Returning the Book of Revelation to Its Historical Context
by Joey Cobble
This paper was originally published on www.gather.com and was the best scholarship on the subject. Sadly, it is no longer there nor is it indexed by Google. Reprinted here with grateful thanks to the author.
With even a casual perusal of Christian bookstores, the religious sections of secular bookstores, or the programs broadcast through the Christian media, it is likely that one would be left with the impression that current Christian thought, especially that of the evangelical churches in the American South, is foremost obsessed with Bible prophecy and “end times” theology. The many books dedicated to “last days” thinking come in all forms, from systematic theologies to popular novels. The current best-selling, multi-volume Left Behind series by Tim LeHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins has even spun off a board game. Though the turn of the millennium came and went without a “second coming” of Jesus, much attention is still being paid to eschatological issues. In the vast majority of the popular literature on this subject, the current crises of the world, such as natural disasters, epidemics, the rise of various political leaders, and the unrest in the Middle-East, are thought to be foretold in the prophecies of the Bible. The book most quoted as the basis of, and authority for, this fervor is the Book of Revelation.
Current events in the United States have provided a catalyst for the already intense fascination many have had with Revelation. Stan Campbell and James S. Bell, Jr., authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to The Book of Revelation, write in the front cover of their book: “In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, media commentators began making references to ‘apocalyptic scenarios’ and using similar terms. Some preachers were quick to suggest that the last days were indeed upon us. The sales of Bibles and end-times books and commentaries shot up overnight. Some people began stocking up on food, buying gas masks, and preparing for the worst.” In the vast Complete Idiot’s Guide series, only one volume has been dedicated solely to a book of the Bible. That Revelation was chosen for this honor over the other books of the Old and New Testaments is perhaps a significant indication as to the unique place this book holds in American culture.
In Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to New Testament, he begins his section on Revelation with the following comments:
[Revelation] is widely popular for all of the wrong reasons, for a great number of people read it as a guide to how the world will end, assuming that the author was given by Christ detailed knowledge of the future which he communicated in coded symbols. For example, preachers have identified the Beast from the Earth whose number is 666 as Hitler, Stalin, the Pope, and Saddam Hussein, and have related events in [Revelation] to the Communist Revolution, the atom bomb, the creation of the State of Israel, the Gulf War, etc. The 19th and the 20th centuries have seen many interpreters of prophecy who used calculations from [Revelation] to predict the exact date of the end of the world. Up to the moment all have been wrong! Some of the more militant exponents of [Revelation] have aggravated law- enforcement authorities to the point of armed intervention (the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX).
This prominent position of Revelation in today’s Christian publishing, media, and thought is somewhat surprising, especially in light of the fact that the book has never gained universal acceptance among Christian bodies. As early as the third century, Dionysius of Alexandria wrote that some “of those before our time rejected and altogether impugned the book, examining it chapter by chapter and declaring it to be unintelligible and illogical, and its title false. For they say that it is not John’s, no, nor yet an apocalypse (unveiling), since it is veiled by its heavy, great thick curtain of unintelligibility.” Some Syriac churches did not include Revelation in their canon until the sixth century, while in others it has remained unaccepted. The book has never been included in the Coptic or Ethiopian canons, and though it has been accepted by the Greek Orthodox churches in the East, it is generally ignored. In the West, during the time of the Reformation, Luther designated Revelation to a secondary status, Zwingli denied that it was scripture, and it remained the only book in the New Testament on which Calvin did not write a commentary.
This essay seeks to examine Revelation in its historical context, including the book’s authorship, provenance, date, and original recipients. Also, a possible interpretation will be given for select sections of the book, as well as an examination of some of these sections’ parallels with the Hebrew Bible and contemporary Jewish writings. These discussions are intended in part to demystify the Book of Revelation, which possibly remains the most misunderstood of all the New Testament books. The reader is expected to come away with the recognition that Revelation is not merely an esoteric record of a mystical vision. Much to the contrary, the book was written in a distinct literary genre, under specific religious and political circumstances, and to actual church congregations with the intention that the book’s meaning would have been understood by its first century audience. Most importantly, it is hoped that a proper understanding of Revelation in its first century context will inspire its proper use by those who claim to hold it most dear in the twenty-first century.
