Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context

The Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible is a controversial and influential book. It’s basic storyline, that of an apocalyptic end of the world, has persuaded men, women, children, and others into fearing God and believing unprecedented doom will occur if Christian beliefs aren’t followed. Ever since the first century, there have been individuals who proclaim the apocalypse is just around the corner; see below for a brief list. In today’s environment of Covid-19, natural disasters, nuclear weapon technology, and financial hardships, there is no shortage of doomsday leaders who believe the real time of the tribulation is now. But what if they are all wrong? What if the symbology used by John the Elder (the credited author of Revelations) has been taken literally when it should be metaphorical? In this blog I explore a possible interpretation that takes into account how the symbolism can be read in a historical context.

List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events

Predicted YearPerson/sDetails of Apocalypse
66–70Simon bar Giora, Jewish EssenesThe Jewish Essene sect of ascetics saw the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66–70 in Judea as the final end-time battle which would bring about the arrival of the Messiah.
365Hilary of PoitiersThis early French bishop announced the end of the world would happen during this year.
375–400Martin of ToursThis French bishop stated that the world would end before 400 AD, writing, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.”
847ThiotaThis Christian declared in 847 that the world would end that year, though later confessed the prediction was fraudulent and was publicly flogged.
1033Various ChristiansFollowing the failure of the prediction for 1 January 1000, some theorists proposed that the end would occur 1000 years after Jesus’ death, instead of his birth.
1346–1351Various EuropeansThe Black Death spreading across Europe was interpreted by many as the sign of the end of times.
1524London astrologersA group of astrologers in London predicted the world would end by a flood starting in London, based on calculations made the previous June. Twenty thousand Londoners left their homes and headed for higher ground in anticipation.
For more predictions see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events

The standard interpretation of the Four Horsemen is: 

“The first horseman, a conqueror with a bow and crown, rides a white horse, which scholars sometimes interpret to symbolize Christ or the Antichrist; the second horseman is given a great sword and rides a red horse, symbolizing war and bloodshed; the third carries a balance scale, rides a black horse, and symbolizes famine; and the fourth horseman rides a pale horse and is identified as Death.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica

To me, this explanation is too simple; the descriptions of white, red, black, and pale horses beacons more investigation than the literal presentation of a Christ/Antichrist, war, famine, and death. In Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, and bow? I demonstrate how interpretations of homophones can significantly alter the interpretation of Bible passages, further, I highlight that common, contemporary interpretations are not necessarily correct if translations issues, like punctuation, are not accounted for. As a continuation, a major flaw I perceive in many Bible interpretations is that the meaning of symbols are not viewed in relation to their historical significance and cultural context. But before delving into alternative ways of viewing the Four Horsemen, I’d like to do a little thought experiment.

Imagine: You are John the Elder, a citizen of Ephesus in approximately 96 CE. You have a spiritual experience in which prophetic visions are placed in your mind. Now imagine what language the Holy Spirit would use to communicate with you. Would you expect it to use a symbolic language that you understood? Or a symbolic language that you did not understand but people in the future might? To put it more crudely, if you spoke English, would you expect a spiritual being to communicate with you in English or a language you don’t know? Would you write down your vision using icons you did not understand? Or would you record the vision according to your own comprehension level?

Speaking in tongues aside, the chances are you’d receive a message from the Holy Spirit in a language you could comprehend, and you’d pass on your message in a manner that others could also comprehend. But also remember that you may be persecuted by Roman authorities for your beliefs, hence, you may want to disguise what you are saying so as it looks like it is not “Christian”. If only there were a symbolic code you could use …

Contrary to some theorists (like psychoanalysts) language and symbolic communication is not consistent over time or cultures. Pictures and symbols are a form of language, and just like any type of communication, these evolve over time. Human communication is in a constant flux that develops due to standard meanings being reused and blended with creative impulses that alter previous meanings. When changes to symbolic language is done deliberately, it can effectively make an “in” and an “out” group, that is those who understand the communication and those who do not … I can’t help but wonder if Early Christians who were afraid of persecution may have deliberately manipulated language and pre-existing symbols to avoid having their beliefs scrutinised?

