Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Study Course on the Book of Revelation - Part 1

1) Introduction:

(a) The Book of Revelation is, and from the beginning has been, regarded as one of the strangest pieces of writing in the NT. As we shall see, it had a very chequered early history before it became established as an acceptable part of the canonical (i.e. “official) collection of Christian texts. Moreover it is a book that has tended to be popular in the less “established” parts of the church. Revivalist movements, Adventist movements and a whole host of groups varying from enthusiastic to lunatic have made this one book a center-piece of their preaching. The briefest skim reading of this text will suggest why this has been the case. It is clearly written in highly metaphorical language and abounds with a kaleidoscopic array of images Unhappily, experience suggests that many people are not attuned to metaphor and symbolism, which suggests why the book has always been the happy hunting ground of the literal minded.

(b) The oddness of this book, however, may be more apparent than real, and this becomes clear when it is put in its literary and historical contexts. Indeed, a study of this book, I think, provides abundant validation of such an approach to the biblical texts: without the context, the book, and individual texts from it, can be used for almost any dogmatic purpose one’s program calls for.

Apocalyptic Writing

(a) The Book of Revelation may seem odd in the New Testament; however, it is but one example of a very large body of Hebrew/Christian literature that is described as apocalyptic. The term needs some explanation. It is made up of two Greek words,
apo (from) and kalupto (to cover or put a veil over). So the two together indicate the removal of a veil. The name is given to a whole series of writings beginning around 200 B.C. and continuing into the second century A.D. whose central theme is the coming of the end of history and the final triumph of Yahweh (Jewish) or God, the Almighty Father (Christian). Not surprisingly, one big difference is that in the Christian version, Jesus and the Holy Spirit have a prominent part. It might be worth noting another word that is frequently used in connection with these writings, and which has a central place in the theology of the 20th century; it is eschatology, coming from the Greek word for “the end”. This, too, is used in texts that deal with the ultimate climax of human history, but it is important to note that there is a great deal of eschatological writing (e.g. in the Prophetic books of the O.T.) that is not apocalyptic. There is, though, no apocalyptic writing that is not eschatological.

(b) The apocalyptic writings seem to have arisen in Judaism after the disappearance of active Prophets who were, above all,
preachers. True, their words came down to the Jews of the Second Temple in written form, but the original message was a spoken message. The apocalyptic message, on the other hand, was written from the first, and it seems to have been written in times of great distress and persecution as an aid to faith and to encourage Jews not to deny that faith in the face of persecution. To do this, the writers emphasized several accepted positions of Judaism. Yahweh is stronger than any of the great imperial powers, like Babylon, Persia or Rome; these empires have power (God-given), but for a limited time only, and they misuse that power at their own peril. Secondly, the trials of the present age point to a time, soon to come, when Yahweh will assert his power to judge the wicked and reward the just. This belief appears as early as the Prophet Amos who speaks of the coming “Day of Yahweh”, and foresees it as a time judgment on Israel.

The Book of Daniel is the only example of a complete Apocalypse in the O.T., though there are sections of other books which suggest a move to the style; they are all post exilic, and among the final bits of the OT to be produced; moreover, they by no means exhibit the full blown and extravagant content and style of the apocalypses which are counted pseudepigraphal or "other". (See, Isa. chs 24-27 ("the Apocalypse of Isaiah", almost certainly a late addition to the work; Ezk. chs 38-39; Joel ch 2 and Zech. chs 9-12). Clearly, however, the genre was popular in the two centuries before Christ and had considerable influence on the development of the New Testament, if not directly on the teaching of Jesus himself. The level of this influence on the teaching of Jesus is a matter of a continuing debate: at one extreme, Jesus is a hell-fire preacher of imminent doom, at the other, he is a kind of new and better Socrates counseling patience and peace.

Salient features of Apocalyptic

(a) The style is easy to identify. A book often is set in an historical period many centuries earlier than the one in which the author lives. Thus the author of the biblical book Daniel, written some time around 160 BCE, sets the book in the time of the Babylonian empire. A preview of history is given which looks like amazingly accurate prophecy, understandably, being written after the events! The point of this historical concern is to lead up to a culminating point of history, the Day of Yahweh, the End, in Greek the eschaton, which is soon to happen. In the denouement of history, the writers see the Jewish people vindicated against their oppressors and offer proliferating pictures of the punishment of enemies and the joys of the vindicated people of God.

(b) One of the striking features of apocalyptic, and one that most distinguishes it from the theological emphases of the Rabbinic OT Canon, is a pervading sense of dualism. Good and evil are emphasized and set in strict opposition; things are either light or they are dark, angelic or demonic. In the end most of these writings do not embrace an absolute dualism for Yahweh is to emerge in the last great battle, Armageddon, as the victor. Other features abound. The writers use extravagant images: the scenarios are as varied as the imaginations of the writers, but some common symbols emerged.

