Feast upon the Word Blog

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Approaching the Apocalypse

Posted by joespencer on December 10, 2007

There seems to be enough interest, so I’ll be posting, over the course of the week, a number of posts on the Book of Revelation (they may come in rather rapid-fire fashion, so do be prepared). What I’d like to get done in this first one is a bit about general approaches to the book, and then in the others I’ll begin working through the chapters accordingly. One of my hopes, during the course of these posts, is also to provide a bit of help on how to approach study more generally. We’ll see what comes of it all!

Okay, so, first, the boring stuff. The commentaries I use (and hence, will be referencing in the course of things during these posts) are the following: David Aune’s massive three-volume commentary (from the Word Biblical Commentary) is simply marvelous so far as depth is concerned; J. Massyngberde Ford’s commentary (from the Anchor Bible series) presents a marvelous structural approach and by far the most helpful discussion of the Lamb one can find; Margaret Barker’s fascinating revisionist commentary deserves sustained attention; Jurgen Roloff’s commentary (from the Continental Commentaries series) is very helpful, focusing more explicitly on the epistolary nature of the book than others; Eugene Boring’s commentary (from the Interpretation series) is simply marvelous for thinking the distance between then and now; and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s commentary (part of the Proclamation Commentaries series from Fortress Press) is an explicitly theological attempt to contemporize the Apocalypse. Along the way, I’ll use (and so will mention now) a few “lesser” resources (meaning basically that these are parts of larger works, not that they are somehow unimportant). Adam Clarke’s massive commentary on the whole bible deserves attention because it contemporary with Joseph Smith and presents a good picture of how the text was interpreted in Joseph’s day; I like, more and more, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, so I’ll draw on that as well (the Revelation chapter is by Adela Yarbro Collins, a Catholic scholar); the article on Revelation from Alter and Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible (the article is by Bernard McGinn) is helpful as well, I think; and I will use, because it is being so widely read among Latter-day Saints, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, by Holzapfel, Huntsman, and Wayment. A couple of “primary” texts I’ll be consulting: the Greek text, obviously; the Vulgate on occasion; the Hebrew translation of the text (Barker long ago convinced me that the Hebrew translation of the Apocalypse is one of the keys to interpretation of the book); and then a few “modern” translations, mostly the NRSV and Willis Barnstone’s creative translation (don’t be too surprised to see me quote from Luther’s Bible as well).

(Wow! That paragraph got a bit out of hand! But I suppose no one can complain that I’m not citing my sources!)

Now on to the fun stuff. How best to approach the Book of Revelation as a whole?

Margaret Barker’s basic argument is that the Apocalypse was “originally” (only in a qualified sense) the experience of Jesus Himself at His baptism, and this is a claim that deserves a good deal of attention. In a similar but fundamentally different argument, Massyngberde Ford decides that, at the very least, the book should be split into three parts: chapters 1-3; chapters 4-11; and chapters 12-22. She suggests that the second of these parts was written by John the Baptist, the third by a disciple of the Baptist, and the first by a later redactor. The arguments of both of these commentators deserve careful attention: to what extent should Revelation be read as primarily describing the experience of Jesus Himself, to what extent should it be understood as connected with the Baptist, and to what extent should it be connected with the Beloved? In the end, I don’t know that this knot can be easily untied, and precisely in light of latter-day revelation: D&C 93 curiously interweaves the Beloved (author of John 1), the Baptist (author of the material in D&C 93 that is so profoundly connected with John 1), and the baptismal experience of the Christ (what is described in both John 1 and D&C 93). This deserves extended attention (I’ll dedicate an entire post to this question). For now, I suppose it is enough to say that the composition of the book is something still to be studied, especially from an LDS point of view.

