G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw any strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”(Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alkier, 2012, p. 11) Particularly in the last couple hundred years we have seen some strange creatures emerge as interpreters of Revelation. Certain groups within Christianity, who are looking for certainty and answers, have found the book of Revelation as an irresistible puzzle to decode as they attempt to find a way to predict the future. Yet, the church has always puzzled with how to use the book of Revelation. While its original readers would have heard this as a text in a way that helped make sense of their position as a small minority in a hostile empire the position of the church in society would continue change. How does a church which eventually would become the religion of the land deal with these odd visions? Sometimes Revelation would be virtually ignored within the larger canon of the scriptures, while at other times it would capture the imagination of writers, interpreters, and artists.
John, the stated author of Revelation, probably writes somewhere between the year 80 and 100. The book of Revelation, as it is originally written, is a sharp challenge to the claims made by the Roman empire. As Christianity strove for recognition within the Roman empire Christian apologists tended to distance the anti-imperial rhetoric from the way they discussed Revelation. Revelation’s images would be used by early witnesses of the western church, like Justin Martyr and Ireneaus, in their apologetics to attempt to show how Christianity was related to Judaism. Ireneaus in his conflict with Marcion used the image of the four beasts around the throne to argue why there should be four gospels in contrast to Marcion who wanted only an edited version of Luke’s gospel along with Paul’s letters. In the eastern church the book of Revelation received even less usage. Dionysius of Alexandria (d. ca. 254) showed that the Revelation and the Gospel of John could not have been written by the same person due to literary form, writing style, and theological content. The church historian Eusebius (d. 339) listed Revelation as one of the recognized books but acknowledged that some grouped it with the rejected writings. The first known commentary on Revelation wasn’t written until the end of the second century by Victorinus of Pettau (d. 304) and this work would inform many future writings on Revelation. As Craig Koester can relate on this commentary, “In his view, the vision of the Lamb breaking the seals on God’s scroll shows that Christ reveals the meaning of Scripture through his death and resurrection (In Apoc. 1.4; 4.1-5:3; Huber, “Aspekte”). Like many modern interpreters, Victorinus observed that the beast has traits of the Roman emperors, especially Nero.” (Koester, 2014, p. 33)
In the time after the edict of Milan (313), which made Christianity tolerated throughout the Roman empire, the church had a new struggle: to define the faith. Within this struggle to articulate how they would talk about who Jesus was and how Jesus was related to God images from Revelation would continue to play their role along with the gospels and letters of Paul. Particularly the identity of Christ as the Alpha and the Omega would become decisive for the way the church would talk about Jesus in the time after the council of Nicea (325). In this time artwork of Christ victory and reign over the world would begin to integrate Revelation motifs. Yet, the Roman empire itself would be challenged by both internal and external forces and as Christianity continued to exist in this world Revelation would provide some of the theologians of the church a lens to view the world. St. Augustine’s adapted a reading of Revelation (from Tyconius) which saw a conflict between the city of God and the city of the world: interpreting both the present age but also the internal spiritual struggle between the powers of sin and grace in the life of the believer. St. Jerome, best known for his translation of the bible into Latin, created his own spiritualistic reading of Revelation where separating oneself from Babylon means resisting sin, but it may also involve retreating to a monastic lifestyle.
The Medieval Period (500-1000) would see Rome’s empire divided: North Africa would be captured by Islamic forces, Germanic kingdoms would rise in the west and the Byzantine empire would rise in the east. It was a time of plagues and instability, of invasions by Vikings from the north and Magyars from the Balkans. During this time of instability the church continued to grow in power and influence. There would be frequent calls for reform of the church but frequently these reforms would be resisted by the church’s leadership. This resistance made some turn Revelation’s vision of Babylon into a critique of the papacy—which would continue into the sixteenth century and beyond. In the late Medieval period, Joachim of Fiore’s (d. 1202) mystical view of history where there were three ages (the age of the Father, the age of the Son and the age of the Spirit) reawakened an interest in the thought of Revelation. He believed that history was progressing towards the age of the Spirit and reforming pope might lead the way into that age. In his view the seven heads of the dragon symbolized the persecutors of the church from Herod and Nero to the Muslim warrior Saladin in his own time.
