregation lived in Palestine in the first centuries of our era. Her perspective focuses on looking at the primary sources of the Apocalypse, such as ancient oracles from the Jewish temple rites, which must have inspired Jesus. She places the Apocalypse in the general expectation at that time that the great king and high priest will return and complete the Atonement at the end of the tenth Jubilee. The tenth Jubilee covers a period of 10 x 49 years or 490 years. After each period of 7×7=49 years, the Atonement occurs in the Jubilee Year, in which each person returns to his own land and possessions, and freedom is regained. The tenth Jubilee had a special meaning according to the books of Isaiah (61) and Daniel (9:24-27) because this tenth Jubilee took place 490 years after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in presumably 422 B.C. The tenth jubilee cycle would occur in the period in which Jesus lived, which could explain why his contemporaries could see in him the foretold new king or high priest (Michael J. Sullivan, Sept. 23, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/notes/mike-sullivan/the-tenth-jubilee-cycle-490-of-dan-9-isa-61-fulfilled-from-1st-temple-424422-bc-/10155094463409364/).
In Barkers’ eyes this expectation was also the reason for the revolt of the Jews against Rome, which broke out in the year 66 and led to the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 and the destruction of the Second Temple. This point in time coincides with the end of the tenth Jubilee cycle. John, according to Margaret Barker, gave an account in the Apocalypse of the events and ideas that lived among the first generations of Christians and connects the concepts in the Apocalypse as consistently as possible to historical events during this time.
She assumes that the Apocalypse must have been written in Hebrew and only later translated into Greek, which led to some erroneous translations and a different style of writing than the Gospel written directly into Greek by John, who is according to her the same person as the writer of the Apocalypse.
In her extensive study of 447 pages Barker deals with all 22 chapters of the Apocalypse in the above- mentioned manner. It goes too far to summarize this extensive work here. By way of illustration, a number of themes will be described which will make it clear that although her claims can generally be documented, they also show that they do not yet reveal the mystical content of the Apocalypse.
The following themes will be followed:
– Sources used
– The origin of the Apocalypse
– The role of the king/high priest
– The holy of holies
– The limitation of interpreting the content based on historical events
Margaret Barker makes use of a number of main sources and related places in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and of Christian and Jewish texts circulating around the beginning of the era that are not included in the Bible, the so-called apocryphal books. These include, for example, The Ethiopic Book of Enoch (Oxford, 1978), The Book of the Secrets of Enoch (Oxford, 1896), and The Apocalypse of Abraham (London, 1918). An overview gives The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, (vol.2, ed. R.H. Charles, Oxford, 1913). Barker also uses rabbinic texts from the Mishna, the Babylonian Talmud (translation I. Epstein, London, 1961) and texts from, among others, Isaiah Targum and Ezekiel Targum. Targum means that it is an originally oral interpretation. Barker also bases herself on the Qumran texts (The complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London, 1997)), Philo of Alexandria (War) and Flavius Josephus (The Jewish War), and on early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (The demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching and Against Herisies, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids, 1950-1952), Clement of Alexandria, Origenes and Eusebius (The Church History, Harmondsworth, 1965). As far as gnostic texts are concerned, she limits herself to the texts found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. She leaves the links with Kabbalah practically out.
The origin of the Apocalypse
In chapter 4, Barker discusses the origins of the Apocalypse. In the usual literature one can find that John stayed on Patmos as a prisoner where he received his visions on a Sunday and then wrote them down. Barker finds this story very unlikely. Although John may have been responsible for the final compilation of the Apocalypse and he probably wrote it on Patmos and completed a Greek translation around the year 95, the contents of the book can in many cases be traced back to existing ancient texts. These can be found in parables from 1 Enoch (38-71) which are similar to the throne vision and they also correspond to Qumran texts and to ideas such as those found in the Targum of Isaiah (p.66). Many elements in the Apocalypse can also be found in Ezekiel. Barker observes that the old myths still determined the world view of people in the first century after Christ (p.62). In her view, the Apocalypse is a compilation of such ancient myths that go much further back than Christianity, and are connected with interpretations of Jesus himself, but above all of Christian prophets of the first and second generations. Barker points to 2 Baruch (77:12-13) which is written after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70. According to this text, people asked Baruch to write guidelines and a scroll of hope to their brothers in Babylon, now that all the teachers in Jerusalem had been killed. Barker sees the Apocalypse as the answer to exactly this desire among the scattered and disillusioned Christians. According to her, this may have been the reason why John was commissioned to write the Apocalypse.
The role of the king/high priest
Barker describes the Apocalypse as a priestly scripture embedded in the language and world of the temple and its mythology (p.62). According to her, the Apocalypse was meant for a small group of initiates who could understand the symbolic language, such as mystics and priests. Within this group of initiates there were two currents in dealing with celestial knowledge (p.148): the followers of the tradition of the first temple and the reformers who were in charge in the second temple. The Apocalypse represents the group that followed the tradition of the first temple. The reformers saw the desire to gain access to heavenly knowledge as a sin and felt that man should suffice to follow the law of the Lord. Ezekiel’s visions were therefore not to be read out in public. The old tradition, however, saw heavenly knowledge as a great gift with which man could become like God. The books of Enoch kept the old temple tradition and show the celestial knowledge in its original setting. During Enoch’s initiation, the angel shows him ‘all the hidden things’, including the Son of Man (p.149).