JOHN THE PROPHET
The foremost reason for Revelation often being misunderstood today is that the literary genre of apocalyptic is itself misunderstood. The designation “apocalyptic” for this type of literature comes from a Greek noun meaning “disclosure” or “revelation.” Such literature was well known in Judaism, with its most familiar example being the Book of Daniel. Two lesser known works of Jewish apocalyptic, both written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D., and therefore roughly contemporary with the writing of Revelation, are IV Ezra and II Baruch. Jewish apocalypses were typically pseudonymous and often written in the name of an ancient hero from the past. Besides those previously named, other examples include works attributed to Abraham and Enoch. A number of these texts sought to show how the ancient hero, in whose name the book was written, had prophesied historical events down to and including the present and near future of the actual writer. Writing in the name of an ancient hero lent authority to the work, which was meant to demonstrate that the external course of history is determined by God and that the ancient hero was correct in their predictions about the rapidly approaching “end” in the actual writer’s own day. In contrast, the author of Revelation does not claim to be some ancient hero writing in the distant past, nor does he claim to have previously prophesied the events that are now occurring. Rather, four times he explicitly identifies himself as John and claims to be a contemporary of the events about which he writes.
For Revelation, authority does not come from a famous hero who is believed to have accurately predicted the present, but from Jesus Christ, whose martyrdom had inaugurated the last days and provided the basis for understanding potential martyrdom in the present. While Jesus is sometimes referred to as the Messiah in Revelation, he is also, some twenty-eight times, referred to as the Lamb. This designation is most likely given in order to make reference to the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus. The Lamb is also associated with messianic imagery in that he shares God’s throne, shepherds the people of God, and is a mighty warrior.
According to Duling and Perin, one of the distinguishing features of early Christianity was the consciousness that prophecy had returned. John’s work is dominated by apocalyptic thought, yet he himself implies that he is a prophet. He states that he was told to prophesy after eating a prophetic scroll, and describes his work in several places as the “words of prophecy.” His work contains many traditional prophetic forms and acts, though they are often colored by apocalyptic judgement pronouncements. These include symbolic actions, such as the eating of the scroll, the seven blessings, words and promises of God, and interpretations of visions by intermediaries or the prophet himself. John even describes the ecstatic vision that qualifies him for this position: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day ... “ The vision itself is an interesting example of the kind of experience that classical Hebrew prophets claimed as validating their message. John, then, may be thought of as an apocalyptic prophet.
An early tradition about Revelation comes from Justin Martyr, about 155 C.E.:
And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgement of all men would likewise take place.
The reference to the thousand-year reign of Jesus and the final resurrection and judgement appear to be from Revelation chapter twenty. The author is clearly designated as “John, one of the apostles of Christ,” which would identify him as John the son of Zebedee. About 185 A.D., Irenaeus writes with the assumption that John the Apostle was the author of both Revelation and the Gospel which bears his name. The traditional view that John the Apostle wrote Revelation is also implied by its inclusion in the list of the Muratorian Fragment from Rome (c. 200 C.E.), and the writings of both Hippolytus of Rome (170-236 C.E.) and Tertullian of North Africa (155-220 C.E.).
There are certain issues, however, which prevent one from being certain that the seer in Revelation is one of the apostles. For instance, John has a vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven with the name of the twelve apostles and the Lamb on its foundation walls. If the author of Revelation was indeed one of the apostles, it would seem implausible that he would list the names of the apostles as a group distinct from himself. Also, as early as the third century it was determined by the before mentioned Dionysius of Alexandria that due to language, style, and thought, Revelation could not have been written by the same John who authored the Gospel of John or the epistles of John, which Dionysius did believe was the Apostle. Dionysius attributed Revelation to John the Presbyter (Elder), who the fourth century Eusebius says is attested to by Papias:
This confirms the truth of the story of those who have said that there were two of the same name in Asia, and that there are two tombs at Ephesus both still called John’s. This calls for attention: for it is probable that the second (unless you prefer the first) saw the revelation which passes under the name of John. The Papias whom we are now treating confesses that he had received the words of the Apostles from their followers, but says that he had actually heard Aristion and the presbyter John. He often quotes them by name and their traditions in his writings.
