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Armageddon, by Bart Ehrman

Armageddon, by Bart Ehrman

Do I Recommend It? Yes

Armageddon is Bart Ehrman’s long-awaited book on the Revelation of John. Ehrman is a prolific scholar. However, beyond a single quotation from his university textbook and two citations from his translations of the Apostolic Fathers, I have not made use of his works in my articles. I find him often used as a discussion-stopper when it comes to questions about the New Testament. ‘What can we learn about this topic or this verse? Just read what Bart Ehrman says here.’

While reading Armageddon, I was loosely reminded of The Year of Living Biblically, by AJ Jacobs. (The connection is vague, so I don’t necessarily expect readers to agree with me here.) In that book, a know-it-all author thrusts himself into the alien world of biblical studies, committing himself to Jewish (and, later, Christian) religious practice over the course of a year. His anecdotes were comedic and insightful, and spawned a handful of imitators. But because of the author’s unfamiliarity with the topics he insisted on writing about, his attention torn in many directions at all times, his book was occasionally misleading for those even less familiar than him.

Ehrman certainly has his strengths. He has written books and articles for people with different levels of biblical knowledge, and I think he has been successful in making biblical scholarship accessible to the general public. Unfortunately, I wonder if putting himself in that position—writing books on such a wide variety of topics, thus appearing to many as an authority on all those subjects—necessarily results in a ‘jack of all trades’ dilution of quality in his conveyance of complex ideas and contentious arguments. Armageddon is insightful, but, being someone who is fascinated by the apocalyptic genre of Second Temple Judaism and has read a lot of literature on that subject, I also found Ehrman’s book quite frustrating at times.

The book’s subtitle and synopsis firmly establish what we should expect from the book: a discussion of ‘what the Bible really says about the end’, with a special focus on the New Testament’s Revelation of John. With this expectation set, the opening chapter is a strong introduction to the topic. Ehrman tells us about laughably bad interpretations that were nevertheless wildly popular among the biblically uneducated (especially among religious fundamentalists, ironically enough, who often laud the Bible’s divinity while rarely reading it beyond favorite passages). The importance of one of Ehrman’s astute observations cannot be overstated: ministers and preachers throughout history who cared to teach from the Revelation consistently operated under the assumption that the Revelation is about their own time period, and they have invariably been wrong. Pastors and theologians routinely disparage their predecessors for misunderstanding the book, and offer its ‘true’ meaning about how it will be fulfilled within the next few years. They have a one hundred percent failure rate. This brought to mind the quote below, from another book on the Revelation of John.

It is interesting — but not surprising — that those who interpret the book “futuristically” always seem to focus on their own era as the subject of the prophecies. Convinced of their own importance, they are unable to think of themselves as living at any other time than the climax of history.*David Chilton, Days of Vengeance, 29. (Don’t read Chilton’s book. His theology was viciously antisemitic.)

Chapter two is largely a recap of the Revelation of John’s contents, but Ehrman intersperses his personal thoughts throughout, sometimes without clarifying he is doing so. He sometimes criticizes common translations, providing an alternative that he thinks is more likely. This is fine on its own, but how Ehrman goes about it is unhelpful and somewhat hypocritical. First, he does not often cite sources, which makes some of his more provocative claims harder to accept. Second, he accuses other translators of making up details not found in the Greek text of the book, thereby misinforming their readers.

To give an example, Ehrman objects to translating Jezebel’s κλινη as a ‘sickbed’ she is ‘thrown’ onto (Rev 2.22), rather than simply ‘bed’. The translators, Ehrman insists, are ‘reading something into the verse that isn’t there’ (page 35). He does not cite anything to support this, and fails to discuss the literary precedence for why many translators have opted for ‘sickbed’ (e.g. 1 Macc 1.5; Judith 8.3; Andocides, On the Mysteries 1.64). On a cursory reading, it comes across that Ehrman simply expects us to think other scholars are too inept or prudish to translate the verse honestly because the truth would be too shocking to accept: that Jesus throws Jezebel into a bed to rape her or for her to be raped by others (35; 165). Conversely, Ehrman himself makes assertive claims about what the Revelation says, details which are in fact absent from the text. He repeatedly calls the twenty-four elders (introduced in Rev 4) ‘humans’, and offers that many interpreters think they represent the twelve sons of Israel and the twelve disciples of Jesus. But the Revelation of John nowhere specifies they are ‘humans’. They could be members of a heavenly hierarchy of ‘elder’ angelic beings, which is not a rare suggestion. Or, another example, Ehrman says the seven bowls (Rev 15–16) are contained within the seventh trumpet, and the seven trumpets (8–9, 11) are contained within the last of the seven seals (6, 8.1). This is another common interpretation of the book, but it is not something the book itself says. I have no problem with Ehrman offering these interpretations to his readers. I think there are valid arguments in their favor. My problem is that Ehrman places disputable claims in a section of his book that appears intended only to outline the contents of the Revelation of John, not to interpret those contents.

