Feast upon the Word Blog

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A Book Sealed Seven Times: Revelation 4-11

Posted by joespencer on December 12, 2007

I really think there is something to the argument that there is a split in the text of Revelation between chapters 11 and 12. Ford even sees this is a split between the work of two different authors: chapters 4-11 as the work of the Baptist and chapters 12-22 as the work of one of his disciples. Margaret Barker, as I’ve mentioned before, throws Christ Himself into the mix in thinking about authorship. What I’d like to do just briefly here is to take a look at the question of authorship from a uniquely Mormon standpoint, and then turn to the content of chapters 4-11. I’ll deal with the latter rather broadly here, with the promise that in a couple of days I’ll be getting down to the text itself in these posts.

Margaret Barker’s argument about the Apocalypse is ultimately very simple: it records first the actual experience of Jesus at His baptism; but this apocalyptic vision has been set into a broader apocalyptic work written by a later visionary (John) who traces his visionary lineage back to Jesus. Hence, two authors: Jesus and John (whoever the latter is). For Massyngberde Ford also, there are two authors: John the Baptist and a disciple of the Baptist (apparently named John). What is tied together here is a knot of three authors who are all undeniably tied to the text in one way or another. Barker’s argument that Jesus has something to do with this all is provocative: not only can she point to the ambiguous genetive of the superscription (“The Revelation of Jesus Christ…”), but she points to the description of Jesus’ baptismal vision in Mark, where Christ is taken up from the water into the wilderness to see angels and beasts. Ford’s argument is equally interesting: the language of “the Lamb” is unique, outside of Revelation and other Johannine writings, to the baptismal pericopes, where it always appears in the mouth of the Baptist. But if Jesus had a part in the construction of the text, and/or if the Baptist had a hand in the construction of the text, it is nonetheless as clear as can be that someone named John (and I’ll trust that this was the Beloved for a number of reasons) had a major part to play in its formulation. Hence, three authors to sort out: Jesus, the Baptist, and the Beloved–and they are all tied together, by the arguments I’m citing here, by the baptismal experience of Christ.

This knot deserves attention from the Latter-day Saint, since D&C 93 ties the same knot: there, in a text that is obviously related to the first chapter of the gospel written by the Beloved (verses 7-17), are to be found the writings of the Baptist (verse 15), and the whole passage undertakes to explain the exalting, endowing experience Jesus had at baptism (through which He “received a fulness,” etc.). At least two important things can be inferred from this text: the Fourth Gospel is somehow dependent on the writings of the Baptist (John 1-2 makes it clear that there was some connection between the Baptist and the Beloved before the latter began to follow Jesus); and Christ’s baptismal experience was, at least in some sense, a kind of endowment. How should these interconnections be interpreted? And how does this shed light on the question of the authorship of the Apocalypse? What does the connection between the Baptist and the Beloved imply? And how much should be read into Barker’s argument that the Apocalypse reflects the baptismal experience of Christ? (My aim–I write this parenthetical note for Nanette’s benefit–is, for now, to raise some of these questions and to generate discussion. I don’t intend to give any answers to them yet, primarily because I think they deserve a great deal more attention than might be given them in any facile attempt to do away with the problem.)

At the very least, the above complicates any attempt to lay out a definite picture of the authorship of the Apocalypse. But I suppose that, in many ways, I appreciate the ambiguity: let the experiences laid out in chapters 4-11 be the experience of Jesus, the Baptist, and the Beloved! Let them all be experiencing much the same vision of the heavenly throne room and the breaking of the seals, etc. In a sense, I think D&C 93 points us in this direction: Christ’s reception of “the fulness” is something ultimately enjoined on all the saints, as is clear from verses 19-20.

That said, what is happening in chapters 4-11?

I have spent far more time dealing with chapters 4-5 than any of the others (though I’ve spent significant time in all these chapters), so the picture there is clearest for me: Jesus/John/John is ushered through the veil and into the Holy of Holies (out of the Holy Place where the whole thing began). He sees a kind of three-tiered structure in heaven: the throne, the twenty-four elders, and the others all gathered round about. At the center of the picture, though, is the book in the hand of the One Enthroned. The book is the heart of the matter.

