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Chapter 5 | Table of Contents | Chapter 7

The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
1904

Chapter 6: The Symbolism of the Seven Letters


In attempting to get some clear idea with regard to the symbolism involved in the Seven Letters, it is not proposed to discuss the symbolism of the Apocalypse as a whole, still less the religious or theological intention of its author. The purpose of this chapter is much more modest--merely to try to determine what was the meaning which ordinary people in the cities of Asia would gather from the symbolism: especially how would they understand the Seven Stars, the Lamps and the Angels. That is a necessary preliminary, if we are to appreciate the way in which Asian readers would understand the book and the letters addressed to them.

In the Seven Letters symbolism is less obtrusive and more liable to be unnoticed than in the visions that follow; and it will best show their point of view to take first a simple example of the figures which march across the stage of the Apocalypse itself in the later chapters. Those figures are to be interpreted according to the symbols which they bear and the accompaniments of their progress before the eyes of the seer. It is the same process of interpretation as is applied in the study of Greek art: for example a horseman almost identical in type and action appears on the two coins represented in chapter 23, figures 26 and 27. In one this horseman is marked by the battle-axe which he carries as the warlike hero of the military colony Thyatira. The other shows a more peaceful figure, the Emperor Caracalla visiting Thyatira.

Similarly, in 6:2 the bowman sitting on a white horse, to whom a crown was given, is the Parthian king. The bow was not a Roman weapon: it was not used in Roman armies except by a few auxiliaries levied among outlying tribes, who carried their national weapon. The Parthian weapon was the bow; the warriors were all horsemen; and they could use the bow as well when they were fleeing as when they were charging. The writers of that period often mention the Parthian terror on the East, and their devastating incursions were so much dreaded at that time that Trajan undertook a Parthian war in 115. Virgil foretells a Roman victory: the bow and the horse have been useless:--

With backward bows the Parthians shall be there,
And, spurring from the fight, confess their fear.

Colour was also an important and significant detail. The Parthian king in 6:2 rides on a white horse. White had been the sacred colour among the old Persians, for whom the Parthians stood in later times; and sacred white horses accompanied every Persian army. The commentators who try to force a Roman meaning on this figure say that the Roman general, when celebrating a Triumph, rode on a white horse. This is a mistake; the general in a Triumph wore the purple and gold-embroidered robes of Jupiter, and was borne like the god in a four-horse car. (See chapter 26.)

The use of colour here as symbolical is illustrated by the custom of Tamerlane. When he laid siege to a city, he put up white tents, indicating clemency to the enemy. If resistance was prolonged forty days, he changed the tents, and put up red ones, portending a bloody capture. If obstinate resistance was persisted in for other forty days, black tents were substituted: the city was to be sacked with a general massacre. The meaning of the colours differs; there was no universal principle of interpretation; significance depended to some extent on circumstances and individual preference.

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Figure 1: The ideal Parthian king, as he appears on Parthian coins, 150 B.C.--A.D. 200

It is not to be supposed that St. John consciously modelled his descriptions on works of art. He saw the figures march across the heavens. But such ideas and symbolic forms were in the atmosphere and in the minds of men at the time; and the ideas with which he was familiar moulded the imagery of his visions, unconsciously to himself. It is quite in the style of Greek art that one monster in 13 should rise from the sea and the other appear out of the earth (as we shall see in chapter 7); but those ideas are used with freedom. The shapes of the monsters are not of Greek art; they are modifications of traditional apocalyptic devices; but the seer saw them in situations whose meaning we interpret from the current ideas and forms of art. Hence, e.g., in the Pergamenian letter, the white stone is not to be explained as an imitation of a precisely similar white stone used in ordinary pagan life (as most recent commentators suppose); it is a free employment of a common form in a new way to suit a Christian idea. The current forms are used in the Apocalypse, not slavishly, but creatively and boldly; and they must not be interpreted pedantically. A new spirit has been put into them by the writer.

