How to read the Book of Revelation (well)

revelationYet another ‘prophecy’ about the end of the world comes and goes—but we know, like the proverbial bus, another one will be along soon. One of the reasons for this predictable yet disappointing procession is that we don’t really know how to read the Book of Revelation properly—the source of many of these failed forecasts.

Many people leave this last book of the Bible firmly closed, and in some ways I don’t blame them. If you do open it, it looks like a very strange text indeed, for at least two reasons. The first is that we haven’t read anything else quite like it, and we usually learn how to read things by drawing on our past experience. The second is that, if we ask for help from other people, they will give us a very wide range of possible views, most of which are completely contradictory. So what should we do?

There are actually some relatively straightforward things to bear in mind as we read—though perhaps the most important thing is just that: to engage our minds. God invites us to love him with our mind, as well as our heart, soul and strength (Luke 10.27), and the best thing we can do with Revelation is to keep our hearts and our minds connected with one another. The vast majority of whacky ideas that have sprung from this book can easily be dismissed if we simply ask ‘Is this really plausible?’

Here are seven things to think about which will make all the difference:


  1. Notice where this book is

Pause for a minute; look at your Bible. Where is Revelation—is it inside or outside the covers? Why is it inside—why did it become part of what is now our Scripture? The first followers of Jesus already had their own Bible, what we now call our Old Testament, and it is worth considering why they felt the need to add anything more. The books of the Old Testament were testimony to God’s words and actions in rescuing his people, being present with them, and making his glory known to the world. And so, when God came once more to speak, act and save in the person of Jesus, they needed to include testimony to this as well. Heb 1.1–2 puts it very clearly: ‘It the past God spoke…but now he has spoken by his Son…’ The other documents in the NT testify to what God has done in Jesus, and how we should live in the light of this—so Revelation must be doing the same. If, instead, it set out a completely separate end-times scheme that wouldn’t be relevant for another 2,000 years, it would never have been included.


  1. Notice to whom this book is written

What kind of text is Revelation? We are given some important clues early on, when the writer says ‘John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you…’ (Rev 1.5). You might recognise this phrase, since it comes at the beginning of all of Paul’s letters—it is the standard way people wrote letters in the first century. Whatever else Revelation is, it is a letter, written to particular people living at a particular time in a particular place. So although it is written for us as Scripture, it is not written to us. We therefore need to consider how John’s first audience would have understood it if we want to know how God wants to speak to us through it.

And of course it means you can visit these places today. You can see the acropolis (upper fortified town) where ‘Satan’s throne is’ (Rev 2.13); you can visit the city that needed to ‘Wake up!’ (Rev 3.2) when it was besieged; you can even see the furred-up pipes that carried ‘lukewarm’ water (Rev 3.16) to Laodicea. Cold water is good for refreshing; hot water is good for healing; but lukewarm water is good for nothing! The Laodiceans’ problem was not lukewarm faith, but lukewarm ‘works’ (Rev 3.15).


  1. Notice the use it makes of the OT

I once spent a week of my life counting the allusions to or echoes of the Old Testament in Revelation’s 405 verses. By the end of Friday afternoon I had reached 676—which is a lot of allusions! It means we cannot really move without bumping in an OT reference. (If you don’t believe me, just compare Rev 1.12–17 with Dan 10.5–12). When Revelation’s first hearers (Rev 1.3) come across thunder and lightning (Rev 4.5), trumpets (Rev 8.7) and locusts (Rev 9.3), they are much more likely to think of Mt Sinai (Ex 19.16), the call to temple worship (Lev 23.24), and judgement and restoration (Joel 2.25) than they are to imagine either twee Christian art or armoured attack helicopters (yes, that is one interpretation of Rev 9.3!).


  1. Notice the ideas that it borrows

If I started explaining what Jesus had done like this ‘There was a girl who had a red cloak with a hood, and one day she set off into the woods…’ and managed to weave in the gospel, you’d know what I was talking about. Or if I started off ‘There was once a house with three bears, daddy bear, mummy bear and baby bear…’ and ended with Jesus’ death and resurrection, you’d recognise it. In the same way, when anyone in the first century read or heard Rev 12, they would immediately recognise it as the Python/Leto myth. (You can read it here in the works of Hyginus at myth 140.) The great dragon tries to kill the offspring of Leto, but she is rescued, gives birth to Apollo and Artemis, and Apollo returns to slay the dragon. The story was used by Roman emperors to depict themselves as Apollo, the defeater of the forces of chaos and the bringer of peace. Rev 12 turns it around: the emperor is the bringer of chaos, and only Jesus is the one who brings victory and peace.

This is not an exercise in being ‘academic’ in our reading. It is just the normal discipline of recognising that the Bible was speaking in the language of its context and culture, and this decisively shapes its meaning.


  1. Notice the way it uses numbers

End-times fanatics love to make use of numbers—and Revelation gives some warrant for this. But it makes use of numbers in a particular way. First, it includes significant words with special regularity—so ‘Jesus’, the faithful witness, occurs 14 (= 2 x 7), which is the number of perfect witness (since you need two witnesses Deut 17.6, and you need to know that seven is the number of completeness, since there are seven days, seven seas, seven continents and in the ancient world seven planets). It also uses ‘triangular’ numbers (think of the 15 red balls on a snooker table) such as 666. But it is not alone in this in the NT. The 153 fish (John 21.11) and the 276 people on Paul’s boat (Acts 27.37) are also such special numbers!

Finally, Revelation uses a common form of numerology in the first century (known as isopsephia in Greek or gematria in Hebrew) in which you add up the numerical value of the letters of a word to give the word’s value. This is possible since, before the Arabic number system we use today, all letters had a value and were used in everyday arithmetic. In this way, the number of ‘the beast’ is the same as a the number of a man’s name (in this case Nero Caesar) since both add up to 666. This ‘solution’ to the puzzle of Rev 13.18 has been known in academic circles since the 1840s, but sadly has still not filtered down into popular reading. And that leads me to my final point…


  1. Notice that it is given to God’s people as a whole, not to us each as individuals…

The opening of Revelation invites a blessing on the one (singular) who reads and those who hear (plural, Rev 1.3). The situation envisaged is not an individual, with his or her own text, reading alone, but a lector at the front of the congregation reading aloud so that others can listen. (This is really the only possible social context of the church’s reception of the early Christian writings.) What is true for Revelation is true for all of the New Testament: it was in the first place given to the whole people of God for the building up of the whole people of God.

That means we need to help one another to read and understand aright. Some of the things I have mentioned above might seem just a little technical and remote from everyday devotion. But it is now very easy to access this kind of information. You might want to start with my Grove booklet available post free here. Or you could turn to Craig Koester’s Revelation and the End of All Things, or Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly.

Or you might even want to buy my commentary in the IVP series, whose introduction addresses all these major questions around the text in an accessible form!


  1. …and for a particular purpose

But the reason for thinking about these things is not so that we can impress others with our knowledge—it is in order that Revelation can do the work in and amongst us that it is designed to do. John, our ‘brother in kingdom, tribulation and patient endurance’ (Rev 1.9) wants us to understand how we can live as faithful witnesses, testifying to the victory that Jesus has won, in a world which is frequently hostile to God and his people.

In our post-Christendom world, it is a message we badly need to hear—without being sidelined by the latest silly scheme that has been dreamt up in ignorance. (This is a revised version of an article first published in October 2015).