D&C 77:6: “What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals? We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.” This verse itself calls for so much thought that I inevitably must do some violence to it to get anywhere here. The book (scroll) is some sort of written document that details, in some sense, the whole history of the world. How are we to think about that? The way this is put recalls D&C 107: “Three years previous to the death of Adam, he called Seth,” etc., “into the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and there bestowed upon them his last blessing. And the Lord appeared unto them, and they rose up and blessed Adam, and called him Michael, the prince, the archangel. And the Lord administered comfort unto Adam, and said unto him: I have set thee to be at the head . . . . And Adam stood up in the midst of the congregation; and, notwithstanding he was bowed down with age, being full of the Holy Ghost, predicted whatsoever thing should befall his posterity unto the latest generation. These things were all written in the book of Enoch, and are to be testified of in due time.” (verses 53-57) Far more careful comment must be made.

One of these two books–the book of Enoch and the book in the hand of the Enthroned–echoes the other, or so it would appear: they both contain a history of the entire earth. But there is more that connects them: the book appearing in Revelation is sealed seven times, each seal representing, in some sense, a thousand years of the earth’s “continuance, or its temporal existence.” This theme of seven thousand years is of some obvious importance. Enoch, of course, is the seventh in the patriarchal line from Adam. The thousand-year lives of each of the patriarchs perhaps suggests something interesting at work here: Enoch marks, in an admittedly strange sense, the seventh thousand years (Adam’s thousand years are the first, Seth’s the second, and so on, though these all overlap if they are taken in an absolute sense). This is interesting, moreover, because Enoch’s thousand years is cut short by the translation of Zion, etc. In at least some sense, it must be recognized that the seven generations from Adam to Enoch traces the temporal history of the world, if that history is to be reckoned as a seven thousand year history: six thousand years are brought to an end with the translation of the righteous in the seventh thousand years. This is all the more significant in light of a theme that is all to easy to overlook in reading the scriptures: the idea of the Millennium appears, among all our ancient scriptures, in only two places, the book of Revelation, and the Enoch prophecy in Moses. Interestingly, all the commentaries agree that the idea of a Millennium is something the author of the Apocalypse took from the Enoch tradition, where it apparently had its foundation (1 Enoch, etc.). On the one hand, this could be said to be another good guess on Joseph’s part, but far more importantly, it seems to root the very idea of a seven thousand year history in the writings of Enoch. There is far more to think about here.

More importantly still, all of this is rooted in the ancient Adam-ondi-Ahman experience, which points inevitably to the parallel experience still to come, where that same book, written up by Enoch, is to be opened. The book is thus the book of life (cf. Revelation 20, and then Joseph’s commentary in D&C 128), the book in which the living are written (cf. Isaiah 4, and perhaps my recent podcast on Isaiah 4: http://othonors.mypodcast.com). Indeed, the whole mystery drama unfolded in Revelation 5 closely matches Daniel 7, a point that is stressed again and again in the various commentaries, and it is Daniel 7, according to Joseph Smith, that lays out the meaning and structure of Adam-ondi-Ahman.

It seems to me quite clear that what we have happening here is something at least closely tied to Adam-ondi-Ahman. But isn’t this heavenly, while Adam-ondi-Ahman is earthly? Perhaps. But I don’t know whether that distinction can be so clearly drawn here. At any rate, the very same seating of the Ancient of Days (could the one on the throne be Adam, Michael?) and the approach of the Son of Man, who takes up the scroll (Rev 5:11 is a direct quotation of Daniel 7) are to be found here.

So, what, then, is at work in the breaking of the seals? That is an enormous question. Is this a heavenly drama, a kind of mystery play performed in the Holy of Holies to demonstrate in so many figures what happens on earth (such and such a horse is such and such a dispensation, etc.)? Or is this an earthly drama, a drama to be performed at Adam-ondi-Ahman, in which the book of Enoch is finally handed over to the Christ, its seals broken, and the meaning of the whole history of the world interpreted to the faithful gathered there? Is it something of both, an event in which heaven and earth become one place (a sea of glass and fire, etc.), a kind of forcing of the earth undertaken in faithfulness to the event spoken of in the heavens? Whether or not it is the last, it certainly calls the reader to that task: we are to move the earth in this direction…

The drama that unfolds while the seven seals are broken is, as Margaret Barker especially points out, an echo of the Day of Atonement or Day of the Lord, right down to the emergence from the Holy of Holies of the armed heavenly hosts. The picture is right out of Isaiah: the earth is laid waste while the Lord is exalted. Suddenly, in chapter 10, the series of events is disrupted by the appearance of an angel who gives John a little book, which Joseph clarifies as an ordinance/mission for John to go gathering up the tribes of Israel. This deserves a great deal more thought than I’ve yet given it. Then come Moses and Elijah in chapter 11, who die in some kind of battle, are then resurrected, and the kingdoms of the world are overthrown in the final triumph that is Adam-ondi-Ahman.

