Engels on the Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation

[extra to text]

By Frederick Engels

[Source: Marx and Engels On Religion, Progress Publishers, 1957; Transcribed by Andy Blunden for the Marxists Internet Archive]

A science almost unknown in this country, except to a few liberalizing theologians who contrive to keep it as secret as they can, is the historical and linguistic criticism of the Bible, the inquiry into the age, origin, and historical value of the various writings comprising the Old and New Testament.

This science is almost exclusively German. And, moreover, what little of it has penetrated beyond the limits of Germany is not exactly the best part of it: it is that latitudinarian criticism which prides itself upon being unprejudiced and thoroughgoing, and, at the same time, Christian. The books are not exactly revealed by the holy ghost, but they are revelations of divinity through the sacred spirit of humanity, etc. Thus, the Tübingen school (Bauer, Gfrörer, etc.) are the great favourites in Holland and Switzerland, as well as in England, and, if people will go a little further, they follow Strauss. The same mild, but utterly unhistorical, spirit dominates the renowned Ernest Renan, who is but a poor plagiarist of the German critics. Of all his works nothing belongs to him but the aesthetic sentimentalism of the pervading thought, and the milk-and-water language which wraps it up.

One good thing, however, Ernest Renan has said: “When you want to get a distinct idea of what the first Christian communities were, do not compare them to the parish congregations of our day; they were rather like local sections of the International Working Men’s Association.” And this is correct. Christianity got hold of the masses, exactly as modern socialism does, under the shape of a variety of sects, and still more of conflicting individual views clearer, some more confused, these latter the great majority — but all opposed to the ruling system, to “the powers that be.” Take, for instance, our Book of Revelation, of which we shall see that, instead of being the darkest and most mysterious, it is the simplest and clearest book of the whole New Testament. For the present we must ask the reader to believe what we are going to prove by-and-by. That it was written in the year of our era 68 or January, 69, and that it is therefore not only the only book of the New Testament, the date of which is really fixed, but also the oldest book. How Christianity looked in 68 we can here see as in a mirror.

First of all, sects over and over again. In the messages to the seven churches of Asia there are at least three sects mentioned, of which, otherwise, we know nothing at all: the Nicolaitans, the Balaamites, and the followers of a woman typified here by the name of Jezebel. Of all the three it is said that they permitted their adherents to eat of things sacrificed to idols, and that they were fond of fornication. It is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary movement the question of “free love” comes in to the foreground. With one set of people as a revolutionary progress, as a shaking off of old traditional fetters, no longer necessary; with others as a welcome doctrine, comfortably covering all sorts of free and easy practices between man and woman. The latter, the philistine sort, appear here soon to have got the upper hand; for the “fornication” is always associated with the eating of “things sacrificed to idols,” which Jews and Christians were strictly forbidden to do, but which it might be dangerous, or at least unpleasant, at times to refuse. This shows evidently that the free lovers mentioned here were generally inclined to be everybody’s friend, and anything but stuff for martyrs.

Christianity, like every great revolutionary movement, was made by the masses. It arose in Palestine, in a manner utterly unknown to us, at a time when new sects, new religions, new prophets arose by the hundred. It is, in fact, a mere average, formed spontaneously out of the mutual friction of the more progressive of such sects, and afterwards formed into a doctrine by the addition of theorems of the Alexiandrian Jew, Philo, and later on of strong stoic infiltrations. In fact, if we may call Philo the doctrinal father of Christianity, Seneca was her uncle. Whole passages in the New Testament seem almost literally copied from his works; and you will find, on the other hand, passages in Persius’ satires which seem copied from the then unwritten New Testament. Of all these doctrinal elements there is not a trace to be found in our Book of Revelation. Here we have Christianity in the crudest form in which it has been preserved to us. There is only one dominant dogmatic point: that the faithful have been saved by the sacrifice of Christ. But how, and why is completely indefinable. There is nothing but the old Jewish and heathen notion, that God, or the gods, must be propitiated by sacrifices, transformed into the specific Christian notion (which, indeed, made Christianity the universal religion) that the death of Christ is the great sacrifice which suffices once for all.

Of original sin, not a trace. Nothing of the trinity. Jesus is “the lamb,” but subordinate to God. In fact, in one passage (XV, 3) he is placed upon an equal footing with Moses. Instead of one holy ghost there are “the seven spirits of god” (III, 1, and IV, 5). The murdered saints (the martyrs) cry to God for revenge: “How long, O Lord, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (VI, 10) — a sentiment which has, later on, been carefully struck out from the theoretical code of morals of Christianity, but carried out practically with a vengeance as soon as the Christians got the upper hand over the heathens.

As a matter of course, Christianity presents itself as a mere sect of Judaism. Thus, in the messages to the seven churches: “I know the blasphemy of them which say that they are Jews (not Christians), and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (II, 9); and again, III, 9: “Them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, but are not.” Thus, our author, in the 69th year of our era, had not the remotest idea that he represented a new phase of religious development, destined to become one of the greatest elements of revolution. Thus also, when the saints appear before the throne of God, there are at first 144,000 Jews, 12,000 of each of the twelve tribes, and only after them are admitted the heathens who have joined this new phase of Judaism.

Such was Christianity in the year 68, as depicted in the oldest, and the only, book of the New Testament, the authenticity of which cannot be disputed. Who the author was we do not know. He calls himself John. He does not even pretend to be the “apostle” John, for in the foundations of the “new Jerusalem” are “the names  of the twelve apostles of the lamb” (XXI, 14). They therefore must have been dead when he wrote. That he was a Jew is clear from the Hebraisms abounding in his Greek, which exceeds in bad grammar, by far, even the other books of the New Testament. That the so-called Gospel of John, the epistles of John, and this book have at least three different authors, their language clearly proves, if the doctrines they contain, completely clashing one with another, did not prove it.

