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OVERVIEW

James Tabor

Tabor is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

(more about Tabor)

When people read the Book of Revelation they encounter this vast array of symbols. Some have become quite well known to the public, particularly in the late twentieth century. ... The mark of the beast, which the book talks about as some sign or mark that people receive on their hand and their forehead. Even the number of this beast--the beast being some military ruler that controls the world at the end of time--as being 666. ...

It's a sealed book. It's a scroll with seven wax seals. As you begin to open it, you get this unfolding scenario of events, beginning with war and famine and disease and earthquakes and heavenly signs. It's fairly standard. And then you begin to get these characters introduced, and there are five or six main characters. One would be the false prophet. He's like a dragon, but he speaks like a lamb. He has horns. A beast that is non-descript, some sort of horrible creature that appears to stand for the Roman government to the early Christians, but today could be any power ... some sort of evil empire of some type. And then you have the saints or the Christians,

beast
the faithful followers of God, that are being martyred. You have two people that are very interesting, that many modern interpreters are interested in ... called the two witnesses in Chapter 11. These are, I guess you could say the two final prophets that the book expects to appear on the earth, like Moses and Elijah of ancient times in the bible. You have a dragon, who's actually identified as the devil behind the scenes, and of course you have Jesus Christ, the lamb. So it's as if there's a whole stage set with these characters, and then things begin to unfold one by one, in terms of what's supposed to happen. ...

If you open the Book of Revelation and simply begin reading it as an unfolding scenario, it goes something like this. There will be wars and famines and disease epidemics and heavenly signs that will alert the world to some sort of crisis. Then will come an Antichrist as he's called, or a political ruler, that will establish control over the whole earth. He'll be backed up with a religious ruler, who's called the false prophet. They together establish a unified social, economic and religious system that dominates the world. The only thing opposing them are the people of God and these two prophets, they're called the two witnesses, who appear in Jerusalem, and begin to speak against this power. The rest of the book, really the last half of the book is about the overthrow of this system. The beast, the false prophet, who has the number 666, the Antichrist, is overthrown with judgments and plagues. Most of them are very cosmic. Asteroids hitting the earth. The water turning to blood and that sort of thing, until finally, Jesus Christ returns as a warrior on a white horse and sets up the kingdom of God. ...

ITS  VIOLENCE AND SUFFERING

Give me a sense of what the tone is.

If a modern secular reader ... sat down and read it through for the first time, my guess would be they would find it to be extremely violent. Someone once tallied up the death count and projected it on a modern world such as ours, with five billion people, and it's absolutely a horrible kind of a statistic. You come up with maybe four billion dying of famine, war, earthquake, plagues.

Essentially it's a book about the wrath of God being poured out upon the world. People not repenting except for the small group of faithful followers of God, and this awful wicked beast power ruling the whole world, and defying God, shaking his fist at God. And finally Jesus coming, not as a Prince of Peace at all, not as a lamb, but at the end of the book, as a rider on a horse, a warrior with a sword, to smite the nations. In one of the quotes that comes to my mind it says, "He will rule the nations with a rod of iron, as a potter strikes a pot with iron and it just completely shatters." So I think that would be the dominant impression someone would get, maybe a book you'd want to close and put away and not even think about. The book that might give you nightmares at night, in terms of all of these bizarre creatures. ...


PAULA FREDRIKSEN

Can you convey the atmosphere of Book of Revelation?

Fredriksen is a William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University.

(more about Fredriksen)

One of the emotional satisfactions of having good triumph over evil is knowing how evil evil is. And one of the devices used by the author of the Book of Revelations is also something that happens in history. When evil is flourishing it's very bad indeed. And what you get in Apocalypse is a vision of the suffering that people go through before the happy resolution. You have the suffering of the righteous, you have cosmic cataclysm, you have social cataclysm. Disease, earthquake, everything you can imagine. When [things get] as bad as you can possibly imagine, that's your clue for knowing what time it is on God's clock, and things are about to turn around. And Apocalypse in a sense presents to the western imagination a blueprint for reading the signs of the times. ...

