Engaging Nonviolence

A few months ago I attended some nonviolence training workshops run by Pace e Bene Australia, centred around the Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living workbook. These fascinating workshops touched on both the theory and practice of nonviolence, and the format of the sessions ranged from information sessions, to discussion groups, to role-playing and more. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, contacting Pace e Bene is a really good starting point (in my opinion).

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we covered in the sessions, and want to reflect on just a few points here. The sessions (run over three full Saturdays) covered such a broad range of topics that there is really no way that I can summarise it all, but I thought I might just reflect on four principles of nonviolence that have been especially important in my thinking since participating in the workshops.

1) Nonviolence is creative

If you really think about it, violence is never actually a very creative pursuit. Now, I will grant that human beings have come up with a remarkably diverse range of ways to inflict pain and death on one another throughout history, but the central purpose of violence remains (again) remarkably constant. Violence, it seems to me, is usually intended either as punishment, or in order to coerce. Not surprisingly, the results of violence are also (for the third time) remarkably consistent: death, or the desire for revenge (and thus the cycle of violence is perpetuated).

Nonviolence, however, by its very nature, is necessarily creative. If you can’t just point a gun at someone’s head in order for your point to be made, or if you can’t bully someone into submission, then the game is much harder indeed. As such, practitioners of nonviolence need to be extraordinarily creative in order for their point to be heard. When sometimes confronted with serious violence in response to challenging the status quo, practitioners of nonviolence must always think ‘outside the box’ in order for the situation not to descend into the usual violent categories.

Now, this does not mean that nonviolent actions or responses are always necessarily complex. In fact, many times nonviolent responses in history have been based on beautifully simple ideas; well thought-through, but at their core simple concepts. What it does mean, though, is that practitioners of nonviolence must open themselves up to creative possibilities in order to be able to respond to certain situations with great strength yet without violence (which may seem like an oxymoron to some, but certainly is not), and in order to make points in a way that cuts through the white noise of violence.

2) Nonviolence is active

Many times in discussions about violence and nonviolence, the idea of not responding to force with greater force is seen as ‘passive-ism’; i.e. just sitting back and letting the bullies of the world have it their own way. Not only is this seen as weak, it is (rightly) seen as a complete disintegration of the idea of justice.

It is really good, then, that nonviolence is not about being passive.

In fact, nonviolence is extraordinarily active in orientation, with the idea of speaking truth to power and engaging violence head-on with strength and determination but without resorting to meeting violence with yet more violence. Practitioners of nonviolence have many times put themselves directly in harm’s way as they have sought to challenge violent ‘bullies’ (individuals or groups or systems) or to highlight violence that general society doesn’t wish to acknowledge. Nonviolence is an active force that seeks to expose and confront violence of every sort; it is the very antithesis of inaction or the attempt to sweep the problems of violence under the rug of our collective consciousness.

To suggest that nonviolence is equal to being passive is a gross distortion of reality, and this understanding is perpetuated either out of sheer ignorance or as a deliberate attempt to undermine any other option than more violence. Obviously, this just leads us back to the first point, and the lack of imagination in violent actions or responses.

3) Nonviolence doesn’t assume that we have 100% of the truth.

This is a really interesting point. Obviously, when we really think about it, we know that this is true. None of us has all the information on any given point. Unfortunately, however, it seems to be becoming more and more easy (again, see point 1) for individuals and groups to argue their point in a way that, at least pragmatically, suggests that they truly believe that they are 100% correct. It is ridiculously easy from this point, then, to suggest that a particular opponent is essentially a beastly foe who simply cannot be reasoned with and will only ever understand the point if it is punctuated by force.

The problem is, we simply never hold 100% of the truth at any point in time on any given topic. This has been highlighted so many times throughout history that it’s really not funny (think, for just one example, of Iraq and WMDs…).

The antidote to this, then, is for the practitioner of nonviolence to approach all topics with a certain humility. This is a difficult thing to do, and a point that I find personally very challenging : )

But when debate is approached with this sense of humility, the possibilities of finding a nonviolent solution increase exponentially. Think of what it might mean, for just a moment, if Palestinian and Israeli leaders were to meet on the grounds that they genuinely agreed upon the fact that both sides had some real points to make and they each held part of the truth in the situation. The possibilities are truly amazing!

Building out of this (to a point that really deserves to be treated on its own, but I kind of wanted to keep it to just four points in this post…), nonviolence seeks to see one’s opponent as more than just the evil they may commit. So many times individuals or groups view the other as wholly evil, and it is very easy to inflict pain or death on the other once they have been dehumanised. However, when the beauty and sacredness of the other is recognised, when they are viewed through the lens of their sharing in the fullness of humanity, it becomes much harder to inflict suffering upon them. At the end of the day, our aim is to overcome evil and injustice, not to defeat people.

Of course, given the propaganda we are fed by our leaders (and I mean ‘we’ here as those on all sides of any given debate or conflict), this is a difficult thing to do. To be constantly reminding oneself of the full humanity of the other is hard work. It takes effort. And that leads me to the last point.

4) Nonviolence is a way of life.

Nonviolence takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of energy to be creative. It takes a lot of energy to be actively exposing and seeking to overcome violence and injustice. It takes a lot of energy to remind oneself that one’s opponent holds some of the truth in any given situation, and to refrain from dehumanising them in order to secure an easy ‘victory’.

Nonviolence takes a lot of effort.

It takes a lot of (often difficult) critical self-reflection.

It takes a lot of personal commitment.

And, it takes a lot of time.

The one thing I have discovered to be abundantly clear is that I really need to work at this whole nonviolence thing. In order for this all to become instinctual (i.e. not instinctively responding with violence in situations of high emotion or when the adrenalin is pumping), it is going to take me a lot of reading and reflection and meditation and effort. As will be clear to those who have been travelling the nonviolent journey for longer than myself, I don’t actually know that much about all of this. I’m very new to it, and I don’t offer these reflections in an attempt to show how knowledgable I am about it all. Rather, I offer these reflections as a way of trying to formalise some of my own thoughts, and as an attempt to create some discussion about these issues that might be helpful to myself and anyone else who wants to enter into the discussion.

I’m not good at this stuff. I find it very easy to respond to aggression with aggression, even though I don’t want to (when I really think about it). But, in the heat of the moment, I find it frustrating to try to think through creative ways of responding without adding more fuel to the fire. I’m a fairly big guy and, to be perfectly honest, it’s quite easy to use physical size to intimidate and get my own way.

Most of all, I’m fairly impatient. This whole nonviolence thing takes a lot of time. I find this both frustrating and beautiful. I live in a society where everything is instant, and so seeking to participate in things that take a lot of time and effort is somewhat daunting. It’s easy to get discouraged when things don’t have an immediate impact.

I’m convinced, though, that the best kind of change happens in very small increments. Change that happens in an instant, it seems to me, is quite often a shallow kind of change that is not deeply enough rooted in society to withstand the challenges that will inevitably come. Most of all, humans take time to change, so rapid change often leaves un-changed humans in charge of new situations and structures that require new ways of thinking.