When new words, phrases, or concepts get known and/or accepted by large groups of people they develop a cultural context. For example, if you were to tell someone in their eighties that you went to a party that was “totally sick”, they may give an empathetic response because they assumed that “totally sick” means the party was a disaster in which everyone became ill. In contrast, a younger person hearing about a “totally sick” party would understand that you had a great time (I touch upon the creativity of language more here.) Each generation alters or develops language usage in some way or another. Language has simple and complex interrelationships with the time, culture, and the audience in which it is spoken. 

Second thought experiment: If John the Elder had been given a literal vision of armageddon that was supposed to happen in our time then he would have had to describe cars, computers, electricity, and several other things that he would not have a point of reference to in his lifetime. Hence, it stands to reason that John’s recording of prophecies is embedded with symbolic communication appropriate to his language and his culture. Moreover, his vision is not literal, it is metaphorical; an allegory of concepts and feelings. I would even argue that it is not even about the end of the world, rather, it depicts a cosmic cycles; rebirths or some form of evolutionary stages. In comparison, consider real childbirth. If one were to metaphorically describe labour, especially a difficult labour, then it could be said to be a time of great pain and bloodshed in which the woman’s appetite is gone, her limbs and pelvis are torn in different directions, and there is a battle between internal forces and external forces. Birth is the death of life in the womb. So too the Book of Revelations may be describing great changes to humanity that are allegorical to war, famine, battle, and death. 

To decode the symbols of the Four Horseman further, we need to consider the Ephesus culture. Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey and it has a long history. In about the sixth century BCE it came under Greek influence and was a hub for cults that worshipped the Goddess Artemis. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great consolidated the Hellenisation of the region. By John the Elder’s time, Ephesus was a Roman province, however, Latin had not yet developed into a scholarly language, hence, Revelations was written in Greek (as was most of the New Testament). Pretty much all New Testament writers had an understanding of Greek and Jewish traditions, albeit, they may have favoured one over the other and their products were original to some degree. (See commentary on Justin Martyr.

Now to cut to the chase of the symbolism of the Four Horsemen; horses in Ancient times were a symbol of the intellect. To a contemporary mind this may not make sense; books, degrees, and computers may be considered better symbols of intelligence but in the eras we’re talking about, before the first century, books, formal qualifications, and computers weren’t invented yet. To a person of antiquity, horses were a valuable possession, they enabled travel and freedom, were needed on farms and to go into battle, they could be trained to do all sorts of tasks and tricks, and horses were loyal companions. Given all these considerations, it is understandable that horses became a symbol for intelligence. Homer’s depiction of the Trojan horse that enabled victory in the battle of Troy is a good example of how the concepts of intellect, strategy, resourcefulness, and success, were linked to horses in the pre-Christian era. 

Nowadays we think of the intellect in terms of cognitive brain functions that occur in the prefrontal cortex, in antiquity, the intellect was considered to be more of a spiritual principle. Spiritual forces were perceived to be everywhere and these could and would impact individuals. For instance, in Ancient Greece, it’s unlikely that a person would be described as a genius, rather, if a person displayed strong intellectual qualities then the external force of a “genii” may be given credit for working through them. A genii was like a guardian angel, higher self, or daimon that floated around trying to give people ideas; it was believed possible that if an idea from a genii was not accepted by one person, then the genii would move onto someone else. Basically, what we view as internalised higher order thinking, our Mediterranean ancestors perceived as external messages from spiritual realms.

Recognising the Four Horsemen as being aspects of an intelligent spiritual force is only the first step. The next is to understand that horses were also cosmological symbols. Hence, each horseman may be interpreted as representing a cosmic element. Helios riding his four-horsed chariot immediately comes to my mind.

Helios the Sun God riding is chariot with four horses. Image source: Theoi Project

In Ancient Greek theology, Helios’ four horses symbolise earth, water, air, and fire. Could it be that the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse are an appropriation or repurposing of the symbolism of Helios’ four horses? Maybe, however, the link may be broader. In Judaism Ezekiel’s chariot has four horses (Ezekiel 1:4-28), in the Greco-Roman era, Apollo had a four horse chariot, and some Early Christians depicted Saint Mark as the charioteer of four horses. The question, therefore, may be: Is there an ideological link between all these varied representations of horses with the classical elements?

The concepts of fire, air, water, and earth were definitely popular amongst philosophers, however, to say they all meant the same thing in every context is probably an overgeneralisation. Suffice to say, it is not farfetched to assume John the Elder knew this symbolic code; I’d be more surprised if he didn’t know about it. So how do the four elements link to the Four Horseman? Let’s first look at the colours. (Readers may want to review The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts to get some background information about the framework.)

In Empedocles era, there is evidence to suggest that he and others associated black, white, yellow and red to water, fire, earth, and air. Coincidentally, the four horsemen described in the Book of Revelations have the same colours, albeit, yellow may be referred to as pale or green, depending on which translation of the Bible you look at. (Side note: the colours associated with each element and the differing of terminology to describe the pale or yellow element is consistent with The surprising pattern behind color names around the world.)

If we go through the associated symbolism of each horseman one at a time we can see more clues:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

Revelation 6:1-2 (NIV)

Key symbolic words that I can identify in these lines are thunder, white, and crown. These conjure inferences of concepts that relate to fire. The association of the White Horseman with the element of fire is strengthened in Revelation 19:11-16 when the rider is described as having eyes like a flame of fire. In Ancient Greek theology, fire is the highest on the hierarchy of elements. (The White Horseman’s “bow” is still open to interpretation.)

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

Revelation 6:3-4 (NIV)

If the sequence of the hierarchy is to be followed, then the red horse symbolises air. Air in classical philosophies is the emotional and passionate part of the soul. It is given reverence, however, it is also sometimes described as being an element that causes strife. Amongst air’s good points, is that it is a life-supporting element on earth; if one does not have air in their body they will be dead. Thus, there is some correlation between the traditional qualities of air and the Red Horseman’s characteristics of taking away peace and producing death.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds a of wheat for day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

Revelation 6:5-6 (NIV)

The black horse may be interpreted as water. While the literal symbols of scales, wheat, barley, and wages, appear to to be a reference to earthly concerns of money and finances, if they are viewed in the context of being said by a voice among the four living creatures, it can be inferred that the symbols of earthly existence (i.e., food and money) are supported or balanced (i.e., the scales) by the element of water. The final line is a warning that support of the physical elements must not damage the oil or the wine; wine is a symbol for spirit, aka fire, and oil is a symbol for soul, aka air. Hence, water is an intermediate or transitional element. 

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.


Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)

The most significant indication that the fourth horseman represents the element of earth is the term “Hades”. As explicitly told by Empedocles, Hades represents the earth in Ancient Greek theology. In Bible’s such as the King James Version, the pagan term of Hades is replaced by “Hell”, hence, some of the alignment between the theology of the elements and the horsemen is obscured. Just like the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hades in Revelations is connected to death. The terms sword, famine, plague, and beasts, are not necessarily literal, but metaphorical of earthly experiences. The Early Christian concept of Hades is not identical to the Ancient Greek Hades, but it is a significant link that deserves acknowledgment.

The embedding of Ancient Greek theology into Christian doctrines has a long history. From Justin Martyr, to Augustine, and Aquinas, Christianity has always borrowed theology from other sources. In Is Aristotle Overrated? I hone in on the Greek influence, however, influence also came from Judaism, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and others.

Overall, there are many indicators that the Book of Revelations is a metaphorical story that appropriates or repurposes Ancient Greek theology. Read as an allegory, the Four Horsemen are not going to appear one after the other and signal the end of the world. According to my interpretation, John the Elder’s vision was as much a reflection on the development of human beings from a cosmological perspective as it is a prediction for the future.

