In my first post in this series, I started by indicating that I believe that the traditional interpretive frameworks used to approach the book of Revelation are, to be blunt, pretty much useless. I’m convinced that the usual categories more often than not force people to make interpretive conclusions about the text before actually approaching the text at all, that they treat the book of Revelation as something wholly different from all other New Testament texts, and that they usually become totally centred around the concept of the ‘millennium’ in a way that I don’t think the text itself either directs or allows.
I suggested, then, that there might be a more excellent way, and mentioned that I would, from this post onwards, begin to outline what I think is a more authentic method to approach the text with, which consisted of essentially three inter-connected layers:
- A contextual examination
- An inter-textual examination
- A literary-rhetorical examination
In this post, then, I will begin with the contextual considerations, and move on to examine the other layers in subsequent posts.
A Contextual Examination
Before we get into that, however, I wanted to begin by noting that method is very important. People sometimes tell me that they just read the text ‘as it is’, but this is, to be perfectly honest, a load of absolute rubbish. We always approach any text with some sort of method, whether we are conscious of it or not, and so part of seeking to be more genuine in our study is to at least acknowledge the interpretive framework we are bringing to a given text, to understand its strengths and limitations, and humbly to allow it to be an ‘entry point’ into the ‘hermeneutical spiral’ (as we engage the text with our assumptions clearly identified, allow the text to speak back to those assumptions, and then repeat the process over and over and over again, gaining (hopefully) an ever-increasing understanding as we go).
For example, if I were to begin a story with “Once upon a time…”, you would have some fairly clear genre expectations about what was coming next. Your interpretive framework would spring into action without you really having to do anything at all. If I began another story with, “Have you heard the one about…”, then a different set of genre expectations would automatically kick in.
I know this all sounds excruciatingly basic, but it is important.
So, I am suggesting that we be perfectly up front about our methodological assumptions here, and that we approach the text of Revelation, firstly, with an eye to its socio-historical situated-ness. My reason for doing this is quite simply because I’m fairly sure that no text is created in a vacuum. All texts, as far as I am aware, are written in some sort of context, and I happen to believe that this information is somewhat important in our study of, especially, ancient texts (but any text, really). I don’t happen to be overly confident about finding with any sort of certainty precise authorial intent in these texts, as some are, but I do think that the socio-historical situation within which texts arise can help give us some helpful information in the task of understanding what has been written.
…I guess that’s why I’m doing a PhD in ancient history…
Anyway, building on from this idea, I want to suggest that, at least most often, texts make some sense to their original recipients. This is an assumption, to be sure, but I think it’s a relatively reasonable one. Think about it for a moment: if these texts didn’t make sense to their original audiences, we probably wouldn’t have them now. If they were totally intelligible, they would, most likely, have disappeared into the sands of time. Of course, we could have, in the book of Revelation, the exception that proves this rule: the one text in all of history that made absolutely no sense to its original recipients but which was preserved anyway through thousands of years in the most extraordinarily extended act of selflessness in all of human history.
Of course, this idea could also just be stupidity. I don’t buy it, and I don’t think too many other reasonable people would buy it either.
I think then, that Tim LaHaye – even though he might be a really nice guy(!) – is pretty much 100% wrong when he suggests that the book of Revelation is only going to make sense the closer we get to the time when the events it describes are going to take place. I think he’s got this precisely around the wrong way; he couldn’t be more wrong if he tried. I think the truth is closer to the idea that Revelation is going to make less and less sense the further we get away from when it was originally written, because of the widening gap between our own socio-historical situation and that of when Revelation first appeared.
What this means, then, is that we have to work all the more hard at trying to understand the socio-historical situation into which the text was written. Context, as I am known to say, is our best friend!
So, what can we actually know, with any reasonable certainty?
Firstly, the text itself indicates that it was written by a guy named ‘John’, who seems to be fairly sure that he’s writing a prophetic message to a number of churches around the area of Ephesus (modern-day Turkey). While it is true that we always need to apply critical interpretive tools to claims made by such texts, most commentators agree on the idea that ‘John’ is actually the author’s real name; that is, the text is not pseudonymous. This ‘John’, then, doesn’t actually give us much more information about himself. What he does indicate, though, is that he seems to think that he has experienced the same sort of prophetic commissioning that we see in a number of the Hebrew prophets (Rev. 10:1-11, cf. Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1-3), and that he is writing a prophecy (Rev. 1;3; 22:18) which he thinks is a pretty important message that the people in the churches need to hear urgently.
We’ll define what the word ‘prophecy’ actually means in the next post, but for now we might summarise the point by saying that this guy named John seems to have thought that he had been commissioned by the Judeo-Christian God to deliver an urgent message from this God to the people in the churches in the area around Ephesus.
To be even more precise, we are dealing here with a real person writing what he considers to be an important message to real people in a bunch of real churches in the area of ancient Asia Minor. And he seems to have expected the recipients to understand what he was saying.
But the question is: why did he think this message was so important? Why did he think it was so urgent that his recipients hear, and act on, the message contained within the text?
Although it is still somewhat debated, most critical commentators agree that the book of Revelation was written near the very end of the first century C.E. (‘A.D.’ in the old lingo).*
What was happening at this time?