MALLEABILITY OF  ITS IMAGES




EUGENE GALLAGHER

Gallagher is the Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College.

(more about Gallagher)

I think that the key to the Book of Revelation is that it has an incredibly ornate and lush imagery. You encounter these fantastic figures who play some role in the drama of the end, whether it be in chapters 4 and 5, this wonderful vision of God sitting on a throne in the heavens with seven seals, or in the ensuing chapters, what happens when each of those seals is open. Then, towards the end, you have Gog and Magog, you have the mark of the beast, you have the whore of Babylon, you have all of these wonderfully symbolic figures, who through their vagueness and their being charged with meaning,
beasts
are very, very adaptable. We can play "Pin the Tail on the Antichrist," and find any number of people throughout history, who have been so designated. We can say, "Who has the mark of the beast?" and get another long list of people. So the lush imagery and the complicated imagery of Revelation, has been one of the things that has kept people reading it. Because it can always be renewed. It can always be applied to a new situation. ...

As soon as the Book of Revelation is written it makes a synthetic whole of apocalyptic ideas available to readers. It accumulates bits and pieces and puts them into an accessible sequence of events. Then the question becomes simply to match up its admittedly vague utterances with historical events. When it doesn't seem to accurately predict the end at its time of writing, it gets taken up again in the second century by people like the Montanists. It gets taken up in the Middle Ages by all kinds of people, and it gets taken up very prominently in the contemporary period by Protestant Evangelicals like Hal Lindsey, whose book The Late Great Planet Earth, is one of the best selling religious books ever, if not the best selling religious book. So it essentially offers an arsenal of apocalyptic images and predictions that can be used to target any specific time as the apocalyptic moment.

THE BOOK OF REVELATION IN CONTEXT




L. Michael White

What is the Book of Revelation?

White is Professor of Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, and acted as historical consultant for "Apocalypse!"
The Book of Revelation in the New Testament has the literal title in Greek, the "Apocalypse of John." The word apocalypse means revelation. That which is uncovered. It comes from the Greek word which literally means to pull the lid off something. So that which is revealed is central to the way that apocalyptic literature works. ... The word "apocalypse" refers to a genre of literature like the Book of Revelation itself. They are pieces of literature that start by revealing something or seeing visions or having individuals be taken up into heaven where they can see what's going on from that vantage point.

Scholars also talk about "apocalyptic" or "apocalyptic environment," or "apocalyptic outlook." In this sense the word "apocalyptic" has a slightly broader meaning, and it refers to the spirit of the age that especially became prominent roughly between the years 300 B.C. and 200 C.E., the very years in which Judaism itself went through some cataclysmic changes, when the Temple was destroyed once again and importantly when the Christian movement itself was born and Jesus was executed.

Is John's Apocalypse unique?

The Revelation of John, the Apocalypse, also must be looked at from the perspective that it's not the only such piece of apocalyptic literature that we have. In fact there are lots of apocalypses. Some thirty or forty of them from the ancient world that we know by name and we can actually read still to this day. ... So when the author of the Book of Revelation sat down to write, there was a very strong paradigm of what revelation literature should look like and sound like. The stock of characters, the list of images, the symbols one uses are pretty commonplace, if you're in that environment.

When was the Book of Revelation written?

patmos

shrine on the island of patmos, where tradition holds the apostle john wrote his apocalypse
The Book of Revelation was written probably in around the year 96, right at the end of the first century. The traditional story of the Book of Revelation is that it was experienced by John the Apostle while he was in exile on the Greek island of Patmos. As the story goes he was in a cave, his prison, and in a dream he began to see a vision wherein it was told him what to do. What then we begin to get is this revelation of the future of the world. ... In John's own account, he is in the spirit on the Lord's day and begins to hear a voice, and he begins to see a vision of a lamp stand and lights, and this is what opens up the beginning of the revelatory experience in the book. ... When John begins to see his vision, the first thing he's told is to write letters to the seven churches of Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. These are some of the most important cities in the province of Asia, and in the writing of these letters, John is addressing what Christians are supposed to be doing in these cities. ... What makes these seven cities important is that they are ... some of the most important cities in the provincial administration under Roman government and also for [the] imperial cult, that is, the centers for where the Emperor is worshipped as a divine entity. ...

