Reading Revelation – Does Genre Matter?

Reading Revelation

Revelation is a “prophetic account in letter form of the ultimate end of this age in apocalyptic terms that are culturally foreign to most of us.” Walt Russell, Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2000), 254.

The book of Revelation claims to be prophetic (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19; 22:18-19). If it is prophecy, it is a specific form known as apocalyptic. Yet the book has a number of features which imply it is also a letter, including seven letters in the chapters 2-3. This blending of genres is somewhat unique in the New Testament, although 2 Thess 2 has some apocalyptic elements, and the Olivet Discourse has prophetic and apocalyptic elements

In his commentary on Revelation, dispensationalist Robert Thomas rejects the possibility of blending two or more genres. He argues strongly for Revelation as prophecy in the tradition of the Old Testament. For Thomas, the book claims to be “prophecy” and no other genre. His motivation for this rejection is likely some of the baggage that normally comes with the genre “apocalyptic.” Frequently apocalyptic literature is described as history re-written as prophecy – not really prophecy. Since he is committed to futurism and literal interpretation o the symbols of the book, he is resistant to allow the genre of apocalyptic to whittle away at his futurist interpretation.

Thomas seems to protest too much the idea of blending genres. This is a common phenomenon in the epistles (Paul makes use of hymn material in Phil 2, for example.) One might argue that Isaiah “blends” the prophetic and apocalyptic genres in 24-27, Ezekiel in 37-39, etc. As Grant Osborne says, “it is impossible to distinguish between prophecy and apocalyptic….” (Revelation, 13).

Similar to Osborne, Gordon Fee uses this blending of genre to distance Revelation from some of the conventions of apocalyptic literature (Revelation, xii). Since John is writing prophecy as well as apocalyptic, he does not select a name from antiquity and create his apocalypse in his name. John has experienced the new age of the Spirit and is creating a book which applies to the present experience of the readers. Fee points out that most apocalyptic literature is “sealed up” for a future time when the Spirit of God will make the symbolism clear, But in Rev 22:10 John is specifically told not to seal up the prophecy!

Does the literary genre of Revelation matter? How do we take all three genre into account? How would the book be interpreted differently if it is only prophecy, as opposed to apocalyptic? How does the appearance of a letter effect the way we might read the book?


21 thoughts on “Reading Revelation – Does Genre Matter?

  1. Hello, thanks for the post. I think recognising the genres within the books of the bible is an important task, as it completely affects how we understand and interpret what we read. For example, if the letter aspect of Revelation isn’t realised, than the understanding that it was written to a certain audience, addressing certain issues, will be missed. This then would result in the impossible task of understanding and applying the text today.

    On a side note – what commentaries on Revelation would you recommend? I really need to wrestle with this overwhelming book a little bit more! Thanks.

  2. Yes, genre matters. I now see Revelation in a totally new light. The parable of the prodigal son was constructed in a special way using a 5 section format. This same format, the parable blueprint, was used to form of text of Revelation and other biblical texts. (I’ve laid out the revealed parables of the Book of Revelation, which give a whole new energy to what the texts are about.)

    In the case of Revelation, trying to find deeper meanings of the texts almost become unimportant, in view of the total picture of what the writer was wanting to get across. It seems the parables of Revelation were simply written to gain the audience’s attention and scare them into being better believer. (The text as seen in the light of parables now feels like a collection of narrative stories…meant to entertain and send chills up the listeners spine.) But for those who want to know all the details of the texts could probably find out faster, with this new discovery which has recently unfolded.

  3. The literary genre of Revelation completely matters, it could especially impact the literal meaning of Revelation. I don’t see how some people can claim that Revelation can be prophetic but not apocalyptic, apocalyptic is just another form of prophecy. The only reason that I could imagine is that I can’t think of another book in the New Testament that uses apocalyptic prophecy. Even if there are its not as powerful as it is in Revelation since the entire theme of Revelation is the end times. So to leave out the apocalyptic genre and still claim that its prophetic, who’s to say that Gods plan stops after Revelation? Since I consider it to be both prophetic and apocalyptic it makes sense to me that it would be used as a letter also, this is the end times John is talking about and that’s something that people must know. John may have been extremely urgent to get out this message of the second coming, the rapture and the anti Christ.

