Revelation

May 20, 2013 | 10 comments
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revelationsMy previous post on the upcoming BYU New Testament Commentary series was so well received I have decided to do some follow-up posts discussing individual books. I’ll start with Revelation, partly because that will be the first volume in the BYU series but also because I happen to have a copy of Elaine Pagels’ Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation sitting on my desk for one more week. While a fairly informed reader of the New Testament, I’m no scholar and navigate Greek only with the help of a good interlinear New Testament and various supplements, so my discussion is mainly drawn from the secondary literature and the English text I read in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New International Version (NIV), and of course the trusty King James Version (KJV). But that’s enough to author helpful blog posts. Enough throat clearing: So who wrote Revelation, what is it talking about, and why is it included in the New Testament rather than just buried at Nag Hammadi along with other early Christian apocalyptic literature?

Authorship

Too much ink is spilled on the question of authorship, whether of Revelation or of any other New Testament book. Even if Paul didn’t write Ephesians, no one disputes that it is authentic early Christian literature. Whether it was written in the 60s by Paul or in the 90s by one of his followers is not a critical question for most readers of the New Testament. But authorship does speak to context and audience, important considerations for determining what the author intended the text to say, what the intended audience likely understood, and what we as modern readers might legitimately draw from the text.

I won’t rehash the discussion on the authorship of Revelation from the previous post and comments except to note a few helpful points.

  1. The text itself does not identify the author as John, an apostle, or as John, one of the Twelve, but only as John “on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9 NRSV). (This differs from disputed letters of Paul where Pauline authorship is explicitly claimed in the text of the disputed letter.) So the ascription of authorship to John the Apostle is not a biblical claim, it is part of Christian tradition. It’s not clear to me why so many LDS authors seem to defer to this sort of claim rooted in a Christian tradition which, according to commonly accepted LDS doctrine, is part and parcel of an early Christian Church which became apostate shortly after the original apostles died.
  2. Most scholars do not identify John of Patmos with John the Apostle. Here’s from the introduction to Revelation in the Harper Collins Study Bible:
    Early Christian writers assumed that the author of Revelation had also written the Gospel and Letters of John and identified him with John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles. Both of these assumptions are problematic. The author of Revelation regards the twelve apostles as authoritative figures of the past (21:14) …. On the basis of both literary style and theological emphases it appears unlikely that he wrote either the Gospel or the Letters of John.

  3. The Book of Mormon does seem to link Revelation to John the Apostle at 1 Nephi 14:27: “And I, Nephi, heard and bear record, that the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John, according to the word of the angel.” For some Mormons, that settles the authorship question. For others, that verse merely reflects the common understanding of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries regarding the authorship of Revelation. In any case, we accept the Bible as the word of God (AoF 8; just checked, it’s still there) so we can’t just ignore the New Testament text whenever it becomes difficult. I look forward to reading the discussion on this particular point in the upcoming BYU volume.
  4. A clever point is expressed in Holzapfel, Huntsman, and Wayment’s discussion of the authorship of Revelation in their Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament. They favor John the Apostle as author, and explain the poor Greek of Revelation, compared to the simple but grammatical Greek of John’s gospel, by John’s banishment to Patmos, where he likely had no access to a trained scribe to polish and render more grammatical his Greek writing. That’s a better argument for the traditional view than I’ve seen from other LDS authors.

Content

So what was John (however identified) talking about? The text itself describes the content of the book as follows: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place ….” (1:1 NRSV; emphasis added). That lends support to those who view the visions described in chapters 4 through 22 as relating to events of John’s own day rather than to events two thousand years later, as many modern readers seem to assume without much reflection. And that is assuming that the sometimes bizarre symbols presented in dreams or visions (the two are equated at 1 Nephi 8:2) necessarily correspond to real-world events. Here’s what BYU professor Richard Draper says in his article “The Apocalyptic Witness of the Messiah“:

The book of Revelation is not easy reading. … Anyone who has spent time trying to decode John’s message knows the difficulties involved in extracting its meaning. One major problem is that some passages can be understood on more than one level or in more than one way.

So I think it is wrong to approach the visions in Revelation with the idea that there is a single interpretation of a given passage or that such an interpretation need be literal. In fact, D&C 77 makes it quite clear most of the symbols used are figurative, not literal. Matching these sorts of general figures and symbols with specific events of past, present, or future is the kind of speculative exercise LDS General Authorities generally avoid these days. That seems like an example worth following.