However, when change happens through many small steps, it can be deep, and powerful, and beautiful. Though some may look at certain events in history where lasting change has occurred and think that it all happened in an instant, it is more likely the case that many small steps were happening behind the scenes for quite some time which set up the possibility of the ‘trigger’ event happening in the first place. Seeing the action of Rosa Parks on that bus in Alabama as the ‘beginning’ of the Civil Rights movement, for example, is a disservice both to Parks herself (and her strong committment to these issue well before this point in time), and to the many, many others over a long period of time who helped create the context for that event to have the meaning it did (and does).

In addition to this, and though it is frustrating to think about, nonviolence can rarely (if ever) overcome decades, or centuries, or millennia of violence in a moment. It takes time. It takes many small steps to move away from the ingrained violence of human history. What is frustrating, though, is that when and if one specific nonviolent action fails to fix all the problems of the world in one moment, nonviolence is often said to be a complete and total failure. If only violence was discredited for every time it fails to bring about lasting peace…

The point is, though, that it does take many small steps to move and individual, and a community, and a nation, and the whole world away from the easy-but-destructive use of violence.

The nonviolent journey is a long-haul, both individually and for communities and nations.

It is sometimes discouraging, but I am filled with hope at the extraordinary, creative, active, humble potential of nonviolence.

I do look forward to discussion on these points : )


More Resources for Reading Revelation: Matt Anslow’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Though I outlined a few (I think) helpful resources for further reading at the end of my final post on Reading Revelation, I wanted to link here to some posts from my friend Matt Anslow over on his blog Life:Remixed.

Matt’s blog is one that I reckon you should read as a matter of course, but these posts in particular may be helpful in going a little deeper into some of the prominent themes in the book of Revelation. You will notice that Matt and I understand things quite similarly in regards to the book of Revelation, but Matt brings a number of very special observations to his work on this topic, and I just love reading pretty much everything that he writes!

His posts on Revelation centre around the idea of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the book of Revelation, with a specific focus on Empire. He takes some of the significant images on display in the text and unpacks them each a little bit, in a very helpful way. I highly recommend checking the posts out.

  1. Part I: Revelation in Context
  2. Part II: The Beast – Might and Power
  3. Part III: The Prostitute – Seduction and Luxury
  4. Part IV: The Lamb – The Witness of the Cross

Reading Revelation (Part V)

So, here we are at the final post in this 5-part series. If you’ve made it this far, then I tip my hat to you : )

In the first post, I suggested that the traditional interpretive frameworks for approaching the book of Revelation are all a bit naff, and that we would be better off approaching the text with a more well-rounded triple-layered approach consisting of a contextual examination, an intertextual  examination, and a literary-rhetorical  examination. In the next three posts, I explained each of these ‘layers’ in order seeking to lay-out a reasonably comprehensive introduction to approaching the text in the space available here (excluding, obviously, detailed exegetical examination).

In this last post, I want to try to bring it all together (…as best I can). In order to do that, I am basically going to be asking the following questions:

1) What did the text mean to the original recipients?
2) What might it mean to us?

We’ll pretty much jump straight into, but I did just want to take the opportunity here to mention something that I think is incredibly important, and I want to say it as clearly as I can.

The book of Revelation was not written to us, but it does, I think, have a powerful message for us.

If one thing should have become clear in these posts by this point, it’s that the book of Revelation made a whole lot of sense to its original recipients. It was written to a bunch of real people in the first century, by a real person living in the first century. The author wrote the text as a prophetic letter, expecting, I think it’s safe to say, that people would take it seriously and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Revelation was not written to ‘us’, in the 21st century. It just wasn’t. I don’t care what the Left Behind novels say, it’s just not the case.

But don’t be too worried by that.

Romans wasn’t written to us, and neither was the Corinthian correspondence. Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter, 1 John and James weren’t written to ‘us’ either. None of the biblical literature was directly written to ‘us’! It was all written in very real socio-historical contexts, and all these texts, I think we can assume, made sense to their original recipients.

But that doesn’t mean there is not a message in it all for us.

Though each of these texts are more-or-less ‘situation specific’ (especially the epistles!), each of them, I think, have important things to say that we might take hold of. Our task is not to try to divorce the meaning of the texts from their original contexts, but rather to embrace a text in all its situatedness and seek to move from that point to some sort of application to our own situation.

This is, basically, what I’m trying to do here with the book of Revelation. Let’s begin, then, with what it might have meant to the original hearers in their context.

What did the Book of Revelation Mean to its First Recipients?

Without the space to go into detailed exegetical analysis, I’m going to suggest here that the message(s) of the book of Revelation to its original recipients can be seen clearly in the ‘messages’ to the churches in chapters 2-3. These messages, then, act as the foundation from which the rest of the text (the unified, extended visionary portion) builds on. It is worth pointing out two important points in this regard. Firstly, the visionary portion of the text is still speaking to the same situations as those outlined in chapters 2-3. The recipients are meant to be taken on a journey in this section of the text where the points the author is making in chapters 2-3 are illustrated in visionary form, and the hearers are meant to understand the points that are being made here and modify their behaviour accordingly. Secondly, the ‘messages’ to each individual church are, in a sense, meant to be heard and understood by all. With the contents of each ‘letter’ (in chapters 2-3) made public to all the congregations, it’s kind of like each group gets to ‘read the mail’ intended for the other congregations too (and vice versa). As such, it is important to note that there are at least a couple of ‘main’ points being made to the churches. These points, I am going to suggest, encapsulate the basic meaning of the book of Revelation as a whole.

So, what are they?

Basically, it seems that, for the author of Revelation, there are two main options for his recipients.

1) They can be faithful, prophetic witnesses to Jesus—even to the point of death (if necessary)—and experience the vindication of God, or
2) They can align themselves with doomed ‘Babylon’, and go down with the sinking ship.

In regards to the first of these, it is important to note that, from beginning to end, Jesus is described as the ‘faithful and true witness’ (1:5; 19:11). In his life, prophetic ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus has provided the model for all Christians to follow. For John, the followers of the Lamb are meant to look like him, and ‘follow him wherever he goes’ (14:4). As such, the way Christians are meant to interact with the world is to do the very same sorts of things that Jesus did.

Jesus came and faithfully declared prophetic witness to the work of God, and confronted the empires of the world with grace and truth. Just when it looked like the Beast of Empire had chewed him up and spat him out, Jesus was vindicated through his resurrection. Jesus, the slain lamb, has become the vindicated, victorious, glorified Son of Man, and now stands as the essential model to all who would dare suggest that they are his followers. Where Empire responded with power and violence, Jesus responded with prophetic witness and self-sacrifice. And his followers are meant to do the same, even if it means death! (Rev. 2:10). In doing so, they too will be ‘victorious’ over the ‘Powers’ of the world, and will share in Jesus’ vindication (note the imagery of Daniel 7 in Revelation 20).