  4. I think that the genre of Revelation matters in that it helps us determine how to view the writings. For example, if it is prophetic, which it is, that tells us that Revelation is generally meant to be taken literally, because the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled literally. I think that calling Revelation apocalyptic is important, mainly because it explains that the prophecies are on future events. The fact that the book appears to be a letter
    is significant because it shows us that some of the writings are meant to be applied to our lives currently, instead of waiting until the prophecies are fulfilled.

  5. The genre of Revelation might be important… if you do not use that definition to restrict the book. Obviously there are multiple implications, which i believe to be good, in labeling the different genres used. But in the case of a man like Robert Thomas, it seems like we are trying to view Revelation through a lens to prove our own theological assumptions. Yes, we all have bias and put more emphasis on certain portions of a book, but we must also try to remain objective to some extent in reading the scriptures. When we label Revelation as apocalyptic, and refuse any other label to prove a point, we are in trouble. With that being said, identifying the different genres used in Revelation can be instrumental in “correct” interpretation. Without seeing Revelation as containing elements from a letter, apocalyptic literature, and prophetic writings we can easily dig ourselves our own theological graves. Even in saying that Revelation is all of those genres in one, you can create a skewed view of the book. What would the original audience think of this book? Would they be caught up on the differing genres in the book, or simply read it as truth written from John? These genres do help us to get into the mindset of the first century Jews, but the genre cannot be the end game, or restricting lens in which we read the book, but the empowering tool explaining some of the complexities of Revelation. I hope that as we explore Revelation we do not get caught on the genre, but on the implications and truth that John was proclaiming to the early church Christians and to us.

  6. I agree with the majority of readers that would automatically say yes, the genre matters. It changes the way we can interpret and view the various sayings in Revelation. A prophetic genre would be entirely for the future, so the sayings and figures in Revelation would be almost entirely figurative. But if it was apocalyptic, those figures would give meaning in the present age as well as for the future (already not yet?). It is interesting that although the apocalyptic genre seems to be most attractive here, Revelation does not fit perfectly inside this genre. For example, Revelation is said to be written by John, but most apocalyptic writing is pseudonymous. Also, apocalyptic writing is usually very pessimistic about the world, but Revelation is more optimistic considering the future when Jesus comes back.
    I think that genre certainly matters in this discussion. But it is not as easy as picking one and running with it. This writing, that was carried along by the Holy Spirit, is complex and hard to understand as we are far from being acquainted with the culture of that day. Could it be possible that Revelation is in a category of its own?

  7. The fact that John addresses specific churches shows that the book was written to real people with real problems in a very real culture. Thus, it was possibly intended not to be taken wholly as one genre. It also shows that we must use care when trying to organize the Book of Revelation into different genres, since it is obviously not completely one.

    I like how arenberg93 put it; many commentators have approached Revelation in search of evidence to back up their theological presuppositions. However, if we are already convicted of a certain theological stance, then interpreting the genre(s) of Revelation, among other aspects, is not a problem. Robert Thomas does not seem to have difficulty interpreting Revelation because he comes to it already convinced of a certain position on prophecy and apocalypticism.

    Other than 2 Thessalonians, are there any other epistles that also contain traces of apocalyptic prophecy?

  8. I think that the genre of Revelations does matter. I think that there are parts of Revelations that has to be taken in parts. as in one part is apocalyptical and one is prophecy, and another part, a letter. I think if it was only prophecy, we wouldn’t be looking at Revelations as the end of the world like we do, just events that will happen, yet the earth will still continue as we know it. Apocalyptic we look at it as this world is going to end, and this is how it is going to happen, and with a letter I think its hard, at least for me, to look at the whole book of Revelation as a letter rather than just the first two chapters. It was written as a letter to the seven churches in Asia, but after Chapter 3, its starts to warn them of the coming events, whether they be prophetic or apocalyptical.

