This Sunday we welcome a familiar friend to St. Thomas Church, Professor Harry Attridge, Dean of the Yale Divinity School. Harry will soon step down as dean, after doing a magnificent job of leading the divinity school for a decade.
He is one of the world’s premier New Testament scholars. His expertise focuses on the Letter to the Hebrews, the Gospel of John, the Johanine epistles and the Book of Revelation. Our members showed particular interest in Revelation, so we have asked him to address this – the final book of the Bible – in our Sunday Forum from 11:00 – 11:45 a.m. in MacColl Auditorium with time for questions and answers afterward.
This summer he will teach a week-long course at Yale Divinity School on the Book of Revelation, which I heartily commend to each of you. I have taken several of his past courses at the Yale Summer Program and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Renowned Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson notes that “Few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation.” More than any other part of the Bible, the Book of Revelation has been tragically misinterpreted. I become nervous when someone tells me that Revelation is their favorite book of the Bible.
The text itself invites misinterpretation as it claims to be a “revelation from Jesus Christ,” which reveals to readers “what is going to happen shortly.” (Rev. 1:1) Readers across the centuries have tried to find in Revelation a divine mandate and blueprint for the future.
As early as the second century, Papias found passages such as Rev. 20:4-6 a literal promise of an earthly thousand-year reign of the saints before a sudden end. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius writes, “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Over such the second has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years.”
Papias was among the first of many “millenarians,” including Ireneus, the Montanists, Joachim of Fiore and radical reformers. Many predicted that the world would end in the year 1,000 A.D. Others claimed the end would occur in 2,000 A.D
The oppressed and disillusioned of every age have read between the lines of Revelation and found words of hope, interpreting the unusual symbols to fit their current times and projected the identity of the “beast” (Rev. 13:18) at whoever their hostility was directed. Rulers from Nero to Hitler have been given the sobriquet of “666” and the “beast.”
Christians have used Revelation as a handbook for determining the date of Armageddon (Rev. 16:16), the supposed catastrophic end to the world. Using “prophecy” in its most narrow sense as “prediction,” they interpret the complex web of symbols and associate them with current events to determine the end time.
Johnson notes, “The text is therefore given the status of a train schedule….” He adds, “Failure to appreciate this historical fashioning and function of Revelation has bred great mischief.”
Revelation is a prime example of “apocalyptic” literature, a genre found in both Jewish and Christian writings. This form of prophecy grew out of Judaism when values were being eroded from within the culture and the community was under attack from the outside. A classic example can be found in the Book of Daniel in the Maccabean period.
To those wavering in conviction, apocalyptic literature counseled fidelity. To those losing heart, it encouraged endurance. In revelation literature, a prophet is either taken up into heaven and given an exclusive view of life or has portentous dreams so that he can see current events and extrapolate their future outcomes.
This literature is full of numerology, cosmic catastrophes and fabulous beasts. We read of lampstands and stars standing for angels and churches (1:20), horns and eyes of the lamb (5:6), trumpets (8:2), thunders (10:3), heads of the dragon (12:3), the beast (13:1), heads of the dragon (12:3) and thousands killed (11:13).
The numbers 4 and 12 appear frequently such as four living creatures (4:6-8) and four horsemen (6:1-8) four angels at the corners of the earth (7:1) or 12 gates and foundational stones, 12 apostles and 12 angels (21:11-14) and the tree of life gives 12 fruits (22:2) and the woman clothed with the sun has a crown with 12 stars (12:1).
The apocalyptic imagery is fantastic and rich including the “Lamb who was slain yet lives” (5:6), the eagle (8:13, 12:14), locusts like cavalry (9:3-11), the white horse (19:11-16), the red dragon (12:3), the ancient serpent (12:9) and a “beast of out the sea” and the “scarlet beast” (17:3, 7-12).
If that isn’t enough, there is thunder, earthquakes, lightning (8:5) and a series of plagues (8-7-12). For centuries religious speculators have read these ancient of symbols and tried to align them with current events to predict the world’s end. If the end does not come, it is never the text or the interpretive process that is deemed wrong, but merely the calculations were off.
If you are fascinated by The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter series, you won’t want to miss Dean Attridge’s lecture this Sunday on the Book of Revelation.
With Easter blessings,