Decoding the symbolism of the remaining three seals introduces some more complex theology that I’ll leave for another day. And to be honest, I have not perfected my interpretation of Revelations, but I hope that the insights I can provide promotes critical thinking that prevents people from falling for doomsday predictors who will one day join the Wikipedia list of false prophets.

Of all philosophies and theologies, I resonate with the concept of creativity being the most important. From imaginative applications of symbols and communication that involves creative language, to every moment of every day, human beings are creators, or as I’ve said before, creat[e]-ures made in the image of a Creative force that some call God. Ultimately, we all have the gift of Free Will to create a future of our choosing without fear that our destinies were pre-written in Ephesus, c.96CE.

References

Benson, J. L. (2000). Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements [full text, not including figures]. Scholarworks.umass.edu. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/art_jbgc/1

Biblical Ephesus. (2020). History of Ephesus – Biblical Ephesus. Biblical Ephesus. http://biblicalephesus.com/ephesus/history

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2019). Four horsemen of the Apocalypse | Christianity | Britannica. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/four-horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2012). Genius | Roman religion. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/genius-Roman-religion

History.com Editors. (2018, August 21). Ephesus. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/ephesus

New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Book of Revelation – New World Encyclopedia. http://Www.newworldencyclopedia.org. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Book_of_Revelation

Revelation 6 KJV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/kjv/revelation/6.htm

Revelation 6 NIV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/niv/revelation/6.htm

Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198

Theoi Project. (2017). Helius – Ancient Greek Vase Painting. http://Www.theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T17.1.htmlUniversity of Michigan. (n.d.). Horse. Umich.edu. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/H/horse.html

Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?

"Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? and do not questions continually arise to them about His unity and providence ? Is not this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?" 
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypo, P.5

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine, in about 100 CE. In his mid thirties he began wandering, preaching, and explaining Christianity to others. According to the encyclopaedia Britannica he was ‘one of the most important Greek philosophers-Apologists in the early Church’. 

Justin is described as being Greek (as opposed to Roman or Palestinian) because that is the language he used, moreover, he studied Plato and other Greek philosophers prior to converting from his old belief system to Christianity. Palestine, thanks to Alexander the Great, was Hellenised in 332 BCE, and despite the Roman takeover in 63 BCE, Greek was still a common language amongst academics.

Palestine was also home to many Jews and a variety of other religious groups. The interactions between these groups are suspected to have been a mixture of hostile and receptive occurrences. 

Justin’s evangelism took him to Rome where he was accused of being subversive and sentenced to death. He was killed by beheading in c.165, thus killed for his beliefs he was martyred by Christian followers. 

André Thévet – Saint Justin dans André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Justin wrote several treatises explaining Christian theology; he was instrumental in defining beliefs in the days prior to the bible being compiled. In the following centuries, followers of Christ would become divided into two broad categories of “true” Christians and “false” Christians, the latter usually referred to as Heretics (for example, the gnostics). During a process of establishing consistent guidelines for the faithful – which mostly came about by Emperor Constantine calling council meetings (the Nicene council) – Justin’s version of theology was accepted in the “true” category, as opposed to some others, like Valentina and Origen. 

Given that Justin had a strong Greek background, it’s not surprising he incorporated references to ancient Greek philosophy into his writings, however, what I find even more interesting is his detailed understanding of Jewish theology. In a publication titled Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Justin records an imaginative conversation between himself and a Jew called Trypho. The aim of the conversation is to explain to the Jew how Christianity fulfilled prophecies expressed in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. The fact that Justin wrote in a dialogue style (like Plato and other Philosophers), is a reflection of his scholarly Greek background. It is with this foundation that he describes Christian stories as being a continuation of Jewish symbology. Thus we have two streams of ideology merging into one river. 

