“I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 1:9).
“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” (Rev 21:1).
i) Commentators often puzzle over the significance of the sea in Rev 21:1. Some think it’s a literary allusion to the malevolent symbolism of the sea in OT usage (e.g. Isa 51:10-11).
ii) Beyond the specific interpretation of Rev 21:1, this raises the general question of what background considerations are in play when interpreting an author like John. What background would be relevant to the author and his audience?
iii) For example, if we seek an explanation in textual parallels, this assumes that a literary background is the foremost consideration. Is that a correct assumption?
This might seem more obvious to a modern scholar than to the original audience. After all, a modern scholar has greater access to the OT than the average 1C reader or listener. A modern scholar has the entire OT at his fingertips, in the Hebrew, Greek version, and any number of English versions (or whatever his mother tongue).
It doesn’t follow that the average 1C reader or listener would have the same textual command of the OT.
iv) Mind you, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should avoid a literary explanation. An author may write on more than one level, with more than one audience in mind. He may write in such a way that his writing is broadly intelligible to a general audience.
Yet he also, at one and the same time, be writing for an ideal reader. He may include textual clues which only a more sophisticated reader would register. Although any fairly intelligent reader or listener could get the gist of the story or the gist of the argument, only a more astute or educated reader would appreciate all of the subtleties.
v) However, is the literary background the only or primary consideration? What about the biographical background of the author? Should our interpretation look to a text, or look to an experience, to explain the author’s meaning?
Obviously, a writer’s personal experience can figure in his meaning. For example, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn penned One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, his own, first-hand experience was clearly the foremost influence.
vi) Mind you, to identify the biographical background raises similar questions to the identification of the literary background. For that to be meaningful to the audience, the biographical allusion must also be publicly accessible.
vii) Returning to Rev 21:1, beyond any literary allusions, is it not probable that the symbolism of the sea also held a more personal significance for John. He received his visions on the island of Patmos, a penal colony. What made it a penal colony was the fact that, as a smallish island, surrounded by an ocean, the sea formed an impenetrable barrier to escape. You couldn't swim to the mainland. (The only possible escape would be to be a stowaway aboard a ship.)
So I'm sure that John was acutely aware of the sea. Everyday. Associated the sea with his captivity.
As such, it might also be emblematic of the persecution and captivity which many Christians can expect to face in this world, in contrast to the new order to come.
viii) It seems reasonable to me to connect 1:9 with 21:1. John’s captivity on Patmos is not a private, autobiographical presupposition. Rather, that sets the stage for the record of his visions. At the outset, he tells his audience where all this took place.
Moreover, Patmos was not an obscure desert island. As Aune explains in his commentary (1:77), Patmos, along with other islands comprising the Sporades, was a militarily strategic outpost, guarding the city of Miletus.
So it wouldn’t be surprising if John’s audience formed a mental picture of his situation. This information was common knowledge—or so I assume.
The biographical background doesn’t exclude the literary background. Both considerations may be equally salient.
But I do think some interpreters are trained to focus on words rather than events—especially at the level of one individual life. They themselves inhabit a literary universe. A world of books and cross-references.
It’s easy to lose sight of the real time, real space dimension of an author as we tune our ears to make out literary parallels. To think in terms of language rather than the reality which those linguistic structures represent. Sometimes we need to leave the library and go outside.