The Revelation to John

Michael D. Coogan

in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version

Published in print February 2007 | ISBN: 9780195288803
Published online April 2009 |
The Revelation to John

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The book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse (from the Greek word meaning “disclosure,” “unveiling,” or “revelation”) brings the canon of the New Testament to a close, appropriately so in view of its vivid visions of the consummation of God's plan of judgment and salvation. While the book presents itself as a work of prophecy ( 1.3; 22.10 ), it has given its name to a literary genre, “apocalypse,” found in Jewish and Christian writings from the mid‐third century bce to the second century ce. Like other apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation presents God's revelation to a human recipient. Unlike other apocalypses, which are pseudonymous, with their authors writing in the name of some revered figure from antiquity, the author of the book of Revelation identifies himself by name as John (1.1,4,9; 22.8). Although some ancient authorities (e.g., Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4) have suggested that this is the apostle John, the son of Zebedee (see Mk 3.17 ), the internal evidence of the book itself is inconclusive. The author's acquaintance with the Jerusalem Temple and its rituals, the depth of his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible (of the 404 verses in Revelation, some 275 include one or more allusions to passages in the Hebrew Bible, or to its ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint), as well as his adoption of a literary genre that was familiar in Palestinian Judaism, combine to suggest that John might have been a Palestinian Jewish Christian who fled to the Diaspora during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans (66–73 ce). His self‐description as “your brother who share[s] with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance” ( 1.9 ) suggests that he was well known to his audience, probably because he exercised a prophetic ministry among them (see 22.9 ). But he mentions the twelve apostles as figures from the past ( 21.14 ) and does not include himself among them. The traditional identification of the John of the book of Revelation with the apostle of the same name is thus questionable.

While the book of Revelation probably draws on traditional material and on sources that were written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce (e.g., chs 11 and 12 ), the book as we have it appears to have been composed toward the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81–96 ce). The book is addressed to “the seven churches that are in Asia” ( 1.4 ), Christian communities in the Roman province of Asia, located in the western portion of present‐day Turkey (see map on p. 424 nt). The book demonstrates its author's familiarity with the specific situation of each of the seven churches, beginning with Ephesus, the city that was the administrative capital of the province. The seven cities were quite diverse in economic, social, political, and religious terms. Although Christians may not have been facing widespread persecutions sanctioned by Roman authorities at the time the book was written, Christians in Asia were endangered by various forms of oppression, such as being “slaughtered for the word of God and the testimony they had given” ( 6.9 ). One such martyr, Antipas, is named in the message to the church at Pergamum ( 2.13 ). John himself endured exile on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” ( 1.9 ), and reports that the visions took place there. Many different voices and viewpoints competed for the attention of the Christians to whom the book of Revelation was originally addressed. John exhorts them to stand firm in their convictions, to resist with “patient endurance” ( 2.2,19; 3.10 ) and at any cost the overwhelming pressures to yield to accommodation and compromise. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 ce gave John ample cause to identify Rome as Babylon, recalling the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 bce. The breadth and depth of Rome's political and economic power found expression in the widespread worship of the emperor in the province of Asia, where cities competed for the honor of erecting temples to the emperor and to Rome personified as the goddess Roma. The book of Revelation takes sides in a battle over sovereignty where the Roman emperor competes with God and Christ for the allegiance of the faithful. Warning that those who worship the emperor, symbolized by “the beast” ( 13.1–10 ), will suffer ultimate defeat, the book urges believers to “hold fast to the faith of Jesus” ( 14.12 ) and to share in the paradoxical victory of his death and resurrection.

The book of Revelation is a work of extremes, ranging from soaring heights of hymnody inspired by biblical psalms and canticles to the gruesome language of plagues, warfare, and bloodshed. It uses the dualistic language characteristic of the apocalyptic genre to paint vivid portraits of the opposing sides in the eschatological conflict that will culminate in the victory of God and the final defeat of all evil. With its symbolic numbers and colors, animals, and angelic and demonic beings, and replete with echoes and images drawn from the literature of the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, Greece, and Rome, the book of Revelation is so notoriously complex that the church father Jerome (345–420 ce) remarked that it contains as many mysteries as it contains words. Origen (185–254 ce) exclaimed, “Who can read the revelations granted to John without being amazed at the hidden depth of the ineffable mysteries, a depth apparent even to the person who does not understand what the text says?” (On First Principles 4.2.4). Many centuries later, the modern writer D. H. Lawrence wrote, “When we read Revelation, we feel at once there are meanings behind meanings.” The symbolic visions of the book are by no means self‐explanatory, and even John reports the need for an angelic mediator to explain the meaning of the mystery disclosed to him ( 17.7 ). This device, common in other works of the same genre, serves to emphasize that there are transcendent levels of meaning that must be unlocked. The significance of events on earth is to be sought above and beyond what is immediately apparent, and it is ultimately to God that believers must turn to receive the meaning and guidance that strengthen their perseverance in the face of adversity. Over the centuries, the book of Revelation has been considered from a wide variety of interpretive approaches, ranging from literal readings of the book as predictive prophecy to readings that recognize in its utopian language the promise of hope in the midst of contemporary situations of suffering and oppression.

Although the structure of the book of Revelation is widely debated among scholars, there is general agreement that it involves a series of parallel, interconnected, and yet progressing sections. It begins with a prologue ( 1.1–3 ), an epistolary salutation ( 1.4–8 ) and an inaugural vision ( 1.9–20 ), which are followed by messages to each of the seven churches ( 2.1–3.22 ). Next ( 4.1–5.14 ) we find a vision of God enthroned and of Jesus depicted as a Lamb, who receives the seven sealed scrolls from the hand of God. A series of sevenfold visions commences at 6.1 , beginning with the opening of each of the seven seals ( 6.1–8.5 ), followed by the sounding of each of seven trumpets ( 8.6–11.19 ). The sounding of the seventh trumpet is followed by the vision of the woman, the child, and the dragon ( 12.1–17 ); the vision of the two beasts ( 13.1–18 ); and a threefold vision of the victory and vindication of the faithful ( 14.1–20 ). These are followed by a final sevenfold series, the outpouring of the bowls of divine wrath ( 16.1–21 ). The vision of the fall of Babylon ( 17.1–18.24 ) is followed by the great hymn of praise in 19.1–10 that also looks forward to the eschatological victory ( 19.11–21 ), the defeat of Satan ( 20.1–10 ), the last judgment ( 20.11–15 ), and the vision of the new Jerusalem ( 21.1–22.5 ). The book concludes with an epilogue ( 22.6–21 ).

Chapter.  12912 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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