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Book of Revelation

The Revelation of St. John the Divine, popularly known as the Book of Revelation or The Apocalypse (apocalypse is from the Greek for "revelation"), is the final book and the only prophetical book of the New Testament in the Bible.

It contains an account of the author, named John in the text, who saw a vision describing future events at the end of the world--involving the final rebellion by Satan at Armageddon, God's final defeat of Satan, and the restoration of peace to the world.

It is definitely one of the most controversial, and hardest to understand, books of the Bible, with many ranging interpretations of the meanings of the various names and events in the account. The identity of the author John is not completely clear. A traditional view is that the author of this book was John the Apostle, but other scholars doubt that. The traditional Christian view is that this John was the same as the author of the Gospel of John and 1, 2, and 3 John. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom and other bishops argued against including this book in the New Testament canon, chiefly because of the difficulties of interpreting it and the danger for abuse. Christians in Syria also rejected it for a time because of the Montanists' heavy reliance on it. In the end, it was included, although it remains the only book of the New Testament that is not read publicly in Eastern Orthodox Church.

Traditionally the date of the writing of this book has generally been fixed at A.D. 96, in the reign of Domitian. Others contend for an earlier date, A.D. 68 or 69, in the reign of Nero. Those who are in favour of the later date appeal to the testimony of the Christian father Irenaeus, who received information relative to this book from those who had seen John face to face. He says that the Apocalypse "was seen no long time ago." Other evidence for the later date is internal: the book alludes to significant persecution, affecting the Christians of Asia Minor. This is a better historical fit for Domitian's reign than Nero's; Nero's persecution was mostly confined to the territories around Rome, while Domitian's persecution was indeed vigorously carried out in Asia Minor.

Table of contents

Major Schools of Interpretation There are three main schools of thought in how the symbolism, imagery, and contents of the Book of Revelation should be interpreted.

  • The Biblical prophecy school of thought holds that the contents of Revelation, especially when interpreted in conjunction with the Book of Daniel and other eschatological sections of the Bible, constitute a prophecy of the end times. This school can be further subdivided into the preterite view, which sees the book concerned with 1st century events, the futurist view, which applies all the events in the book into the end times; and the historicist view, which regards the book as spanning history from the first century through the second coming.

  • Recently, aesthetic and literary modes of interpretation focus on Revelation as a work of art and imagination, viewing the imagery as symbolic depictions of timeless truths and the victory of good over evil.

These schools of thought are not mutually exclusive, and many Christians adopt a combination of these approaches in a manner they find most meaningful. However, certain tendencies may be observed. The biblical prophecy school of thought is popular today among many American Protestant fundamentalists (nearly exclusively so) and among evangelicals, who also find value in the other approaches. Members of more mainline and liberal churches, on the other hand, tend to prefer the historical-critical and aesthetic approaches. Moreover, Catholic and Orthodox churches have delimited their own specific positions on Revelation.

Interpretative Views of Revelation as Biblical Prophecy

The Preterite View

The preterite view holds that the contents of Revelation constitute a prophecy of events that were fulfilled in the 1st century. This view depends critically on an early date of Revelation, c. 68, since any later date makes the "prophecy" post-date the events prophesied. Even accepting that date leaves a narrow margin of 1-2 years before the fulfilment occurs.

Preterite interpretations generally identify Jerusalem as "the beast", the persecutor of the Church, "Babylon", the "Mother of Harlots", etc. They see Armageddon as God's judgment on the Jews, carried out by the Roman army.

There appear to be few adherents of this view today.

The Futurist View

The futurist view assigns all of the prophecy to some future time, shortly before the second coming. Futurist interpretations generally predict a 3 1/2 year period of intense persecution, after (or before) which the "Antichrist" (Satan) proclaims himself the Messiah and sets up a kingdom in Jerusalem, from which he conducts a campaign to take over the world and stamp out Christianity. Some variants of this interpretation portray Israeli Jews as collaborators with the Antichrist; Pat Robertson was sharply criticized for actually stating that "The Antichrist is probably a Jew alive in Israel today."

The futurist view, as such, was first proposed by two Catholic writers, Lacunza[?] and Ribera[?]. Lacunza wrote under the pen name "Ben Ezra", and his work was banned by the Catholic church. It has grown in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, so that today it is probably most readily recognized. Books about the "rapture" by authors like Hal Lindsey, and the more recent Left Behind novels and movies, have done much to popularize this school of thought.

The Historicist View

The historicist view regards the prophecy as spanning the time from the end of the first century through the second coming of Christ.

Politically, historicist interpretations apply the symbols of Revelation to the gradual division and collapse of the Roman Empire, the emergence of a divided Europe in the West and a Muslim empire in the East, and the collapse of the Eastern Empire while Europe attempts to re-unite and re-create the Roman Empire.

Ecclesiastically, historicist interpretations see Revelation as teaching that the Church would expand, despite persecution, until it "conquered" the whole world--but, in the process, would gradually evolve into an apostate system within which true Christians would be a persecuted minority. The apostate Church is associated with the symbols of the "Mother of Harlots" and with "Babylon". It is seen as an "Antichrist system" which exists for much of history, rather than expecting a single "Antichrist" in the last days, as futurist interpretations do.

