Book Review: David Burr, The Book of Revelation (The Bible in Medieval Tradition)

Burr, David D. The Book of Revelation. The Bible in Medieval Tradition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 424 pp. Pb; $65.00.   Link to Eerdmans 

This fifth volume of The Bible in Medieval Tradition series, following volumes on Genesis, Jeremiah, Romans and Galatians. The intent of the series is to “reacquaint the Church with its rich history of biblical interpretation and with the contemporary applicability of this history, especially for academic study, spiritual formation, preaching, discussion groups, and individual reflection.”  Since much of medieval exegesis has yet to be translated these volumes provide a wealth of primary sources previously unavailable to most English readers. David Burr published a monograph on Olivi’s Peaceable Kingdom: A Reading of the Apocalypse Commentary (Penn Press, 1993) and The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis (Penn State University Press, 2003) as well as a number of articles on Peter Olivi.

Burr, Revelation medieval commenatryIn the introduction to the book, Burr observes that Petrus Iohannis Olivi wrote his commentary on Revelation with three books open on his desk: the Bible and the commentaries by Richard of Saint Victor and Joachim of Fiore. In fact, this book is a tribute to the long shadow cast by Joachim of Fiore. As Burr states in his Prolegomenon, his self-assigned task was to describe what happened from Richard and Joachim (twelfth century) to Nicholas of Lyra (fourteenth century). Because of an interest in the early church and the Reformation, the medieval period is usually ignored, perhaps considered less interesting than the other periods.

In order to set the stage for his survey of medieval commentaries on Revelation, his Prolegomenon offers a twenty-six-page overview of the contents and theology of Revelation itself followed by a rapid survey of the discussion of the book from the first to the twelfth centuries (following a 1976 article by Robert Lerner). A final section of the Prolegomenon is a short account of the development of the “legend of the antichrist” from 1 John 2:17 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10.

Unlike other ancient commentary series, this book is not a running commentary on Revelation from various sources. Instead, Burr offers ten examples of medieval commentators, offering some background for each and an introduction to their thought. Each chapter begins with a brief biographical sketch and introduction to their contribution to biblical studies. Burr then provides lengthy extracts from the author’s major works on Revelation with some comment. Most chapters include a final section of “Readings,” uninterrupted extracts from the subject of the chapter.

The first chapter discusses Richard of Saint Victor. Burr describes Richard as a new era of biblical scholarship an attempt at an alliance between biblical scholarship and mystical theology.  Three chapters are dedicated to Joachim of Fiore (ch. 2) and his influence on what Burr calls the pseudo-Joachim writers (ch. 3) and Alexander Minorita (ch. 4). Joachim blends Daniel and Revelation into a complex tapestry of historical allusions. Joachim’s God “presides over the vast panorama of historical development, shaping it to his favored ends” (89). Like Joachim, Alexander Minorita “poured into his commentary all the historical the sources at his disposal” (180) and he is often aware of imperial current imperial history (159). For example, he starts his prophetic clock with Pope Sylvester (d. 335) and the opening of the seventh seal is the death of Constantine. Various angels are identified as historical figures leading up to the divine wrath in Revelation 16 (which was still ongoing when Alexander wrote). Like Joachim, he labels Saladin as a beast (159). But this historical reading is often with “Franciscan self-advertisement” (168). The olive tree and lampstand in Revelation 11:4 are “Dominic with innocence and Francis with conversion” (159). His comments on Revelation 22:11 “begins what might just leave be described as a stunning example of smug mendicant self-importance” (163).

The fifth chapter treats the Paris Mendicant Model. Two things are important here. First, the book of Revelation presented seven visions, and second, it portrayed a seven-fold Christian history. This tradition dates as far back as Augustine and Jerome, is a main feature of Joachim ‘s commentary on the Apocalypse and reappears in a group of five Dominican and Franciscan commentaries treated in this chapter. 

Chapter 6 is focused on Bonaventure’s Collationes in hexaemeron, hey speech delivered to the Franciscans at Paris in 1273. Although this is not a commentary on Revelation, it does reflect his reading of Revelation that is an “important contribution to thirteenth-century exegesis of the apocalypse” (231). In this work, Bonaventure pushes the exegesis of Revelation into a whole new phase, not refuting Joachim, but rather by providing a genuine appreciation of him (236). Burr interacts with Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of St. Bonaventure (Franciscan Herald Press, 1971). A major interest is whether Bonaventure actually identifies Saint Francis as the sixth angel in Revelation 3:7-13 and the Franciscans as the new contemplative order in the future seventh age. For Bonaventure, the sixth age began around the time of Charlemagne. The Franciscans were, in his day, “recipients of a great call but also notorious back sliders” (249). Following Ratzinger, Francis “anticipated the eschatological form of life which will be the general form of life in the future” (250). 

Seven Headed Dragon Joachim of Fiore

Seven Headed Dragon from Joachim of Fiore, Commentary on Revelation

Chapter 7 discuss the early writings of Petrus Iohannis Olivi and Chapter 8 focuses on his Commentary on Revelation. In the introduction to the book, Burr admits that two chapters on Olivi may be excessive, but he wants to show that Olivi drew on the Gospels for many of his views on the Apocalypse. For example, it his commentary on Matthew Olivi understands the “anti-Christ” in at least three senses: First, all those who impugn Christ, his person, his teaching, and the elect; second, the “mystical antichrist” who works within the faith to subvert Christ life in spirit; and third, the “great Antichrist” who works outside the faith to attack Christianity itself (273). These early commentaries demonstrate Olivi believes prophecy deals with Christ three advance, in the flesh, the spirit, and in judgment (285). Olivi believed he lived in the transition between the fifth and sixth ages. Joachim the sign of the new age and Francis was the key agent of its inception. I believe that the church was suffering through a period of blindness “which will carry it into the temptation of the antichrist in the coming sixth age” (315). He fears that the pope will turn against the Franciscans and will attack faithful observers of evangelical poverty. 

Both Petrus Aurioli (ch. 9) and Nicholas of Lyra (ch. 10) represent the Franciscan order moving away from Olivi’s Apocalypse. Like Alexander Minorita, Aurioli read Revelation as a narrative of Christian history (359). But his commentary is not an “ode to the Franciscans or even the mendicants as it is a triumphalist tribute to the institutional church” (361). Nicholas of Lyra is the first to read Revelation as a story of what will occur in the present and in the future (369). Nicolas used a “double literal sense” of prophecy allowing for one meaning in the prophet’s own time in another meaning for the future. Both can be considered literal.

Conclusion. Although there are few today who would advocate to a return to medieval exegesis of the Apocalypse, there is much in this volume of interest to contemporary readers of the book of Revelation. Each of the voices surveyed in this book read Revelation as applicable to their own day, even if that means interpreting the symbolism of the book as recent historical events and discovering hints of their own theological preferences. Many assumptions about Revelation in both scholarly and popular commentaries have roots in these medieval commentaries.

Although it would have added considerably to the cost of this book, the book needs a section of illustrations, especially for Joachim’s commentaries. Most of this is available online, it would benefit the reader to search for images associated with Joachim, Alexander Minorita, and Nicholas of Lyra.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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