‘This is the Revelation given by God to Jesus Christ. It was given to him so that he might show his servants what must shortly happen.’footnote1 Thus commences the last book of the New Testament, the Revelation of John. A short prologue is followed by messages to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia, concerning proper religious and moral conduct. Then comes the largest section of the document, which consists mainly of prophetic visions and admonitions. Some of the visions are clearly drawn from Jewish prophetic and apocalyptic literature, most influential of which was the book of Daniel. But the seer seems to have added several ideas of his own, a product of his Christian outlook. The imagery includes seals which are opened one by one, angels who blow trumpets in turn, glimpses of future events, powers of darkness and heavenly beings. Revelation ends with confirmative remarks and blessings for those who adhere to the prophecy.

Among the visions which have at one time or another exercised the imagination of the Revelation’s readers are the cry for vengeance, ‘How long, sovereign Lord, holy and true, must it be before thou wilt vindicate us and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ (6: 10); the beast with ten horns and seven heads, which was allowed during its reign ‘to wage war on God’s people and to defeat them, and was granted authority over every tribe and people, language and nation’ (13: 1–8); the riddle of the beast’s name in the form of the number 666, given to those who have intelligence to work it out (13: 18); the woman ‘clothed in purple and scarlet and bedizened with gold and jewels and pearls’, on whose head was written ‘Babylon the great, the mother of whores and of every obscenity on earth’ (17: 4–6); the chaining of the Devil by an angel for a thousand years, during which Christ would reign over mankind, and after which the Devil would be turned loose again for a short while to seduce the nations (20: 1–8); and the new heaven filled with blissful images, including a river ‘flowing from the throne of God’, on either side of which ‘stood a tree of life, which yields twelve crops of fruit, one for each month of the year’, and so on (22: 1–2).

Less than a century after its publication there was much in John’s Revelation not apprehended by its readers. Its date and author were a matter for speculation, and its religious significance disputed. Debates over its meaning continued throughout the Middle Ages; and from the early eighteenth century there has been a systematic flow of popular pamphlets and learned articles aiming at its illumination and evaluation.footnote2 After prolonged research, despite disagreement on several points and persisting hesitations, most twentieth-century scholars would agree (a) that the work was composed during the second half of the first century (more precisely, sometime between the sixties and the nineties); (b) that its author was a Christian of Jewish origins called John—possibly the disciple or, more likely, someone belonging to the disciple’s school; (c) that it was composed in the Roman province of Asia or its neighbouring island of Patmos; and (d) that the imagination of the seer was excited by contemporary events, which, although presented in symbols and riddles, were more or less understood by his first readers; the beast would thus be related to Roman rule and the emperors, Babylon the whore would stand for Rome, and so forth. Furthermore, it is also generally accepted (e) that the work was written at a period of crisis, with signs of economic pressure and social unrest, (f) under circumstances of religious persecution, and (g) was addressed to socially humble and oppressed Christians, mainly for purposes of religious edification, but also as comfort in their tribulations.

There have always been problems with these presuppositions. For example, persecutions are not otherwise attested to in the Roman provinces before the second century; the author confuses the issue of contemporary political events; and he never explicitly characterizes his brethren as socially humble. But first-century Christianity is insufficiently documented, and not much precision on social matters can be expected of a seer purporting to report an inspired revelation. Reasonably enough, Church historians have usually filled in the gaps, drawing upon their general perception of early Christianity. According to this perception the early converts belonged to the lower strata of the Roman world, with slaves and urban proletarians predominating. As for persecutions, they have been considered so integral a part in the evolution of the new religion, that almost every single early Christian document has been seen as hinting at problems with the Jews or the secular authorities. Revelation can be easily made to conform to this picture and in its turn to confirm it.

Having reached this common ground, scholars have attempted to specify the circumstances under which the work was composed. The social history of the early Roman empire is rather vague, but, thanks to ancient sources, much is known about individual emperors and their administration. Social unrest and economic distress during the first century, it is believed, could only occur during the reign of ‘bad emperors’, and—apart from Caligula who was murdered when Christianity was in its infancy stage—only Nero and Domitian were reported to have been adequately corrupt and extravagant as to fit the picture drawn from Revelation. Scholars are divided between the two emperors, but as the latter reigned from ad 81–96 when Christianity would have expanded sufficiently, the lot has usually fallen to him (although other possibilities were not excluded).footnote3 Internal evidence from Revelation has thus been interwoven with Domitian’s alleged (by pagan sources) mismanagement of the empire. The seer’s religious preoccupations have been regarded as a response to secular corruption and malicious persecutions—the worship of the beast in Revelation being linked to emperor worship.

During the last two or three decades, however, the traditional view of early Christianity has been systematically revised and gradually abandoned. Detailed research has shown that from the days of the apostle Paul, whose social milieu emerges rather clearly in his letters, down to the well-documented age of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, slaves and proletarians were hardly touched by the new faith; that numerous well-off converts abounded; and that, overall, the Christian communities were socially complex, representing a cross section of the population.footnote4 It is now believed that up to the third century no initiatives were taken on the part of the emperors or the administration for religious persecutions.footnote5 Sporadic outbursts of violence recorded in some (mostly unreliable) sources are considered as originating from popular aversion. Popular morality was understandably offended by the provocations of people regarded in their time as religious fanatics. From the middle of the third century to the early fourth, the authorities organized persecutions, but they were short-lived and their efficacy is disputed. Between acts of violence, it is now stressed, Christians were allowed for long periods to prosper, and many of them filled the army, the civil services and the palace (including the households of the ‘bad emperors’ Nero and Commodus as well as the court of Diocletian, renowned for the worst measures against the Christians). According to this new consensus, Christianity, even in its earliest stages, did not arise as a movement of the most oppressed sections of the population, nor did it purport to ameliorate the living conditions of the masses; many among its members were respectable, educated and well off, influenced in their moral teaching by upper-class stoicism and platonism; if anything, a large number of the early converts were socially upwardly mobile.footnote6

Revelation, with its condemnation of Romans and Jews, its call for vengeance, its self-presentation as a book of comfort to its readers, its exultation of the slain and the expectation of a great victory, had up to now been the last major stronghold of the traditional view. Now, with the work of Leonard L. Thompson, this last stronghold has fallen.footnote7