The age of reform in the sixteenth century would bring about very different views about the book of Revelation. Erasmus (d. 1536) reopened the question about the status of Revelation, and Revelation held little attraction for his piety centered on the imitation of Christ. Luther (d. 1546) also questioned the place of Revelation, especially since in his view, “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” (LW 35: 399) Yet, even as Revelation would be added at the end of the New Testament with Hebrews, James, and Jude (the other books Luther questioned) and be unnumbered we also see within the artists of Luther’s time the capturing of Revelation’s images. For example, Revelation was the only book in Luther’s German NT that was fully illustrated by woodcuts from Lucas Cranach and Philip Nicolai (d. 1608) used images from Revelation to respond to an outbreak of plague that took thousands of lives by writing “Wachet Auf,” or “Wake, awake, for night is flying.”
Although Zwingli also believed that Revelation was not a biblical book and it would be the only book in the New Testament that Calvin would not write a commentary on, the reformed church’s theological belief in an orderly history allowed many later writers to see Revelation as a part of God’s prophetic outlying of how history would unfold. In the seventeenth century figures like John Napier, Joseph Mede and even Isaac Newton became fascinated with using mathematics to attempt to decode the imagery of Revelation. They desired to see order even within the book of Revelation and that showed God’s overarching providence. The anabaptist movement was also heavily influenced by Revelation. In 1525 Thomas Müntzer would call for the common people to take up arms as instruments of the four horsemen bringing the wrath of God to the world. Müntzer’s rebellion would be dealt with brutally by the armies of the authorities. Other anabaptist communities would form communities of purity and nonviolence interpreting the book as an image of the church’s spiritual life on earth.
Music continued to be a place where the images of Revelation would resonate. Handel’s Messiah, focused on the hopeful aspects of Revelation’s imagery and worship. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1862 to advocate for the abolition of slavery and turned these images to rally support for the Northern war effort. Robert Lowery would use the image of the river at the end of Revelation for consolation in “Shall We Gather at the River.” Revelation would figure prominently in African American worship of the time and several songs, perhaps most famously, “When the Saints Go Marching In” utilize imagery from Revelation.
Futuristic interpretations begin to arise in the 1800s particularly in England and the United States. When the French Revolution brought in an era of terror and conquest rather that hope and peace, interpreters began to lose the optimism that reason would bring us into God’s kingdom and began to look for a sudden, cataclysmic return of Christ. In the United States, William Miller (d. 1849), whose theological heritage would lead to the Seventh Day Adventists, attempted to predict from Daniel and Revelation when Christ would return. When October 22, 1844, his predicted date, passed he continued to look for mistakes in his calculations and when he died in 1849 others would continue this work. One of the most popular interpretive frameworks in the United States is Dispensationalism which goes back to Nelson Darby (d. 1882) and was brought in popular form to the United States by Cyrus Scofield (d. 1921) in his Scofield Reference Bible. Two markers of this interpretation are that Revelation 4-22 prophesied times yet to come, rather than referring to events that have happened, and that the faithful church would be raptured (removed) prior to the seven years of tribulation on earth. This theology would be put into narrative form in the Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
Revelation has proved illusive to being locked into a single interpretation, and perhaps that is a part of why it resonates. Its images are powerful and poetic, and particularly for the artists and musicians of the church Revelation has provided some fertile ground. There are interpretations, like Dispensationalism, which I don’t find particularly helpful and do not make sense from the perspective of a first century audience or for the way I read scripture. As an heir of Luther’s tradition, I can understand his hesitance in assigning Revelation a place within the canon alongside the gospels and Paul’s letters, and yet I am convinced that read alongside these writings we can hear Revelation as a witness to Christ. My goal is to attempt for a reading of Revelation that can be faithful to its original intent but also continue to speak to the church in its context. I am humble enough to realize that I am a part of the long history of readers attempting to make sense of this book and yet I do believe that we need, in a time where Revelation’s imagery is all around us in popular culture. I am heavily indebted to Craig Koester for the above discussion on the history of interpretation and you can find a much fuller witness to the history of interpretation in his commentary on Revelation. (Koester, 2014, pp. 29-64)