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The Book of Revelation is for the Church

November 9th, 2021 | 9 min read

By Peter Leithart

Timothy Beal. The Book of Revelation: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. $26.95, 288 pp.

First things first: Let me state my disagreement with two premises of Timothy Beal’s “biography” of the Book of Revelation. First, Beal claims that Revelation is not a “book.” Of course, he admits there’s a text, produced in the first century by (to him) an unknown writer who calls himself “John,” but the text is actually a fluid text tradition, not a fixed set of words in a set order. More importantly, because Revelation has inspired a host of offshoots in a variety of media — commentaries, woodcuts and illuminations, folk sculpture and film – Revelation itself is a “multimedia constellation of images, stories, and story-shaped images” (6). Beal hasn’t written “a singular life of a bound book of pages” but “a story of the many lives of an ever-expanding constellation of ideas and images that are more or less related to a first-century text tradition” (xiv).

Second, Beal doesn’t think the text of Revelation, such as it is, hangs together very well. It has “a kind of anarchic textuality” (8); it’s a monstrous Frankenstein of a quasi-book, bolted together from other discarded limbs of earlier texts (9, 208); it’s characterized by “generative incomprehensibility” (31). Purporting to unveil, John’s loose narrative in fact obscures and masks.

I concede that many readers find Revelation incomprehensible, but it’s worth asking why. Some of the obscurity comes from readers’ ignorance of the Old Testament, which is quoted, alluded to, and echoed in virtually every sentence of the Apocalypse. Some of the obscurity arises from ignoring the temporal markers that begin and end the book, where John insists he sees visions of things “shortly to take place” (1:1-3; 22:6, 20). Some of the obscurity comes from a long-standing misdating of the Apocalypse, which has the unfortunate effect of disconnecting

Revelation from the passions and battles that occupy the rest of the New Testament. Beal thinks it “conceivable” that Revelation emerges from the crucible of the Jewish War with Rome (66-70 AD), and rightly rejects the common dating of the book to the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD; pp. 37-40). The earlier date is certainly preferable, but that leads to a final source of obscurity: the belief that Revelation is exclusively concerned with the combat between the church and Rome, rather than the combat between the church and the combined forces of Rome and Jerusalem. To highlight one key image: Jerusalem is the bloodthirsty city of Revelation. The harlot Babylon is dressed like an Israelite priestess (Rev 17); Jerusalem, not Rome, is the biblical city filled with martyr blood (Rev 18:24; cf. Matt 23:29-39); and the heavenly bride who replaces the harlot is new Jerusalem, not new Rome (Rev 21:1-22:5).

When we place Revelation in its mid first-century context and insist on reading it in light of the Old and New Testament, the “anarchy” and “incomprehensibility” is dramatically reduced. There are complications everywhere, but it’s a single, coherent narrative – it is, well, a book, whose main subject is persecution and martyrdom. Revelation addresses churches threatened by “synagogues of Satan” (Rev 2:9; 3:9), that is, by hostile Jews who slander, accuse, and attack followers of Jesus (just as in Acts). John is caught up to heaven to see visions that assure these churches of their ultimate triumph. Everything unfolds as it is written in the heavenly scroll, whose seals the Lamb opens in the midst of a heavenly liturgy. The scroll reveals the martyrs calling for justice, but they are told to wait. Before God vindicates the martyrs, more martyrs will be made, 144,000 of them (Rev 6:9-11; 7:1-8).

Once the sealed book is fully open, seven angels trumpet a fanfare to announce the reading (Rev 8:1-11:18). John eats the scroll (Rev 10:1-11) and prophesies its contents. The dragon has been attacking the Christ since His birth (Rev 12:1-6), but the new thing, the thing that will take place shortly after John’s visions, is a new alliance of the Satanic sea beast and the Satanic land beast, representing Rome and apostate Jews; the same alliance that crucified Jesus. Together, the beasts slaughter the 144,000, but this slaughter is really a harvest that gathers the martyrs to heaven (Rev 14:1-15:4). When their blood is poured out, it shakes the cosmos (Rev 16:1-21) and brings the fall of the harlot city who drinks martyr blood like wine (Rev 17:1-18:24). Jesus’ victory over the beasts and the harlot initiates the millennium, the epoch of the reign of martyrs (Rev 20:1-6). The harlot city falls, replaced by a bridal city who descends from heaven, sharing the glory of God (Rev 21:1-22:5). Revelation is an extended riff on Genesis 2: through the trauma of persecution and martyrdom, the Last Adam receives His Eve, who will share His throne and reign forever. Beal, to the contrary, Revelation unveils, and its message is the message of the Risen Christ: Be not afraid, little flock, I have given you the kingdom.

As for my first disagreement: Beal himself isn’t consistent. If Revelation is its history of interpretation, then any extension or deployment becomes part of its anarchic, multimedia essence. Yet several times Beal implies that this or that interpretation or cultural use of Revelation is erroneous. In contrast to many readings, Revelation is a “this-worldly text, envisioning the ultimate renewal or recreation of this world, not escape to another” (206). But if Revelation is its cultural history, then the narratives of escape are as much part of Revelation as any other. Beal discovers a hidden continuity between “dominion” and “apocalypse” scripts, but observes that they “work best when they keep their distance from the scriptures they claim as their origins.” Detached from the biblical roots, the dominion script becomes an inspiration “for the rise of modern capitalism” (207). Again, if Revelation is its interpretative tradition, then modern capitalism can’t be a deviation. For all his trendy theory, Beal sounds for all the world like a fogey who believes in texts that do more than float “somewhere near the dense middle of [a] multimedia constellation.” (6)

Despite these disagreements, I think Beal has written an informative, intriguing book. As he makes clear, images, themes, and motifs from Revelation have wriggled free from their original setting and taken on a life of their own. Beal’s biography is organized chronologically and stretches from the fourth to the twentieth century, with each chapter examining an important, or eccentric use of the Apocalypse: Augustine’s “non-apocalyptic” reading; Hildegard’s and Joachim’s interpretations of the Apocalypse in the light of Y1K; Cranach’s “weird” woodcut illustrations for Luther’s German Bible; the missionary use of Revelation to “other” other religions; James Hampton’s decades-long construction of the “throne of the third heaven,” now preserved in the Smithsonian as a classic of American folk art; Evangelical horror films, especially the 1972/1973 Rapture film Thief in the Night.

Beal doesn’t trace trends across this swath of time, but several trends emerge. I highlight two. First, the temporal scope of Revelation has been constricted. During the first millennium of church history, Revelation provided an expansive framework for envisioning the whole of history. Augustine claimed the millennial reign of the church began with Jesus’ first Advent and would continue until Satan was released at the end of time. Though inspired by the agitations surrounding the end of the first Christian millennium, both Hildegard and Joachim viewed Revelation as a template for human history.

Following hints from the church fathers, Hildegard allegorized the seven days of creation as seven millennia, with Revelation as the blueprint for the “storied architecture of Christian history” (82). For Joachim, Revelation’s narrative cycles unveiled historical eras of the church. Reformers and Counter-Reformed often apply its visionary images to contemporary events and personalities: “Protestants use [Revelation] to monstrocize Catholics, Catholics use it to monstrocize Protestants” (134). With the rise of dispensationalism, the scope of application narrows further, as Revelation is read as a framework not for history but as a roadmap of the end of history. No age has paid so much attention to Revelation as ours. No age has applied it so narrowly.

Second, as the temporal scope of Revelation constricted, its interpretation became more personalized. One of Beal’s most intriguing chapters examines the work of James Hampton, an African-American World War II veteran from Washington, DC. After Hampton’s death in 1964, his landlord discovered his “Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” in a garage Hampton began renting in 1950. Inspired by the throne visions of Revelation 4 and 20, Hampton’s installation consists of “a dazzling array of silver, gold, and purple winged thrones, glimmering altarpieces, bedazzled crowns, and other lustrous objects. . . . at the center of everything stood a seven-foot-high, brilliantly ornate throne, with silver wings spread wide over this garaged sanctuary like some back-alley seraphim” (156). The 180-piece throne room is constructed from detritus – modified tables and chairs, cardboard tubes, light bulbs and ink blotters, gilded with silver and gold foil from liquor bottles and candy wrappers. Hampton believed he received revelations himself, and apparently believed his throne room would be the site of Jesus’ second coming: “he built it to host that coming. It is a space of creative apocalyptic hospitality” (165). Like other dispensationalists, Hampton believed Revelation was a preview of the end times, but he believed the end times would end in his rented garage.

Though these recent trends diminish the book of Revelation, they also highlight one of its principal purposes. Throughout the book, Beal complains that Christians have used the imagery of Revelation to name their terrors. Missionaries drew from “stock terms and conventional images” (147) to make sense of the religious practices and images they encountered outside of Christendom. Following Homi Bhabha, Beal argues these projections force the “other” into a mold that’s “entirely knowable and visible.” Pejorative tone aside, that’s what Revelation is for. Revelation itself deploys earlier texts to make sense of a new, chaotic, and dangerous first-century situation. The four beasts that Daniel saw rising from the sea referred to a sequence of four empires from Babylon to the coming of the Son of Man (Dan 7). John sees a composite of Daniel’s beasts rising from the sea (Rev 13), which implies that the last and most brutal of Daniel’s beasts has finally arrived. Like every other book of the Bible, Revelation is most applicable when we attend most carefully to its original setting. We’re encouraged to do just what John’s visions do – apply the images of Revelation to new times, for there will always be rough beasts rising from the sea, always slouching land beasts eager to propagandize, always new harlot cities who drink the blood of the saints.

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