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Figure 2: The Parthian king welcomed by the genius of the capital. Parthian coins, A.D. 42-65

Thus to refer to the Parthian king of 6:2: the type of the archer-horseman was familiar to the thought of all in the eastern Provinces; but if we look at the most typical representations, those which occur on coins, we find the various elements separately, but not united. The regular reverse type on Parthian coins shows the founder of the race, Arsaces, deified as Apollo, sitting on the holy omphalos, and holding the bow, the symbol of authority based on military power (see Fig. 1). A rarer type, though common on coins of King Vonones (83-100 AD) and of Artabanus III (42-65), shows the monarch on horseback welcomed by the genius of the State: Fig. 2 gives the type of Artabanus: the king wears Oriental attire with characteristic full trousers. The coins of Vonones have a type similar, but complicated by the addition of a third figure.

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Figure 3: Parthian captives sitting under a Roman trophy. Coin of Trajan, A.D. 116

In Greek and Roman art the Parthian appears, not as victor, but as vanquished. The coins of Trajan show two Parthian captives, a man and a woman, under a trophy of Roman victory. St. John describes the Parthian king as seen by Roman apprehension, followed by Bloodshed, Scarcity and Death; but that point of view was naturally alien to art, except the art practised in Parthia. The spirit of the artist, or of the seer of the visions, gives form to the pictures, and they must be interpreted by the spirit.

As to the letters, we notice that there are two pairs of ideas mentioned in 1:20, "the seven stars are the angels of the Seven Churches; and the seven lamps are Seven Churches." Of these, the second pair stand on the earth; and in the first pair, since the stars belong to heaven, the angels also must belong to heaven. There is the earthly pair, the Churches and the lamps that symbolise them; and there is the corresponding heavenly pair, the angels and the stars which symbolise them.

A similar correspondence between a higher and a lower embodiment of Divine character may frequently be observed in the current religious conceptions of that time. We find amid the religious monuments of Asia Minor certain reliefs, which seem to represent the Divine nature on two planes, expressed by the device of two zones in the artistic grouping. There is an upper zone showing the Divine nature on the higher, what may be called the heavenly plane; and there is a lower zone, in which the God is represented as appearing, under the form of his priest and representative, among the worshippers who come to him on earth, to whom he reveals the right way of approaching him and serving him, and whom he benefits in return for their service and offering duly completed. One of the best examples of this class of monuments, dated AD 100, and belonging to the circuit of Philadelphia, is published here for the first time after a sketch made by Mrs. Ramsay in 1884. The lower zone is a scene representing, according to a type frequent in late art, an ordinary act of public worship. At the right hand side of an altar, which stands under the sacred tree, a priest is performing on the altar the rite by means of which the worshippers are brought into communication with the god. The priest turns towards the left to face the altar, and behind him are five figures in an attitude nearly uniform (the position of the left hand alone varies slightly), who must represent the rest of the college of priests attached to the sanctuary. Their names are given in the inscription which is engraved under the relief. There was always a college of priests, often in considerable numbers, attached to the great sanctuaries or hiera of Anatolia; those priests must be distinguished from the attendants, ministers, and inferiors, of whom there were large numbers (in some cases several thousands).

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Figure 4: The sacrifice on earth and in heaven: relief from Koloe in Lydia

The existence of such colleges gives special importance to the Bezan text of Acts 14:13 in which the priests of the shrine of Zeus "Before-the-City," at Lystra, are mentioned--whereas the accepted text mentions only a single priest. Professor Blass in his note rejects the Bezan reading on the ground that there was only one priest for each temple; but his argument is founded on purely Greek custom and is not correct for Anatolian temples, like the one at Lystra, where there was always a body or college of priests. In the relief which we are now studying the mutilation of the inscription makes the number of the priests uncertain; but either seven or eight were mentioned. At the Milyadic hieron of the same god, Zeus Sabazios, the college numbered six: at Pessinus the college attached to the hieron of the Great Mother contained at least ten.

On the left side of the altar stand seven figures looking towards the altar and the priest. These represent the crown of worshippers.

