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.