The Many Faces of Revelation

When it comes to the Book of Revelation disagreements can end the conversation before it gets started. I suspect that some of my readers are already up in arms because I cited J. Massyngberde Ford in a previous article. Because her commentary on Revelation is controversial in some circles, I’m also using Craig R. Koester’s commentary.

Massyngberde Ford was probably aware before she died in 2015 that another Anchor Bible commentary was set to replace hers. However I don’t get the impression that Koester was interested refuting her work, and his approach has been equally helpful. Koester writes from a tradition that’s more in agreement with the western consensus. [1] Massyngberde Ford was a New Testament and Rabbinic scholar and her commentary reflects that background. [2]

I’m not aiming for the kind of ecumenism that tries to find agreement between sects. My hope is that we can get past the need to defend secular positions and try to understand the meaning of the text for our time. In this post I will try to call into question two of the tendencies that keep people from learning anything new from this book. One is the assumption that there is only one possible interpretation; the other is the assumption that the book’s authorship is irrefutable. I think Koester’s summary of the history is a good source for perspective on this book. [3]

Koester relates Revelation to settings in the first century and is informed by studies of associations in the Roman world along with works on inscriptions, ancient art, and Jewish and Greco-Roman texts. He explains that the world within the text addressed the social world of Christians in Asia Minor during the final decades of the first century. At that time the social setting was not unified and complacency among the more prosperous followers of Jesus was a problem. The Book of Revelation was intended as a call to awakening.

The first part is devoted to an examination of the effect of various interpretations on society with a focus on the questions writers have asked and the assumptions that informed their reading of the book.(29) In Koester’s view, Revelation does not provide detailed programs for readers but a way of seeing the world (xv). The God of Revelation is the creator, and injustice perpetrated by earth’s destroyers is His major focus. But the destruction of the forces of destruction is only a part of His work; the other part is making all things new. (xiv)

Koester’s remarks indicate that the political implications of Revelation have changed over the centuries. It was written toward the end of the first century by an author critical of Roman imperialism, but from the end of the second century writers concerned with fostering Christian security under Roman rule remained silent on the political aspects. Justin Martyr (d. 165) used it to argue for fair treatment under Roman rule. Irenaeus (d. ca. 200) was also careful not to offend Rome. He said the anti-Christ would come after the empire dissolved. Churches in the Eastern Mediterranean also interpreted it in ways that fit the needs of churches seeking stability under the Roman Empire. Theophilus of Antioch (d. ca. 183) said Christians prayed in behalf of the emperor, and Melito of Sardis (d. ca. 190) said Christianity was founded under Augustus and was a blessing to the Empire.

Later, when Christianity became the dominant religion, the anti-imperial imagery seems to have been forgotten entirely. By the mid to late fourth century Revelation’s motifs were used in Christian art to portray Christ’s victory and reign over the world. (36)

But on a more positive note, from 100 to 500 CE the book was used to deal with real challenges to the church and its people: it helped to define Christian faith as opposed to Gnostic groups; it gave encouragement to the faithful; and it gave voice to internal disputes regarding the thousand-year reign of the saints on earth. The battle scenes were said to represent the Church’s struggle with sin and false belief and this allowed people to read it for moral and spiritual instruction. This remained the most popular interpretation when Christianity became the dominant religion.

For writers in Alexandria the important thing was how scripture led people to true knowledge of God. Dionysius of Alexandria (d. ca. 264) said Revelation must be understood spiritually. He questioned the apostolic authorship of Revelation and said it was not the same author as the 4th gospel.

Until the late third century Christians in the east and the west believed that John the Apostle wrote Revelation as well as several other books of the Bible, such as the fourth gospel and one or more of the Johannine Epistles. But when questions about the authorship of Revelation arose they led to a decline in the book’s status in the east. Some eastern churches still do not accept it. That is not to say that the book has a trouble-free history in the west. Marcion (d. ca. 160) rejected it entirely because he identified the god in Revelation with the Old Testament god. Others said Cerinthus, a heretic, wrote it. In the west, such opinions did not prevail. Irenaeas responded to Marcion by saying there is only one God, and Hippolytus argued that Revelation was not heretical. (Apparently, the accusation of heresy centered on the description of the woman in Chapter 12 because Hippolytus refuted the charge by arguing that she represents the church.)

The book’s implications for church history have always been important. Was the age coming to an end? What, and when, is the millennium? Hippolytus thought the millennium was the blessed state of the faithful after death, followed by the resurrection; Irenaeus thought it was a time of peace on the earth. In addition, current theological debates centered on the doctrine of the Trinity have always been added to the mix.

Revelation was canonical in the west according to the synod at Carthage (397). It was not recognized by the synod of Laodicea (360), Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), and apostolic constitutions (ca. 380), or Gregory of Nanzianzus (d. 389).

For a while the millennium ceased to be a cause of disagreement. According to Augustine (d. 430) the millennial age was an indefinite period in which the church dealt with internal conflicts and external threats—the City of God and the city of the Devil. Individuals are raised to new life with baptism but continue to deal with sin since Satan is bound in the abyss of human hearts everywhere and the power of the anti-Christ is seen with words and actions. This interpretation made Revelation relevant to Christians of all times and places.

