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On devils, details and reading the Book of Revelation

The text of Revelation is notoriously difficult to make sense of, and this is illustrated if you compare the conclusions of commentators, even ones that are taking a broadly similar approach. It is not uncommon to find them reaching quite different conclusions on relatively important matters—but in fact careful attention to the detail of the text can often resolve these questions in quite surprising ways. Even good commentators don’t always (it seems to me) remain rigorously committed to the actual words that John uses, even though all the evidence suggests that his specific choice of words is of enormous significance.

A good example of this is the range of theories around the ‘third woe’. The puzzle here is that, overlaying the second half of the sequence of trumpets in chapters 8 and 9, John introduces the proclamation by an eagle ‘flying in mid-air’ (that is, visible and audible to all) of three woes. The sequence of the fifth trumpet as the first woe and the sixth trumpet as the second woe—which are emphatically signalled in the text at 9.12 and 11.14—leads the reader or hearer to expect that the third woe is associated with the seventh trumpet. But it is more than striking that John omits all mention of the third woe! Despite this, numerous commentators decide that the seventh trumpet must involve the third woe, even adding ‘despite the fact that John does not mention this’! And the content of the seventh trumpet is, in fact, the final coming of the kingdom of God. Although this will mean judgement as well as full salvation, it would be odd to think of this as a ‘woe’ along the lines of the fifth and sixth trumpets.

If, instead, we take the words John uses seriously, then we need to look for the next occurrence of ‘woe’, which duly comes in 12.12 which is proclaimed in relation to the devil going down to the earth, having been expelled from heaven because of the victory of the ‘blood of the lamb’. In other words, the third woe is the ‘end times’ period from Pentecost to Jesus’ return, a time of both ‘kingdom and suffering and patient endurance in Jesus’ when the devil and his agents oppressed the people of God even as they experience the love of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Spirit is poured into their lives. Noting this offers an important temporal marker for the series of sevens; if the third woe is the current period, then the previous woes must be in the immediate past and not the future. This means that the series of trumpets, and with them the seals, do not describe some ‘end times’ future judgement that God will inflict on the earth in gleeful torture, but is a description of the way the world now is and how we should make sense of it. All the details of the series confirm this, since warfare, disease and famine of the four horsemen look very much like first century experience, the blazing mountain of 8.8 looks an awful lot like Vesuvius erupting, and the locust army of the fifth trumpet and fiendish cavalry of the sixth look very much like barbarians from the north and Parthians from east, described to look like the manticore and the chimera respectively.

Paying careful attention to the details of the text is particularly helpful in reading chapter 14. It is often described as ‘one of the most puzzling chapters’ in Revelation—though that could be said of most of the 22! The key questions here are:

  1. Who are the 144,000 on Mount Zion—a select group of martyrs, or the whole people of God?
  2. How does this section function in the narrative—is it one unit, or should the second half on the harvest really belong to chapter 15 leading into the sequence of seven bowls?
  3. Are the two images—or grain harvest and grape harvest—both negative images of judgement, or is the first one positive and the second one negative?

You will find amongst good commentaries quite different answers to each of these questions. But they are addressed by looking at the detail of the texts.

On the first question, I haven’t yet found a commentary that notes the description of the 144,000 in verses 4–5 is sevenfold—and that in itself offers us a big clue. First, they did not defile themselves with women, which is often read by feminist commentators as an androcentric and patriarchal concern that depicts the redeemed as male only. This can hardly be the case, unless Revelation alone within the New Testament thinks that salvation is for men only, and it contradicts the inclusive vision of salvation expressed in the four-fold phrase of 7.9 (‘every nation, tribe’ etc). The second description, as virgins, is an unusual clarification, since parthenos is everywhere else in the New Testament a feminine noun which is (in its literal sense) only applied to women (Matt 1.23, 25.1, 21.9, 1 Cor 7.34). It needs to be read here in three contexts:

  1. the use of sexual imagery of adultery as a metaphor for worship of false gods and idolatry elsewhere in Revelation, drawing on customary Old Testament use (see comment on 2.22 and compare 17.2, 18.3 and 18.9);
  2. the prohibition on those involved in (spiritual) warfare to engage in sexual relations during the time of battle (the 144,000 being depicted as an army in chapter 7; Deut 23.9–11, 1 Sam 11.8–11);
  3. the nuptial imagery of the people of God as a bride, which Paul also uses when he describes the mixed community of men and women in Corinth as ‘a pure virgin betrothed to one husband, Christ’ (2 Cor 11.2).

So God’s people are here being described as devoted to God, committed to the spiritual task and purified for union with Christ. Only a wooden literalism, which pulls this verse out of its textual, canonical and theological context could construe its meaning as androcentric.

The third description, as ones who follow the lamb, uses the common term from the gospels and Jesus’ teaching for discipleship, even though it only occurs here in Revelation. The metaphor implies that disciples emulate the pattern of life of the master that they follow, and accept the master’s fate as their fate. The fourth description, as purchased from humanity, draws on the metaphor of manumission from the slave market that Paul also uses (1 Cor 6.20, 7.23) and which John has used previously in 5.9. The price is mentioned explicitly there as ‘with your blood’, thus connecting this idea with one of the earliest statements about Jesus in the book, that he has ‘freed us from our sins by his blood’ (1.5).

The fifth description, that they are [offered as] firstfruits to God and the lamb draws on the Old Testament image of the offering of the beginning of the harvest, which occurred in the Firstfruits Festival immediately after Passover (Lev 23.10), and 50 days later as part of the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost; Lev 23.15–17). The part of the crop that has ripened first is offered to God in gratitude for the promise it represents of the whole crop eventually being ready to harvest. Paul uses the idea to describe the Spirit as the foretaste of our salvation to come (Rom 8.23), of those who first came to faith in a region as an anticipation of many more (Rom 16.5, 1 Cor 16.15, 2 Thess 2.13) and of Jesus as the first to be raised from the dead as an anticipation of the universal resurrection (1 Cor 15.20, 23). But this is only one half of the meaning of ‘firstfruits’, and probably not the meaning here, since this group are not just the first who will be redeemed; they are all of them. The other meaning of ‘firstfruits’ is that they are a sacrificial offering to God, and this is also the sense of the term in Jer 2.2–3 and James 1.18, and it accords with Paul’s language of the Gentiles who believe becoming an ‘offering to God’ in Rom 15.16. If they do anticipate something, it is not of others being saved, but of the whole creation being renewed when Jesus returns.

The sixth description is that no lie was found in their mouths, which is an almost exact citation of Is 53.9 describing the suffering servant and quoted to describe Jesus in 1 Peter 2.22. John has substituted the word ‘deceit’ (dolos in the Greek Old Testament) with the word ‘lie’ (pseudos) so that they not only follow the example of the lamb (see also Zeph 3.13), but are a counterpoint to the ‘false prophet’ (pseudoprophetes) as the beast from the land is called in 16.13 onwards. The parallel seventh description that they are blameless links this back to the nuptial imagery associated with virginity; the work of the Spirit in sanctifying God’s people will one day be completed (Phil 1.6, 2.15) so that we are presented as a holy, blameless and perfect bride (Eph 5.27).

Thus this sevenfold description (which could nicely resource a sermon or two) draws together imagery from the rest of Revelation and other parts of the New Testament which apply to the whole people of God. It therefore cannot be read as a description of a select group of martyrs.