The Greek of the Gospel of John is simple, but grammatical. The Greek found in Revelation, however, is described by Raymond Brown as “the poorest in the [New Testament] to the point of being ungrammatical, which probably reflects one whose native language was Aramaic or Hebrew.” Though inconclusive, these hints serve to show that the authorship of Revelation cannot be known with certainty. There is no way to verify whether John the Apostle, John the Presbyter, or some other unknown John was actually the author. The name “John” was, evidently, a common name among the early Christians. Therefore, possibilities abound.
PROVENANCE, DESTINATION, AND DATE
The place of composition would appear to be one of the smaller mysteries connected with Revelation. John states that his first vision took place on the island of Patmos. This was a small, rocky island in the Aegean Sea about forty miles off the coast of Asia Minor, and therefore not far from the seven churches in Asia Minor to which he was writing. He states that he was “on the island of Patmos on account of the Word of God and of witness to Jesus,” which may imply that he had been exiled.
John directs the record of his visions to the seven churches in the province of Asia, which incorporated approximately the western third of Asia Minor. His words to the churches contain evidences that he was familiar with the local conditions and traditions of these churches, which may have been personally known to him from his association with that area. His reason for selecting these seven churches, as well as the order in which the churches are listed, probably has to do with geography and communications: The cities in which the churches are located are all centers of communications, and a messenger bearing Revelation to the cities would arrive in Ephesus from Patmos, travel by a secondary road north to Smyrna and Pergammum, and then go east on the Roman road to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
The earliest external evidence for the date of Revelation is the statement from Irenaeus (c.130-c.200 C.E.) that the book was seen at the end of the reign of Domitian. Domitian was emperor from 81 to 96 C.E., so this account would suggest a date of authorship around 95-96 C.E., though some have interpreted John’s language to imply that the work was written down somewhat later than the visionary experience. The most significant internal evidence for the date of Revelation is found in its references to the destruction of a city called “Babylon,” a name which appears a total of three times within the book. The readers are told covertly that this is actually Rome. In chapter seventeen the great harlot referred to earlier in 14:8 is judged. Upon her forehead is “written a name, a cryptic name: ‘Babylon the Great, the mother of all prostitutes and all filthy practices on the earth.’” She sits upon a scarlet beast “which had seven heads and ten horns and had blasphemous titles written all over it.” In verse nine of chapter seventeen the seven heads of the beast are explained as seven hills, and the city that sits upon the seven hills “has authority over the rulers of the earth.” This clearly identifies the city as Rome, which was often called the “city of seven hills” in the classical literature of that time.
After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70 by Titus, “Babylon” had become a symbolic name for Rome in Jewish literature. This symbolic association is used by the author of the epistle of First Peter as well. The designation originated, in part, due to it having been Babylon that had destroyed the first Jewish temple and Rome which had destroyed the second. The designation also associated the Rome of that day with the decadence, wealth, and great power of the Babylon of 600 B.C. This type of symbolic language implies that Revelation was written after the destruction of the Temple by Titus. A date after the Temple’s destruction would also fit the description of the Temple in 11:2 where John writes that the temple’s outer court has been “handed over to gentiles - they will trample on the holy city for forty-two months.” Early Christian writers date the specific time of writing to one of four different Roman emperors: Claudius, Nero, Domitian, or Trajan. A time after the fall of the Temple would exclude both Claudius and Nero. New Testament scholars Carson, Moo, and Morris represent the general consensus among scholars when they state “the conditions generally presumed in Revelation are more likely to have existed in the reign of Domitian than earlier ... We are inclined, then, to follow the oldest tradition on this point and date Revelation in the last years of Domitian.”
Another indicator of Domitian’s reign being the time period for Revelation’s writing is the famous “number of the beast” found in Revelation 13:18. There is a paranthetical statement given by the author in this verse: “There is a need for shrewdness here: anyone clever may interpret the number of the beast: it is the number of a human being, the number 666.” Whoever this figure is, the author is certain that the first century recipients of his letter would be able to decipher his meaning. This would seem to go against current trends in popular theology, where it is asserted that the beast is an unknown future figure. (It might be appropriate to make mention here that the word “anti-christ” nowhere appears in Revelation.) In a discussion of this enigmatic 666, it should be addressed that there are variants in the manuscript evidence. In most surviving texts the number given is 666, but in both Greek and Hebrew manuscripts the number 616 appears instead. This variant was known to Irenaeus as early as the late second century. Many theories have been advanced, but it appears most probable that this number symbolizes the name of Nero.