Now, I indicated in the second post that the usual understanding of empire-wide persecution of Christians was just not happening by this point in time. What I also indicated in that post, though, was that John saw that this sort of tension was unavoidable for all who would follow Jesus. Christians could never be satisfied with the idea that ‘Caesar is Lord’, because only Jesus can be Lord. As such, conflict was inevitable. There seems to have already been some isolated rain as a precursor to the coming storm with the death of Antipas (Rev. 2:13. Note that Antipas is called a ‘faithful witness’), and John seems to have been fairly confident that it would eventually break with all its fury.

He was right.

What he is calling his recipients to here, then, is a radical life of obedience to the example of Jesus, as his faithful prophetic witnesses no matter what the cost. Such a life might not ever be comfortable, but John assures his recipients (through the messages and the vision) that God is still in control and that the structures of empire simply cannot stand against (nor extinguish!) the ‘Kingdom of God’. The point of the book of Revelation is that God’s perspective on the situation is now revealed into a context where things may have looked hopeless; where it may have seemed like nothing could ever stand against this mighty beast of empire. But John assures those he is writing to that God is still in control, and all the bullies of empire would not have the last word. Even if they were to experience the violence of empire for their faithful witness, they could remain confident that they would nevertheless be vindicated in the process. ‘Victory’ was not won through force and violence, but through faithfulness and truth and self-sacrifice. ‘Victory’, it seems, has been completely — radically — redefined. Furthermore (and what really needs to be treated in a post of its own), the essential victory has already been won! Christians do not have to look to the future for when God will finally act; ‘victory’ has already been attained through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection! Wherever Christians live in faithfulness and truth, this victory is already being enacted.

And all of this meant something very important to those who chose to align themselves with Rome.

Rome, for John ‘Babylon 2.0’, was kind of like the Titanic.

Now, the Titanic looked impressive. It felt impressive. It seemed unlike anything else that had come before it. In the words of the smarmy Cal Hockley in the 1997 film adaptation of the Titanic story, “God himself could not sink this ship!”

Of course, what looked so impressive and mighty suffered from the same weaknesses as that which had gone before it.

When confronted with the statement from the outraged (and snooty) Mr Ismay, “But…this ship can’t sink!”, the words of the shipbuilder, Thomas Andrews, become chilling: “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you she can, and she will. It’s a mathematical certainty.”

These are the same kind of words that John speaks about Rome. It was ‘impressive’, to be sure, but it certainly wasn’t unsinkable.

For John, Rome was the biggest, baddest, proudest, most idolatrous empire the world had ever seen. Rome promised peace, security, and prosperity, but for John it was just seductive propaganda that masked the violent, oppressive and exploitative reality. Rome invited other nations to join her, but if they wouldn’t come willingly to submit themselves to Rome’s ‘care’ then they would face the wrath of the beast.

Rome would always see to it that Rome came out on top.

Now, it must be said that some areas prospered greatly out of their dealings with Rome. The Province of Asia was one of these areas.

Having been ‘bequeathed’ to Rome from the Pergamene king, Attalus III, in 133 BCE (due to his lack of an heir), the Roman province of ‘Asia’ ended up doing quite well for itself. Though the first century BCE saw it face some economic difficulties (primarily due to powerful people in Rome seeking to profit personally from the newly-acquired region), by the mid-late first century CE it was doing quite well for itself indeed. With an abundance of natural resources, and being situated geographically at a strategic point for trade by both land and sea, many of the inhabitants of the region ended up prospering greatly.

For John, this was a dangerous situation.

For those who were able to profit out of the situation, the lure of Rome, as John saw it, was like a sleazy call to sell out. Though it may not have seemed like much to ‘play the game’ of Roman civil and religious life if one was able to make ludicrous profits out of it, John saw this as a critical decision for Christians. For John, this was essentially about where one’s allegiance rested: with the Lamb, or with the Beast. To ignore the call to a life of faithful prophetic witness in order to obtain wealth was, for John, to declare allegiance to the Beast. Though it may have seemed like a good idea (judging by the current situation), John’s message was intended to assure his recipients that this was not actually the case. This extraordinary Empire (indeed, all Empire) was already fatally undermined by the victory of Jesus, even if it did not know it yet. As such, binding oneself to empire was, for John, an utterly hopeless move.

This Empire was also based on oppression and exploitation.

Though it was true that the Province of Asia was ‘rich’ with abundant natural resources, it was also nevertheless true that prosperity for one usually meant oppression or exploitation for another (or, perhaps more accurately, many others). There was great wealth through the region (and the empire as a whole) in this period, but there was also a greater number of people living in poverty, barely surviving from day-to-day. Of course, when something like famine broke out, the food produced in some of these regional areas was shipped first to Rome (to ensure the wellbeing of the inhabitants there), leaving many in the very areas where the crops were produced to starve to death. Precious materials like gold had become ubiquitous in many places for the rich (with some writers despairing about what had once been so rare and privileged becoming available to all and sundry), but many others were left with barely the basics for survival. There are even reports that, in Rome, some of the wealthy residents were  having parties where they dissolved expensive pearls in vinegar in order to consume them and prove just how rich they were (in the tradition of Cleopatra), even while many in the provinces died in their poverty.

And Rome was brutal.

Though the Roman propaganda highlighted ‘peace’, this peace was maintained at the point of a sword. The Roman military was incredibly efficient, and incredibly effective, and dissent was not tolerated. Rome would take what it wanted, whether the local inhabitants wanted what Rome offered or not.

And so John called it for how he saw it.

Aligning oneself with Rome was aligning oneself with the very enemy of God. This proud, arrogant empire had set itself up as saviour to all, but John saw through this facade. Rome was set up to reward the powerful and to crush the rest.

Money could be made, but John asks the critical question concerning what price someone would be willing to pay for buying into this kind of prosperity.

And so John called for a choice to be made. In Revelation 18:4, we here this called summed up in the simple command: “Come out of her my people!”

Remembering that ‘prophecy’ was focused much more on the current situation that predicting the future for its own sake, John prophetically calls those who had become a little bit too comfortable with empire out of their slumber and back to faithfulness to God. He expects a decision to be made, and he expects that this decision would have tangible outcomes on the behaviour of those listening to his message. Perhaps this was the first time that they had heard such a message, and John’s words became like a bucket of cold water in their face as they came to realise that they had been aligning themselves with the already-defeated beast of empire. Perhaps they were starting to buckle under the weight of the pressures they were beginning to face for their faithful witness, and John’s words would have come as a comforting reassurance that they were to continue on in their witness, and that it would not all be for nothing.

Either way, these are the two most prominent messages within the book of Revelation to the original recipients.

But what, if any, relevance do they have for us today?

What Might the Book of Revelation Mean to ‘Us’?

I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to say that these same messages fit pretty well with a modern audience.