Jurgen Roloff’s (and, to a lesser extent, Eugene Boring’s) work emphasizes the epistolary nature of Revelation, and this is something that cannot, I think, be overemphasized. The particularity of the situation demands contextual interpretation, though this is a demand that can never be entirely satisfied: the context(s) in which the Apocalypse must be interpreted is (are) not fully recoverable. The responsible work that has been done certainly must be consulted (and will be), but no answers are final on that account. But a far more important consequence of the epistolary nature of the book deserves attention: a letter requires a very different theological approach than a standard piece of first-century apocalyptic. Rather than being turned from the contemporary situation toward some unnameable future, it turns out that Revelation is incessantly and unapologetically obsessed with the concrete realities its writer and readers were facing. This curious interweaving of the absolute and the particular, of the still-to-come and the undeniably-present, marks the strange place of the Apocalypse. In a post on the first three chapters in particular, I’ll do a great deal of expostulating on these themes.

All three “books” in the Triple Combination bring something to the table in studying Revelation, and I’ll certainly draw on these texts. The Book of Mormon has a number of interesting things to say about the actual text of the Revelation, and these statements deserve extended treatment. The D&C has a few scattered things to say, but they all gather Revelation up into a rather interesting Adam-Ondi-Ahman context (especially D&C 77 and D&C 128); these obviously deserve attention. The Pearl of Great Price has somewhat less to say in any direct way, but the obvious connections between the Enoch visions of the Book of Moses and the Apocalypse call for careful interpretation, and the somewhat more subtle connections between some themes in the Book of Abraham (most especially in the facsimiles, of all things) and the Revelation also need to be discussed. I’ll be taking these things up since they seem to me to be absolutely vital to any “uniquely Mormon” take on the Book of Revelation.

The other two canonical testaments for the Latter-day Saint also have their place in shaping an interpretation of Revelation. Paul’s dominant influence in the New Testament deserves attention, especially because it has been suggested often enough that the author of the Apocalypse is at odds with Paul, that there may have been some kind of rivalry between them. The place of the Revelation in the broader context of the New Testament thus calls for comment. Perhaps more relevant still, of course, is the relationship between the Revelation and the Old Testament: in one sense, the Revelation amounts to little more than a commentary on the Old Testament. Constantly relevant and deserving of attention are the connections between the Apocalypse and what is going in the Old Testament temple, law, wars, history, theology, prophecies, etc. All of this will have to find a place in any decent interpretation of Revelation.

Now, having said all of the above, it probably sounds like I’m about to undertake, right on the blog, the writing of a book! (Maybe I am…) But I hope, more than anything, to introduce these problems, to complicate things a bit and to force some discussion about all of this business of interpretation. My hope is that something of the possibility of a uniquely LDS take on Revelation can be grounded, rather than the development of anything like a definitive commentary. I’m hoping to post something every day between now and next Wednesday, so we’ll see how much I can dig out in that time. (Already I’m being tempted to see if I can get the bishop to let me teach only Revelation next year in seminary when we do the New Testament…)

Any thoughts, comments, clarifications, questions, anticipations, disgusted reactions, etc.?

20 Responses to “Approaching the Apocalypse”

  1. Clark said

    The interesting bits to me that I saw someone once mention is the movement between cities in Rev 2-3. It forms a kind of rough circle and some see some significance in this (beyond the possibility that it relates to some physical journey) There is also the often discussed interspersion in the text. That is the bits around “he who has hears let him hear” where in each city we have some description and then an attribute of Christ. It’s rather interesting since at least some aspects of this correspond to merkabah texts and heavenly ascents. The seven fold division and even the ordering. (So, for example, one eats the hidden manna and is given a white stone; but the third level in merkabah ascents/descents is Eden and often one encounters the fruit of the tree of life)

    In the ascent one also finds various tokens of kingship. So we have the rod of iron; key of David; sword; etc.

    I’d write more but all my notes on this were destroyed earlier this year in a basement flood and I don’t have time to do much on it. Just thought I’d throw it out.

    I should note that while there are these interesting parallels to merkabah texts there obviously is very much more going on in the text.