Let’s have a look at some of what Justin says, first through a Jewish lens, then a Greek:

‘For, as I before said, certain dispensations of weighty mysteries were accomplished in each act of this sort. For in the marriages of Jacob I shall mention what dispensation and prophecy were accomplished, in order that you may thereby know that your teachers never looked at the divine motive which prompted each act, but only at the grovelling and corrupting passions. Attend therefore to what I say. The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish. For it was not lawful for Jacob to marry two sisters at once. And he serves Laban for [one of] the daughters; and being deceived in [the obtaining of] the younger, he again served seven years. Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Several themes can be taken from the above extract, some of which I’ve underlined or bolded:

  • mysteries – this implies that Justin is referring to things that happened [in the events of Jesus life] that are not obvious at a surface level.
  • marriages – term used in a symbolic sense; if you lived in the 2nd (or earlier) centuries you probably would have understood the term “marriages” differently to that of someone today. 
  • your teachers never looked at the divine motive – this is a dig (insult) to rabbis and other Jewish experts of the day 
  • The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish – this comment punctuates the notion that the term “marriages” is symbolic, not literal. 
  • Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church – “Leah” is symbolic of Judaism [i.e. Justin is talking to a Jew] and “Rachel” is symbolic of Christianity [Justin is referring to his church of Christianity] … 

The last point, that of “Leah” being symbolic of Jews and “Rachel” being symbolic of Christians is arguably the most important thing Justin says. He is clearly stating that the Torah, which became known as the Old Testament to Christians, was NOT literal. Moreover, concepts were personified. To understand the use of symbolism in this context, it is useful to consider Charles Peirce’s threefold definition of symbols:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.

The third level of symbolism is the most complex. The symbolic representation of something may or may not have an obvious connection to iconic or indexical references. I discuss this in my blog The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics.

Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:

‘Jacob served Laban for speckled and many-spotted sheep; and Christ served, even to the slavery of the cross, for the various and many-formed races of mankind, acquiring them by the blood and mystery of the cross. Leah was weakeyed; for the eyes of your souls are excessively weak. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, and has hid them to this day; and we have lost our paternal and material gods. Jacob was hated for all time by his brother; and we now, and our Lord Himself, are hated by you and by all men, though we are brothers by nature. Jacob was called Israel; and Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ, who is, and is called, Jesus.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Justin’s language is as colourful as a poet. Nearly every phrase is doused in pre-Shakespearean ambiguity: “Leah was weakeyed” and “Rachael stole the gods of Laban”. Moreover, Justin explicitly says: “Jacob was called Israel”, and “Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ”. To take these phrases literally is to believe that Leah was a real person who needed reading glasses, Rachel was a thief, and Jacob is a double agent who goes by the names of Israel and Christ. However, interpreted figuratively, neither Leah, Rachel, or Jacob are real characters. This symbolism becomes even more apparent in the following: 

Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians), is distinctly proclaimed in like manner in the following words, which teach us also to forget[our] old ancestral customs, when they speak thus: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline thine ear; forget thy people and the house of thy father, and the King shall desire thy beauty: because He is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.'” [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 53

The term daughter in the above quote is also by no means literal.

‘Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’

Justin, throughout his discussion with the Jewish Trypho is referring to male and female personifications in a hierarchical manner that follows a patriarchal pattern of father (Jacob) at the top, followed by the mother (Leah and Rachel), however, if one is to continue down the ladder, we have another female symbol, that of daughters (the synagogue and church) before sons (individual members of congregation) who are the lowest rung. 

To give a visual of what he’s saying, let’s look at it like a family tree:

Justin is candidly stating that characters from the Torah (Old Testament) were not literal people, rather they are symbolic of groups of people. The use of a familia constructs follows the cultural conventions of the era, albeit, daughter is above son. 

The symbolic use of “son” as a reference to “man” can easily be understood in the figurative concept of “mankind” being children of God. “Man/mankind” is traditional patriarchal language that refers to all of humankind. (In sexist ideologies women were literally believed to be less than human, but that’s another story.) 

The logic behind using the family structure described above to present metaphysical ideology may not be obvious to us today but, presumably, it did to whomever developed it in the second millennium BCE (or earlier). 

In regards to women/daughters being used as symbolic of groups of people, while the reasons may not be clear, there are multiple examples in the Torah (Old Testament). 

