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.


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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

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