Teaching the book of Revelation

December 12, 2003 | 16 comments
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I am a Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward and I love the job. I like talking about the scriptures with ward members and usually I have to restrain myself from indulging in my interest in symbols, questions of language and translation, New Testament history, etc. I understand that the class isn’t a scholarly class and I avoid making it one. As I see it, my job is to discuss the Good News with members of the class, not to indulge in my scholarly interests, and I try to stick to the job. However I’m finding it next to impossible to get interested in teaching one lesson on the book of Revelation, much less two.

Joseph Smith said “It is not very essential for the elders to have knowledge in relation to the meaning of beasts, and heads and horns, and other figures made use of in the revelations; still, it may be necessary, to prevent contention and division and do away with suspense. If we get puffed up by thinking that we have much knowledge, we are apt to get a contentious spirit, and correct knowledge is necessary to cast out that spirit. The evil of being puffed up with correct (though useless) knowledge is not so great as the evil of contention. (TPJS 287). As I understand that, he is saying that knowing about the heads and horns is useless, though God has revealed some of the meaning of the symbols so that the High Priests won’t be able to get into contentious arguments about them.

I don’t want to spend class time teaching what is useless about Revelation, but I’m having a hard time coming up with anything else. (The suggested lesson in the manual seems to me to focus on the useless stuff.) Any suggestions?

16 Responses to Teaching the book of Revelation

  1. Nate on December 12, 2003 at 11:28 am

    JIM: I have a good friend at Harvard, Jared Hickman, (jhickman@fas.harvard.edu) who is convinced that Joseph Smith’s discussion of the beasts of Revelation is the key to understanding all of his thought. You ought to contact him and ask for the paper, since I cannot do justice to his theory.

  2. Allen on December 12, 2003 at 12:49 pm

    Jim, I was very surprised by your post. I understand that the symbols are used for rampant speculation about the apocalypse. Trying to assign a specific meaning (like linking the locusts to helicopters) is absurd. Personally I’m very happy with the critical biblical scholars that assign the symbols to Nero and Rome. In spite of this however, I can’t help but feel that Revelation is the most Mormon book in the New Testament.

    Much of the narration of Revelation reads just like Nephi’s vision (which indeed makes the link explicit when Nephi says John would continue his history of the world). The same symbols of the Lamb and of Babylon, whore of all the earth, are present. Perhaps you could do our Catholic friends a favor and point out the true nature of these important symbols and leave the beasts alone.

    Also note in Revelation the talk of white stones, of new names, and other ideas late in Joseph Smith’s thought. (It seems he was influenced by it when writing the BofM, early, and also late in the Nauvoo period).

    I was also very interested in how Revelation ties together the apocalyptic Jewish literature of Daniel and Ezekiel, making direct references to them, while re-reading them as Christian; then Joseph re-reads them as Mormon. This could turn into a useful discussion of Mormon hermeneutics and how we should read scriptures–and I know you have a lot of interesting ideas about that.

    I apologize that I don’t have time or my marked scriptures to give you more specifics. But I’m very excited about Revelation. There is a lot there of interest to Mormons.

  3. Taylor on December 12, 2003 at 1:38 pm

    I would talk about the meaning of symbolic language. I would also talk about one of the reasons that Revelation is written in code was to hide its meaning from the unintiated, especially Roman authorities which it sharply criticizes. It seems that Mormons did this sort of thing a lot too. Also, the books is about politics! There is nothing short to speak about there. discuss what the general orientation towards the world/government/ruling elite (e.g.Rev 18), and contrast it with Romans 13. That should get the fires going.

  4. Jeremiah John on December 12, 2003 at 2:13 pm

    Taylor’s comments are right on, in my opinion. Revelation is a very political book, complete with plenty of coded rhetoric. Ever since I read Walter Wink’s interpretation of Revelation in _Engaging the Powers_ I have thought that Revelation is the best elaboration of the Christian concept of the World. Romans 13 is a great cross-reference here, as are Christ’s words to Pilate. I think Revelation serves as a good antidote to the way we often put a lot of trust in our society’s ‘ruling ideas’, and constituted authorities and think of temptation as a merely private, local matter.

    Another thing to talk about in Revelation is what may be called the spirit of revenge. I remember Nietzsche said something to the effect that it is the most vindictive book ever written. But Christian commentaries have also been troubled by the animosity in it toward the wicked. What do we make of these passages? I think this is a great topic for your average member to ponder!

  5. clark on December 12, 2003 at 3:28 pm

    One thing of interest to most Mormons is that chapters 2-3 uses interspersion (a rhetorical form) to encode the endowment. Map out each line with “he who has ears let him hear” and you’ll get one aspect of the divinity of Christ and one other “bit.” It is a precession as well geographically in (more or less) a circle. Each church in Asia represents one of seven steps in the precession. After this John enters into the presence of heaven and is shown the rest of the vision.

    This is fairly in keeping with Merkabah literature. It doesn’t really help with the future prophecy bit. But I think a lot of people don’t realize the significance of the form. (And clearly it isn’t *exactly* the endowment – but is closer than most realize, as is Merkabah literature) It also quotes extensively from 1 Enoch. Due to the merkabah parallels reading 3 Enoch and the Midrash Alpha Beta can be very helpful as well.

