Sunday, 7 May 2017

Introduction to the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse)


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For this part of Eastertide, the Matins readings turn to the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), so I thought I would provide at least a few sets of notes on this important - and challenging - book of Scripture.

I'm primarily planning to draw on the commentary on it by St Bede the Venerable, but I will also dip into some of the other early Patristic commentaries on it.

Importance

The book of Revelation, or Apocalypse is one of the most important, but also one of the most difficult books of the Bible to tackle.  

Few books have spawned more heresies.  

But it is also one of the most beautiful books in the Bible. Who can go past this description for example:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." And he who sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new." (Rev 21:1-5)
Revelation is filled with wonderful hymns and brilliant imagery, and it is extremely important theologically.

Authorship and date

Several early Fathers attest to St John the Evangelist's authorship of Revelation, including Justin Martyr (who converted in Ephesus where John lived) in 135, Eusebius of Caesaria, Papias of Hierapolis, St Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian.  

Nonetheless its use by heretics led to some dispute both as to its authorship and canonicity in the Eastern Churches.  The text itself says it was written on Patmos, an island in the Aegean where St John was exiled under the Emperor Domitian.  The most generally accepted date for it is around 95 AD.

Readership

Although addressed to seven churches named in the text, it is generally thought that this is purely symbolic, and the number seven here stands for the whole or universal Church.  The work warns early Christians of the coming persecutions from both Jews and pagans, as well as internal threats.

Interpreting Revelation

Its style is consistent with many Old Testament apocalyptic passages and works (canonical and otherwise) such as the book of Daniel - it is full of symbolism, especially numerical.  But it also fits in with the prophetic literature, and the author places himself in this category.

There are a range of schools of interpretations of the book and the wikipedia suggests that most Christian interpretations fall into one or more of the following categories:
  • Historicism, which sees in Revelation a broad view of history;
  • Preterism, in which Revelation mostly refers to the events of the apostolic era (1st century) or, at the latest, the fall of the Roman Empire;
  • Amillennialism, which contends that the millennium has already begun and is identical with the current church age;
  • Futurism, which believes that Revelation describes future events (modern believers in this interpretation are often called "millennialists"); and
  • Idealism, which holds that Revelation does not refer to actual people or events, but is an allegory of the spiritual path and the ongoing struggle between good and evil.
Some also see it as primarily liturgical.

Structure of Revelation

St Bede divides his commentary into three books, the first covering chapters 1-8; the second looking at chapters 9-14; and the third looking at chapters 15-22.  In his introductory letter on it though, to a fellow monk, Eusebius, he suggests that there are actually seven sections:

  • Section 1: 'a copious preface to strengthen the faith of the weak, and a description of, the sufferings of the Lord and of the glories which followed, he sees one like unto the Son of Man clothed with the Church, Who, after He has related what has happened, or is about to happen, in the seven Churches of Asia in particular, recounts the general conflicts and victories of the whole Church....';
  • Section 2: '...the four living creatures in the throne of God, and the twenty-four elders, have been described, he sees the Lamb, on the opening of the seven seals of the closed book, unfold the future conflicts and triumphs of the Church'...;
  • Section 3: 'under the likeness of seven angels sounding with a trumpet, he describes the various events of the Church';
  • Section four: 'under the figure of a woman bringing forth, and a dragon persecuting her, he reveals the toils and victories of the same Church, and assigns to both combatants their due rewards';
  • Section 5: 'by seven angels he has overspread the earth with the seven last plagues';
  • Section 6: 'he has manifested the condemnation of the great whore, that is, of the ungodly city'; and
  • Section 7: 'he has shewn the ornament of the Lamb’s wife, the holy Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God'.
St Bede the Venerable

In my notes I will primarily be providing extracts from the Commentary of St Bede the Venerable using the translation of Edward Marshall of 1878, which has the virtue of being out of copyright (despite an assertion to the contrary on one website) and being available online.

St Bede's works of Biblical exegesis are not very well known to Catholics, but they deserve to be - their originality and value was well recognised throughout the middle ages and were immensely influential for good reason.  His particular attraction to me is that, as Cardinal Newman once noted, Bede is the quintessential Benedictine: the Rule clearly shaped his thinking very deeply.

Although I'm using the Marshall translation for purely practical reasons, there are in fact two excellent contemporary translations of St Bede's wonderful commentary, and  you may wish to consider acquiring one or the other of them.

For the most comprehensive supporting notes and context on the times and issues that Bede was responding to, the Liverpool University Press has put it out one of its excellent 'Translated Texts for Historians series, viz  Bede: Commentary on Revelation Translated with introduction and notes by Faith Wallis. Translated Texts for Historians 5, 2013.

The alternative edition, in the Ancient Christian Texts series (Latin Commentaries on Revelation, translated and edited by William C Weinrich, 2011) has a much less extensive apparatus and introduction (though it is useful and interesting), but has the advantage of containing a number of other early commentaries on the book, viz those of Victorinus, Aspringius of Beja and some sermons on it of Caesarius of Arles.

Neither translation, unfortunately, provides the Latin in parallel, but you can find the old Migne version here. 

Other Patristic commentaries 

Alternate commentaries on Revelation by the key Fathers are fairly scarce - St Augustine provided some in his City of God, but so far as others go, you can some guides in the links below:

Early Church Fathers on Revelation (links to online sources)
Guide to Patristic Commentaries on Revelations


Other commentaries available online (some of which I will be drawing on) can be found at:
Victorinus (died circa 303).
e-catena
Andrew of Caesarea (c6th)
Dionysius Syrus

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