The other questions about this passages are answered by an observation on John’s structured use of language which, again, I have not found elsewhere. John occasionally mentions ‘another angel’ within his cast of multiple characters, notably at 7.2, 8.3 and 18.1. But within this section, we suddenly meet a veritable torrent of ‘another angel’s! There are six of them, coming at 14.6, 14.8, 14.9, 14.15, 14.17 and 14.18. English translations obscure this structure, since the second and third of these are called ‘a second angel’ and ‘a third angel’ when in Greek John says respectively ‘another angel, a second’ and ‘another angel, a third’. What is striking, structurally, is that the first angel brings good news, whilst angels two and three bring bad news. In the section about the grain and grape harvests, the first of these three angels invites the ‘one like a son of man’ (who must be Jesus, compare 1.13) to take the grain harvest, and its description matches New Testament language about the harvest of those who believe (eg in John 4.35). But the second and (otherwise rather superfluous) third angel exact the grape harvest, which quite unlike the grain harvest image draws on Old Testament language of judgement of the nations opposed to God in Joel 3.13 and Is 63.3.

Thus the section 14.6–20 is comprised of two sections, each with the same structure provided by the phrase ‘another angel’:

  • Angel 1a: the gospel brings salvation
  • Angel 2a and 3a: but it also brings judgement on Babylon and on those who ally themselves with Babylon
  • Angel 1b: the son of man will harvest believers and bring them safely into his storehouse
  • Angels 2b and 3b: but the harvest will also bring judgement on those belonging to the city go Babylon rather than the city of God.

This indicates that 14.6–20 is a literary unity, and that the grain and grape harvests are the positive and negative aspects of the End, just as salvation and judgement are positive and negative aspects of the gospel. These positives and negatives are now played out in the following chapters, in reverse order, the negative comings in chapters 16 to 20 and the positive providing the climax to the book in the vision of the New Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22.

It is often said that ‘the devil is in the detail’. But it turns out that, in Revelation, it is both the devil and the divine that reside in the detail—and once we find it, the text looks as though it has a remarkable and consistent coherence to it.

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35 Responses to On devils, details and reading the Book of Revelation

  1. Steve Walton June 21, 2017 at 9:45 am #

    Really good, patient work, Ian. I’m so looking forward to your commentary!

  2. Dave Eadie June 21, 2017 at 2:01 pm #

    Wow with comments and clarity like this sign me up for the audio version ;-).

    • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:18 am #

      Well, there might be one! About 15 years ago I had planned to do a performance of the book, but then changed jobs. It is still in the back of my mind as a project to pick up again…!

  3. Peter Reiss June 21, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    The third woe – i agree – is signified in 12:12 but it also seems to me that there is a significant “new beginning” in the text at 12:1 where “a great portent appeared in heaven”. The end of chapter 11 seems like a summary conclusion of the End, not least where the Lord God is the one “who are and who were” but the “who will be” is omitted unlike 1:8 and 4:8. The end of Ch 11 reads as the End, albeit in summary form, “destroying those who destroy”, the temple opened and the ark seen. It is a precursor of the fuller description at the end of the book, and also a light that breaks through the dark to give us hope within the text.
    Is it helpful then to read 12:1 as a new start, or maybe a more in-depth way, to understand the cosmic battle, which concludes in chapter 19 with the destruction of the dragon and the beasts and death itself?
    In that case the description of the third woe which is extended across several chapters, is not straightforwardly the consequence of the first two woes.
    There is something peculiar about the use of “appeared / was seen” in 12:1 and 12:3 which is not how John normally introduces what he saw. It is another indicator that 12:1 is a major shift, a new movement in the symphony or a new room in the art gallery. The viewer is invited to start again in their thinking, with major new “characters”, but there remain links back to what we have seen already.

    Thanks for the careful attention to language – the detail, the flow, and the key markers are all elements we need to note in our reading of this wonderful book – and they all interlink to help us make some sense of it. It is also really important to be reminded of the real links that the first hearers would make, to the events of their own era, like invasions, earthquakes, etc. Revelation is very much written in to a particular context.

    • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:21 am #

      Peter, yes I would agree with you about the change of style—but it notably resumes in chapter 14, marking 12 and 13 (on which I did my PhD) not as a new start but as a distinctive section.