Isaiah 47:1 (ISV)
Come down and sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a chair, Daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you tender and attractive”

Psalm 137: 8-9 (KJV)
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Others
“The daughter of Zion” as a symbol of Israel, likewise, “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “daughter of Edom”. For more references of “daughter” as symbolising groups see Laminations 4:21; Zephaniah 3:14; Zachariah 9:9; Isaiah 3:16-17;  John 12:15; Matthew 21:5. (“Bible Hub” 2019; Schwartzmann 2000)

What I appreciate the most about Justin’s work is that it explicitly defines symbolism that, in my humble opinion, gets overlooked in modern Christianity. While growing up in a Catholic household, I have a clear recollection of my father once explaining to my older brother: “the daughter of Zion is metaphorical of the state of Israel”. So it is, I suspect the meaning of some symbolism has passed down through the ages, but it is not necessarily recognised by all laypeople. 

Many things come to my mind when I process the significance of Justin’s explanations of the Christian faith, as expressed by someone who converted in the second century. For instance, when in Luke 12:53 is says:

The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

King James Bible

Destructive cult leaders love to use this quote as a means of manipulating people into breaking all ties with their loved ones and, in turn, gaining more control over them. But what if Jesus is only speaking metaphorically of the “House of God”? Rather than referring to the divide of biological father and son, biological mother and daughter, and biological mother in law against daughter in law, I believe he’s talking about Synagogues, Churches, spiritual leaders, and followers being divided against one another. To me, it makes a lot more sense that the “man of peace” would be referring to the symbolic destruction of institutional “families” than real nuclear families. 

I also wonder about references to Jesus explaining scriptures to Rabbis and crowds … was he explaining symbolism, like that of Leah and Rachel? … were Jesus’ sermons all about explaining figurative expressions that had been forgotten by the masses? Additionally, to add a little complexity, Jesus was renown for speaking in riddles, and understanding the symbolism was virtually an initiation process:

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Matthew 13:10-17

Note: the word “sin” in Ancient times was an archery term that mean missing the mark; if you did not shoot your arrow straight and get the target then you had “sinned”. Hence, Jesus is not saying that people who do not understand the parables are evil, rather, he is just saying they have misinterpreted symbolic language.

To me, understanding the Jewish background and how Judaism used familia terms within the symbolism of scripture is very insightful, however, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, Justin had a Greek/pagan background and his understanding of Christianity involved harmonising Jewish traditions with ancient Greek philosophy, namely, those compatible with Plato.  

As it so happens, Ancient Greek philosophy also used a symbolic familia system to describe elements of their faith. As discussed in The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts,  they had a hierarchy in which Zeus was at the top, followed by Demeter, then Persephone, and then Hades. The Greek system of Father (Zeus), mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), and son (Hades) has a correlation to the Jewish system of Father (Jacob), mother (Leah and Rachel), daughter (synagogue and church), and son (man/humankind). However due to different inferences, the characters of respective belief systems are not the same. Nonetheless, one could argue there are enough similarities to warrant the potential harmonising. 

So why did both Jewish and Greek philosophers use the symbolism of a family to present theological ideas? A simple answer could be it is because the family structure is something relatable to just about everyone. 

The links between Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy and how they emerged in Christianity goes deeper than this blog can demonstrate. All the same, I hope I have illustrated that Justin Martyr is a prime example (there are others) of someone who explicitly spells out some of the symbolism of Christianity and how it is tied to both Jewish and Greek traditions. 

Also note, Justin references Plato at least twelve times in his dialogue with Typho. However, he never mentions Aristotle because his philosophies were not widely known in Palatine or the Roman Empire at this time. (Aristotle’s influence on Christianity came later as described Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy.)

I am not one to blindly follow conspiracy theories, and what I have presented here is not intended to nullify Christianity and the spiritual impulse that it inspires. Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that Christianity emerged as some conscious attempt to create a religion to control people (as some conspiracy theories suggest). Rather, my intention is to deepen the understanding of Abrahamic religions by examining the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. Moreover, I hope that by what I have written, individuals may be inspired to research for themselves the history of the Christian Church and question what some gurus (destructive cult leaders) have to say about how the scriptures are to be interpreted.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying all Hebrew and Christian Bible stories are symbolic; it may be a case of some are, some art. What I am saying is that some Bible stories are symbolic. Justin’s writings support this premise. 

