Thoughts on the Theology of Margaret Barker’s “The Book of Revelation”

This is not a scholarly review. I don’t think I have the expertise for that. This is a commentary of sorts, or perhaps a reflection. Here, in this book[1], is perhaps the best explanation of the book of revelation I have read till date, incorporating everything from the preterist interpretation to a genuine grappling with the “compositeness” of scripture, with its many editions, all the while staying close to the fact that it is scripture. So, my recommendation from the start would be to read this book. Your head might explode.

Moving on from that, I want to reflect on the many things the book has brought together for me, beginning with the shattering of the myth of original and perfect Christian unity. Barker makes clear in the book that even after the Council of Jerusalem, where the issue of Gentiles and the Laws of Moses that flared up between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem church was apparently resolved in principle, the issue was not actually resolved in fact. Paul’s liberal interpretation of the resolution — where, for example, the letter’s prohibition on eating foods sacrificed to idols was practically sidestepped by Paul’s argument that the gods idols referred to do not exist, and therefore the food offered to them could be eaten — would not have gone down well in Jerusalem, and in fact, the rest of the book of acts shows that it didn’t go down well. Another thing Barker makes clear is that the Jewish Christians were still Jews, they still went to the temple and many were expecting a quite literal physical return of the Lord, just like the other Jewish sects, and so many of them would have been in the mob that accused St Paul when he returned to Jerusalem many years after the Jerusalem council. The years during and after Jesus’s time on earth were very turbulent and this was not absent in the disciples. Barker argues that Paul is the “Balaam” John warns one of the seven churches of, especially because Paul’s story is very much like Balaam’s: On his way to curse and attack God’s people before being accosted by the Lord, seeming to bless them but telling their enemies to let defeat the Israelites by leading them astray. I mean, considered from the perspective of a Hebrew Christian who still kept the Laws of Moses, this is basically what Paul looked like. The seven churches, which are in the region then known as “Asia” would have been the same churches Paul spoke of in Asia who have deserted him, the same Asia the Spirit of Christ forbade him from going to. The presence of this rift in the early church, which in turn means a rift in the surface level of scripture itself — James in his letter, and John in the book of revelation, against Paul, and Paul on the other side, against the “Jews” in the churches, presumably the same “men from James” and some perhaps in between — throws a wrench in those who would consider scripture a whole book in the manner of “solo scriptura” where scripture agrees with itself on the level of letters. Barker doesn’t spare the “Old Testament” either, finding in there conflicts in even “whole” books, such as the three Isaiahs whose words over hundreds of years compiled in the one book we know by the same name. In them there is a tussle of two main opinions of God, and many in between:

1. God as absolutely formless. This is the tradition of who she calls “Deuteronomists”, who wrote the book of “Deuteronomy”. They and their subsequent followers compiled much of what we now know as the Old Testament, rewriting much of their predecessor’s theology to fit the mould of “absolute monotheism”. This tradition is what would then define rabbinical Judaism, in part due to a reaction to Christian theology.

2. The second Tradition distinguishes between the God most High (El Elyon) and his Son (YHWH), who definitely has an image (and he appears in Isaiah 6, as well as other places, like the Exodus account of Sinai, which is contradicted by, you guessed it, Deuteronomy). This image had an earthly counterpart, the King of Israel, who is Priest, King, and Prophet. This explains why David could eat most holy Shew bread and receive the vision of the temple that he would give Solomon. It explains why the people bow to the Lord AND the King (Solomon) when the temple was built. Barker argues that they be thought the same person. I think that either way works. The Lord is manifest through the King. It explains the esoteric importance of Solomon’s throne in later years, and why Christ is depicted as both the greater David (he received the vision of the heavenly temple) and Solomon (he builds the greater temple with living stones). This tradition was the older one, and is argued by Barker to be the basis of much of Christian theology from the beginning. It would reappear within rabbinical Judaism in the Kabbalah. She also argues that this was not a Christian innovation, but the very language that steeped that period, when many still remembered the Son who was to come, and this expectation fuelled the Jewish nationalism that caused the war with Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem

Barker reads the book of revelation as a collection of oracles, their interpretations and letters, the earliest of which comes from before the Jewish Roman War of 66 AD. Most of the book is concerning that war, written during, and after it, while everything from Rev. 19:11 forward is a look towards the future. In there are conflicting opinions. It is a complicated book, a compilation, although not chaotic, written in the style of a Hebrew prophetic apocalypse. Apart from the seven letters, the prophecy starts with the past, with Jesus’s story in a more mythological form — the Lamb coming to the throne, the seals and the war in heaven, the latter is directly described in the gospels where Christ said he saw Satan “fall from heaven” — then the “present”, that is, the events of the Jewish-Roman War and the aftermath — seen in the trumpets bowls, the 144,000, the harlot and the beast — and then the “future”, to the Parousia that both never came and ever comes, the rider on the horse, the heavenly Jerusalem and New Jerusalem (a distinction that will become clearer when you read the book). It is important to note that this is the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is from Christ, but it also came to Christ. This is something that struck me in Barker’s explanation. Christ was the original recipient of many of the visions in the book of revelation. John is expanding on the many secret things Christ taught him, with the benefit of hindsight and subsequent personal visions, both his and others (Christ promised that the things he told would become clear in time, when the Spirit of Truth came).

With these in mind, I want to reflect on the elements of this older tradition that I think is vindication for some thoughts and ideas I had read and pondered before I started reading Barker.

Secret Tradition

Barker speaks of “secret traditions” that were not in the written scriptures from the time of the old temple, before the Deuteronomists’ innovations and the Josiah purge, and even after, those also with the Deuteronomist and other sects. Barker’s account is perhaps the clearest vindication of the perennialist thesis I have ever seen, from someone who isn’t a perennialist. A lot of Rene Guenon’s work involves tracing secret traditions in and through many related and unrelated religions. For example, Barker explains that the secret traditions involving Melchizedek in many Jewish sects in antiquity consider him to be the “eternal high priest”, the head of the angels, far above them. He is the angel of the Lord that is the Lord. Melchizedek is YHWH, and shockingly, the High Priest (or whoever is considered the high priest) is his embodiment on earth. Melchizedek is also King, and he is said to come to judge in the end times.

Now, firstly, right there is the proof that Christianity did not get its incarnatory elements and cultic rituals from anyone other than Jews, despite similarities with other cults. Secondly, everything I wrote describing Melchizedek is exactly the gist of Guenon’s work on Melchizedek himself, in his book “Lord of the World”[2]. Like Barker, Guenon says Melchizedek is Priest-King-Prophet. In agreement with Barker, Guenon argues that Melchizedek names the “Lord of the World”, who in the relevant Jewish tradition would be the “Great High Priest” in Heaven, the Lord, variously named “Michael”, “Melchizedek” and even “Enoch” (Enoch “becomes” Melchizedek in one of these books). Guenon traces this figure in sever traditions (Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Tibetan Buddhist), but in outline the figure remains the same: it is the “Logos”, the eternal dharma, manifest in the various layers of the reality in different places. He resides in “Agartha”, “Luz”, etc, which can refer to the “earthly paradise” (Eden) or the Heavenly Paradise (the New Jerusalem) — and these two are quite separate, even if connected — depending on the level of reference, whether the manifestation of the man on earth (the emperor, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, etc.) or elsewhere. Apart from the “vertical unity” of tradition — which Frithjof Schuon emphasized the most — there is the horizontal continuity, the subtle syncretism and movement of teachings with people throughout history. There is a quote by St. Augustine, later retracted by him, which Ananda Coomaraswamy quoted:

The very thing that is now called the Christian religion was not wanting amongst the ancients from the beginning of the human race, until Christ came in the flesh, after which the true religion, which already existed, began to be called ‘Christian’”[3]

Barker’s work shows that, if only among through the Jews, this statement is true. But I would go further. Barker also suspects that some of this influence seeps into Platonism through Pythagoras, but I want to make a stronger claim, since there is still some exclusivist bias here:

All authentic traditions in their esoteric form look very similar because they are revelation from the same divinity, even if different gods.