      But change and discontinuity is a consistent feature of the text, so we need to locate this change in the context of all the other changes…

      • Christopher Shell June 23, 2017 at 7:32 am #

        A former generation thought the pages had got in the wrong order, or that the editing was incomplete, because of the discontinuities. But it is a feature of this author, which is why they thought the same of the 4th Gospel. He is in each writing aiming to set down on paper a colossal number of things in the right structural order (a tickbox exercise, at its most mundane level), which will inevitably bring strange juxtapositions and leave little time, space or patience for Radio 4 links or indeed any other kind of links.

        • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 8:13 am #

          Yes indeed. Have you come across the concept of ‘author invariants’? Any claim about discontinuity is meaningless unless you have an established standard against which to compare.

          This is also why claims e.g. that Ephesians wasn’t written by Paul are *mostly* methodologically vacuous.

          • Christopher Shell June 23, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

            IMO he has to envisage two half-weeks because
            -Daniel does
            -one 3 and a half without the other 3 and a half would be very peculiar
            -(at the risk of being circular) he doesn’t ultimately have or like 3 and a halfs on their own; the big picture will be the complete seven.

            However by definition the second of these 2 periods is as eschatological as you can get, and has not yet at the time of writing been completed. He says what it will (or has begun to) comprise (Pella, persecution). The various things he picks out to be associated with 3 and a half year periods are all things that either began or finished around the same date (i.e. the midpoint of the 7 years).

          • Christopher Shell June 23, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

            Re: author invariants

            Yes – authenticity was judged by how like or unlike Galatians something was. Really bad. Something we have to contend with every day is that the main flaw is located in the unquestioned presupposition.

            With Ephesians you have named the great reverse-Piltdown-man, something that is obviously by Paul. Even Sanders recently swallows whole the Baur watered-down canon. Best showed there is no reason to prefer the priority of Col, IMO all the main indications point to the posteriority of Col. Logically there are it seems to me a number of indicators that point in one direction only (AND exclude others), namely that ‘Eph’ is Lao, Col 4.16. Lincoln didn’t discuss that (an uncharacteristic oversight) but many others have.

      • Peter Reiss June 23, 2017 at 2:05 pm #

        The new start at 12:1, which I agree is but one among several significant new points in terms of the content and construction of the book, is different I think on one significant level, which is the focus on the End at the conclusion of chapter 11. That seems to me to be an important marker; I think it is the only new vision which is in the passive – “a portent appeared ..” In other cases we get “Then I saw ..”
        There is also a significant unity to chs 12 to 19 with the dragon and beasts.
        Whether these markers are more significant than other markers which cross through the chapters, or the “sevens” (which are in the end less distinctive than they first appear, in that the seventh of the first seven, the seventh seal, leads into the seven trumpets) I guess is for us to wrestle with.
        I note Ian has not answered here about the identity of the rider on the white horse in 6:1. I take this very first figure to be Jesus just as he will be the last when death etc are destroyed. The second “red” horse is possibly paralleled with the red dragon of 12:3
        The imagery in chapter 12 is some of the densest in the whole book in that mother and child seem to stand at one and the same time for different things, and the timing of the events seems both spread across history and to happen at different moments. To my mind, this extraordinarily rich passage is a new set of key images and characters being introduced, ready for a more detailed exploration of them in the subsequent chapters.
        While the imagery and style does not feel very “christian”, the whole work is the most ‘glorious mash-up’ if such a juxtaposition is acceptable of Old Testament images, references and allusions, where Jesus the Lamb, bearing the marks of slaughter who only can open the seals, is also the one who brings victory, and and whose victory brings in the new heaven and the new earth, and to whom the faithful bear witness and heaven sings praise.

        • Ian Paul June 24, 2017 at 6:54 am #

          The imagery in chapter 12 does not feel Christian because it isn’t! John is adapting the Python-Leto myth. The woman and child are identified unambiguously as the people of God and the messiah, who take the place of Leto and Apollo in the myth. See my Grove booklet!

