In recent discussions about the book of Revelation, it has been interesting, although not surprising, to see such clear examples of the easy switch between “the book of Revelation in my head” and “the actual book of Revelation.”
For example, one gentleman noted that it is interesting how much modern day events seem to fit the events described in Revelation, such as when the Beast removes all physical forms of money.
This might be interesting, except the actual text of Revelation never has the Beast eliminating physical money. What it says is, “Also [the Beast] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is the name of the Beast or the number of its name.” (Rev. 13:16-17, NRSV)
So, we see that no one is allowed to buy or sell without the mark, but there is nothing in there about removing physical money and replacing it with something else. However, this was a strong part of this man’s narrative – probably as part of a larger narrative where debit cards or barcodes or microchips are the mark of the Beast – so much so that, even though the idea isn’t in the text, it was functionally a substitute for the text.
Upon being confronted with this, he responded that the text could mean the removal of physical money. Well, I suppose it could, but there’s no reason we would think that unless we had already established that idea. If you already think Revelation says physical money would be removed, then that verse could mean that. But if you didn’t already think that, there’s not actual text that says that. The Revelation Metanarrative in our brains becomes the interpretive guide for what we read.
As I reflected on this, I realized this is basically an issue for how we read the Bible in general. We have in our heads a Meta-Bible, and that Meta-Bible is our authoritative text, such that when we read the text of the actual Bible, we are either looking for what we already believe to be in there or something that will be consonant with what we already believe to be in there.
This is not an impenetrable process, of course. People change their minds about “what the Bible says.” But this process is not simple exposure to the actual text, otherwise after 2000 years of comparing notes, Christians would all more or less believe the same things. But our Meta-Bibles are our mental spokespeople for the actual Bible, and nobody is immune to this. I’m not even sure if there’s an alternative. But I do think we can be aware of it, allow that knowledge to moderate our dogmatism, and turn to some tools to help us get out of our own heads and into the Bible’s world.
I’m going to talk about these as they relate to the book of Revelation, but they are applicable to virtually anything we might read in the Bible.
Revelation Is Its Own Book
Whatever your belief is about the inspiration of Scripture, it’s a historical fact that the writings collected into the Bible were written by different people at different times. The Bible was not a single, continuous book written by one person like the Koran was. And the assembly process of the Bible also happened over time. When you pick up a Bible, you are basically picking up an anthology of writings moreso than you are picking a up a single book.
Because of this, when we read a “book” of the Bible (obviously, several of these writings are letters, poems, and collections of sayings), we first need to understand it as a self-contained work, much like we might understand a single essay in a book of related essays as a self-contained work in the first place before looking at how it interacts with the other essays.
Now, these works often borrow from and often interact with other writings that are also in the Bible, and the book of Revelation is no different. My friend Chris once said that you could probably reconstruct the entirety of the book of Revelation out of the Old Testament, and he’s not too far off on that.
But when we read the book of Revelation, we need to keep in mind that John wrote this book before there was a canon. He is not sitting across the table from Daniel and Ezekiel divvying up the subject matter. He is not talking to Paul and saying, “Hey, you cover the Rapture. I’m not going to bother putting it in my book as long as you cover that part.” What the book of Revelation is, in the first place, is its own book. The author did not write it to supplement the material in the Bible as we know it.
Revelation Has a Genre
All writings have a genre, which is just a fancy way of saying what type of writing it is. Science Fiction, History, and To-Do Sticky Notes are all genres of writing. When we are familiar with a genre, we know how to interpret works in that genre.
For example, when I was very little, my aunt visited the set of Battlestar Galactica and wrote me a letter saying she was bringing me a gift from that trip. I was sure it would be a laser rifle or a Colonial Viper. Turns out those things aren’t real. As a very small child, I did not understand that Science Fiction was all make believe stories, and even though I saw lasers and spaceships on TV, they weren’t real lasers and spaceships. Those things did not exist. Battlestar Galactica was not a documentary; it was a Science Fiction TV series.
Now, it didn’t take long before I learned that Science Fiction stories are not to be taken as reality. Now, when I see a science fiction movie or read a sci-fi book, I do not wonder why the news isn’t making a bigger deal about interstellar travel or alien contact. I know the “rules” of the genre.
Conversely, when I read a biography of Marin Luther King, I don’t think of it as a futuristic fantasy tale. Biographies are written to communicate what someone’s life was like. Sci-Fi novels are written to tell imaginative stories about the future.
“Apocalypse” was a genre at the time Revelation was written, and it was a well-known genre. It is less familiar to Protestants, because when we cut several books out of our canon, we also discarded some apocalyptic literature (we almost discarded Revelation, incidentally). We do see it surface in other biblical writings, especially the prophets, but we don’t have any whole books in the Protestant Bible that are apocalyptic.
But there were plenty of apocalyptic writings, especially in the intertestamental period and the first century or two AD. Several of these works survived, and you can read them, today.
