Monday, February 7, 2011
Taking the Bible literally: The Book of Revelation and the Work of the Priest. Lecture 4 of 18
Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, September 8, 1924:
Yesterday we brought before our souls the image shown to us by the apocalyptist, the image of Jesus Christ’s appearance, given by the Father God; and I was allowed to remark that the explanation designed to lead to an understanding of the image can be conceived of as a letter sent by God himself to John.
It is integral to the Mysteries and to the manner in which one speaks out of the Mysteries and presents them that henceforth the writer of the Book of Revelation is himself also regarded as the writer of the letter. It lay in the nature of the Mysteries for the writer of a document such as this not to feel himself to be its author in the sense in which we regard the author of a work nowadays. He felt himself to be the tool of the spiritual writer. He felt there was nothing personal left in the actual writing down. So John is perfectly justified in acting as though he were writing what he has to write at God’s command, as a message from God. In all that follows this becomes obvious in a way that truly befits the Mysteries.
It is perfectly true to say that in our present time we need once more to understand such things as the transition from the appearance of Jesus Christ in the first few verses of the Book of Revelation to what then follows, namely the seven letters sent to the different congregations. Our present time has entirely forgotten any understanding of such things that once existed as a matter of course in the Mysteries and even still in the way the early Christians thought.
Once again, this is something it will be up to you to take further as your priestly work continues to develop. Think now that what is said in the Book of Revelation, written down as it is through Inspiration, is directed to the Angels of the congregation at Ephesus, of the congregation at Thyatira, of the congregation at Sardis, and so on. These letters are said to have been written to Angels. This is something that immediately trips up our modern understanding, so it is important for us to have a proper view of what follows.
A man who had spent the recent part of his life making tremendous efforts to reach an understanding of the anthroposophical view of the spirit once came to see me. In your priesthood you must know about such things, for they are after all typical of our present age. This is only one example, but a striking one, to show what I mean. It is something you will often meet on your path as priests, and the important thing for you, is it not, is your path as priests. This man said: ‘It seems to me that Anthroposophy strives to take the words of the Bible literally.’ I replied: ‘Yes.’ He then proceeded to quote a whole string of examples which he considered could not be taken literally, but only symbolically. I said to him: ‘Certainly there are very many so-called mystics, theosophists, and so on who search the Bible for all kinds of symbols and suchlike, who dissect the Bible into symbols. Anthroposophy does not do this. Anthroposophy looks only for what can lead to understanding the proper meaning of the original text—although this might sometimes mean taking the symbolic language as the starting point. Working in this way,’ I continued, ‘I have never found, in all the passages I have been able to investigate, that the Bible cannot be taken literally if one juxtaposes the original text with all the misinterpretations that have arisen over the course of time.’
This, then, is the final aim: to take the Bible literally. You could even say that if you cannot take the Bible literally, you have not yet understood those passages that you are unable to take literally; and this is indeed the case with many people today.
We are touching here on something esoteric which has perhaps so far not come up so clearly in our meetings but which should certainly be brought before your meditative consciousness. It happens from time to time nowadays— perhaps not like lightning flashes, for they come from above, but like volcanic flashes, for they come from below—that things that are remnants of ancient Mysteries flicker up in one confession or another. I have often mentioned a pastoral letter in which an archbishop made the following claim:1 The letter asked the question: Who is higher, the human being or God? In a rather roundabout way, perhaps, but on the other hand also quite bluntly, this letter drew attention to the following: When the priest stands before the altar—so went the letter—when a human being who is a priest stands before the altar (this is only the case with a priest, not with other people) he is higher than God, more powerful than God, for he can force God to take on earthly form in the bread and wine; when the priest celebrates, when he brings about the Transubstantiation, God is obliged to be present at the altar.
This is a discussion that reaches far back into the ancient Mysteries and it is also a discussion that is still quite current in Eastern esoteric Brahmanism in so far as this derives from Mystery knowledge. The idea of man as a being who includes the divinity within himself, who is, actually, higher than the divinity, is familiar to and in agreement with all the Mysteries. When his soul was in this state, a Brahmin priest, especially in olden times, felt himself to be the supra-personal bearer of the divinity, if I may put it this way.