According to historicist interpretations, the second coming of Christ occurs about the time that a partly-reunited Europe starts to wage war against Israel. This view is held mainly by conservative Protestant Christians. The exact constitution of this confederacy differs between interpretations: in some it is mainly composed of Eastern European countries, notably Russia; in others, Western European; some include England, while others suggest that England and former Commonwealth nations will oppose the confederacy. In all historicist interpretations, Christ defeats this confederacy, rescues Israel from certain destruction, judges apostate Christianity and vindicates the true believers, and sets up a kingdom on earth.

The earliest Christian writers adopted a historicist viewpoint, though at such an early date the distinction between historicist and futurist views was less pronounced. Historicist interpretations tend to be millenarian[?], emphasizing the literal reign of Christ on earth, and as that doctrine receded in importance, so too did the historicist focus in interpretation. Today, historicist interpretations are favored in the most ardently millenarian sects.

Some Protestant writers today use this school of interpretation as the foundation for an anti-Catholic polemic, but it should be noted that such is not an inherent property of historical interpretations. Many Catholic writers in the fourth and fifth centuries applied the notion of future apostasy to their own church, in various ways. Some argued that an apostasy would arise within the church. Others argued that this had already happened, and cited one or another sect which arose over some theological dispute. What differs between interpretations is the identity of the apostasy.

Historical-Critical Interpretation In the historical-critcial approach, the symbolism of Revelation is to be understood largely within the literary and social context from which it originated. Thus, critics study the conventions of apocalyptic literature[?] and events of the 1st century to make sense of what the authory may have intended. Neverthess, many interpretative questions remain. Is the structure of the book linear, resumptive, or thematic? How does the imagery relate to historical events? Are there one or multiple meanings in the text?

Among many critics, the beast from the sea that had received plenitude of power from the dragon, or Satan, is actually the Roman Empire, or rather, the Emperor, its supreme representative.

The token of the beast with which its servants are marked is the image of the emperor on the coins of the realm. This seems to be the obvious meaning of the passage, that all business transactions, all buying and selling were impossible to them that had not the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:17). Against this interpretation it is objected that the Jews at the time of Jesus had no scruple in handling money on which the image of Caesar was stamped (Matt. 22:15-22). But it should be borne in mind that the horror of the Jews for the imperial images was principally due to the policy of Caligula. He confiscated several of their synagogues, changing them into heathen temples by placing his statue in them. He even sought to erect an image of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.8.2).

The seven heads of the beast are seven Roman emperors. Five of them are said to be fallen. They are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The year of Nero's death is 68. The text goes on to say "One is", namely Vespasian, 70-79. He is the sixth emperor. The seventh "is not yet come. But when he comes his reign will be short". Titus is meant, who reigned but two years (79-81). The eighth emperor is Domitian (81-96); He is identified with the beast. He is described as the one that "was and is not and shall come up out of the bottomless pit" (xvii, 8). In verse 11 it is added: "And the beast which was and is not: the same also is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into destruction".

All this sounds like oracular language. But the clue to its solution is furnished by a popular belief largely spread at the time. The death of Nero had been witnessed by few. Chiefly in the East a notion had taken hold of the mind of the people that Nero was still alive. Gentiles, Jews, and Christians were under the illusion that he was hiding himself, and as was commonly thought, he had gone over to the Parthians, the most troublesome foes of the empire. From there they expected him to return at the head of a mighty army to avenge himself on his enemies. The existence of a belief in a Nero redivivus is attested by Tacitus and Dio Chrysostom.

Many contemporaries of the author of this book believed Nero to be alive and expected his return. The author either shared their belief or utilized it for his own purpose. Nero had made a name for himself by his cruelty and licentiousness. The Christians in particular had reason to dread him. Under him the first persecution took place. The second occurred under Domitian. But unlike the previous one, it was not confined to Italy, but spread throughout the provinces. Many Christians were put to death, many were banished (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., III, 17-19). In this way the Book of Revelation seems to regard Domitian as a second Nero, "Nero redivivus". Hence it describes him as "the one that was, that is not, and that is to return". Hence also he counts him as the eighth and at the same time makes him one of the preceding seven, viz. the fifth, Nero.

Note that pagan authors called Domitian a second Nero (calvus Nero, Juvenal. IV, 38). The popular belief concerning Nero's death and return seems to be referred to also in the passage (xiii, 3): "And I saw one of its heads as it were slain to death: and its death's wound was healed".

The ten horns are commonly explained as the vassal rulers under the supremacy of Rome. They are described as kings (basileis), here to be taken in a wider sense, that they are not real kings, but received power to rule with the beast. Their power, moreover, is but for one hour, signifying its short duration and instability (xvii, 17).

The beast may be identified by number 666. This is very likely an instance of gematria, an early form of Jewish mysticism. Its object is to conceal a name by substituting for it a cipher of equal numerical value to the letters composing it. When the name "Nero Caesar" is spelled with Hebrew letters as נרון קסר (each letter having a corresponding numerical value) it yields the numerical result of 666.

The second beast, that from the land, the pseudoprophet whose office was to assist the beast from the sea, probably signifies the work of seduction carried on by apostate Christians. They endeavoured to make their fellow Christians adopt the heathen practices and submit themselves to the cultus of the Caesar. They are not unlikely the Nicolaitans of the seven Epistles. For they are there compared to Balaam and Jezabel seducing the Israelites to idolatry and fornication. The woman in travail is a personification of the synagogue or the church. Her first-born is Jesus, her other seed is the community of the faithful.

See also: Christian eschatology, millennialism, Four horsemen of the Apocalypse, Books of the Bible

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