aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Apocalypse now, indeed

A couple of years ago, I began to type up my notes for the study of Revelation that I lead now and again. My intent was to publish a study guide to the book. I got the Intro written and started on the first vision, but like a lot of projects, it languished as I got busy with other things.

I'm thinking now that I should try to get back to this. Maybe publishing it here on LJ would be a spur to getting it done. Anyway, I think I'll put up some of it and see if anyone is interested in commenting on it.



Despite its reputation for being confusing and scary, Revelation has been one of the most influential books of the Bible. Part of its influence is due to a cyclical fascination with the End Times. Groups as far apart in time and culture as the third Century Montanists and the nineteenth Century Shakers have been absorbed by the study of God's final message to his creation.

In every generation, there have been those who have seen the predicted events of Revelation unfolding in their own day and age. They have drawn their charts and held their conferences, preached their revivals and followed their news sources with breathless anticipation. All this, despite Jesus's direct admonition not to pay attention to those who say "he is at the gates." We just can't help it.

Revelation has also been a rich source of material for polemicists. Its powerful imagery has been used to label others as "lukewarm," as a "scarlet woman," as "Antichrist." Conversely, those on whose side you are engaging are part of the Lamb's "144,000," have their names "written in the book of life," and are blessed because "they have overcome."

Other images have been adopted for popular use. Grantland Rice, the American sportswriter, referred to the backfield of Notre Dame's football team as "the Four Horsemen." Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Notre Dame's stars wrought destruction and defeat upon their opponents.

Revelation is full of scenes of worship and high ceremony. There are music and gorgeous poetry. Consequently, Revelation has been mined for imagery and phrases to use in the Church's worship language. We see it in hymns, songs, prayers, sacraments, and burial rites.

Some of our songs based on passages from Revelation include:
Lo, he comes with clouds descending (1:7);
O Jesus, thou art standing (3:20);
Behold, behold, I stand at the door and knock (3:20);
Holy, holy, holy! (4:8-11);
Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim (7:9-12);
Look, ye saints! the sight is glorious (11:15);
Crown him with many crowns (19:12);
Hallelujah Chorus, from Messiah (20:6);
O holy city, seen of John (22:1-5).

In addition, some of familiar songs which draw upon the images in Revelation include:
I will sing the wondrous story;
Servant of God, well done;
The Church's one foundation;
Jerusalem the Golden;
Turn back, O man;
For all the saints;
All hail the power of Jesus' Name;
Holy God, we praise thy name;
The Battle Hymn of the Republic;
When the roll is called up yonder;
Shall we gather at the river;
The Holy City.

Revelation has also had a fundamental impact on Christians' attitudes toward eternal life. Many are not real clear on the differences between "life after death" and "eternal life." The Bible's concepts are sometimes murky and difficult to grasp. But the images in Revelation are powerful and clear.

We have adopted these images to give hope to those who mourn. And a curious thing has happened. Images clearly designed to convey a belief about the future state of those who die in the Faith have been taken up in anticipation to describe what we hope is the present state of those who have died.

Likewise, images which are obviously symbolic have been treated as though they were concrete: there are many people who believe that heaven has streets that are really paved with elemental gold, and there are people who spend their time calculating how many people could live in the New Jerusalem, based upon its physical dimensions as described in the vision.


Revelation is a book of prophecy, the only one in the New Testament. It shares many of the characteristics of such Old Testament books as Isaiah and Daniel; however, not all prophets and books of prophecy are the same.

In the early days of Israel, prophets occupied a charismatic position in the kingdom(s) who worshiped the Lord. Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha anointed kings and corrected public behavior. They fought against false prophets and promoted the worship of the Lord.

Later on, prophets turned literary, recording visions and speaking of things far in the future. Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah began to record a new chapter in the revealing of God's will. Besides the Law, which gave all the basic rules for God's people to follow, there now were the Prophets, which revealed more of God's character and spoke of what God would do to redeem Israel.

By the time of Jesus, prophets had become more and more concerned with the end of the world and the judgment of God. Sects like the Essenes were looking for a Teacher of Righteousness who would purify Israel. Some of the more literary of this generation of prophets began to write what are called apocalypses. An apocalypse is a "revelation" of that which had been hidden. Our book of Revelation is another such apocalypse.

Among the more famous bits of apocalyptic literature was the Book of Enoch -- one of the few non-canonical books to be quoted in the Bible.

Apocalypses use stock images to report their visions, and they mostly use a kind of religious code to talk about what they reveal. This does not mean that they are merely "made up," of course. Visions are experiences that are common to many religions, and all of them use stock images (in our case, from the other books of the Bible) and religious code to express what would otherwise be unexplainable.

It is important to remember that the imagery and sequence of a vision is -- in comparison to a dream -- very concrete. But in order to convey the hard, bright images encountered, the writer must speak in words which can convey meaning to those who have not shared his experience.