In the upper zone the central action corresponds exactly to the scene in the lower zone: the god stands on a raised platform on the right hand side of an altar, on which he performs the same act of ritual which his priest is performing straight below him on the lower plane, probably pouring out a libation over offerings which lie on the altar. In numerous reliefs and coins of Asia Minor a god or goddess is represented performing the same act over an altar. That one act stands symbolically for the whole series of ritual acts, just as in Revelation 2:13 Antipas stands for the entire body of the martyrs who had suffered in Asia. The deity has revealed to men the ritual whereby they can approach him in purity, and present their gifts and prayers with assurance that these will be favourably received: thus the god is his own first priest, and later priests were regarded by the devout as representatives of the god on earth, wearing his dress, acting for him and performing before his worshippers on earth the life and actions of the god on his loftier plane of existence. In this relief the intention is obvious: as a sign and guarantee that he accepts the sacred rite, the god is doing in heaven exactly the same act that his priest is performing on earth.

On the right of the raised platform stand three figures, with the right hand raised in adoration. These represent the college of priests, headed by the chief priest; and all must be understood to make the same gesture, though the right hands of the second and third are hidden. The action of the priests who stand in the lower zone behind the chief priest must be interpreted in the same way. The gesture of adoration is illustrated by figure 23 in chapter 21 and figure 27 in chapter 23.

On the left of the platform another scene in the ritual and life of the god is represented. He drives forth in his car to make his annual progress through his own land to receive the homage of his people. He is marked as Zeus by the eagle which sits on the reins or the trappings of the horses, and as Sabazios by the serpent on the ground beneath their feet. Beside the horses walks his companion god, regarded as his son in the divine genealogy, and marked as Hermes by the winged caduceus which he carries, and as Men by the crescent and the pointed Phrygian cap. The divine nature regarded as male was commonly conceived in this double form as father and son; and when these Anatolian ideas were expressed under Greek forms and names, they were described sometimes as Zeus and Hermes (so in Acts 14:10, and in this relief), sometimes as Zeus and Apollo or Dionysus. When the deity in his male character was conceived as a single impersonation, he was called in Greek sometimes by one, sometimes by another of those four names. The Greek names were used in this loose varying way, because none of them exactly corresponded to the nature of the Anatolian conception; and sometimes one name, sometimes another, seemed to correspond best to the special aspect of the Anatolian god which was prominent at the moment.

The god on the car is here represented as beardless, but the god on the platform is bearded; and yet the two are presentments of the same divine power. But this relief is a work of symbolism, not a work of art: it aims not at artistic or dramatic truth, but at showing the divine nature in two of the characters under which it reveals itself to man: the object of the artist was to express a meaning, not to arrive at beauty or consistency.

The interpretation which has just been stated of this symbolical relief would be fairly certain from the analogy of other monuments of the same class; but it is placed beyond doubt by the inscription which occupies the broad lower zone of the stone: "in the year 185 (AD 100-101), the thirtieth of Daisios (22nd May), when Glykon was Stephanephoros, the people of Koloe consecrated Zeus Sabazios, the priests being Apollonius," etc. (probably seven others were named).

The people consecrated Zeus Sabazios either by building him a temple, or simply by erecting a statue in his honour: in either case the action was a stage in the gradual Hellenising of an Anatolian cult in outward show by making it more anthropomorphic. The original Anatolian religion was much less anthropomorphic; it had holy places rather than temples, and worshipped "the God" rather than individualised and specialised embodiments of him. Under the influence of Greek and other foreign examples, temples and statues were introduced into that simple old religion. It is impossible to get back to a stage in which it was entirely imageless and without built temples; but certainly in its earlier stages images and temples played a much smaller part than in the later period.

The symbolism of this monument is so instructive with regard to the popular religious views in Anatolia that a detailed study of it forms the best introduction to this subject. The monument is now built into the inner wall of a house at Koula, a considerable town in Eastern Lydia; but it was brought there from a place about twenty-five miles to the north. It originates therefore from a secluded part of the country, where Anatolian religious ideas were only beginning to put on an outward gloss of Hellenism, though their real character was purely Asian. Greek however was the language of the district.

