Apocalyptic is best known for its symbolic use of language. The genre is full of strange dreams and visions, usually symbolic of something that the writer is trying to tell his readers, but hide from those that are not familiar with the “code.” This makes interpreting the books very difficult indeed, since many of the cultural references are lost.
Craig Blomberg uses the analogy of a political cartoon from the cold war. Any person who lived through those years would understand the symbol of a bear and an eagle (Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 372). A political cartoon from 50 or 100 years ago might be virtually impossible to understand without immersing oneself in the politics of that day. I showed a series of political cartoons to my class, beginning with one from shortly after 9/11. Everyone understood the meaning of an eagle sharpening its talons in that context. But cartoons from 15 years ago were a bit more difficult for a college student to understand because of the historic distance from the events. I had cartoons from World War II (most people understood the reference to Hitler). The World War I cartoon was more obscure, and the Civil War cartoons were very hard to understand. Finally, a political cartoon from the Revolutionary War made no sense to any of us since we had no clue who the people were or to what events inspired the imagery.
This is how the “code” of apocalyptic works. It is not really a secret “Bible code” which needs a key to decipher the meaning; the symbols are only obscure to use because we live so long after first century and know so little of the culture. Some scholars have toyed with the idea certain circles of Christians produced a set of typical or stock images. An example might be “Babylon is Rome,” in an effort to hide the tact the book is talking about the Empire. While this is possible, it is a very difficult task to describe these stock symbols and their meanings.
In order to understand apocalyptic, we need to cross two different boundaries. We need to study the imagery in the proper time and the proper culture. In order to understand a political cartoon, I have to put in the right era, but I also have to know the cultural cues implied by the art. If I showed a French political cartoon from fifty years ago, I might have no idea what it was talking about until I researched the time period and culture in which the cartoon was produced. So too with apocalyptic – I must immerse myself in the culture of the first century. This includes both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, since Revelation has a foot in both worlds. This has the advantage of coming closer to the author’s original intent (literal interpretation) and avoids some of the silly excess of popular interpretations.
One objection to this method is that it is hard work to immerse oneself in an ancient culture. This is a fair point, but if the alternative is to read Revelation as a general comment on Good versus Evil, or as weird symbols only made clear by a recent prophet with the “secret key” to the book, then I am all for the hard work. It is better to read Revelation with an Oxford Introduction to the Roman Empire in hand than Jane’s Defence Weekly.