All too often when people think about violence in the Bible, they focus on the Old Testament and ignore the New. People tend to imagine that the Prince of Peace rejects violence, and situate Jesus and the God of the New Testament in opposition to the Old Testament God; this kind of oppositional reading is problematic in many ways, not the least in its historic contribution to anti-Semitism, but also ignores what the text itself says.
In fact, the New Testament is full of violence and suffering, violence which is condoned by Jesus himself. Even in the Gospels, Jesus demands that eyes be plucked out and hands cut off as a result of sin, and threatens the earth with bloody violence. The Book of Revelation, written in the first or second century CE, is widely read as early Christianity’s rejection of the sinful, violent Roman Empire and the hopeful expectation of justice for true believers. This understanding of the Apocalypse overlooks the rampant violence omnipresent in the text, which depicts sexual violence as a punishment ordained by God. As John Marshall says, “Sexualized violence against women is one of John’s primary modes of depicting God’s judgment.”
Revelation’s views on rape are not unique, but rather participate in prevalent attitudes about gender, power, and war in the ancient world. In antiquity, sexual violence and rape were frequently depicted as just punishments for conquered peoples. The defeat of an army represented a power dynamic between enemies, where the victors upheld the masculine role of empowered penetrator and the conquered were made effeminate in their weakness, their penetrability. This dynamic is preserved in art, such as the 5th century BCE Eurymedon Vase.
The vase depicts a nude Greek soldier, victorious and with his erect penis in his hand; the reverse shows a defeated soldier from the Battle of the Eurymedon River bending at the waist, with hands raised in fright or submission. The inscription reads, “I am Eurymedon, I stand bent forward.” The vase represents mainstream ideas that equate defeat with penetration and victory with forced sexual conquest: rape. The Roman period continues this trend; Roman coins minted to commemorate the defeat of various provinces, including Judea, depict Rome as a tall, virile soldier, often holding a phallic sword; the soldier looms over a bent female figure in distress, representing his power in gendered and militaristic terms at the same time. It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that Revelation not only portrays its enemies in feminised terms, but also punishes them with sexual assault.
There are two sections in Revelation where sexual violence is most notable. In Revelation 2:22–23, the Son of God passes judgement on various churches in Asia Minor. He singles out one woman from Thyatira, Jezebel, who is a prophetess:
“Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”
While many translations shy away from the sexual violence implicit in the threat, the text’s repeated references to sexual immorality, in the context of a work that operates on the principle that ‘the punishment fits the crime,’ implies that rape is an appropriate punishment for this ‘false’ prophetess.
Likewise, the Whore of Babylon, the author’s female symbol for Rome, is also threatened with sexual violence; the angel explains that the Great City of Rome will be made desolate and naked, implying again that her promiscuous behaviour should be punished by sexual violation, condoned by God. Despite the fact that the Whore is a symbolic woman (rather than actual woman, like Jezebel), the reinforcing of sexual violence as punishment contributes to a culture in which rape is understood as not only acceptable, but necessary in order for the “right side” to emerge victorious, masculinity intact.
The question of sexual violence as punishment, unfortunately, remains all too relevant. From popular culture to present day wars, rape persists as a means of control. All too recently, American soldiers were found guilty of sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison after photos showed evidence of soldiers raping male and female prisoners; even if not directly influenced by the biblical texts, the notion that victims of sexual assault need to be “innocent,” as one of the guilty soldiers insisted, hearkens back to ancient ideas about warfare, rape, and power.
Even films seeking to make light of contemporary preoccupations with the apocalyptic end up repeating and reinforcing the rape culture that persists from antiquity to the present day. The 2013 film This Is The End, directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, received a lot of attention at its release for its rape jokes, which include a joke whose punchline is that Emma Watson is overly paranoid about being raped; James Franco admitting to having sex with Lindsay Lohan when she was so intoxicated that she thought he was someone else; Channing Tatum naked, bound in chains, as the sex slave of Danny McBride; and perhaps most memorably, the rape of Jonah Hill by a well-endowed black demon. As Nico Lang at Thought Catalogue states, “…rape is explicitly an act of gender and power. It asserts roles and hierarchies of dominance, and when we make a world where it’s easier for Jonah Hill to get raped for ‘acting like a woman,’ we create a world that perpetuates female sexual assault. We continue to demonise femininity and promote the exact toxic masculinity that This Is the End, at its best, wants to satirize.” Just as Revelation, a text that purports to reject the trappings of the Roman Empire, inevitably reinscribes gendered violence as right and appropriate, so too This Is The End props up rape culture with its rape jokes.
Author: Dr Meredith Warren is a member of The Shiloh Project, lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield and is Deputy Director of SIIBS. Meredith’s main research interests lie in the cultural and theological interactions among the religions of the ancient Mediterranean, and especially metaphors of food, eating, and the sense of taste. You can find Meredith on Twitter @DrMJCWarren.