          The first rider is certainly not Jesus, and that is now a pretty strong consensus following Allan Kerkeslager’s article of some years ago. The reasons are:
          1. The four are a set, derived from the four horses of Zechariah
          2. They all appear to be negative. The identical structure of wording suggests that they should be seen together.
          3. The colour white (like other colours) is used with more than one sense
          4. The rider carries a bow, not a symbol of Jesus (who has a sword) but of either Apollo (if this is about religious/ideological conquest) or the Parthians.
          5. The fourth rider appears to sum up the previous three.
          6. Although Jesus does elsewhere wear a crown (stephanos) e.g. in 14.14, in ch 19 he wears ‘diadems’ so is not like the rider in 6.2

          So I am with John G on this.

  4. Christopher Shell June 21, 2017 at 5:03 pm #

    Peter, although I do not agree either that ch12 is either a new shift more marked than the other section-beginnings or that ch12 is alien stylistically (as some have thought), it is here that we should look for the content of the 3rd woe. The 2nd woe brings us to midpoint of 7-year period, so that the 3rd woe must logically be the second and final 3 and a half year period. This period ch12-13 (after a mini historical review, as is the apocalyptic wont) summarises: period of Pella and imperial persecution. That the 3rd woe is ‘coming soon’ ought to be interpreted in the context of ‘for the time is near’ and ‘Behold I am coming soon’.

    • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:28 am #

      Thanks Christopher. Are you suggesting that Revelation is imagining *two* half-weeks? In my reading of the text, all the things which describe the half-week are said of the same period, i.e. part of John’s transformation of Daniel is that there is only one half week, and it is a time of suffering, witness and protection simultaneously.

      • Christopher Shell June 23, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

        IMO he has to envisage 2 half-weeks because:

        -Daniel does
        -One 3 and a half without the other would be peculiar
        -(at the risk of being circular) within the grand scheme of things he doesn’t ultimately have or like 3 and a halfs on their own; the big picture will be the complete 7, a number he likes nay loves.

        However by definition the 2nd of these 2 periods is as eschatological as you can get, and has not yet at the time of writing been completed. He says what it will (or has begun to) comprise (Pella, persecution). The various things he picks to be associated with 3 and a half year periods are all things that finished or began around the same date, i.e. the midpoint of the 7 years. I.e. there are things in both the ‘finished’ category and the ‘began’ category.

        • Ian Paul June 24, 2017 at 6:48 am #

          Ah, but I don’t think we should ever argue from ‘what John ought to be thinking’. The data of the text does not really support the two half weeks; John is constantly reconfiguring Daniel; and I think this age being one half week precisely communicates that it is, on its own, incomplete.

          • Christopher Shell June 24, 2017 at 9:00 am #

            My take on this is:
            -We can’t impose any ‘ought’ on a dead writer who is not ourselves.
            -We can see their normal emphases and preferences.
            -We can be justified in thinking they are more likely than not to stick with their normal preferences.
            -Reconfiguring – yes, and not just Daniel. Also Ezekiel’s 4 creatures, Zechariah’s 4 chariots, etc etc.

            -The historical references (e.g., it would be uncontroversial to say, to Nero) point to particular dates for the 3 and a half weeks; moreover, this period is often defined more by its endpoint (i.e. the midpoint of the ‘week’) than by its beginning. You are right that in general the 3 and a half year periods precede this midpoint.
            -I had been thinking that the period in Pella was the exception: intended by John to date from this midpoint onwards. Osborne mentions (not affirms) the preterist interpretation which links the perilous Jordan 12.15 with Placidus’s gargantuan slaughter, the sort of contemporary news item that might have been expected to leave its mark on the text. But there are 4 problems with that:

            (1) For an all-age community to cross the Jordan is perilous enough: think Red Sea, Gladys Aylward. 12.15 gives no hint of anything beyond that (no hint of Placidus’s slaughter itself); and in any case the striking and too-original 14.20 image, which as Bauckham shows became popular later, may have initially been suggested by Placidus’s slaughter so that did leave its mark on the text after all.