This is an incisive statement flashing in to our time from the ancient Mysteries, and it should at least once be confided to a priest’s meditative soul life. After all, it contradicts entirely what has gradually become established, particularly in Protestant consciousness. As far as Protestant consciousness is concerned, what is written in the pastoral letter quoted is of course nonsense. We shall be returning to this during our considerations on the Book of Revelation. Behind it is really only the idea, writ large, that comes toward us here at this point in the Book of Revelation.
At the behest of God, and inspired by God, John writes to the Angels of the seven congregations. In the state of soul in which he is writing, he certainly feels himself to be the one who is to pass on advice, admonition, their mission, and so on to the Angels of the seven congregations. What does this mean in a concrete sense? When the Angel of the congregation at Ephesus or at Sardis or Philadelphia was mentioned, who was actually meant? To whom was the message to be addressed? Though this is difficult for people to understand nowadays, there were in those days individuals like those of today whom we call well-educated individuals—individuals well educated in the Christian tradition we would say today of people in an analogous position—there was a core of individuals who understood the meaning of this: The one who is writing has a prophetic nature, a prophetic nature like that of John, who when he is writing in this state of soul is higher than those Angels. He is writing to the Angels of the congregations.
But among those who understood there would have been no need to point to something supersensible when mentioning ‘angels’. The picture people had was this: Christian congregations have been founded and continue to exist. The writer of the Book of Revelation considers that he is addressing his letters to future times in which what he has to say to the congregations will come to pass. He is not speaking at all of present conditions. He is speaking of future conditions. If those who at that time were taking into consideration the traditions that had arisen out of the ancient Mysteries, they would have pointed to the bishop of the congregation as the one to whom the letter was addressed.
On the one hand it was entirely clear to them that the actual leader of the congregation was the supersensible Angelos, but on the other hand they would have pointed to the bishop, the canonical administrator of the congregation. People at that time had the concept that the one who was the administrator of a congregation such as that of Sardis, or Ephesus, or Philadelphia, the one who exercised this office, was the actual earthly bearer of the supersensible Angelos-being. So when he writes, John does indeed feel himself inwardly taken hold of by a being higher than the Angelos. In writing to the bishops of the seven congregations he is writing to human beings who are not only filled with their own angel—which is the case with every individual—but also with the guiding, leading Angel of the congregation.
So he begins to speak about what he has to say to these congregations, and he is certainly pointing to the future. We must ask: Why are seven letters written to seven congregations? These seven congregations are of course the representatives of the various pagan and Jewish nuances out of which Christianity has been born. Concrete facts were much more thoroughly understood in those times than later on. At the time when the Book of Revelation was written people knew exactly: Here, for example, is the congregation of Ephesus that long ago brought forth the immensely great Mysteries of Ephesus which, as was quite common in olden times, had pointed to the future appearance of Christ. The cultus at Ephesus was intended to unite the celebrants in Ephesus, as well as those witnessing the celebration, with the divine, spiritual powers and also with the coming Christ. With its prophecy of the coming Christianity and with its pagan cultus, the ancient pagan congregation at Ephesus was perhaps the one that was particularly close to Christianity.
That is why the letter to the Angel of the congregation at Ephesus spoke of the seven candlesticks. The candlesticks are the congregations, as the Book of Revelation expressly states. The letter to the congregation at Ephesus, in particular, must be taken in its actual form just as it stands. It is clearly indicated that this congregation at Ephesus was the one that took up Christianity most intensely, devoting its first love to Christianity. For it is said that it did not keep its first love. It is of a future time to come that the apocalyptist wishes to speak in his letter. So we see in the example of this admonitory letter to the congregation at Ephesus how the apocalyptist characterizes the development the congregation goes through as one in which it looks to what flames up again from olden times.
It was indeed the case that the different congregations spoken about here represent various pagan or Jewish nuances, that they had various ceremonials through which they approached the divine world in varying ways. Every letter begins in a way that shows how in each congregation Christianity has developed out of its particular brand of ancient pagan worship.
One must understand that in the early days of Christianity people’s state of soul was entirely different from that existing today, especially in Europe—though not so much in the Orient. The way we now see religion with a content of concepts that can be described logically was very, very foreign, really entirely foreign to the ancient Mystery pictures of the early Christian centuries. In those days people saw the Christ as an appearance of the mighty Sun Being. But it was up to the congregation at Ephesus, the congregation at Sardis, the congregation at Thyatira, and so on to strive toward him each in its own way, in accordance with its own cultus. Each has a different nuance in the way it approaches him. Everywhere there are intimations of this being acknowledged.
Take the congregation at Ephesus, whose task it was to carry on the profound and ancient Mysteries of Ephesus. It could not help but be different from, for example, the congregation at Sardis. The congregation at Ephesus had a cultus that was profoundly permeated by the presence of divine, spiritual substances in earthly life. The priest walking in procession around Ephesus was able to call himself god or man in equal measure. He knew himself to be the bearer of the god. The whole religious consciousness at Ephesus was rooted in theophany, the appearance of the god in the human being. The different priests at Ephesus each respectively represented the corresponding god, and there was even a specific task of taking this theophany, this bringing-to-appearance of the divine, right into the souls of the congregation.
Assume that among the priestesses at Ephesus performing the rituals of the cultus there was one in the procession who was essentially the living, human form of Artemis, Diana, the Goddess of the Moon. The members of the congregation were expected to make no distinction between the earthly appearance and the goddess herself, so that the earthly, human appearance was regarded as the actual goddess. Events in the ancient Mysteries such as public processions took the form of people who were the gods walking one behind the other. Just as today we have to learn how to acquire appropriate concepts for things, so did the people then have to acquire images in their soul and feelings in their soul through which they could see the god in the human being who was the priest or priestess.
It is therefore no wonder, since the apocalyptist speaks in the Mystery language in the way I have described, that he should turn particularly to the congregation at Ephesus where this special way of thinking, of feeling, of sensing was most intensely developed. That is why it was natural for the congregation at Ephesus to regard the seven candlesticks as the most essential symbol of the cultus. These candlesticks represented the light that lives on Earth while at the same time being divine.
The situation was entirely different in the congregation at Sardis. This congregation was the Christian continuation of an ancient, very highly developed astrological star religion in which the participants really knew how the passage of the stars relates to earthly affairs and where they read in the stars all the things the higher and less high leaders commanded to be done in all earthly matters. The congregation at Sardis had evolved out of a Mystery cult that counted to the highest degree on discovering from the starry sky at night the secrets of life and the requirements of life. Before it became possible to speak of the congregation at Sardis as a Christian one, it had to be spoken of as the one that adhered most firmly to the old dream clairvoyance, for it was out of this dream clairvoyance that the nightly secrets of the macrocosm were derived. At this place, where so much store was set by the continuing tradition of the old dream clairvoyance, little attention was paid to what the daytime brought.
In this sense the difference between the Sun worship and Sun teachings of Ephesus and Sardis is indeed significant, in so far as one can genuinely speak of the ancient wisdom of both these places. In all the ancient Mysteries the teachings—which were also passed on to the lay population—were also the science of the day, for there was no science that was separate from the Mysteries. The Sun teachings of Ephesus differentiated between the five planets on the one hand—Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury—and the Sun with the Moon on the other. Nowadays we call the Sun a fixed star in contrast to the planets, but then, especially in Ephesus, the Sun was distinguished by being separated off from the planets and worshipped as the star of the daytime because from the moment it rose to the moment it set it was seen as the life-giving principle.
This was not the situation in the earlier days of Sardis. Here the daytime Sun was nothing special, and its light was accepted as a matter of course. In the town of Sardis the daytime Sun was nothing special, but the night-time Sun, which the ancient Mysteries termed the ‘midnight Sun’, was seen as being of the same degree of importance as the planets. The Moon was not distinguished from the rest of the planets, and the Sun was seen as being really of the same degree of importance as the planets.
The sequence in Sardis was: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Moon. But not in Ephesus. Here they enumerated: Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury on the one side, and on the other the gods of day and night, Sun and Moon, who were close to the life on Earth. This is the great difference, and it was to this that all the ceremonial at Sardis was related.
In these earliest Christian times the old pagan cultus lived on in Ephesus, but with a slant toward Christianity, while in Sardis the nuance of the old pagan cultus, tending toward astrology in the way I have described, also lived on. So it was quite natural for the apocalyptist to write of Sardis ‘that hath the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.’ (Rev. 3:1)
Here we do not have the candlesticks standing on the altar, nor the light that is bound up with the Earth, but the light that is up there in the macrocosm.
You can discover the degree to which the apocalyptist is still imbued with the ancient Mysteries when you answer the question: What is it that he chides the congregation at Sardis about; to what must they be especially attentive? They must, he tells the congregation at Sardis, be attentive to finding the transition to the daytime Sun, the place from which Christ took his departure.
The meaning of each word must be taken exactly as it stands, if only one can press forward to the original meaning, knowing how the religious life was led in olden times, and that the apocalyptist was speaking in the grand style as the last of his kind—though there are always later effects that linger on. In the way he spread the culture of Hellas, Alexander the Great, for example, behaved impeccably when dealing with the religious life. This is obvious wherever we examine Alexander’s campaigns. There are no endeavors to persuade the population, and no dogmas are given out. Each people is left with its own cultus and convictions, with only such additions being introduced as can easily he absorbed. Buddha’s messengers to Babylon and Egypt also worked in this way. After they had fulfilled their mission there were few outer signs in the cultus or in the words used in the celebration by which one might have distinguished the later from the earlier time. Inwardly, however, there were immense differences, for there had been poured into the devotions these peoples brought to their gods everything that could possibly be absorbed in the way of nuances in the cultus, in the ceremonial and in their convictions. The same, basically, also happened in the European regions in older times. The people were not arbitrarily flooded with many dogmas, for the point of contact always remained the peoples’ own ancient Mystery customs.
These things are the building bricks we need to know about if we are to read the Book of Revelation properly, without the intrusion of even a small remnant of those absurd conclusions modern theology has reached about it. This tolerant way of building on what is already there — which a number of times has the apocalyptist saying, for example: ‘You say you are Jews and are not’ (Rev. 1:9; 3:9) — this is the way in which he wants to speak out of the hearts and souls of the people on the spot. Such passages and others have led to the Book of Revelation being considered not as a Christian but as a Jewish document. One has to understand how these things have arisen out of the old way of considering such matters.
We shall be having to go into more detail, but there is one conception we must still touch on today: The apocalyptist, writing through Inspiration, knew exactly how one can give a complete picture of some reality by describing a specific number of typical aspects. You can see how wonderfully individual are the characterizations of the seven congregations in the seven letters of the Book of Revelation. It is quite wonderful. Each one is described in a way that distinguishes it clearly from the others, so that each presents itself to us with its own individual features. The writer of the Book of Revelation knew perfectly well that if he had described an eighth congregation he would have had to describe something that resembled one of those already existing. And the same would have happened with a ninth. The seven nuances he has given provide the fullest possible description. He knew this.
Here is another wonderful conception coming to us from those olden times. It came to me recently in such a living way when we drove over from Torquay—where we had been holding our summer courses in England—to the place where King Arthur’s castle once stood, King Arthur with his twelve knights. You can still see what vibrant life there must have been in this place. You see the headlands jutting out into the sea. They still have on them the last few remaining ruins of Arthur’s ancient castles, which were wonderfully formed. You look out to sea—there is sea here and here, with a hill in the middle—and you realize how strikingly the sea brings soul into that locality. The picture gives an impression of incessant change. While we were there sunshine and rain alternated quite rapidly, which of course also happened in olden times. In fact, things are quieter now, for the climate has altered in this respect. You watch this wonderful interplay, the way the elemental spirits of light enter into relationships with the water spirits who spray up from down below; and again you see quite special spirit phenomena when the waves break on to the land and, tearing themselves away, are thrown hack again, or when the surface of the sea is ruffled. Nowhere else on the Earth does the cosmic elemental realm ebb and flow in such a remarkable way.
What I was permitted to observe there was the instrument of Inspiration for the participants at Arthur’s Round Table. They received the incentives for what they had to do through what was told to them with the help of those beings of sea and air. These knights of King Arthur could number only twelve. This came to me because one can still perceive today what it was that formed the basis for that number twelve. There are just twelve nuances of perception when you are concerned with this kind of cosmic perception that comes into being with the help of elemental beings; twelve modes of perception. If you want to embrace all twelve as a single human being, you find that one of them always makes another indistinct. So the knights of Arthur’s Round Table shared the tasks among themselves in such a way that each could be regarded as one of these twelve nuances. They were convinced that in this way each of them possessed a clearly differentiated feeling of the universe, the tasks of which they took upon themselves. There could not have been a thirteenth knight, for he would have had to resemble one of the twelve.
The conception on which this is based is clear: When human beings want to share out the tasks to be done in the world, there must be twelve of them. Together they form a whole, representing the twelve nuances. If human beings confront the world in communities, in congregations, this calls for the number seven. These are things that were known in those days.
The apocalyptist is writing out of this supersensible understanding of numbers, and he continues to do so in the further course of the Book of Revelation. Today I simply want to speak about reading the Book of Revelation. John shows us how among the appearances there is one in which he sees the throne of Christ, the throne of the transfigured Son of Man, around whom are seated the four and twenty elders. (Rev. 4:4) Here we see something in which twenty-four have a part to play. What does it mean when there are twenty-four nuances?
Congregations have seven nuances; human beings incarnated on the physical Earth have twelve nuances. But when we are talking of human beings as representatives of human evolution in supra-earthly life, then we come to yet another number. There have been leaders of humanity whose task, from age to age, has been to reveal what humanity needed to receive as revelations. These revelations are simply written into the cosmic ether, which can also be termed the Akashic Record. If we take the sequence of great revealers in evolving humanity, we find inscribed into the supersensible realm what each one of them has had to give.
One should seek an individuality such as Moses not only in what he was as the earthly Moses, and also not only in what he was as documented in the Bible, for these are depicted in accordance with the Akashic Record. One should seek Moses where he is seated on the throne of Christ. The eternal element of his earthly existence, the abiding part — sub specie aeternitatis — is firmly engraved in the cosmic ether. Only twenty-four such human powers chosen for eternity can exist, however, for a twenty-fifth would merely constitute a repetition of one of the others. This was known in prehistoric times.
If human beings want to work together on the Earth, there must be twelve. If human communities want to work together, there must be seven; the eighth would be a repetition of one of the seven. But if, sub specie aeternitatis, those work together who have made themselves spiritual, who represent a stage of human evolution, there must be twenty-four, and these are the four and twenty elders.
If we take all twenty-four elders together—some of whose revelations already exist, while others are still to come—we have surrounding the throne of Christ a synthesis, like a summary of all revelations to humanity. Before this throne of Christ there stands the human being as such, the human being in juxtaposition with what is merely one link in the chain, a single stage of humanity. What I would like to describe as ‘the human being in himself’, in the way he must be comprehended—this is depicted beneath the image of the four beasts.
A grand picture is there before us. The transfigured Son of Man in the center, on the throne the separate stages of humanity, through the sequence of ages, as the twenty-four guides of the twenty-four hours of the great cosmic day, and, spread out over all this, beneath the picture of the four beasts, the human being himself, who has to embrace all the separate stages. Something important, something essential, draws near to us in this.
What is taking place there before the seeing eye of the apocalyptist who brings the messages of God to the Angels of their congregations and thus to the whole of humanity? What is taking place? When the four beasts begin to act, which means when the human being discovers his relationship with the Godhead, the twenty-four guides of the twenty-four hours of the great cosmic day fall upon their faces. They worship that which is higher, that which is the whole human being, as opposed to what each of them represents, which is merely one stage of humanity. The elders were really seen as this picture which the apocalyptist has to place before humanity. In olden times it was said that the one seated on the throne will come, whereas the apocalyptist has to say: The one seated on the throne has already been.
I wanted to speak about what it means to read the Book of Revelation. But we can only learn to read it correctly when we put ourselves in the position of starting to learn how to read by beginning with the ancient Mysteries.
We shall now endeavor to read on in the Book of Revelation, for it contains profound secrets, and not only those that you ought to get to know, but also some that it will be for you to carry out, some which you must do.