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The Book of Revelation: A Different Kind of “Apocalyptic” Text

May 3, 2016

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.

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18 Comments
  1. In 70 AD, in response to various Jewish rebellions, Rome surrounded Jerusalem, when it was packed with fervent Jews who were there for Passover. Then Rome burned it all to the ground. All this would seem quite apocalyptic. Yet apparently Revelation seems to contain no obvious reference to it.

    So this is a very great mystery: why is it that the most shattering dramatic and wellknown event in Jewish life in many centuries, and one that would seem to have many obvious apocalyptic implications and references, is never clearly mentioned in a Jewish text – that is often said to have been written just a decade or two after this shattering, apocalyptic event?

    So how do scholars explain the absence of any reference to such things as the destruction of the Temple?

    • Revelation is a “Jewish text” in the sense that I think you mean. It obviously and rather blatantly reflects and speaks to the situation of Jesus-followers, or “Christians”. And the focus isn’t on past events such as the fall of Jerusalem, but on events the author deems looming and near, and so the great danger is the coming oppression/persecution of Jesus-followers that the author so graphically describes.

  2. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III permalink

    Thank you for your excellent post regarding Revelation.

    A couple of questions.

    First, since the identity of the author is John, who is also designated as a follower of Jesus, then would that author be John, son of Zebedee, or John the Elder? My thoughts would be that John the Elder is another title applied to the Apostle John, but then again who knows?

    Second, with regards to the historicity of the events and people mentioned in chapters 2-3, has there been any change as to who are the Nicolaitans?

    Third, it is also apparent that some of number two above that the recipients knew most, if not all, of the persons, events, etc. without the author extrapolating on who was who and what was what. There was no need to clear up the picture for the recipients as would needed by us moderns.

    Fourth, it wold appear that the dichotomy of theology and history set up years ago does not fit Revelation at all. It writes of a future, actual or genuine history with a theological agenda and meaning.

    • Bryant: Brief responses to your questions/observations. We don’t know more about who “John” was. His name indicates a Jewish male, and we know that he was a Jesus-follower and himself sent to Patmos for his faith, but that’s about it. Second, we don’t know anything more about the “Nicolaitans,” that what you’ll likely find in most commentaries: They were likely people in some of the churches advocating a stance that the author finds heretical and dangerous.

  3. Judith A. Diehl permalink

    I agree, Larry. A book I find very helpful is “John and Empire, Initial Explorations” by Warren Carter. Carter contends that Revelation 2-3 is addressed not to churches “in persecution” (“as previously thought”) but “situations of what the author regards as overaccommodations and compromise with Romans imperial society” (p. 39). That is, unlike other ‘apocalyptic’ writings, the author “advocates a costly alternative of greater societal alienation from Roman imperial society which he regards as devilish, exploitative and under God’s judgment” (p. 41). If we understand that the book was written first and primarily for the original audience, it can eliminate some of the modern-day fear, craziness and misinterpretation.

  4. One of the problems is that some scholars have pressed too hard on the question of genre, and thus limit comparisons of Revelation to those that are strictly classified as an apocalypse. The Sibylline oracles are a helpful conversation partner to some of what Rev. is doing.

    • Yes, although Sibylline Oracles is another pseudepigraphic work, and fictitious in setting, which, again, contrasts with Revelation.

  5. I think we also need to consider that the ancients’ view of time, as I understand it, was that time was cyclical. What had happened before, would happen again. Thus, by putting down symbolic explanations of recent events, the prophets were not only writing a reassuring back story, they were leaving behind records which could be useful for the next time similar forces were playing themselves out in human affairs.

    • Rebecca: It’s not all that clear that the biblical texts reflect the cyclical view that you mention. Indeed, various scholars have judged that biblical texts break precisely with this cyclical view, and instead proffer a more linear view of history, with a real and different future. In the case of Revelation, I don’t see any cyclical view, but instead a very real eschatological outlook, with a radically “new heaven and new earth”.

  6. Larry you wrote: ” by the time these texts were composed it was widely thought among second-temple Jewish circles that prophecy had ceased.” What evidence would you give for this statement? Why do you think those in “Jewish circles” would deny that there were prophets at this time? Are you saying that those in “Jewish circles” were not correct, and that there were prophets at this time, and that prophecy was valid?

    • Geoff: I was referring to the stance that reflected in 1 Maccabees (4:46 and 14:41), where there is no prophet to give directions. I should also add, however, that in other texts and perhaps other circles of Jews there were various figures who either put themselves forward as prophets or were so regarded, the most well-known instance being John the Baptist, of course. For a review of the various prophetic figures and activities in 2nd-temple Jewish tradition, see, e.g., David Aune, “Prophecy,” The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed. John J. Collins & Daniel C. Harlow, 1099-1101.

      • Larry, but the prophets were always writing prophecies. There are many more references to writing in the books of the prophets than in the Pentateuch.

      • No, Geoff. The OT prophets are speakers of oracles. The OT books in their name are commonly recognized by scholars as edited posthumously, often at some chronological distance from the figures themselves.

  7. Benjamin B. Hunt permalink

    I have tried to develop a theory of the Apocalypse genre based on modern linguistic conceptions of genre for the last few years. Based on what you’ve written, finding lowest common denominators of Apocalypses may downplay Revelation’s peculiarity within the genre. After reading this, I think you’re right to say John’s Revelation is distinct and this is significant. Due to the dating, and the relations between Jews and Christians during that time, I wonder if the differences signal an intentional departure from the author’s and his presumed readers’ Judaism of origin (e.g. The comfort and revelation of God’s work is now revealed only to Christians)? Very good post!

    • Benjamin, there was a working group in the Society of Biblical Literature back in the 70s which devoted a lot of time to the question of the genre of apocalypse. See, e.g., John J. Collins, ed., Semeia 14: Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979). The date of Revelation is not exactly clear/agreed, and likewise the relationship between “Christians” and “Jews” was likely complex. E.g., the author is quite clearly a Jew, but he identifies himself also with reference to Jesus. We must be cautious about retro-reading later developments back into such early texts.

  8. Have you considered that the book may be a reflection on the crucifixion and suffering of Jesus? I have an old commentary by Jacques Ellul that my memory says is his theme – but no index so I would both have to find it and reread it to give you a page reference. It seems to me that the giving of the life of the Lamb for the life of the world and judgment in favour of the poor and against the merchants (a common theme of the OT prophets) is in keeping with the characteristic practices of both Yahweh and Jesus.

    • Revelation is quite obviously shaped heavily by beliefs about the importance of Jesus and his death and heavenly vindication. The “Lamb” is, I think, rather widely understood to be a key symbol for Jesus. And the book’s original title, “the revelation of Jesus Christ” makes the focus rather clear!

  9. Larry Burton permalink

    Because I taught Revelation in my undergraduate religion classes, I have steeped myself in the schlorarly literature. Your blog post today was like a ray of sun after a storm. It didn’t change everything, but rather brought forward something I felt but hadn’t/couldn’t verbalize. Though retired now, I couldn’t give up my interest any more than I could be 30 years old again. I sincerely hope you will write more on this. Thank you.

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