Platonism and the Perennial Tradition

As mentioned earlier, Barker puts forward the possibility that the core of Platonism, including the doctrine of forms and related, could have influence from the near east and perhaps even pre-deuteronomist temple tradition. In this, the basic claim is not unknown. There have been church fathers who claimed that Plato learned from Moses. I disagree with a literal interpretation of this, even if this may be what they meant, but the impulse behind the claim is not far off. Barker’s reconstruction of the cosmology of the Old temple theology vindicates Philo’s apparent Platonism. Moses was to build the tabernacle according to what he saw in heaven, and there are traditions that say that Moses saw the eternal temple in the heavens. This is the same temple the early Christians describe in the letter to the Hebrews. Some say Moses saw the entire creation at once, and indeed the temple is a microcosm of creation. Both claims contain each other. The eternal temple is the original creation, the creation of Genesis 1, while the creation we live in is that of Genesis 2, and 3. One could say that the Eden of Genesis 2 is the “earthly paradise”, while that of Genesis 1 is the “heavenly paradise”. Philo describes it this way, and so does Gregory of Nyssa. Their views are remarkably similar, as DB Hart notes[4]. But, Barker argues that this is older temple tradition translated into platonic terms, and that the duality of eternal creation, where history is seen “at once”, in the “eternal present” of the “first day of Genesis”, considered as a state and not a literal duration, was present long before Plato in Jewish theology, and she uses the books of Enoch and Isaiah to argue this. Interestingly, this same argument, this time in favour of the presence of what we now call “platonic” doctrine, in ancient Egyptian theology, was advanced by Algis Uzdavinys[5]. Both are convincing, in my opinion, and they all testify to me as signs of the same perennial tradition Guenon and his successors kept talking about. It was not like Plato invented what he taught. He was expounding on a very old tradition. And, despite the differences (they are different gods involved after all), the cosmology’s basic skeleton is the same.

This shows best in the eschatology she describes. What happens during a prophetic vision, according to Barker, is that the prophet is taken to the heavenly holy of holies, which is beyond time and space, where history is shown “at once” to the prophet on the back of the heavenly curtain separating the heavenly holy of holies from materiality, and this history is always in “symbols” and myths, the language of eternity according to any philosopher at the time. This understanding of eternity is infact as “Platonic” as it gets, since this is what eternity is in Platonism: an “eternal present” where all duration is concentrated, so much so that it can only be described with the language of myth, hence the place of myth in religion. The “philosophical reading” of scripture is also a prophetic reading of scripture. The basic duality of the eternal creation, where the gods and other “living creatures” dwell, and the temporal creation that only imitates it is the heart of ancient Hebrew theology, Deuteronomist or not.

David Bentley Hart’s explanations of Paul’s Spiritual resurrection[6] were all but repeated in this work. Resurrection is confirmed for them not as only a resuscitation of bodies but as a change of state. One was already resurrected in baptism, and in physical death, the resurrected are redeemed in heaven, and will return. In this, it seems that the Word of faith preachers and their followers among charismatics and Pentecostals are closest to this tradition today, despite their problems. One was already resurrected in this life, and this was often described as “putting on new garments” (and we can see this in Paul and also Jesus’ Transfiguration). In fact, the “resurrection before the resurrection” of Jesus, took place at his baptism. In Barker’s account, John’s initial fervour for an imminent return, and the fervour of others, including Paul, which is present in the book of revelation, gave way to the interpretation we see in John’s Gospel, where the Parousia is immanentized in the Crucifixion. In the other gospels this is immanentized in the Eucharist. Barker speculates that this is the content of the little scroll that was bitter in John’s stomach: There is no imminent physical return, Christ as returned in his first coming, returned in the first Christian Pentecost, and returns in his Eucharist. In Barker’s words:

“The first Christians, believing that they were seeing the ancient liturgy fulfilled in history, used the Maranatha prayer initially to pray for the Parousia in their own lifetime. After John’s vision of the angel in the cloud, however, the prayer returned to its original setting as they prayed for the LORD to come to the bread and wine of the Eucharist.” (Pg 379)

The implications of this are interesting to me. I will explore some of them in the conclusion.