Legions of angels, led by Michael, fight with Satan and his evil demons. Animal and bird symbols derived from myth and astrology acquire more or less fixed referents; the beasts of Daniel and other Apocalypses go back to the basic creation myths of the middle east. Already within the OT the "chaos monster" idea had emerged (cf. Isa. 51.9; 40.21-26; 45.18; Ps 89.10) and in the hands of the Apocalyptists it burgeoned. The cosmic powers of chaos and evil are seen incarnated in the evil empires that have oppressed Israel. (Eerie echoes of this notion are frequently heard nowadays because of the osmotic effect of fundamentalist Christianity on conservative politicians).

(c) Another striking characteristic of the style is a near-obsession with numbers. Numbers had always been important for the Hebrews. The most obvious one is seven, the final day of creation and a day of rest: the word Sabbath is derived from the Hebrew verb ‘to cease’, shabbat. Within the OT the scheme of creation is structured with a symbolism of a seven-day week, a schema that is found in other mid-eastern texts. The number five is also clearly important in some writings and the idea of a “half week” is found in Daniel ch. 9. One commentator thinks that this device is crucial for the pattern of the Book of Revelation. In apocalyptic writing the number seven is used in many configurations: we have a “week of weeks”, a “half week of years” and the feast of Pentecost to be held when a week of weeks has passed after Passover. The idea of six "eras" of history followed by an eternal Sabbath becomes a commonplace (in the NT cf. Heb. 4.9), but the numbers three and twelve also figure prominently.

(d) Finally, the lively development of the idea of a Messiah should be noted. The earlier OT idea of a new king (messiach = 'anointed one') descended from David is enlarged with Prophetic and Priestly figures.

4) Background information for the Book of Revelation

(a) In ch 1.4 & 9 and 22.8 the author’s name is given as John. In uncritical circles this is often been taken to be the Apostle to whom the 4th gospel is attributed. As early as the mid third century, however, this identification was questioned, and modern analysis of the style and content of the two books points strongly against such an identification. Complicating the issue is the fact that most modern scholars doubt that the 4th gospel can be the work of someone who was one of the original Twelve Disciples. It may be that the writer was a disciple of the Apostle John and that is how the tradition arose.

(b) Almost as difficult is dating the time when the book was written. Most of the earliest traditions suggest somewhere around 85-90, but a passage like 17.10-11 suggests the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD, 6th Emperor after Augustus). It is, of course, possible that the author used pieces of various dates, or, indeed, himself wrote over a period of several decades. In any case, the general background of 75-95 A.D. does seem to make sense of ‘floating’ references in the book. In the last century, a great deal has been learned about the Roman Empire of this period. We know that by the 60s of the first century, the “Emperor Cult” was in place and taken seriously by many. Thus, a loyal citizen would be expected to join in ceremonies that implied the divinity of the Emperor, and this, naturally, Christians absolutely could not do. It seems that by the time the book was being written persecution had began, though it was sporadic and local. Passages like 6.9-11, & 7.9-17 show the author recognizes that Christians may be called to give their lives for the faith and that the conflict between God and the Devil, Good and Evil, is going to center on the claims of the State to demand worship of it. Those who regard the Book of Revelation as marginal, might mediate on the history of the 20th century in this regard.

(c) The story of how this book was accepted in the church is interesting and suggests that we are not alone in finding it strange and difficult to interpret. Probably within 75 years of its writing, the historical references were lost and were given symbolic meanings. (Or more accurately, since the references to actual historical events were already hidden in symbols, the reference point of the symbols was changed from a more or less present and immediate future into a far future - at the millennium or whenever). It was not until the 4th century that the Book of Revelation was fully accepted in the Eastern church. For example, Cyril of Jerusalem (260-340) excluded it from the official list of that Diocese and forbade its use in church. By the time it was fully accepted, it was also accepted that it had to be read as a kind of allegorical prophecy of the course of world history. It is this kind of approach that finds in the “number of the beast” (13.18) one’s current public enemy (Kaiser, Pope, Hitler, - - - -?)

5) The Major Themes of Revelation

The book springs out of a profoundly Christian understanding of God and Redemption. It is a God-centered (Theo centric) book, but God is not the ‘unitary’ God, Yahweh, of the Old Testament. Here we meet a “proto-Trinitarian God, (or, perhaps a Binitarian one), surrounded by the worshipping hosts of spirits and redeemed humanity. It may well be that some of the imagery comes from the Liturgy of the church in Ephesus where the Elders might stand round the Altar at which the death of the Lamb of God is recalled, and to which the Son, as “a Lamb that was slain” comes to share the meal with his brothers and sisters.

Note, in particular, the following emphases:

(a) The glory of God, the LORD & the worship of the saints. Ch 4; 5.13 7.15; chs 19, 21 & 22

(b) The Person of the Christ; the Son of Man (1.8ff); Lamb (5.6,12; 6.1 and about 20 other references; the Risen One (1.18; 12.5; 14.14ff etc.) One with the Father, having the prerogatives of God (22.1, 3; 2.23; 5.13; 11.15 etc.)

