One of the great things about being a research scholar is that if you’re diligent and paying attention, you learn new stuff all the time. For someone with an inquiring mind, it’s like striking gold with some fair regularity. And if you dig deep enough, you find things that very few people know about – often even scholars within your own field.
I first read the book of Revelation when I was seventeen; I had a college course on it two years later; and have studied it ever since. But it was not until a couple of years ago that I came to know something about the very oldest commentary we have on the book. Old not in the sense that it was written in, say, the 18th century, but old in the sense that it was written in the THIRD century. That’s old.
The commentary was written by a little-known church leader, Victorinus, who was bishop of Pettau (modern Ptuj in Slovenia). We don’t know a lot about him. He wrote a number of other biblical commentaries (we don’t have any of them) and appears to have suffered martyrdom during the “Great Persecution” of the emperor Diocletian in 304 CE. So he would have been writing probably around 260-90 CE or so.
The only copies we had of his commentary on Revelation have come down to us through the Middle Ages from a later edition of the book that had been prepared by the great Latin scholar Jerome (translator of the Bible) in the fifth century. Jerome had appreciated Victorinus’s work but not, well, all of it.
In it Victorinus had championed the idea that there would be a literal glorious paradise here on earth for all eternity at the end of time, for the saints. By the time of Jerome – who was very strictly ascetic and did not look favorably upon the pleasures of the flesh – that was far too carnal and sensual. Church fathers by Jerome’s time tended to think that Revelation was not giving a crass description of material glories in the age to come, but was a figurative description of what had happened in the course already of Christian history and what was happening at their time in the Christian church. And so when Jerome edited Victorinus’s commentary he left out the parts he didn’t like. This isn’t speculation. Jerome tells us that’s what he did.
It was not until 1918 that
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