  9. Revelation is a book that is absolutely full of mysterious language and colorful mental images. To this day it is one of the most highly debated books of the Bible. Scholars debate whether it is a letter of warning, a purely prophetic book, or is it an apocalyptic book that was written to warn us of what is going to come in the end? There are some who believe that you simply cannot mix these genres together because in doing so you would negate one or the other. I tend to see both sides of this argument. On one hand I can very clearly see how there are parts of Revelation that can be viewed as a letter to other believers. In my personal opinion I believe that one of the biggest purposes of the book of Revelation is to give believers some idea of what is going to be coming in the days of terror and tribulation. And while some people would say that this is the Bible just trying to use scare tactics to get people to convert to christianity, I believe that it is more of a warning of what is coming. Now, on the other hand I would also say that Revelation was meant to be a book of prophetic apocalyptic literature. I am not entirely sure why God would want to put this in the Bible for us to read. I don’t know if it’s there because God wanted us to have a glimpse of what is coming or to simply show us things that we could never understand. Whatever God’s reason for Revelation, how we choose to read it definitely has an effect on how we understand it. How you choose to read it is up to you.

  10. Revelation is a book that has created a lot of division. Many readers seem to disagree with the interpretation. Even if the literature was read like a “normal hermeneutic,” as Patrick McGillicuddy would say, the genre shifts the perspective on how to interpret a literal/normal hermeneutic. This is only an issue if the book could only take the form of one genre. The reality is that you can totally read a book, or in this case a letter, that changes genre throughout. Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation are letters to specific churches and the rest of the book can be taken as prophetic as it says (Rev 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19; 22:18-19) and apocalyptic in this case. To me, it is a stretch for Robert Thomas to say it can only be one. This seems like a very strict and conservative view that might come out of fear. Grant Osborne seems to have a similar idea to my own where the difference between is apocalyptic and prophetic literature is slim to none.
    The literary genres only matter if you can only choose one of the genres. If the option of all three genres is open then there should be no more discussion on it. At that point, the genres matter little because all of them are accepted. We should take all three genres into account by reading the text as it was meant to be written, with all three elements in mind. Again, it seems as the prophetic and apocalyptic share little to no difference. The appearance of a letter, however, gives us an understanding that there is a particular audience that this is addressed (the churches) and that there is clearly context to what is being written down. This context was probably very clear to the audience just like political cartoons of our day are fairly clear to us.

  11. I would like to say that this book is meant to be read, it is meant to be studied and tested. I think that you had such a good point when you talked about how this book in not to be sealed. I think that this is such an important part of Revelation, and also Christianity as a whole. Christianity should not be sealed, it should be spread to everyone, everywhere.

  12. I cannot simply give one Genre to revelation. I found it funny when scholars debate on the Genre of the Book of revelation. Yes there are a lot of prophecies in the book of revelation because of how it foretells or predicts future events. Yes there is a lot of apocalyptic literature in how there is a lot of imagery that is being used to describe something to the reader. To be honest there is a lot going on in the book of revelation, and I am grateful that we have teachers daily studying this and trying to come up with different genres that they would think fits best. Despite my appreciation for these hard work scholars such as mentioned in the text above, I believe that one must decide for himself, I have decided to read revelation with one goal in mind, to get close to understanding who God is in both his power and might, and his sovereignty over all the universe.

  13. While I agree to a point with the majority of the readers that genre matters in the sense it helps with interpretation of the scripture. We should remember that interpreting the scripture is less about the genre it self and more about the context and culture that scripture was written in and who it was written for. After reading theRevelation it is obvious to that John does blend genres as a way to to assert his authority as a prophet as well as a way to get the readers attention. It is obvious he asserts himself as a prophet in (1:1) and again at the end of the book. It seems as though John is using genre more as a literary device to drive a point home or separate the chapters (almost like a screen play).

