The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire

The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire

The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire

The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire

Synopsis

About seventy years after the death of Jesus, John of Patmos sent visionary messages to Christians in seven cities of western Asia Minor. These messages would eventually become part of the New Testament canon, as The Book of Revelation. What was John's message? What was its literary form? Did he write to a persecuted minority or to Christians enjoying the social and material benefits of the Roman Empire? In search of answers to these penetrating questions, Thompson critically examines the language, literature, history, and social setting of the Book of the Apocalypse. Following a discussion of the importance of the genre apocalypse, he closely analyzes the form and structure of the Revelation, its narrative and metaphoric unity, the world created through John's visions, and the social conditions of the empire in which John wrote. He offers an unprecedented interpretation of the role of boundaries in Revelation, a reassessment of the reign of the Emperor Domitian, and a view of tribulation that integrates the literary vision of Revelation with the reality of the lives of ordinary people in a Roman province. Throughout his study, Thompson argues that the language of Revelation joins the ordinary to the extra-ordinary, earth to heaven, and local conditions to supra-human processes.

Excerpt

In Robert Coover's The Origin of the Brunists (1971) Justin Miller, editor of the local newspaper, reflects on the fact that he "had read Revelations at the age of thirteen and never quite got over it." That happens to a lot of people who read the Book of Revelation—even so-called scholars—and it is from a scholarly point of view (specifically that of a literary and social historian of early Christianity) that the following chapters have been written.

A book like Revelation can grip people in different ways, and it is not easy to explain just how the scholarly "grip" differs from, for example, Coover's Brunists who use the Book of Revelation to illumine an unfinished note of a preacher-miner killed in a mining explosion. Nor is the scholar likely to be gripped by the book as a window into the future of Middle Eastern affairs, with the number of the beast, 666, enigmatically identifying the Soviet Union or Iran. I could say that the scholar is systematic in his or her approach to the Book of Revelation. But the Brunists and other millenarians, as they decode the book, are probably just as systematic as a social or intellectual historian of early Christianity, though in a different way.

Scholars, like millenarians, must also enter into the symbols, syntax, and literary structures of the book. Dell Hymes, writing about the need for linguists to be participants in the language community that they are studying, says, "No amount of acoustic apparatus and sound spectography can crack the phonemic code of a language, and a phonemic analysis ... is the necessary basis for other studies" (Giglioli 1982, 24). So research and analysis of the Book of Revelation, as of all language, require participation in the structures of meaning and the shared codes of apocalyptic language. Nor do scholars necessarily participate in a "more objective manner" than millenarians. The persona of disinterested, cool, objective observation sometimes slips, and then passions and commitments become visible to everyone. We all have our axes to grind. Nor need the scholarly inquiry be any less meaningful existentially for the life of the scholar than religious inquiry for the . . .

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