It is fundamentally the same idea of a higher and a lower plane of existence that is expressed in the symbolism of the Angels and the Stars in heaven, corresponding to the Churches and the Lamps on earth. The lamp, which represents the Church, is a natural and obvious symbol. The Church is Divine: it is the kingdom of God among men: in it shines the light that illumines the darkness of the world.

The heavenly pair is more difficult to express precisely in its relation to the earthly pair. There seems to be involved here a conception, common in ancient time generally, that there are intermediate grades of existence to bridge over the vast gap between the pure Divine nature and the earthly manifestation of it. Thus the star and the angel, of whom the star is the symbol, are the intermediate stage between Christ and His Church with its lamp shining in the world. This symbolism was taken over by St. John from the traditional forms of expression in theories regarding the Divine nature and its relation to the world.

Again, we observe that, in the religious symbolic language of the first century, a star denoted the heavenly existence corresponding to a divine being or divine creation or existence located on earth. Thus, in the language of the Roman poets, the divine figure of the Emperor on earth has a star in heaven that corresponds to it and is its heavenly counterpart. So the Imperial family as a whole is also said to have its star, or to be a star. It is a step towards this kind of symbolic phraseology when Horace (Odes, i, 12) speaks of the Julian star shining like the moon amid the lesser fires; but probably Horace was hardly conscious of having advanced in this expression beyond the limits of mere poetic metaphor. But when Domitian built a Temple of the Imperial Flavian family, the poet Statius describes him as placing the stars of his family (the Flavian) in a new heaven (Silvae, v, I, 240f). There is implied here a similar conception to that which we are studying in the Revelation: the new Temple on earth corresponds to a new heaven framed to contain the new stars; the divine Emperors of the Flavian family (along with any other member of the family who had been formally deified) are the earthly existences dwelling in the new Temple, as the stars, their heavenly counterparts, move in the new heaven. The parallel is close, however widely separate the theological ideals are; and the date of Statius' poem is about the last year of Domitian's reign, AD 95-96.

The star, then, is obviously the heavenly object which corresponds to the lamp shining on the earth, though superior in character and purity to it; and, as the lamp on earth is to the star in heaven, so is the Church on earth to the angel. Such is the relation clearly indicated. The angel is a corresponding existence on another and higher plane, but more pure in essence, more closely associated with the Divine nature than the individual Church on earth can be.

Now, what is the angel? How shall he be defined or described? In answer to this question, then, one must attempt to describe what is meant by the angels of the Churches in these chapters, although as soon as the description is written, one recognises that it is inadequate and hardly correct. The angel of the Church seems to embody and gather together in a personification the powers, the character, the history and life and unity of the Church. The angel represents the Divine presence and the Divine power in the Church; he is the Divine guarantee of the vitality and effectiveness of the Church.

This seems clear; but the difficulty begins when we ask what is the relation of the angel to the faults and sins of his Church, and, above all, to the punishment which awaits and is denounced against those sins. The Church in Smyrna or in Ephesus suffers from the faults and weaknesses of the men who compose it: it is guilty of their crimes, and it will be punished in their person. Is the angel, too, guilty of the sins? Is he to bear the punishment for them?

Undoubtedly the angel is touched and affected by the sins of his Church. Nothing else is conceivable. He could not be the counterpart or the double of a Church, unless he was affected in some way by its failings. But the angels of the Churches are addressed, not simply as touched by their faults, but as guilty of them. Most of the angels have been guilty of serious, even deadly sins. The angel of Sardis is dead, though he has the name of being alive. The angel of Laodicea is lukewarm and spiritless, and shall be rejected. Threats, also, are directed against the angels: "I will come against thee," "I will spit thee out of my mouth," "I will come to thee" (or rather "I will come in displeasure at thee" is the more exact meaning, as Professor Moulton points out). Again, the angel is regarded as responsible for any neglect of the warning now given, "and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee": "thou art the wretched one, and poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked."