Though, in Australia, I don’t face the sort of opposition that John’s hearers may have started to face in the years after Revelation was written (being teased because Christianity might be viewed as being a bit ‘nerdy’ doesn’t count!), there are certainly Christians around the world in situations where the message of Revelation to hold firm to the prophetic witness of Jesus is desperately needed. The situation may sometimes feel overwhelming for these people, and thus the book of Revelation speaks powerful into their context, comforting and assuring them that their work is not in vain. To remain faithful and true means being vindicated and victorious, and this life of self-sacrifice is the only key to real ‘victory’.

But I think, actually, that the second message of Revelation outlined above is more desperately needed in my context, and probably for many Christians in the West.

This might get a little controversial.

Though Christians in the West are often quick to identify the ‘beasts of empire’ with the Communists, or the Nazis, or with ‘Islamo-Fascism’, I think that many might be surprised to find that many Western nations function out of some of the very same principles John identifies in Rome.

Much of the propaganda we hear is about obtaining prosperity and gaining for ourselves the ‘American/Australian/whatever Dream’. If we just dedicate ourselves to this pursuit, then we will obtain it and, in doing so, obtain happiness. We too can gain hold of the ‘special things’, that are out of the reach of ‘ordinary people’.

For John, this is the same sort of idolatry that draws people into the intoxicating embrace of the Great Prostitute.

What we don’t often hear about is how much of our economic systems are based on exploitation and oppression. We don’t often hear that massive profits are sometimes (often!) gained off the back of exploitative practices. We don’t listen carefully enough when we hear that the makers of the trendy ‘must-have’ electronic equipment exploit foreign workers in the pursuit of ridiculous profits. Even if this point is raised, it is usually focused on just one company (take Apple as an example), forgetting the fact that pretty much every electronic device in every house uses components manufactured this way.

We don’t often hear that our clothes are, many times, produced through exploitative practices, or that multi-national corporations manipulate tax data to avoid paying their fair share of tax in economies that need that money desperately. We don’t often hear that a significant proportion of our food and coffee and chocolate is produced through forced or child labour. We don’t often hear about the way in which our relentless pursuit of ‘more’ is destroying our environment, and that it simply can’t continue on this way.

And we don’t often acknowledge that our governments are implicit in all of this, enacting policy that favours the powerful and oppresses the weak, all in the name of short-term political gain.

For me, John’s visionary message to the Christians in the churches around Ephesus at the end of the first century, understood in all its situatedness, helps me see the same sorts of things in my own context. John’s bold message to the Christians in Asia Minor helps me call it for what it is, tearing down the facade and identifying the ‘beast’ of empire in my own situation.

His message is still powerful: “Come out of her my people!”

I don’t often hear churches proclaiming this message. Somehow we seem to think that the Christian message is compatible with the propaganda of empire.

It is not.

As Christians, we are meant to be living in a way that enacts the Kingdom of God in the here and now. This kingdom is based on faithfulness and truth, on self-sacrifice and love, rather than violence and exploitation. When we begin to slip back into the ways of empire, we must once again hear the words of rebuke that John offers even to us here and now. We are called to something more.

And this might get uncomfortable.

Though it may not end up with full-blown persecution, it is guaranteed to encounter opposition. When truth is spoken to power, things always get a little tense. But no matter what opposition comes, we are to hold fast to the example of the Lamb, steadfastly refusing to respond with violence or hate. We must subvert such action with self-sacrifice and grace.

This does not, however, mean passivity.

We are called to an active faith; a faith which boldly challenges oppression and exploitation. This faith will never be satisfied while dehumanising power structures remain, and will actively work at bringing these structures down.

And, if I can take it even one more controversial step forward, we need to apply all of this to the church too.

John reminds us, over and over again, that those with ears should hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. I think that we could do sometimes with hearing what God might have to say about the abuse of power and the use of oppressive or exploitative structures even within the church.

Needless to say, such structures are not birthed in God.

Are we willing, then, to have the sometimes uncomfortable conversations about where such structures might be lurking in our churches and denominations? Are we willing to be so serious about our witness that we will do the hard work of critical self-reflection, guided by the Spirit, to make sure that our churches have not unconsciously (or otherwise) taken on structures that don’t belong?

This is a radical message. It is a difficult one. It is an uncomfortable one.

But it is, I think, I fair understanding of the message of the book of Revelation.

The question is: are we willing to hear it?


For Further Reading:

Some have asked me what I think are some really useful resources on the book of Revelation. I will indicate here just a couple of resources that I think are excellent:

  1. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. This is, quite simply, the best book you will ever read on Revelation. It is short, but it packs an incredible punch.
  2. Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. This is quite a bit longer than Bauckham’s other book on Revelation, but it does provide a significant amount of exegetical and historical detail in regards to some of the points he makes in Theology.
  3. Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. This is an absolute must-read. You will quickly figure out that Howard-Brook and Gwyther’s work has been very significant for me!
  4. David deSilva, Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation. This is a bit long (and you probably get the general idea from reading the first 3-4 chapters), but it is excellent.
  5. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Schüssler Fiorenza is an outstanding scholar, and has been instrumental in regards to rhetorical examinations of the book of Revelation.
  6. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (in the Interpretation series). The introduction to this book is exceptional in regards to understanding the imagery in Revelation. The commentary itself is not great.
  7. G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John the Divine. This is great if you want a nice, simple commentary to preach from.

This is a very basic list, but I think it contains a number of very useful resources.

Reading Revelation (Part IV)

In my first post in this series, I outlined my belief that the traditional interpretive categories used to approach the book of Revelation were less than helpful, and suggested that there was a more excellent way.

In my second post, I started to outline an alternate reading strategy, consisting of three interwoven ‘layers’, and discussed the first of these: the contextual layer.

In my third post, I discussed the second of these interpretive ‘layers’: the intertextual layer.

In this post, then, I wish to discuss the final interpretive ‘layer’: the literary-rhetorical layer. It should be noted, however, that all of these ‘layers’ of interpretation are integrally connected. The ‘intertextual’ layer is, in a sense, the meeting point of the contextual and literary-rhetorical examination, and binds them all together in a way that means that there is a fair amount of overlap between the categories themselves. Although I am treating them separately here, this does not take away from the inherent inter-connectedness of these interpretive elements.

A Literary-Rhetorical Examination

Though some of this has already been discussed in some sense in the ‘intertextual’ discussion, there are a couple of points here that, I think, really need to be highlighted. The first point is in regards to understanding the book of Revelation as a whole, and the second is in regards to understanding the meaning and impact of the vivid imagery on display in the text.

Structure and Flow

I’ve noted already that the author of the book of Revelation presents his work as a prophecy, in apocalyptic style, in the form of a letter. This was a very important step, but I think there is still another step to take here. The author seems to indicate that he is writing a  letter (as opposed to many), which is presented as a prophecy (not multiple prophecies).

Think about that for a moment.

John wrote one prophetic letter to the churches around Ephesus. He may have included individual messages directed to each city within this broader framework (in chapters 2-3), but he is writing the whole thing to the churches as a whole. It is one, long unified work. It is one, long, unified prophetic message. It is one, long, unified visionary experience that, it seems, was meant to take the recipients on a profound journey.

