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What Does The Book Of Revelation Really Mean?

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This is the first installment of a three-part series.

We've survived Harold Camping. We survived Y2K, albeit with less distress than our ancestors survived Y1K. The world has survived end-time predictors as diverse as Billy Graham, William Miller and Jonathan Edwards. Now we face the purported final year of the Mayan Calendar.

Nevertheless, most Christian bookstores devote entire sections to the sort of "Bible Prophecy" literature that uses the Book of Revelation, among other biblical literature, to tell us that we are currently living in the last days.

Here's the truth: no academic interpreter of Revelation understands the book as a roadmap for the future, much less as telling contemporary Christians that these are the last days. Instead, scholars understand that Revelation originally spoke to the conditions of its own time and place. It offered a specific group of first century Christians not only hope for the future but also an interpretation -- a "revelation" -- of the world they inhabited. In other words, the best way to understand Revelation does not require an official Dick Tracy Apocalyptic Decoder Ring. We best understand Revelation when we read it like any other ancient text, in its own historical and cultural context.

What makes biblical scholars so certain that Revelation does not provide a roadmap for the future? Two basic considerations lead us to this conclusion.

First, the book itself insists that it's addressed to a specific group of churches to speak to their own circumstances. Let's begin with Revelation's introductory words (my translation, with notes):

A revelation (Greek: apokalypsis) of [or from] Jesus Christ, which God gave by means of him to show his [God's? Christ's?] slaves the things that must happen soon, and he [God? Christ?] made it known by sending his angel to his slave John, who testified to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, everything he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud and blessed are those who hear the words of the prophecy and keep the things that are written in it, for the time is near. John, to the seven churches that are in Asia...

Working back, we observe several things. First, Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. We'd locate them in western Turkey today. Identified in chapters two and three, these churches inhabited some of the major cities in the Roman Empire, including Ephesus, a top five city of the day. Second, Revelation's author John describes the vision as speaking to things that must happen "soon" for "the time is near." This is no minor point, nor is it to be spiritualized to mean something other than what it says. At several points Revelation reminds those ancient Christians to expect their redemption to come "soon" (1:1, 3, 19; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20). Revelation was written not to tell us what to expect in our future but to give ancient Christians hope for dealing with their own. While modern interpreters disagree on many points, almost all agree on the basic historical circumstances addressed by Revelation.

(We'll address Revelation's message to those ancient believers in our next post.)

Second, we know a lot about the kind of literature Revelation represents. Revelation is an apocalypse, a form of literature with which biblical scholars have grown quite familiar. Indeed, Revelation constitutes the first book that calls itself an apocalypse. (The Greek word apokalypsis stands as the book's very first word.)

Between the third century B.C.E. and the second century C.E., Judaism and Christianity produced several great literary apocalypses, along with a host of related literature. See my book "Ultimate Things" for an introduction to this literature or my entry, "Apocalypses," in the new "Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible.") All of these books share some distinctive features. They all relate a vision experienced by a single visionary. The visionary receives instruction and guidance from a heavenly being, usually an angel. And the vision reveals either otherworldly affairs or the resolution of history. Readers encounter what's going on in heaven, the arrival of the messiah, and the final judgment, among other topics. Striking images that require imaginative interpretation are common to all these works. Revelation provides a classic example of an apocalypse, as it includes every one of these features.

The Protestant Bible includes only two apocalypses, Daniel and Revelation. However, the Ethiopian Orthodox canon includes 1 Enoch, perhaps the greatest of the literary apocalypses. The New Testament epistle of Jude alludes to 1 Enoch on two occasions, and at least 11 copies or fragments of 1 Enoch were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Several important Jewish apocalypses date from about the time of Revelation's composition, including 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch and the Apocalypse of Abraham. Within decades of Revelation's composition several other Christian appeared, including the Shepherd of Hermas, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Peter.

Sharing many common traits, these literary apocalypses show us that the apocalypses represent a developing literary tradition, a form of ancient theology expressed in poetic symbols and sequences. If someone were to stand up in church and read a passage from 4 Ezra or Hermas, nearly everyone would assume the text was from Revelation.

On the second night I had a dream: I saw rising from the sea an eagle that had twelve feathered wings and three heads (2 Esdras 11:1, New Revised Standard Version).

The sun began to shine a bit and suddenly I saw an enormous wild beast, something like a sea monster, with fiery locusts spewing from its mouth (Hermas 23:6, trans. Bart Ehrman).

The apocalypses teach us that Revelation describes a moment of acute crisis for its own religious community, those seven churches in Asia. Like the other apocalypses, it critiques current events, even major political and cultural developments, from a divine perspective. And like the other apocalypses, it calls its ancient audience to rigorous, even dangerous, levels of faithfulness under challenging circumstances.

Revelation does not predict events in 2012 or some other future date; it spoke to our ancient ancestors in the faith, who had enough challenges of their own.

In future posts we will explore both the circumstances of Revelation's composition and the lifestyle to which it called its audience.