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A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary
By Craig R. Koester
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Yale University
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History of Interpretation and Influence
Revelation has engaged the imaginations of biblical interpreters and musicians, theologians and artists. Its vision of New Jerusalem has been celebrated in songs of hope, while its portrayal of a seven-headed beast has fueled speculation about the Antichrist. Its promise of a millennial kingdom has inspired reform movements dedicated to a new age of peace on earth, and yet its depictions of fire falling from the sky has awakened fears about the imminent end of the world. An overview of ways Revelation has been interpreted provides an opportunity for us to think about the questions others have asked and the assumptions that informed their reading of the book. We will consider how their social contexts shaped their perspectives and what effect their interpretations had on church and society. Doing this helps us become aware of the questions and assumptions that contemporary interpreters bring to their work. The examples that follow are taken from works both by scholars and by leaders of popular religious movements; they include commentaries and theological treatises, architecture and hymnody. Disputed topics such as the seven seals, the Antichrist, Babylon the whore, and the millennial kingdom are noted briefly here but receive special treatment in the introductions to major sections of the commentary (§§3, 12, 18, 25, 32, 38).
A. Revelation from 100 to 500 CE
Revelation was written toward the end of the first century by an author who was sharply critical of Roman imperialism, but from the second century onward the writers who mentioned the book typically wanted to help Christians live securely under Roman rule and said little about its political dimensions. One factor shaping interpretation during this period was the need to define Christian faith in the face of issues raised by Gnostic groups, Montanists, and Arians. Another factor was the need to deal with internal disputes over the idea that history would culminate in a thousand-year reign of the saints on earth. And still another factor was the need to encourage the faithful. Writers often did so by applying the battle scenes in Revelation to the church's ongoing struggle with sin and false belief. That approach provided a way for people to read the book for moral and spiritual instruction, and it remained the most popular way to interpret the book after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
Christians in the west generally valued Revelation and assumed that John the apostle wrote the work, along with the Fourth Gospel and one or more of the Johannine Epistles. Christians in the east held similar views until the late third century, when questions were raised about the book's authorship in the wake of controversies about its message, leading to a decline in its status in the east. Revelatory texts such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter circulated alongside Revelation, but as churches defined the extent of the NT canon, Revelation was the one apocalypse accepted in the west and by some, though not all, in the east.
I. THE WEST TO 350
Early reference to Revelation was made by Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165), who argued that Christians deserved fair treatment under Roman rule since they were responsible subjects of the empire (1 Apol. 12–17). His extant writings do not relate Revelation to imperial governance but draw from the book when explaining Christianity's relationship to Judaism. After commenting on OT passages that were fulfilled in Christ, Justin turned to Isaiah's and Ezekiel's prophecies concerning the glorification of Jerusalem, which had not been fulfilled. His response was that those prophecies would be fulfilled during the thousand years of peace envisioned by Rev 20:4–6. While noting that some Christians of his day interpreted the passage about the millennium differently, Justin thought it promised long life and prosperity on earth (Dial. 80–81).
Irenaeus (d. ca. 200) held similar views, which he developed when critiquing Gnostic thought. The Gnostics in question regarded the OT God as an inferior demiurge who imprisoned souls in the realm of matter from which they needed deliverance. Irenaeus countered that the OT along with the Christian Gospels, Epistles, and other writings affirmed the Creator's goodness. The OT story of creation also provided a template for history. Since the world was created in six days, according to Gen 1, Irenaeus thought that the history of the world would continue through six thousand-year periods (Haer. 28.3). In the final thousand years, which he identified with the vision in Rev 20, creation would be blessed with peace and abundance (Haer. 32–35). Since the world was created good, evil did not originate with the Creator but with the devil and human sin, which are overcome by Christ, who is the glorified Son of Man, the slain Lamb, and conquering Word of God in Revelation (Haer. 4.20.11; Rev 1:12–18; 5:6; 19:11–16). Although Revelation links the beast, or Antichrist, to Rome, Irenaeus was careful to note that government had rightly been established by God and should be obeyed, and he expected the Antichrist to come after the dissolution of the empire, before the last judgment (Haer. 5.24–30).
Irenaeus had become bishop of Lyons after Christians in that church were publicly harassed and killed (177 CE). A letter from the church shows how Revelation—cited as "scripture"—encouraged the faithful during persecution. On the one hand, the letter calls Jesus "the faithful witness [martys] and firstborn from the dead" and commends those who die for the faith because they "follow the Lamb wherever he goes" (Rev 1:5; 14:4). On the other hand, the letter identifies the persecutors with the wicked of Rev 22:11, whom the faithful are to resist (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.1.10, 58; 5.2.3).