Or something like that. There are far too many details here that deserve far more careful attention. My sweeping interpretation in these last two paragraphs is, more than anything, calculated to locate the events through which these things have got to be interpreted: Adam-ondi-Ahman as somehow connected with the Day of Atonement/Lord theme that runs through the OT prophets. What are we to make of all this?

14 Responses to “A Book Sealed Seven Times: Revelation 4-11”

  1. BiV said

    I’m looking forward to hearing more details–I was especially interested in ch 6 and the 4 horsemen. I wrote about my thoughts over at my blog and I would love to have your criticism of what I came up with. I am especially interested in thoughts on how the thousand year periods fit in with the 4 horsemen.

    Because of my recent study with ch 6 I have noticed an interesting addition to your authorship questions. Notice that in ch 19:11-21 we have a composite horseman which almost seems like an attempt to attach Messianic connotations to the 4 horsemen in ch 6. Could this be another writer’s explanation of the earlier verses?

  2. Rick said

    This response goes back to my point about being pessimistic that any mortal could interpret the Revelation without having personally experienced the same vision. Truly, I think your ability to find possible connections in gospel/scriptural experiences is amazing. On the other hand, I have no idea if your analysis is true, and I do not sense that you are all that confident about it either. It is fun to speculate, and I enjoy doing that with you as I read your posts. But aren’t you still just guessing?

  3. Clark said

    Interesting. I’ve always wondered at the apparent conflation of the two Johns in D&C 93 and what is going on there.

  4. BiV said

    Rick, before this past week I probably would have agreed with you that it would be difficult for a mortal to understand Revelation without having experienced the vision her/himself. However, I do have a lot of confidence in the interpretation I have come to, because the analysis is coming directly from the scriptures. It may not be quite as clear as Nephi’s “the rod of iron which my father had seen was the word of God,” but it comes very close. It is not just chapter 6 that is interpreted for the reader within the canon of scripture. Many of the other chapters have images that have already been revealed to us as pertaining to the Messiah, the priesthood, events of the last days, etc. So maybe it can become clear to us with a little hard work, and a little push of the Spirit in the right direction.

    Though if I could choose, it would be nice to gain my understanding by seeing the vision myself!

  5. Rick said

    BiV, I read the post at your blog, and I thought it made good sense. I can understand why you are happy and excited about it. At the same time, I doubt that you can find any two serious students of the Revelation that will agree very much on their understandings of the symbolism. As I have read the posts here and the analyses of other interpreters, I have come to believe that the Revelation is only or mostly to be interpreted in retrospect. My justification for this is what the Lord says through Isaiah in Isa 48:3-8: “I am going to tell you about future things so that you will know then that I knew them in advance and that they were part of my plan.”

  6. Joe Spencer said


    Thanks for the link. I have mined Zechariah before (I think it is helpful for interpretation here on a number of levels), and the connection between the white horse in chapter 6 and the white horse later in Revelation has also caught my attention before. But I had not made the leap—which I like, though I’m not yet giving myself to it entirely—to naming all four horses as messianic. That is something that deserves further attention.


    Your comment here clarifies your other comment greatly! If you are hoping for some kind of absolutely definitive, somehow objectively “correct” interpretation of Revelation, then I share your pessimism! But that same pessimism inhabits me when I read every scriptural text: I don’t see the scriptures as ever giving themselves to us in that manner. Indeed, it seems to me to be a great misunderstanding of the purpose of scripture to approach them as having some definitively “correct” interpretation towards which we must press. Rather, I see them as something we can inhabit and enact, something we live in and give breath to.