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63 thoughts on “How to read the Book of Revelation (well)”

  1. Thanks for this Ian.

    A rather intense member of my church, who spends a lot of time viewing Christian cable TV channels, spoke to me two weeks ago with great excitement about a prophecy from Revelation involving Russia and the USA in some inevitable and imminent Armageddon. I passed him a copy of your Grove booklet ‘How to Read the Book of Revelation’ and he returned it a few days later saying it was very insightful. I am pleased to report that he has calmed down a bit. Result.

    • I used to think a little like that but not so much now. However I would ask the question, given Daniel wrote about events in quite a lot of detail centuries before they happened (eg the Roman Empire of iron and clay, the coming of the Messiah etc), are we right to presume John didnt?

      • Are we right to assume Daniel did Peter? My biblical education at the hands of some fairly heavyweight Hebrew Bible specialists such as David Clines and Philip R. Davies would suggest absolutely not! The trouble with such prediction nonsense is it always holds the writer accountable for the interpretations of often much later readers. In my mind such reading has the same amount of credibility as crystal balls and newspaper horoscopes.

        I take a similar view when it comes to Revelation since I was also taught by another Revelation specialist and one very different to our host here. Revelation, it seems to me, is a book about the writer’s present and for his present audience. Its not written for 21st century people to pontificate about the Second Coming. If we can’t say what it would have meant to people of the writer’s time then we cannot say what it would have meant at all.

        Its also worth noting that without books such as Ezekiel and Daniel it would have been impossible to write Revelation at all since so much of it is a repurposing of Jewish thought for Christian purposes (Ian Paul’s 7th point).

        • Thanks Andrew. ‘Heavyweight’ does not mean ‘right’. Even secular historians and cynics of the Bible view at least some of what Daniel wrote (as told by the angel) covers accurate history down through the centuries, pertinent to Israel. They would however assert that it was written after the fact, typically in the 2nd century, rather than the traditional dating of 6th century BC. But having looked at the arguments for the late dating (2nd century BC, or is that early, I always get confused!) Ive found them unconvincing and not persuasive.

          I would imagine that many such scholars (though not all) assert the 2nd century date precisely because they cannot accept the prophetic, hence also why many scholars insist all of the Gospels were written after AD70 due to Jesus’ prophecies about Jerusalem and the Temple. That would seem to be your position.

          Im not sure I would agree that Revelation would have been ‘impossible’ to write without Daniel etc, but it certainly does follow in a similar prophetic genre. Which is precisely why I believe its possible futurism should not be dismissed.

          Peter
          PS I tried to find some of your books online but couldnt find any! Just your very short leaflet linked to your name here.

          • Peter, if one accepts the “supernatural” answer first then one has chosen to be a fabulist. Much better, I think, to take the Sherlock Homes approach that once one has ruled out the more possible options then what remains, however implausible, must be true. So, with Daniel, if events seem to refer to the Antiochus IV crisis that led to the Maccabean revolt then that’s because that’s when it was written. That, at least, is my view.

            When I say that Revelation would have been impossible to write without Daniel and Ezekiel, as only two of several examples, this is because if the book is studied as literature it is, to put it mildly, little else than those books rewritten and reapplied in a Christian direction. It is impossible not to see Revelation’s city of God as an updated version of Ezekiel city of God. Read the latter part of Ezekiel to see what you think for yourself about that. My point, however, is that however Revelation is presented, as apocalypse, as vision, as prophecy, this hides the fact that in actuality there is a lot of strictly literary business going on under the hood. I don’t know if Ian Paul, being a Revelation specialist himself, would confirm this but as one with a very literary interest in the Bible the case seems almost irrefutable to me. The simple amount of Hebrew Bible allusion, quotation and use of ideas and metaphors in Revelation is something that could only have come from intense and sustained literary activity. It is, then, a very deliberately constructed text and the most intertextual in the Christian Bible.

            PS If you click the link in my name now you will be taken to a list of books I have put online. Not all are about Jesus and the Gospels as I have other interests too but you will find them there. Thank you for your interest.

          • Andrew, you’re right that the amount of intertextuality in Rev is quite huge. I wouldn’t always call this primarily ‘literary’, since there are better options. Scriptural data and truth can dominate the way that someone views the world, views realities and actualities. They can also be committed to memory rather than consulted in a study.

            If someone is a Scripture person, Scripture will be ubiquitous in what they say. We see this also today.

        • Andrew, I think I would want to attend carefully to what both Clines and Davies say, though worth noting that I think both would take an ‘anti-supernaturalist’ position as default, so would rule out the possibility of predictive prophecy axiomatically.

          I probably should pay more attention to the arguments that PC1 refers to in defence of an earlier dating, but the things that I notice (as a non-OT specialist) are:

          . just because a story is about a 6th-century figure does not mean it was written in the 6th century
          . the evident change in style at chapter 7
          . the very clear connections between the two halves e.g. the four parts of the statue in ch 2 corresponding to the four beasts in ch 7.
          . the almost universal recognition of how the second half relates to the Antiochene crisis in 167 BC
          . as above, the focus *not* on predicting the future, but on speaking to God’s people about how they should keep faith in the present.

          • Ian, you are probably correct about Clines and Davies and their views on predictive prophecy. Yet surely such an “anti-supernaturalist” position is only reasonable? What’s more, a “supernatural” God is not very theologically sophisticated, really not much more than a Superman, and those are two of the most sophisticated men I ever met. I would consequently suggest they were against inappropriate and unsophisticated readings of texts as much as they might be against various posited beings, that being the case.

            I take all your further points under advisement and do not disagree with them. As a student I read Davies’ “Old Testament Guide” on the book of Daniel and a sentence early on still stands out in the context of this blog as it applies equally to both Daniel and to Revelation. This is that for both books the subject is “the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men”. Having studied Revelation also as a student, in a class taught by Stephen Moore around the time of his hard to forget essay “Revolting Revelations”, I recall his teaching and, I note, his subsequent writing on Revelation has focused quite a lot on empire, dominion, war and the like, in Moore’s work resulting in “postcolonial” and “gendered” readings of the text, amongst others, which, in his cultured hands, becomes every bit a product of human culture and in ways that are not always very seemly once disclosed. I imagine, for example, that Moore sees far more masculinity and phallic symbology than you do as well as all those testosterone soaked pages he talks about. But that is why there is Moore’s 2014 book of essays on Revelation “Untold Tales from the Book of Revelation” which makes all this very clear. What I do also note from Moore, on the other hand, is that a straightforward historical-philological reading of Revelation is regarded as rather blinkered, even if Moore would find a far more entertaining way to say that himself than I did just there. I wonder if those who are reading it for prediction purposes are really getting the point or even reading the book to anything like it full potential?

          • Hi Andrew,

            you wrote:
            Yet surely such an “anti-supernaturalist” position is only reasonable? What’s more, a “supernatural” God is not very theologically sophisticated, really not much more than a Superman, and those are two of the most sophisticated men I ever met.

            Beware of straw-man arguments! God is not one who is of this material world, only stronger and more capable. There is an essential otherness to God, and creation is separate and distinct. If God is the one who is outside of space and time and holds all things in being, then ‘supernaturalism’ is part of the system. Classical theism is well-founded intellectually, it is certainly not unreasonable, and considers metaphysical questions which simple materialism cannot answer. You might not find it compelling, but unsophisticated it is not.

