The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


Luther Bible Whore of Babylon

This image from the 1545 edition of the Luther Bible shows the whore of Babylon from the Book of Revelation wearing the papal tiara. Identification of the whore of Babylon with the Roman Catholic Church was common in Reformation writings; for example, Luther’s 1520 pamphlet Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This woodcut was based a Lucas Cranach the Elder’s illustration for Luther’s German translation of the New Testament of 1522.

The revelation of John is said to have been written by John the beloved disciple, but that is unlikely and discounted by most scholars today. John’s authorship has been contested as dubious by theologians at least since the fourth century. Its position in the book of Christian scripture – last of all – is a reflection of the skepticism the church has had about this work for no less than 1,700 years. It was excluded from many early lists of Christian scripture, and it’s likely that without the claim of John’s authorship, it would not have been included at all. (The earliest surviving list of Christian writings that resembles today’s book was compiled in 367. The same list was first approved by a council of the church in 386. There had been fierce debate over the “canon of scripture” from the time of the Roman emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion in 312 and who demanded, among other things, that the church settle the matter of determining the canon of Christian scripture.)

Revelation is an extended piece of “apocalyptic” literature claiming to disclose the shape of a distant future but which actually is about the present. It apparently was written at a time of widespread persecution by way of encouragement to Christian communities to remain steadfast in their faith despite the depredations of “the Beast.” Generally, apocalyptic literature purported to disclose the hidden future in ways that could be understood only by a chosen few, because the imagery was highly symbolic, ambiguous and nonspecific. Revelation begins as a warning but then encourages Christians by describing not only the coming travail but also the great rewards of remaining steadfast. Some scholars have pointed out that Revelation may contain specific though veiled references to Christian worship liturgies suggesting that how Christians worshiped here and now would be a faint shadow of the promised worship in heaven.

All that symbolic ambiguity has made Revelation a popular vehicle for Christian reform movements to attack institutional or established churches in a variety of ways; for example, by depicting the “whore of Babylon” and her fate as the Roman Catholic Church and its inevitable downfall and judgment by God. Protestant artists during the Reformation period had a field day depicting the beast and the whore of Revelation as the pope and his cardinal archbishops and their minions as sellers of indulgences and the like. Revelation is also the principal text of Christian sects predicting the imminent end of the world and the horrendous judgment of all non-Christians.

Despite the troubling, disconcerting nature of this document and the use to which it has been put by some, Revelation indicates that Christianity began in a remarkably diverse age of ideas and surging changes in a society that could be quite dangerous for those who professed faith in Jesus. There are, moreover, some captivating passages of praise and comfort in Revelation that have found their way into traditional worship liturgies. This hymn, for example: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7.14-17)


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