ROME AS THE WHORE OF BABYLON




Adela Yarbro Collins

Does John have, in Apocalypse, an attitude towards the imperial cult?

Collins is a professor and serves as chair of the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Literature for the University of Chicago Divinity School.

(more about Collins)

John was different from many other Jews and Christians who kind of overlooked the pagan worship of the emperor and developed their own version of imperial cult, which was basically obedience, trying to be a good citizen in the Roman empire and praying for the emperor. John, on the other hand, took the position that Roman power was illegitimate and that the worship of the emperor was idolatry. The image of the Harlot of Babylon--in effect what he is saying is that Roma is not a goddess, she's a whore. That, I think, encapsulates his attitude, his very belligerent and pejorative perspective, on Rome and its institutions.

How exactly did Babylon become equated with Rome?

whore of babylon

whore of babylon
In the prophetic books and the historical books of the Old Testament, Babylon is described primarily as the one who destroyed Jerusalem. And for John, writing after 70, Babylon then becomes a code name for Rome, because it was the second city to destroy the Temple. ... "Babylon" is the most common phrase that John uses to refer to Rome, and at first he introduces that term very briefly and indirectly. And the place where it's elaborated is Chapter 17, the vision of the Great Harlot. Babylon is a city with overtones of imperial might and destructiveness, conqueror of other cities. Then you have the harlot with her golden cup, her purple, or scarlet clothing, her jewels sitting on seven hills. He hints that it's Rome in several ways. One, that she sits on seven hills, and Rome was famous as the city of seven hills, and several times in chapters 13 and 17 it's talked about as ruling all the peoples of the earth. And there was only one possibility in John's time, that has to be Rome. ...

THE STRUCTURE OF REVELATION




L. Michael White

What is the structure of the Book of Revelation?

One of the difficulties for people now who try to read the Book of Revelation is that it's not written as a kind of linear story. This is especially difficult for people who try to use it as a prediction of historical events in the future. It doesn't work so that things at the beginning of the story are necessarily in order one after another leading to the end of the story. The way the Book of Revelation is actually written is as a series of kind of unfolding revelations, each one of which gets to something deeper in the story. Basically there are three sections after the letters to the seven churches.

The first section is in chapters 5 through 11, and in this we have John being shown a series of visions symbolized by the seven seals and the seven trumpets. But if we kind of look at how these things are working, each one is a box within a box, it's sometimes really thought of that way, as a series of Chinese boxes. You open the seals and when you get to the sixth seal things are looking really bad and when you get to the seventh seal we find that the seventh seal is actually the seven trumpets and we start all over again going deeper and deeper into the story. Then when we get to the seventh trumpet in chapter 11, the trumpet blows and heaven opens and you see the revelation of the dragon and the woman. ... So chapters 12 through 14, the woman and the dragon and the beast, really is centerpiece of the story. And it is the underlying cosmic drama that John is showing, which reveals the principals, the combatants upon which the rest of the story is being played out.

Then as we go from chapters 15 onward, we're told that those who are on the side of God and the angels, over against those who are on the side of the dragon and the beast, these combatants will come to a final battle and another series of seven plagues and another series of seven responses that will carry out the story to its natural end. So in the final analysis then the sevens that are opened up at the beginning of the story and the sevens that are opened up at the end of the story are really the same point, now able to be seen through a different understanding because of the central revelation of the dragon and the woman. ...

What's not in the Book of Revelation?