Unfavorable views of Revelation were held by Marcion (d. ca. 160), who insisted that the OT God was one of wrath and law, who had nothing to do with the God of love revealed by Christ. He rejected the OT and used only Paul's Epistles and an edited version of Luke's gospel. He excluded Revelation, perhaps because of its violent imagery and frequent use of the OT (Tertullian, Marc. 4.5). But in response, Irenaeus employed a different set of theological criteria to evaluate books. His basic principles were that authoritative texts bore witness to one God, the Maker of this universe, who gave Israel the law, is attested by the prophets, and is the Father of Jesus Christ. Irenaeus apparently found those principles in Revelation, since he appealed to its vision of four creatures around God's throne when arguing that there are four authoritative gospels (Rev 4:7; Haer. 3.11.7–8).
Other criticisms of Revelation arose because of its use by the Montanists, who in the mid- to late second century claimed they had received the gift of prophecy. Interpreting their spiritual experiences as signs that the present age had reached its climax, they expected New Jerusalem to be centered in the Phrygian town of Pepuza (Epiphanius, Pan. 49.1.2–3; Tabbernee, "Appearance"). In an effort to counter Montanism, a Roman elder named Gaius sought to discredit Revelation, which seemed to support the movement's claim that prophesying had an ongoing place in the church. Gaius argued that the perspectives in Revelation could not be reconciled with those of accepted Christian texts. He held that the book's repeated series of plagues contradicted Paul's statement that the Day of the Lord would come suddenly like a thief (1 Thess 5:2), and its visions of angels slaying the ungodly were incompatible with Jesus' teaching that nation would rise up against nation (Matt 24:7). Since Revelation's message seemed to be so problematic, Gaius attributed the book to the heretic Cerinthus (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.28.1–2).
Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) responded to Gaius, insisting that Revelation was congruent with other writings used by the church. Its warning about plagues at the end of the age fit the pattern of the plagues before the exodus, and those plagues would constitute the tribulations foretold by Jesus in the gospels (Gwynn, "Hippolytus"). Hippolytus also related aspects of Revelation to the current situation of the church, as would later interpreters. He thought the woman giving birth symbolized the church, laboring to bring forth Christ by its witness, while the dragon signified persecution (Antichr. 61). Like Irenaeus, he thought the Antichrist would appear at the close of the age, but he had no sense that the end was imminent and expected the present era to continue several centuries longer, until 500 CE (Comm. Dan. 9.22–24). Where Irenaeus expected the millennium to be a time of peace on earth, Hippolytus interpreted it differently, as the blessed state of the faithful immediately after death, which would be followed by resurrection on the last day. Those different views of the millennium existed side by side (C. Hill, Regnum, 160–69).
Revelation's importance as a source of moral instruction can be seen in the North African writers Tertullian (d. ca. 225) and Cyprian (d. 258). They regarded Babylon the whore, with her gold and opulent clothing, as a warning against ostentation (Tertullian, Cor. 13; Cyprian, Hab. virg. 12). The heavenly rewards, which Revelation promises to the martyrs, encouraged faithfulness during times of persecution (Tertullian, Scorp. 12; Cyprian, Ep. 12.1; 14.2; Fort. 8; 10; 11; 13). On the issue of repentance, Tertullian called for rigor, arguing that Revelation barred adulterers from New Jerusalem (Pud. 19; Rev 2:18–22; 21:8). Cyprian, however, wrote after the Decian persecution, when many had lapsed from the faith, and he insisted that Revelation's repeated call for repentance showed that the penitent could be restored to communion with the church (2:5; Ep. 19; 34).
Both writers drew on Revelation's eschatological aspects, but in different ways. Tertullian thought the Roman Empire played a positive role in history, because it now restrained the Antichrist, whose defeat at some unknown point in the future would usher in the millennial age on earth (Fug. 12; Marc. 3.25). Cyprian, however, thought the six thousand years of history were actually drawing to a close, and he saw signs that the Antichrist was already at work in the persecution by the Romans and the schisms within the church (Fort. pref. 1–2; Ep. 58.1). Like Hippolytus he also thought the millennium was the state of blessedness after death, not a coming age of earthly bliss (C. Hill, Regnum, 192-201).