Was Justin deliberately trying to harmonise Jewish and Greek belief systems? Maybe. Or maybe he was just exploring spirituality in accordance with his culture. I’d love to hear what readers think, please write let me know in a comment below. 

As a final consideration, I’d like to mention Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – 50 CE) whom it is known consciously tried to harmonise Jewish and Greek philosophy some hundred years prior to Justin Martyr. Philo was a Jewish philosopher that was fluent in Greek. Alexandria, his home town, was a Hellenisted province of Egypt (it was called “Alexandria” after Alexander the Great. It was also the location of the Great Library which housed scrolls gathered from all the Hellenised lands). 

Philo re-wrote Genesis, emphasising the allegorical significance of characters; it was Philos’ version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, that most early Christians followed. Speculatively, it may be assumed that Church fathers, like Justin, were acquainted with scholarly ideas that were not shared amongst broader society.

References

Lévy, C. (2018). Philo of Alexandria (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

Martyr, J. (150 C.E.). Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Justin%20Martyr-Dialogue%20with%20Trypho.pdf

Schwartzmann, J. (2000). Gender Concepts of Medieval Jewish Thinkers and The Book of Proverbs. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 7(3), 183–202. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753264

The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2020). Saint Justin Martyr | Biography, Writings, Legacy, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr

White, S. (2004). Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=classicsfacpub

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest Gender of Them All?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest gender of them all? If one were to go back in time and ask Aristotle this question, it’s a fair bet he would say: “Men are the fairest of them all!” In a previous blog I go through an overview of why I believe Aristotle’s high status in academia is overrated. In this blog I want to specifically discuss what Aristotle had to say about women and mirrors. 

Aristotle wrote:

‘If a woman chances during her menstrual period to look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it will grow cloudy with a blood-coloured haze.’

(On Dreams, part 2)

He explains the reasoning for this phenomenon as follows: 

‘… Because it is natural to the eye to be filled with blood-vessels, a woman’s eyes, during the period of menstrual flux and inflammation, will undergo a change, although her husband will not note this since his seed is of the same nature as that of his wife. The surrounding atmosphere, through which operates the action of sight, and which surrounds the mirror also, will undergo a change of the same sort that occurred shortly before in the woman’s eyes, and hence the surface of the mirror is likewise affected.’

(On Dreams, part 2)

From a contemporary point of view the idea that women can tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it is absurd. Nonetheless, we are talking about ancient Greeks here and they also believed that hysteria was caused by a woman’s uterus wandering around her body. Further, it was believed that to cure hysteria, a woman needed sexual intercourse. The logic being that the sad uterus was made happy by a penis so, therefore, would return to its rightful place at the end of the virginia, as opposed to her elbow, or upper thigh, or wherever it was the physicians thought a uterus wandered to. Men, of course, could not have hysteria because they didn’t have uteruses, moreover, the superiority of a male’s rational soul worked far too logically to ever allow emotions to get the better of them. Clearly, believing a uterus can wander about the body is a fine example of rational male thinking, and putting it back in its place through sex has nothing to do with men’s irrational, passionate soul.

Anyway, getting back to Aristotle’s mirror. The association between a dirty mirror and a woman’s gaze is an obvious indicator of misogynistic values. So too is the idea that a man can become blind to the effect of a woman’s ability to make things dirty with her gaze. 

To the best of my knowledge, no scientific study has been conducted to confirm or dismiss the dirty mirror and menstruating woman phenomenon. If any readers are aware of one, please forward the article to me. Nonetheless, Aristotle’s authoritative tone, and skills in the art of rhetorics, have led many men to believe that a woman can indeed tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it. For example, the Doctor of Catholic theology, Thomas Aquinas.

