The Revelation of Jesus Christ:
Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Revelation 1.1)
If ‘apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology’, then the Book of Revelation should be put at the centre of New Testament study. In The Revelation of Jesus Christ I have done this, showing that the Book of Revelation is not a late text from Asia Minor but the earliest material in the New Testament.
The book is unique among New Testament texts insofar as a date and place of origin are recorded in tradition. The book itself claims to have been written on Patmos, and Irenaeus, writing about 180 CE, says it was seen by John at the end of the reign of Domitian. The internal evidence of the book, however, seems incompatible with both of these. Although few have questioned that it came from Patmos and was sent to Asia Minor, scholars long ago recognized that the cryptic allusions to contemporary events pointed not to the reign of Domitian but to 68–70 CE and that the ‘John’ of the Book of Revelation wrote a very different Greek from the ‘John’ of the Fourth Gospel. At the end of the nineteenth century, the great New Testament scholars such as Westcott, Lightfoot and Hort gave weight to the internal evidence and favoured the earlier date. In the twentieth century, although there was no new evidence, there was a new fashion and so Charles, who published his great commentary in 1920, favoured the external tradition and accepted the later date.
At the end of the twentieth century there is new material to bring to the study of the Book of Revelation. There has never been evidence for the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor in the first century CE apart from the Book of Revelation itself, but the Dead Sea texts now offer ample evidence of the situation in Palestine in the years preceding the war against Rome. It was a time of religious and nationalist fervour fuelled by the visions of priestly mystics, and the Book of Revelation belongs with these texts which depict the crimes of the wicked priest and the war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness. Jesus was described in the Letter to the Hebrews as the great high priest, the new Melchizedek, and the Book of Revelation presents itself as his teaching: ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place’.
The Book of Revelation is oracles and visions collected and preserved by John the beloved disciple and his brethren the prophets, the greatest of whom had been Jesus himself. Jesus spoke of what he had seen and heard in heaven (John 3.32), but people did not believe his marturion, his testimony. This testimony, defined in Revelation 1.2 as ‘all that he saw’, is preserved in the Book of Revelation. As the years passed, the prophets interpreted contemporary events in the light of these visions and oracles. These were the people whom Josephus dismissed as the ‘pretended messengers of the deity who led the wretched people astray’ (War 6.286) and inspired the war against Rome with their conviction that the LORD would return to his city. There is a remarkable similarity between the portents and oracles reported by Josephus and those in the Book of Revelation.
In order to understand the Book of Revelation, it must be recognized that the problems at the end of the second temple period originated when the exiles returned from Babylon in the sixth century BCE. Accusations followed: the priests had lost their spiritual sight, the new temple was impure, and the new city was no longer a holy city. There were many who distanced themselves from the new Jerusalem and longed for divine judgement on the faithful city who had become a harlot (Isa. 1.21). They kept alive the memory of the first temple which had been heaven on earth, and of the anointed priest-king, who had been the presence of the LORD with his people. In their writings, the rituals of the old temple became their descriptions of heaven, and they remembered how the priest-king had entered the holy of holies as a man but returned as the LORD to establish his kingdom and judge his enemies. These priestly writings are now known as apocalypses, and have been preserved by Christian scribes.
The court scenes in the Book of Revelation are not modelled on those of the Roman imperial cult; how could a Christian prophet have seen such things? The imperial cult may have been identified as the dark antitype of true worship, but the detail was drawn from priestly memories of the temple ritual. This must have been the first temple with its cherub throne, since the holy of holies in the second temple was empty. The harlot of the Book of Revelation was not Rome; she had been Jerusalem since the time of Ezekiel, even though later interpreters of the prophecy identified Rome as the harlot of their own time. Nor is there any evidence that Patmos was used as a penal settlement in the first century CE: it is quite possible that ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ that brought John to Patmos were the very visions and prophecies which had fuelled the troubles in Jerusalem from which he had been able to escape. The seven letters were given by the LORD in visions to his prophets in Jerusalem, and sent by the pillars of the church to the communities in Asia Minor. They were warnings about Paul whom they described as Balaam, the false prophet. Since the language of the Jerusalem Christians was Aramaic and their Scriptures were in Hebrew, it is unlikely that Greek was the original language of the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation was translated into Greek, which explains why its style is not that of the Fourth Gospel.
Just before the final disaster overtook Jerusalem, John received his own personal experience of the return of the LORD, recorded in the Book of Revelation as a vision of the Mighty Angel coming in a cloud from heaven (10.1). He gave John new teaching, some of it to be kept secret, and from that time, John began to reinterpret the teaching of Jesus and to present the new understanding of his return.
The study of apocalyptic texts has been an area of rapid growth, especially since the non-biblical materials have become available in English. The key question must be: Why is all this material ‘outside’ the Old Testament when it was clearly so central to the Dead Sea texts and the New Testament? If, as some suggest, apocalyptic was imported into Judaism during the second temple period, and is evidence for the hellenization and syncretism with oriental cults, this could explain why is was not accepted into the canon. If, however, the apocalypses were the priestly writings of the second temple period which preserved the theology and imagery of the ancient royal cult and inspired the writers of the Dead Sea texts, there must have been a compelling reason to exclude this most ‘orthodox’ of literature when the canon of Hebrew Scriptures was being defined after the fall of Jerusalem. The apocalypses must have been excluded because of the part they had played in that disaster, and the Christians who preserved the apocalyptic texts must have had good reason to do this.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ is the culmination of many years’ work; all my publications have been leading in this direction, and their conclusions form the foundation of this book. I have summarized these points in the first three chapters. Ideally, I should like to have written a much longer work, engaging in debate with others who work in this field, but the realities of time and publishing make this impossible. What I offer is my reading of the Book of Revelation.
There have been two significant moments in the development of ideas;
the first was when I bought a copy of the New Testament in (modern) Hebrew and read the Book of Revelation; and the second was when I first read J. M. Ford’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Revelation (1975), the most exciting contribution to this field in recent years. She had the courage to suggest a new approach, but her book was not given the recognition it deserved. Although there are many points on which I would disagree with her, she sowed ideas in my mind, the sure sign of a good book.
I should like to thank the staff of the libraries where I work: the University Libraries in Cambridge and Nottingham, and the library of St John’s College, Nottingham. I should like to dedicate this book to my husband, who has lived among piles of paper for a very long time.