The best way of understanding the transmission of the book of Revelation, I think, is to understand that it was probably read aloud to the congregations, most likely in the context of a worship meeting. Though I have no doubt that Richard Bauckham is correct to suggest that, in addition to this primary form of transmission, the text was probably also studied intensely by those in the scribal-prophetic tradition, I think it is right to suggest that the book of Revelation was read aloud to congregations as a kind of prophetic performance. Quite possibly, the reading of the text would have moved into participation in the Lord’s Supper, which would be quite a natural outcome, I would think, of experiencing a visionary journey bookended by glorious scenes of worship of God for his work in and through the ‘victorious’ Lamb.

This prophetic performance, I would suggest, was intended to take the listeners on a journey that was meant to be experienced in one sitting. This journey, full of vivid, emotive, evocative imagery, would no doubt have had a profound, visceral effect on those who heard its message in one sitting. Contrary to the source critics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and even into the otherwise outstanding work of D. Aune), the book of Revelation is not some jumbled collection of disparate sources that were thrown together in a horrible mess (which is the impression that R.H. Charles gives, for example). Rather, the book of Revelation is a profoundly unified work that exhibits extraordinary interconnectedness even if it doesn’t fit with our modern ideas of linear progression. Through the relentless forward movement of the text (which is not perfectly linear, but neither is it in any sense simple recapitulation*), interrupted only at key points by rhetorically-strategic delays, the text envelops the listeners in its visionary world for the duration of the performance. We can only imagine the impact it would have had on the first hearers, kind of like people coming out from seeing the latest 3-D blockbuster movie (…though perhaps one which actually had a point that impacted on our lives…).

But the question must be asked here: what effect did the fantastic imagery used in Revelation have on the first hearers? And this brings me to the second point.

Understanding the Imagery

I’ve already mentioned at least a couple of points in regards to this overall topic that might help us as we unpack it a little bit more here. Firstly, I’ve suggested that one of my assumptions is that texts usually make at least some sense to their original audiences. Secondly, I’ve suggested that apocalyptic literature was quite fond of using seemingly bizarre imagery of animals and beasts and the like. And, thirdly, I’ve suggested that Revelation as a whole would have had an emotive effect on its first hearers through the use of such evocative imagery.

Bringing some of this together, it’s worth noting that, contrary to what some people might believe, a fair bit of the imagery on display in the book of Revelation is not actually, dare I say it, original. Had John submitted the text as an essay, he may have failed due to modern notions of plagiarism! Put quite simply, in John’s day there was a significant apocalyptic tradition that numerous authors were drawing on. Each of these authors used parts of the tradition for their own purposes, carefully crafting traditional imagery to suit their own needs, but it was kind of like there was a collection of apocalyptic ‘stock’ imagery that people could draw on. I don’t have space to go into it here, however it is worth noting that imagery such as the (rather gruesome) blood flowing in the streets up to the horses’ bridles (Rev. 14:20), the completion of the number of martyrs (Rev. 6:9-11), the sea and death and hades ‘giving up the dead’ (Rev. 20:13), and the ‘silence in heaven’ (Rev. 8:1) all occur in ‘apocalyptic’ texts both before and contemporaneously with the book of Revelation (and many times in texts later than revelation too).** The point, of course, is that this sort of imagery had currency when John was writing; the people he was writing to, we can assume, had some experience of this sort of imagery, and were used to the ways it was usually used.

Taking this a step further, this imagery that was used in the apocalyptic tradition had meaning to the people who were experiencing these texts beyond just recognition; the imagery, though seemingly bizarre to us, was used in ways to speak into concrete historical situations. For example, the Animal Apocalypse in the Book of Dreams in 1 Enoch (dated to about the Maccabean period) uses imagery of sheep and rams and cows and bears and eagles and dogs to, apparently, speak of individuals and groups and empires. In many ways, it’s kind of like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. To take another example, the vision of four monsters in Daniel 7 is not just an example of ancient authors experimenting with hallucinogens, it’s an evocative way of speaking about four great empires. We know this, because the book of Daniel actually says so(!):

I, Daniel, was troubled in the spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. (Daniel 7:15-18)

This evocative, emotive imagery has meaning in the apocalyptic tradition, and so we must look to that tradition to help us understand how the imagery might be being used in the book of Revelation. We are not to just speculate about what we think all the imagery could mean; the tradition itself shapes and gives context to the imagery that is used (albeit used in new and creative ways). Though I am sure that commentators like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Eugene Boring are correct to state that this imagery is far more than just simple ‘code’ language that needs to be deciphered (and their discussion of the polyvalent nature of apocalyptic language is certainly vital to read), I do think that there is an integral connection between the imagery that was often used and the concrete socio-political events of the times. The imagery is intended to evoke an emotional response not simply because of the imagery itself, but because it is being used in metaphorical relation to very real socio-political events and figures that meant something to the original hearers.

And this leads to the next point.

Not only did the author of Revelation use the apocalyptic traditions handed down to him, he also seems to have very cleverly used (and, in many cases, subverted) contemporary pagan mythology in his visionary masterpiece. For example, there seems to be little doubt that John is alluding quite clearly to the emperor Nero when he suggests in Revelation 16:12 that the Euphrates river would be dried up to ‘prepare the way for the kings from the East’, and in 17:16 that the (first) beast with the ‘ten horns’  (who, we are told, are ‘ten kings’) will hate and destroy the ‘great city that rules over the kings of the earth’ (who is pictured as the ‘great prostitute’). Though, after Nero’s death, there grew up a myth about his return from the dead (which John also seems to draw on the other places in the book of Revelation), a myth also grew around the idea that Nero did not actually commit suicide but rather escaped to the East (where he enjoyed significant popularity). This myth spoke of the time when the Euphrates would dry up and Nero, with the Eastern kings, would come back to wreak havoc on Rome in vengeance.

To take another example, bouncing out of the last one, it seems that John may have taken some of the imagery surrounding the goddess Roma (who had become an integral part of the earliest Roman-sanctioned provincial imperial cult at Pergamum) for his description of the ‘Great Prostitute’. This extraordinarily richly-adorned woman, who sits atop the ‘seven hills of Rome’ (Rev. 17:9) and who rules over ‘peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages’ (Rev. 17:15), is actually, according to John, nothing more than a high-class hooker who draws the kings of the earth into her wily schemes (‘sexual immorality’, in prophetic literature, is usually speaking of idolatry). Of course, John is not talking about a literal woman here, but rather identifies her as ‘the great city’ (17:18).*** One can only imagine the offence of some who may have recognised in this ‘great whore’ the precious patron goddess of Rome personified! The impact of such imagery would have been quite remarkable.