Before the use of Arab numerals, the letters of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets were also used as numbers, the value corresponding to the place in the alphabet. An example from English would be the letter A equaling the number 1, and so on. In this practice, by adding up the values of component letters that total the number of a person’s name “the number of a human being” is obtained. In Hebrew, the letters of “Neron Caesar” add up to 666. This is not the most common spelling of Caesar Nero’s name, however, which can also be spelled without the final “n.” In such a case, where the final “n” is dropped, the name adds up to 616. Hence a possible explanation for the alternative rendering in the manuscript evidence. The evidence of the 616 number in the manuscript record at the very least allows for the possibility that in the understanding of some early Christian scribes, Nero was the implied figure. Two other possibilities exist, for the Greek spelling of “Caesar God” adds up to 616, as does the Latin spelling of “Caesar Nero.” None of these interpretations necessarily exclude the others.
In connection with the destruction of Rome during the pouring out of the seventh bowl judgement, there is an allusion to the return of one of the emperors. There are three versions of this return, two in 17:8 and one in 17:11, with the second verse eight passage referring to him as a beast who “was once alive and is alive no longer, and is still to come.” This “coming again” of one of the kings also appears to be an allusion to Emperor Nero, around whom developed, after he fled Rome and committed suicide, an expectation that he would come again from the East and fight against some or all in the Roman Empire. In Jewish and Christian literature, such as the Sybylline Oracles this “revived Nero” (Nero redivius) is sometimes portrayed as both anti-Roman and as an opponent of the chosen. In Revelation, the Nero legend is associated with the beast from the abyss and with the “eighth” king who is at the same time “one of the seven” emperors. The question immediately arises as to why Nero’s name is being used if Domitian is the ruling emperor at the time of John’s writing.
The revived Nero legends all appear after the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., giving further indication as to the time of Revelation’s composition, and again, excluding Nero as the ruling emperor. Just as “Babylon” was used by the early Christians as a pseudonym for Rome, it appears that “Nero” was being used for Domitian. The historical Babylon had destroyed the first temple, just as Nero was the first emperor to brutally persecute the Christians. As the recipients of John’s letter began to see themselves as the recipients of imperial persecution, it would have appeared to them that Nero had in fact been revived, if not physically, at least in spirit. This is not just an idea of the Christians, for both Juvenal and Pliny the Younger, both writing just after Domitian’s reign, regarded Domitian as the second Nero. This explains how John could refer to the current emperor as the eighth, and yet at the same time as one of the previous seven: Domitian was Nero returned.
REVELATION WITHIN THE GENRE OF APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE
Apocalyptic literature is crisis literature. Persecution of God’s people challenges the believer’s understanding of the extent to which history is under God’s control. Apocalyptic literature responds to such situations with elaborate visions which express in symbols what is simultaneously occurring in heaven and on earth. The parallelism between heaven and earth gives assurance to the reader that what is going on upon the earth is under the control of the reigning God. In this genre of literature, the struggles on earth are shown to reflect the cosmic struggle between God and the forces of evil. Thereby readers are given assurances that in spite, or because, of the struggles they have suffered, God will make them victorious.
Critical studies of Revelation have struggled with the question of imperial persecution of the church during the latter years of the first century. Whether this persecution was actually taking place, or simply expected, John shows great concern for it, and the related issues of martyrdom and endurance to the end. Whatever the exact historical context for John’s concerns regarding persecution, he wrote to provide his readers with a different way of viewing their situation. The worldly reality seemed to be that God had lost control and that Satan and Satan’s forces had the upper hand. At the time of John’s writing, Emperor Domitian was insisting on being addressed with the title dominus et deus (“lord and god”), and it was in the province of Asia, home to the seven churches to whom John was writing, that the most enthusiastic performance of the imperial cult (worship of “the Beast?”) was taking place. The Roman emperor, as Satan’s representative, appeared to hold all the power. What John did through his writing was to provide his readers with a different way of interpreting their situation. This was done by providing them, through an alternative symbolic universe, with an eschatological view of current events. In spite of appearances, the reality was that God would ultimately bring order out of the chaos of the universe. Satan and his cohorts, especially the Roman emperor, would be defeated by heavenly armies and God would be victorious in the end. This divine victory extended to God’s people, too, for those who remained faithful would share in God’s new Kingdom.
