Post Three: Application

Having established the Apocalypse of John as an appropriate case study and MLS as an appropriate means of study, it is now possible to move onto a thorough examination of the text itself. The Apocalypse of John, like all apocalypses, was written during a time of turmoil and was meant to address widespread anxieties. It is commonly accepted today, in fact, that its imagery refers to historical events and eschatology related to the Roman empire. The beast from the sea of chap. 13 and the woman of chap. 17 are two primary examples of this phenomena. (A. Collins 241).  Simply put, the Apocalypse of John was a religious response to earthly circumstances. Although couched in symbolism and theology, this response promoted certain cultural adaptations that may have proved advantageous to early Christians. In order to understand the relevance of these adaptations, however, it is first necessary to understand their environment.

The Apocalypse of John seeks to ease eschatological anxieties, specifically those created by the tension between Roman ideology and Christian messianism. By doing this, however, it encouraged behaviors that were adaptive in the uncertain environment of the Greco-Roman world. As previously outlined, these cultural adaptations took two forms: First, strong social controls for the continuance of cooperative behavior that were promoted by a belief in an imminent eschaton. And second, a stable evolutionary strategy for survival based on nonviolence. Cultural adaptations, unlike genetic adaptations, can spread quickly throughout their group, becoming the majority or even exclusive social trait. Their power lies partially in their symbolic nature. As Durkheim and Geertz suggested, religions are systems of symbols that inspire beliefs and actions in men. As such, the introduction or cultural evolution of new symbols or novel symbolic understandings of the universe can have dramatic effects on group success.

[A] An Imminent Eschaton

            As previously discussed, the “eschaton” is a suddenly occurring event that marks the transition from this age to the next. In the opening few lines of the Apocalypse of John it is announced that the revelation of Jesus Christ has been transmitted via angel to John. The theme of the imminent eschaton is right away , “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near” (Rev 1:3). Following these opening lines, Christ appears to John in a vision, instructing him to send letters to the seven churches of Asia. These messages serve several functions: Rhetorically, they lend credibility to John’s prophecy, as they are presented as being direct quotes from Christ (Rev 1:18). Morally, they are meant to remind the major early Christian communities of their responsibility to follow the Law. This intent is made especially clear by his correspondence with Ephesus: “I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:3-5). Similarly, in his message to Pergamum, it is written, “Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev 2:14). These messages utilize clear rhetorical devices, referencing a consistent symbolic understanding of the world and emphasizing the moral responsibility of adhering to the Law. However, beyond simply functioning as rhetorical or moral devices, these beliefs suggest that the ideology espoused by the Apocalypse of John possesses strong social controls toward prosocial behavior.

By and large, the tenets of Christianity – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet – are representative of prosocial behaviors. A 2016 study examining three different types of religious primes, for instance, concluded that prosocial behavior could be increased by exposure to religious contexts, symbols, and concepts (Batara, Franco, Quiachon et al 641). The religious ideology presented by the Apocalypse of John promotes prosocial behavior in an intriguing and effective manner that can be best explained by the Stag Hunt game. Like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Stage Hunt game is a simple representation of the conflict between risk and efficiency in social interactions. As an illustration, imagine two hunters who must decide independently whether or not to hunt stag (cooperation) or to hunt hare (defect). To successfully hunt the stag, which gives a significant payoff, the hunters must cooperate. Conversely, to hunt the hair requires no cooperation and guarantees a moderate gain. Hunters who expect defection will be more likely to defect, while hunters who expect cooperation will be more likely to cooperate. Unlike the Prisoner’s Dilemma, though, defection is not dominant, as it is less efficient (Huttegger and Smead 518). Cooperation becomes increasingly worthwhile as the likelihood of reciprocation rises. Thus, a condition – such as a belief in an imminent eschaton – that ascribes to punish defection helps to ensure cooperation.

Consider adherence to the Law to be the stag (cooperation) and religious lapse to be the hare (defection). There is significant payoff, both socially and eschatologically, for adhering to the Law. The most righteous individuals gain the respect of their peers and the assurance of their salvation in the age to come. However, adherence becomes more difficult when surrounded by those who choose the less risky strategy of religious lapse. Thus, individuals must make many choices between adherence to the Law (cooperation) and lapse (defection) in their daily lives: Should they share their resources with their fellow Christians? Should they honor their kin? Should they treat their neighbor kindly? These actions may be personally costly, but when performed reliably by all group members provide great benefits. If it is a reasonable assumption that cooperation will be rewarded and defection punished, then a greater fraction of these questions will be answered in the affirmative, to the benefit of the group.

The ideology presented by the Apocalypse of John represents the evolution of the symbolic understanding of the eschaton that resulted in a possible cultural adaptation towards increased prosocial behavior. Responding to the First Jewish Revolt, the author presented the eschaton as an imminent solution to earthly suffering, resulting in a tendency towards cooperation with and adherence to the Law. This belief, however, was not a complete departure from other contemporary religious groups. Several groups, including the Pharisees, possessed a similar apocalyptic eschatology. As such, in this case, the moral/social controls imposed by the text’s apocalyptic eschatology provide an increased ability to endure hardship in the Greco-Roman world, but not one that was wholly different than other groups.


[B] Passive Resistance vs. Violent Resistance

The emphasis placed on the imminence of the eschaton by the Apocalypse of John promoted more than just a system of rewards and punishments. Apart from judgement, the coming of the eschaton meant holy war on earth. In the Apocalypse of John, this battle takes place with no participation from the elect, “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Rev 19:11). However, other apocalyptic traditions, such as that of the Zealots, envisioned a more active role in the coming holy war. Instead of relying solely on the armies from above, they advanced a “two story” conception of battle, assuming that they would fight below or alongside the heavenly beings (A. Collins 242). These two different symbolic understandings of the final battle encouraged drastically different sociobiological outcomes. Professor Adela Yarbro Collins outlines well the two forms of resistance. The first path, that of violent revolution, drew heavily from the holy war tradition, using its language as a means of promoting and glorifying a violent uprising. In 1 Mac 4:30-33, for example, typical holy war motifs are used in accounts of Maccabean battles, citing the victories of Jonathan and David as paradigms for Judas’ second battle against the forces of Lysias (A. Collins 242). Conversely, the second path, that of nonviolence, utilized the imagery of the holy war to encourage endurance and waiting. While it was expected that a final eschatological battle would occur, the fighting was expected to be done entirely by the armies of heaven (A. Collins 245). Both alternatives were clearly influenced by the symbolic understanding of history present, among other places, in apocalypticism.

The Zealots, led by Judas of Gamala who regarded Roman taxation as being no better than slavery, began a revolt that lasted six years (Ant 18.1.1). Explicit evidence for the ideology of holy war is lacking for the Zealots, but it is likely that the guerilla warfare waged from the time of Judas of Gamala to the outbreak of the revolt was seen as an early stage of holy war on the model of the raids of Jephthah and the initial campaign of Mattathias the Maccabean patriarch. Evidence also supports the assertion that the revolt was seen as the final eschatological battle (A. Collins 242-243). However, the revolt against Rome ended in disaster for the Zealots and terror for other Jewish groups. Many Jews lost their lives, were robbed or murdered, and the temple was burned to the ground (Ant 18.1.1). Flavius Josephus, though, an ancient Jewish historian, blamed the Zealots for even more, stating, “…Judas…filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries, by this system of philosophy [Zealotry], which we were unacquainted withal, concerning which I will discourse a little, and this the rather because the infection which spread thence among the younger sort, who were zealous for it, brought the public destruction (Ant 18.1.1). The violent ideology of the Zealots proved to be a cultural adaptation that was an ill-fit for the conditions of the Greco-Roman world during the end of the first century.

Conversely, the Apocalypse of John adopted the second model, encouraging nonviolent endurance. In the message to Philadelphia, it is stated, “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of earth” (Rev 3:10). Similarly, it is said before the reaping of the earth, “Here is a call for endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (Rev 14:12). These calls for endurance speak to an ideology that sought to avoid armed conflict. In sociobiological terms, they suggest the existence of cultural adaptation towards nonviolence. Multilevel selection theory posits that group selection can only occur in a context containing competing groups. As Wilson explains it, the need for multiple groups and variation among groups is essential for group level traits to evolve (Wilson 13). As such, consider the ideology of the Zealots to be a group possessing a social trait towards violent rebellion competing with the ideology championed by the Apocalypse of John. The presence of such a group, especially of a militant one that encouraged the murder of other Jews, would have naturally helped to tip the balance of within-group and between-group selection towards the latter. Of course, in actuality, there were many more groups/ideologies competing for survival in the Greco-Roman world than simply these two, resulting in a scenario in which fitness determined success. After all, group selection does not eliminate conflict, it merely elevates it to the next biological level (Wilson 10).

It seems likely that the nonviolent ideology of endurance promoted the Apocalypse of John would have been well adapted to life in the Greco-Roman world. Textual and sociobiological analysis aside, history clearly demonstrates that the Zealots possessed a losing strategy, being completely annihilated, “Accordingly, they [The Zealots] all met with such ends as God deservedly brought upon them in way of punishment” (Wars 7.8.1). The Apocalypse of John and its ideology, on the other hand, continue to be relevant even today. The cultural adaptation towards nonviolence that was encouraged by the text’s ideology seems to have been especially well suited to the harsh conditions of Roman rule in the late first century.

These two cultural adaptations that were promoted by the Apocalypse of John would have been incredibly advantageous to early Christians living in the uncertain Greco-Roman World.


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