  2. Joe Spencer said

    Thanks, Clark. I agree with the circular business of the cities (I think there may be reason, in fact, to connect this circular business up with the scattered traditions of a menorah that organized the candles in a circle around the center rather than in a line). I too read the theme of kingship into those two chapters (there seems to be an explicit movement towards coronation, after which the veil is parted in 4:1). But I’ll be dealing with all of this when I get to the actual text in a post tomorrow.

  3. Robert C. said

    Joe, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind saying a word or two about the four typical approaches scholars take to read Isaiah: Historicist, preterist, idealist, and futurist. I’m guessing you’ll say all four, but perhaps before you engage the text itself you could use these terms to give us a hint as to your general hermeneutical stance, esp. in light of your comments above about Revelation actually being a letter and primarily about the events facing the congregations at those times.

    (Here is a page I found that seems to give a reasonable outline of these different ways of reading Revelation, for anyone interested in some background.)

  4. Joe Spencer said

    Interest breakdown you’ve come across, Robert. Let me compare them with the “four principal hypotheses or modes of interpretation” Adam Clarke discusses in his nineteenth-century commentary:

    “(1) The Apocalypse contains a prophetical description of the destruction of Jerusalem, of the Jewish war, and the civil wars of the Romans. (2) It contains predictions of the persecutions of the Christians under the heathen emperors of Rome, and of the happy days of the Church under the Christian emperors, from Constantine downwards. (3) It contains prophecies concerning the tyrannical and oppressive conduct of the Roman pontiffs, the true antichrist; and foretells the final destruction of popery. (4) It is a prophetic declaration of the schism and heresies of Martin Luther, those called Reformers, and their successors; and the final destruction of the Protestant religion.” (Clarke, p. 1331)

    For one, it is interesting to note the difference from today in an approach at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But more than that: Clarke’s four positions obscure the distinctions made between historicist, preterist, idealist, and futurist interpretations (each of the four he maps out could be called any or all of these). Though I have something in me that makes me want to applaud any approach that blurs the distinct edges between these four positions, there is something more to the story still, especially because all four approaches Clarke mentions seem rather naive to me.

    Really what it comes down to is this: it is precisely the Apocalypse that calls into question our understanding of history, of preteritity, of idealism/ideology, and of future. This text is far too complex to be reduced to any of these frameworks, at least without a great deal more study. Perhaps these are questions I’ll want to re-raise in another week and a half. For now, I think I’ll choose, for the most part, simply to ignore them. :)

  5. Rick said

    Because I will be teaching GD next Sunday, I have been thinking a lot about the Book of Revelation. I had come to the conclusion that while we may make guesses about what it means, I doubt that it was intended that anyone ever “understand” it. There is just TOO much symbology for anyone to ever have unraveled it with a detailed key, which apparently John did not provide in an appendix. While Joseph said it would be plain to those who had the spirit of revelation, I take that to refer to the people who had the spirit of THAT revelation – maybe because they had also received it, or one like it, e.g., Ezekiel, Daniel, Nephi, etc. For this reason, I had decided that trying to decipher the Apocolypse was essentially fruitless, and not worthy of my time; and that, if I wanted to spend my time on something productive with respect to this book, it might be that I might see the same vision (taking my cue from Nephi). So, I will be very interested to see if in your future posts there are reasons to abandon my current “pessimism.” My best wishes!

  6. Rick said

    Of course, I meant “without a detailed key.”

  7. Robert C. said

    Joe, I got the sense from Osborne (Baker Exegetical Commentary) that this four-way division is pretty common, though I don’t think anyone now days argues exclusively for one approach, though typically a commentary will focus on one or two aspects more than others.

  8. Joe Spencer said


    I suppose my own “optimism” is more a function of the way I read scripture generally: I’m not at all convinced that our task is to sort out some kind of meaning back up behind the text, but that our text is to dwell in the text, to allow the text to shape us and call us to the most serious work of all. That said, however, I think you’ll find that there is much more that can be “unraveled” than is usually thought, though I’m not at all promising to offer anything like a definitive commentary! In a word: I do hope I can, with your best wishes, provide you with some reasons to abandon your “pessimism.” We’ll see!

