Thomas, John Christopher and Frank D. Macchia. Revelation. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 692 pp. Pb; $36. Link to Eerdmans
This new addition to the Two Horizons series from Eerdmans by John Thomas and Frank Macchia combines an exposition of Revelation with theological insight drawn from the text of the final book of the New Testament. The commentary is not intended to be an exegetical commentary on the Greek text nor do the authors intend to explore every possible allusion to the Old Testament or other Second Temple period text. Thomas and Macchia contribute a clear, readable theologically-oriented commentary on Revelation which will be useful for pastors and teachers as they present this difficult book to their congregations.
The introduction to the commentary is divided into five parts. First, Thomas and Macchia discuss the structure and nature of the book of Revelation. Aside from the usual outline of the book, they emphasize the oral nature of Revelation, commenting that “at every turn there are indications that the book is designed for oral enactment” (7) in “the context of worship within the community” (8). But the book is a Christian prophecy using the style of apocalyptic, although not without significant modification. John sees himself as an heir to the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament so that the book of Revelation is a “prophetic re-interpretation” of the traditions John has received (11). Yet John never directly quotes the Old Testament. He alludes to or echoes the earlier tradition in order to re-interpret them in a new context. Thomas and Macchia describe this as “intertext” (14) although they are not distracted by the often nettlesome discussions of how to detect allusions and echoes.
Second, the audience is Asia Minor, specifically the seven churches from chapters 2-3. There are other churches in the region which were prominent yet are not mentioned, and at least Thyatira seems less important than the others. This suggests the book was intended to be read by all of the churches in Asia Minor. Thomas and Macchia are content to locate Revelation within a “Johannine Community” and point out a number of connections between the Gospel of John and Revelation (20). This community would have been able to hear John’s intertextual allusions because they revered the Jewish Scripture and were led by the Holy Spirit to interpret that Scripture. They cite Revelation 11:8 as evidence for a “spiritual interpretation,” although it is not clear πνευματικῶς in that verse implies a revelation from the Holy Spirit to understand the allusion. Thomas and Macchia suggest the audience included female leadership, although the examples in Revelation 2-3 are mostly negative (i.e. Jezebel). The community faces persecution and suffering from Satan (“cosmic oppression”), Rome, the Jewish community and false teachers from within the community itself.
Third, with respect to the date and authorship of Revelation, Thomas and Macchia affirm a date in the last quarter of the first century, surveying the usual evidence for the later date. They dismiss a pre-A.D. 70 rather quickly. While I agree with the later date, there have been a few good arguments made for an early date recently which could have improved this section of the introduction. They do, however, offer a “modest proposal.” Since the phrase “the Lord’s Day” in 1:8 is the only time reference in the book, perhaps the only date that “counts” is the eschatological Day of the Lord (35). Since there is no specific a date given (as in many Old Testament prophets), the book of Revelation is “dehistoricized.”
This commentary takes seriously the claim someone named John wrote the book, although they prefer the title “John the Prophet.” While they think there is little reason to identify this John with the apostle, the Son of Zebedee, it is at least possible the author is John the Elder, a figure active in Ephesus at the end of the first century according to Eusebius. John the Elder is often thought to be the Beloved Disciple, one of the suggested authors of the Gospel of John. Although it is impossible to conclude John the Prophet and John the Elder are the same person, they think both the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation are from “the same community if not the same hand” (43). Neither book is from the Apostle John, but the two books ought to be read together as authentic voices from a community in Asia Minor at the end of the first century.
This thesis is intriguing and might be improved in two ways. First, Thomas and Macchia do not deal with the obvious objection the Gospel of John and Revelation seem so different. Although there are some similar motifs, the Greek style is radically different and for many the theology of the two books seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. This is especially true for eschatology, the Gospel of John is often described as “realized eschatology” while Revelation looks forward to a glorious return of Christ. This is enough to keep the Gospel of John and Revelation in separate categories for most scholars.