          • David, I take your points on board yet still find “supernatural” a very culturally-bound and so anthropocentric term for what God is. It is human beings looking at God and saying such a being is outside their regular, everyday frame of reference and can sometimes be a simple avoidance of having to do any thinking about the subject. There can, of course, be more and less sophisticated versions of such theories and discussions of such topics yet I regard such a notion, on the whole, as at the more unsophisticated end of the scale of what we might class as “God talk”. So whilst you insist that “God is not one who is of this material world, only stronger and more capable” I seem to have got the impression from half a century of life that for many people that is pretty much exactly what they think he is – if they think about him at all. That is often, by the by, also the “God” that educated despisers like Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to dismiss, thereby thinking that in dismissing one conception of God they have also dismissed all possible gods.

            Yet when you say “If God is the one who is outside of space and time and holds all things in being, then ‘supernaturalism’ is part of the system” things become a little more blurry. That would then surely mean that there is no “natural” system for your form of words then essentially means that the system is God and it coheres in God who holds all things together as they are. This then itself suggests a kind of transcendence as immanence which I am unclear as to whether you would ascribe to it or not. I have myself described God in an essay I wrote last year as “Endless Impossible” in a linguistic and Jewish mystical conception of God which skirts around the, for me, unhelpful discourses that are epistemology and metaphysics and asks if we should really think of God as a being, a person, an identity, at all. I think we can well do without epistemology and metaphysics and question whether thinking of God in this way as, explicitly, like us only more so, is in the end very helpful. Granted, to think of God this way is certainly the received way and very traditional but in the end my view is that if we have God in a box then our God isn’t big enough or mysterious enough. In any conception of God WE are the ones in the box.

            PS If you want to read “Endless Impossible” I’ve linked it in my name above this comment. I make no claims to its sophistication or otherwise.

          • “the almost universal recognition of how the second half relates to the Antiochene crisis in 167 BC”

            Mm. Yet Christ himself, in Mark 13:14-17, clearly casts this event as future: “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!”

            I don’t think there’s any argument that one of the referents for the latter part of Daniel is to Antiochus Ephiphanes, but that does not seem to be the ending of the story in Christ’s view. When John so clearly refers back to a book Christ presents as prophetic, it seems odd to say that John doesn’t intend his own writings to be seen in the same way.

        • Andrew… I’d agree there is some extremely odd stuff out there on both Revelation and Daniel. People can have a hunger for mystery instead of clarity or seek a false clarity when we need to live with unclarity.

          But “it seems to me, is a book about the writer’s present and for his present audience. Its not written for 21st century people to pontificate about the Second Coming.”

          Might your approach be a false dichotomy? There is clearly “future” stuff as part of the prophetic voice into the the contemporary situation of Revelation’s first hearers. Whether one counts or discounts the voice of God is another issue.

          • Ian, such “future stuff” as there is is of a VERY generalistic kind; its essentially a faith statement that Jesus will come back and its not all over yet. I can accept it as that without any problem. It is not really any different to Paul saying in 1 Thess 5 that the Day of the Lord “will come like a thief in the night”. I think an argument could be made, though, that neither Paul nor the writer of Revelation would have expected that 2,000 years later, and counting, essentially nothing had happened. It reminds me of Acts 1 in which Jesus goes from the guy talking about the kingdom of God in Luke, by the same author it is thought, to the person telling the now apostles not to be nosey about God’s timetable. That smacks to me of people who have no clue what they are talking about and now all they have is a generalistic hope for the future which, to be blunt, is all Christians do have. In the cases of Revelation and Paul, and probably anyone else in the New Testament, I think they would have expected their imagined futures by now. “What must soon take place”, which Revelation speaks of in its final chapter, is not two millennia later whatever obfuscations may be put up about a day being as a thousand years. As I’ve written in the comments of this blog before: the proof of the apocalyptic Jesus is the reappearance of the apocalyptic Jesus. Nothing else will cut the mustard.

    • John, that is really good to know. The reason why I persist in teaching on this is that I see, many times, this kind of positive pastoral effect. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Slightly off topic, but can you point me to the best explanation of Jesus’ words (His only) concerning the establishment of the kingdom. I have had some discourse with an atheist who insists that Jesus predicted the apocalpyse within a short few years, and who also maintains that Jesus said nothing about His ‘return’ but rather that is something added by the Gospel writers etc when it was obvious the apocalypse had still not occurred.

  3. Reading this takes me back to learning and listening in St Martin’s House. Thank you for starting many of us on the path to starting to understand Revelations.

  4. Too many unwarranted assumptions underlie discussion of Revelation. There is a strong historical case that it should never have been included in the NT canon in the first place. The early Church put writings to four tests before considering them for scriptural status: composition in the First Century, authorship by an associate of Jesus, theological orthodoxy (with reference to the Gospels and Paul), and universal acceptance by the Church of the day. Revelation actually failed the latter three tests. So why was a composition by an author who never knew Jesus and who held unorthodox views, and which was rejected by most of the early Church, included in the NT? Constantine’s personal and political purposes had a great deal to do with it. See the entire case in Testing the Apocalypse: A History of the Book of Revelation (2017).

    • A very interesting comment of yours David when you say “There is a strong historical case that it should never have been included in the NT canon in the first place.” I was just myself re-reading an essay I wrote some time ago about the book “A New New Testament” in which a group of scholars suggested a “new” canon which, in their case, turned out to be the 27 books of the NT with ten further books added. In my essay discussing that book, the processes around it and the ideas involved in a “canon” in the first place, I myself argued that Revelation should be the first book kicked out of the NT in such a putative process, not least because I based my arguments on demonstrated apostolic authorship which Revelation, as many other NT books, seems to lack.

      • Demonstrated apostolic authorship is almost impossible, one just has to weigh the evidence/probabilities. This has nothing to do with this particular case, just it is harder to verify something than to falsify something.

        • It doesn’t make any difference Christopher if the rhetorical opponents of the “A New New Testament” project, to which I referred above, were those who always seemed to argue on (presumed) apostolic grounds as their main ground of inclusion for a book in the NT canon. This is what I found in writing the essay to which I referred. I similarly found that such a “demonstrated”, or even merely probable, apostolic authorship of the 27 NT books was in a minority (I restricted it to the 7 authentic Paulines and 4 Johannine writings making for 11 out of 27 books but I can see ways in which, even there, I was generous). I have no doubt you would disagree with those findings in every case but I would also take that as indicative of the fact that there is so much historical leeway in discussions that few if any of us can be dogmatic about any such decision. All it does, in fact and in my view, is make apostolic claimants seem rather desperate to ground their favoured sources – as I found in researching those most vocally opposing the very idea of “A New New Testament” when it was published about 6 years ago.

          • There are a few points here I don’t agree with.

            Ideological thoroughgoing scepticism which fails to distinguish between separate issues is bad in the way that every ideology is bad. How can you generalise? There will be cases where the evidence is clearer and cases where it is less clear – you translate that into ‘we can’t be dogmatic about pretty much anything’. And again when you are writing about another topic the message will be the same: ‘you can’t be dogmatic about pretty much anything’. In such sweeping statements we get such a lack of nuance, differentiation and precision which are the hallmarks of scholarship.