    Personally when I teach it I try to avoid the discussion of the future apocalypt and try to focus in on those elements most miss when they read it. I always get uncomfortable in speculations about the second coming.

  6. Jim on December 12, 2003 at 4:17 pm

    Very good ideas. They are helping me get a handle on what I can do. I didn’t intend to give the impression that I may have: my frustration is not so much with Revelation as it is with trying to figure out how to teach it. I enjoyed J. Massyngberde Ford’s Anchor Bible volume on Revelation and I liked Margaret Barker’s very different book on Revelation even more. But that may have been the problem. I couldn’t make the move from those to teaching a lesson, and I didn’t find the material in the manual very helpful. Thanks.

  7. Clark Goble on December 12, 2003 at 5:53 pm

    I usually just try to get a vibe on one point that might be useful in terms of *practical* religion for the people. Then I just focus on all those points that relate to those one or two themes.

    Of course Revelation can be a little trickier in terms of that. To be honest I’ve never taught it and I think how you teach it really depends upon ones audience. When I taught Sunday School last year the majority of the class probably weren’t that well educated so I had to try and put it in terms they could understand. Sometimes that was tricky. But I always tried to present the same stuff but from an angel perhaps they’d never encountered before.

    (For some reason Nietzsche’s comments on perspectivism always impact how I teach Sunday School)

  8. Ben on December 12, 2003 at 6:15 pm

    There’s a good LDS paper for Clark’s idea- Temple symbolism. “7 Promises to those who overcome” by PArry and Draper. It links the promises made to each of the seven churches addressed to the garden of Eden. E-copy at http://home.uchicago.edu/~spackman/promises.doc
    I think that’s much more accessible to your average student than apocalyptic literature.

  9. Grasshopper on December 12, 2003 at 6:24 pm

    Clark, I’m not sure what you mean by “map out each line with ‘he who has ears let him hear’.” What do you mean by “map out”?

  10. Clark Goble on December 12, 2003 at 7:46 pm

    Look at the text surrounding those words. That kind of phrasing is classic mystery religion signs for “something important.”

    It has more import if you are familiar with the heavenly ascent literature. For instance the role of the third heaven in terms of the Adam myth.

    That paper Ben linked to is good and discusses most of what I was getting at, although it leaves out some of the more interesting symbolism. Of course I admit I’m biased due to the fascinating semiotics of the early part of the text.

  11. Greg on December 12, 2003 at 8:10 pm

    Clark said:
    “But I always tried to present the same stuff but from an angel perhaps they’d never encountered before.”
    That’s one great Sunday School class. It always bores me when a teacher invites the same old angels that I encounter all the time.

  12. Taylor on December 14, 2003 at 10:14 pm

    Just a word to the wise- the Anchor Bible on Revelation–the one that says it comes from John the Baptist circles–is embarrisingly bad!

  13. clark on December 15, 2003 at 12:30 am

    I thought Anchor was supposed to come out with a replacement for their Revelation commentary. Is that not out yet?

  14. Jim on December 15, 2003 at 1:52 am

    Clark, your method is the same as mine: look for something in the lesson that has to do with “practical” religion and use that as the center of the lesson. And you’re right, that’s why it was so hard to come up with a lesson for Revelation. But your earlier comment about the temple was quite helpful. I began by talking about the “secret” of Christianity, the Messiah, and about secret teaching in the early church (Jesus’ comment about the parables; Paul’s reference to secrecy in 1 Corinthians, Nephi’s remarks about Isaiah, Christ’s instructions to the Nephites about some of his words, etc.). I gave them a list of similar passages in Isaiah and Revelation. (I cribbed the list from Margaret Barker.) But we didn’t take time to discuss it. Instead, I used the JS quotation about useless knowledge as a tool for keeping us focused on the more important things, and then spent the time with them focusing on some of the temple symbolism in the book as a whole and, particularly things from the first three chapters that they would recognize. The promises made to each of the churches are things my class found immediately interesting, and it helped them see that many of the symbols used are symbols with which John’s audience was probably already familiar rather than new things.

    Though J.M. Ford’s Anchor Bible Commentary has problems, it hasn’t yet been replaced. On the other hand, not all of the replacements in the Anchor Bible series are better than the versions they replaced. For example, I don’t think that Marcus’s commentary on Mark (what there is of it so far) is better than Mann’s.

    Ben: I haven’t seen Parry and Draper’s article, but I need to go look at it. It looks like the kind of thing that lines up with what I did.

    All: now I’ve got to figure out what to do for the second lesson, but this has given me a good start. Thanks.

  15. clark on December 15, 2003 at 6:40 pm

    We had a good ol’ raucous discussion last week that may be useful for the second half of your lesson Jim.

    Elder McConkie speculated that the “half hour of silence” discussed by John is a period of peace. Yet many (most?) Mormons are convinced that the world keeps getting worse and worse. To me that is bonkers, even with high profile wars like Iraq. It is that sort of ability to look back fondly at rather horrible times in prior centuries. Perhaps bring this whole discussion up as a way of not saying “this is what the future holds” but to show, “hey, perhaps things aren’t as clear as they appear.”

  16. Larry on November 18, 2004 at 1:12 am

    Clark,

    I used to teach in seminary, to the girls who refused to stop talking, that it was proof positive that there were going to be no women in heaven. That lasted about 2 days.:)

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