  9. Robert C. said

    Here’s a passage from Osborne that I thought was interesting in terms of the effect that symbols might have on the reader:

    It is likely that God has chosen esoteric symbols from the common store of apocalyptic symbols in the first century in order to turn the reader away from exactly what he is going to do and toward the theological meaning of how he is going to do it. . . . It is important to realize that we know no more about the second coming than Jesus’ Jewish disciples did about the first. They too thought they were reading the Scriptures rightly. . . . Thus in interpreting the symbols of the book, we first need the “hermeneutics of humility” to realize we “see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror” (1 Cor. 13:8 NLT). We are to center on the purpose of the text and note the theological thrust, leaving what will actually happen with God. (p. 16)

    I think this goes along with Joe’s notion (which he’s previously attributed to Nibley) that one purpose of scripture is to question our belief in the reality of this world and to point us toward the reality of a theological/eschatological world-to-come. That is, the reinterpretation of the world that scriptural and temporal symbolism offers is what we should allow to constitute our reality, rather than the means of interpreting our world that we have inherited culturally, philosophically, etc. It is this “natural” way of interpreting the world that we are called out of and/or beyond toward something that is more real, at least in the eternal sense….

  10. Clark said

    The other interesting bit is that it is after the entrance to the seventh heaven (if one reads 2 & 3 in light of merkabah texts) that the veil is opened and John enters the eighth heaven where the rest of the vision is given. Joseph Smith appears to me to take a fairly literalistic view of Revelation. That is it is a real heavenly view where what is really viewed has highly typological overtones. So he takes it almost like a mystery play with real actors – something I always found rather intersting.

  11. Joe Spencer said

    “So he takes it almost like a mystery play with real actors…”

    Marvelously put. That deserves further attention.

  12. s james said

    From the ‘original’ (not you Joe, the text above :)
    “The particularity of the situation demands contextual interpretation, though this is a demand that can never be entirely satisfied: the context(s) in which the Apocalypse must be interpreted is (are) not fully recoverable.”

    Agreed, but a naive question, would we have had Revelation without the Apostasy, its historical milieu, the crucible of its production?

  13. Joe Spencer said

    I like the direction that question points, s. But I’d have to do further thinking to have anything more to say in response to it.

  14. Clark said

    Yeah Joe, I don’t think enough has been written on the relationship between Revelation and the Mystery religions – especially the Greek ones. Folks mention parallels in passing but that’s about it. Yet a lot’s been written on its connections to Genesis, 1 Enoch, and of course Merkabah texts. While what Joseph wrote isn’t canonical it’s quite interesting. (Especially his claim of beasts in heaven which some have used as proof text for the resurrection of at least some animals)

    Of course taken like this the parallels to the endowment are even more pronounced since after our seven steps that parallel Rev 2-3 in many ways, we pass through a veil. The difference for us is that our endowment is explicitly stated to be preparatory. I’ve always assumed that a real ascent would happen one day (although I completely understand those who take it all as symbolism) It appears that most Jews, Gnostics and so forth around the 1st century took all merkabah like experiences as more mystical or psychological. Mormons have traditionally taken them as more literal. (Consider, for instance Nephi’s where it appears quasi-real but then highly symbolic as well – also note that Nephi and Lehi see the same thing)

    The other interesting thing is that Paul talks about being caught up to the 3rd heaven which many Mormons think of as the Celestial Kingdom. But in the 1st century 7 heavens was as common if not commoner than 3. (Although there were often more as well) In the 7 heaven/level scheme (most likely picked up from the Babylonians) the 3rd heaven is the return to Eden which is also called paradise.

  15. Joe Spencer said

    It is worth mentioning Joseph Smith’s claim that if Paul was caught up to the third heaven, he (Joseph) had been caught up to the seventh.

    So far as the knot of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic go… I’ve got a lot more thinking (and reading) to do before I have anything coherent to say on the matter. (I am presently reading, in other words, through Lacan’s Ecrits.)

  16. cherylem said

    In a word: fabulous. Fabulous introduction.


  17. Clark said

    Joe, I looked all over for that, but I could only find the quote about Joseph saying he’d be caught up into more. And that quote, when looking at the original sources, was much more vague and might mean more revelations rather than more heavens. Looking at the original sources of Joseph’s sermons I couldn’t find a quote about the seventh heaven.

    The closest is the Nauvoo sermon of May 21, 1843.

    There are some things in my own bosom that must remain there. If Paul could say I Knew a man who ascended to the third heaven & saw things unlawful for man to utter, I more.

    Interestingly a Times and Seasons editorial in the name of Joseph contained the following: (TPJS 246))

    for with the great revelations of Paul when he was caught up into the third heaven and saw things that were not lawful to utter, no man was apprised of it until he mentioned it himself fourteen years after; and when John had the curtains of heaven withdrawn, and by vision looked through the dark vista of future ages, and contemplated events that should transpire throughout every subsequent period of time, until the final winding up scene–while he gazed upon the glories of the eternal world, saw an innumerable company of angels and heard the voice of God–it was in the Spirit, on the Lord’s day, unnoticed and unobserved by the world.

    Here the context is clearly keeping secrets.

    It is interesting though when Joseph compares Jacob’s Ladder (with its Masonic understanding) with Paul’s ascend. See TPJS 304. (I’m not sure of the origin of the text here – I’m too lazy to look it up)

    Paul ascended into the third heavens, and he could understand the three principal rounds of Jacob’s ladder–the telestial, the terrestrial, and the celestial glories or kingdoms, where Paul saw and heard things which were not lawful for him to utter. I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.

    This would indicate Joseph understanding much more of a three heaven model. On the other hand, the Masonic context would include seven levels. (The symbol of Jacob’s ladder entered into Masonry at the end of the 18th century and probably was known by Joseph) The seven levels, according to an 1897 discussions are “The first and lowest was the Earth; the second, the World of Pre-Existence; the third, Heaven; the fourth, the Middle World, or intermediate region; the fifth, the World of Births; the sixth, the Mansions of the Blest; and the seventh, the Sphere of Truth.” This comes from the “Brahmic mysteries.” I suspect though that the entrance into Masonry wasn’t from India but from Kabbalism or Gnosticism where were popular influences on Masonry in its early development.

    I should note that the rounds of Jacob’s ladder in Masonry are the levels within Masonry. Thus in the initial use of Jacob’s ladder there are three rounds, corresponding to the three principal levels. The language used in the above quote by Joseph Smith is Masonic and would be in reference to three levels of initiation.

    One has to be careful here. While the Masonic influences on Joseph are unmistakable, one can get so caught up in the trappings one forgets the substance. Likewise despite the strong Masonic influence clearly God was revealing something other than Masonry to Joseph. Likewise if Joseph reads Paul (or even Revelation) in light of his Masonry (which we’d then connect to the endowment) that doesn’t mean this is necessarily an inspired interpretation. He may simply be noticing similar symbols without knowing the history of symbolic development within Masonry. (The legends of Masonic origins that the early brethren knew and believed were quite wrong and largely fabricated)

  18. Joe Spencer said

    Clark, you’re right, now that I check my sources… Strange… but that’s memory for you. :)

    Isn’t “influenced” a bit strong? But perhaps I’m biased on that point…

  19. Clark said

    If anything, it’s a bit weak. (IMO)

    Which, as I added in caveats, says nothing about what was revealed. I’m not sure why some allow scripture as a catalyst for revelation but not Masonry or reading of commentaries.

  20. Joe Spencer said

    The reason I mention my “possible” bias is because I’m totally convinced that Joseph was, so far as the temple goes, completely uninfluenced by Masonry… but I realize that’s a minority position. I should be clear on this: I do not have a problem with Joseph having been influenced by contemporary circumstances, but there just seems to me to be a far better explanation of the source of the endowment than anything Masonic.

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