Listening to Revelation

It is important to remember the oral nature of our texts in the New Testament, Harry Maier (Apocalypse Recalled, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002) emphasizes the “performance” of the text as a vital component of how to understand Revelation. While it is certain the ancient world was an oral culture, it is not clear if an early church service was a “performance” in quite the way Maier and others describe it.  I am left with the impression the reader in a congregation is more like an interpretive artist who breathes some life into the text as they read.  In terms of Greek-oratormodern literary theory it is often thought that a piece of literature is not complete without the reader encountering the author in the text. By making the text a performance, a third party enters into the interpretation of a text, the actor. The actor/reader takes the text from the page and “interprets” it for the listener.  This whole process is said to “create meaning.”

I recently read an interpretation of the lyrics of the songwriter Bob Dylan written by the literary critic Christopher Ricks.  Ricks makes the point that one cannot simply read lyrics and receive the full impact of the text, one must hear them performed in order to get the “full effect” and intention of the writer.  In a similar way, Maier is saying we must learn to “hear” the script of Revelation as it was “heard” in the first century, as oral performance. This is an interesting goal, but it seems nearly impossible to do when reading the text – how can we know what elements of the text are intended as rhetorical without having experienced a first century “reading”?

If this performance aspect of Revelation is critically important, it seems as though we can never fully appreciate the book since we can never “hear” it performed as John intended it.  On the other hand, perhaps Meier would not care for the original intention of the author, since it is the “recalling” of the Apocalypse which is so important to him.

Maier attempts to tease out some of the rhetorical elements of Revelation which indicate a possible “oral performance.”  These include repetitive elements (the list of the twelve tribes, for example).  An aspect of repetition which can be overlooked is the typical supplementation of the third (or last) in a series.  Maier’s example is the three woes, where the third “woe” is the fall of Babylon.  Maier considers these as performance, the text does not “mean,” it “does.”

While if find the use of rhetoric very valuable for working out some of the details of the Apocalypse and these devices are certainly aspects which imply an “oral” reading, I am less impressed by the implication these rhetorical devices will raise the interpreter above the “apocalyptic time-line” interpretations.  It seems to me that a commentator can recognize all the rhetorical elements of the book and still read Revelation as having a future aspect. Even if Revelation is a performance meant to “be heard not analyzed,” it does not follow that the performance necessarily has nothing to say about the future.

12 thoughts on “Listening to Revelation

  1. Analyzing this kind of stuff is certainly fascinating! If I had endless time, I’d probably explore in depth ideas/commentary like you’re sharing. In relation to it and the genre of Revelation more broadly, just a couple observations / thoughts:
    1. From all I hear, Rev. should be interpreted relative to other apocalyptic lit. (and it was heavily influenced by current woes and hopes, varying accordingly, Daniel included). (Ch. 1, v. 3: “time is near” – to hearers that must have meant months to years, not decades, centuries or millennia.)
    2. The author does mention “hearers” but I’m not sure that implies “performance” (like theater) as much as the reality that few copies existed and relatively few could read. Context is LETTERS to 7 churches (or perhaps the literary device of such).
    3. One is somewhat led to consider the book mainly a literary/apocalyptic imaginary creation (vs. “revelation” or visionary experience of God-sent kind) because of so many and confusing dynamics: “God gave” it, author was “in the Spirit”, saw a vision, angel was sent/spoke (apparently), author instructed to write things down for specific churches – specific, focused points yet the larger message is “God triumphs, destroys evil, and Jerusalem is exalted, made ‘paradise'”. So not only is the symbolism cryptic but the very claim of its origination and purpose is tough to grasp as God telling John things God wants known for nearly 2000 or more years (with the time being “near”… realizing the “one day as a 1000 years” and all that).
    4. “John” seems to put a suspicious emphasis on being “John” (3 mentions in 9 verses)… to imply he is the Apostle John, when chances are strong he is not?