            As I mentioned elsewhere, I attribute all the Johannine writings to John the Elder, who was a disciple of the Lord, though by his day it was a big thing even to have ‘seen and touched’ Jesus.

            Douglas Campbell makes a recent detailed case for seeing the non-pastoral letters (a group of ten acknowledged as a group as early as Marcion or earlier) as all genuinely from Paul.

            Mark, Luke and Silas (a good candidate for authorship of Hebrews; and of course co-authorship of 1 Peter and 1-2 Thess) and Timothy (Colossians etc) were close enough associates of Paul/Peter to be at the centre of the picture. As David W says, one close remove from apostolicity was, sensibly, highly rated even though it was not actually apostolicity. Then we have quite probably the words of James and Jude themselves who shared some of Jesus’s DNA.

          • I don’t generalise Christopher. In a reply on a blog I summarise. If you want to read the entire paper I referred to, where I necessarily briefly) appraise each book in the context of my larger argument or, in fact, any paper I’ve written on any subject we might discuss here about which I have written something in more detail, I can give you a web address for it. Here, however, we do not write “scholarship” even if, in fact, we are scholars, which I am not employed as, because this is not a forum appropriate to possibly quite detailed and footnoted material. I’m also bound to note that your reply whips off a few quips about so and so being the author of this and so and so being the author of that but you haven’t provided me your scholarship on that either. James wrote James? Not in the commentary I’m reading about it. Jude wrote Jude? Which Jude? Who is Jude? Mark, Luke or Silas wrote Hebrews? Why? Because these are names we know and we can hardly posit someone we have never heard of? As for “John the Elder” who even is that and what does it mean? This is essentially an anonymous person given any credence only because a few random documents are accredited to him. Is he an “elder” because he is old or because he is a leader? Honest scholars are in fact quick to point out that they cannot even formally distinguish this person from John the apostle: they can only assume. I hope you aren’t calling this “scholarship” or, at least, can point to the scholars who make more detailed cases for their random guesses or imaginative fantasies.

            And, of course, pardon me for mentioning the elephant in the room, a certain Judas the Twin. There are scholars out there who certainly argue that this brother of Jesus is the authority behind the gospel of (Judas) Thomas. Try Stephen Patterson as one very good example. Or read what April DeConick has to say on the subject. I put the probability of him being the authority behind that about on a par with the idea that James the other brother of Jesus wrote James. Or that the same Jude to which I am already referring wrote the epistle of Jude.

            In the end, however, guesses by people with PhDs or who have chairs of New Testament are still guesses and are usually refuted by those equally qualified but with a different opinion. As I say, and as I would want you to note as my most important point here, LACK of knowledge is our most honest outcome in most cases for all the back and forths of probability. You seem to act as if we must put 3 or 4 names in the frame and then pick one. That’s wildly fantastical guesswork not scholarship. Scholarship is happy to say “don’t know” if don’t know has more to recommend it than all the other options.

            PS you should trawl one day through the underbelly of American evangelical scholarship. I’m talking about the kind of scholars who get PhDs from Liberty University and similar places for writing a dissertation on why Jesus is Lord, making sure to repeat the mantra they have been taught word for word, and then they get a place in university or seminary for life publishing 40 years worth of apologetics that is about refuting scholarship rather than taking part in it. That’s who my paper to which I originally referred was interacting with, the kind of people who insist every word is true and every book of the NT fell from heaven. Yet, as I was reading earlier, to haul this back onto the topic of Revelation, that the book is presented as a vision doesn’t mean it was a vision. Perhaps it is only presented as a vision as a very literary context. How could we ever know for sure?

          • You cited Richard Bauckham, who gives good discussions of the authorship of James and Jude.

            One cannot estimate that Judas Thomas is equally likely to have written ‘Thomas’ unless one has first looked at all angles. Which would involve studies of: Luke-Thomas relationship; stages of development of Gnosticism, and at what dates; Thomas-Tatian relationship. Patterson simply assumes Q which does not engender confidence. De Conick knows she is on speculative ground when speaking of relations between Johannine and Thomasine communities (if such there were). I am not confident that these 2 address the central arguments of a Gathercole, Goodacre or Perrin.

            Rather than skipping to agnosticism about Rev as a vision, how about beginning with the evidence? Its literary nature (with the above provisos); its theological/conceptual nature, such that all visions are also concepts that can convey a message rather than being dream-like wraiths; its extreme structuredness (very unlike dreams and ‘given’ visions). Above all its genre, and precursors in that genre.

      • Andrew,

        Note that David (M) says (in his book) that inclusion was on the basis of “authoriship by an associate of Jesus” (and authorship in the first century – I’m unclear why both are specified as being an associate of Jesus almost certainly implies a date in the first century). Specifically apostolic authorship does not seem to have been a criterion. After all, how would Luke/Acts have been so readily accepted, being written by one neither associated with Jesus, nor carrying the title ‘apostle’ (and Luke has more text in the NT than any other author).

        • David, as with my answer to Christopher, I would ask you to note that I was not addressing the specific question of authorship in the essay I referred to above. I was expressly addressing modern, usually conservative, usually evangelical, critics of the book “A New New Testament” whose criticisms of that project were often couched in terms of their, but not necessarily historical, claims of “apostolic authorship” for the New Testament books, including Revelation.

      • Peter.
        Well spotted and remembered/ catalogued.
        Ian Paul’s work is clearly needed in a christian liberal millieu which is bent on shredding scripture with old hat worn-out anti-supernatural unbelieving scholarship that simplistically denudes the the the supremely complexity of the Trinity, which is far beyond the invention of humanity, only knowable by and through the supernatural self revelation of the Trinity, the supernatural incarnation of God’s Son Saviour, and supernatural bodily resurrection, and Revelation of the life to come.
        As you will be aware, DA Carson years ago described this shredding of scripture as: The Gagging of God.

  5. Had Revelation been left out of the canon – and I would have agreed with those who saw the matter as needing some discussion – the anomaly would be far greater than with its inclusion. Here we have the first (surviving) Christian narrative. One that lies (in my view) somewhere behind all 4 gospels. (In this way 4 Ezra etc cannot compare.) One, moreover, that recapitulates and triumphantly seals the biblical narrative. It plays, therefore, such a crucial role in the canon that the canon would look very different (and none the better) without it.

    • Christopher, I suggest it plays a rather more crucial role in your very idiosyncratic reconstruction of NT origins than anything else. I note that Bauckham, in the Oxford Bible Commentary which I happen to have open before me, makes no mention of such a conjecture in his entry on Revelation. In the same book Dale Allison, who writes on Matthew, doesn’t mention it (or regard “Matthew” as the author of Matthew, in fact), neither does Chris Tuckett writing on Mark, Eric Franklin writing on Luke (who seems to accept Q and to say those disbelieving in Q are a “minority”) or Rene Kieffer writing on John.

      It seems that Revelation is your Ur Text in this respect and I’d be genuinely fascinated to read more about this, and its involvement in creating gospels, if there is some text to which you can direct me.

      • It is more that specialists on Rev’s date very regularly assign it to 68-70 and scholars also assign all gospels to later. That is undeniable.