And if he "polishes it up" after jotting it down, that doesn't mean it isn't real, either. If you were to describe an ordinary chair, it might take you several tries to get your description just right. A visionary reporting a chair unlike any chair ever seen might be excused for making several tries before he got it "just right."

All this is to say that Revelation is not only the record of a man's visions, it is also a literary product. The book abounds in literary devices used with very high skill. The images are well-wrought, the poetry is gorgeous, and the code goes beyond allegory and symbol to speak riddles that convey more truth than merely factual statements.

Some readers may also be confused by the appearance of the denizens of heaven and hell which they encounter here, or by physical structures that are described or measured. It is important to remember that in a vision, the appearance of a thing is its meaning. The descriptions and measurements are not of the sort one meets in a biology or engineering textbook; which is to say, that if a human being could see an angel or a demon or some other thing from Revelation in its own proper form, it might not look anything like how it is described in the book. But then, to see an angel "in the wild," so to speak, would not tell one anything about its nature or habits or mission, all of which can be understood from its description in the language of the vision.

Place in the Canon

Revelation was one of the last books of the New Testament (NT) to be included in the canon (official list). Keep in mind that no committee of priests or scholars ever got together to research what would go into the NT; rather, by the time the persecutions were ending, the Church throughout the Mediterranean world found that there already existed a consensus of what was worthy to be considered scripture.

This consensus was greatly aided by the persecutions. After all, when one can be sentenced to death for merely possessing Christian scriptures, it is a matter of some moment to be able to say what is, and is not, Christian scripture.

By the early fourth Century, only a few controversies remained. One of those controversies concerned Revelation, another the Letter to the Hebrews.

Revelation was greatly admired in the Latin-speaking West of the Empire. They firmly believed it was worthy of inclusion; however, the book was ostensibly addressed to seven churches in Asia Province -- none of which had much of a local tradition of having received the book the way Corinth had received Paul's letters to that church.

Meanwhile, Hebrews, which uses the allegorical method of Old Testament (OT) interpretation associated with the Alexandrian Jewish and Christian philosophers and Bible scholars, was greatly admired in the Greek-speaking East. The problem was, it had been addressed (accordingly to the plain sense of the text) to the Christians at Rome -- and Rome had no local tradition of having received and treasured it.

I would not be so crass as to suggest that a swap was proposed; for one thing, the machinery to conduct such a negotiation was barely in evidence, even if the leadership of the Church could have brought themselves to haggle over these books. No, it was consensus again, but a consensus that decided to err on the side of inclusion for certain books that had the enthusiastic endorsement of large segments of the Church.

One of the earliest lists we have which show the entire NT as we have it today was issued by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, in 365. It was the custom in those days to send circular letters to the congregations in one's diocese in order to inform them of the date of Easter -- and address other matters, including what books were considered officially to be scripture.

Controversy has continued to surround Revelation over the centuries. Martin Luther considered dropping it from the NT. He thought "a revelation should be revealing." But he, too, decided to err on the side of inclusion. Or maybe it was those parting words from the text: " . . . if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which is described in this book" (Rev. 22:19).


Traditionally, the author of Revelation is supposed to be John the Apostle, the younger brother of James bar-Zebedee -- the same John who leaned on Jesus's breast at the last supper, and to whose care Jesus commended his mother Mary. The traditional date of composition is about AD 95, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, a nasty man with a bugaboo about Christians.

The Isle of Patmos off the coast of Asia Province was a place of exile for the old man. (See Figure 2.) It should be noted that the Romans had very little concept of imprisonment as a punishment. Fines and exile were their usual punishments, though death -- even for non-violent offenders such as the Christians -- was becoming more usual in their criminal justice system.

John would have been about 80 years old or so, supposing him to have been among the youngest of the disciples when called by Jesus. Traditionally, he is supposed to have retired to a place near Ephesus, from which he wrote the three short personal letters we find in the New Testament.

Polycarp of Ephesus, who died in a later persecution under Trajan, was said to have learned his faith in Christ from John. His death in AD 115 provides an important link between the world of the apostles and the world of the Early Church Fathers.

John also wrote the Gospel that bears his name. In one of its final episodes, the Risen Christ foretells a strange fate for John: "‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?' . . . Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die" (John 21:22-23a). In any case, John is supposed to be the only one of the original Twelve to die a peaceful death in old age.

All this, of course, is merely the traditional view. Many scholars dispute that the Apostle John wrote some or all of the works that bear his name. They assert that there was a second John -- John the Elder -- from Ephesus: a different man altogether. Or they say that an another writer, or even "the Johannine community," wrote the works that bear John's name. They say this was to honor him, rather than as an exercise in fraud. Many scholars also believe that Revelation was written considerably later than AD 95.

The evidence for all this is pretty shaky, and there is no compelling reason to believe it offers a better explanation than the traditional view; nevertheless, authorship and date of this collection of visions is less important than it might be for other books to establish its authenticity.

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