    • Revelation 1:3 pronounces a blessing on the one who reads the book aloud, the worship leader or “oral performer” of the text. This is matched by the curse on the one who “hears” the scroll in 22:18, anyone adds or takes away from them is under the curses described in the book!

      As for “John,” there is an implication he is the apostle throughout the book. I am working on a review right now of the new Revelation Commentary in the Two Horizons series, and they take seriously Revelation as a product of a Johannine Community, although the relationship of the “historical John the Apostle” to that community is open for discussion.

      I think I am inclined to read the book as having reference to real past events with contemporary application (the current reader whenever they lived), but also with a future aspect (a real final persecution and real return of Jesus as Messiah and a real kingdom of some sort). To pigeon-hole the book into only past OR present OR future is a mistake. I gave up using the “four views” on reading Revelation as a textbook this year for this reason, it made the book too flat.

      • Come to think a bit more on it, I don’t know that it matters a lot to me if perhaps the Apostle John did write Rev., as my view of “apostolic authority” is heterodox to say the least. Interesting to imagine John being among those with an early vision of Jesus as raised (my view vs. that of touching/interacting with a bodily-raised Jesus), and quite a bit later, this vision (if it was one). But “Johannine Community” does make sense to me… actually related communities that remained closely tied with broader Jewish communities recently become partially “Christian” though probably not either fully integrated with Gentile believers nor separated from Jewish synagogues. (Though the latter was probably well in process by then.)

  2. I am not sure I understand how an oral “performance” of the text of revelation would really change the overall perspective of how the text is interpreted. After all, does reading s set of text aloud change the overall meaning of the text as a whole? Perhaps, after thinking through it, the hypothesis makes more sense; a verbal re-telling of the text in Revelation may shed light on more emphasized concepts, but I still fail to see how it changes much of the message that we already have from simply reading the text silently. Perhaps if we could hear the Apostle John re-tell the information himself, we could hear exactly which parts of his document of the end-times get more emphasis or emotion from him. It does not, however, change the overall message of the text; the fact that Jesus will soon return to reconcile creation with God the Father, and enter into the new age where Man and God exist together, for eternity. Just because the text contains elements that really only matter when reading the text out loud does not mean that we lose meaning for reading the text silently.

    • I think something we miss as modern (silent) readers is very few early Christians would have read anything to themselves in silence. Since most were functionally illiterate, the Bible would have always been read aloud to them. There are may clues of this in the text (not the least of which is the blessing on the reader in 1:3!) Hearing someone perform Revelation 4-5 with a bit of dramatic flourish might emphasize things we miss by silently reading. OTOH, maybe we hear things in our silent reading they would have missed?

  3. It is well known that the majority of the people who lived in biblical times could not read and write, so it makes sense that the book of Revelation would be believed to be read out loud to the people. If this is indeed the case, then the person who is reciting the book much be able to keep a large audience engaged, hence the thinking of a person acting out the book. The reading of the passages in an engaging way makes me think of how poets read their work. There has to be fluctuation and passion in the voice, or the piece doesn’t come to life but remains just words written on a page. I feel that this is very much what that author of the article is talking about when they say that a person can’t just read the book of Revelation but has to experience it with emotion.
    Another piece of evidence that can make the reader of this book think that it was originally meant to be a spoken piece is the writing in the book itself. At the beginning of the book in Revelation 1:3, it says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy”. The book clearly states that it is a piece that is meant to be read out loud. In that same verse it continues to say, “And blessed are those who hear, and keep what is written in it”. This theme is kept all throughout the first three chapters as the statement “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. This once again implies that there are people who are listening to the book being presented in some fashion. We may not get these readings or reciting of scripture anymore, but it doesn’t mean that the book is any less impactful when it is merely read.