In here is not just an argument for perennialism, but also an argument for the place of Platonism and its descendants (e.g. Thomism) in Christian tradition, against the anti-philosophical critics that have gained a large following in today’s church. If the very doctrines that undergird Platonism is inherent it much of old Judaism and early Christianity, separating the two would be to kill the faith, and indeed this is a world where riches abound but discernment of the eternal is at an all-time low. A crude literalism has replaced a true mythical (and hence) platonic understanding of the scriptures. We are faithless, the lot of us, and we need our eyes opened. This leads to the final section of this reflection before I conclude.

Wisdom

A key part — in fact a HUGE part — of the old temple cult was “Wisdom”, the female deity now maligned as “Asherah”. Barker carefully reconstructs what she can about this figure:

1. She was both the mother and wife (or consort) of both the King and the God (the king is the God manifest. The “God” in this case is “YHWH”, the “Son”. This applied to the earthly kingdom. There are references to the Queen Mother in the Old Testament (Bathsheba is enthroned as Queen Mother by Solomon in 1 Kings 2:20). The earthly queen mother was THE queen. The wife of the king is expected to inherit her position when her son ascends the throne. We can see in time what is eternal, a circle of queen and wife.

2. She was the City itself, the “daughter of Zion” or “Zion” itself. She was also the “Genius” of the City, its “Soul”.

3. She was “Wisdom”, the female entity we see in Proverbs. She is a “tree”. She is the tree the Deuteronomists cast out and burned when they were cleansing the temple. The book of Enoch represents the priesthood that the Deuteronomists deposed, same for one of the Isaiahs.

4. She was also the “throne” of YHWH. Solomon’s throne was called the “Seat of Wisdom”, and Frithjof Schuon has much to say about this throne and its relationship with the Virgin Mary[7]. The King imaged the God, and was the God to the people, and so his throne imaged God’s throne. Barker, in another paper, speaks of how Jews in Arabia may have influenced Islam, and I personally see this in Frithjof Schuon’s exposition on several hadiths related to the metaphysics of creation, which talks about God’s throne in a remarkably familiar way[8].

5. She is the original “El Shaddai”, literally translated by Barker as “God with Breasts”. This “El Shaddai” is actually the throne, who barker says is described as the “living creature” using feminine terms. The Throne and the King on it are actually One, in agreement with Schuon’s explanation of the previously mentioned Hadiths.

6. She is also the feminine aspect of the Lord. Philo describes her this way. So, there are many complimentary descriptions of this figure, and as we see this crosses over to Christianity in the figure of Mary, the Woman clothed in the Sun in the book of revelation, and in the figure of the church as the bride and city of the lamb.

Barker shows that Enoch (and the author of the Proverbs on Wisdom) links the fall of Jerusalem to the forsaking of Wisdom. Many of the descriptions of the woes that befall the “simple” or “foolish” in Proverbs are quite literal. The goddess is describing the fate of Jerusalem. She reappears in Revelation as the woman clothed with the Sun, and the “foolish woman” is the harlot. I believe there is in there a parallel to the situation of Christianity today in the west, where Mary, and hence wisdom, is forsaken, either through the iconoclastic elements reformation (which now prevails), or through the atrocities of the roman church. We are paying for that now. What the feminine Wisdom in Proverbs described is repeating itself.

In here is the justification for Mariology. Mary is the Queen Mother, and as the Queen Mother, is the manifestation of the Old Goddess. In more familiar Christian terms, Mary embodies the feminine aspect of the Logos and manifests the Holy Spirit (another agreement with Frithjof Schuon). She is, literally, “Theotokos”, Mother of God, and infact “Above the Cherubim”. Worship her we may not, but greatly venerate her above any mere saint we must.

Conclusion

I see in Barker’s book the justification of several steps I want to take in the future as well as the confirmation of some advice from authors I trust.