However this agreement eventually came undone. The Roman Empire was divided by the early 6th century. Then came invasions of Vikings and Magyars, Islamic conquests of North Africa, plague and political instability. Because of these immediate circumstances, medieval writers on Revelation tried to bolster cohesion by synthesizing theological and spiritual interpretations of their predecessors. Andreas of Caesarea taught that the end is not near and that help comes through the sacramental life of the Church. The woman in labor stands on the moon–this is baptism. He encouraged acceptance in the East by recalling Irenaeas, Methodius, Gregory of Nazianzus, etc. and said the millennium is the present age, not the false promise of a 1000 years of bliss. His view became standard in the east, informing 10th century commentaries by Arethas of Caesarea, but its status in the Byzantine Church remained ambiguous. Western commentaries drew mainly from two sources: the commentary of Victorinus, edited by Jerome; and that of Tyconius, interpreted by Augustine. They related Revelation to the present life of the church and the church’s struggle against sin and heresy, and taught that the present age ends with the resurrection and last judgment.

Latins addressed theological questions in light of positions taken at Nicaea and Chalcedon helping form the Church’s theological identity.

When the Holy Roman Empire was established in the tenth century it brought greater stability to Western Europe but it increased tensions between emperor and Pope over appointments of church officials. Gregory VII (d. 1085) issued calls for reform. He wanted to raise clergy to a higher moral and spiritual level so they would have a preeminent role in society. He asserted the church’s independence from state authority and worked to curb corruption within the church. He also thought the time of the anti Christ was approaching.

In the years 1000 to 1500 Revelation was interpreted spiritually and theologically. During this time the commentary of Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129 or 1130) supported the call for church reform. He used the messages to the churches in Rev. 2-3 as occasions to denounce simony and immorality among clergy and condemn the secular powers that set up Anti-popes. This was an allusion to Emperor Henry V who backed rival claimants to the papacy in 1118-19. A century later the issue of reform was present among Dominican writers. In the 12th and 13th century scenes from Revelation were related to events in the Church’s past and future. There were additional calls for church reform but resistance by church leaders led to criticism of the papacy. This attitude continued beyond the 16th century.

For Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas Revelation was more significant for predestination than for the end of the world. Scholastic writers occasionally cited Revelation but gave little attention to the eschatological dimensions of the work. But then along came Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202) who renewed interest in apocalyptic thought.

Joachim thought that since God is a trinity, time itself is a trinity. He proposed that the era of the Father lasted from creation to the first coming of Christ; the era of the son extended from Jesus to Joachim’s time; and the coming era of the spirit was the monastic ideal of contemplation. Of course this was contrary to Augustine who taught a non-progressive view of history. For Augustine the millennium was identified with the present life of the church; for Joachim the millennium was in the future.

Joachim’s interpretation of Revelation was anti-papal, as was the interpretation of the Spiritual Franciscans. Peter Auriol (d. 1322) gave the Franciscan Order a key role, but he thought New Jerusalem was heavenly. This took attention away from the question about Franciscans’ role in bringing forth the new age. Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1394) tempered the sequential approach to Revelation with Augustine. He was hesitant to see genuine historical progress to the new Age and he refused to speculate after the 12th century. He knew of ongoing problems among the Franciscans so he didn’t want to treat them as harbingers of the New Jerusalem.

The anti-papal interpretation strengthened with John Wyclif (d. 1384). By the 16th century the Reformation and counter-Reformation had redefined Church and Society in the west. As a result, there were five main factions–Protestants; Lutherans; Reformed Churches; Radicals and Anabaptists; and Roman Catholics–each with their own interpretation of Revelation.

Protestants interpreted Revelation as anti-papal church history; Lutherans debated its value as witness to Christ; the Reformed Churches focused on the way Revelation revealed God’s providence in history; the Radicals and Anabaptists interpreted it in light of spiritual experience; and Roman Catholics said it was either about the Pagan Roman Empire before Constantine or a time in the future, not under the papacy.

Both Desiderus Erasmus (d. 1536) and Luther doubted Revelation’s status and authorship, although passages from Revelation were woven into Lutheran doctrinal treatises, and although at his funeral Luther was identified as the Angel with the eternal gospel. Revelation played a role in Lutheran worship through the renewed emphasis on hymnody. Passages that were set to music were non-polemical and focused on life in the presence of God. (50)

Ulrich Zwingli of the Reformed tradition accepted Erasmus’s criticism and said Revelation was not a biblical book. Calvin said nothing about its authorship or canonical status and he wrote no commentary on it. Johannes Oecolampadius and J. Brentz considered Revelation, James, Jude, II Peter, and 2nd and 3rd John to be canonical but of lesser value.

There were some in the Reformed tradition who accepted the book as part of the biblical canon. Francis Lambert cited Patristic testimony that it had been written by John the Apostle and Koester lists additional adherents to this view. Those who did comment on Revelation thought it was a prophetic outline of Church history and that God would bring things to their proper end despite the church’s flaws and suffering. (51)

[1] Professor Craig R. Koester, Ph.D, (https://www.thegreatcourses.com/professors/craig-r-koester/)

[2] Michael O. Garvey, In Memorian: Josephine Massyngberde Ford, professor emerita of theology at Notre Dame, May 20, 2015. Notre Dame News (https://news.nd.edu/news/in-memoriam-josephine-massyngberde-ford-professor-emerita-of-theology-at-notre-dame/)

[3] The Anchor Bible: Revelation. Introduction, Translation and Commentary by Craig R. Koester, Yale University Press, September 30, 2014

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