  4. While having and “oral” performance of the book of revelation might be interesting as well as to some benefit, it is no more beneficial than simply reading the text in a literary sense. Yes, the performance sense could theoretically “enhance” or emphasize certain features or points in the text, but these can be emphasized just as much or even more some in our own minds when simply reading it alone and communing with God as well. The use of rhetoric when coming from the oral performance corner or standpoint is no more persuasive than if one is simply presented with the truths contain in apocalyptic literature purely from a literary means. There is an argument to be made that gaining insight and knowledge from God’s word through a literary and non-oral method is in fact actually better, as one can mediate on it longer and in a more absorbing way. We can pour over it again and again, night and day by going over the words not just with our ears, but with our eyes as well (Joshua 1:8). Additionally, coming from Revelation, we are told that “blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) Ultimately however, It is most important for one to be more concerned with the message, and not the delivery method.

  5. Listening to Revelation
    I completely believe that any text of the Bible is very important to read. The main reason of its importance is because through Bible reading/listening, we are more knowledgeable of what God wants for us and from us. As Christians, Bible reading should be a priority, but sadly, not everyone makes it a priority. I believe that reading Revelation and listening to it gives us the opportunity of knowing and understanding what really goes on in Revelation. The main reason why we should listen to Revelation and the Bible in general is because it gives us the opportunity to become wiser and when this happens, we understand it better and we are also able to explain it to others. It is also very important to know that everyone can read the Bible or hear the context, however, this does not mean that everyone will understand the context. Therefore, it is very important for the reader or listener to ask questions. Asking questions is very important because people who do not understand something have the opportunity to have their questions answered, and it also increases their level of knowledge and understanding.

  6. Listening to the book of Revelation being read could be understood a lot better than if you were to read it yourself. Personally, I will be able to understand a story a lot better than if I was to read it on my own due to me getting distracted so easily and begin to think about other things. Then I will find myself skimming the book and looking at the words but not understand what the heck is going on in that book at that point in time. Making myself restart the page and begin to read it again. By listening to a reader that knows the story already, will make it easier to understand with the way things are said and by the way they can “act it out” can make the listener understand. Therefore, some individuals would prefer a movie than reading a book because they are able to see the body language of the actors and the emotion that they put into each line when spoken. That also can lead to the listener sitting there and watching the reader and seeing what they are doing but not thinking why they did that or what is the purpose. Sometimes it is very hard to get the listener to hear or watch the story the way the author intended it to be making people misinterpret the actual meaning.

  7. I recently did a study on what the word “Music” actually means, as it applies to generations and generations of people. Well, originally this particular word was not meant to be a noun or a thing to be heard; rather, it was meant to be a verb or something that is performed. In other words, the essence of music can only be truly understood when it is being performed–this is when it takes on form and substance. So, a better way to spell out the word would, therefore, be “musicked” or “musicking”, and even though these spellings do seem silly, they orient us to the true meaning behind them. In the same way, if Revelation was truly meant to be performed and the man Maier could actually prove this, then I think it would give us a better understanding of the text. Obviously, which does not need to be proved at all, a movie script (for example) and the actual movie are two radically different things, and the essence and emotional weight of it can only be grasped during the performance. If Revelation was composed in this way, then I think modern readers are at a great disadvantage. While the performance may not give us all the clues and textual technicalities we are looking for, I think it would give us insight into the character and meaning behind the text–its emotional and spiritual implications. However, against all this, I do not think that simply listening to the book of Revelation in this way would change the basic content of the theology it establishes. Its basic message, in other words, would remain the same, so even though we may be at a slight disadvantage, God has provided enough information to bring us into a wholesome understanding of His will for the future. What else is needed besides this?

  8. While reading through this blog post I thought that there was something interesting in what it had to say. I found that the performance of the text is a vital component in understanding revelation. I found this interesting because I have never heard of a saying like that. But the more I thought about it the more that it stuck out to me in which we think about any kind of performance. The more dramatic, funny or action packed it is the more we follow along and understand what is happening. The same goes for the book of Revelation, although there is a lot of descriptions and it is hard to fully understand what is going on this is why we know that this book is important. And thus we want to dig deeper into it and find the true meaning of what this book is trying to tell us.

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