In the late Medieval period, Aquinas was praised and given the honour of sainthood. His legacy extends from his writing of Summa Theologica which is an extensive document summarising Christian beliefs. Admittedly, I haven’t read all 4000+ pages, but from what I have, it’s a fascinating insight into Medieval Church beliefs that covers topics such as “Is virginity lawful?” and “Did Jesus have a soul?” While reading through these sorts of topics, I was struck by how often Aquinas quotes Aristotle. For instance, in a section devoted to “Whether man by the power of his soul can change corporeal matter?” Aquinas directly refers to Aristotle’s theory of menstruating women and mirrors:

‘ … the eyes infect the air which is in contact with them to a certain distance: in the same way as a new and clear mirror contracts a tarnish from the look of a “menstruata,” as Aristotle says (De Somn. et Vigil.; [*De Insomniis ii]).’

Summa Theologica, pg.914

And Aquinas then takes it further: 

‘Hence then when a soul is vehemently moved to wickedness, as occurs mostly in little old women, according to the above explanation [of menstruating women tarnishing mirrors], the countenance becomes venomous and hurtful, especially to children, who have a tender and most impressionable body. It is also possible that by God’s permission, or from some hidden deed, the spiteful demons co-operate in this, as the witches may have some compact with them.’

Summa Theologica, pg.914

If you’re beginning to see a connection between  Aquinas’ summary of theology and witch hunts, then you’d be on a very sustainable train of thought …

Aquinas was a Dominican Monk. The Dominican order was developed upon the influence of Aristotle’s philosophies. Aquinas’ public lectures and writings extended Aristotle’s influence within the Church. Heinrich Kramer (c.1430 –1505) was also a clergyman of the Dominican order and he wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum (1487) which became the authority on recognising witches and was used to justify burning countless women at the stake.

It is obvious yet subtle that Aristotle’s philosophising on metaphysical differences between genders directly, and via Aquinas’ interpretations, underpinned the justification that women have inferior souls to men which, in turn, was a contributing factor to witch hunts, i.e. the perception of females having weaker, ignoble souls made women more susceptible to the devil’s influence than men who supposedly had stronger, more noble souls. For instance, in cases where babies died in stillbirths and midwives were accused of being witches could be perceived as “logical” because a woman supposedly had the ability to impact physical objects or people with her eyes. If the midwife was a little old women, the odds of her being perceived as a conjugate for evil increased. Although men could be accused of witchcraft, this did not happen nearly as much as it did to women.

Putting it simply, women were the main focus of witch hunts because paranoid, and dare I say it, hysterical men, believed a woman could cause harm by simply looking at an object or other being. Aristotle did not invent sexism but his works fuelled the imagination of men who had a distrust towards women; he gave misogyny a “scientific” flavour. Moreover, I would argue that as a culture we are still yet to completely recovery from the collective trauma that thousands of years of sexism and false scientific claims have caused.

Assuming a mirror experiment could disprove menstruating women have the ability to tarnish a copper mirror by simply looking at it, perhaps sharing the results on mass media could help undo centuries of false assumptions and prevent future witch hunts?

Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman, Ancient Greece, mid-5th century B.C. Source: The Met Museum

Closing Thoughts

While finalising this blog, I came across an article titled “Aristotle, Witchcraft and Witch Hunts” that is published on a United Kingdom History website. The author, Claudia Elphick, shares a similar view of the connections between Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kramer to what I have expressed, however, Elphick goes a little deeper into the demonology aspect. The article can be found here and is well worth a read.

References

Ancient Greece. (2021). Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman. In Metmuseum.org. The Met Museum. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/256949mid-5th century B.C.E

Aquinas, T. (1947). Summa Theologica (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Trans.; Benziger Bros. Edition). https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). On Dreams. Classics.mit.edu; The Internet Classics Archive | On Dreams by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/dreams.htmlTranslated by J. I. Beare

Hans Peter Broedel. (2003). The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft : theology and popular belief. Manchester University Press ; New York. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/35002/341393.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Tasca, C. (2012). Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 8(1), 110–119. https://doi.org/10.2174/1745017901208010110