Here’s an alternative approach: ignore the visions. Focus on a few encouraging items that we can draw from the text without playing a Mormon version of Left Behind.

  1. John’s First Vision, at 1:12-16. The description and terminology used by John to describe his vision matches rather closely the terminology at D&C 110:2-3 used by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in their vision of Jesus Christ in 1836.
  2. Letters to the seven churches, in chapters 2 through 3. The churches were in Asia and other Roman provinces of modern day Turkey. It seems clear that John (however identified) had connections to these churches, perhaps even as their founder, much like Paul and the churches that received his letters. (The island of Patmos where John was exiled lies in the Aegean Sea, about fifty miles west of Ephesus, one of the seven churches.) The admonitions to each church encouraged faithfulness and orthodoxy in the face of persecution and doctrinal diversity. To Thyatira he counseled “love, faith, service, and patient endurance.” To Laodicea he promised theosis, as related to him in his vision by Jesus Christ: “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself have conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
  3. A new earth, in chapter 21. Another couple of centuries and we will probably need one. After all the plagues, wars, and destruction recounted in earlier chapters, Revelation has a happy ending, one which has given a measure of hope and encouragement to many readers over two thousand years. This passage is echoed in LDS scripture at Moses 1:37-38:
    The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
    And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.

    I like it, even if it sounds more like the discredited Steady State model than the Big Bang. A little bit of cosmic hope goes a long way these days.

Christian Apocalyptic

Elaine Pagels gives helpful historical context to Revelation in her book. What started out as a book about Christians resisting Roman power was, in later centuries, read by warring Christians as a book about resisting other (heretical) Christians. That shifting interpretation and its utility in sectarian conflict helps explain why Revelation (in contrast to other Christian apocalyptic) ended up being canonized.

Pagels also suggests that what John was arguing against in his seven letters to the churches is largely what Paul was arguing for in his letters: a relaxed approach to the law, at least for Gentile converts but carrying over in places to Jewish Christians. John will have none of that: “I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying — I will make them come and bow down before your feet” (3:9 NRSV). Pagels’ view is in line with Bart Ehrman’s views about radical diversity in early Christianity.

Most helpful, though, is her chapter summarizing some of the noncanonical Christian apocalyptic texts found at Nag Hammadi. The book of Revelation is not, after all, unique: many Christian writers used that style of expressing their particular Christian message. Revelation is only unique in being canonized (although Mark 13 has apocalyptic elements, as does Isaiah 24, Daniel, and parts of Zechariah in the Old Testament). But Nag Hammadi delivers self-contained Christian apocalyptic more or less contemporary with Revelation. What constitutes apocalyptic is somewhat broader than one might think. One scholar she quotes defines it as “the revelation of divine mysteries through … visions, dreams, and other paranormal states of consciousness.” Sounds like revelation as defined in Mormonism.

She discusses the Apocryphon of James, the Apocryphon of John, the Revelation of Zostrianos, the Revelation of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and several other books discovered at Nag Hammadi. (I wonder if she has read the Apocalypse of Nephi at 1 Nephi 14-17?) I’ve got a decaying copy of James Robinson’s The Nag Hammadi Library on my shelf. It takes some dedication to get through most of the books, but the exercise does give one a different perspective on Revelation and, more generally, on revelation as exemplified in those texts.

Conclusion

As I’ve tried to show above, an LDS reading of Revelation brings up topics that are familiar to Latter-day Saints and that sometimes have surprising parallels in LDS scripture: visions of Christ, theosis, cosmic re-creation. Revelation’s dialogue between John and angelic interlocutors (like Nephi’s similar conversation) is not as unique as we once thought. If we can avoid getting hung up on the LDS identification of John of Patmos with John the Apostle and bracket the Evangelical fascination with the Rapture (which doesn’t actually figure in Revelation), the book has a lot to offer the LDS reader.

10 Responses to Revelation

  1. Jonathan Green on May 20, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Thanks for the post, Dave. I agree with you that getting hung up on authorship or insisting on a single interpretation are not useful. Surely there has to be some middle ground between ignoring scripture and speculation, however. Now that it’s canonized scripture, we have to do something with it, and a vision of a new heaven and new earth all but demands some meditation on its possible relevance to the future. That doesn’t mean we need to plot out the date of the Rapture, of course.

  2. Dave on May 20, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    William Miller predicted October 22, 1844 as the date of the Second Coming. Came and went.

    In D&C 130, Joseph Smith appeared to suggest 1890 as a tentative date. That was a big year for the Church, but not that big.

    The Mayan calendar appeared to suggest 2012 as the End of the World (or at least the End of the Mayan Calendar Cycle). Came and went.

    Ray Kurzweil puts the Singularity at 2045. He’s got a pretty good track record on technology, but I suspect that year will come and go as well.

    I suppose one can say that, despite every single prediction of the end of the world, or the Second Coming, or some earlier secular variation on the Singularity having been wrong, sooner or later someone will be right. Hey, it only takes once!

  3. Jonathan Green on May 20, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    I suppose the solution is to bracket trivialities like the world not actually ending so that we can study what happens when we think the world is going to end instead.

  4. Dave on May 20, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Nothing focuses the mind like an impending hanging.

  5. justathoughtfulmormon on May 21, 2013 at 4:28 am

    “Here’s an alternative approach: ignore the visions. Focus on a few encouraging items that we can draw from the text without playing a Mormon version of Left Behind.”
    Yes! Thank you! :D

  6. Eric Facer on May 21, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Nicely done, Dave. I read Pagels’ book about six months ago, and thought it was quite good.

    Some of the convoluted interpretations of the Book of Revelation I have heard from the pulpit and in Sunday School classes are about as credible as the symbology in a Dan Brown novel. And as professor Harrell shows in his excellent book “This is My Doctrine,” attempts by Church leaders to use the Book of Revelation and other scriptures to predict the end of the world or the second coming, all have one thing in common: they have all been wrong.

    The scriptures are an invaluable tool in helping us understand the Savior’s moral teachings, living a more righteous life, and coping with life’s disappointments. They are, however, of marginal utility when employed to predict or anticipate the future.

  7. Craig H. on May 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I’m not a specialist in the subject, but I thought the book was terrific. What struck me most was the struggle, so often present in religion, over what the true religion was, in this case between John and Paul’s disciples (and by extension Paul). That is, when someone or some group seeks to adapt the religion somewhat to the surrounding culture (Paul), so as not to be completely marginalized, those not wishing to do so (John) argue that it will corrupt the religion, supposing that the religion as born was originally pure, and then proceeding to predict the end of the world and to blame the adapters for it, and link them to the devil, etc. It’s a perpetually interesting question and dynamic in religion, and it makes Revelation a lot more understandable than a “simple” reading will give.

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Dave, not all Big Bangs, nor all Steady States, are the same. The cosmic background radiation is so uniform that it has led to adoption by most cosmologists of an assumption of a rapid infaltionary period in the early universe. Then some other cosmologists figured out that there is nothing to stop inflation from continuing, or from recurring. So one of the favored pictures now is that a new period of rapid inflation, a new Big Bang, happens as a recurring event from random places within the existing universe x, creating a new universe x+1. The Big Bang is just one episode in an eternal continuum. And that picutre matches up with Joseph Smith’s concepts of the infinity of worlds and heavens, and our potential to become like God, quite nicely.

    I am still amazed at how much the old original model of the Big Bang is thought to be orthodox science, and even relied on by theologians as the basis to reject other theologies (like the one of Joseph Smith), without the slightest clue that their scientific understanding is 50 years out of date.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 21, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    Personally, I think the messages to the seven churches, with iots invitation to find the hidden meanings of each of the promises, using the same langhuage as Jsues did in explaining his parables in Matthew, suggests that these passages are a kind of identifying code so that early Saints could recognize the authenticity and authority of the author. And I think the coded information is specifically an outline of the Endowment, which only those Saints would recognize who had their “temple recommends”. By the same token, it also authenticates the author’s identity to the Latter-day Saints, who also know the full picture behind the hints that are offered in chapters 2-3. That is in the nature of ancient books with hidden meanings that would authenticate the whole, such as books on parchment or metal that had part of the text folded over and hidden, the opening of which would authenticate the open part of the text. I really don;t see any other way of understanding Revelation except as the book that Nephi saw in vision, and which the Brother of Jared also saw. What other candidate is there?

  10. Dave on May 21, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    RTS, thanks for the comments. The Big Bang is very well supported; multiple universe models are much more speculative.

    Reading the LDS endowment back into Revelation seems like just the sort of “reading the New Testament through a Mormon lens” approach that I’m not particularly fond of. It may have some value as an imaginative exercise, but I don’t see it as having any historical validity.