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.


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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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