These expressions seem to make it clear that the angel could be guilty, and must suffer punishment for his guilt. This is certainly surprising, and, moreover, it is altogether inconsistent with our previous conclusion that the angel is the heavenly counterpart of the Church. He who is guilty and responsible for guilt cannot stand anywhere except on the earth.

The inconsistency, however, is due to the inevitable failure of the writer fully to carry out the symbolism. It is not so difficult to follow out an allegory perfectly, so long as the writer confines himself to the realm of pure fancy; but, if he comes into the sphere of reality and fact, he soon finds that the allegory cannot be wrought out completely; it will not fit the details of life. When John addresses the angels as guilty, he is no longer thinking of them, but of the actual Churches which he knew on earth. The symbolism was complicated and artificial; and, when he began to write the actual letters, he began to feel that he was addressing the actual Churches, and the symbolism dropped from him in great degree. Nominally he addresses the Angel, but really he writes to the Church of Ephesus or of Sardis; or rather, all distinction between the Church and its angel vanishes from his mind. He comes into direct contact with real life, and thinks no longer of correctness in the use of symbols and in keeping up the elaborate and rather awkward allegory. He writes naturally, directly, unfettered by symbolical consistency.

The symbolism was imposed on the writer of the Apocalypse by the rather crude literary model, which he imitated in obedience to a prevalent Jewish fashion. He followed his model very faithfully, so much so that his work has by some been regarded as a purely Jewish original, slightly modified by additions and interpolations to a Christian character, but restorable to its original Jewish form by simple excision of a few words and paragraphs. But we regard the Jewish element in it as traditional, due to the strong hold which this established form of literature exerted on the author. That element only fettered and impeded him by its fanciful and unreal character, making his work seem far more Jewish than it really is. Sometimes, however, the traditional form proves wholly inadequate to express his thoughts; and he discards it for the moment and speaks freely.

It is therefore vain to attempt to give a rigidly accurate definition of the meaning which is attached to the term "angel" in these chapters. All that concerns the angels is vague, impalpable, elusive, defying analysis and scientific precision. You cannot tell where in the Seven Letters, taken one by one, the idea "angel" drops and the idea "Church" takes its place. You cannot feel certain what characteristics in the Seven Letters may be regarded as applying to the angels, and what must be separated from them. But the vague description given in preceding paragraphs will be sufficient for use; and it may be made clearer by quoting Professor J. H. Moulton's description of angels: "Spiritual counterparts of human individuals or communities, dwelling in heaven, but subject to changes depending on the good or evil behaviour of their complementary beings on earth."

How far did St. John, in employing the symbolism current at the time, accept and approve it as a correct statement of truth? That question naturally arises; but the answer seems inevitable. He regards this symbolism merely as a way of making spiritual ideas intelligible to the ordinary human mind, after the fashion of the parables in the life of Christ. He was under the influence of the common and accepted ways of expressing spiritual, or philosophical, or theological truth, just as he was under the influence of fashionable forms in literature. He took these and made the best he could of them. The apocalyptic form of literature was far from being a high one; and the Apocalypse of John suffers from the unfortunate choice of this form: only occasionally is the author able to free himself from the chilling influence of that fanciful and extravagant mode of expression. The marked difference in character and power between the Apocalypse and the Gospel of St. John is in great measure due to the poor models which he followed in the former.

It is interesting that one of the most fashionable methods of expressing highly generalised truths or principles--the genealogical method--is never employed by John (except in the universally accepted phrases, "son of man," "Son of God"). The contempt expressed by Paul for the "fables and endless genealogies" of current philosophy and science seems to have been shared by most of the Christian writers; and it is true that no form of veiling ignorance by a show of words was ever invented more dangerous and more tempting than the genealogical. An example of the genealogical method may be found in Addison's 35th Spectator, an imitation of the old form, but humorous instead of pedantic.


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