These books had rules. They used symbols and codes and allegory extensively. They were presented in the form of visions. They described world events and let us in on the secret, spiritual world behind the scenes of them. If you produced a book in this genre, everyone knew what they were getting and the general rules of interpretation.
If you wrote an apocalypse in the first century, and you described a vision where you saw an eagle whose wings covered the earth who flew up to heaven, then fell from the sky and destroyed a third of the earth on impact, nobody would read that and think you were informing them that an actual giant eagle would show up and crash into the planet. Most likely, they would think you were talking about the ascension and decline of the Roman Empire and the disastrous effects that would have on the surrounding nations.
A poem is not a theological treatise. A wise proverb is not a law. A parable is not history.
Revelation Is Intelligible to the Original Audience
It is highly unlikely that any biblical author imagined YHWH followers all over the world two thousand years later struggling over what they wrote. The biblical authors wrote for their audience at their time to address their questions and their concerns.
This does not mean that everyone who heard these writings understood them all or understood them in the same way. If the midrashim tell us anything, it’s that very well-learned people who love a piece of Scripture and may be very close to its world will still disagree about it.
Nor does this mean that something mentioned in a text has to be a present event. Authors would reach into Israel’s past quite often and, on rarer occasions, would project their vision into the future. But even these things were for the benefit of their audience. If I tell you what I think will happen in the future, it’s to give the present audience hope and direction. There is no biblical writing I can think of that describes its purpose as being solely for the benefit of a completely different audience.
Even under the strongest dictation-oriented theories of inspiration would have to deal with the question: why would God give all this information to a group of people for whom it would be no use whatsoever? Did He foresee the closing of the canon and decide He’d better get everything He ever had to say in before the window closed?
So, whatever else we might have to say about Revelation, it has to be intelligible to the people who initially received it. John is trying to communicate something to the seven churches in Asia Minor that he believes will have immediate value for them. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it; for the time is near.” (Rev. 1:3, NRSV)
We have to ask ourselves what is going on with the original audience such that a writing is relevant to them, and this is usually a historical question. The biblical texts themselves may give us a window into the historical situation, as might other sources and even areas of study, such as archaeology or anthropology.
For instance, if I wrote a book, today, about the importance of ending violence against monophysites (or avoiding violence from monophysites), you might scratch your head. Why would I write a book like that? It’s not an issue. In the fifth century, though, it would have been a very, very relevant issue for Christians.
Let’s say I told you that I was writing about future monophysite violence that I foresaw, and I was trying to prepare the Church for it. Well, that might be legit, but the idea would be that the present Church would find value in what I was writing. Even though the phenomena I described would be in the future, my whole purpose in writing it would be so that we who were the intended audience could prepare for it now, and I would have to explain the issue in terms that made sense to us and enabled us to do whatever it was I’d be hoping we’d do. Build stronger walls around Antioch, whatever.
What would be a very strange scenario would be if I said, “I think there will be a resurgence of monophysite violence two thousand years from now, so I’m writing this book for the Church at that time so they’ll know what’s going on.” While that’s not an impossible thing for someone to want to do, it’s weird and unlikely. If you bought a book by Tim Keller, today, you would probably not assume it was a message designed for the Church thousands of years into the future.
By far, the most sensical assumption is that someone writes a book for their current audience, and it makes the most sense to understand their text in light of their current audience and what’s going on with them.
For instance, if we read some of Martin Luther’s more dramatic denouncements of Roman Catholicism, it would be a mistake to understand him as criticizing the Catholic Church of the third century, just as it would be a mistake to understand him as criticizing the Catholic Church of today. We might decide what he said is applicable, today, in some form or fashion, but we understand what he wrote in light of a theological controversy and big events (and counter-events) raging across the theological and political landscape of his time.
If you marched into your local Catholic church and demanded that they stop issuing indulgences, they’d look at you like you were from Mars. The 95 Theses only make sense against the historical situation of Luther’s day. Once we have understood that sense, then we can make decisions about how those Theses may or may not speak into our modern time, but it would be an enormous mistake to assume that what Luther wrote was primarily to address our contemporary situation or the modern state of Roman Catholicism.
I apologize for belaboring the point, but in our current day and age (just in case someone finds this blog 2000 years later), I don’t think it can be belabored enough. We understand a writing against its own world and concerns, and only then are we in a position to think about how it might speak into our world and concerns. We might decide it’s just as applicable today as it was then and in more or less the same ways. We might decide it’s applicable in general senses or analogous senses to today, even if the immediate meaning no longer is. We might decide it was vital for a particular moment in history and is no longer especially relevant to us. But the point is we understand a text by starting with its world as opposed to using our own world as the primary reference for understanding it.
So, when John writes about dragons and beasts and seals and harlots and trumpets and women wearing stars, we begin by asking about his world. What were the powers of his day? What were the struggles? What were they afraid of? What did they hope would happen? Although it is possible John wrote something intended for a far future audience, it doesn’t make sense to start there as a basic assumption. Is there anything in the text itself that actually says that’s the intent?
Or is that part of the story we’ve brought to the text?