Sometimes people are surprised that when they actually read the Book of Revelation of what's not there. Things that are typically associated with end time prophecies and typical language actually is not found in Revelation at all. ... Notably there's no reference whatsoever to the Antichrist. That terminology only shows up in two places in the entire New Testament. One time in First John and one time in the Second John, but not in the Book of Revelation itself. The other terminology that [is] sometimes thought to be in Revelation is the Rapture, that is, the snatching away of Christians just at the last moment before the Tribulation occurs. That, likewise, is not actually in the Book of Revelation itself, that actually comes from a passage in First Thessalonians. And so what we have to realize is that in some interpretations of the Book of Revelation--in fact most of them--the interpretation is created by bringing things into the Book of Revelation, into its scheme, that are not actually there and reading them as a kind of a jigsaw puzzle of eschatology and last judgment.

What did John expect when he talked about new heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem?

The end of the Book of Revelation sees a new heaven and a new earth coming down and a new Jerusalem being established ... . What John seems to be suggesting in the original meaning of this work is that when the triumph of God comes over the dragon, over the forces of the devil, and the Roman Empire is toppled, a new heaven and earth will be created ... and that's the kingdom coming on earth. ... [He] anticipated a rebuilding of the real city of Jerusalem as part of this eschatalogic expectation. So John is looking for Jerusalem to be re-established soon, a new Temple to be built soon, and for this to be the symbol that God's kingdom is finally being established on earth, a pure kingdom of goodness in contrast to the kingdom of Satan that has been destroyed in the person of the Roman emperor.

MONTANUS , THE FIRST LITERAL INTERPRETER

Who was Montanus?

Montanus was a Christian living in the latter half of the second century of the Common Era, somewhere between 160 and 180, roughly. He's from an area of modern day Turkey called Phrygia ... . Montanus at some point comes to the realization that the world is about to end, or that things are getting bad, just like the Book of Revelation seems to predict. ... What leads him to this? Well, we know in fact that there's a massive plague that breaks out in 160. In fact, it's the first time that smallpox enters into the western world just at this time. They don't know what to call it, but they know it's devastating and [it would be] the kind of plague that the Book of Revelation seems to describe.

He takes that and other kind of indicators to suggest that the end times are near. Montanus believes quite literally that Jesus is returning soon and will inaugurate a thousand year reign on earth. ... He seemed to expect that literally a new Jerusalem would descend physically out of heaven and land on a mountain top in central Turkey at his own town ... . Needless to say, it didn't quite happen that way but, nonetheless, a number of followers were attracted to it.

Montanism lasted for several hundred more years as one of the forms of Christianity that a lot of people knew. It was considered, of course, heresy. It was stamped out at various times but it remained fairly popular in certain regions of the empire for quite a long time. For one thing, Montanism took very seriously this radical anti-worldly stance that the Book of Revelation makes central to its understanding: don't give in to the world, resist the Roman empire, stand apart as the righteous remnant of God. ...

The key point is John's Revelation is not mainstream, and, right from the beginning, was rather seen as subversive to authority, and a dangerous book, isn't that how it was seen?

Yes. John's antagonism towards the Roman Empire is not a view that other Christians felt very clearly. ... His view was subversive of authority, whether it is political authority or ecclesiastical authority. Montanus is a good example of someone who takes it and continues to use it as a subversive outlook. The response, of course, is that that's a heresy against Christianity and not acceptable within the church. ... Montanus is probably the first example that we can see clearly in Christian history--but we'll see a lot more of them later on--of someone who comes and reads this book, takes it very literally, but says that, "The predictions of John are only now coming to fulfillment in my day, and if that's the case and because I understand this, I am carrying on the tradition. I have the key to unlock the revelation and I am an agent of God's plan to bring the world to an end." We find that down to very recent times with some one like a David Koresh who sees himself as a new messiah figure carrying on the tradition just as in the Revelation of John. ...