        This would not matter were there no links between Rev and the gospels. But there are plenty of apparent echoes of Rev in Matt’s new material, and some in Luke’s (single beatitudes etc). Conceptual and rhythmic associations with John’s gospel compel one to ask which is prior and how there can be no association. The identical 2 OT texts are combined in Rev 6 (6th seal) and Mk 13. Rev and Mark are very similar in putting the Son of Man’s appearance on the clouds centre-stage, and both may well reflect the 70 crisis.

        I didn’t think Eric Franklin accepted Q, I thought he was a Farrerite. About minorities he is correct. Majorities are mostly non-specialists and go with what they read in NT introductions. Once something is sedimented in NT introductions it is considered ‘mainstream’ however distant it is from what sub-specialists are saying.

        Margaret Barker (commentary on Rev) thinks Rev is an Urtext in creating gospels. I *don’t* agree with her on that. I merely think it precedes all gospels and its influence is seen in them.

        • I ought not to have implied that scholars universally put Mark later than 68-70, many don’t. Even Matt and Luke in some cases.

          • Well, James Crossley certainly doesn’t. On Revelation I think I’d need more literary evidence than “echoes and associations” though. Q, for example, is an entirely literary, or as Kloppenborg emphasises, compositional theory for the relationship of several documents. The argument for a “book of Signs” on John is an argument of a similar nature. You now do not appear to be making a literary or compositional argument for Revelation vis-a-vis the gospels which makes it somewhat my nebulous, in my opinion.

            Regarding Franklin, he presented Q as the major theory for a Luke of possibly multiple sources but refrained from personally endorsing it so you may be right there.

          • What’s nebulous? Writers can use a source, and that is literary. Even more often than using a source, they simply give away through turn of phrase, tincture and accretion that they have read or heard a source. That is something very common.

            Book of Signs is a minority and (I think) certainly misguided hypothesis which grew up in the atmosphere engendered by the age of Wilamowitz when source-hypotheses were all. Q is heading for the same fate IMHO. You have not yet given good reasons beyond argument-from-authority (which would be a bad reason) for adhering to such a hypothesis.

          • Christopher, nothing I argue is on the basis of authority although I will often name scholars whose work I am familiar with and this often finds symmetry with those I tend to favour in terms of their conclusions.

            Signs is a minority view I will gladly admit and its not one I have myself greatly investigated. Q I have much more so and I’m highly sympathetic to the thoughts of Kloppenborg over 30 years of his scholarship on this although Crossan’s maverick views intrigue and interest me in equal measure. His “The Birth of Christianity” is a thesis I have general sympathy with and seems to be one plenty of others since have felt need to take issue with which either says something about Crossan himself or the felt need to counter anything he proposes. Crossan’s distaste for the violent God of Revelation is here also relevant.

            I see as little evidence for Q’s demise as I do for Revelation’s involvement in the gospels. Indeed, a brisk review of the various commentaries on Revelation I had to hand this evening provided me with no formal consensus that Revelation was even written before the gospels. It would seem to me that it could have been written at any time between 70-100 CE – much like the gospels.

          • Andrew-
            Again, the imperative thing is that if you are to speak of and defend Q, we’d need reasons/factors (not names of scholars) for your doing so. Yes, I do broadly go along with the reasons in Goodacre though there are perhaps even stronger ones too: the logic of the whole gospel-writing process wherein the new material is always largely the OT template material; the illogic of the so-called MarkQ overlaps (which Goodacre treats at length but is an even stronger point IMHO than he makes out).

            Seeing no evidence for Q’s demise is not relevant unless the writers in question address these counter arguments.

            The reason you get the impression people don’t say Rev is before the gospels is that they do not mostly even address that question at all in the first place! All that I said (which is true) is that Rev dating specialists regularly plump for 68-70 and the gospels are all often dated after that. I put both Rev and Mark in the year 70.

            The level of your ideological preference for indecision is startling. Surely you can see it is ideological and not scholarly. So little is ‘we don’t know’ the same thing as being scholarly that it can be very easily said by someone who has not done a stroke of research! Surely you see that. As the man said, third rate is to say we know everything, 2nd rate is to say we know nothing, and first rate is to differentiate by degree.

          • Christopher, I am constantly vigilant when commenting on this blog to respect the fact that it is not my blog. Therefore, I want, in all sincerity, to keep my comments “on topic” as much as possible. Often this goes astray but its not something I think I should encourage. What this means is that if and when there is a blog relevant to a discussion of synoptic relationships that is the time to discuss Q, Goldacre, Goulder, Farrer , Kloppenborg or whatever else. A blog about Revelation is not and I regard it as a matter of courtesy towards our host not to make it so. I have references the arguments of Kloppenborg in this respect to give you a reference point. If you are familiar with HIS ARGUMENTS rather than HIS REPUTATION then you will have an idea where I come from on the question you have raised. Discussion of things such as Mark/Q overlaps will, thus, have to wait for more appropriate occasions.

          • PS If you find my “preference for indecision” to be “ideological” then I assume you’d say the same of Dale Allison. I got it from him. Chapter 1 of “Constructing Jesus” with its consistent doubt of human memory is what I would enter into evidence for such a preference. Like Allison, I agree that “Even were one to hold, as I do not, that eyewitnesses or
            companions of eyewitnesses composed the canonical Gospels, our critical work would remain. Personal reminiscence is neither innocent nor objective. Observers habitually misperceive, and they unavoidably misremember.” Presumably this is why Bauckham himself felt the need to respond to Allison’s devaluation of eyewitnesses even in the vanishingly small number of cases where it is realistic. Consequently, I agree entirely with Allison from the same book when he says again “All of us are, to one degree or another, fabulists, even when we try not to be”. Amen.

            As something to chew on, consider these further points Allison makes in the same chapter [from my “Jesus and Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Hermeneutic Context”]:

            1). Allison notes that memory is “not a tape.” Memory is fundamentally
            reconstructive.
            2). Allison thinks that memory is “more like writing a book than reading a book.”
            3). Allison notes that postevent information sullies, shapes and alters the “pristine” memory.
            4). Allison reminds us that we remember from our current situation or context.
            5). Allison is wary of the fact that memories lose detail over time.
            6). Allison thinks that individuals and collectives “transmute memories into meaningful patterns.”
            7). Allison points out that groups forget what they can’t use in the present moment. It literally becomes of no use to them.
            8). Allison is cognisant of the fact that when memory becomes story “narrative conventions inescapably sculpt the result.”
            9). Allison suggests that memories are subject to time displacement. This means that we may remember things in the wrong place chronologically.
            10). Allison reminds us that there is no necessary correlation between strength of feeling and accurate remembrance. How much you feel you’ve remembered something correctly has no necessary correlation with how accurately you actually did remember something.

            So you are right that I prefer no decision before making one because, seemingly unlike yourself, I have a threshhold for what is enough evidence to start believing something is the case and I don’t think we must choose any alternatives that may be presented if they don’t breach that threshhold. This, as I was taught, is historical procedure and “don’t know” is a perfectly valid historical answer. Allow me to finish with Allison again:

            “The fallibility of memory should profoundly unsettle us would ­be historians of Jesus. We have no cause to imagine that those who remembered him were at any moment immune to the usual deficiencies of recall. When we additionally reflect on the common errors of human perception and the human proclivity for tall tales, and then take full cognizance of the strong ideological biases of the
            partisan sources that we have for Jesus as well as their frequent differences from each other, doubts are bound to implant themselves in our souls, send out roots, and blossom. Even where the Gospels preserve memories those memories cannot be miraculously pristine; rather, they must often be dim or muddled or just plain wrong.”