(c) The Church, subject to trials and temptations, attacked by the forces of evil (chs 2, 3, & 13)., but victorious through the Blood of the Lamb (12. 11, etc.)

(d) The Spirit (1.10, ch. 2 passim; 14.13; Read in 19.10 “the spirit of prophecy witnesses to Jesus”.

(e) Evil in the created order engaged in a battle to the death with God and His Christ. (12.4; chs 13 & 18)
(f) Advent of God’s final victory. 1.7; 20.6; 20.11-15.

6) Is there A Pattern to the Book of Revelation?

The book has seemed to some commentators to be almost a random collection of Apocalyptic sayings. “Archbishop Benson relates that in answer to the question, ‘What is the form the book presents to you?’, the reply of an intelligent and devout reader was, ‘It is chaos’”. (Commentary by B.H. Swete p. xli).
Even so, as one reads, there does seem to be some sort of scheme and some development. The one I have found most interesting was suggested by Austin M. Farrer in a book called A Rebirth of Images; his later Commentary on the book significantly amended details of the fist effort, but left in place the overall approach.

Farrer's Scheme

i) He begins by pointing out that one of the characteristics of apocalyptic writing is to see history as a series of "ages". Several such books see the whole of history as a great "week", following the pattern of the creation story in Genesis. This begins with creation on day one, and concludes with the Sabbath rest. Within the early Christian tradition (coming from Judaism), the idea of a "week of weeks" is found as the interval between Passover and Pentecost. A particularly significant precedent is a non-canonical book called Jubilees. Its basic scheme is a survey of the history of the world "divided into 'jubilee' periods of seven times seven (see Lev. 25. 8-12)" (Interpreters Dict. Bib. vol. II p. 1003).

ii) John the Seer has adapted this old convention to express a Christian understanding of the drama of redemption and the certainty of the final victory of God. The book, says Farrer, divides into six main sections, each with seven interior sections, the whole thing based on the week of creation in Genesis. The first day is both the day of creation and the day of re-creation, Easter. The sixth day is the day of the death of Christ. What we have is an exposition of a "week of divine action" dealing with the last things, based on the Genesis account. There are only six sections because the seventh is, indeed, the Sabbath Rest, the completion of God's plan; that is how the book ends, "I saw a new heaven and a new earth", and "he showed me the river of the water of life" (chs 21 & 22).

iii) There are endless conjunctions of parallels, but one striking one is to compare the first day of Creation (Gen.) with the beginning of section 1 of Revelation, (the letters to the seven Churches), and the sixth day of creation (Gen.) with the beginning of section 6 of Revelation (19.11). One both "days" we have manifestations of Christ (Christophanies); the Risen Christ among the burning lights of the churches, and the Triumphant Christ returning on the White horse for the Second Advent. In Genesis, we read of the creation of human beings, the first Adam (though, of course, the adamic concept comes from the earlier creation account that follows in ch. 2, one with significantly different emphases). Still, one has to consider whether the juxtaposition of the first Adam with the Second is just accidental.

Here is the Shema Farrer suggest in his first book; later on we will look at his modification in, The Revelation of St. John the Divine – A Commentary.

Introduction 1.1-8 Week/Day 1 1.9 - 3.22

Week/Day 2 4.1 - 8.6

Week/Day 3 8.7 - 11.19

Week/Day 4 12.1 - 15.8

Week/Day 5 16.1 - 19.10

Week/Day 6 19.11 - 21.8

Eve of Day 7 21.9 - 22.

Epilogue 22.6 - end

7) Initial Discussion prompt

Read the Book of Daniel chapter 2 (note 2.5, and recall that Joseph was fetched out of prison to interpret Pharaoh's dream, - Ex. 41.14 & 25ff.). Daniel is portrayed as even greater than Joseph; not only can he interpret the dream, he can recall it for the King (Dan. 25 28ff), a rather typical apocalyptic ploy to present a larger than life hero. Note how the writer uses the symbolism. What does the Statue represent? What is the significance of the materials used? The four kingdoms are Babylon, Media, Persia, Greek (Alexander). What is the fourth? Note Ex. 20.25.

[These notes are intended for a study group that will begin to meet in about a month's time, but I thought they might be of wider interest].


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Lou Pressman said...

Simon -- I like what you provide for neophytes reading Revelation. I'm going recommend it to a few students from my Bible study who are interested in the book (as often is the case, in part for the wrong "isn't it cool to try to crack the code" reasons). I was also very pleased to see you using Austin Farrer. Almost everything he wrote is worth reading, and some of it -- many of the sermons, "Freedom of the Will," "Faith & Speculation," and "Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited" is just brilliant. More people should be directed to him.