The anticipated destruction of Babylon-Rome is given specific attention by John. The event is presented as a final battle between Jesus, who leads the heavenly armies, and his natural and supernatural opponents. Satan’s defeat ushers in a millennial kingdom which is concluded by the final defeat and judgement of Satan and his allies. Following the destruction of the first heaven and earth, a new heaven and earth are created, and the heavenly Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth. This provides a restored Eden where Christians will enjoy eschatological salvation in the eternal presence of God and the Lamb.
Revelation instills hope and comfort in its readers by providing this alternative view of their reality. Such a view would encourage the readers to endure their situations, while being assured that God would ultimately triumph. The current social and political situations were relativized by being shown to be only temporary. God would soon bring about a change, for another world was coming in which the righteous would no longer be the alienated ones, but the rewarded ones. The entire book is permeated with a sense of urgency. The author states that the events described in the book will occur shortly and this is reiterated by Jesus. The moral exhortations given in the proclamations to the seven churches are sanctioned by the rewards and punishments which will be meted out at the final judgement.
A discussion of the challenges presented when trying to interpret apocalyptic literature is given in the book Biblical Hermeneutics:
Associated primarily with the Books of Daniel and Revelation, it is a unique literary form. It was a popular means of communicating among Jewish people just before and after the birth of Jesus .... Highly figurative, with extensive use of symbols, it needs special care and study. Readers in that era had a context which enabled them to understand the intended meaning of the author, but centuries of time have changed that for us. We need to use all the hermeneutical tools at our command but still interpret with humility and love because others will differ with us on it.
Later in the same book a further observation is made:
Apocalyptic literature relies upon common symbols to reveal the shadowy world of the eschaton. Hence, biblical apocalypses were not intended to be read as literary constellations whereby one can predict the future. Apocalyptic symbols are analogical images which affirm the certain future of God’s victorious reign over evil. Becoming familiar with stock symbolism of other apocalyptic works enables the modern reader to make sense of the strange images found in the symbolic world of the Apocalypse. Indeed, the more we understand the literary devices of any particular genre in the Bible, the better we understand the meaning of Scripture.
Clues as to how the symbols of Revelation would have been understood by its original readers are found throughout the Old Testament. It would appear that with the sheer volume of imagery taken from the Old Testament, it is there that one of the major keys for truly understanding the work is to be found. By way of example, several Old Testament parallels to the imagery of Revelation will be shown below:
- “... I saw a woman riding a scarlet beast which had seven heads and ten horns ... “ (Rv 17:3 NJB)
- “It was different from the previous beasts and had ten horns.” (Dn 7:7 NJB)
- “... I saw ... one like the Son of Man, ... “ (Rv 1:13 NJB)
- “... I saw ... as it were a son of man.” (Dn 7:13 NJB)
- “In the spirit, he carried me to the top of a very high mountain, and showed me Jerusalem, the holy city ... “ (Rv 21:10 NJB)
- “He carried me away: in divine visions, he carried me away to the land of Israel and put me down on a very high mountain, on the south of which there seemed to be built a city.” (Ez 40:1-2 NJB)
- “These are the two olive trees and the two lamps in attendance on the Lord of the world.” (Rv 11:4 NJB)
- “... What is the meaning of these two olive trees, to the right and left of the lamp-stand?” (Zc 4:11 NJB)
- “Down the middle of the city street, on either bank of the river were trees of life, which bear twelve crops of fruit in a year, one in each month, and the leaves of which are the cure for the nations.” (Rv 22:2 NJB)
- “Along the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree ... they will bear new fruit every month, because this water comes from the sanctuary. And their fruit will be good to eat and the leaves medicinal.” (Ez 47:12 NJB)
- “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; ... “ (Rv 21:1 NJB)
- “For look, I am going to create new heavens and a new earth, ... “ (Is 65:17 NJB)
- “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; ... “ (Rv 21:4 NJB)
- “Lord Yahweh has wiped away the tears from every cheek; ... “ (Is 25:8 NJB)
- “I went to the angel and asked him to give me the small scroll, and he said, ‘Take it and eat it; it will turn your stomach sour, but it will taste as sweet as honey.’ So ... I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey, ... “ (Rv 10:9-10)
