Revelation Part One: Deep Dive
I know that most Christians believe that Revelation is a weird anomaly at the end of the Bible, a book that is one of a kind, but Revelation sits securely in a very common genre of its time. That genre is called Apocalyptic literature. Today the word “Apocalyptic” brings up every weird and wonderful image that our culture, movies and the internet provide. We have been conditioned to hear this word and hear hell, fire, damnation and the cataclysmic terror of the end of the world. But in this Deep Dive, I want to set the record straight about how common the book of Revelation would have been to its original audience, they would have understood its message from beginning to end. They knew the characters, they recognised what John was saying and they would have adhered to the warnings contained within its text.
So, what is Apocalyptic literature? Apocalypse is a Greek word meaning “Revelation”. John stands in a long literary tradition of apocalyptic writing, using a genre that was already part of the tradition of the time. Apocalypse is best defined by J. J Collins: “Apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”
Apocalyptic literature is used to reveal certain mysteries about heaven and earth, humankind and God, angels and demons, the life of the world today and the world to come. Apocalyptic literature deals with the end times, often full of symbols.
Daniel, parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah are all considered Apocalyptic literature. The genre includes visions or travels through the heavens that reveal divine secrets. Between 200BC and 100AD Jewish writers produced a large number of non-canonical books now referred to as apocalyptic: The book of Enoch, The Apocalypse of Baruch, The Book of Jubilees, 4 Ezra are examples.
The first thing we need to understand about this genre is that the language is symbolic, it is used to elicit particular responses in its audience. Readers steeped in the Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic literature would have understood this method of interpretation. Sometimes John simply explains what the symbols mean eg 1:20, in other cases the first readers would have understood from other clues in his book or because of cultural information or knowledge of that day. John expected his readers to understand his points (1:3, 22:10)
Bauckham confirms that John uses the apocalyptic genre as ‘a vehicle of prophecy’. John’s work is a prophetic apocalypse that communicates a disclosure of a transcendent perspective on this world, enabling them to ‘discern the divine purpose in their situation and respond to their situation in a way appropriate to this purpose.”
Specifically, in Revelation 20:4-6, John takes up the concept found in some apocalyptic writing of the time, in relation to an earthly messianic reign. 2 Baruch – outlines a ‘bridge-period’ between normal world history and eternity, including the death of Leviathan and Behemoth, this as a temporary period until the time of advent of the Messiah is fulfilled. Again in 4 Ezra, the Messiah is revealed and they ‘shall rejoice within four hundred years.
John wrote the Book of Revelation as an apocalyptic piece to create a ‘symbolic world which readers can enter so fully that it affects them and changes their perception of the world.’ You are supposed to be completely involved and changed by reading this genre. It is meant to emotionally engage you in the perspective it presents. So, cheer when Jesus comes back, boo and hiss when the Beasts come out of the sea and land, it is supposed to be experienced not just read.
So how in the 21st Century are we to respond to this type of genre, John J Collins opens his book with this very dilemma, he writes “Two famous slogans coined by German scholars may serve to illustrate the ambivalent attitudes of modern scholarship toward the apocalyptic literature. The first is Ernst Kaesmann’s dictum that “apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology.” The other is the title of Klaus Koch’s polemical review of scholarly attitudes, Ratlos vor der Apokalyptik, “perplexed” or “embarrassed” by apocalyptic. And today in Christianity we have the same two columns represented, some love the genre and some are so overwhelmed by its unique nature it is left behind (pun intended!).
But this genre is more than our 21st Century minds have limited it to. Let me share with you some details to help you to love this style of writing. Firstly, as mentioned previously the symbolic character of the apocalyptic language is shown by its use of traditional imagery. J J Collins shows “Like much of the Jewish and early Christian literature, the apocalypses constantly echo biblical phrases.” However, the controversy of this genre is not with the use of “biblical phrases” but with the inclusion of “mythological allusions,” something that as Christians we have been taught to reject in the pursuit and protection of sound doctrine. So, most of us find it hard when reading these texts to accept, in complete partnership, the presentation of biblical and mythological allusions to preach the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. We have been taught, rightly so, as we journey through the New Testament and especially the writings of Paul (1 Timothy 2:12) to not add “myth” to the sound doctrine of the gospel. And then we are presented with this book at the end of the New Testament that draws from the “mythological allusions” of its time and Christianises them.
But as you study this genre, you will see that John, just as Paul did with his teachings, for example, the Greco Roman Household codes, uses the common language and literary style of the day, using its imagery and mythological allusion to re-write the myth and present the truth. I would argue, in my limited knowledge and with a lot of help from John J Collins that the “pagan” or “false” mythological bias should not be applied to the study of Revelation. This text is in fact as Collins shows a way that John, like Daniel and Ezekiel, takes the vehicle of this genre and uses it for the message of the Second Coming of Christ. Collins confirms that he believes John transfers “motifs from one context to another. By so doing they build associations and analogies and so enrich the communicative power of the language.”
Finally, in our study and just to make it more confusing and to keep us on our toes, Revelation strays from some of the common ‘must-haves’ in relation to apocalyptic literature. Firstly, it is a mix of three genres in one. The book is a mix of a circular letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor, a prophecy, and apocalyptic literature. This is not unique to Revelation, as Daniel is also a mix of the genre which includes apocalyptic visions, however, it does make the book more unique to the traditional understanding of the genre. Secondly, the book is not a pseudonymous text (Pseudonymous: meaning the writer writes under an assumed name of a person from history) this style of writing gave authority to the text. But the author of John was a real person and therefore does not take up this common apocalyptic literary style. The final anomaly is that the book does not offer a review of history commonly used by this genre. J J Collins confirms the strength of using these devices in the text “By attributing his revelation to a great figure of the past, such as Daniel or Enoch, an author was able to have that figure “prophesy” the course of intervening history after the fact, and thereby enhance both the authority and credibility of his message.”
So why did John vary from the traditional Jewish apocalyptic genre, was there a reason? I leave you with the words of J J Collins
“The absence of pseudepigraphy and ex eventu prophecy points to one fundamental difference between Revelation and all Jewish apocalypses. This concerns its location on the historical and eschatological timetable. One of the purposes of historical reviews was to enable the readers to see where they stood in the course of predetermined events. In Revelation, however, as in all the early Christian writings, a crucial act of deliverance has already taken place with the death and resurrection of Jesus. For this reason, Revelation shows no interest in history prior to Jesus.”
This book is not an anomaly left at the end, separate to everything written before and after but a Christianisation of a genre common to the audience, a heavenly perspective of what is happening here on earth. The final Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven moment, to encourage all who read it no matter what century they live in!