The Last Judgement, John Martin 1853
As the spring semester comes to a close in central Indiana the pear trees are in full bloom, the daffodils wake to push up through the cold, wet earth and stretch their sunny mops towards the glory of Heaven. Meanwhile our Introduction to the New Testament course is reading through the Apocalypse of John.
This is a survey course so, sadly, we will take only two weeks to read and review some of the most enigmatic material in the New Testament. As I prepare my students to read the material, I offer some helpful tips in approaching the text and thought I’d share them with you!!
1. “Revelation” is an English translation derived from the Greek Apocalypse of John. It is singular, not “Revelations;" you’re welcome :)
2. The Apocalypse of John is highly symbolic literature and the symbols are multi-valiant, have many layers and usually point to elements in the natural at the time of the writing, harken back to the Hebrew bible and have a cosmic sensibility as well.
3. When reading the Apocalypse, it is most helpful to read from beginning to end so that you get a sense of flow and connection in the text. You will note recapitulation throughout and utter destruction achieved over and over again. How to understand the restatement of the punishment of the wicked and the devastation of creation is an interpretive move.
4. The Apocalypse of John is supposed to scare you to death if you are among the wealthiest 8% of human beings on the planet. Privileged Western Christians should find it very hard to empathize with the martyrs of the earliest centuries. If you have food, a home, insurance, means to justice within your legal system you are not in the same position as the martyrs. Those of us with power in this world are more closely aligned with Rome.
5. Apocalyptic literature is a genre that emerges in the 2nd century BCE and together with Wisdom literature will be the dominant themes understood and embraced by the New Testament authors. Apocalyptic literature reflects a way of reading life in the ancient world, from a position of powerlessness the followers of Jesus seek justice and meaning and hope in the world to come, the great and final triumph of good over evil.
6. The Apocalypse of John is not a formula or a code to break, it is literature written in the late first century depicting a vision into another realm; it is not future or past it is--John is seeing into the heavenly realm just as Ezekiel and Isaiah had before him. John writes, “And I saw…”
7. The anti Christ is not mentioned in Revelation, rather is found in I and II John. While we want to avoid over domesticating this text, John names some of his monsters, thus the 666 is a Hebrew number structure that corresponds to the alphabet and spells Nero.
8. The date of writing of the Apocalypse is debated but most scholars place it in the late first century 90-100 A.D., thus during the reign of Emperor Domitian who was widely acclaimed as the Second Nero.
9. The major movements in the text are determined by the visions as described by John using the literary device εν πνευματι. We are told that John is on the island of Patmos in the Spirit on the Lord’s day (1.9,10); he is invited to come up to the throne room in Heaven where he reports he is in the Spirit (4.1,2); he is carried away in the Spirit into the wilderness (17.3) and finally, is carried away in the Spirit to a great mountain (21.10).
10. In many ways, this text, though polyvalent and multilayered, prophetic and apocalyptic contains a consistent motif that maintains throughout Scripture; the justice of God is displayed and judgment is accompanied by salvation.