          • But Allison does not show an ideological preference for indecision here. He shows (not unreasonably) indecision on one particular topic, just like you and I will often do. What has that to do with whether we should be indecisive on any other given topic or not?

            As for saying ‘don’t know’ is a perfectly valid historical answer, you must have misunderstood everything if you think I’d disagree. It is quite obviously a valid historical answer in given cases, depending on how clear the evidence is. Just as ‘do know’ is valid in other cases. How anything can be termed ‘a valid historical answer’ for *all* historical questions when they are so different from each other, so many, and so various, I don’t know.

        • Not all scholars date the Synoptics after AD 70. A significant number date Mark and Luke to the 50s or early 60s, likely before Revelation. Bauckham has given convincing evidence that Mark consists primarily of Peter’s memoires and teachings, and if so it was composed before his death in the 60s. I find one argument why Acts and therefore Luke were written by the early 60s – no mention is made of Peter’s and particularly Paul’s martyrdoms – rather strong. I find it pretty bizarre that Luke did not write about Paul’s death if it had already occurred, given that he did include the death of the rather minor figure of Stephen. It makes perfect sense to me that Acts abruptly ends when it does around AD 62 when Paul was imprisoned in Rome.

          Overall, I have seen no compelling evidence that points to a post-AD 70 date to any of them, except the argument that because Jesus ‘predicts’ the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, that must have been written after AD 70. But I reject that as it simply ignores the real possibility of prophecy. But I understand why secular historians would reject such a position. But I find it particularly strange for Luke not to record that the predicted destruction had already occurred when he wrote as he was quite happy to mention a minor fulfilled prophecy in his Acts. No it just doesnt make sense. And it shouldnt be ignored that Jesus was not the only one predicting the destruction years before it happened.

          I am pretty much convinced that Luke/Acts, and therefore Mark (assuming Markan priority) were all written pre-AD 70.

          • “Not all scholars” is something that could be said of almost any position or conclusion you want to pick. Even conclusions with large majorities, such as “Mark was the first NT gospel”, manage to find detractors. I’m sure there are those, like Schweitzer and Johnannes Weiss over a century ago, who prefer the notion of Matthean priority.

            So I am not one of those who went all weak at the knees when Bauckham published “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” and the first edition of that book received considerable criticisms which resulted in an updated 2nd edition of the book. Instead, I tend to agree with Sara Parks Ricker who wrote that “the work is an(other) attempt at a“Christ of history,” i.e. an(other) attempt to authenticate the Christ of the author’s faith.” Indeed it is.

            Basing arguments on omissions is rather more dangerous. Do these omissions and the conclusions you draw apply to ANY book or only the books you are interested in? Can I say, for instance, that the Gospel of Thomas not mentioning a Christ or a resurrection or a crucifixion means these things never happened? Many, including myself, would find such reasoning dubious even if we were more sympathetic to the conclusions.

            Preferring prophecy or supernaturalism first is a tendency of yours I have already criticised above. It is fabulism. It is not done in the service of scholarship but of faith. I would say, however, that what might seem minor to you, and you mention Stephen in this connection, was perhaps not really so minor for Luke. There could be any number of reasons why Luke mentions that but not Paul’s death. Perhaps he simply didn’t have anything to say about it in a book which is about the gospel’s spreading from Jerusalem to Rome. Perhaps he didn’t know. As with Christopher, I advise you to hold onto the “don’t know” answer to more questions rather than feeling we need an answer for everything, an answer which in many cases history is not going to give us. What we do have, however, is books that can be read and understood as the wholes they are. That might help us with other questions too.

          • Andrew, if you think I ‘feel’ that we need to give an answer to ‘everything’ you have definitely got the wrong man.

            There are lots of things where we are broadly ‘don’t know’ – but:

            (1) ‘Don’t know’ on its own is rather unintelligent or even lazy, and it is better to list the research that has been done and the ways that it may point,

            (2) In cases where we/I don’t know the natural thing is to stay silent pending more research. Thus the things we talk about are the things where headway has been made. These are self-selecting.

            (3) Your dogmatic belief that it is rare that we can have strong evidence of anything at all is self-refuting (since you seem to think you have strong evidence for that belief) and also, secondly, without evidence to back it up. More likely is that our amounts of evidence and of probative evidence will vary vastly along a sliding scale. There will be plenty of times we are especially lucky with what evidence we have, and plenty of other times we are especially unlucky. There’s nothing holy or sacred about the latter, however fine it may sound!! (Or the former.) Even Socrates only stood out for saying he did not know *when* he actually did not know, not when he did.

            In short, your apparent bias towards scepticism seems irrational and ideological (how would it be justified without gross generalisation about diverse incommensurable topics?), whereas you certainly will find my answers always ‘eclectic’ (in your way of looking at things, which I have been critical of) which I hope demonstrates a truthful capacity for independent thought.

  6. What a fabulous facile turn of phrase is “fabulism”, from someone who provides robust evidence of unbelief in any crucial elementary beliefs, who trots, wheels out, Schweitzer et al, in the shaking name of scholarship against faith rather in support.
    Andrew, which god do you believe in, which god do you believe. You might just as well be an Egyptologist.
    To me you pertually, in seeming perpetuity parade with reinforced pride your unmoveable, set in concrete, doubts, seeking at all times to break down and cast doubt, without ever building up or reconstructing which is what you claim to be your goal, aim. You are well wide of the mark in your materialistic, flattened world view, unbelieving, scholastic philosophy.
    In one way you have succeeded in sowing doubt, and sewing doubt through scripture – I see no jot or tittle in any of your writings of Christian belief, of any Good News of Jesus Christ and it does make me doubt your …

    • Geoff, my positive reconstructions are available worldwide on the Internet. I have, for example, five books totalling 400,000 words on the historical Jesus and the Gospels. I don’t imagine you will read them but that is no reason to live in the false belief that I have not made any. All you have to do is click my name.

      I also find it strange that you label me as one of “unbelief”. That I don’t believe the simplistic tales that you do you should not doubt but then if you are claiming to have everything right, which I’m certainly not, then how is it me that is “unmovable, set in concrete”? From my perspective it seems to me that you are the one in concrete boots for I am sure you would happily be martyred in your certainty where as I am only sure that I know very little indeed.

      However, more fundamentally than even this, I am becoming daily more convinced that faith is absolutely nothing to do with “knowing” in the first place.

      • Yes, but what is this thing called ‘faith’ and who said that it was the definiendum, the thing that needed to be defined?

        Our understandings of both faith and belief are thought to stem at least partly from the NT. Yet they are 2 things for us and 1 thing for the NT. So if you like unclarity, the modern use of ‘faith’ is a good example of it. Who could imagine a concept less concrete? It is far less concrete than ‘God’ and certainly than ‘Jesus’.