The various misinterpretations of the Revelation of John did not stop with the experience of Montanus. Roughly a century later, in the middle of the third century, we have another outbreak of literalistic interpretation. It all seems to have begun around the year 246 when the thousandth anniversary of the Roman Empire was going to be celebrated. This was going to be a massive celebration in many, many cities round the empire. The imperial cult was in full swing, and the cities were being rebuilt and it was [going to] be a good party. But it was also a party at the thousandth year, and that combined with some other elements, seems to have prompted some Christians, especially in the Eastern part of the empire to say, "Maybe this is the event that John was talking about in Revelation." ...

Within only a couple of years after the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome, something else begins to happen that sparks Christians' attention. The Emperor Decius proclaims an empirewide sacrifice, and this really is the event that for the very first time will be the occasion of persecution of Christians throughout the empire. All Christians are expected to sacrifice or be liable to imprisonment or death. So the question will be--will they sacrifice to the emperor or remain faithful to Christ? And so, in the light of that kind of expectation of what they should do, reading it now in the context of the Revelation of John, on the heels of the first time a thousand becomes a significant number in their experience, some people at least in the Eastern part of the empire begin to say, "Wait a minute, this looks like things that John predicts for the end of time."

And then the signs become even more clear from their perspective. Not only is there persecution, there's another plague that breaks out in this period. Then the Emperor Decius goes on a campaign in the eastern provinces and is actually killed by the Persians. Some people were glad and say the Persian army is kind of resembling the locusts described in the Revelation of John. ...

Fifty years after the persecution by Decius, another persecution breaks out ... the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian, and it runs roughly from 303 to 313 CE. It's the one time really where there is not only a proscription of Christianity, large arrests of Christians and martyrdom of quite a number, but even destruction of church buildings. It's at the end of this that Constantine the Great will come forward and not only defeat some of the other imperial claimants but will also then turn around and declare Christianity a legitimate religion of the Roman Empire. ...

WHEN THE BEAST CONVERTS




PAULA FREDRIKSEN

As long as the empire was pagan, Rome could be an historical stand in for Babylon. After all, that's what the text of apocalypse says. The awkwardness for Christianity, with its own apocalyptic heritage, comes with Christianity's political success. When Constantine converts to one, remember, just one form of Christianity ... in 312, from the perspective of John, the writer of Apocalypse, the beast has entered the church. But from the point of view of Eusebius, one of Constantine's Bishops, it's God's working in history. It's the revelation of the messianic peace that Isaiah talked about. From Eusebius' perspective--I mean we're used to thinking of the empire being Christian, they weren't, it just happened in their lifetime--this is an unthinkable thought and yet it occurs.

So Eusebius, looking at these traditional apocalyptic texts, knows that the traditional apocalyptic reading has to be wrong, because now the empire is Christian. ...The empire isn't God's opponent, and therefore, interpretations that look at these text as speaking about God defeating the evil empire of Rome are clearly wrong interpretations, because now God's servant is himself the emperor.

So what Eusebius will do is, he's one of a number of Christians who begin to discredit an apocalyptic frame of mind, now that Christianity, in a sense, with the consolidation of power under Constantine, settles down into history. Apocalypticism, for people who are prepared to settle down into history, is something that is old fashioned, is clearly wrong and is therefore heresy.

Is there a move to exclude Apocalypse from the New Testament?

The Book of the Apocalypse has a checkered career in the history of the New Testament canon. Canons themselves are local. In some places in the empire, Apocalypse is in the collection, in other places it isn't. ... Different cities have different gospels, and there is no central power, so there is no single agreed upon canon. What you get when you have the Constantinian revolution is a principled opposition to the Book of Apocalypse. Once the weight of communities decide that the book is going to be kept in the collection, then your option is no longer to drop the text, your option is to reinterpret it, and that's what people do next.


Adela Yarbro Collins

When does John's view of the Roman Empire, the evil empire, become most in conflict, if you like, with the majority of Christianity? When does it become a real embarrassment?

The apostle Paul, in Romans 13, advocated obedience to Rome. And advocated living quietly in peace with non-Christians in the Roman Empire. John advocated resistance. Other letters in the New Testament advocated peaceful coexistence. So John's book was likely controversial all through the time that Christians were not an officially recognized or legitimate group. Once Christianity became legitimate, and recognized by Constantine, then the Book of Revelation was a problem. Because one didn't want to insult the city of Rome or the Roman emperor. And it's very interesting the reinterpretation that occurred at that time. Instead of being read as a dichotomy between God and Christ as ruling in heaven, and eventually on earth, and this evil Roman power on earth in the meantime, there came to be a compilation of the two. That the Roman emperor came to be seen as a representative of Christ. And Christ came to be understood as, as ruling on earth through the current political system.

AUGUSTINE'S REINTERPRETATION




L. Michael White

Who was Augustine?

st. augustine

st. augustine
Probably more than any other figure of the early Christian period, Augustine of Hippo is one of the leading thinkers ... . His importance really cannot be underestimated for the reshaping of Christian tradition. It is largely to the work of the Augustine that we owe the fact that the Revelation of John is even in the New Testament at all.

How did that come about?

Augustine ... adopted the Book of Revelation partly because it had been so troublesome and its place needed to be stabilized. And partly because it helped him solve some other theological dilemmas that he was wrestling with in his own studies. So around 393, 394 it seems there were several councils that were being convened in his own region where debates ... with people who believed in greater degree of free will and other kinds of theological issues were all taking place. And during this context of these councils the decision on which books to use in the New Testament as the authority, behind which all other Christian theology would be worked out, came up. Augustine championed using the Book of Revelation within the New Testament, assuming, as others had, that it was actually written by the Apostle John, therefore carrying authority. ...

What Augustine does by helping put the Book of Revelation in the Bible really accomplishes two things. One, he provides what will become, at least eventually, the normative reinterpretation of the book by reading all of the symbolism in it as just that, symbolism and not literal history. Now, that doesn't happen overnight, but his view is the one that will eventually carry the day throughout most of later Christian tradition.

The second thing that he does in canonizing the Book of Revelation is they put it at the end of the New Testament, and this also has a very significant symbolic force. Because at the end of the Book of Revelation, we have a strong warning, "You may not add to or take away from any thing in this book." Now originally in the Book of Revelation that refers to the revelation that John himself saw--write it, seal it, don't do anything more with it, it's over. But when you take that put it at the end of the New Testament, it has the double force of saying John's revelation of the end is sealed up but also this is the end of the New Testament, there will no longer be any future revelations from God that will stand alongside of the New Testament itself. ...

But doesn't putting this book right at the end suggest that the end of the world is yet to come?

In Augustine's reinterpretation of the Book of Revelation what this actually does is to say that the symbolism, all the vivid elements that some people before had been taking literally, none of them were literal. He did not believe in a literal thousand year reign. He did not believe in a literal figure that would come as a kind of Antichrist or any thing like that. What he says essentially is that all of that ... is really about the church, it's the church that is the thousand year reign of Christ on earth, beginning at the resurrection of Jesus himself. And the symbolic thousand years will come to end only when Christ returns at the end of the world and takes the kingdom away to heaven ... .

What finally forced Augustine to this much more spiritualising or symbolic interpretation of the Book of Revelation is not only that he was facing heresy and he was having difficulties with people who thought it was coming any day, but another major political event that occurred in the year 410 when the Visigoths, under Alaric, actually sacked the city of Rome. The city of Rome, that had been [thought of] since the days of Constantine as now being the protectors of the church, the ones who would make the church the kingdom on earth, had failed. And Augustine looks at the destruction of Rome kind of like the destruction of Jerusalem for an earlier generation and says, "How could this happen?" His response is as he writes in his very important work, the City of God, is to realize that the city of Rome [is not], and indeed no political entity is, the true city of God. The city of God is the church. And it's only that city that will be preserved inviolable until the end of time when Christ comes in judgment... . For Augustine, then, the city of God, the church, is the new Jerusalem on earth and anticipates the final new Jerusalem in heaven. ...

The crucial term in Augustine's interpretation is he sees, in the Book of Revelation itself, that there are two resurrections. The one resurrection that comes at the beginning of the thousand year reign and another resurrection when Christ comes again and establishes the new Jerusalem. Augustine. though, takes that to mean the first resurrection is when one is born into the church. For him, symbolically the thousand year kingdom on earth is the church, so when you're going into the church that's your spiritual resurrection into the kingdom. But the second resurrection will be the one that comes at the end of the world, when Christ literally does come again and ... establishes finally his new heavenly kingdom.

the last judgement

hildegard's depiction of the last judgment
For Augustine, the new Jerusalem is explicitly and exclusively a heavenly Jerusalem, not an earthly one. To join Christ there is to ascend into heaven. But before one can do that must come the resurrection and the judgment by Christ. He then takes the story of the judging between the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 where Jesus sits in judgment ... and says that's the scene that will take place when Christ comes again to establish the final kingdom at the end of the world. Is there any reference to judgment in the Book of Revelation?

... Augustine uses the sense of a final resurrection and a final judgment as we find it in the Book of Revelation, especially in chapter 21, as the occasion we're talking about: Christ coming at the end of the world to judge the quick and the dead.

How important was Augustine's conclusion about the final judgment?

For the rest of Christian history, this notion of a final judgment at the end of the world where Christ himself comes back to sit enthroned and read out judgment to the good as well as to the evil, will become the major expectation of all Christianity thereafter. And [the] Augustine synthesis really is the one that establishes that connection for later Christianity.

METHODS OF INTERPRETATION




L. Michael White

How has the Book of Revelation been interpreted through Christian history?

The complexity of the structure of the book and the difficulty of interpreting it is something that many Christians have tried to deal with throughout the subsequent centuries. In part, it is maybe even more problematic because the expectations of John of an imminent overthrow of the Roman Empire within only three and a half years didn't come to pass. The Roman Empire lasted for a great deal longer, so how do we understand this? How did Christians think about it, in the light of the fact that this claims to be a revelation from God himself given to John ... ?

Essentially we can think about the different ways that this book has been interpreted in Christian history as breaking out into two basic categories. First, symbolic interpretations [in which] all of the images, all of the elements in the story of John are merely symbols of the experiences of the Christian Church throughout its history, but with no specific implication for time. This is actually the view that will be taken by Saint Augustine, that there is nothing predicted in absolute historical terms anywhere in the Book of Revelation; it is all mere symbolism. It is also one of the common modes of interpretation that is popular among many Christians today. ...

The other mode of interpretation is what we might call a literalist mode, where it is assumed that at least some events in the Book of Revelation are literal historical events that have played themselves out in human history, or will do so. There are basically three types of this literalist reading of the book. The first is what we might call the continuous historical literalism. It assumes that some events described in the Book of Revelation actually took place in John's day, but that other events will carry on in future history down to some later period of time, in fact, down even to the end of the world. And so they would look at, let's say, current events of their own day, whether it's in the period of the Crusades or in the period of the Protestant Reformation or even down into the nineteenth and twentieth century, as being fulfillment of what John predicted way back at the end of the first century. This is a mode of interpretation that we find quite a lot in the Middle Ages and in the Reformation period. It's somewhat less used these days, but it is still around and it tends to look at, especially, the end of the world, as the kind of final event that's described in the Book of Revelation and also the thousand year reign, when Christ will rule, as another key and very literal experience. ...

Another mode of literalist interpretation is what is referred to as the futurist school. The futurist would say that nothing in the Book of Revelation past chapter 4 has yet been fulfilled. Everything is coming in the future, and most of it is in the final days before the eschaton itself, before the return of Christ and before the beginning of a literal thousand year reign on earth. So this school of interpretation sees all of the later material as something that we're watching for. What's been very important about this particular school is it looks ahead for signs so that we know when the clock will begin ticking. ...

