The Revelation – Literary Genres

This Tuesday, we will begin our study of the book of Revelation. During our study, you will only need to bring your bibles. As background for the study, I am primarily using Reading Revelation Responsibly by Dr. Michael Gorman and The Apocalypse of St. John by Fr. Lawrence Farley.

Before beginning our study, I recommend reading through the entire book of Revelation to try to understand the book as a whole. We all know certain excerpts from Revelation (“666” and “a New Heaven and a New Earth”) and our epistle reading for Eastertide in Year C is from the book. However, reading through Revelation at once gives us a better idea of what John is trying to convey. To help in the reading, I have attached a cheat-sheet from Dr. Gorman’s book that briefly explains the meaning of the colors and numbers used by John.

When we read through Revelation, it is important to understand the types of literary genres that John employs. Generally, Revelation is an amalgamation of Apocalypse, Prophecy, and Pastoral Letter.

Apocalypse:

In the Greek, the first word of the book is “apokalypsis” which simply means to unveil, uncover, or reveal. Apocalyptic literature is uniquely Jewish. It is characterized by fantastic symbols, mystical visions, and numerology. The focus of apocalyptic theology is the unveiling of the cosmic struggle between the forces of good (God, angels, God’s people) against the forces of evil (Satan, demons, empires of the world) that will conclude with a defeat of the evil ones by the Good. Apocalyptic literature arises during great tribulation and persecution and is intended to give its audience hope in the future and a great confidence in God’s judgment. 

The first apocalyptic literature that we have is Daniel 7-12. The book was written during the great persecution of the Jews by the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes IV in the mid-second century BC. (You can read about the persecution in 1 Maccabees.) Daniel contains a series of visions about extraordinary beasts arising from the sea, the coming of the “Ancient of Days,” battles between the nations and heavenly powers, times of tribulation, and the ultimate resurrection of the dead. Angels, numbers, colors, lights, and sounds will bind these visions together.

Another example of Jewish apocalyptic literature, written during both the Greek and Roman persecutions, is 1 Enoch which speaks about angels and demons and the thousand-year reign of God’s Messiah. There is also the War Scroll (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) which envisions a great war of annihilation comprising seven great battles between the Forces of Light led by the Archangel Michael and the Forces of Darkness led by the kings of this world.

In many ways, apocalypticism is not limited to these odd visions, rather our entire Christian religion is infused with the apocalyptic understanding of a great cosmic struggle. The gospel of Mark stands out in this regard. In Mark, it is only the demons who recognize and fear Jesus, since the demons can see behind the veil of this world. See, Mark 1:24. Destroying demons (like in the War Scroll) is the very first act of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus himself sees his ministry as bringing the rule of Satan to an end. Mark 3:26. In Mark 13, we have the Little Apocalypse where Jesus draws on Daniel to foretell the destruction of the temple, the “abomination of desolation,” and the coming of the Son of Man.

Paul is also apocalyptic in his thinking. When Paul speaks of putting on the full armor of God, he tells us that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Eph. 6:12. Jesus is our deliverer from this evil age. Gal. 1:4. For Paul, Jesus’ Resurrection is the first-fruits of the victory that God has obtained against these powers. 1 Cor. 15:57. Paul may not use John’s fantastic language, but his message of God overcoming evil powers through Jesus’ death and resurrection is the same message that we will find in Revelation.

Prophecy:

Revelation is also written in the manner of the Old Testament prophets. When we read the prophets, we will find that the prophet’s message is not only about future events but his message is primarily to both chastise and comfort God’s people. One of the great themes of the prophets is to berate God’s people about idolatry and to compare idolatry to adultery. (cf. Isa. 2, Ezek 6, 23, Hosea 2). Idolatry as adultery will be a reoccurring theme in Revelation. But the same God that warns and chastises, is also the same God that comforts and redeems. (cf. Isa. 12, Ezek. 37, Hos. 2:23). Revelation also concludes with a prophetic comforting.

The other aspect of prophecy that John draws upon is the visions. Isaiah has a vision of God in his Temple. (Isa. 6). Ezekiel has a vision of a heavenly chariot being pulled by amazing creatures. (Ezek. 1). Joel has a vision of earth, blood, fire, smoke, and celestial occurrences. (Joel 2:30). Zechariah will have eight visions of colored horsemen, golden lampstands, flying scrolls, and crowns and temples. (Zech. 1-6). John will draw upon all of these images and themes in Revelation.

Epistle:

The third major literary genre John employs is that of a pastoral letter. When we look at the letters of the New Testament, they generally begin with a brief introduction identifying the writer and the recipient and then go into a teaching directed towards the recipient who usually is a specific or series of congregations. Each of the letters also ends with a brief salutation.

The structure of Revelation will mirror the epistles and not the apocalypses or the prophets. Revelation is addressed by John to seven specific churches in Asia. The visions that we encounter in Daniel, 1 Enoch, and the prophets are generally not specifically directed at any other audience but only the seer himself. In Revelation, however, John’s vision is given not for himself but is intended for his specific audience. Whereas Paul will use Greek philosophy or rabbinic midrash to make his arguments, John uses his vision. Apocalyptic and prophetic imagery is simply how John conveys his teaching.

The epistolary nature of Revelation is important because it requires us to keep asking the question of what is the teaching that John is intending to convey to the seven churches and to us. The imagery of Revelation is fantastic, but ultimately, the imagery is only the means of conveying the substantive message.

Homework:

For this week, we will not be discussing Revelation directly. Instead, we will be reading through and discussing parts of Daniel, 1 Enoch, the War Scroll, and the prophets. If you have time this week, please read the various excerpts linked to above.

Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is chicken potato casserole. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.