Adamsen on Kraybill (review)

Revelation Reviews ISSN 1397-2936.
Volume 1.001. Mar 1997 (Publication date: 29 Mar 1997)

J. Nelson Kraybill: Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse . Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 132; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Pp. 262. ISBN: 1-85075-616-3.

This book, written by J. Nelson Kraybill, is based on his doctoral thesis, advised by Paul J. Achtemeier, at the Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. To me, there is no doubt that this subject is an important and useful one. Although much scholarship assumes the historical matrix of the first century, one sometimes wonders whether the knowledge of this historical matrix is always accurate. Kraybill has collected a wealth of information about first century socio-economy not always known to theologians. For this our thanks are due to him. The title, however, seems to me to promise a little bit more that the book actually offers. I will return to this later.

In the introduction (pp. 15-23) Kraybill asks “why does John of Patmos, in a book written for Christians living under Roman rule, turn his attention to merchants, shipmasters and sailors at the climactic moment of Babylon’s (Rome’s) demise?” (p. 15). Having mentioned various sources providing clues to the meaning of John’s images, Kraybill concludes: “Insights from all these avenues of study point to the conclusion that John of Patmos was not against commerce and trade in themselves, as if they were intrinsically evil. Rather, (p. 17, Kraybill’s emphasis). Accordingly, Kraybill claims that the “title also is an appropriate description for the throughout Revelation” (p. 17; the last emphasis is mine). In the last paragraph of his introduction, Kraybill treats “Socio-Economic Analysis” which is his own approach (pp. 22-23). Revelation 18 addresses fellow Christians within John’s faith community. Therefore Kraybill concludes: “If John in fact had this immediate pastoral concern in mind, a thorough socio-economic analysis of Revelation 18 is indispensable for understanding of the book. My study is an attempt to meet that need” (p. 23, my emphasis). So “this study examines how commerce and the imperial cult blended in the first-century Roman world, and how John of Patmos thought followers of Jesus should respond” (p. 23). His hermeneutical position is clearly visible in chapter 6 (cf. 1.7 below) as well.

In chapter 1 (pp. 24-56) Kraybill argues that imperial cult and commerce were blended and that only a few Christians were persecuted, while the majority accepted syncretism. “The urgent message of Revelation is that idolatry not only pervades political and economic structures of the Empire, but has taken root with the churches of Asia Minor” (p. 38).

In chapter 2 (pp. 57-101), he describes the historical and economical conditions of Asia and treats the upward mobility structures quite extensively. There were two means of upward mobility: commerce and military service both of which were closely connected to the imperial cult and imperial worship. The NT parenesis about wealth furthermore indicates that the gospel seemed to have special appeal to merchants and tradesmen. As Kraybill admits, his parallels do not prove that Christians were members of the commercial associations, but it strengthens the argument that Christians were in a social or political positions to join (p. 96) and so he concludes that John was in fact “speaking to (or about) Christians actually engaged in shipping and international trade” (p. 101). His reasons are that Jews were involved and the Christians emerged from Jewish diaspora communities; that the NT indicates that there were Christians among the merchant class; and that Revelation specifically mentions merchant, shipmasters and sailors (p. 101).

Chapter 3 (pp. 102-141) examines the activities and institutions of this international engagement. He treats the objects of trade (the profile of a merchant presenting Petronius’s Trimalchio as a rather bad example), the relationship between Italian and Eastern guilds, and the economic and social function of guilds (even though he himself claims that they only had a social function, but this information is given only in a footnote p. 113 note 57). Finally, he treats the religious character of guilds. As the emperor granted economic privileges, e.g. tax reduction, to the members of the guilds, it must have been almost necessary to be a member of a guild in order to stay in business. Kraybill then returns to the connection between Italian guilds and the imperial cult (pp. ca 121-135; the outline of the book is not too easy to follow). The most important pages for the interpretation of Revelation are pp. 135-141 (whereas the most useful pages are pp. 57-135). The use of the ‘mark’ metaphor in Revelation is the topic according to Kraybill’s headings. The content of the pages, however, is analyses of Revelation (nothing more than seven lines at p. 136 and some six lines at p. 138), 3 Maccabees, some Roman coins and of Ignatius from the second century. ” he viewed Rome as demonic, John of Patmos apparently found the blending of commerce and imperial interests repugnant” (p. 139, my emphasis) and “those who wear the seal of God and those who carry the mark of the beast form mutually exclusive groups” with no compromise possible (p. 140). Kraybill therefore concludes that it “is most likely most Christians were not tempted to participate in the cult of the Emperor for its own sake, but merely for pragmatic financial or social reasons” (p. 140).

