Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation (Review)

When I went to seminary, one of the most popular courses at that time was exegesis of Revelation, taught by Dr. Sean McDonough (who studied Revelation at St Andrews under Richard Bauckham). When I finished seminary, I was sometimes asked, what is your view on the end times and the millennium debate? My reply: I don’t know, we didn’t talk much about that? You might wonder, how could you study Revelation and not get into the nitty-gritty of the end times? Simple: we were interested in the theology of the text, not irrelevant timeline debates.

In the last few decades, Revelation has come back in vogue for a number of reasons. First, we have taken the time to look at Jewish apocalyptic literature (and there is a good amount of it), and it has helped us gain perspective on what Revelation is and what it isn’t. Secondly, we can understand Revelation, in its context, as a form of resistance literature – a way of expressing a counter-cultural and counter-imperial identity for Christians under threat. The “relevance” of this text has been redefined, and it has to do, not so much with what happens next, but how we respond faithfully to God now in view of how his character shines forth through what he has done (in the cross) and what he plans to do (with new creation).

So, with this context in mind, I was very eager to read the 2012 Baylor University Press volume entitled, Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation, edited by Stefan Alkier and Richard Hays. The essays of the book come from a “collaborative interdisciplinary conference of leading scholars to deliberate about the interpretation of the book of Revelation,” and particularly related to “intertextual interpretation” (see p. 5). The conference was held at Duke Divinity School in 2010. Here is the TOC

“What Has the Spirit Been Saying? Theological and Hermeneutical Reflections on the Reception/Impact History of the Book of Revelation” (Michael J. Gorman)

“Models for Intertextual Interpretation of Revelation” (Steve Moyise)

“The Reception of Daniel 7 in the Revelation of John” (Thomas Hieke)

“Faithful Witness, Alpha and Omega: The Identity of Jesus in the Apocalypse of John” (Richard B Hays)

“God, Israel, and Ecclesia in the Apocalypse” (Joseph Mangina)

“Revelation and Christian Hope: Political Implications of the Revelation of John” (N.T. Wright)

“Witness or Warrior? How the Book of Revelation Can Help Christians Live Their Political Lives” (Stefan Alkier)

“The Apocalypse in the Framework of the Canon” (Tobias Nicklas)

“Reading What is Written in the Book of Life: Theological Interpretation of the Book of Revelation Today” (Marianne Meye Thompson)

I was especially appreciative of the essays by Gorman, Hays, Mangina, Alkier, and Thompson. While each contributor pitches in on their own subject in relation to Revelation, much unites their perspectives. The common assumptions about Revelation are spelled out in the introduction.

(1) Revelation’s visions are to be read as poetic symbolism rather than literal description or prediction; literalistic interpretation can lead to disastrous misinterpretation.

(2) The book’s symbolism must be understood through understanding its intertextual relation to Israel’s Scriptures.

(3) The book’s message is centered christologically on the symbolic depiction of Jesus as crucified and triumphant Lord.

(4) The book summons its readers to follow the pattern of Jesus through countercultural, suffering witness to the one God, rather than through acts of violence.

(5) In the theological world of the Apocalypse, there can be no separation of the spiritual and political spheres.

(6) The book points to the future hope of God’s triumphant justice and God’s healing of the created world-not its destruction.

If you go into the study of Revelation with these six in place, you will be deeply transformed by this powerful, even volatile book of Scripture!

Here is a choice quote from Hays:

…those who proclaim the message of the Apocalypse to challenge the injustice of the prevailing political powers are ‘confronting a false political order with the foundation of a true one’ [quoting O’Donovan]. Those who ‘follow the Lamb wherever he goes’ (14:4) will find that the Christology of this mysterious visionary Apocalypse leads us ultimately to justice and life. The slaughtered Lamb, the Faithful Witness, is also the One who stands, as Alpha and Omega, at the beginning and end of history. For that reason–and only for that reason–we can join John the Seer in patient endurance while we live, act, and bear witness in light of his apocalyptic vision of the healing of the nations (p. 83).

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FS for Matera, Unity and Diversity in the Gospels and Paul (Review)

A good while back, in 2012, I received a copy of the book Unity and Diversity in the Gospels and Paul: Essays in Honor of Frank J. Matera (SBL), edited by Christopher W. Skinner and Kelly R. Iverson (front matter and introduction is offered free here). I have a special place in my heart for Matera, since he is one of a small group of scholars who has dedicated time to studying New Testament ethics. This volume, though, attempts to range the whole span of his research interests. He has made excellent contributions in the areas of NT theology and, more recently, Pauline theology. For this FS, the list of contributors is a striking tribute in and of itself:

Francis Moloney

Jack Dean Kingsbury

John R Donahue

Paul Achtemeier

William S Kurz

John Meier

Michael Gorman

Andrew Das

Luke Timothy Johnson

Raymond Collins

This is just a sampling. There are several other contributors. I will not go through all the essays, but I will make mention of three that I found particularly noteworthy.