As a final example, we could note also the vision of the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ being chased by the dragon in Revelation chapter 12. A well-known Greco-Roman myth (which took on many forms) had the goddess Leto giving birth to Apollo and Artemis after seeking safety from the chaos-monster Python on an island, with Apollo going on to eventually slay the great beast. With the knowledge that the Emperor Augustus took on Apollo as his own personal god (to highlight the idea of ‘bringing order out of chaos’, which was sort of Augusts’ motto), it can only be wondered at how this passage of Revelation would have been viewed seeing as it has the dragon-serpent (who is connected with the ‘beasts of empire’ in the very next chapter) chasing the personified messianic community from which the  Messiah springs forth. In effect, John seems to have totally reversed the myth here, pitting Roman power on the very side of chaos and seeing victory over chaos as coming through an imperial rival!

So, to bring all of this together, it should be noted that John used the imagery available to him as part of his rhetorical strategy. As the first recipients entered into this visionary world for the duration of the ‘performance’, they were bombarded with rhetorically-strategic imagery that was metaphorically speaking into the contemporary socio-historical situation. This imagery was powerful, emotive, evocative, subversive. It sought to elicit a response from those who heard it. This was, after all, the purpose of the ‘prophecy’ was it not?

But there is one final piece of the puzzle that we must very briefly mention here (and I’m aware that this is already a rather long post). This point, I think, could in fact be the most important point of all.

Revelation as the ‘Climax’ of the Judeo-Christian Prophetic Tradition

In terms of the rhetoric of Revelation, it is crucially important to note the way in which John situates his work in regards to the prophetic tradition that he is working out of. Though many commentators (usually of the popularist variety) seek to read Revelation alongside the Hebrew prophets, I think this is actually a significant mistake. Building on the work of Richard Bauckham (again), I would suggest that John is not just writing another prophecy, or just a Christian  prophecy, but is writing the prophecy that draws together in itself all the vital elements of the Hebrew prophetic tradition in the light of God’s final revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. John is not just writing some sort of companion to Daniel or Ezekiel or Zechariah or Isaiah, he is writing the definitive prophecy that draws the work of all of these former prophets together in Jesus Christ.

John, it seems, despite his (I think) quite obvious Jewish scribal background, has had an experience of Jesus as Jewish Messiah and Lord of all in a way that has transformed his understanding of the entire Jewish tradition (especially the prophets) which find their fulfilment only now that God’s plans have been revealed fully. As such, John seems to be on a mission to show how all these former prophecies find fulfilment in the story of Jesus, and in his own work.

Please let me offer a couple of examples.

Firstly, there is the Lion-Lamb imagery that is so often misunderstood. In Revelation chapter 4, John sees a vision of the throne room of heaven that would be at home in any Jewish prophecy. In chapter 5, however, a dramatic new development takes place. When John is told that there is no-one worthy in heaven or on earth who is worthy to break the seals (to reveal, apparently, God’s previously hidden plans), he hears that the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’ has triumphed and is worthy to open it. This, of course, is military messianic language to Jewish ears. God’s messiah would arrive in the tradition of the warrior-king David, overcoming the enemies of God’s people. This ‘Lion of Judah’, then, is said to have conquered and thus now be worthy of opening the scroll of God’s plans.

But when John looks, what he sees is a lamb, ‘looking as if it had been slain’ but nevertheless standing in the middle of the throne of God. The expectation of the military messiah has been completely overturned in the person and work of Jesus. What this is not saying is that Jesus is both the lion and the lamb (as if he was the lamb in his first coming and will return as the mighty warrior lion), rather it is saying that the expected lion came in the form of the lamb. The whole messianic prophetic tradition needs to thus be re-interpreted in light of the fact that God did not act by sending a military messiah to claim military ‘victory’ over the Romans, but rather achieved ‘victory’ through the death and resurrection of the sacrificial lamb. God’s ‘victory’ is something completely different to, and subversive of, Roman understandings of conquest.

But there is more.

The same rhetorical device is used in chapter 7, when the description is given of the followers of the Lamb. In Revelation 7:3, John is told that the number of God’s people must be sealed so as to avoid the destruction of the coming plagues. What he hears is the perfect number of God’s people as 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (7:4-8). Again, this is military language, with such census’ usually being taken in preparation for war. God’s people, then, are prophetically pictured as the perfect number (144,000) of ethnic Jewish warriors.

Again, though, what John sees is something drastically different. John sees ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the lamb’ (7:9). Instead of wearing military uniforms, they are wearing white robes, and instead of holding swords they are holding palm branches. Just as with the picture of the Lamb, the understanding of the followers of the Lamb is dramatically reconfigured. The Jewish prophetic tradition is powerfully reconfigured through the reality of the person and work of Jesus.

But the final example might be the most useful.

I have already spoken of Daniel chapter 7, but there is more to be said. Below is short video I created that I think is extraordinarily helpful in understanding what is going on in the book of Revelation. It contains the text of Daniel 7:2-7 (describing the four great beasts), moving into the text of Revelation 13:1-2 (which describes the beast from the sea). It is not as important to read all of the text as it is to follow on the words and phrases that become highlighted and isolated as the animation moves from the text of Daniel 7 to the text of Revelation 13:

So, Daniel has four beasts, the last of which has four heads (giving a total of seven heads all up) and ten horns. These beasts are described as variously looking like a lion, a bear, and a leopard (oh my!). John’s one beast, then, has seven heads in total, with ten horns, and has elements like a leopard, a bear, and a lion. Is this just coincidence? Or is it, rather, a very deliberate move by John?

John, it seems to me, is suggesting that the one ‘beast’ in Revelation 13 is kind of like all the other ‘beasts’ of history rolled into one: the biggest, baddest, ugliest of them all. But what are these beasts? Luckily, as we have already seen, Daniel tells us plainly: the ‘beasts’ are kingdoms. As such, I think it’s fairly reasonable to suggest that John, taking his cue from this, is talking about the one great kingdom that he thinks is more oppressive, more exploitative, more idolatrous and proud than all the other bad empires of history: Rome. Rather than do what one of his Jewish contemporaries (the author of 4 Ezra) did, suggesting that Daniel got it a bit muddled and was speaking of Greece when the fourth beast of Daniel 7 was actually signifying Rome, John takes a different approach. John is not seeking to re-apply the prophecies of Daniel, he is seeking rather to bring them to fulfilment in the light of God’s work in Jesus and the situation that God’s people now find themselves in. Daniel’s sealed scroll is now very much open, and everything needs to be reconfigured in the light of Jesus. It seems that John was fairly clearly implying that everything in history was coming to a point, and it’s coming to that point in what he was writing.

This is truly a big deal.

It seems that John is suggesting that his work stands as the climax of all prophecy, drawing everything together in God’s plans now-revealed through the person and work of Jesus. This message was important. The people of God were being faced with an extraordinary situation, and they needed to decide what they were going to do. God was speaking an important prophetic word now through John, drawing together all previous prophetic insight, and those who heard it were meant to be affected by it. They were meant to be changed. They were meant to walk out the other side of the ‘performance’ of Revelation in their congregation with profound new insight into the situation and it was expected that their behaviour would be modified accordingly.

However, the details of what this meant to Revelation’s first hearers, and what it might mean to Christians today, shall have to wait until the next post.