      • Andrew,
        You don’t have to imagine. I won’t waste time reading what you’ve written ( I was an atheist for 47 years before supernatural conversion to Christ – so who is the one in concrete boots) and a trained and practised as a lawyer and have no time for irrelevancies to my Christian life, such as I find unremittingly in your writings in reading your comments.
        Yet again, although you say you are not an atheist, you deliberately avoid answering questions of substance relating to your faith. I was taught as a lawyer, even in the field of jurisprudence, with its many philosophies, that if you cant succinctly put your case, you haven’t a simple intelligible, coherent, cohesive case or claim to put or make, even don’t understand what you are attempting to put across, hiding behind, or drowned out by a waterfall of words.
        I’d say that you have serious avoidance issues, to probing questions , on which any jury could draw legitimate judgements that you are not a bona fide believer in the tenets of Christianity, in our Triune God.
        What is your faith based on? Lack of knowledge? A certainty of doubt? But you claim extensive knowledge, frequently set out as assertions or opinions formed from knowledge sometimes with a strident certainty of unbelief.
        The Church grew from and through oppression, including martyrdom, based on a certainty of belief in the historical truth of Jesus Christ and supernatural giving and receiving Holy Spirit, Spirit of Truth, about the Truth, Jesus Christ.
        And after is all said and done this is a blog of a bona fide Christian. As I’ve said before, you’ve no idea of eyewitness testimony and rules and laws of evidence in Courts in England and Wales.
        What is faith? It is a gift from God, and is of substance, based on the revelatory nature of scripture and revelatory knowledge of the Triune God, manifest in intimately knowing Jesus Christ by and through Holy Spirit, and the Good News He brings.
        I had no interest in the Bible, scripture, or acceptance of it until after my conversion. I came to it as a believer and wouldn’t know why anyone who didn’t believe would want to spend/waste their lives studying it (perhaps with the exception of those who’d want to make a name, career, for themselves in the academy.) As a counterpoint, not many practising lawyers had Phd’s during my time even if they were taught the law AND it’s application by Dr’s, in the university or on professional entrance courses. Not many clients seeking advice on matters of law applicable to their lives would appreciate “I don’t know”…as an answer to the question of “doctrine” of the law.

        • Geoff,

          1. Are members of the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and Coptic Church “bona fide Christians” in your judgment? I think you would find their faith very different to yours and that’s to give only three examples. In short, its somewhat arrogant to imagine that what and how you believe is the measure.

          2. Was Elijah a Christian?

          3. Name a single Christian from the New Testament who believes in a “Triune God”.

          4. I don’t answer questions relating to my faith because my faith is not the subject of these blogs. Nevertheless, my beliefs aren’t hidden. As you now know well they are freely available on the Internet but you choose not to read them. One wonders, then, if you are even an honest enquirer when you ask questions, the answers to which are freely available, but in which you show a stubborn lack of interest.

          5. You claim the mind of a legal professional and yet it seems you cannot work out why someone would study the Bible “with the exception of those who’d want to make a name, career, for themselves in the academy” which I have not nor even tried to. Yet you also say that you “wouldn’t know why anyone who didn’t believe would want to spend/waste their lives studying it”. Could it be that you have inadvertently answered your own question and that some belief is actually involved? If we refer back to point 1 we will see that what you call belief isn’t the measure of anyone else’s.

          I leave you with the anecdote of a legal mind of my own. The legal mind is that of American Supreme Court Judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes. The quote is as follows: “Certitude leads to violence. This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one. The easy application is to ideologues, dogmatists, and bullies–people who think that their rightness justifies them in imposing on anyone who does not happen to subscribe to their particular ideology, dogma or notion of turf. If the conviction of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them!”

          I consider myself certain of little. How about you?

          • “Certitude leads to violence. ”

            – sorry but i think that’s plain false. Such phrases I find are typically used by those of a more ‘liberal’ ilk who dont like others having certain beliefs that dont align with theirs. Ive found ‘liberals’ to often be the most illiberal of all! Indeed such a statement as the above is itself a statement of certitude.

            Yes those being sure of their beliefs can become violent, but in the end anyone can given certain circumstances. I am pretty sure of my Christian beliefs as reflecting reality, and if it turned out that the basics, eg about Jesus, turned out to be false, I would be genuinely shocked. But just because I have strong beliefs does not lead me to violence – if you met me youd probably come to the conclusion Im one of the least likely of people to become violent against anyone, despite having what you would describe as firm beliefs for 3 decades. I was bullied at school so as an adult I cant stand bullying behaviour, but I would not be violent towards them.

            Peter

          • “it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them!”

            – it seems that’s just how this judge felt about certain others:

            “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

          • Andrew,
            1 What is it? You don’t answer questions of belief or it’s there on the internet and you can’t be bothered to simply distil them here?
            2 Yours beliefs are base- line relevant as they inform all your comments.
            3 O W Holmes was of jurisprudential school of pragmatism. against common law and a precursor to moral relativism. He’s been described as a moral skeptic and social Darwinist, and is off topic in the questions of Christian creedal beliefs. An extreme example of legal pragmatism would be that a judge will decide a case depending on which side of the bed they got up from, with no account of history of common law Court precedents.
            4 Your quotation sets up a straw man of certitude, and sets up a false dichotomy, and by implication places me and others who comment on this site with creedal beliefs, such as Ian Paul in the category of bullies, dogmatists through the application of ejusdem generis rule of construction with which Holmes would be more than familiar. Holmes is not of the Natural School of jurisprudence. You display such a generosity of uncertainty to side by citatation with Holmes. No one here is seeking to bully you.
            5 I do not claim to have a “legal mind”, whatever that may be, but have merely stated the facts of my training, qualification and practise.

      • Andrew,
        Your comments and exchanges for some reason brought this to mind. It is famous in legal circles. Sir Norman Birkett was of such an intellect that it was said that in preparation for the trial he reached a doctorate level of knowledge in 3 months to cross examine an expert witness. Yet this is how he did it.
        Enjoy:
        The following is an extract from a famous cross examination of an expert witness engineer by Sir Norman Birkett QC of Alfred Arthur Rouse who was tried for murder in 1930. Sir Norman Birkett was prosecutor and at the height of his powers. Alfred Rouse was accused of murdering a passenger in a car by setting light to it. The defence was that it was an accident. Defence counsel called an expert witness who claimed ‘a very vast experience as regards fires in motor cars’ and who asserted that the fire was caused by the junction in the fuel line becoming loose. The witness gave his evidence with great confidence. Sir Norman Birkett then began his cross examination……

        A: What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass?

        S: I beg your pardon?

        A: Did you not catch the question?

        S: I did not quite hear you

        A: What is the coefficient of expansion of brass?

        S: I am afraid I cannot answer that question off-hand

        A: If you do not know, say so. What is the co-efficient of expansion of brass? What do I mean by the term?

        S: You want to know what is the expansion of the metal under heat?

        A: I asked you: what is the co-efficient of the expansion of brass? Do you know what it means?

        S: Put it that way, probably I do not

        A: You are an engineer?

        S: I dare say I am

        A: Let me understand what you are. You are a doctor?

        S: No

        A: You are a crime investigator?

        S: No

        A: You are an amateur detective?

        S: No

        A: But an engineer?

        S: Yes

        A; What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass? You do not know?

        S: No, not put that way

        Sir Norman goes for the jugular: the expert status itself. He also tightly controls the questioning, emphasises it and directs it in such a way that the witness has nowhere to go.