Chapter 4 (pp. 142-165) treats John’s use of Jewish sources which according to Kraybill supports his interpretation of John and Revelation. Most of the chapter treats Tyre and the Nero legend and both themes express a visceral rejection of the Italian city and its claim to universal dominion (p. 165).

Chapter 5 (pp. 166-195) treats “the degree to which some Jews and Christians of the ancient world were willing to accommodate themselves to a pagan environment” (p. 165). “In the following chapter [i.e. chapter 5] we see that cooperated with Rome in ways that John must have found unacceptable. We also see a vigorous Jewish tradition of refusal to participate in any form of idolatry or syncretism. John of Patmos embraces the latter stance and urgently calls upon his readers to do the same” (p. 165). Now, “Both John’s message and his literary genre (Jewish apocalyptic) place him within the tradition of radical Jews who rejected Roman rule” (p. 166). To argue that, he treats the relationship between Jews and Christians. Christians found “a wide range of Jewish experiences and strategies, from total alienation to economic or political cooperation” (p. 166). Some of John’s opponents apparently followed a pragmatic solution. Romans sometimes made allowances for Jewish religious scruples against syncretism, but as Christians separated from Judaism (late in the first century according to Kraybill), they lost their share in the Jewish privileges and so “it is likely Christian merchants had to participate fully in religious ceremonies of the guilds and ports—or abandon international commerce entirely” (pp. 166f). Kraybill assumes that the necessary “repentance probably would mean losing financial and political status in the Roman world”, but that John did not “expect Christians to be left homeless” (pp. 194f).

This theme of homelessness or security is finally treated in chapter 6 (pp. 196-223) where Kraybill surveys the lasting security which “John believed faithful followers of Jesus would enjoy in the New Jerusalem, and in the age to come” (p. 195, my emphasis). He treats important themes of Revelation 21-22. He acknowledges that there was “more internal to conform to pagan society than external in the way of persecution” (p. 196). “Some perhaps avoided external pressures of persecution by making concessions to Roman ideology and the imperial cult. These incurred the wrath of John and other radical believers who took a hard stance against any show of loyalty to the ‘beast’ from Italy” (p. 197). Kraybill now claims that John’s allusions to persecution and martyrdom make it likely that “John wrote Revelation during some episode of local persecution” (p. 198) and that the “pathos of Revelation issues from John’s deep desire to awaken the church to a conflict of loyalties that many readers apparently do not yet recognize or even see on the horizon” (p 198). Kraybill argues that John condemns Roman violence and exploitation (conquered nations and slavery) (p. 200). Roman rule and imperial cult are to be avoided because “imperial religion provided a means of expressing loyalty to an economic and political system that violated Christian standards of love and justice” (p. 200). The Christians should react in a non-violent way and follow the example of Jesus. The deeper reason for John’s anger at Rome is connected with the fall of Jerusalem (p. 203f). Kraybill describes the just society in the New Jerusalem with the help of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, the presence of God through the Risen Christ and finally argues that the New Jerusalem was far better than any Roman city. This faith community gives a taste of the New Jerusalem and so is present according to Kraybill. He argues that “the use of a present active participle, ‘coming down’ (21:2.10), suggests that John saw the city’s arrival as imminent, perhaps something God’s people already experienced in a provisional way” (p. 206).

The production of the book includes 10 figures, a bibliography, indices of ancient and biblical references, modern authors and subjects.

