Saturday, July 20, 2019

The imagery of Revelation

The following is an excerpt from Richard Bauckham's The Theology of the Book of Revelation (pp 17-22). I don't necessarily agree with everything.

Understanding the Imagery

We have already noticed the unusual profusion of visual imagery in Revelation and its capacity to create a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they lived transformed. To appreciate the importance of this we should remember that Revelation's readers in the great cities of the province of Asia were constantly confronted with powerful images of the Roman vision of the world. Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of cleverly engineered 'miracles' (cf Rev. 13:13-14) in the temples12 - all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and of the splendour of pagan religion.13 In this context. Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from the heaven to which John is caught up in chapter 4. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be. For example, in chapter 17 John's readers share his vision of a woman. At first glance, she might seem to be the goddess Roma, in all her glory, a stunning personification of the civilization of Rome, as she was worshipped in many a temple in the cities of Asia.14 But as John sees her, she is a Roman prostitute, a seductive whore and a scheming witch, and her wealth and splendour represent the profits of her disreputable trade. For good measure there are biblical overtones of the harlot queen Jezebel to reinforce the impression. In this way, John's readers are able to perceive something of Rome's true character - her moral corruption behind the enticing propagandist illusions of Rome which they constantly encountered in their cities.

It should be clear that the images of Revelation are symbols with evocative power inviting imaginative participation in the book's symbolic world. But they do not work merely by painting verbal pictures. Their precise literary composition is always essential to their meaning. In the first place, the astonishingly meticulous composition of the book creates a complex network of literary cross-references, parallels, contrasts, which inform the meaning of the parts and the whole. Naturally, not all of these will be noticed on first or seventh or seventieth reading. They are one of the ways in which the book is designed to yield its rich store of meaning progressively through intensive study. Secondly, as we have already noticed, Revelation is saturated with verbal allusions to the Old Testament. These are not incidental but essential to the way meaning is conveyed. Without noticing some of the key allusions, little if anything of the meaning of the images will be understood. But like the literary patterning, John's very precise and subtle use of Old Testament allusions creates a reservoir of meaning which can be progressively tapped. The Old Testament allusions frequently presuppose their Old Testament context and a range of connexions between Old Testament texts which are not made explicit but lie beneath the surface of the text of Revelation. If we wonder what the average Christian in the churches of Asia could make of this, we should remember that the strongly Jewish character of most of these churches made the Old Testament much more familiar than it is even to well- educated modern Christians. But we should also remember the circle of Christian prophets in the churches (cf 22:9, 16) who would probably have studied, interpreted and expounded John's prophecy with the same kind of learned attention they gave to the Old Testament prophecies.

As well as their pervasive allusion to the Old Testament, the images of Revelation also echo mythological images from its contemporary world. The serpent or the dragon, Revelation's symbol for the primeval source of evil in the world, the devil (12:3-9), is a good example of a symbol with strong biblical roots (Gen. 3:14-15; Isa. 27:1) which Revelation evokes, but also with wide cultural resonances in the minds of contemporary readers, owing to its prominence in pagan mythology and religion.15 Another type of contemporary allusion is the idea of invasion from the East (9:13-19; 16:12). Here John takes up a very real political fear in the Roman Empire in the first century AD, since the threat of invasion from the Parthian Empire was widely felt. It had the same kind of overtones of conquest by a cruel and alien civilization which the threat of Russian invasion had for many western Europeans in the period of the Cold War, though for some of Rome's eastern subjects it offered the prospect of liberation from Roman oppression. When Revelation pictures the kings of the East invading the Empire in alliance with 'the beast who was and is not and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit' (17:8), it is echoing the contemporary myth which pictured the emperor Nero - remembered by some as a villainous tyrant, trans- figured by others into a saviour-figure - returning one day at the head of the Parthian hordes to conquer the Roman Empire.16 In ways such as these, John's images echo and play on the facts, the fears, the hopes, the imaginings and the myths of his contemporaries, in order to transmute them into elements of his own Christian prophetic meaning.

Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today. They do not create a purely self-contained aesthetic world with no reference outside itself, but intend to relate to the world in which the readers live in order to reform and to redirect the readers' response to that world. However, if the images are not timeless symbols, but relate to the 'real' world, we need also to avoid the opposite mistake of taking them too literally as descriptive of the 'real' world and of predicted events in the 'real' world. They are not just a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realize that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.

Consider, for example, the descriptions of the plagues of the seven trumpets (8:6-9:21) and the seven bowls (16:1-21). These form a highly schematized literary pattern which itself conveys meaning. Their content suggests, among many other things, the plagues of Egypt which accompanied the exodus, the fall of Jericho to the army of Joshua, the army of locusts depicted in the prophecy of Joel, the Sinai theophany, the contemporary fear of invasion by Parthian cavalry, the earthquakes to which the cities of Asia Minor were rather frequently subject, and very possibly the eruption of Vesuvius which had recently terrified the Mediterranean world.17 John has taken some of his contemporaries' worst experiences and worst fears of wars and natural disasters, blown them up to apocalyptic proportions, and cast them in biblically allusive terms. The point is not to predict a sequence of events. The point is to evoke and to explore the meaning of the divine judgment which is impending on the sinful world.