* I would recommend readings Richard Bauckham’s work on this topic, which cuts through the usual discussions of the structure of the text with extraordinary clarity.

** See Bauckham’s The Climax of Prophecy for more information on this topic (specifically chapter 2: The Use of Apocalyptic Traditions”)

*** Some feminist scholars have (rightly) pointed out that this sort of language is not particularly helpful. Of course, we must remember that, even though the language is certainly not ideal here, John is using a traditional rhetorical device here to talk about a city, rather than an actual woman. While I would certainly not want to use such language in our context today, I think it is important to note that this is not evidence in and of itself that john was some sort of misogynist.

Reading Revelation (Part III)

In my first post in this series, I outlined my (strong) belief that the traditional interpretive categories for approaching the book of Revelation are not a very helpful starting place.

In my second post, I began to outline the first ‘layer’ of my proposed methodology: the contextual examination of the text. In that post I made the (I think) reasonable claim that texts usually make some sense to their original recipients. The book of Revelation, I suggested, was written by a real person (named John), to a bunch of real Christians in the cities around Ephesus at the end of the first century C.E., as an urgent message that he thought they really needed to hear. The whole region was under the control of the mighty Roman Empire, and for those who bought into the Roman system (including treating the Roman Emperor as some sort of divine being), things were ok. But for those who didn’t, well, their fate wasn’t looking very rosy. Rome didn’t play nice with those who dared challenge her power, and Jerusalem post 70C.E. stood as testament to this. John, it seems, saw the inevitability of conflict with Rome for faithful Christians (who could only ever proclaim Jesus as ‘Lord’, not Caesar), and seems to have written his bizarre text to speak into this situation.

But why did he write what he wrote? Why did he pick the particular style that he did? Why didn’t he just simply say, “Rome is not so good and her systems and structures are, pretty much, antithetical to the claims of Christianity, so don’t buy into it all”?

I’m glad you asked : )

An Intertextual Examination

Have you ever noticed that, at certain points in time, certain styles of writing seem to be quite popular? To take just one example, have you noticed that ever since the Twilight novels became popular there has been an increase in cheesy teen fiction about vampires? It seems to me that this is just one example of the fact that, at certain points in time, certain styles of literature have a kind of currency with sections of the population. People just sort of ‘get it’ when more of the same sort of literature pops up; there is a kind of literary context for it.

Well, a similar thing has happened quite often throughout history. Time and time again we see the rise of a style of literature that gains traction and becomes a sort of template for more of the same sort of style of writing.

Moving to a deeper level, beyond just the identification of literary genres that become popular at certain points in time, oftentimes we see texts (either self-consciously or not) allude to other texts, or even straight-out referencing them. A very clear example of this is when the New(er) Testament texts reference the Hebrew Scriptures (or even sometimes possibly other NT texts), but there are many other examples of clever authors in all sorts of genres including more-or-less subtle allusions to other authors and other texts. This could be in small ways, or could even be a kind of ‘re-telling’ of a whole story in a new way. This whole, sometimes very confused and confusing area of study, is called intertextuality.*

Though it may sound like blasphemy to some (who might consider the book of Revelation to be a simple verbatim transcribing of what John saw in his vision**), I am going to seek to apply some of the insights from this area of study to the book of Revelation. I think, and I hope you will see it too, that this can be of significant help for us as we study this seemingly strange text.

Revelation as a Letter

In regards to a basic study of literary genres, it is important to note that the book of Revelation is, at its very core, a letter – and I’m not just talking about chapters 2-3 here. Revelation 1:4-6 is a fairly standard letter-opening, and stands as an introduction to the whole of the text (not just the next two chapters). Chapter 22:6ff links back with a number of elements in chapter 1, and finishes with a short, but clearly identifiable, letter closing (22:21). This is important! Letters were written by real people to real people, and this leads back into our contextual discussion in the last post. First century letters are pretty much always situation specific; that is, they have a very real context. This context is the reason they were written in the first place. John has picked up and used this convention, then, because it apparently had currency in his situation. Though first century letters were usually far(!) shorter than the book of Revelation, we do have the Apostle Paul’s letters—some to the very same area to which the book of Revelation is addressed—which are themselves often far longer than the usual practice. Perhaps, though it is certainly speculation, John was using a known custom that the Christians of the area were used to when he wrote his own ‘letter’. Perhaps Paul’s influence on this area was quite significant indeed, and John was picking up on this for his own purposes. Though we can never be sure of any connection between the work of Paul and the book of Revelation, we do know that John has framed his whole work as a (significantly extended) letter, and must have done so for some reason.

It gets more interesting, however, when we move into the study of the book of Revelation as ‘prophecy’.

Revelation as Prophecy

I noted in the last post that John seems to be fairly sure that he is writing a ‘prophecy’. He notes this explicitly in 1:3, 22:7 and 22:18, and seems to describe his own ‘prophetic commissioning’ (10:1-11) in terms that sound very similar to passages like Isaiah 6 or Ezekiel 1-3.

But what does ‘prophecy’ actually mean?

Whenever I speak about these things and ask this question, I inevitably hear people describe ‘prophecy’ as, basically, predicting the future. If someone has accurately predicted a certain event, then they are said to be a ‘prophet’.

But is this what biblical prophecy is concerned with?

My answer to this question is, basically, a resounding ‘no’!

Biblical prophecy, it seems to me, is much more about a “word from the LORD” being spoken into a specific situation. These prophetic words from God are not so much about random events that might happen in far-off times or even necessarily the immediate future, but are far more focused on the way the recipients of the prophetic word act in the (prophet’s) present. Prophecies, at least in the Hebrew tradition, seem far more concerned about either changing behaviour or affirming a course of action in the now. Though there are certainly some elements of indicating future events, it is more about what will happen if a certain course of action is continued or changed in the present.

For example, it is often, rightly, said that the Hebrew prophets were ‘covenant enforcers’. That is, they were calling the Israelites back to covenant faithfulness with God. Many times these prophets outlined future possibilities/probabilities, but they were always concerned with what this meant to the community that they were actually speaking to. That community either needed to repent and return to covenant faithfulness, or continue in covenant faithfulness, or certain events would inevitably come to pass. The threat of exile was always hovering over the Israelites’ head, but the prophets spoke time and again of averting disaster by the Israelites returning to their covenant obligations. The point was not the ability to accurately predict the future, but rather to bring about a certain course of action in the present. If the Israelites returned to covenant faithfulness now, then they might avert disaster later.

But what does this mean for John?

The book of Revelation is absolutely saturated with allusions to the Hebrew prophets. Though there are, interestingly, no direct quotes, and though the number and type of allusions is debated, there is no debating the fact that John uses the traditions of the Hebrew prophets such as Daniel, Zechariah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel liberally. In fact, though I don’t have time to go into it here, it seems that, contrary to some who think that John’s mind is just soaked in these texts and he uses the traditions willy-nilly, John alludes to these texts with great skill and precision, noting very carefully the original context of the passages that he alludes to and seemingly wanting to bring that contextual meaning to bear on his own use of these traditions.