The strength of this book is that it surveys a rather large number of sources and works on trade, commercial, and to some degree imperial cult and archaeology. First-century maritime trade and commerce in the Mediterranean area are carefully described. Kraybill does not only use extant literature, but also numismatic, archaeological and epigraphical evidence. He also presents themes of socio-economical importance often neglected by theologians, such as the patronage system, upward mobility, and economic opportunity for provincials. All this information is very helpful for a historical analysis of Revelation.

I think that many will in fact consider this book to offer a strong argument not for the traditional interpretation of Revelation, but for a modified interpretation pointing to local persecutions connected with imperial cult and commerce.

The book, however, has some severe drawbacks, consisting mainly in its lack of methodological and hermeneutical awareness and scrutiny. Too much is assumed and not argued including some crucial links between different important lines of arguments, some of them not even mentioned. I must confess that I found some of Kraybill’s conclusions to be unsubstantiated from his own evidence.

Concerning the hermeneutic problem: In the preface to this book, Kraybill writes he has not commented on the many modern references to empire and allegiances. He has “tried to view Revelation from the perspective of a reader. John had the Roman empire in mind when he wrote, not people of the twentieth century. However, if we can understand why John saw loyalty to Jesus as being in tension with loyalty to Rome, then we will have a valuable reference point for similar analysis of domination systems today” (p. 9). He writes that by “any conventional standards John of Patmos was a politically powerless and marginalised person” (p. 9f). Cf. also his note 6 on page 27: “However, he wrote in a typological fashion that makes Revelation a useful paradigm for reflecting on the Christian’s response to idolatry and the abuse of power in any generation”.

From the very outset, I was troubled by this statement. Not (only) because of its content, but because this statement contains so many assumptions which are never made plain by Kraybill, let alone discussed. In my opinion, Kraybill does not succeed to establish any parallel between the situation in Revelation and the contemporary situation of our time. If it can be done (and there are certainly many attempts to do so today), and if Kraybill’s interpretation of Revelation can be substantiated, far-reaching consequences for theology follow. My critique of his methodology questions whether this book succeeds to substantiate such a claim. Kraybill has tried to view Revelation from the “perspective of a reader” (p. 9). This is, however, not the case. First, his perspective has been the author and his image of the author is quite hypothetical because of the missing textual analyses. More than a few times, he argues with the help for material from Italy and from the second and sometimes even the third century. As he has in fact not a single analysis of the audience (which could perhaps be done through an analysis of Revelation 2-3), this claim is rather inaccurate. Perhaps, his hermeneutical stance has biassed his work more than he thinks? Another example of his unexamined hermeneutic (and historical) position is that he says that John condemned slavery as part of the Roman empire (p. 200). I can’t find any indication of that in Revelation.

Kraybill is weak on methodological issues. Methodologically, one of the most important tasks is to show why the chosen data have any bearing on the problem discussed. On p. 17 Kraybill claims: “Archaeological evidence from Roman port cities helps explain how commerce and religion blended in ways that John found objectionable”. Kraybill does not, however, treat seriously the following problems:

The evidence concerns Jews, not Christians. when he makes the connections, he uses “perhaps”, “maybe”, “might”, “apparently”. The fact is that Kraybill does not present evidence concerning Christians;

There is no evidence (at least, Kraybill does not point to any evidence) that the merchants’ ever forced members to participate in the imperial worship.

Judging from the evidence in this book, only a few Christians were engaged in this type of commerce and in military service, and few problems or tensions are reported because of this activity in itself contrary to Kraybill’s assumptions.