For the former, her explanation has confirmed to me that Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as the Oriental Orthodox and other old apostolic and liturgical churches are the closest to “authentic Christianity” based on the history of the church we can get, and I should stay in my path towards one of them. For the Catholic Church, her explanations of the Priesthood combined with Guenon’s speculations makes the office of the Pope tenable, despite the fact that there was no Papacy as currently understood in the early church. The Mariology is also valid in all respects, and I happen to prefer Rome’s Mariology. For Eastern Orthodoxy and the other Eastern churches, the retention of much antique liturgy that incorporated temple elements is in fact its greatest strength. They, above the Roman Catholic Church, preserve more of that ancient temple setting and theology.

This embodiment of ancient tradition is very important because of what “worship” is. “Worship” involves manifesting heaven on earth. Those who worship on earth replicate the events of heaven. Visions of heaven are always descriptions of worship, especially, for the Jew, the great Day of Atonement. Barker argues that this is the original context of the Eucharist, and she’s right. It is not a mistake that the Eucharist is called a “Sacrifice”. Christ (and Christ in and through the Christian Priest) is the High Priest whose sacrifice (bloodless in the Eucharist, although blood issymbolized by wine) brings forgiveness, “brings God down”, and renews creation. The ENTIRE book of revelation is one great sequence of cosmic worship, and the sequence and minutiae are important. That is why the liturgy is important. If the correct liturgies are absent, one does not worship “on earth as in heaven”, and one is inviting wrath, or in this case, for modern sensibilities, destitution. But again, grace abounds, and God has mercy despite our failures.

For the latter, DB Hart’s exhortation for Christian theology to go deep into its past and reckon with it is looking more pertinent than ever. Caricatures are harder to claim now. For example, the idea that Arianism claims Christ is not God is simply false. The question was over the nature of God and not whether Jesus was God. Barker’s work clearly shows that every Christian knew Jesus was God, and so questions only arose concerning “which God” and “How” he is God. She also shows how much Adoptionism is in Scripture, along with said implicit Arian ideas. I have my ideas as to how these can be reconciled with orthodoxy, but that is beyond the scope of this reflection. I can only write briefly on the eschatological aspects of this.

Barker, in my opinion, opens the door to a less literalist (but not less mythological) understanding of the Parousia. Whether or not there is a physical return, Christ returns, has returned, and is returning. It occurs in the Eucharist, in prayer, etc. Bulgakov’s understanding of the “supra-temporal” return of Christ can then be understood similarly. What in time is sequential is simultaneous in eternity. Your salvation is simultaneous with the salvation of all. Of course, this is in opposition with the seemingly annihilationist book of revelation (or at least Barker’s interpretation of it), but we have church fathers who see the “psychical flesh” as that which is destroyed, not the person, who is saved. Whether or not the author of revelation or any scripture meant this, this is a possible and valid interpretation, and I will leave it like that, as there are other resources to explain this[9].

All in all, this was a wonderful book which I think deserves more attention than its getting. I pray her reward from the Father of lights is more glorious than she imagined, and I hope she sees in person what she has spent so much of her life researching. Amen

Maranatha

[1] Margaret Barker, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Revelation 1.1) (T&T Clark, 2000).

[2] Rene Guenon, Lord of the World (Coombe Springs Press Ltd, 2020).

[3] Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, ‘Paths That Lead To The Same Summit’, in Ye Shall Know the Truth: Christianity and the Perennial Philosophy, ed. by Mateus Soares de Azevedo (World Wisdom, 2005), pp. 213–26.

[4] David Bentley Hart, The Hidden and the Manifest Essays in Theology and Metaphysics (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017).

[5] Algis Uzdavinys, Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity (Angelico Press, Sophia Perennis, 2014).

[6] David Bentley Hart, ‘The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients’, Church Life Journal, 2018 <https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-spiritual-was-more-substantial-than-the-material-for-the-ancients/> [accessed 20 July 2020].

[7] Frithjof Schuon and James S. Cutsinger, The Fullness of God: Frithjof Schuon on Christianity, World Wisdom, 2017 <https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1rfss2f.13>.

[8] Frithjof Schuon, Dimensions of Islam, 1985.

[9] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Yale University Press, 2019 <https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvnwbzd4>.

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Jedi Scribe

I'm just a fiction loving theology amateur with a background in Physics, who loves to integrate the fragmented parts of his life into a Christocentric whole