Donahue: “The Lure of Wealth: Does Mark Have a Social Gospel?” – Typically, Luke’s Gospel is the one associated with a concern for the poor and marginalized. However, Donahue argues in this essay that, while Mark does not have an explicit and full-blown anti-wealth emphasis, “the text offers seeds that can grow into reflection on the seduction and dangers of the quest for wealth that are so much a part of our modern society” (p. 92).

Achtemeier: “Jesus and the Human Condition in Mark’s Gospel: Divine Grace and the Shattering of Human Illusions.” Achtemeier passed away this year. Thus, it was especially meaningful to have this essay as one of his last, one that is quite energetic. This essay is more like a sermon than a scholarly work (that is a compliment). Achtemeier urges, “In the face of the incarnate Son of God, Mark makes clear, human pretensions are unmasked, sin is shown for the destructive force it is, and the impossibility of any recourse but grace is evident” (95). In his final days, Achtemeier preached the Gospel. He underscores Mark’s own argument that human striving ends in failure without God’s powerful grace.

What these failures, these shatterings of human illusions, have to tell us is that Mark’s Gospel is the story of the power of, and conquest by, God’s grace and not the story of human goodness and faithfulness. It is in the face of total human failure that Christ followed God’s mysterious way to become savior (p. 105).

Gorman: “Cruciformity According to Jesus and Paul.” The study of Paul’s ethics has blossomed in the last few decades (with special help from Mike Gorman), but the study of Jesus’ ethics has not made much headway. Gorman takes the study of NT ethics a healthy step forward by attempting to show “the congruity between the teachings of Jesus on cross-shaped discipleship and those of Paul” (178). Among many other arguments, Gorman shows connections between Mark 8 and Philippians, even hypothesizing some kind of dependence (see 184-186). After a very profitable set of historical and theological discussions, Gorman concludes: “Jesus and Paul agree that passion-shaped discipleship, or participatory cruciformity, consists of cross-shaped (1) witness to the gospel, (2) hospitality to the weak, and (3) power as loving service” (p. 200).  He closes out his essay with this provocatively attractive statement: “I would suggest that the entire Pauline corpus may be viewed as an interpretation of Jesus’ passion predictions-summonses in a new idiom, the idiom of Spirit-enabled participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection, an idiom with its roots in one of those passion predictions-summonses” (pp. 200-201).

This book should be in every theological library.

Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel, by Chalmers (Review)

The more I delve into Old Testament scholarship (an occupational hazard since I teach OT as well as NT here at Northeastern), the more I realize – Christians simply don’t know what is in the Old Testament. We don’t bother to study it, let alone look at it closely. I was sufficiently convicted of this (in a good way!) by the recent IVP book by Aaron Chalmers, Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel: Prophet, Priest, Sage & People (2012).

This is a short textbook that looks at several major leadership roles in the OT along with the worship and habits of everyday Israelites. For each role, he asks the questions: Who could become an X? What kind of training did they undergo (if any)? What did they do? Time and time again, I found myself surprised at the many assumptions I used to make that were “busted” in this book. Take the example of priests – Chalmers points out that we tend to think they dealt primarily with sacrifice and matters of purity. True, but they also had much involvement in “teaching the law” and “divination” (see 25). Chalmers also explains that, though “the Temple” was the hub of religious activity, “priests would have been spread throughout Israel and Judah ministering in various sanctuaries that dotted the nation” (32).

What about prophets? I am used to thinking of the desert wanderers who were isolated and itinerant. Chalmers gives this clarification: “there is much evidence to suggest that the majority of Israel’s prophets would have been located either in one of Israel’s sanctuaries or at the royal court. In other words, they were to be found at the heart of Israel’s society rather than on its periphery” (43). Here’s another myth-buster: “it appears that Israel’s writing prophets generally came from the higher end of the socio-economic spectrum” (48). Of course he gives Scriptural evidence for these clarifications.

Not much for me to gripe about regarding this book. I found it exceptionally insightful and very accessible  – it even has pictures! If I had one complaint, it is the failure to give more attention and interest to the high priest.

Nevertheless, this book is an easy and enjoyable read. I recommend it.