Chapter three is about the reception history of the Revelation. Chapter four talks about how interpretations of the Revelation have caused (and still cause) tangible harm in the world. Chapter five defines the genre which the Revelation belongs to, and provides the common academic understanding of its symbolism which has the most historically concrete relevance (e.g. what the mark of the beast signifies or what Babylon represents). Chapter six dives into the debate over how God is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible versus in the New Testament (i.e. a ‘God of wrath’ versus a ‘God of love’). He shows that Revelation is unique among the NT for following so closely to the wrathful God of the HB. Chapter seven argues that the Revelation of John exhibits an ethical world that unintentionally shows the author was ‘envious’ of the Powers That Be. John was, Ehrman insists, just as motivated by wealth and power as the empire he condemns. In contrast, Jesus is consistently opposed to such materialism.

Four separate chapters close by posing the same ‘tantalizing’ question of whether the Revelation of John coheres with the theology of Jesus himself. At a certain point, recycling this question as bait to keep my attention felt pandering. The author does not need to tease me to keep reading a book I am already reading. Ehrman finally addresses it in the eighth and final chapter, which is bogged down with another history lesson on how the Revelation was treated in early centuries. Ehrman has up to this point argued multiple times that Jesus and the Revelation of John are ethically incompatible. John’s revelation is violent, materialistic, and gloating. Jesus’ message is peaceful, spiritual, and giving. John is a Christian because he identifies as a follower of Jesus, but he is not a ‘true’ Christian because he and Jesus are at such intense odds with one another. When Ehrman does acknowledge that Jesus proclaimed an imminent, final judgment was coming on the world, he seems reluctant to do so, and he quickly tempers the admission with an insistence that Jesus’ version of the End is nothing like John’s. I feel like he bends over backwards to lessen the severity of things Jesus says and to heighten the savagery of John’s revelation. I also think this book was not an appropriate place for Ehrman to dicuss the ethical dimensions of biblical eschatology. That is a difficult topic to tackle in an entire book, let alone just a couple of chapters, and I think Ehrman seriously botched it. There is the obvious problem, which I will address first, but there is another side to the question of ethics that I will touch on below.

First and foremost, Ehrman presents the synoptic gospels as a single, harmonious theology, all derived from the historical person of Jesus. (He makes a point to highlight the Gospel of John’s differences.) The structure of the chapter is to show how John said this, but Jesus said that. I waited for him to mention that most scholars (including himself) think the gospels contain disparate traditions about Jesus—not only in contrast with each other, but within their own individual narratives—but if he did, I could not find it.

In chapter seven, Ehrman insists that Jesus and John have opposite perspectives on material gain. John’s revelation anticipated a future when Christians would have all earthly power and wealth, which Ehrman criticizes as an errant imitation of the Roman Empire. When Jesus tells people to give away their riches (e.g. Mark 10.21), Ehrman takes it at face value. But when Jesus talks about receiving riches from God as a reward in the eschatological future (e.g. Matt 6.19–21), we now find Ehrman insisting that is not what Jesus ‘really’ meant. These rewards are spiritual riches, not material ones. One particular passage stuck out to me. Ehrman mentions that when the Roman elite offered to give away any of their wealth, it was only to provide for their family, not the poor (unless they were trying to win public support that would help their own reputations). This is the greedy materialism the Revelation of John imitates, he claims. But some readers will remember this saying from the gospels.

Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’

Jesus is telling his followers to abandon their tangible belongings with the promise they will be rewarded with exponentially more of the same in the End. (I am reminded of Job’s happily ever after.) Ehrman argues this is ‘obviously’ not literal, but is ‘purely spiritual’ (178). He agrees that Jesus is telling his followers ‘to abandon material possessions’. But when Jesus says they will receive one hundredfold of the very same possessions they earlier abandoned, the meaning ‘must’ be that Christians will share their possessions with one another. What possessions will they share, if they have all abandoned everything they own? Moreover, is it ethical for Jesus to tell his followers to abandon not only their homes, but their own children, essentially rendering them homeless orphans? The Roman elite, greedy as they were, at least were willing to provide for their family members. Ehrman scantly calls it ‘odd’ that Jesus neglects to mention the fate of these abandoned children before moving on. (Is he uncomfortable with lingering on the impications too long, lest it undermine his argument that Jesus is far more moral than John?) Other than this, he broadly glides past the many occasions when violence and brute force feature into Jesus’ teachings. There is nothing as dramatic as the Revelation of John, yet Ehrman admits that it is the nature of the apocalyptic literary genre to ‘exaggerate’ what it portrays, so I do not see near as much of a clash between the two prophets’ ideologies as Ehrman does.

A final point that I found bizarre is when Ehrman, at different points in the book, bluntly claims that neither Jesus nor John taught that humans would suffer eternal torment. They both taught that humans would be annihilated, erased from existence. Regarding Jesus, Ehrman offers only one endnote pointing to another of his lay-level books, this one on the topic of the afterlife. The reader should not have to buy a whole second book just to make sense of a point Ehrman is making in the current one. I suppose it will be sufficient for me to simply state that I disagree with how he reads Jesus on this question: I think the synoptic gospels do present Jesus as teaching eternal torment, at least in a few places. Regarding the Revelation of John, I kept my eye out for Rev 14.9–11, a passage which states in no uncertain terms that human sinners will suffer eternal torment.

‘If anyone worships the wild animal and its image, and receives the mark on his forehead or on his hand, he will also drink from the wine of God’s wrath, which is mixed undiluted in the cup of his wrath, and he will be tortured in fire and sulfur in front of the holy angels and in front of the lamb. And the smoke of their torture rises for ever and ever. And those who worship the wild animal and its image, and receive the mark of its name, will have no rest day and night.’

I did not find it mentioned a single time, though Ehrman briefly alludes to the phrase ‘wrath of God’ that appears in a handful of verses, including 14.10. To me, skipping this paragraph is inexplicable, especially in a book where Ehrman is insistent on how horrific the imagery in the Revelation of John truly is.

Upon completion of the book, the reader does not find out ‘what the Bible really says about the end’. They find out the historical context of the Revelation of John, how it has been interpreted in a few different eras of history, and a relative handful of ways Ehrman thinks it contradicts the teachings of Jesus but agrees with the wrath-filled Hebrew Bible. He does not provide an exhaustive commentary on the Revelation, nor does he really go into great detail on the eschatology of Jesus, Paul, or any other biblical figure. I do think the most questionable part of this book is when Ehrman brings up that the Hebrew Bible depicts an exceptionally ‘wrathful’ God—in contrast to the New Testament’s portrayal of an especially loving, merciful God—to demonstrate that the Revelation of John is far more like the HB than anything else in the NT. I trust that Ehrman did not intend it, but this clichéd claim is not simply wrong (the rest of the NT repeatedly affirms examples of divine violence in the HB). It is also an extremely common antisemitic and judeophobic argument, and it does not take much effort to see why: The Hebrew Bible is the scripture of Judaism. The New Testament is the scripture of Christianity. God in the HB is wrathful. God in the NT is loving. Do you see where this is going?

Ehrman’s book contains good information, but I would have preferred a much more linear progression through the key points: a chapter solely discussing the history of the Revelation’s reception among ancient readers; one on more recent interpretations; on the book’s genre and contents; on comparisons with similar literature; etc. What we get instead felt very unfocused to me. Ehrman sets up the chapters’ topics, but detours, backtracks, and repeats himself. While my review as a whole may seem harsh, I do not think Armageddon is a bad book. My criticisms are where I think it needs improvement: better flow and pacing, better argumentation, clearer distinctions between fact and opinion, and stop pitting the Hebrew Bible against the New Testament. I would still recommend it to general audiences. However, I would also suggest readers already familiar with the Revelation of John, and apocalypticism in general, would be safe skipping it. It is an introductory book which, though frustrating at times, is still worthwhile for those looking to learn.