I began teaching the book of Revelation for the adult Bible Study class at church this past Sunday. As I promised a few I would, I am going to do my best to blog my thoughts on the book as we study it, so it will not be exhaustive, nor will it follow any sort of meta-arc as far as theme. I am just doing research and reflection as befits a classroom as a pastor, not as befits writing a book as a scholar. Enough blithering. Into the study:
Revelation is a misunderstood book. And while I am not claiming I can get it all right, there are some definite ways to get it wrong. The first is to assume that the book is in any way trying to be literal. Another is assuming that everything in Revelation is meant to be predictions about the future. These do damage to the text itself and try to make the book mean things it was never intended to mean, thus “adding to” the words of this book, ironically, the thing that Revelation suggests that we shouldn’t do in ch. 22.
Revelation was written by John. We know this because of verses 1 and 4 in the first chapter. What scholars aren’t so clear about is which John. John was a very popular name among early Christians, and the New Testament itself mentions 4 possible Johns. John the Baptist obviously doesn’t fit the bill, being killed before Jesus was, but what about John the Apostle, John the Elder, or John Mark? It is unlikely that it was John the Apostle, given the date of writing, the lack of specific references to the life or sayings of Christ, and seemingly distinguishing himself from the Apostles in ch. 21. John, the author of the gospel of John and 1,2,3 John, often called the elder, is also not particularly likely as a candidate for authorship either due to theological, stylistic, and linguistic differences between Revelation and those books. Was it John Mark who traveled with Paul and Barnabas and is said to have learned from Peter and wrote the gospel of Mark? No real way of telling. At least one scholar has mentioned a few places of theological and stylistic synergy between Mark and Revelation, but at the moment, we really can only be safe saying that it was a John who was respected and known enough in Roman Asia that simply saying John was enough.
Date of Writing:
While some very conservative interpreters try to place the writing of Revelation closer to 69 AD, in order to connect lots of dots to Caesar Nero, this simply doesn’t hold up. There would have been no open hostility between Jews and Christians like Revelation suggests, and there would have been no persecution of Christians by Rome at that time either (at least not in Roman Asia). Further, textual evidence suggests that the church in Smyrna had been persevering “a long time.” Since the church wasn’t even started by Paul until the 60’s, it seems an early date is unlikely. Further, the reign of Domitian makes more sense given his demands that he be worshiped as “Lord and God.” Second and third century authors corroborate this date (which would be in the 90’s AD) such as Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen.
Of course, Revelation itself points out that it is written to “the seven churches that are in Asia.” During that time, “Asia” was what we know as the far west section of modern day Turkey, above Syria and, if you were traveling from Israel, you would pass through “Asia,” then into Greece, before arriving at Rome proper. These areas, getting further away from Rome, would not have seen the emperor often. If and when he did “come” (Latin: Adventus. Let that cook your noodle a bit), it was a huge deal. And of course, the further away from Rome one got, the more intense Emperor worship became. John’s audience would be putting up with an ever-sharpening split between Christians and Jews following the destruction of the temple in 70, and on its heels, Christianity no longer enjoyed the protection from Rome that Judaism gave it. Judaism was sort of grandfathered in as an “ancient” religion, and so was exempt from certain Roman religious/political practice. If Christians were not considered Jews, then they were subject to the same religious/political laws as everyone else. Roman Asia also had a number of interesting religious practices, which we will deal with in the course, but in particular, Roman deities and local gods merged back and forth many times and much of the religion of those parts were syncretistic and amalgamous, often being different from that practiced in other parts of the empire.
All that said, John is very clear that “anyone who has an ear” should “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” In those days, literacy was not high, and these letters would be read aloud to its recipients. As such, John makes it clear that this letter is not just for those churches, but anyone who can hear it and resonate with it. Even us, though our contexts are much different.
If you get nothing else out of this, pay attention here. Revelation means “something that has been revealed.” Not something that is going to end everything or tell the future. Revelation is the translation from the Latin/Greek apocalypsis/apokalyptein which is why Revelation is also known as The Apocalypse. Apocalypse (not the movie or the X-men Villain) simply means something revealed. So what is it that Revelation is revealing? Not the future. At least not in the way we think of it. Remember that scene in The Wizard of OZ where Toto pulls back the curtain on the Wizard and he is shown for what he really is? That is what is happening in revelation. Revelation belongs to a genre of literature called “apocalyptic.”
Apocalyptic literature springs up in ancient writings usually when a people group is oppressed or marginalized to the point where they have lost hope. Apocalyptic literature aims to restore this hope by presenting their current struggle in cosmic terms, and where the “real” happenings are revealed, allowing the readers to see behind the curtain at the master plan and how it all turns out good in the end. Apocalyptic writings are usually very dualistic in that there are clear good people and clear bad people, with supernatural powers behind each one. Apocalyptic also usually ends with (and often vague) vision of what the future holds.
Other ancient apocalyptic writings include the book of Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Fourth Book of Ezra, and the Apocalypse of Peter. That isn’t to say that John’s Revelation is somehow derivative or copied them in some way, but it is to say that John set out to write an apocalyptic that he felt was true to the Gospel, but apocalyptic it is nonetheless.
Finally, a note about the imagery and interpretation in Revelation. I give you an example to consider. Imagine I told you of a movie I was making, where the plot could be summarized thus:
Luke Skywalker and his companion Sarah Jane get into a real mess when they step out of their time machine into the land of Middle Earth. Once there, they must save the Empire from Luke’s father Sauron with nothing but a screwdriver made of light and a few miniature friends.
Now, fans of pop culture may notice references to Doctor Who, Star Wars, and The Lord of The Rings franchises, but one could certainly not argue that my new, original story is a continuation of any of them. However, I chose, for whatever reason, to use the images, languages, and tropes that a certain group was familiar with in order to give them an immediate connection to the material. The same is true of Revelation. Whatever John is trying to say, he is saying it with the language and images that were hyper-familiar to his audience. He uses Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, Rome, apocryphal, and Jewish mythological language and images to tell his story. This does not mean he is approving or continuing those stories, though. For example, there are many who claim that by adding up what we learn from Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and Revelation, we can construct a timeline for the end of the world. Nonsense. They were using the same language and images, but not telling the same story. Knowledge of those other stories will give us invaluable insight into what John is saying, but it won’t be because John is trying to illuminate, correct, or continue earlier stories. He has his own truth to share.
Next time we will get into the text itself.