Interpreting Revelation (Part 1)

The Historicist View of Revelation

The historicist method of interpreting Revelation is usually traced to the writings of Joachim of Fiore, a 13th century monk.  Joachim has been described as the “most original and influential of all medieval apocalyptic authors” (Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ, (1994), 135).  His commentaries can be described as pre-millennial although Joachim might be better described as looking for a “post Anti-Christ” golden age of the church. He looked for the Anti-Christ to be revealed very soon followed by his overthrow and a new age of the Spirit, in which the Catholic church would rule in its most pure form. Joachim wrote “the Antichrist is already born in Rome…..the Antichrist’s persecutions will begin in a mere four years.”

Despite the fact that Joachim was expecting a real Antichrist in the very near future who would persecute the church for a literal three and a half years, it is possible to credit him with a development of several general “principles” concerning prophetic times that would become the accepted standard among historicist prophetic writers for hundreds of years.

First, Joachim expected prophecy to be fulfilled in history and in very real events. In fact, Joachim may be one of the first thinkers to develop a philosophy of history. Joachim divided history into three ages on the analogy of the Trinity, each consisting of 42 generations of 30 years each, or 1260 total years. The first age ran began with Abraham, the second with the Birth of Christ.  The third age was to begin with an outpouring of the Spirit of God on the church, especially upon a new order of pure monks.   The seven seals of Revelation 6 are interpreted as steps from the primitive church (the first seal, the white horse) to the Saracens (the fourth seal, the pale horse, with Mohammed as the rider). The fifth seal describes the current persecution ending in his own day.

Joachim’s second contribution to prophetic studies was that he understood the 1260 days of the Antichrist’s power mentioned in Daniel and Revelation as 1260 years rather than days. This was an innovation that was almost required by the long delay in the Lord’s return.  The early commentators on prophecy took the 1260 days as a literal 3 and a half year period of Antichrist’s reign.  Joachim is the first to consistently consider a “day” in prophecy to be a “year” for all of the numbers of Daniel and Revelation.  This includes the five months of the locust plague in Revelation 9. Since five months is 150 days, therefore the period described is 150 years long.  The locust are the heretical Catharists,  although Joachim confesses he does not know the origin of the sect.

A third contribution of Joachim was his believe that Babylon of Revelation 17 was the Roman Church rather than Jerusalem. For Joachim, Rome includes all those that are reprobate whether in the church or not.  The fall of Babylon will bring about a pure church and the conversion of the Jews.

Historicism was the only method of interpreting Revelation through the Reformation and was by Luther himself. The only writers who attempted to develop a method other than historicism prior to the early 19th century were Roman Catholic scholars, likely motivated by the Historicist criticism of the pope as the antichrist.

Biblography: The best historicist commentary is that of E. B. Elliott,  Horae Apocalypticae. 4 vols.; London: Seeleys, 1851; Joseph Mede, Clavis Apocalyptica (London:  Rivington, 1833).  Originally written and published in Latin, 1627, English translation by Richard More.