            (2) Exact date of Jerusalem Christians fleeing to Pella is unknown for sure and variously estimated, but it is often held to be ‘before the war’ (64 would be shortly after James’s death in 62 and therefore at a time when they were already under persecution) so could fit the initial 3 and a half years. Here, theories are legion and there is no consensus.

            (3) This then allows the review-of-history in chs 12-13 not to be out of sequence.

            (4) 3 out of 4 references to the first 3 and a half years and only 1 out of 4 to the second would be too lopsided for John’s liking.

            So I think you are probably right.

  5. peter reiss June 21, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

    Is it a sign of the richness of Scripture, or an issue in the “notoriously difficult” text as Ian introduces it, that discerning with confidence the ‘logic’ of the argument or flow of the narrative in Revelation is so fraught.
    How do we make sense of all the key markers in the texts.
    Is it helpful to read Revelation in order, or as more disjoint insights, rather like a series of paintings in a gallery? If looking for some order, how do the various sevens and the three woes, and other pointers work together.
    For me there seems to be an end-point reached in brief at the end of chapter 11, and then chapters 12-19 have an inclusio in that the key dragon / beasts are introduced, Babylon which is in thrall to them is powerful then destroyed and then in reverse order to how they were introduced, the beasts and the dragon are slain. The rider on the white horse who we first met at the very beginning of the visions, is seen to conquer, which also makes for the inclusio with chapters 6 -19. Death and Hades destroyed in chapter 19 were introduced as part of the scene setting of chapter 6.
    This is not one-to-one mapping but the hearers remember the introduction and they hear the conclusion. from chapter 20 heaven is now without the sea, which was a place from where things of chaos come, so it is different from the description in chs 4-5. In the over-arching story, the work of the Lamb has achieved the destruction of the destroyer, to use the phrase in ch 11, and the visions have shown us that destruction in all its facets.
    For me, this has a powerful shape and thrust to it, but John is such a rich writer that there are many other paths of exploration that are both valid and fruitful.
    I am also not sure that it helps to locate Revelation at a time of widespread acute persecution. The temptation to succumb to the invitation of Babylon, and the challenge to remain true to Christ may make more sense written to a time of some calm for Christians, or at least a period where in some towns there is persecution, locally caused, and in other towns there is not.
    If this last is true, then the challenges remain for us today, not least for us in towns where temptation is more of a reality than persecution.

  6. Terry Jones June 22, 2017 at 8:04 am #

    Does this mean that we will be getting further snippets as you write your commentary Ian? Hope so!

    • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:28 am #

      You’ve already had some. Did you not spot them?!

  7. Dick June 22, 2017 at 11:42 am #

    Thankyou for this pearl. The identification of the third woe as that in 12:12 makes great sense. Everything after that is “Post Anno Domini”. It makes the rest of the book more intelligible since chapter 13 describes the political, ideological, religious, governmental power structure of the world as it relates to the peoples and the church. It has a call for endurance (13:10) under worldly oppression.
    Chapter 14 describes the Church and the fall of worldly Babylons, and the second call for endurance of the saints who keep the commandments and believe in Jesus. 14:13 has a special promise for believers. When they die”, these believers, “from now on” will rest in the Lord. Wow that applies to us, whether we die naturally, or by “the sword”.
    That promise is necessary because the descriptions of the wrath of God in chapters 16, 17 and 18 are unremittingly grim and ominous. The harvesting of good seed and bad, how that occurs is not explained, but he fate of the faithful is secure, they escape the wrath of God in the final harvest whatever their worldly end.
    The wrath of God is terrible.
    I look forward to reading your book to understand more about the 7th trumpet.

    • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:29 am #

      Thanks Dick. I might post something about the seventh trumpet in due course—text on that is written!

  8. John Grayston June 22, 2017 at 11:57 am #

    On the more general question of examining the text, we are looking at Revelation in our homegroup, by request. This is challenging as one member, deeply spiritual and very godly, has nevertheless had her eschatology (not that she would use the term) shaped by the Left Behind series. I have emphasised throughout that we will let the text speak for itself and we have passed the supposed pre-tributation rapture of the church in ch 4 without anyone spotting it.
    Last night we were in ch 6 and interestingly two members immediately identified the first rider as Jesus, but as we continued to work with the text decided that although the idea was superficially attractive and fitted some the details, the identification was not secure and was unlikely as it did not fit the context (now tell me, Ian, that your commentary will conclusively identify the first rider as Jesus!)
    I cannot claim that we came to a firm concluson about the nature of the first rider, but I think that it demonstrates that even in a non-academic setting, close study of the text bears fruit.

    • Christopher Shell June 22, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

      Certain people did ride a white horse. PETER – I have always found Rev far easier to read as a unity (and of course authors are more likely to compose thus anyway). Times of persecution and tribulation do heighten senses, and if Rev is not a heightened-senses publication, nothing is.

      1.9 however makes it impossible that Rev is written at a time of peace or at anything other than a time of tribulation, as is no surprise given the text as a whole.

      • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:30 am #

        Yes, but it all depends on what you mean by ‘tribulation’! Paul believed that he too lived in such times, and taught thus. Acts 14.22.

        • Christopher Shell June 23, 2017 at 12:08 pm #

          Yes! It reminds me of the psychic on LBC radio who would greet each caller with the insight ‘You’ve been going through hard times recently haven’t you’ to which the gobsmacked caller would respond ‘How on earth did you know?’.

    • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:38 am #

      John, as you know, I thoroughly agree with you about the power of texts to themselves correct misreadings of said texts. The hermeneutical circle is virtuous, not vicious.

      I am always surprised that people do not realise how theologically important this is. It is not merely (!) the basis of the Reformation, but the basis of the idea that God can speak to us at all.

      That is why reader-centred approaches to interpretation are little short of the work of the devil, since they silence the ‘otherness’ of the text, which is tantamount to silencing the Other.

  9. David Muller June 22, 2017 at 5:08 pm #

    Revelation is subject to innumerable interpretations, and Ian’s excerpt is more clear and plausible than most. The very fact that Revelation’s message is so obscure and ambiguous, however, prompted me several years ago to delve into the history of the book – who wrote it, when, under what circumstances, and on what grounds was it included in the New Testament canon. See my findings in “Testing the Apocalypse: The History of the Book of Revelation.” Here is the briefest of outlines:

    The early Church developed four tests that a piece of writing had to pass before it would be considered Christian scripture: composition in the 1st Century; authorship by an apostle or an apostle’s close associate; adherence to Christian orthodoxy as it stood in the first four centuries or so; and widespread acceptance by Christian congregations. Revelation, composed about 95 A.D., met the first criterion. But it failed all the rest. It was not written by John the Apostle, nor by any other apostle or apostolic associate. It contains clear strains of first-century Gnosticism, Docetism, and Cerinthianism, as well as strong elements of Jewish theology; not to mention that it omits or mistakes important elements of Christian doctrine. Finally, Revelation was broadly rejected in the Eastern Church. It would never have made it into the NT if Constantine had not identified himself as being foretold in Rev 12 and 13. He prevailed upon the Church to include Revelation in the canon.

    This is not at all to say that there is not Christian truth and insight to be found in the book, but that is true of many thousands of works. Revelation ought to be retired to the Christian Apocrypha, and read as an intriguing but non-canonical work.