Well, Rome basically ruled the whole world (or at least the bit that seemed important to them, which was pretty much based around the Mediterranean Sea). The Roman Empire was, to most eyes, magnificent! The Golden Age had dawned with the reign of Augustus (pictured…at least in statue form), and it was pretty difficult to stand up to the might of this great world power. Rome’s strategy was to woo other nation states to submit themselves to Rome’s ‘protection’, and they were offered the opportunity to then receive all the benefits of the Pax Romana (the ‘Peace of Rome’). Rome had, so the propaganda went, brought order out of chaos. They had brought about a time of great peace and prosperity for all who would align themselves with Rome. There were lucrative possibilities of trade and travel and every wonderful thing. All you had to do is direct allegiance to Rome, and everything would be fine.
Of course, for those who decided not to do this, Rome would simply steamroller over the top of anyone or anything in its path and take all the resources that it wanted from an area anyway…after laying waste to the armies that dared stand in the way.
For many, for fairly obvious reasons, the propaganda worked. For those in the Roman province of Asia Minor at the end of the first century, there was prosperity for the taking. Trade opportunities were presenting themselves, and all it took was to kiss the backside of Caesar a little bit. Too easy!
But some didn’t see it that way.
For some, Rome’s dominance was an eery reminder of the great boastful, idolatrous empires of the past. For many of those from a Jewish heritage, the spectre of empires like Babylon hung over the head of Rome, and participation with a system that seemed so idolatrous just couldn’t be a good idea. Especially after 70C.E., the comparison with Babylon became entrenched, with the Roman armies besieging and almost completely destroying Jerusalem and the Jewish resistance that had arisen like the Maccabees to throw off the shackles of foreign domination. Thus, for these people, Rome became a kind of ‘Babylon 2.0’ (and this is reflected in post-70C.E. Jewish literature).
The Romans also had a precarious (to the minds of staunch monotheists) relationship between power and divinity. While it is somewhat true that many of the Roman emperors shared Augustus’ somewhat faux humility in regards to being called a ‘god’ (especially while still living), the view from the provinces was sometimes a little bit more relaxed. Especially in places like Asia Minor, there was already a thriving connection between living rulers and the great heroes of old, and there wasn’t too much hesitation in linking living rulers with the gods. In Pergamum, just up the road from Ephesus, there stood an imperially-endorsed Provincial temple dedicated to ‘Roma and Augustus’, probably located in close proximity to the Great Altar to Zeus. (Interestingly, John describes Pergamum as the place where ‘Satan has his throne’ in Rev. 2:13, which is possibly a scorching reference to this architecture.) By the late 80s C.E., the emperor Domitian had commissioned Olympic Games in Ephesus, and had linked himself quite prominently to Zeus in the process (as a kind of benefactor of the games).
For a Jew or a Christian, it is fairly easy to see how this could be interpreted as an ominous sign.
Though it is true that later Christian historians seem to have overplayed their hand in descriptions of Domitian, suggesting that he presided over a great persecution of Christians (he probably didn’t, by the way – or at least there is no real primary source evidence for it), it is nevertheless fair to say that it would have been quite easy for Christians or Jews to be significantly troubled by the way things were heading.
For John, it seems that he summed up the situation, taking into consideration past history and the trajectory of where he saw things headed (like a good historian and sociologist!), and decided that these developments were not heading anywhere good. Though it seems that only one person John knew had already been ‘martyred’ (Antipas in Rev. 2:13), John seems to have thought that the belief of Christians was going to take them into direct confrontation with Rome. The Christian statement “Jesus is Lord” (like the Jewish Shema) was going to get them into trouble, because at least some were quite comfortable with saying that Caesar was Dominus et Deus (‘Lord and God’).**
John was right.
It is a matter of history that the Romans ended up deciding, eventually, that Christians endangered the prosperity of Rome (with their stubborn refusal to acknowledge the gods, which meant the possibility of incurring divine disfavour, and their seditious talk of a rival ‘king’ who was going to rule the whole world), and empire-wide persecutions of Christians were the fruit of that. While there is no evidence of this in John’s time, we do have surviving letters from Pliny the Younger (a Roman Governor of an area near where John was writing from) to the emperor Trajan, from about 15 years after John wrote. In these letters, Pliny asks Trajan what he should do about these pesky Christians, and indicates that his usual practice (which he had been following for some time) was to interrogate them (but not necessarily to seek them out) and, if they confessed and did not renounce Christ, he would have them executed (if only for their obstinance, which was a tad uncouth and definitely un-Roman). For his part, Trajan thought this was a fair call.
John, then, saw these ‘storm clouds’ on the horizon. He seems to have summed up the situation and concluded both that Rome was not advancing the causes of God in the world, and that (faithful) Christians would eventually find themselves in a very sticky situation with a decidedly unhappy Rome.
Rome didn’t muck around with these sorts of things, and John knew that this was a very serious situation.
He seems to have written Revelation, then, as a way of highlighting all these sorts of issues, and thought that the message was urgent enough that the Christians around Asia Minor needed to hear it straight away – and act on it.
For John, this was an urgent message from God, and one that the people in the churches needed to hear quickly. It was time to buckle up.
The question is, why did he choose to write this urgent message in such a seemingly bizarre form? The answer to that, though, will have to wait until the next post…
* There are some commentators who date the text to the mid first century C.E. (for various reasons that I don’t have space to go into here), and some who take a ‘cake and eat it’ approach (I’m talking to you here, Mr Aune and Mr deSilva) of dating some of the text to the mid first century and some of it to the late first century, but most commentators agree that the text probably attained its final form in the very late first century, probably in the mid 90s.
** There is debate over whether Domitian required people to call him by this title (which is unlikely), or whether it was a kind of title of flattery for some who sought the favour of Domitian. Either way, it is attested as being something that was circulating at the time, and the important point to note is as to how this might have looked to people like John.