The royal figure was described in this symbolic language with many names, such as Servant, Lamb, Son, etc. The Servant is a name given in Hebrew writings to important figures, such as Abraham and Moses (p.133). The Servant is someone who has seen the Lord, concludes Barker. In most cases the servant is the king who ascended to the holy of holies. “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd” (Ezekiel 37:24). The servant is the triumphant royal figure, the one who is given the holy name, he is called Lord, Messiah, he becomes divine (p.137). When the Servant, the Lamb, ascends the Throne, he is born as Son and becomes the High Priest Melchizedek (p.140, Psalm 110:3-4). According to tradition, the great high priest Melchizedek (another name for Michael, p. 221) would appear in the first week of the tenth Jubilee year. It was the week in which Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and therefore Jesus could also claim that he was Melchizedek (p.5) and that he sacrificed himself for his people as the Great Atonement sacrifice.
In the rituals of the first temple (p.35) the king was anointed and became the first-born Son (Psalm 89:26-27). He became Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4), man in the image of God. Melchizedek is also the angelic high-priest and celestial warrior who will come from his holy place to make the sacrifice for the Great Atonement on the Day of the Lord and to participate as a warrior in the Great Judgment (Psalm 87, 124, 171).
Furthermore, Barker mentions similar myths in nearby cultures such as that of the ancient city of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, discovered in 1928. Here existed the concept, as can also be found in Egypt, that the king ascended to heaven on his accession to the Throne where he received royal power from the gods and then returned to earth to rule and fight the forces of chaos, maintain justice among his people and bring fertility to the land (p.347, Psalm 72). Barker sees in the same light the series of images in chapters 4-11 of the Apocalypse, that describe the king’s mission to renew creation.
The holy of holies
In the temple the most intimate part is the holy of holies. This section of the temple represents the timelessness; being past, present and future at the same time (p.115). Here is the door to heaven. Whoever ascends to the holy of holies is able to know the secrets of the future and is led to the Throne of God. The statement ‘Where the beginning is also the end’ thus became reality (p.334). And in the tradition of the First Temple, man (the King and High Priest) who ascends to the throne is the one who becomes equal to the One who sits on the throne (p.123); the Son of Man becomes an angel and Son of God (p.128, 335).
Barker points out in chapter 20 that the Holy of Holies coincides with the Garden of Eden and with the New Jerusalem (p.323), which describes what was attributed to Paradise at the time of the birth of the Apocalypse (p.331). The New Jerusalem, the city, is the new holy of holies says Baker (p.333), referring to the Qumran texts and the Gospel of Thomas (49:50).
The limitation of interpreting the content based on historical events
Because Barker focuses almost exclusively on an interpretation of the Apocalypse as a description of dramatic events for the young Christian church in the first century of our era, she ignores its esoteric significance.
Barker sees the role of the myths of Israel, as they can be recognized in the Apocalypse for example in the dragon, the beast, the heavenly virgin who gives birth to the royal child, etc., as an automatic way of thinking: ‘they simply thought in that way’ (p.60). She therefore finds it difficult to interpret the mystical meaning of these images and instead comes up with a historical explanation. Sometimes this leads to peculiar statements. Here are a few examples.
She relates the consequences of the blowing of the first trumpet to the conquest of Jerusalem in the year 63 BC, when first the walls around the city were torn down, the houses went up in flames and subsequently 12,000 Jews died, after which the Roman Gnaeus Pompey desecrated the temple by entering it. She reads these disasters in the text: ‘there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, … one third of the earth and the trees and the green grass burned’, but remains stuck with the difficulty how to explain ‘the third part’. She attributes the mentioning of this third part to an error in the translation from Hebrew to Greek. And she does not mention that this phase of development may refer to a three-fold creation that no longer consists of the physical material, but of the ethereal, astral and spiritual levels (see explanation in text fragment 22). At the blowing of the second trumpet, a third of the sea becomes blood, which she attributes to the fall of Mark Anthony and a sea battle in which many ships perished and soldiers drowned. And she links the blowing of the third trumpet with the announcement in the year 4 BC of the death of Herod. The word ‘wormwood’ would indicate a poisoned jurisdiction under Herod. In this way she points out the consequences of all seven trumpets, ignoring their esoteric secrets.
A similar conclusion can be drawn from her explanation of the period of ‘three-and-a-half’ which occurs at different places in the Apocalypse (p. 186). She sees the meaning of this three-and-a-half not so much in the length of the period or its equivalent, but that it would be an indication of a last time and that after this something will happen to Jerusalem. It would always be the end of a period. She does not mention the meaning of the length of the initiation sleep of three-and-a half days in the ancient mysteries.
In relation to the two witnesses of God she states (p. 190-192) that their meaning is a matter of guesswork. Indeed, she cannot find two plausible figures in history that correspond to them. She then suggests, as an explanation, that much has been tinkered with this text or that we are missing the essential information to make the historical connection. She does not suggest that these could represent the Sun and Moon forces, Elijah and Moses, as discussed in the explanation of text fragment 30.
In the explanation of the false prophet (p.237), Barker supposes that this must be an antithesis of John himself. The false prophet should be a priestly prophet who interprets the old oracles in the light of current events, but in a false way. Barker puts forward a number of arguments that the defected Flavius Josephus, a priest of royal descent, would be this false prophet. Earlier (p.70), Barker shows that the later converted Paul was also treated with suspicion by a part of the Christian Hebrews and seen as a false prophet. Both examples illustrate her striving to reduce every mythological figure to historical events. In the case of Paul, this brings the reader very far away from his gnostic meaning.
Another typical example is the drying up of the waters of the Euphrates when the sixth angel pours out his vial of wrath. Because she does not take into account the paradisaical etheric energy streams (see explanation text fragment 46) the only option that remains is to look for a period in which the Euphrates would actually have dried up. Here she gets in trouble, as she herself observes (p. 271).
Although it is a pity that her sharp mind does not extend her descriptions to the esoteric insights of the time, the book is nevertheless a valuable source of additional knowledge of social relations and religious habits in Palestine during the first centuries of the era that help to better understand the content of the Apocalypse.