Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The world of Revelation

i) Scholars and commentators don’t offer a consistent analysis of how Revelation is structured. Different scholars propose different internal divisions, different structuring or unifying principles. One possible explanation for their lack of consensus is that Revelation itself lacks a consistent, overarching structure.

That wouldn’t be surprising. Although Revelation has an imaginative element, Revelation isn’t fiction. John lacks the unfettered freedom of a creative writer. He isn’t starting from scratch. Rather, he’s the recipient of divine visions and auditions. Although he may rearrange the material, the material imposes certain constraints on his editorial freedom.

ii) But another possibility is that most scholars and commentators only consider the question from one perspective. They treat the document is a self-contained text. Any structure would be internal to the text. How one part relates to another part. Or the literary allusions.

But it’s possible that the text of Revelation reflects external factors as well. For instance, one scholar says:

The churches are not numbered in sequence, only named. It is important that they are seven (1:11,20), but the order in which they occur is determined by geography (the route John’s messenger would follow, starting from Ephesus).

R. Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 9.

Assuming that’s the case, then this is an instance where the literary sequence is determined, not by chronological or thematic considerations, but by logistics. By something extrinsic to the text. This is the order in which the courier would deliver the letters to the seven churches.

iii) On a related note, one possible structuring or unifying device is Johannine cosmography. The observable world of someone living on Patmos. The observable world of someone living in Asia Minor.

Of course, Revelation contains a lot of stock imagery that isn’t derived from or distinctive to its immediate milieu. Much of the imagery is recycled from the OT. Yet even that only pushes the question back a step. For the figurative imagery of the OT is, itself, derived from the physical world of Mesopotamia and the Levant. Metaphors originate in real time and real space.

To inhabit the text, we need to inhabit the world that produced the text. It’s not enough to study the building from the outside–we need to go inside and look around. See the world the author saw as the author saw it.

iv) Patmos is a volcanic island in the Aegean sea. Anatolia, where the seven churches were situated, is a region prone to volcanic, tectonic, and seismic activity.


5:13And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"
10: 1Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2 He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land…5And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven 6and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay.

This is a stylized depiction of how the world would look to someone living on an island.

Lightening and thunder

4:5From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God,
8:5Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake…19Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
16:18And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake.
Lighting and thunder have two potential sources. Thunderstorms are one source. From what I’ve read, the Aegean sea is subject to thunderstorms. So that’s something John may have been acquainted with.

But there’s also volcanic lightning as well as volcanic explosions. That would be familiar to residents of Asia Minor.

Sea of glass

4:6and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
15:2And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.

A smooth, open body of water mirrors the sky. So the sky resembles reflected water. Likewise, an ocean sunset tints the water the color of the sun.

John would be in a position to observe both, as would coastal towns like Smyrna and Roman Ephesus.

Celestial luminaries

1:16 In his right hand he held seven stars.
5:13and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.
8:10The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11The name of the star is Wormwood...12The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night.
9:1And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth.
12:1And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.
21:23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
22:5And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever…16 "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."

Imprisoned on the island of Patmos, under the night sky, John had occasion to see meteor showers and other celestial phenomena.

Sulfur and fire

19:20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.
20:10and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever…14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."

In a volcanic region, a “lake of fire” suggests a lava flow.

Mountains and islands

1:9I, 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.
6:14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.
17:20And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.
21:10And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

Patmos is a hilly island, with Mt. Elias (883 ft) as the highpoint. From what I’ve read, some mountains of Asia Minor as well as other islands of the Dodecanese are visible from Patmos. So this imagery would resonant with the locals.


8:7The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire.
11:19Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
17:21And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.

From what I’ve read, the Aegean sea is subject to hailstorms.

Earthquake, fire, and smoke

5:12When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood.
8:7The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. 8The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. 9A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
9:1And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. 2He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. 3Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth…17And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouth.
13:11Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth.
16:3The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.
20:1Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

It’s striking how much of this imagery can be generated by volcanic activity. That’s a potential unifying device.

Consider the effect of submarine volcanoes on the surrounding water. Or volcanic earthquakes. Volcanic ash, obscuring the sun. The effect of pyroclastic flows or pyroclastic surges on the flora. Lava flows pouring into the coastal waters.

The “bottomless pit” might be a hyperbolic description of a volcanic crater. Smoke rising from the “shaft” might depict a fissure vent. Subterranean magma would well up to the surface. A picturesque, volcanic metaphor for the netherworld.

The imagery needn’t rely on current volcanic activity. Collective memory would suffice.

The sea

12:12Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!"
13:1And I saw a beast rising out of the sea.
16:3The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.
18:17 And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,
    "What city was like the great city?"
 19And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out,
   "Alas, alas, for the great city
    where all who had ships at sea
   grew rich by her wealth!
For in a single hour she has been laid waste.
 21Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea.
20:7And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea…13And the sea gave up the dead who were in it.
21:1Then 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.
Patmos was a prison without walls or bars. The sea itself formed a natural, impenetrable barrier to escape.

Likewise, this imagery would resonate with people whose economy was dependent of shipping and fishing, viz. Aegean port towns.


7:16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
11:6They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague.

To my knowledge, Patmos has no major source of fresh water. Just a little spring. I assume wine would be the major beverage in John’s time.


12:9And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world— he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Both John and his immediate audience were familiar with venomous snakes. At least in modern times, Patmos has rock vipers, while Anatolia has sand vipers as well as the desert cobra. 

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