- “I opened my mouth; he gave me the scroll to eat and then said, ‘Son of man, feed on this scroll which I am giving you and eat your fill. So I ate it, and it tasted sweet as honey.” (Ez 3:2-3)
- “Then I was given a long cane like a measuring rod, and I was told, ‘Get up and measure God’s sanctuary, and the altar, and the people who worship there; but exclude the outer court and do not measure it, ... “ (Rv 11:1-2)
- “Then, raising my eyes, I had a vision. There was a man with a measuring line in his hand. I asked him, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘To measure Jerusalem, to calculate her width and length.” (Zc 2:5-6)
- “He carried me away: in divine visions, he carried me away to the land of Israel ... there I saw a man, whose appearance was like brass. He had a flax cord and a measuring rod in his hand and was standing in the gateway. The man said to me, ‘Son of man, look carefully, listen closely and pay attention to everything I show you ... “ (Ez 40:2-4)
This same type of parallel imagery can be found between Revelation and other writings of the same time period. Sometimes this only involves similar concepts. For example, the 1000 year reign of Christ and the resurrection of the those who did not accept the Beast’s mark, found in 20:4-6, are similar to episodes in IV Ezra 7:28 (late first century C.E.) and II Baruch 29-30 (early 2nd century C.E.). In the IV Ezra passage, after God brings an evil age to an end, the Messiah reigns with the righteous for 400 years. The II Baruch passages portray the souls of the righteous being raised at the time of the Messiah’s appearance. Such concepts simply show the similar traditions in eschatological thinking that existed in Jewish thought after the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D., but no direct textual relationship.
Further examples are also found in the Book of Enoch, of which large sections are also written in the apocalyptic genre. The Book of Enoch was widely known to the first century where it circulated widely and in many languages. Numerous Aramaic copies of Enoch have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a passage of the book is even quoted from in the New Testament book of Jude where Enoch is referred to as a prophet. Enoch, though also quoted from, and referred to, by many of the Early Church Fathers, was lost to the Western world until 1773. That year the Scottish explorer James Bruce discovered the book in what is present day Ethiopia. Interestingly, the book has always been accepted as canonical in the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) canon, where it appears before the Book of Job. Three passages from Revelation will be presented below with similar passages from Enoch.
- “Then I saw a great white throne and the One who was sitting on it .... I saw the dead, great and small alike, standing in front of his throne while the books lay open. And another book was opened, which was the book of life, and the dead were judged from what was written in the books, as their deeds deserved.” (Rv 20:11-12)
- “... he set upon the throne of glory, while the book of the living was opened in his presence, and while all the powers which were above the heavens stood around before him.” (Enoch 47:3)
- “The sea gave up all the dead who were in it; Death and Hades were emptied of the dead that were in them; and every one was judged as his deeds deserved.” (Rv 20:13-14)
- “In those days shall the earth deliver up from her womb, and hell deliver up from hers, that which it has received, and destruction shall restore that which it owes. He shall select the righteous and holy from among them.” (Enoch 50:1)
- “... and anybody whose name could not be found written in the book of life was hurled into the burning lake.” (Rv 20:15)
- “In those days shall the mouth of hell be opened into which they shall be immersed; hell shall destroy and swallow up sinners from the face of the elect.” (Enoch 54:12)
This sampling of parallel passages shows that Revelation is deeply rooted in the books of Ezekiel, Isaiah, Zechariah, and Daniel, as well as other writings popular at the time of its creation. In light of such evidence, one might come to the conclusion that Revelation is as much a compilation and reinvigoration of previous prophecies as a fresh revelation. D. E. Aune writes: “The main portion of the book (4:1-22:5) is a complex vision report stitched together from earlier Jewish and Christian eschatological traditions of various lengths and complexity.” The many parallels demonstrate that the original recipients of Revelation, who presumably had a working knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and the other literature of their time, would have found themselves hearkening back to other writings as they read, not finding literal blueprints for future divine activity. With these other writings being used as an interpretive tool, the understanding of Revelation by its original recipients would have been much at variance with many of the current trends in understanding the book.