This level of intertextuality, then, is extremely important to the interpretation of the book of Revelation. Though it was sometimes argued that the Hebrew prophets were of little use in understanding the book of Revelation, it seems, rather, that an understanding of them is absolutely crucial!

John was deeply rooted in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and this means that, at the very least, we might be quite confident in saying that he was deeply concerned with the response of those he was writing to, rather than simply predicting the future for its own sake. He was seeking a concrete response from his recipients, and ‘covenant faithfulness’ is at the very heart of this. It just so happens that the word for ‘faithfulness’ (πιστος) is a reasonably prominent word in the text!

But there is even more to the story than just studying the book of Revelation in the light of the Hebrew prophetic tradition.

Revelation as ‘Apocalyptic’

Many would be aware that the book of Revelation is often referred to as ‘The Apocalypse’, but what does this actually mean?

Though it may be new information to some, the book of Revelation is not the only ‘apocalypse’ that we have. In fact, this sort of literature was thriving in the period from the second century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. (and continued on sporadically for some time after this). What is interesting, then, is to compare and contrast the book of Revelation to these other examples of ‘apocalyptic literature’.

What we find is that these texts outline the once-hidden wisdom of God being disclosed or ‘revealed’ to his earthly servants. This might be by means of some sort of heavenly messenger disclosing the special information (a mighty angel, perhaps), or by the recipient embarking on an other-worldly journey through the heavenly places.

The purpose of the revealing of this once-hidden information (often using seemingly bizarre imagery of animals and monsters and the like), however, is not usually just for its own sake, but is rather (at least usually) in order to bring this ‘reality’ into heavenly perspective. At its core, it’s all about ‘drawing back the curtain of heaven’ and seeing the current situation from God’s perspective, in order to understand that current situation more fully.

In order to understand this, it is important to note the circumstances in which ‘apocalyptic’ literature arose.

What we see is that, though it is still sometimes debated, ‘apocalyptic’ literature rises out of prophecy, as a kind of off-shoot. The way I usually like to explain it is that ‘apocalyptic’ literature begins to take over from and almost redefine ‘prophetic’ literature as the situation changes. ‘Prophetic’ literature was fine when Israel was in the Land and were being called back to covenant faithfulness, but a new approach was needed when the Israelites faced new situations with the exile and beyond—especially when things didn’t quite go to plan after the exile ‘ended’.

Even more specifically than this, ‘apocalyptic’ literature seems to arise to meet the need of the people of God facing the situation of being oppressed by foreign powers. We see the beginnings of this (with some of the so-called ‘proto-apocalyptic’ literature) around the time the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the Israelites into captivity, but it becomes ‘full-blown’ by the time of the second century B.C.E., with the events concerning the Seleucid king Antiochus IV ‘Epiphanes’ and his attempts to, basically, completely wipe-out the socio-religious traditions of the Jews in his plans for the Hellenisation (the ‘Greek-ification’) of the whole region. It is with these events, then, that we see the production of (at least the second half of) the book of Daniel, as well as the early Enoch literature. The situation was desperate, and it required the secret wisdom and plans of God to be revealed in order to show the faithful Israelites how to respond to the situation. ‘Apocalyptic’, then, is the development of Hebrew prophecy to meet the challenges of new situations.

Though there was a little bit of a ‘cooling off’ of apocalyptic literature after this initial flourishing (as the Israelites pretty-much successfully threw off the yoke of Seleucid control with the Maccabean revolt), the tradition was never far off and enjoyed a reasonably strong ‘revival’ by the mid-end of the first century B.C.E and into the early first century C.E., when the Romans took control of Palestine and enforced their dominance. The apocalyptic traditions were picked up and re-applied strongly once more towards the very end of the first century C.E. (and into the early second century) after Roman power was brutally enforced in the region with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70C.E.***

This sort of literature, in admittedly very general terms, most often sought to comfort the disturbed and also, in many cases, to disturb the comfortable.

It is very interesting, then, that John picks up this type of literary style when he writes his prophetic letter. Though it is pretty much impossible to show direct literary dependence of one ‘apocalypse’ on another, it has been shown convincingly that John has picked up and applied in his own distinct way the sorts of apocalyptic traditions that were swirling around at this point in time. Though John’s work is significantly different from many other ‘apocalypses’ in some very important ways (it is not pseudonymous, for example, as ‘apocalypses’ generally are, and its visionary content is by far the most extensive account we have), it is important to note that John picked this style of writing, with all its genre expectations, for a reason.

This style of writing obviously had currency with at least some of the people he was writing to, and it seems reasonable to conclude that he expected them to have some sense of the ways in which this sort of literature spoke best to people in situations where God’s people were living under the power of (from the view of the author) mighty, arrogant, and idolatrous empires. It seems reasonable to conclude that John aimed to comfort the disturbed in the region he was writing to, assuring them that this ‘reality’ wasn’t all there was to the story, and possibly also that he desired to disturb the comfortable, assuring those who aligned themselves with proud, idolatrous empire that God would indeed triumph and that, if they were too cosy in the current situation, they may find themselves on the wrong side of history. Though it may have seemed like nothing could be done to stand up to the might of Rome, John seems to have been writing in order to draw back the curtain of heaven and show that ‘victory’ might just need to be redefined in the light of God’s work in Jesus.

But how do we bring all of this together?

It seems to me that it’s best to regard John’s work as a very carefully crafted text that was designed to meet the needs of the people that he was writing to in their current situation. Thus, John wrote a letter. He was writing something that he expected to be received by real people facing real situations. More than this, though, he wrote a prophetic letter. He was writing, apparently, what he regarded to be a direct ‘word from the LORD’—modelled very clearly on the prophets of old—into the current situation, and he seems to have expected his recipients to modify their behaviour accordingly. He wasn’t, therefore, predicting events just for the sake of predicting the future, but was rather outlining the behaviour that he expected in the present and the consequences that would inevitably follow. But even more than this, he wrote his prophetic letter in the style of the apocalyptic literature that spoke best to the people of God in situations where they faced life under oppressive empire. John has taken up and used for his own purposes the current apocalyptic traditions that sought to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable by revealing the hidden plans and purposes of God by—using bizarre (to us) and fantastic imagery—metaphorically drawing back the curtain of heaven and revealing God’s perspective on the current situation.

And, with this, the second layer of our methodology is past; one more layer is yet to come…


* There are many competing definitions of the concept of intertextuality, and I don’t have space to open up all the arguments here.

** Again, I don’t have space to open up this point fully, but I should note that I don’t have any doubt that John had some sort of visionary experience. I just think that the process of writing down what one has seen is a very complex process, and includes the author drawing on what they know in the process. I think that John thought very deeply about how to write his text, and I see it as a kind of literary masterpiece that is thoroughly planned and intricately detailed. This does not take away, I believe, from the possibility that he had a profound visionary experience as the basis for what he wrote.

*** Which is when we see the rise of Jewish ‘apocalypses’ such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch.