Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The woman, the dragon, and the child

In yesterday's post I attempted to explain what Jerram Barrs means by "echoes of Eden" as he describes them in his book of the same name. Today I'll attempt to share how he explains the apostle John's use of echoes of Eden in the apocalyptic book Revelation. Tomorrow, I'll follow that up by showing a similar echo of Eden in Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road.

Barrs contends  there is a significant echo of Eden used by John. The apostle, claims Barrs, makes "dramatic use of a legend" (79) in the "highly pictorial and symbolic account of the birth of Jesus and his victory over the Serpent" (79). The vision which Barrs repeats in detail is from Revelation 12:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Revelation 12:1-6 ESV)
Barr indicates that there are "several aspects of this story that would have been familiar to John's readers from the pagan mythology widely known in their part of the world" (80). Barrs introduces a myth from Greece that was strikingly similar. Zeus and Leto conceive a son and before the child is born the great dragon, Python, threatens to destroy the child when it is born. The sea god, Poseidon, offers the fleeing Leto refuge and Apollo is safely born. Apollo then pursues the dragon Python and slays him. Barrs insists that this "Greco-Roman version of this common myth is the one with which all the people of the churches of Asia Minor would have been familiar" (80). Interestingly, Barrs also notes that the reigning emperor, Domitian, claimed to be the incarnation of Apollos. Barrs is convinced that John's readers would know of this myth and  furthermore, that John intended to use it.

We are left wondering why John, and for that matter God, would use the framework of a pagan myth in Revelation. Barrs answers, "In his recounting of the war in heaven and the hostility of the great dragon to Christ, John is showing that Christ is indeed the fulfillment of any vestige of truth found in the myths of the pagans" (81). He continues, "There is a double element in what John is doing here...On the one hand, he is declaring that Christ is the fulfillment of all the best hopes and longings of paganism...John is also giving them a very serious challenge: Don't turn back again to the myths and stories and idols of paganism. They are not the truth and they have no power to save" (81).

This echo is described earlier by Barrs in very general terms. It is this echo that I will demonstrate, in tomorrow's post, that can be seen in the The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This is how Barrs describes it:
One of the striking elements of much pagan religion is the following story, here presented in summary. There is the hope of the birth of a divine son, a hero, or warrior. There is a declaration of enmity against this divine son and the threat of his destruction at birth. There is heavenly protection provided for the newborn infant. Then the heavenly child defeats his enemy (80).
It is readily apparent how the aforementioned myth of Zeus, Leto, Python, Poseidon, and Apollo matches the pattern Barrs has described. It remains to be seen if The Road contains a similar narrative echo of Eden.

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