The Christological and eschatological aspects of Revelation receive special attention in the oldest extant commentary on the book, written by Victorinus of Pettau (d. 304). In his view, the vision of the Lamb breaking the seals on God's scroll shows that Christ reveals the meaning of Scripture through his death and resurrection (In Apoc. 1.4; 4.1–5.3; Huber, "Aspekte"). Like many modern interpreters, Victorinus observed that the beast has traits of Roman emperors, especially Nero. He thought Revelation envisioned persecutions at the end of the age, which would culminate in the thousand-year reign of the saints on earth. But his major contribution was observing that Revelation's visions did not unfold in a linear way. Instead, they repeated the same message multiple times. The trumpet plagues gave a warning briefly, and the bowl plagues restated that warning more completely. Therefore, people were not to look for a sequential outline of future events in Revelation but were to ask about its underlying meaning (In Apoc. 8.2). The idea that Revelation recapitulates the same message multiple times would inform commentaries on the book until the thirteenth century, and it would influence interpreters again beginning in the mid-twentieth century.
2. THE EAST TO 350
Christians in the eastern Mediterranean interpreted Revelation in ways that fit the needs of churches seeking stability under the Roman Empire. Those who used the book included Theophilus of Antioch (d. ca. 183), who said that Christians prayed on behalf of the emperor (Autol. 11), and Melito of Sardis (d. ca. 190), who noted that Christianity had been founded under Augustus and was a blessing to the empire (Hall, ed., On Pascha, 63). Although their writings on Revelation have been lost (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.24.1; 4.26.1–2, 7–8), the effect of Revelation's language is reflected in Melito's On Pascha, which defines Christianity in relation to Judaism. For him, the Passover prefigures salvation in Jesus the slain Lamb, who overcame Hades and made people into God's kingdom and priests (Rev 1:6, 18; 5:6–10). God's history of salvation therefore culminates in Jesus, who is "the Alpha and the Omega; he is the beginning and the end" (On Pascha 105; cf. Rev 22:13). This perspective is Christological rather than futuristic (Nicklas, "Probleme").
For writers in Alexandria, the concern was how Scripture led people to true knowledge of God. Drawing language from Revelation, Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215) said that God's Word was the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of a spiritual journey that brought people trained in faith to a place among the elders around God's throne (Paed. 1.6; Strom. 6.13; cf. Rev 1:8; 4:4; 21:6). Origen (d. 254) explored the soul's relationship to God using the Platonic distinction between the intelligible world above and the visible world below. For him, the images in Scripture pointed to higher spiritual truths. He identified the writing on the outside of the scroll in God's hand in Rev 5:1 as the simple meaning of the text, and the writing inside the scroll as Scripture's higher truth (Comm. Jo. 5.6; 13.28–30). Followers of Jesus are a spiritual Israel, symbolized by the 144,000 virgins (Comm. Jo. 1.1–9; cf. Rev 7:4–8; 14:1–5). Christ himself is God's logos, or reason, who overcomes the beast that symbolizes irrational elements in the soul (Comm. Jo. 2.42–63; cf. Rev 19:11–21), and the vision of the millennium promises spiritual transformation after death, not physical well-being on earth (C. Hill, Regnum, 189; Ramelli, "Origen's").
Criticism of Revelation in the east came from an anti-Montanist group known as Alogoi, who tried to discredit the book by ascribing it to Cerinthus, much as Gaius did in Rome (Epiphanius, Pan. 51.3.1–6; 51.32.2–33.3). A different approach was taken by Apollonius (late second century), who made use of Revelation against the Montanists—though his work has been lost (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.18.1, 14). But the most divisive issue concerned the millennial kingdom of Rev 20:1–6. In the early second century, Papias of Hierapolis, who apparently knew Revelation, established a positive perspective on the coming age, when every vine would have a thousand branches and every grape would produce gallons of wine (Irenaeus, Haer. 5.33.3–4). Origen rejected the idea of a millennial age devoted to eating and drinking, since indulging in pleasure was contrary to virtue (Princ. 2.11.2–3), but in the third century an Egyptian bishop reasserted the notion that there would be a millennial period of bliss on earth (see §38A).
Dionysius of Alexandria (d. ca. 264) reiterated the objections to hopes for an earthly millennium and insisted that Revelation had to be understood spiritually. In his critique of millennialism, he raised questions about the apostolic authorship of Revelation. Although most people assumed that Revelation and the Fourth Gospel were both written by John the apostle, Dionysius showed that the two works could not have been written by the same person because they were so different in literary form, writing style, and theological content. Rather than ascribing Revelation to Cerinthus, as others had done, Dionysius said that the gospel was written by John the apostle and that Revelation was by another person named John, perhaps a church elder. Although Dionysius continued to accept Revelation because the church valued it, his arguments against apostolic authorship would diminish the book's credibility in the east (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 7.24.1–25.27).
Excerpted from Revelation by Craig R. Koester. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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