The idea of apocalypse — in Greek, literally an “unveiling” — is that there is a hidden design to the shape of history lying behind or beyond our perceptions. Apocalyptic thinking was essential to the rise of Christianity.
Apocalypse as a Genre
The title Revelation is merely a translation of the Greek “apocalypse.” Apocalyptic writings constitute a genre of literature, a kind of writing in Christianity. It is important to identify the genre of a book, because the genre informs your expectations. This is true today of popular genres such as fantasy, mystery, romance, etc. Readers approach each genre with a set of expectations based on the genre’s characteristics.
The apocalypse genre has the following characteristics:
1. It is a narrative of a divine or otherworldly figure who gives a message to a human recipient. Some being reveals something to someone.
2. It interprets the present world in terms of a cosmic supernatural plan. It’s a way of interpreting history according to a hidden divine design. It requires special knowledge of the secret shape of history, which has been specifically designed by a god.
The apocalypse genre has its origins in Jewish thought, but it is a minimal element in the canonical Christian Old Testament. The one exception is the book of Daniel, which envisions a new age of resurrection; it is the one book of the Old testament that is deeply apocalyptic. Most Jewish apocalypse is extra-canonical (outside the canon). There is a lot of Jewish apocalyptic literature. These writings are revealing to us because they let us see the genre’s elements; they help us examine how an ancient reader would have considered an apocalyptic world.
There are highly repetitive themes across a range of texts in the apocalyptic genre:
There is some special way of acquiring knowledge through visions, dreams, angels, and holy books.
The transmission and suppression of knowledge. An apocalypse often references further knowledge that must be kept secret.
Division of time. To truly to understand history, you must understand the divisions in time.
Number symbolism: numerology. Certain numbers appear over and over again, and they have deep religious meaning.
Apocalyptic writing is inherently allegorical; it says one thing to mean another. Political and spiritual figures are often given allegorical representation, especially with animals.
Apocalyptic writers often believe in a perfect age, a perfect time, a golden age, a utopia: a place where there will be no tears, where there will be plenty to eat. The earth shall yield forth its fruit ten thousandfold. There will be no labor and no suffering. The basic problems of human existence will cease to exist.
Divine judgement, a theodicy. The wicked of this age will be punished in the world, and the righteous will be blessed.
Jewish apocalypse writing develops in the Hellenistic age. The core concept of apocalypse is divine judgement from a rational God who will judge.
The New Testament, like the Old Testament, does not contain many examples of a pure apocalyptic text. However, there are some apocalyptic elements found in the Gospels, a genre that is, in some ways, inherently apocalyptic. Mark chapter 13 is called the “Little Apocalypse” because it predicts the destruction of the Temple.
“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’” (Mark 13:1-8)
Matthew 24 and Luke 21 are similarly apocalyptic.
The Book of Revelation
The New Testament contain a complete apocalyptic text: the Apocalypse of John, which is known as the the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. It is important to note that Revelation was controversial in the history of the early church. Eusebius says some considered it genuine while others considered it spurious. Over the fourth century AD, Revelation made the cut and was included in the Biblical canon. The date and identity of its author are disputed, although it is attributed to a man named John who lived on the island of Patmos.
The Book of Revelation was probably written in the first century. One source says it was written at the end of the reign of Domitian, who died in 96 AD. It was almost certainly written after the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Although some scholars argue that Revelation could have been written in the 60s, Revelation was most likely written around 90 or 95 AD.
John of Patmos is not the same as the author of the Gospel of John. There are some important similarities between them, namely the preexistence of Jesus, the importance of his blood, and his role as the lamb of God. This last point in particular reveals that the authors were different people: Revelation and the Gospel of John consistently use different words for “lamb.”
Revelation is a book that has generated endless Christian speculation. To this day, it is often read as a prediction of events to come. However, do not read the book as a prediction. Rather, read it as an apocalypse in the apocalyptic genre. John receives his revelation through a dramatic vision. The organizing principle of the Apocalypse of John is a series of sevens. It’s a text that speaks in images which are complex – filled with allegory but difficult to interpret. Revelation does not predict the future, although its nature as an apocalyptic text allows it to be read that way. Revelation is primarily a text about contemporary events in the first century AD.
Revelation refers to contemporary events, but it also interprets theologically the meaning of Jesus, the destruction of the temple, and the justice of God. In chapter 1, John states that “this is the apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” He also tells us that “I John was on this island on account of the word of God.” Many scholars interpret this to mean that John was under confinement on a prison island.
John of Patmos has a message for each of the seven churches of Asia. These messages address the contemporary concerns of the latter decades of the first century AD. After delivering the messages, John receives more visions:
“At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside.”
It is difficult to understand the meaning of these images, and it is also difficult to discern the time or place where these events occur.
In Revelation chapter 12, a child is born and a dragon tries to eat it. There is war in heaven; the dragon and his angels fight Michael and his angels. The dragon, who is Satan, is cast out of heaven. Though this part of Revelation is as enigmatic as the rest, it proves important in Christian cosmology for associating all the images of evil into one figure. However, it is still unclear when any of this is happening.
Revelation 16 sees seven angels pouring out seven bowls. When the last bowl is poured out, there is a great battle on the hill of Megiddo: Armageddon.
Chapters 17-19 are the most political. Here it is possible to have some hope of understanding the author’s contemporary meaning. Chapters 17-19 are fascinating for Roman historians because they are deeply anti-Roman; they were written by someone who loathes the Roman empire. There is judgement of the “whore who sits on many waters.” She is drunk on the “blood of the martyrs” and sits on “seven hills.” (The city of Rome is on seven hills.) It is evident that the author of Revelation is speaking about Rome: this mother of whores, this city of seven hills which is drunk on the blood of martyrs.
Why is Rome drunk on the blood of martyrs? Because Rome has begun to persecute Christians. The Book of Revelation is one of the earliest indications that the Romans had started to persecute Christians. Written in a period of persecution, Revelation is a text that is extremely bitter towards Rome – so much so that it imagines that God will destroy Rome in an act of divine justice. Although the Christians suffer now, they will be vindicated when Rome is destroyed. Throughout Revelation, the Whore of Babylon is a pseudonym for Rome. In chapter 18, the whore of Babylon falls.
Revelation is an extraordinary dream sequence that imagines the final judgement of God. The Christians’ enemies are destroyed, and Christians live in a utopian world. At the end, there is a New Heaven, a New Earth, and a New Jerusalem.
Revelation is an extremely difficult text to comprehend. Rather than get bogged down in the particulars of the text, think about two major points:
Political context – Revelation is written after the Jewish Revolt and in the midst of the persecution of the martyrs.
Religious importance – It puts salvation in terms of a final judgement. Revelation also combines all the images of evil into one figure: Satan.