I had the good fortune of attending a conference a few weekends back on Iconic Books, which considers the “iconic” role that books and physical texts play in religion and society. On of my personal interests in this is the way that books and scrolls iconically represent power, authority, divine sanction, and so on.

I’ve been engaged in serious reading of the Book of Revelation, and, in this connection, the image, or icon, of the “scroll” is of significant import; we’ve got scrolls being passed around between heavenly beings; God has the 7-sealed scroll written on both sides in his right hand in chapter 5, which gets handed over to the Lamb who proceeds to open the 7 seals; there’s the little open scroll that the angel carries around with him (apparently in his left hand, since his right hand is busy with swearing an oath to heaven) in chapter 10, which he gives to the Seer to eat (and which makes him sick); there are books of judgment, and restrictions on changing the book that John is busy writing.

The image of the scroll in the hands of God, the Lamb, and the Angel preparing the “seven thunders” has stuck with me; I keep thinking I’ve run across this somewhere before, but I haven’t come across anything in my own library of books that reminds me of what I’m thinking about. But in reflecting on the symbolism here, it is clear that the scrolls and books (Revelation uses biblion throughout the text) are signals of the power of God’s rulership over the kingdom(s) of this world and his ability and willingness to exercise judgment over his empire. It’s as if to say that “whoever holds the scroll”, ta biblia, is in charge or an agent of the One in charge.

Then it hit me; this image is exactly the same as the iconic representations of Roman Emperors holding scrolls in their hands. Check it out (Left to Right: Trajan, Alexander Severus, two of Domitian, and Nero):


Whatever else it may be doing, the scroll certainly is functioning here as an icon of empire; it seems likely that it is doing the same in the book of Revelation as well.

Which leads to another observation: The Bible itself has historically been used as an icon of colonialism and imperialism, either in defense of colonial and imperial power, or, negatively, in rejection of it; rejecting “the Englishman’s book” was one of the strongest signs of rejecting colonial England’s imperial policies and programs.

Similarly, this iconic usage of the scroll/book/Bible is obviously alive and well today; for this phenomenon, I can do no better than to refer readers to the Iconic Book Project’s blog.