Kraybill never analyses the text of Revelation, not even the text of Revelation 18. Instead, he uses some terms found and sometimes some passages rather superficially. This is a serious, methodological weakness. Although I do not agree with all modern literary approaches, it is beyond doubt that the literary structure, use of metaphors etc. must be analysed to some extent before making use of the texts for historical purposes. Kraybill makes dozens of claims concerning John’s concerns, but has no analysis of Revelation. His bibliography supports that because many of the most important studies of Revelation are missing (e.g. only very few non-English language works are used; very few exegetical works are used at all), and it is not difficult to point to many passages where Kraybill should have used the available literature. I cannot escape the feeling that this book is not really a book on Revelation, but on commerce and imperial cult and only later is it connected with Revelation. A doctoral thesis “laid the foundation for this book” (p. 10), but to which extent it did so we are not told.
5. Important terms, e.g., blasphemy (p. 24), are never clearly defined and so this allows Kraybill

Kraybill does not make plain whether the problem is “the imperial cult” or “the government of Rome”. Whether one chooses the first or the second option (or some other possible alternatives), makes a lot of difference contrary to his claim p. 33. To me it makes the difference between an impossible and a possible interpretation, although this does not mean that I think the local persecution-theory is correct. I cannot escape the feeling that he does not make full use of, e.g. Leonard Thompson [1], Steven Friesen [2] and Brian W. Jones [3]. In fact, he contradicts them on a rather weak basis. What he should have done was to choose one of these interpretations and not both of them. It might also be discussed whether the ‘problem’ was a range of problems and challenges including both of these as well as other things.

Kraybill treats 1 Peter and Paul to make his argument work, but forgets to tell that both Peter and Paul in fact have quite another view on the Roman authority than does John according to Kraybill’s interpretation. At the same time he analyses quite a few texts of problematic relevance (the Apostolic Decree; the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah; Hegesippus and Pliny). The crucial theological question is: why did John disagree to such a degree that he should unmask Rome as a demonic state? First, it is of utmost importance that it is argued explicitly and persuasively that John did in fact consider the Roman rule demonic. This means that the interpreter must argue that ‘Babylon’ is in fact a metaphor for contemporary Rome and not something else or something more. It is also important to define what “demons” or “demonization” as well as, e.g. blasphemy, is. Then it must be reasonable to ask for the historical circumstances causing this shift in the view on the relationship between state and church (political power and God’s people). One such shift is described by Marta Sordi [4].

The bibliography reveals that Kraybill is most acquainted with English language scholarship. Only few books, mostly older ones, are included from French and German scholarship. I think that Kraybill’s has made quite an extensive use of the socio-economic works, while he uses works on the imperial cult and general works on the emperors and ancient history too little.

The problem lying behind Kraybill’s thesis seems to be to explain the change in the relationship between Rome and the Christians at the end of the first century. Kraybill has great difficulties to show that there were any real changes. Instead he claims rather often and strongly that John thought, perceived, and considered the situation to be quite different from the view of his contemporary Christians and that his radical view should be adopted towards Rome. The all important exegetical question to ask Kraybill is therefore: Did John really perceive the situation so much different from his contemporary Christians as well as the apostles earlier in the century?

Only an analysis of the text of Revelation can substantiate Kraybill’s claim. It is therefore a pity that Kraybill has not analysed Revelation properly (contrary to his claims, cf., e.g. 1.2 above). The metaphors of Revelation might indicate another solution. There is a clear parallel between the people of God, the Lamb, and the Spirit following the lamb and the people of the dragon following “the diabolical trinity” (die teuflische Trinität). The New Jerusalem is not a place, but the renewed people of (cf. Gundry), and so Babylon is not a place, but the people who did not follow Christ the Lamb and did not want to repent and follow him (9:20f; 16:9.11). It may be possible to interpret the text in favour of the thesis of Kraybill, but he himself has not done so, and has not made any serious attempt to do so. This is its most important weakness. Kraybill’s claim that “a thorough socio-economic analysis is indispensable for understanding the overall message of the book” (cf. 1.1 above) therefore only assumes what he should have substantiated.

