I have started to give some background on the book of Revelation, to help set the stage for my new understanding of it as it has developed over the past year. Much of what I think now is what I’ve thought for 45 years. But the deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve seen and the more I’ve come to realize that my older perspective (a widely held one among scholars) has some serious flaws (as others too have seen).
But none of these new insights affects my basic view, that to understand this mysterious book we have to do what almost NO ONE in the modern world does (except scholars): understanding it in its own historical context in light of what we know of its historical and, especially, literary context. If you change the context, you change the meaning. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the book of Revelation.
In the last post I summarized the narrative (urging you to read it for yourself) (if you prefer to listen to it, make sure you get a production with sound effects!). Now I can start to explain how we need to contextualize it to understand it. This again is drawn from my textbook on the New Testament (Oxford University Press; 7th ed. 2020).
To most modern readers the Apocalypse of John seems mystical and bizarre, quite unlike anything else that we have read. In part, this explains our continual fascination with the book—it is so strange, so unearthly, that its descriptions cannot simply have been dreamt up. Its supernatural feel seems to vindicate its supernatural character.
The historian who approaches the book, however, sees it in a somewhat different light, for this was not the only book of its kind to be written in the ancient world, even if it is the only one that most of us have ever read. Indeed, a number of other apocalypses were produced by ancient Jews and Christians. These works also offer unworldly accounts of happenings in heaven; bizarre descriptions of supranatural events and transcendent realities that impinge on the history of our world; and deeply symbolic visions of the end of time that are given by God through his angels to a human prophet, who writes them down in cryptic and mysterious narratives filled with emphatic claims that they are true and soon to take place.
Some of these other apocalypses still survive, and together they make up a distinct genre of literature. Thus, far from being unique in its own day, the Apocalypse of John followed a number of literary conventions that were well known among Jews and Christians of the ancient world. A historian who wants to understand this one ancient text, then, will situate it in the context of this related literature and explain its important features in light of the literary conventions of the genre.
Apocalypses were written to
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