This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the third of twenty-six short reflections.
Who wrote The Book of Revelation? Yesterday I said that the answer was clearly “John”, but it could just as clearly have another author:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Revelation 1.1-2
This other author is Jesus Christ, as the first words suggest. As Christians we read the scriptures as inspired text – but what does that mean?
For some people it means that every word of scripture, as written down in the original manuscript, was inspired by God. The image above of Matthew writing his gospel while an angel is whispering in his ear is a literal image of this. For some Fundamentalists the divine inspiration of scripture is so great that the human authors fade into the background, and what we have is the Word of God written, practically equal to the Word made flesh. One might call this the “strong” form of divine inspiration.
A weaker form of divine inspiration is that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation, and nothing that cannot be argued out of scripture can be imposed on Christians (this is the position described in the Thirty-Nine Articles). As well, some place the church in the position of being the body which authorised the texts of scripture – the canon – and therefore has the right to authoritatively interpret it.
Of course, others simply see it as human artifact, an historical document; this is the denial of divine inspiration. One can still acknowledge it as a set of texts which have been deeply influential, and may contain pearls of wisdom, but it is not the literal words of God.
My own approach is to say that the Spirit of God rested on the authors. However, they were very human authors, and the message of God became historically conditioned, sometimes in ways that should no longer be seen as binding on us. Thus we 21st Century Christians are in a theological dialogue with the 1st Century authors of the gospels and letters, and the challenge is to apply the good news of Jesus Christ to our present conditions. Divine inspiration continues today, as we wrestle with scripture and try to figure out what God is calling us to do today.
John the Divine believed that the message he was proclaiming came from Jesus, sometimes directly, sometimes through angels. He may have had one flash of spiritual insight which he then worked out in the words of the text we call Revelation, or perhaps it was a series of visions. I do not think he imagined an angel dictating to him, especially since the language he uses is almost always of angels showing him things. He was undoubtedly aware of his own remarkable creative abilities and the way in which he gave form to those experiences. That said, I suspect that when he finished the text he probably thought that he had done something that transcended his own human skills – that he may have been the author of record, but what he had done had come from God. It is not like it is one or the other; it is both.
When I read scripture my method for interpretation is to read the text and then ask three questions. First, “What was the author trying to say, in his/her context?” A subsequent question is, “How has this been read over the centuries?” In both questions it is important to see how the text relates to other texts, and to use historical-critical methods. I am more likely to answer certain detailed queries with, “It is probable that X is the case, but we really don’t know” rather than come down hard on an answer. Finally, I ask, “What is God trying to say to us now through these texts?” Answering this last query is usually a more imaginative exercise than the first two, but it is also the most meditative. If the answer to this final question does not suggest some form of action, then I am not sure I have understood it correctly.
Tomorrow I will talk a bit about the structure of the text, and why John the Divine probably knew the letters of Paul, and was probably as equally influenced by him as much as by the Fourth Gospel.