  14. It is difficult to make a claim for Revelation being any other genre than prophecy. The book speaks of things and events that have yet to occur: this is the definition of prophecy. The name of the book itself plainly attests to this. The word Revelation means to “unveil”. If Revelation was a “rewriting” or “retelling” of history, there would be no need to “veil” its contents to us. The book is a part of Jewish apocalyptic literature, the genre of which greatly increased in terms of volume after the completion of the Old Testament canon (ESV, p. 2453-2454). Old and New Testament prophecies share similarities but also some differences. Firstly, both provide comfort and hope to the small, righteous few who truly and genuinely do love God and have truly accepted His Son Jesus Christ as their Savior (ESV, p. 2454). A difference however is that Old Testament works placed focus on God being active and involved in the present, whereas the New focuses more on the fact that at some point believers, although having faith in God, will still have to suffer because of the sin and wickedness of the world, as well as the events that must take place in the end days (ESV, p. 2454).

  15. Genre matters. If you know what genre the book you are reading is you know not only what to expect, but what to do with the information it presents you with. For example, if I were to pluck one of Tolkien’s books off of a shelf, and read it expecting a history book, I might conclude my reading more than a little confused. The written word can have multiple meanings and part of discerning the meaning behind those words is done by defining the genre. However, I feel like those that refuse to concede that a text can have multiple genres do so because they have already decided what genre they want the text to be. If you want it to be a historical text, then you will read it as a historical text because that is what you expect. The problem with this in interpreting scripture is that our preconceived notions of genre and bias towards interpretations that seem desirable to us, cause us to have a distorted view of the text. A text like Revelation deals with events that potentially may not yet have come to pass. Thus some when they read it will project their expectations upon the text and upon current events and see things as coming to pass that the author never intended them to see. Human error has the potential to distort any interpretation of scripture, especially texts like Revelation that are difficult to define.

  16. I’ve almost exclusively heard Revelation giving the apocalyptic genre. I wonder if tradition favors the apocalyptic over prophetic in this case? Or possibly only in certain traditions….
    Personally, I tend to agree with Osborne on this one. If genre is important, how does one begin to untangle these two similar genres?
    How does the determination of a genre for Revelation affect how one determines the genre in other books such as Isaiah and Daniel (and vice versa).

    Literary genre is important, no doubt. But could understanding historical context be more important? Could it help the determination of the genre?
    One thing that strikes me about this is that it may be distracting for the average reader. While it is helpful and quite useful to engage in this research and typifying for some, could it just as easily hinder others? I am not sure that this is a valid argument as one could easily state that one has to understand what they are reading. However, I remember – as I’m sure most can – entire Bible studies spent debating issues such as this one. At the end of the night, most weren’t exactly encouraged or challenged to study the book itself but rather walked away happy about how well one argued his or her point.
    Is understanding the literary genre important? Absolutely! But how important? How much are we willing to sacrifice to determine the literary type? When have we gone too far?

    That being said, I would enjoy hearing P. Long’s ideas on what the literary genre of Revelation is…..

  17. The genre of the Revelation is not as important as the message. As long the genre doesn’t subtract from the Word of God, then it doesn’t really matter in terms of if it is prophetic or not. However, knowing the genre can aid in understanding the book. Although it is true that the book itself claims to be prophetic, and for clarity most will classify it as prophetic literature, there certainly is a “blending of genres”. It is also a letter as well as a piece of apocalyptic literature. There are many ways in which to read the letter of Revelation. Some passages in the book can be read quite literally while other passages are viewed to be read metaphorically, as the book is full of symbolic meanings. It is true that the book is up to interpretation, therefore, the genre the reader picks should not detract from the original meanings of the book as a whole. That being said, there is no right or wrong way of reading Revelation in my opinion.

  18. What Robert Thomas seems to do with the book of Revelation is take an extreme literal approach and considers his own presupposed belief of futurism above having a “humble hermeneutics” (Long, class notes), in order to understand what the context might tell us. Honestly, you don’t need to look at the book of revelation to hold to the idea that you are able to mix genres in literature. Like P. Long said in class, this is what interesting and creative writing is, mixing of genres that creatives unique pieces of literature. We can see not only in many places outside of the Bible, but places within that show that it is not only possible, but very likely that mixing genres is common. Some example are Isaiah 24-27, and Ezekiel 37-39. I also think since Grant Osborne suggest that “it is impossible to distinguish between prophecy and apocalyptic….” this also makes it difficult for Thomas to defend the claim that he can choose to have only one genre, especially in this case when it is not so easy to distinguish between the two, because of the combination of genres within the texts.

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