Reading Revelation – Does Genre Matter?

Reading Revelation

Revelation is a “prophetic account in letter form of the ultimate end of this age in apocalyptic terms that are culturally foreign to most of us.” Walt Russell, Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2000), 254.

The book of Revelation claims to be prophetic (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19; 22:18-19). If it is prophecy, it is a specific form known as apocalyptic. Yet the book has a number of features which imply it is also a letter, including seven letters in the chapters 2-3. This blending of genres is somewhat unique in the New Testament, although 2 Thess 2 has some apocalyptic elements, and the Olivet Discourse has prophetic and apocalyptic elements

In his commentary on Revelation, dispensationalist Robert Thomas rejects the possibility of blending two or more genres. He argues strongly for Revelation as prophecy in the tradition of the Old Testament. For Thomas, the book claims to be “prophecy” and no other genre. His motivation for this rejection is likely some of the baggage that normally comes with the genre “apocalyptic.” Frequently apocalyptic literature is described as history re-written as prophecy – not really prophecy. Since he is committed to futurism and literal interpretation o the symbols of the book, he is resistant to allow the genre of apocalyptic to whittle away at his futurist interpretation.

Thomas seems to protest too much the idea of blending genres. This is a common phenomenon in the epistles (Paul makes use of hymn material in Phil 2, for example.) One might argue that Isaiah “blends” the prophetic and apocalyptic genres in 24-27, Ezekiel in 37-39, etc. As Grant Osborne says, “it is impossible to distinguish between prophecy and apocalyptic….” (Revelation, 13).

Similar to Osborne, Gordon Fee uses this blending of genre to distance Revelation from some of the conventions of apocalyptic literature (Revelation, xii). Since John is writing prophecy as well as apocalyptic, he does not select a name from antiquity and create his apocalypse in his name. John has experienced the new age of the Spirit and is creating a book which applies to the present experience of the readers. Fee points out that most apocalyptic literature is “sealed up” for a future time when the Spirit of God will make the symbolism clear, But in Rev 22:10 John is specifically told not to seal up the prophecy!

Does the literary genre of Revelation matter? How do we take all three genre into account? How would the book be interpreted differently if it is only prophecy, as opposed to apocalyptic? How does the appearance of a letter effect the way we might read the book?


The Problem of Prophecy

I am currently teaching a two-week intensive class on Daniel and Revelation.  I have toyed with the idea of renaming the class “Introduction to Apocalyptic” even if such a title would scare a few students away.  I approach the class from a hermeneutical perspective and try to give some strategy for reading Daniel and Revelation as examples of biblical apocalyptic.

For a text book I chose Brent Sandy’s Plowshares and Pruning Hooks (IVP, 2002).  I find this little book a helpful primer for not only apocalyptic, but also for the hermeneutics of metaphors. Maybe I am hoping for too much here, but I think that a solid understanding of how non-literal communication will help us steer clear of the traps ensnare many interpreters of Revelation.  (I used three metaphors in that last sentence intentionally)

In his second chapter, Sandy lists seven “problems” the reader must face when reading the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

1. Predictive of Poetic? Some language in a text is used to describe a writer’s current situation in poetic language. Yet other language may be used to predict something in the future (near or distant). Sandy uses Psalm 22 as an example. To what extent is the language of this psalm describing the Psalmists own state of dereliction, yet there are other elements which seem to predict the cross.

2. Literal or Figurative? For me, this is less of a problem since I have been emphasizing the metaphoric nature of language. It is virtually impossible to express thoughts without using implicit or explicit imagery. Some statements are propositions (such as the prophet describing a real historical event) Other times the prophet uses hyperbole to describe something. One of Sandy’s examples is Isa 48:4: “your neck muscles are like iron.” This is a clear image, the person does not have an iron neck. Yet it expresses a very real situation. So is this literal or figurative?

3. Exact or Emotive? Sometimes prophets predict things which will happen just as predicted. When Jonah said, “in three days Nineveh will be destroyed,” he meant that literally. When Isaiah said “a child will be born,” he meant that a child was about to be born. But in many other cases a metaphor will be used to stir an emotion or call to mind a feeling (usually of fear or dread).

4. Conditional or Unconditional? Predictive prophecy often has a conditional aspect, even if that is not explicitly stated. This is the case in Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed. But other times the prophet describes a coming event which is certain. This is the case of the progression of empires in Daniel 2 and 7. There is no question that these empires will rise and fall.

5. Real or Surreal? This is more of a problem for apocalyptic literature, since many of the images used are by their nature surreal and other-worldly. There is little doubt that Daniel did not want us to imagine a literal bear with a mouth full of ribs. But when he describes a “sanctuary,” does he have in mind the real Temple in Jerusalem?

6. Oral or Written? For a prophet like Isaiah, the oral delivery of a prophecy is important – he delivered a message to a specific king at a specific time with a specific intention. But Daniel is not addressing a particular king, the book is a literary work which may verbally allude to other texts. To what extent is a prophet “preaching” or “researching”?

7. Fulfilled or Unfulfilled? From our perspective, a prophecy may be said to be “fulfilled” even if it was not from the perspective of the prophet. Certainly our presuppositions about the nature of the church and Israel will come into play here, but it is possible to read a text like Daniel 9 (the seventy-sevens) as wholly fulfilled or as partially fulfilled with aspects yet to come.