And then the third kind of literalist interpretation is one that says that all the events in the Book of Revelation are literally historically true, but that almost all of them have been completed in the past, either in John's day or within the early years of Christian history, with the possible exception of the end of the world itself. Now it's this last interpretation where most scholarship on the New Testament in early Christian history actually is located. Almost all the scholars would say that either John was talking explicitly about his own days and had a very limited expectation of the future, or that the Revelation of John was predicting events, basically down to the time of Constantine and nothing beyond except for an expectation of the end of the world. ...


JOHN COLLINS

What is the central message of the Book of Revelation?

Collins is a Professor of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

(more about Collins)

With a book like the Book of Revelation, you will inevitably have several central messages depending on the angle from which you look at them. Some people see it primarily as a political statement, where the central message is resistance to tyranny, as exemplified in that case by the power of Rome. Other people would see it as a more spiritual book where the emphasis is on the end product, where everybody gets to sing like the angels in heaven and where detachment from this world is the central point of it. I suppose you would have to say that the central message encompasses both of these. That on the one hand there is there a rather terrifying vision of this world, as a place that is brutal, where savage powers are let loose, but also then that sees this world in perspective, where the powers of this world are passing away, and I suppose I would say at the end of that is the basic message of the book. That the powers of this world, no matter how terrifying they may be, are passing away and that in the end righteousness and justice will prevail. ...


Adela Yarbro Collins

To what extent is the Book of Revelation a political tract?

Well, in the ancient world, when early Christians were interpreting the book, there was one group who read it as having to do with this world and who read the messianic reign as having to do with a pleasure, with a great feasting and fulfillment of the promises, reward for the faithful, and this involved the downfall of Rome. And there were others who thought that that kind of reading was unworthy. It was too material, too self centered, and they were the ones who initiated what we would call an allegorical reading, as a struggle between good and evil in general, not good and evil in particular. In [that] sense the book is a political tract. And I think that's one of the strengths of the modern fundamentalist readings. Hal Lindsey and his ilk. They see that it's about politics, whereas the more spiritual mainline church reading misses that aspect.

Is the Book of Apocalypse a unique work?

The Book of Revelation is not a unique book. It does belong to a tradition of apocalyptic writing, which began in Judaism in the Second Temple period. So the Book of Daniel would be the only other apocalypse in the canon, but there were many other books from about the same period that shared this literary form in this perspective. ... The prophetic books are based on the idea that God selects certain human beings to speak to and to send them out as spokespeople for God. The typical literary form of a prophetic book is an oracle. "Thus says the Lord." And then an announcement of God's word. It might be an announcement of judgment, or an announcement of salvation, or an admonition, an ethical admonition. And the apocalypses tend to be less straightforward. Less a simple proclamation of God's words spoken to an individual, and more complicated, more of a narrative. And apocalypse is a kind of narrative account of how revelation came to the seer.

When some people hear the word prophetic, they think it means something in the future, what's going to happen next.

Prophecy and apocalypticism share a hope on the future, and theologically speaking, in the twentieth century, many mainstream or liberal pastors and theologians have argued that prophecy is not primarily prediction of the future, it's much more an advocacy of certain moral positions. For example social justice for the poor. But I think that prediction of the future is an important element in prophecy. ... That's not all they are, but that's an important element.

And John's Apocalypse is in some sense prophetic in the usual sense of the word.

John's Apocalypse also relates to the future, but not a future historical event. ... The Book of Revelation has come to be read as prophesying the events of the end of history. A general resurrection, a general judgment and a new age. ...

Can you describe the way in which some people, literalists if that's the right word, read the book quite literally?

On the one hand the Book of Revelation I think needs to be taken seriously as grappling with history and with actual events, but a fundamentalist or dispensationalist reading tends to impose a schemer on the text that isn't there. I would say that [with] Hal Lindsey, for example ... the problem is not so much that he reads it literally, is that he reads it in a kind of flat way. That he sees the images as simply code language for certain events in the future, and misses the overtones of symbol and myth.

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