Second, it is possible to make a positive argument in favor of a Johannine community authorship by observing the fact the Olivet Discourse is missing from the Gospel, but may be the source for the seven seals (Rev 6). The author of John may have been motivated to intentionally drop the Olivet Discourse from the Gospel because it is presented in apocalyptic garb in Revelation 6. Since the Gospel is so non-eschatological, it is possible the author intentionally removed this theological thread to include in another book using an apocalyptic style.
The introduction concludes with a survey of the influence of Revelation, including several “disastrous applications” of the book, other apocalyptic documents, art, music, poetry, film and other commentaries. This is an interesting addition to the introduction, ranging from Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant’s Revolt (154-25) to Charles Manson and David Koresh! They devote several pages to other apocalypses of John and artistic and musical representations of Revelation. The two films they chose as examples are terrible, End of Days and the TBN produced Omega Code. Neither are worthy of mention, the space could have been devoted to far better apocalyptic films. The final section surveys historical commentaries on Revelation from the Gnostic Victorinus to Allan Boesak, a commentary written in South Africa during Apartheid.
Thomas is responsible for the commentary proper. At 332 pages, the commentary relatively brief commentary compared to some recent works. For example, this commentary section is less than a third the size of Greg Beale (NIGTC) or Aune (WBC). A major reason for this is the relative lack of interest in allusions to the Old Testament and virtually no reference to other Second Temple literature. The index only lists one reference to 3 Maccabees under Pseudepigrapha. There is barely a column of Classical references. This is a refreshing exposition of the text of Revelation without falling into the error of parallelomania.
One feature which is unique to this commentary is the frequent reference to other Johannine literature. The commentary often refers to the use of a word or phrase in the Gospel of John or draws some parallel to a motif found in both books. For example, while discussing the souls under the altar of God in Revelation 6, Thomas points out they are called “witnesses,” a common theme in Revelation but also the Gospel of John (160).
The body of the commentary divides the text into larger sections works through the section. Salient phrase open paragraphs without reference to verses numbers within the section. Not every element of syntax or grammar is discussed nor does the exposition bog down in excessively detailed study of individual words. As is often observed, it is not difficult to read the Greek of Revelation; it is the meaning which is often obscure. There are only occasional references to Greek (and even more rarely Hebrew). These always appears with transliteration so a reader without Greek or Hebrew will find the commentary usable.
As is the case for other Two Horizons commentaries, following the commentary is section devoted to the theology horizons of Revelation more or less based on the standard loci of theology (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Church, Salvation and Eschatology). This is different than other Two Horizon New Testament commentaries, although there does not seem to be a single method for writing a “theological reflection” in the series. Macchia begins each section with a few pages on the theology of God (Christ, Holy Spirit, etc.) in Revelation, followed by “other voices in the New Testament” in order to tease out the distinctive contribution of Revelation. It is significant the first voice in each section is the Gospel and Epistles of John. Matthew and Mark are treated together as are Luke and Acts, Paul and the “other voices” (mostly Hebrews). This comparison is followed by a few short essays on Revelation and Systematic theology.
With respect to the eschatology of Revelation, Macchia is clear the book is about the triumph of the triune God and the reader of the book should not be “preoccupied with future ‘end-time’ events” (590). The book of Revelation teaches that the future is in God’s hand and attempts to read Revelation as if it was a crystal ball predicting the future are inappropriate and dangerous. Yet this is not a complete rejection of a future-aspect to the book. For Macchia, the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation “helps us avoid any illusion that the Kingdom of God can arise from human efforts” (615). This thousand-year reign precedes the final new creation and is focused on “the reign of the crucified and risen Lamb” (618). Since Macchia does not allow his view of Kingdom to be classified in one of the standard millennial categories, both pre- and a-millennial readers will find his discussion stimulating (although both will probably want more support for their own views).
Conclusion. This is a very readable commentary on one of the more difficult books in the New Testament. Thomas and Macchia provide a solid commentary on the text of Revelation and significant theological reflection on Revelation. It avoids several excesses which tend to plague commentaries on Revelation and will serve as a solid resource for pastors and teachers.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.