Sandy’s questions are more difficult for apocalyptic literature.  I am tempted to declare “it is all surreal” and walk away from a text like Daniel 8:1-14, yet the writer of this apocalyptic vision intended something by it.  The difficulty for us is determining the function of the metaphors.  The writer chose to describe real events as rams and goats battling on a great plain for a reason, by paying careful attention to the point of the metaphors the reader will be closer to the meaning intended by the author.

Revelation and Apocalyptic Imagery

Apocalyptic is best known for its symbolic use of language. The genre is full of strange dreams and visions, usually symbolic of something that the writer is trying to tell his readers, but hide from those that are not familiar with the “code.” This makes interpreting the books very difficult indeed, since many of the cultural references are lost.

World War 2 Political Cartoon

Craig Blomberg uses the analogy of a political cartoon from the cold war. Any person who lived through those years would understand the symbol of a bear and an eagle (Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 372). A political cartoon from 50 or 100 years ago might be virtually impossible to understand without immersing oneself in the politics of that day. I showed a series of political cartoons to my class, beginning with one from shortly after 9/11. Everyone understood the meaning of an eagle sharpening its talons in that context. But cartoons from 15 years ago were a bit more difficult for a college student to understand because of the historic distance from the events. I had cartoons from World War II (most people understood the reference to Hitler). The World War I cartoon was more obscure, and the Civil War cartoons were very hard to understand. Finally, a political cartoon from the Revolutionary War made no sense to any of us since we had no clue who the people were or to what events inspired the imagery.

This is how the “code” of apocalyptic works. It is not really a secret “Bible code” which needs a key to decipher the meaning; the symbols are only obscure to use because we live so long after first century and know so little of the culture. Some scholars have toyed with the idea certain circles of Christians produced a set of typical or stock images. An example might be “Babylon is Rome,” in an effort to hide the tact the book is talking about the Empire. While this is possible, it is a very difficult task to describe these stock symbols and their meanings.

In order to understand apocalyptic, we need to cross two different boundaries. We need to study the imagery in the proper time and the proper culture. In order to understand a political cartoon, I have to put in the right era, but I also have to know the cultural cues implied by the art. If I showed a French political cartoon from fifty years ago, I might have no idea what it was talking about until I researched the time period and culture in which the cartoon was produced. So too with apocalyptic – I must immerse myself in the culture of the first century. This includes both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, since Revelation has a foot in both worlds.  This has the advantage of coming closer to the author’s original intent (literal interpretation) and avoids some of the silly excess of popular interpretations.

One objection to this method is that it is hard work to immerse oneself in an ancient culture.  This is a fair point, but if the alternative is to read Revelation as a general comment on Good versus Evil, or as weird symbols only made clear by a recent prophet with the “secret key” to the book, then I am all for the hard work.  It is better to read Revelation with an Oxford Introduction to the Roman Empire in hand than Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Literal Interpretation and Metaphor

In my last post I tried to argue that the interpreter of Revelation must use the same literal hermeneutic used on Romans.  “Literal interpretation” is often lampooned as “wooden” when employed in studies on Revelation, but it seems to me that Revelation ought to be read as any other book of the New Testament.  If literal interpretation is defined properly (authorial intent) and the interpreter has a sense for the use of metaphors, then Revelation makes much more sense.

The problem in that paragraph is the “sense for the use of metaphor.”  A metaphor is a bit of symbolic language that intends to communicate something.  For example, if one of my students described my views on Revelation as “way out in left field,” he would not literally mean I was standing out in a baseball field lecturing.  That metaphor means that I was off-base (another baseball metaphor!) Perhaps another student would disagree, thinking that I had “hit the ball out of the park.”  Again, the meaning is that I did well and convinced him.  In both cases, I need to know about baseball and how these metaphors function in American culture.  If I were in Africa and someone said I was “out in left field,” perhaps the non-American would misunderstand what the point was and think I was standing over in the corn field.

This is what makes reading Revelation difficult.  We are 2000 years away from the world of the metaphor, not to mention several cultures beyond the Greco-Roman world of the first century.  In order to understand a metaphor, we need to read it as a listener in the last first century might have.  This implies a knowledge of the Greco-Roman world since Revelation was originally written to churches in Asia Minor.  More importantly, the readers were Jewish Christians who had knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.  There are two competing metaphor sets for any given metaphor in the book of Revelation – contemporary culture and the Hebrew Bible.

I’ll try one example here, the first “Horseman of the Apocalypse.”  Revelation 6:1-2 describes a rider on a white horse.  The color white is often associated with victory.  Roman emperors, for example,  rode in white when they celebrated victory.  But the color is often associated with righteousness, especially in the book of Revelation.  For example,  white robes are  promised in the letters to the seven churches and the martyrs in chapter 6, even the martyrs in chapter 5 might be said to be “victorious” because they have overcome.

There are two white horses in Revelation, this one and another 19:10-16.  In chapter 19 the horse and rider is clearly Jesus coming in victory to establish his kingdom.  If a person living in the first century Roman world heard this metaphor in either case they would think of victory and conquest.  Based the fact that this is a white horse, can we say that the white horse and rider is a positive image (Jesus, the gospel going into the world, etc.), or is it negative, the “antichrist” who goes out “bent on destruction”?

In my view, the rider on the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16, he is a “false messiah,” he is “anti-Christ.”  The rider is the Anti-Christ, going out “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation.  Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 :  the name of the rider is “Faithful and True,” here the rider is given the power to judge and make war.  The crowns are different, the weapons are different.