The last of the seven bowls results in the fall of Babylon in an earthquake of unprecedented proportions (16:17-21). If we took this as literal prediction, we should soon find it contradicted by later images of the downfall of Babylon. In 17:16, Babylon, now portrayed as a harlot, is stripped, devoured and burned by the beast and the ten kings. The traditional punishment of a harlot is here superimposed on the image of a city sacked and razed to the ground by an army. Chapter 18 extends the image of a city besieged and burned to the ground (cf especially 18:8: 'pestilence...famine...burned with fire'), but we are also told both that the site of the city becomes the haunt of the desert creatures (18:2) and that the smoke from her burning continues to ascend for ever (19:3). On the literal level, these images are quite inconsistent with each other, but on the level of theological meaning, conveyed by the allusions to the Old Testament and to contemporary myth, they offer complementary perspectives on the meaning of Babylon's fall. The earthquake of 16:17-21 is that which accompanies the theophany of the holy God coming to final judgment. The sacking of Babylon by the beast and his allies alludes to the contemporary myth of the return of Nero to destroy Rome. It is an image of the self-destructive nature of evil, which on the level of theological meaning is not inconsistent with the idea of the destruction of evil by divine judgment but presents it under another aspect. The fire of 17:16 becomes in chapter 18 the fire of divine judgment, of which the paradigmatic Old Testament instance was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Like an apocalyptic Sodom sunk in the eternal lake of fire and sulphur, Babylon's smoke ascends for ever (cf Gen. 19:28; Rev. 14:10-11; 19:20). The desolation of Babylon as a haunt of desert creatures evokes Old Testament prophetic pictures of the fate of both Edom and Babylon, the two great enemies of the people of God in much of Old Testament prophecy. All this - with much more in these chapters — makes up a wonderfully varied but coherent evocation of the biblical and theological meaning of the divine judgment John's prophecy pronounces on Rome; but if we try to read it as prediction of how that judgment will occur we turn it into a confused muddle and miss its real point.

Perhaps enough has been said to indicate that the imagery of Revelation requires close and appropriate study if modern readers are to grasp much of its theological meaning. Misunderstandings of the nature of the imagery and the way it conveys meaning account for many misinterpretations of Revelation, even by careful and learned modern scholars. In this book, we need especially to stress the way John has developed his literary use of imagery into a distinctive mode of theological thought and communication. Because Revelation does not contain theological discourse or argument of the kind with which readers of the New Testament are familiar in, for example, the Pauline letters, it should not be thought to be any less a product of profound theological reflection. Its images are by no means a vaguer or more impressionistic means of expression than the relatively more abstract conceptual argument of a Pauline letter. They are capable both of considerable precision of meaning and of compressing a wealth of meaning into a brief space by evoking a range of associations. The method and conceptuality of the theology of Revelation are relatively different from the rest of the New Testament, but once they are appreciated in their own right. Revelation can be seen to be not only one of the finest literary works in the New Testament, but also one of the greatest theological achievements of early Christianity. Moreover, the literary and theological greatness are not separable.


12 S.J. Scherrer, 'Signs and Wonders in the Imperial Cult: A New Look at a Roman Religious Institution in the Light of Rev 13:13-15', JBL 103 (1984), 599-610.

13 See P.J.J. Botha, 'God, Emperor Worship and Society: Contemporary Experiences and the Book of Revelation', Neol. 22 (1988), 87-102.

14 Cf. D. Magie, Roman Rule in Asia Minor to the End of the Third Century after Christ (Princeton University Press, 1950), 1613-14; S.R.F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 40-3, 252, 254; R. Mellor, 0EA PCOMH: The Worship of the Goddess Roma in the Greek World (Hypomnemata 42; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975), 79-82.

15 R. Bauckham, 'The Figurae of John of Patmos', in Ann Williams, ed. Prophecy and Millenarianism: Essays in Honour of Marjorie Reeves (London: Longman, 1980), 116-21; in revised form: chapter 6 ('The Lion, the Lamb and the Dragon') in Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy.

16 See chapter 11 ('Nero and the Beast') in Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy.

17 For these allusions, see, as well as the commentaries, J.M. Court, Myth and History in the Book of Revelation (London: SPCK, 1979), chapter 3; R. Bauckham, 'The Eschatological Earthquake in the Apocalypse of John', Novum Testamentum 19 (1977), 224-33, which becomes chapter 7 ('The Eschatological Earthquake') in Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy.

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