It is questionable whether the Christians were in such a problematic social and economic situation, even judged from the material presented by Kraybill. The NT and the rest of the Christian documents from the first two centuries seem to me to indicate that the Christians had established quite a strong social and economic fellowship. Many Christians were quite rich and the church did offer a strong social context to the Christians. Although it may be true that the Christians did avoid maritime commerce and business connected to various cults as well as military service, Kraybill does not offer much evidence for it. His own evidence concerning the connection between imperial cult and the maritime is also rather weak, and he does not convincingly argue that the were more than social clubs, as Kraybill admits (p. 113). The best evidence of these is from the second and third century, but Kraybill claims that the guilds “were on the threshold of their period of maximum influence in the Graeco-Roman world” at the time of Revelation (p. 112), but one of his notes does in fact refer to second century (note 51) and in another he quotes Garnsey and Saller: “, especially in Rome, often began as ‘mutual aid societies to meet basic needs of their members’. They provided a ‘decent burial of the dead as well as periodic festive dinners for the living'” (with reference to Garnsey and Saller, pp. 156-157 (Kraybill p. 113 note 55). To me this raises doubt about the validity of his data concerning late first century and about the actual aim of the . It is difficult to argue that Paul (the tent maker!) had problems with the , and I find no evidence in Kraybill’s book that it in fact become a problem later for the Christians. If it did, Kraybill has not succeeded to prove it. Kraybill’s claim that “It is likely most Christians were not tempted to participate in the cult of the Emperor for its own sake, but merely for pragmatic financial or social reasons” (p. 140), is consequently not substantiated.

Kraybill refers to the majority view or the consensus view among Revelation scholars now and then. However, when it comes to the most crucial problems, he does not tell the reader that he contradicts the majority view, nor argue that he is right doing so. This is especially problematic in his analysis of Rev 17-22 where the majority view (as far as I know) treats this as a still future, eschatological visions of the restored paradise. It is also quite uncommon to find these chapters interpreted as realized political reality.

The figures in the book are interesting, but I wonder why there is no figure of the coin with the Jupiter and the seven stars, described at pp. 63f.

Although I found Kraybill’s book very interesting, I found the title somewhat misleading. It would have been better to term it “Imperial Cult and Commerce John’s Apocalypse”, although I would prefer to simply exclude the reference to John’s Apocalypse. The titles of the chapters are taken from Rev 18 and so assume that the content is an explanation and analysis of Rev 18 which is not the case. I have not dealt with these titles because I find them quite arbitrary. It seems to me that Kraybill’s attempt to relate his historical investigations with Revelation is far from adequate. Although I do disagree with him on his exposition of various sources, it must be admitted that he himself presents evidence as well as counter-evidence. As it may be seen in this review, Kraybill’s book has caused the present reviewer to think much about the issues dealt with despite its obvious weaknesses. Many references to both sources and later works on these sources are collected and presented, and a number of hypotheses are presented. I do hope that this book will further our discussion on the important relationship between the text of Revelation and its historical, including socio-economic, context. Kraybill has increased our knowledge on these matters and so deserves to be read by Revelation scholars.

It is not easy to make any statement of the readership for which the work would be most suitable. It is clearly suitable for all students and scholars searching for information on first century commerce and especially for interpreters of Revelation 18 interested in its general historical background. It does also make a considerable contribution to the description of maritime trade and commerce especially in the first century. Finally, Kraybill offers a contribution to the socio-economic conditions of first-century Jews involved in commerce. The book, however, contributes less to the proper understanding of Revelation than perhaps intended by the author and so cannot be recommended if you need help to the interpretation of the text of Revelation.

[1] Thompson, L.L.: The Book of Revelation. Apocalypse and Empire. Oxford: OUP, 1990. Reprint pb. 1997.
[2] Friesen, Steven J.: Twice Neokoros. Ephesus, Asia and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family. (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 116). E.J. Brill: Leiden; New York; Köln 1993.
[3] Jones, Brian W.: The Emperor Domitian. Routledge: London; New York 1992.
[4] Sordi, Marta: The Christians and the Roman Empire. Transl. A. Bedini. Norman; London: University of Oklahoma [note the title page says ‘Oklahama’] Press 1983.

Reviewed by:
Georg S. Adamsen
then at The Lutheran School of Theology in Aarhus
Katrinebjergvej 75
DK-8200 Aarhus N

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *