Friday, May 15, 2015

The churches of Revelation

i) In Revelation, why are "letters" addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor? (I put "letters" in scare quotes because that classification is disputable.)

How we answer that question has potentially larger significance for how we interpret Revelation.

ii) There are a number of fine scholars who concentrate on the 1C setting of Revelation (e.g. Aune, Bauckham, Hemer, Keener, Metzger, Thompson, Yamauchi). That's a useful perspective. However, that interpretation tends to select for scholars who are Classicists or historians by training and temperament. Their aptitude creates a hermeneutical bias. 

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. It's good to have scholars with different abilities. There is, however, a danger when the aptitude, expertise, and interests of the scholar controls the interpretation. For the interpretation may be oriented by the scholar rather than the text.

Clearly, that's a risk of any scholar, which is why it's helpful to have different scholars with different skill sets. They offset each other's one-sidedness. 

iii) In addition, some scholars focus on the 1C setting because they don't think John could really foresee the distant future. 

iv) One popular explanation, originally proposed by Ramsey, is that these churches (or cities) lay along the same road. He also postulated that these were postal sites. 

However, scholars like Aune say that theory lacks archeological confirmation. They say Ramsey essentially began with the seven churches, then drew a road–rather than beginning with evidence for a road connecting the seven churches. 

v) A number of scholars point out that the seven churches are arranged in a horseshoe pattern, and the order in which they are addressed in Revelation follows that circuit. So that's a logical route which a messenger or letter-courier would take. 

That's certainly intriguing. If, however, these churches didn't lie on the same road, then it's unclear how that literary sequence has any intrinsic or logistical significance.

vi) In addition, there's no evidence that these letters ever circulated separately. Rather, these letters are integral to the structure of Revelation. Each church would read all seven letters. Indeed, each church would read the entire book. The letters weren't sent individually to each respective church. In that event, the route seems to lose practical significance. Addressing a letter to each church may be a literary device. 

vii) Moreover, there's evidence for more than seven churches in Asia Minor at the time John wrote. Paul mentions churches at Colossae, Hierapolis (Col 1:2; 4:13), and Troas (2 Cor 2:12), while Luke seconds the reference to a church in Troas (Acts 20:6-12. And Ignatius writes to churches in Tralles and Magnesia. Obviously, the Ignatian churches antedate his letters to the Ignatian churches. 

It's possible that these additional churches didn't exist at the time of Revelation. It depends, in part, on when Revelation was written. But whether earlier or later, there's probably some chronological overlap with at least some of the additional churches.

viii) An obvious general explanation for John's selection-criteria is his numerology. Seven is a significant, oft-repeated symbolic figure in Revelation. Indeed, I think that's the primary criterion, even apart from other considerations. 

ix) One objection to that explanation is that while it would explain why John chose seven churches, it fails to explain why he chose those seven churches in particular. By way of response:

a) If the figure is determined by numerology, then the choice is bound to be somewhat arbitrary.

b) But this also depends on whether we think those letters are about those seven churches. There are scholars (e.g. Hemer) who think the content of each letter targets the specific situation of each church. But there are other scholars (e.g. Koester, Michaels) who think the letters use generic imagery which is transferable to other churches. The conditions are not unique to each church. 

There's a certain circularity in the method of scholars like Hemer. Is the evidence driving the date? Or is the presumptive date selecting for the relevant evidence?

Unless you already know when the book was written, and unless you already know that the letters address the distinctive situation of each church, the parallels you adduce to date the book or interpret the letters has the theory driving the evidence rather than the evidence driving the theory.

x) If, in fact, the letters are more generic, the selection-criterion is largely numerological, and  seven churches function as a representative sample-group, then the significance of their historical particularity recedes into the background. Even though these were real 1C churches, they stand for churches generally. They are used to illustrate certain characteristic virtues and vices. They function as an encouragement or admonition to Christian churches at anytime and place.

In that event, the letters are not about a particular church at a particular time and place (i.e. 1C Anatolia). Even though, as a literary device, the "letters" are written to these individual churches, they are really written for Christian communities throughout church history. 

xi) Assuming that's the case, then this conditions how we should understand the threat of Jesus coming back in judgment to some of these churches. That refers, not to the second advent, but to interadventual events. 


  1. "If you don't repent . . . "

    "I am coming to you . . . " (Rev. 2:4-5; 2:16; 2:22-23; 3:3; 3:16)

    remove lamp stand
    make war against you
    cast you upon a bed sickness
    I will come like a thief
    spit you out of My mouth

    all these judgments -
    Seems to point to the eventual takeover by Islam.

    the Goths came around 263 AD
    Malaria -

    Then Islam (Arabs in 600s - 700s)
    Seljuk Turks in 1071 AD - defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikurt (near Van, Armemia at the time, now near Turkey-Iran border)

    Ottoman Turks took over and conquered Constantinople in 1453.

  2. "Even though, as a literary device, the "letters" are written to these individual churches, they are really written for Christian communities throughout church history."

    Seems like both.

  3. "Rather, these letters are integral to the structure of Revelation. Each church would read all seven letters. Indeed, each church would read the entire book. "

    An excellent point that I have wondered about - each church would read the entire book.

    Rev. 22:16 - the whole book is to "the churches".
    Seems the Lord just chose 7 as a symbol for principles to teach "all local churches"

  4. Smyrna and Philadelphia did not get a judgement/discipline warning.
    But they also were destroyed and taken over by Islam - especially Philadelphia.

    There is a small Greek Orthodox Church in Smyrna, but Smyrna was burnt to the ground in the 1920s in the war for Turkey's independence against Greece, after the allies from WW 1 ( 1914-1918) left the Greeks to settle it.