The Book of Revelation: A Different Kind of “Apocalyptic” Text
Prompted by a recent guest lecture on the Book of Revelation given here, I pondered to myself again how unusual the book is. We (scholars) typically associate Revelation with a body of ancient texts that we classify as “apocalyptic” writings. But, actually, Revelation stands out in a number of interesting features that may signal something historically significant.
Typically, for example, “apocalyptic” texts are pseudonymous, fictively ascribed to some ancient figure such as Abraham, Moses, Enoch or Ezra. And typically, the texts pretend to be revelations given to such a figure about events that were “future” for him, but are actually recent/past events for the real readers. Examples include the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Book of Jubilees, 4 Ezra, 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, and a few others. But perhaps the most well-known example is the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, especially Daniel 7–12.
The intended message in these texts seems to be to say to readers that those recent events (which are often such things as destruction, war, etc.) don’t signal God’s lack of control or care, for the texts claim that God forewarned about them. The texts seem intended to comfort readers and assure them that God is really in charge, and so their faith is well placed.
It may be that the main reason for ascribing these writings to this or that figure of the biblical past was that by the time these texts were composed it was widely thought among second-temple Jewish circles that prophecy had ceased. So, you couldn’t easily hope to get a text accepted if it was presented as some new writing and revelation.
But Revelation is different in a number of striking ways. First, the “John” of Revelation seems to have been a real figure, whose real name was John (and so was probably a Jewish believer), and who was a known contemporary of those to whom he wrote (e.g., 1:9). Revelation isn’t pseudonymous.
Second, it doesn’t claim to have been given to people long ago, but instead directly addresses the specified readers, especially the believers in the seven churches described in Revelation 2—3.
Third, it doesn’t claim to be some past prediction of recent events, but instead claims to predict events that are yet to happen. That is, Revelation claims to be a real prophecy/prediction, not “prophecy after the fact.”
It’s also noteworthy that the author presents himself as a prophet and Revelation as a prophecy (e.g., 1:3; 22:18-19). This seems to liken/align John to the OT prophets who spoke in God’s name. But, another distinguishing feature: The OT prophets spoke their prophecies, the biblical writings named after them claiming to preserve those oracles. But John claims to be directed specifically to write his prophecy (e.g., 1:11). The prophetic task assigned to John was to write a text. This also tells us something about the religious ethos reflected in the book.
So, my first point is that Revelation really stands out from all the other writings with which we typically classify it. And that makes for some further pondering as to why it is so different and what that tells us.
It seems to me that Revelation reflects a different kind of “spirituality” or religious ethos, compared with the other apocalyptic texts I’ve mentioned. Clearly, in the circles of Jesus-followers reflected in Revelation, prophecy was (again?) considered a real and valid phenomenon. John didn’t have to ascribe his text to some ancient worthy, but could straightforwardly claim a prophetic calling of his own.
And his point wasn’t simply to assure readers about recent events but to summon them to prepare themselves for what he saw as looming events (“what must soon take place,” 1:1), in which believers would have only two alternatives: to maintain their faith and die for it, or to commit apostasy. That’s a different kind of “pastoral” aim and reflects a different setting.
Oh, and one more thing. People often comment on the violence in Revelation. But it’s very important to note that it’s deferred, especially the vengeance to be meted out to the wicked; and believers have no role in executing that vengeance. Instead, it’s “the armies of heaven” (apparently angelic forces) that ride out in Revelation 19, not an army of believers. In that sense, Revelation is also different from texts such as the “War Scroll” from Qumran (1QM), which appears to portray “the sons of light” (the righteous of the Qumran community) joining in a final battle against “the sons of darkness” (the wicked). In short, Revelation actually provides no basis for believers themselves exacting vengeance or making war against others, even against those who persecute them. Instead, it’s all left in God’s hands and deferred to God’s own time. There again, Revelation actually reflects a striking kind of religious stance.
So, granted the dizzying imagery of the book, Revelation seems to me a text that reflects an interesting kind of spirituality. It’s been the playground of nutty people over the centuries, who’ve treated it as some kind of coded history-in-advance, and who’ve concocted various calculations of “the end.” But Revelation is actually a much more serious and substantial text that deserves better.