Parables of War: Reading John's Jewish Apocalypse

Parables of War: Reading John's Jewish Apocalypse

Parables of War: Reading John's Jewish Apocalypse

Parables of War: Reading John's Jewish Apocalypse


What makes the Book of Revelation so hard to understand?

How does the Book of Revelation fit into Judaism and the beginning of


John W. Marshall proposes a radical reinterpretation of the Book of Revelation of John, viewing it as a document of the Jewish diaspora during the Judean War. He contends that categorizing the Book as "Christian" has been an impediment in interpreting the Apocalypse. By suspending that category, solutions to several persistent problems in contemporary exegesis of the Apocalypse are facilitated. The author thus undertakes a rereading of the Book of Revelation that does not merely enumerate elements of a Jewish "background" but understands the Book of Revelation as an integral whole and a thoroughly Jewish text.

Marshall carefully scrutinizes the problems that plague contemporary interpretations of the Book of Revelation, and how the category of "Christian" relates to such problems. He employs the works of Mieke Bal, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Fran?ois Lyotard, and Jonathan Z. Smith as theoretical resources. In the second half of his study, he provides detailed descriptions of the social and cultural context of the diaspora during the Judean War, and constructive rereadings of four key text complexes.

The result is a portrait of the Apocalypse of John that envisions the document as deeply invested in the Judaism of its time, pursuing rhetorical objectives that are not defined by the issues that scholars use to differentiate Judaism from Christianity.


The “long year” looked like the last year, the last of all years, even to the Roman historian Tacitus. Consider the way the world looked then to a Jew in the Diaspora. From the island of Patmos in 69 CE, a Jew named John looked to the east and saw the holy city of Jerusalem besieged by the armies of Rome but standing valiantly, awaiting its deliverance. Beyond Jerusalem, the ghost of Nero—or a Nero who never really died—threatened to lead the armies of Parthia against his former dominions. Looking to the west, John saw the convulsions of the great beast that was Rome: war raged on Italian soil, each emperor slew his predecessor, each so-called ruler of the world was unable to rule even his own city. It appeared that the Empire was drunk on its own corruption, lurching toward its dissolution. As he looked around the province of Asia, John saw the army of the latest pretender leaving the siege of the holy city of Jerusalem and marching on to assault the great city of Rome. Myriads of soldiers under the command of Gaius Licinius Mucianus traversed the province of Asia on their way to install the fourth emperor of the year. Closer still to home, John saw his own Jewish community living dangerously among the nations, derided and scapegoated by their neighbours over the war in Judea, tempted to abandon the commandments of God for the ways of the nations.

1 These two descriptions, “long” and “last,” proceed from Tacitus: “that one long year of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius” (atque illum Galbae et Othonis et Vitelli longum et unum annum; Dialogus 17) and “the year that was going to be his [Galba’s] last and for the state almost the end” (annum sibi ultimum, rei publicae prope supremum; Histories 1.11).

2 “About this time [summer 69 CE] Achaia and Asia were terrified by a false rumour of Nero’s arrival. The reports with regard to his death had been varied and therefore many people imagined and believed he was alive” (Sub idem tempus Achaia atque Asia falso exterritae velut Nero adventaret, vario super exitu eius rumore eoque pluribus vivere eum fingentibus credentibusque; Tacitus, Histories 2.8).

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