Interpreting Revelation (Part 1)

The Historicist View of Revelation

The historicist method of interpreting Revelation is usually traced to the writings of Joachim of Fiore, a 13th century monk.  Joachim has been described as the “most original and influential of all medieval apocalyptic authors” (Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ, (1994), 135).  His commentaries can be described as pre-millennial although Joachim might be better described as looking for a “post Anti-Christ” golden age of the church. He looked for the Anti-Christ to be revealed very soon followed by his overthrow and a new age of the Spirit, in which the Catholic church would rule in its most pure form. Joachim wrote “the Antichrist is already born in Rome…..the Antichrist’s persecutions will begin in a mere four years.”

Despite the fact that Joachim was expecting a real Antichrist in the very near future who would persecute the church for a literal three and a half years, it is possible to credit him with a development of several general “principles” concerning prophetic times that would become the accepted standard among historicist prophetic writers for hundreds of years.

First, Joachim expected prophecy to be fulfilled in history and in very real events. In fact, Joachim may be one of the first thinkers to develop a philosophy of history. Joachim divided history into three ages on the analogy of the Trinity, each consisting of 42 generations of 30 years each, or 1260 total years. The first age ran began with Abraham, the second with the Birth of Christ.  The third age was to begin with an outpouring of the Spirit of God on the church, especially upon a new order of pure monks.   The seven seals of Revelation 6 are interpreted as steps from the primitive church (the first seal, the white horse) to the Saracens (the fourth seal, the pale horse, with Mohammed as the rider). The fifth seal describes the current persecution ending in his own day.

Joachim’s second contribution to prophetic studies was that he understood the 1260 days of the Antichrist’s power mentioned in Daniel and Revelation as 1260 years rather than days. This was an innovation that was almost required by the long delay in the Lord’s return.  The early commentators on prophecy took the 1260 days as a literal 3 and a half year period of Antichrist’s reign.  Joachim is the first to consistently consider a “day” in prophecy to be a “year” for all of the numbers of Daniel and Revelation.  This includes the five months of the locust plague in Revelation 9. Since five months is 150 days, therefore the period described is 150 years long.  The locust are the heretical Catharists,  although Joachim confesses he does not know the origin of the sect.

A third contribution of Joachim was his believe that Babylon of Revelation 17 was the Roman Church rather than Jerusalem. For Joachim, Rome includes all those that are reprobate whether in the church or not.  The fall of Babylon will bring about a pure church and the conversion of the Jews.

Historicism was the only method of interpreting Revelation through the Reformation and was by Luther himself. The only writers who attempted to develop a method other than historicism prior to the early 19th century were Roman Catholic scholars, likely motivated by the Historicist criticism of the pope as the antichrist.

Biblography: The best historicist commentary is that of E. B. Elliott,  Horae Apocalypticae. 4 vols.; London: Seeleys, 1851; Joseph Mede, Clavis Apocalyptica (London:  Rivington, 1833).  Originally written and published in Latin, 1627, English translation by Richard More.

9 thoughts on “Interpreting Revelation (Part 1)

  1. Revelations is such a hard book. There are so many strange things in this book. But do we take them for exactly for what they say or do we have to interpret them? I think for the most part, we need to take the book for what is says. I do not think that we should try to read into things and try to make up things that are not really there.
    I think that Joachim is right in saying that prophecy will be fulfilled in history and in very real events. I think that everything in Revelations will come to pass in one way or another. I do not think that we should say that this is not going to happen. This is what John said that he saw that God said would come to pass.
    I do not know if I believe Joachim when he tried to take days, and turn that into years. If you are going to do that in Revelations, should you not do that for the rest of the Bible too? I mean if you are going to say that, then Jesus was in the tomb for 3 years and not 3 days and God created the world in 7 years and not 7 days which would support the gap theory. I do not think that we should try to change days to years.
    But I do agree with him on the fact that Babylon is the Roman Empire. I really do not have good support for believing this, but this is what I believe. I think that it makes sense to draw that conclusion.

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  2. I think that there may be somethings that we can translate. For the most part I agree that Revelation uses the descriptions that it does because it was a cultural thing. This makes it really hard to get what they meant by each of the things. The only things we can really really get are the things that the angels right out tell us what it is.