    In a word, I’m convinced that all scripture reading is in some sense speculation, indeed must be. But this (rather pedantic) point is not to disparage the work of reading the texts, but is rather to highlight that it is not this kind of speculation that is dangerous, but the kind of speculation that attempts to derive from the scriptures some kind of scientifically verifiable “truth.” Any such attempt is always, it seems to me, a kind of wresting of the scriptures, a giving of oneself to the philosophies of men only thereafter to mingle them with scripture.

    I don’t think I’ve stated my point as clearly as I would have liked… but I do hope it is clear enough. :)

  7. BiV said

    Rick, you are probably right about interpretation in retrospect.

    Joe, just a teeny clarification–I’m identifying all four horsemen as Messianic, and the horses as the prophets who carry or reveal the Messiah.

  8. Joe Spencer said

    BiV, you’re right of course. I apologize for my sloppiness. :)

  9. Robert C. said

    Rick’s question about Joe’s speculation raises what I think are the most important questions for studying Revelation and scripture much more generally (and even for thinking about the nature of our faith, beliefs, etc.). These are also the questions I was largely trying to get at in my posts on Ricoeur (see here).

    That is, it seems to me we are called to interpret scripture despite the fact that we are ill-prepared to interpret them. This struggle should drive us to our knees to pray for help, and it should spur us on to study all that we can, and it should drive us on to explore all sorts of various ways of interpreting them (i.e., speculation), though we should be as careful and as rigorous as possible in the process. Otherwise, it seems we are left taking on a pretty complacent attitude toward scripture, either interpreting them simplistically and without much effort or thought on our part (or “just enough” effort so as to understand scripture in a rather definite, closed-book sense that doesn’t require continual vigilance), or to give up on the process thereby failing the test of faith that the task of scriptural interpretation calls us to…..

  10. Rebecca L said

    Thanks so much, again!

    A niggling question: If the two Johns were acquainted before the baptism, couldn’t John the Beloved have been present and an eye-witness at the baptism in his own right? Alternatively, couldn’t he have witnessed Christ’s baptism in a vision — I assume the same way we would “recieve the fulness of the record of John?”

    The Enoch connection is very interesting.

    I am excited to skip on over to your next post. Thanks for all the time, energy, and thought you have put into this, Joe!

    BiV — boredom agrees with you! Thanks for the link!

  11. Hey, Joe, this was great reading. I really appreciate your efforts here. I especially liked your scriptural connections that gave me study direction. I have felt really overwhelmed with Revelation and your thoughts have helped focus mine in a good way.

    Incidentally, I find 6:13 to be interresting in that I see the “untimely figs” as being unripe (not ripening late, as footnote suggests). I had a huge fig tree–about 20 yrs. old, before the wind blew it down. When the wind did blow it would knock down figs that were not yet ripe & then they had no chance to ripen. Figs only ripen on a tree, not if they’re picked prior to ripening. I never, in all those years, had any figs stay on the tree into winter. So, if my experience proves helpful, the angles over in 7:1 are actually holding the wind back from knocking off the fruit before the fruit is fully ripe. Studying the “fruit” metaphore laced throughout scripture, adds greater understanding to the image stretched between these two chapters.

    I would like to read your thoughts on the concept of “sealing.” Sealing the scrolls (Rev. 5:1) and sealing of angles & mankind (Rev. 7:2-8+,9:4; John 6:27). And what do you make of the silence after the opening of the 7th seal? –nanette

  12. Joe Spencer said

    I’ll deal with the question of sealing in tomorrow’s (Monday’s) post (which won’t be until the afternoon because I’ll be teaching seminary all day). As for the silence, I think the common interpretation is a good one: during the temple rites, everyone outside the temple waited silently while the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, they all praying that he would survive. The whole situation is cast in the imagery of the Day of Atonement, so this seems to be a good reading.

  13. Robert C. said

    Regarding the silence, it seems to me this might be profitably compared to the idea of a probationary state that is esp. developed in the Book of Mormon. Consider, for example, Rev 11:13, just before the 7th trumpet, where it seems the remnant idea, where a tenth or 7,000 are saved (cf. Isa 6:13, Amos 5:3; 1 Kgs 19:18), is reversed and a tenth are destroyed leaving nine tenths saved (here I’m picking up an idea mentioned in The Oxford Bible Commentary on this verse…). This seems to relate in interesting ways to the promise given to Abraham that all the world would be blessed through his seed.

  14. Joe Spencer said

    Interesting interpretation, Robert. I’ll be thinking about this.

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