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.

4 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.)


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