    • Christopher Shell June 22, 2017 at 8:21 pm #

      David, it is to the final degree irrelevant how many interpretations Rev has been (rather than can be) given, *unless* no interpretation(s) stand(s) out as having more evidence for it than others do. Bear in mind that the scenario where there is *equal* evidence for a variety of options is an utterly impossible scenario.

      One main reason that different interpretations are given will always be that we are equipped to study the book in various degrees. We have various degrees of familiarity with first century Rome, first century Asia, first century history, koine Greek, New Testament literature, apocalyptic, Johannine literature, and so on. Obviously the idea that those with less familiarity in each of these be treated equally to those with more familiarity does not stand up.

      You say ‘composed about 95’ as though this were a fact. The truth is that it is very far from being a fact. Those (many) who give an early date are generally insistent, and those (many) who give a c95 date are, by contrast, happy to be pluralistic or allow different options where it comes to dates. But that could be because the latter have not yet found a truly satisfying theory that they consider almost certainly right.

      What you say about authorship is likewise an assertion without backing evidence. The finest scholars of all often see it as the work of an apostolic associate (John), in some instances of an apostle (John).

    • Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:35 am #

      David, I am glad that you find my reading ‘more plausible’ that others…but reading on, that doesn’t sound like a high bar!

      I think you are mistaken both historical and in relation to the text. As Michael Kruger has shown, Revelation was in fact accepted very early as canonical, and only later were questions asked.

      I do hope Revelation contains ‘Jewish theology’ because Jesus was a Jewish saviour for Jewish people, and gentiles like me have bee grafted in to this.

      But I think you are mistaken on the other theological points. One of the things I am hoping to demonstrate in my commentary is the extent to which Revelation is theologically integrated with the rest of the New Testament…

      • Christopher Shell June 23, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

        It is presupposed by the other NT narrative books in my opinion though I guess not in yours. Margaret Barker thought the same, but (surprise) for completely different reasons.

        • Ian Paul June 24, 2017 at 6:57 am #

          That’s interesting. What do you see as the evidence for that?

          • Christopher Shell June 28, 2017 at 10:53 pm #

            The trouble is that at one level the evidence is fivefold, i.e. the dating of Rev and of each of the 4 gospels from internal evidence.

            Dating of Rev shortly before the fall of Jerusalem is a popular option, and dating all 4 gospels shortly after that is likewise. I am inclined to put Mark before the fall but after Rev., but arguments for these dates (and they are fairly popular dates) have been rehearsed by other scholars e.g. Hengel on Mark. Edmundson is the scholar who manages the most convincing exactitude in dating both 1 Peter and Rev..

            Other than that, there are the parallels of the gospels with Rev.. In the case of Mark there is only one convincing literary parallel, but it does suggest a literary link, and that link suggests Rev;s priority in at least 3 ways and Mark’s in 0. In the case of John, Rev looks prior in a number of ways (ordering of feasts; time-scale presupposed; one stage further in ambitiousness of structure). In the case of Matt, there are accretions in the eschatological discourse and the garden that can only reasonably suggest the priority of Rev. Echoes in Luke e.g. of the Rev beatitudes are similar in this regard to those in Matt.

            Vos wrote an interesting monologue on the Synoptics and Rev in the 1960s, though I am not sure he saw the full spectrum of possibilities for their interrelationship.

    • simon June 23, 2017 at 7:55 am #

      Here Here Ian – I wrote a reply to David and only then read yours above, so deleted my reply as unnecessary.

  10. David Muller June 22, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

    Christopher, thanks for your response. As I said, my post was the briefest of outlines of the findings in my book. Thus the lack of evidence given. I suggest you read the book (check Amazon) and see if you are satisfied with the historical evidence presented and evaluated. I include confidence levels for all judgments, many of which are matters of probability rather than provable fact.

  11. Ian Paul June 23, 2017 at 7:36 am #

    Gents, thanks all for the comments, and keep them coming.

    I am delighted that we are having a serious discussion about something other than sex, and even more delighted that it is about detailed exegesis of an apocalyptic text…

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