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  3. I can understand why Joachim may have thought of making days into years in Revelation. Joachim was trying to reconcile to himself and others with what the Bible said and it’s apparent nonfulfillment up to his day based on his understanding of Scripture. At the time he was thinking 1260 days are years in Revelation; if his understanding of history was right we would be in the Millennial kingdom right now. Alas, we are not and he was wrong. His example from history should have informed others who after him tried to set a date or year of Christ’s coming. How slow some of us are in learning from other’s mistakes. I do believe Christ is coming again and I myself think that Christ could come back very soon as many others before believed the same thing. Revelation will be fulfilled in one way or another and I suspect that all of us will be surprised at how these prophecies are actually fulfilled to some degree.

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  4. Revelations is such a hard book. There are so many strange things in this book. But do we take them for exactly for what they say or do we have to interpret them? I think for the most part, we need to take the book for what is says. I do not think that we should try to read into things and try to make up things that are not really there. – Jessica

    Yeah, that’s exactly what the whole class was for last Monday – to argue/make the case for a “literal interpretation of the book.” It seems that what we were talking about is extremely elementary, but it is when it’s put into practice is when the “literal” interpretation starts to become a bit unclear. A lot of nuances in any writers writings is subject to interpretation, and it will always be a “guess” to try and figure out if the writer was using a metaphor, or if in some weird way he actually meant what he said, and did NOT have a deeper meaning. I feel like many people start with a “literal” interpretation mindset, but some how lose perspective of how they were supposed to interpret the book in the first place.

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  5. I think that when interpreting Revelation, we do indeed need to read it in it’s intended context. Revelation as a piece of literature was intended to be a letter containing prophecy in a apocalyptic format. This was intended as a polemic against the evils of the Roman empire, while at the same time a prophetic vision of the last days. In order to portray the ultimate evil to his audience, John used as an example the evils of the Roman Empire. What better example for the representation of Satan himself than the Roman Empire. In that sense, it is okay to find parallels within Revelation to the Roman Empire, but that doesn’t mean that that the prophecy concerns the Roman Empire. It is just a useful rhetorical device.
    “In fact, Joachim may be one of the first thinkers to develop a philosophy of history.”(P.Long) I think that Joachim and other historicists miss the point of Revelation. It is not about fitting the events of Revelation into historical happenings within history. It is about seeing the connections between the evils in this world as reflective of the Roman Empire, but anticipatory towards the last days.

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  6. I think that the historicist view of revelation is very interesting, but i agree with Jake when he says that these historicists were missing the point of Revelation. It is too difficult to try to take the individual parts of Revelation and try to fit them into historical events. They will have difficulty fitting them in throughout history. It is more about seeing connections throughout history. We can see the mistakes that others made and anticipate what might happen in the future because of that. We may be given allusions or ideas about what has happened and we can connect it to different happenings to see what they did and what we should do.

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  7. “His example from history should have informed others who after him tried to set a date or year of Christ’s coming.” – Aaron

    This is correct…I liked you Aaron described the thoughts of Joachim in his specific context. At that point in history, it may have made sense to turn days into years because it fit relatively. However, like Aaron says, since it did not come to pass, interpreters should then proceed to find a new way to look at Revelation. In this case, it opens the board back up for days to be days, and Revelation to be purely future events. Besides the fact that Jessica pointed out, that interpretation should be consistent throughout the Bible, which may or may not be a valid discussion based on different types of literature in the Bible, if days are not days, then we are really back to square one in all biblical interpretation. If days are not days, then there is really no one to determine what then needs to be interpreted as something different than what the author actually says. The Bible is once again free for interpretation for any allegory anyone can come up with, leaving much room for more division among the church.

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  8. When i read through Revelation it is so hard to understand it. When i read through i don’t know if i should read it literally or if i should interpret it a certain way. So, while I read it i take some literally and I interpret some as a certain way and to me it ends up confusing me and i don’t understand what i am reading and what it all means.

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  9. If we call Obama the antichrist long enough than a new way to interpret the Revelation with be formulated. Probably by the government. That actually would be really interesting to see what they came up with. Maybe he is just paving the way for Joe Biden?

    No matter how the futurist way of interpreting scripture came to be, it seems to align best with what has happened and what is happening. We are not in the one thousand year reign of Christ. We also have not seen many of the signs to which Jesus spoke of. So we should eventually find that something is wrong when Obama takes a vacation to Jerusalem.

    Its one thing to bow down in a mosque with a bunch of Muslims, but a completely different thing when he turns into the beast. Just kidding, but seriously.

    I don’t really think that Obama is the Antichrist. But he could be a Antichrist. Think about it? If I dissapear any time soon you know why. Then you will want to hide in that massive tomb under the Bultema Library for sure.

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