The apocalyptic visions which make up almost the whole of the Revelation, are taken in most cases literally, from the classic prophets of the Old Testament and their later imitators, beginning with the Book of Daniel (about 190 before our era, and prophesying things which had occurred centuries before) and ending with the “Book of Henoch,” an apocryphal concoction in Greek written not long before the beginning of our era. The original invention, even the grouping of the purloined visions, is extremely poor. Professor Ferdinand Benary, to whose course of lectures in Berlin University, in 1841, I am indebted for what follows, has proved, chapter and verse, whence our author borrowed every one of his pretended visions. It is therefore no use to follow our “John” through all his vagaries. We had better come at once to the point which discovers the mystery of this at all events curious book.

In complete opposition with all his orthodox commentators, who all expect that his prophecies are still to come off, after more than 1,800 years, “John” never ceases to say, “The time is at hand, all this will happen shortly.” And this is especially the case with the crisis which he predicts, and which he evidently expects to see.

This crisis is the great final fight between God and the “antichrist,” as others have named him. The decisive chapters are XIII and XVII. To leave out all unnecessary ornamentations, “John” sees a beast arising from the sea which has seven heads and ten horns (the horns do not concern us at all) “and I saw one of his heads, as it were, wounded as to death; and his deadly wound was healed.”

This beast was to have power over the earth, against God and the lamb for forty-two months (one half of the sacred seven years), and all men were compelled during that time to have the mark of the beast or the number of his name in their right hand, or in their forehead. “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred three-score and six.”

Irenaeus, in the second century, knew still that by the head which was wounded and healed, the Emperor Nero was meant. He had been the first great persecutor of the Christians. At his death a rumour spread, especially through Achaia and Asia, that he was not dead, but only wounded, and that he would one day reappear and spread terror throughout the world (Tacitus, Ann. VI, 22). At the same time Irenaeus knew another very old reading, which made the number of the name 616, instead of 666.

In chapter XII, the beast with the seven heads appears again, this time mounted by the well-known scarlet lady, the elegant description of whom the reader may look out in the book itself. Here an angel explains to John: “The beast that thou sawest was, and is not…. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth; and there are seven kings; five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come, and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven…. And the woman which thou sawest is the great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.”

Here, then, we have two clear statements: (1) The scarlet lady is Rome, the great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth; (2) at the time the book is written the sixth Roman emperor reigns; after him another will come to reign for a short time; and then comes the return of one who :”is of the seven,” who was wounded but healed, and whose name is contained in that mysterious number, and whom Irenaeus still knew to be Nero. Counting from Augustus, we have Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero the fifth. The sixth, who is, is Galba, whose ascension to the throne was the signal for an insurrection of the legions, especially in Gaul, led by Otho, Galba’s successor. Thus our book must have been written under Galba, who reigned from June 9th, 68, to January 15th, 69. And it predicts the return of Nero as imminent.

But now for the final proof — the number. This also has been discovered by Ferdinand Benary, and since then it has never been disputed in the scientific world. About 300 years before our era the Jews began to use their letters as symbols for numbers. The speculative Rabbis saw in this a new method for mystic interpretation or cabbala. Secret words were expressed by the figure produced by the addition of the numerical values of the letters contained in them. This new science they called gematriah, geometry. Now this science is applied here by our “John.” We have to prove (1) that the number contains the name of a man, and that man is Nero; and (2) that the solution given holds good for the reading 666 as well as for the equally old reading 616. We take Hebrew letters and their values —

(nun) n = 50        (kof) k = 100

(resh) r = 200    (samech) s= 60

(vav) o = 6          (resh) r = 200

(nun) n = 50

[If we add all these numbers up we get 666, the “mark of the beast” i.e. sum of the numerical values of the letters, in Kabbalic numerology, of the name of the Roman Emperor Nero. 666 minus nun (50) = 616. – spm]

Neron Kesar, the Emperor Neron, Greek Nêron Kaisar. Now, if instead of the Greek spelling, we transfer the Latin Nero Caesar into Hebrew characters, the nun at the end of Neron disappears, and with it the value of fifty. That brings us to the other old reading of 616, and thus the proof is as perfect as can be desired. [The above spelling of the name, both with and without the second nun, is the one which occurs in the Talmud, and is therefore authentic.]

The mysterious book, then, is now perfectly clear. “John” predicts the return of Nero for about the year 70, and a reign of terror under him which is to last forty-two months, or 1,260 days. After that term God arises, vanquishes Nero, the antichrist, destroys the great city by fire, and binds the devil for a thousand years. The millennium begins, and so forth. All this now has lost all interest, except for ignorant persons who may still try to calculate the day of the last judgment. But as an authentic picture of almost primitive Christianity, drawn by one of themselves, the book is worth more than all the rest of the New Testament put together.

(written by Frederick Engels in 1883)

One response to “Engels on the Book of Revelation

  1. Hello and thank you,
    When I first read this article many years ago I thought it was a ‘revelation’ in itself. Engels gives a clear account of the early forms of Christianity which bear very little resemblance to its later form in the Roman Empire of the 4th century. But we tend to take this later form as the aboriginal form which it was not. It arose out of 300 years of modification and alteration – profoundly influenced by earlier Stoicism and the philosophy of later antiquity, especially Neo-platonism – as the history of the empire unfolded and finally this obscure Jewish 1st century sect eventually became, after a whole series of developments and adaptations, the state religion of a mighty empire.
    With Best Wishes
    Shaun May

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