Saturday, July 05, 2008

Revelation: an Introduction

In this post I will outline some of the preliminary matters that will guide my investigation of the book of Revelation over the coming months.

Date: The date of the composition of Revelation is a contentious issue. The two primary contenders have been during the reign of Nero and during the reign of Domitian. In light of some material in Revelation, notably some apparent references to the legend of Nero's return, apparent social pressure, and the likelihood that John's stay on Patmos is a form of exile, I favour a late date, circa 95AD, though I do not consider this necessarily important for our interpretation.

Authorship: About all we can say with certainty is that Revelation was written by a person called John. There is no reason to suppose that the work is pseudonymous, since it makes no claims to distinct authorship with authority. The evidence of linguistic difference between Rev. and the Gospel of John is a significant barrier to common apostolic authorship of both documents, though not a decisive one. I do not believe that we need to assert apostolic authorship, since Revelation itself does not assert so, though it remains possible. I consider the question open.

Situation: John composes Revelation in response to a visionary experience on the island of Patmos, originally occurring in the context of a Sunday worship meeting; he is likely on Patmos as a form of exile. The churches in Asia Minor are facing significant opposition and pressure, though not formalised or state-directed persecution. There are also significant elements within the churches that are, to John's eyes, betraying the christian faith through compromise and conformity with pagan- and Caesar- cults.

Genre: Revelation is best seen as a combination of epistle, prophecy, and apocalypse. The epistolary framework, including the prologue and epilogue, hold the book together as a work to be sent to the churches. John self-consciously considers himself a prophet, frames his commissioning as a prophet in line with the OT prophets, and makes extensive use of OT prophetic material. The primary genre identification remains 'apocalyptic'. I refer to the classic definition of apocalyptic literature by J.J. Collins as the product of the SBL working group:

An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world

Revelation broadly conforms to this genre, though it has significant differences to other apocalypses that survive. The genre identification is particularly useful in considering Revelation's structure, purpose, and conventions, but far less useful in identifying background, meaning, and content, as John draws those materials primarily from OT precedents.

Interpretation: Largely agreeing with Beale, I consider that there are four levels at which Revelation needs to be read:
Linguistic - the text as it presents.
Visionary - the vision(s) John experienced.
Symbolic - the meaning and connotations of the visionary material he presents.
Referential - the (historical) referents of the symbolism used.

In following a modified-idealism, I consider Revelation to be a work that immediately addresses John's 1st century audience, that the symbols are multivalent and have multiple referents, that they have primary referents identifiable in John's own temporal context, but that these referents do not exhaust the meaning of his symbols, since they are trans-temporal (though not a-historical), and that identifying primary referents allows for mutual interpretation, as the connotations of symbols restructure our understanding of those referents, and our understanding of those referents adds further connotations to our interpretation of those symbols. Revelation is not primarily concerned with the prediction of specific future events or chronology, though it is eschatological in orientation, and portrays specific future realities in symbolic and theological form.

Next: Revelation: Structure

1 comment:

The Pook said...

I probably agree broadly with your overall approach to the book.

The more I think about authorship, however, the more I believe it is likely John the apostle and not some other John (such as 'the Elder'). Far from there being linguistic differences, there are certain deep thematic similarities. All differences can be easily accounted for by the genre and use of an emanuensis.

I vacillate between an early and late date for the book depending what day you ask me. Nero Revidivus is only one possible explanation. And even if it is the right one, it doesn't necessarily have to be Domitian that fits the bill. In fact Titus fits better than Domitian, because just like the ten heads of chapter thirteen, there were ten Roman emperors from the first, Augustus, to the one who destroyed Jerusalem, Titus. Titus’ father, the emperor Vespasian, was very like the little horn in Daniel’s vision. In what was called ‘the year of the four emperors’, 68 AD, he succeeded three would-be emperors who only lasted a few months each. Out of the political chaos, Vespasian triumphed. He left the siege of Jerusalem in the hands of Titus and returned to Rome to be crowned. A horn that comes up and supplants three other horns. It fits perfectly. Domitian, on the other hand, was the eleventh emperor, which may imply that Revelation was written before his reign, if Rome is the primary referent of the beast from the sea.

The main principle in interpreting Revelation is to let the bible speak for itself. It's not a mystery, but an unveiling of the gospel, and the main message is perfectly clear and can be summarised in two words. Jesus wins, Satan loses. All else is subsidiary to that truth.

The key to understanding the symbolism is not today's newspaper about events in the Middle East or the US elections, but the Old Testament. Almost all of the symbolism comes from there. And the rest (such as the meaning of numbers and colours) comes from known Jewish apocalyptic convention.

My introduction and sermons on Revelation (up to this point) are at