        • Geoff,
          You should have added that he went for the status by a line of questioning which does not make sense to the expert but to a non-expert sounds if it is probing expertise. “The co-efficient of the expansion of brass” is an underdetermined quantity. The expert is thinking “why is he asking this?” “does he mean the co-efficient of thermal expansion of brass?*” “what does that have to do with this present case?” If he had had his wits about him, the expert should have responded with something like:
          “If you mean the co-efficient of thermal expansion of brass, that depends upon the temperature and the type of brass. One looks up the value if one needs it, to ensure accuracy. Or do you wish me to explain to the court the meaning of the term, that is, that brass, as with most materials, expands when heated. The co-efficient enables one to work out the amount of expansion per degree of heating given the dimensions of the object.”

          I know from personal experience as a witness in court, that strange questions from the counsel are hard to deal with in that setting. The witness box is not that different from the dock. When counsel is asking a question like that, you have to try to determine the motive and provide an answer which cannot be twisted to their own ends, all off the cuff while being badgered.

        • I meant to add that the style of cross-examination you quote has as its telos not the discovery of truth but the winning of an argument.

          • David,
            1 Pleased that you found some stimulus from Birkett.
            2 A key point is the manner in dealing with “experts”. At law there are rules as to the admissibility of experts giving evidence, on the facts and separately on their “opinion.”
            3 What doesn’t come across is the wisdom in cross examination, of a maxim as it were of, not asking a question to which you don’t know the answer! Birkett would have had knowledge you describe at his finger tips (even authoritative text books at hand)
            4 Birkett honed in on the always important issue of the credibility of the witness (no matter who) and hence credibility of their testimony evidence and the weight to be attached to it.
            5 I was taught to ask seeming naive questions of experts – as did Birkett
            6 Sorry to hear of your courtroom witness experience. Always something to be avoided if at all possible.
            7 Telos.
            7.1 The underlying telos is not to win an argument, but justice, that is justice according to the law. So there are definitions of crimes, burden of proof, standard of proof, laws and rules relating to admissibility of evidence, weight of evidence.
            7.2 What is the telos of a crime? Ultimately it is an act against the Crown, the State. Can always remember my first ever degree essay in criminal law: What is the purpose of criminal law and the efficacy of punishment? It would have been better at the end of the year even the second year, after the course on Jurisprudence and covered aspects such as the distinction between law/crime and morals (including dishonesty) so large is the topic.
            7.3 That brings us back to the telos of
            7.3.1 the Book of Revelation of and in itself
            7.3.2 the book of Revelation in in the canon of the NT
            7.3.3 the book of Revelation in the whole canon of scripture
            7.3.4 God in creation and humanity in the whole canon of scripture.
            Sorry to go on a bit and thanks for the comments.

          • Hi Geoff,
            4 Birkett honed in on the always important issue of the credibility of the witness (no matter who) and hence credibility of their testimony evidence and the weight to be attached to it.
            5 I was taught to ask seeming naive questions of experts – as did Birkett

            My feeling is that Birkett was not seeking to probe the actual credibility of the witness, but by confusing and irrelevant questioning reduce the perceived credibility of the witness in the eyes of the court. An expert is not one who holds the values of various physical constants in his or her head, but an ordinary member of the jury might be persuaded that they should. For example, would it be fair to ask a mathematical expert witness, “what is the 100th digit of pi?”. If they do not know that, is the expert’s credibility destroyed? Of course not.

            Therefore I do not think this kind of line of questioning is a seeking after justice or truth.

  7. David,
    There is need to look at the context of the particular case:
    1 It was a 1930 murder intentional car fire.
    2 Defence was accident
    3 Defence expert: asserted that the fire was caused by the junction in the fuel line becoming loose
    4 Expertise was: claimed ‘a very vast experience as regards fires in motor cars’ In the 193O’s?
    5 Demeanour of expert “great confidence”
    6 If I remember correctly the fuel line consisted of different metals and joints, including brass. There would be different rates of expansion. It would not be a trick question, perhaps even central. And irrelevant questions (those not logically probative of the facts in issue) are not permitted.
    7 Your feelings are irrelevant, although they may have been influenced by your own (singular?) experience, which is not sufficient to extrapolate your conclusion in your last sentence.
    8 Today there are many experts who are expert at giving evidence. And their qualifications and experience are known to the court. And there may be experts on both sides (such as medical negligence cases) with differing evidence and opinion.
    9 Your definition of an expert and what they should or should not know, is somewhat constrained and will be informed by the particulars of each case.
    9 Tied up with credibility is the more fundamental point of reliability of evidence.
    10 The defence Counsel, calling the expert would have been able to reexamine his own expert witness to counter Birkett.
    11 Seeking after truth and justice. Now that is a whole new topic that can not be done justice in any comments section and is far bigger than the courts system, as I’ve touched on above. And strays far too far off topic. Perhaps the theology of truth and justice within the justice system could be a Doctorate topic for someone.

    • Well Geoff,
      You quoted the cross-examination without context. As presented, it does suggest to me an attempt to destroy credibility in the eyes of the members of the jury based on a naive and incorrect understanding of ‘expertise’.
      On your point 4, the means to find the proposed expertise wanting would be to probe exactly how many car fires the ‘expert’ had investigated (presumably the prosecution would be able to find this out in advance), and ask how many of these had been shown unambiguously to the the result of the suggested cause, and to probe his reasoning in this case.
      On your point 6, if the components of the joint were composed of different materials, the differential thermal expansion of the components could actually tend to loosen the joint. This would support the defense case. If the thermal environment of the joint was part of the evidence, then it would seem surprising that the ‘expert’ was surprised at the question. (In case you are wondering, my main academic background is physics and astrophysics, and my father was a professor of metallurgy.)

      Perhaps back to the discussion of Revelation, and those discussing it. Should one consider the credibility of those discussing the issues aside from the actual presented arguments? For instance, does a priori belief, or unbelief, affect how we consider points being made?

  8. David,
    1 Most of what was highlight in my last comment, was drawn out from what was presented about the case, (and the likelihood and my memory that the fuel line in 1930’s cars, or that particular car was mostly comprised different metals and was there for you to read the expert will already have given evidence in chief on behalf of the defendant.
    2 My understanding (and I stand to be corrected) is that the defendant had no obligation to reveal his defence, nor witnesses until the actual trial. As there is no indication from what is written (rather than from your a prior, reading back into it) that there was a prosecution expert to counter the defence expert, it is probable that the witness was not made known to the prosecution before hand.
    3 Your comment on my point 6 contains far too much supposition and speculation not supported by what was written. Perhaps they come from your a priori experience, an eisegesis. If the “expert” was surprised, it perhaps proves the point Birkett drew out about his expertise. This speculation, to me as a former lawyer, does not sit well with the science of physics. It seems more akin to the methodology which seems to sweep through liberal theologians.
    4 A priori presumption: You will be aware that there is an a priori presumption in criminal law- a presumption of innocence.
    5 A priori presumption in reading of scripture. I’d suggest is evident in the postings and comments on Ian Paul’s blog. Liberal unbelieving, with in some cases, fixed unshakeable presumption of some form, redactor critics, of a closed material world, anti supernatural, anti miracle , presumption that God can not foretell what will occur through a gift or office of prophecy or even with eyewitness accounts. It is evidenced clearly in the difference between Ian Paul and Andrew Lloyd.
    6 The point: is or ought? That is the question. (It is pertinent that you have a number of shoulds in your rejoinders to me above). I approach scripture now after conversion to Christ with a different presumption than I had before.

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