The imagery, scenes, and symbols of Revelation have instigated a myriad of interpretations. These interpretations, however, often reveal more about the interpreters and their times than about the actual text. During the Reformation, for example, Martin Luther believed the events of Revelation to be occurring in his day. He believed the Beast of Revelation 13 to be the Pope and the Roman church. In response to that view, Francisco Ribera, a Spanish Jesuit, interpreted the events of Revelation as all happening in the future, therefore deflecting criticism from the Pope. Another Jesuit scholar who was a contemporary of Ribera, Luiz de Alcazar, spiritualized Revelation chapters 4-11 as representing the church’s struggle against Judaism. There is no less diversity found among present day Christian writers.
Three rules of thumb should be undertaken by any contemporary interpreter. First, one should ask themselves if their interpretation would speak to John’s first century audience. If it does not appear that one’s interpretation would hold any meaning for them, it was not likely John’s intended meaning. Second, it is also important that one is consistent with their interpretations. Many technological explanations continue to be offered for the “mark of the Beast” which is placed on people’s foreheads in Revelation 13. Such interpretations completely neglect the earlier passage of Revelation 7 where an angel “carrying the seal of the living God” marks the foreheads of God’s servants, or Revelation 14 where 144,000 people are standing with the Lamb, “all with his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” Certainly no technological device could be meant by the latter two passages. Third, one must be wary of allegorizing. Imagine that in two thousand years someone was to uncover an American political cartoon from our century showing a wrestling match between a donkey and an elephant. If the original meaning of that cartoon was unknown to that person, would it be of any use to assert explanations such as the elephant is a representation of strength or the donkey a symbol of endurance? Surely the best enterprise would be to determine the meaning of the donkey and elephant to the twenty-first century American mind. Starting any other place would render a false start.
Appealing to conditions in the first century to shed light on the meaning of Revelation does not confine the relevance of the book to the first century. Rather, it ensures that the book is relevant to all ages. It is when the book is rigidly interpreted in light of twenty-first century conditions that Revelation becomes trivialized. The Book of Revelation is the work of a specific writer, who wrote under specific circumstances, to specific recipients, and in a specific literary genre; all with the assurance that his message would be understood. The political and religious circumstances can be somewhat deduced from the text, and John’s concern that his readers know that God is still in control is readily apparent. Though written initially to Christians undergoing some manner of persecution, or expected persecution, Revelation still has much to say to the modern reader.
Revelation conveys a sense of the sovereignty of God that no other New Testament book employs. The presentation of God on the throne being worshiped challenges even the modern reader to see beyond their earthly circumstances. There is also clear relief provided to the modern Christian in the knowledge of God’s final defeat of evil and God’s final judgement. Revelation offers its readers a high Christology as well, for Jesus is presented in imagery only appropriate for God. Indeed, Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, through whom God’s purposes on earth will ultimately be accomplished. D. S. Russell writes:
Perhaps it was, partly at least, because it was “too political” that grave hesitations were expressed concerning [Revelation’s] acceptance within the canon of scripture in the first place. Thankfully, as with Daniel, it has been preserved as scripture and has proved to be a source of enormous strength to many generations of Christians, not least our own. It’s mixture of politics and paradise is not as strange as it might at first sight appear to be. In the apocalyptic books, not least in the book of Revelation, we have a mingling of the natural and the supernatural which is surely a reflection of the incarnation itself.
Aune, D.E. “Eschatology (Early Christian),” in David Noel Freedman, ed, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, D-G. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.
Collins, Adela Yarbro. “Book of Revelation,” in David Noel Freeman, ed, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, O - Sh. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Corley, Bruce, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy. Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.
Duling, Dennis C. and Norman Perrin. The New Testament: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994.
Hippolytus. “The Refutation of All Heresies,” in Cleveland Coxe, ed, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Irenaeus. “Against Heresies,” in Cleveland Coxe, ed, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Johnson, Luke T. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
Martyr, Justin. “Dialogue with Trypho,” in Cleveland Coxe, ed, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Reddish, Mitchell G., ed. Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995.
Russell, D.S. Prophecy and the Apocalyptic Dream: Protest and Promise. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Tertullian. “Appendix,” in Cleveland Coxe, ed, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994