The story of the book of Revelation


I have referred several times to the weird book of Revelation in the Bible, particularly how it has become the go-to source for the Rapture-lovers. I just learned that my colleague Tim Beal in the Department of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University has published a new book titled The Book of Revelation: A Biography that dishes the dirt on this last book in the Bible that has produced such a lot of head scratching and been the source of so many weird fantasies.

The publisher’s description of the book lays out what it is about.

Few biblical books have been as revered and reviled as Revelation. Many hail it as the pinnacle of prophetic vision, the cornerstone of the biblical canon, and, for those with eyes to see, the key to understanding the past, present, and future. Others denounce it as the work of a disturbed individual whose horrific dreams of inhumane violence should never have been allowed into the Bible. Timothy Beal provides a concise cultural history of Revelation and the apocalyptic imaginations it has fueled.

Taking readers from the book’s composition amid the Christian persecutions of first-century Rome to its enduring influence today in popular culture, media, and visual art, Beal explores the often wildly contradictory lives of this sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring biblical vision. He shows how such figures as Augustine and Hildegard of Bingen made Revelation central to their own mystical worldviews, and how, thanks to the vivid works of art it inspired, the book remained popular even as it was denounced by later church leaders such as Martin Luther.

In an interview, Beal elaborates on the problems posed by this book for mainstream Christians, and the many misunderstandings about it.

I am still a religious person—I’m married to a Presbyterian minister—but certainly in a progressive community where nobody goes near Revelation with a 10-foot pole. Most people in my religious circles wonder why this even got into the Bible in the first place.

There seems to be a vague sense that Revelation is about some kind of end, some kind of massive final judgment with everyone getting sent either to heaven or to hell. That is kind of incorrect. Sure, the world gets destroyed many times over. There’s tons of destruction and blood and monsters and hyperbolic language.

The Rapture is not even in Revelation, but it’s now part of the phenomenon we call Revelation . The text has just sort of been broken up and become part of a constellation of ideas that attach to others, like the Rapture.

There have been many Christian leaders who believed Revelation didn’t belong as scripture, that it was a fake, or too obscure, or too crazy.

Perhaps Revelation made it into the canon of scripture is because of confusion—thinking Revelation’s author named John was the same person as John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, who tradition credits with authorship of the gospel known by the same name.

[W]hen Revelation was written, and for centuries after that, there was no such thing as the Bible yet. It’s not like the author of Revelation thought he was writing the end of what we know as the Bible. And Revelation was not put at the end of the Bible because it was about the end of the world, like a book-end to match the story of creation in Genesis 1.

Probably Revelation ended up there because it didn’t fit with the other kinds of literature—gospels and letters—in the New Testament.

Revelation is not going away anytime soon. It has many hosts in our world today, to use a parasitic metaphor. It seems to be our apocalyptic go-to, a powerful means of escalating things to the level of a cosmic battle between good and evil, holy “us” against demonic “them.” Which I’d say is just about the last thing we need today.

Maybe the real question is not how is Revelation relevant but how to make it irrelevant, or differently relevant.

Beal is an excellent scholar and I look forward to reading the book. When I was a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, we studied the Bible as part of our preparation but we steered clear of this book. It was like the weird uncle in the family who ranted and raved incomprehensibly, someone you had to live with but hoped everyone would ignore his strange behavior.

Comments

  1. mnb0 says

    “but we steered clear of this book”
    And it’s so difficult etc. etc.
    Which is exactly why it’s the only Bible Book I read in one go. It was certainly helpful that I thought it quite funny. Really, just accept that for us it’s not any more relevant than say the biography of Herakles and that it’s 100% manmade (so no divine inspiration) and it’s a quite easy read.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Perhaps Revelation made it into the canon of scripture is because of confusion—thinking Revelation’s author named John was the same person as John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, who tradition credits with authorship of the gospel known by the same name.

    This is something New Testament scholars will tell you is extremely unlikely. The language skills displayed in Revelation and the gospel attributed to John are wildly different.

  3. CJO says

    Just as the Epistle to the Hebrews (another odd duck, but for different reasons) was probably included in the canon because it was mis-attributed to Paul despite being nothing like the authentic Epistles of Paul.

    The reason Revelation is so phantasmagorical to the modern reader is that it is an example of an ancient genre other examples of which have mostly not survived except in secondary, summary form. It’s an astral prophecy, written in a particular coded idiom identifying various heavenly bodies and celestial events. Astrology of this kind was extremely popular in the Roman world of the early principate, and also extremely dicey in political terms. Astrologers could easily run afoul of the authorities and were frequently banished from Rome, collectively and individually, which is likely how the John of the name found himself on Patmos penning this furious screed. He was banished and rather than performing his divinations on behalf of a wealthy patron, he was freelancing and making sweeping proclamations based on his astrological prognostications and his evident membership in the early Roman Christian community about the fate of the empire that had persecuted his community, destroyed Jerusalem, and made him outcast. He had some grievances.

  4. says

    Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

    — Revelation 21:1

    I remember reading that as a kid and thinking how much the end of the world was gonna suck if you couldn’t go to the beach anymore… 🤣

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    CD @6: Ashcroft, of “Let the Eagle Soar” fame! Not bad, but for that dinner date, I’d choose Dick Cheney. With McConnell, various Trumps, Bolsonaro, Putin, Assad, MBS, Duterte and Netanyahu booked for future dates. Oh dear, so many others…

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @8:

    I wouldn’t mind having dinner with myself.

    OK, but you wouldn’t want to have dinner with yourself dead, surely?

  7. John Morales says

    Rob, my lack of reluctance excludes that option; I am not dead, so a dead me would not be myself, with whom I’d be dining.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    CJO @ # 4: … an example of an ancient genre other examples of which have mostly not survived except in secondary, summary form. It’s an astral prophecy, written in a particular coded idiom identifying various heavenly bodies and celestial events. Astrology of this kind was extremely popular in the Roman world of the early principate…

    Hmmm… Got a title or link on this?

  9. says

    John Morales @ 8:

    I wouldn’t mind having dinner with myself

    I was sayin let me out of here before I was
    Even born–it’s such a gamble when you get a face
    It’s fascinatin to observe what the mirror does
    But when I dine it’s for the wall that I set a place

    I belong to the blank generation and
    I can take it or leave it each time
    I belong to the ______ generation but
    I can take it or leave it each time

    –Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Blank Generation

  10. CJO says

    Pierce R. Butler:
    On the Genre and Message of Revalation by Bruce Malina. Granted, it’s not necessarily a consensus interpretation but I found it convincing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *