Understanding the Imagery of Revelation Part III

Babylon is Fallen, Apocalyptic Imagery


Between Two Errors

Richard Bauckham insists that the letters to the seven churches must be read ‘in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers’ if we are to understand their meaning and use them today. Previous posts noted that the rich imagery John uses throughout the book is also very specific to the world of his readers/hearers. On that basis, RB sees two errors to avoid concerning John’s images.

Not timeless symbols

RB sees it as a ‘serious mistake’ to read the imagery as ‘timeless symbols.’ As he says, John’s images ‘relate to the real world’ of his day.

Not Literal Descriptions

But RB also cautions us against reading the imagery too literally or as ‘encoded literal descriptions’ to be rendered into exact people or events. Both of these opposite errors [too symbolic/literal] are to be avoided.

The Right Stroke

Whatever the sources and associations of John’s imagery, they must not be read literally. The images must instead be read for their theological meaning. And they must be read for their power to evoke a faithful, believing response in readers/hearers.

Further Illustration

RB illustrates with the plagues of the seven trumpets [8:6-9:21] and seven bowls [16:1-21]. Noting that the pattern itself contains meaning, he finds the following content in those two series of judgment:

  • The plagues of Egypt
  • The Exodus
  • The fall of Jericho
  • The army of locusts [from Joel]
  • the Sinai theophany [lawgiving?]
  • Contemporary fear of invasion by Parthian calalry
  • Earthquakes [not infrequent in Asia Minor]
  • Possibly the [then recent] eruption of Vesuvius

RB names these not as the whole, but a sampling of the biblical and extra-biblical allusions in those two series of judgments. Then he says:

‘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’ [p. 20].

The Fall of Babylon

That is illustrated in the last of the seven bowl judgments, which is the fall of Babylon. RB points out that in Re 16:17-31, the city is destroyed in an enormous earthquake. And the problem with reading this as a literal depiction of Babylon’s doom? In Re 17:16, Babylon is a whore, ‘stripped, devoured and burned by the beast and the ten kings.’ It is destroyed again.

Then Re 18 continues this image of a city ‘besieged and burned to the ground’ with the pestilence and famine that routinely accompanied the burning of defeated cities. Then RB says this:

‘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’ [p. 21].

This amounts to saying that Re 16, 17 and 18 overlay image upon image to create a composite picture more complete than any one image alone.

‘The fire of Re 17:16 becomes in chapter 18 the fire of divine judgment’ RB says, the core OT reference for this being Sodom and Gomorrah. He continues:

‘Like an apocalyptic Sodom sunk in the eternal lake of fire and sulfur, Babylon’s smoke ascends for ever [Ge 10:28 cf. Re 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’ [p. 21].

This does not attempt to predict HOW judgment will fall on Rome; but it gives definite theological meaning TO that judgment. In my opinion, it is also a baseline from which to ponder what this imagery suggests about our system of earthly ideology/authority/power/coercion/oppression in our own time and place. In my opinion, we project the Revelation into the future because we would not fare well to do otherwise.

City Destroyed
Saint John did some weird stuff with Babylonian-style imagery. But then so do people today. But every so often, something makes you think…

Understanding the Imagery of Revelation Part II

Unveiling the Imagery of the Revelation

The previous post described Richard Bauckham’s take on the place of imagery in the Roman world, and how John’s literary strategy responded to it to allow believers to see and respond to that world differently. RB sees John use of OT images and allusions as establishing the meaning of the images he uses. This opens up Revelation to see/read it in new ways.

Another Sources of Imagery

In addition to numerous OT allusions, RB explains that John also uses extra-biblical and mythological images known in that day. RB cites Re 12:3-9 as an example. Based on Ge 3:14/Is 27:1, the serpent/dragon is John’s image for the source of evil in the world. But RB notes that this same imagery resonated widely among contemporary readers because it was prominent in pagan mythology and religion as well.

RB illuminates John’s use of the Eastern invasion [Re 9:13-19; 16:12]. The Roman Empire lived in deep, political fear of invasion from the one power that could credibly challenge it: the Parthian Empire. He explains:

[Parthia held] ‘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.’

Parthian Empire
‘In 53 BC, Parthia finally demonstrated its strength by crushing the Roman army at Carrhae. 30,000 soldiers were killed or captured, and several legionary standards were lost to the Parthians.’

RB adds that the idea of the kings of the East uniting to invade the Empire with ‘the beast who was and is not and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit’ [Re 17:8], expressed a contemporary myth that a villain/savior figure [Nero] would one day return with the Parthian hordes to destroy Rome.

RB writes:

‘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.’

[Observation: efforts to read Revelation as a script for deriving specific prophecies could hardly be more wrong-headed, unless it is to use those ‘prophecies’ as the basis for political decisions in a volatile region of the world].

Learning to Read the Revelation

Considering Revelation

Many years ago, and for personal reasons, I was involved in a GARB church for several months. That congregation heard multiple prophecy series. One was on Daniel, another was on the Revelation, and a third was on messianic prophecies from Zechariah. That actually made some sense since it happened in Advent and Christmastide.

In Fundamentalism, sermon series on Bible prophecy are not optional. If your Fundie sect doesn’t have at least two prophecy series annually, your credibility will bleed quickly. But if end-time stuff makes odd preaching at Christmastide, we must acknowledge that it is just as strange for Fundies exploring other traditions to find such a dearth of end-time odysseys. We can forgive them for wondering if we believe anything about last things.

But Bible sects have no exclusive claim on end time belief. People firmly planted in the confessional church believe in Jesus’ second coming, the resurrection of the dead, the consummation of the kingdom, the eternal Sabbath, and more. Perhaps we can play some small part in setting right the record on this. That someone is not pre-millennial or dispensational does not mean that they do not believe anything about last things.

A Guide for a Study

It might be profitable, then, to spend some time on this. I thought I’d try an extended book review to help structure this project. If a Fundie cares for a sane alternative to the pastor’s prophecy series, great! And if this becomes a bore, it can be set aside. Meanwhile, I’ll try a kind of running summary/commentary on the Theology of the Revelation, by Richard Bauckham, Professor of NT studies at St. Andrews University.

Bauckham’s writing is dense. He isn’t for the weak of heart. In just over 160 pages, he crams more information into 7 chapters than one finds in many popular texts. And he doesn’t hold to a traditional view on John’s identity. This doesn’t alter the value of his work; but I mention it in the event that is a ‘deal-breaker’ for anyone thinking of buying a copy.

Learning to Read Revelation

Bauckham devotes his first chapter to the question of HOW to READ the Revelation. This isn’t a matter of a ‘literal’ or ‘spiritual’ interpretation of the text. The question is what kind of a book ‘Revelation’ is.

Is the book of Revelation an apocalypse? ‘Apocalypse’ is translated ‘revelation.’ It implies an unveiling, a making known of what was there all along, but was not seen our understood. The apocalypse [revelation] of Jesus Christ is actually the title of this book and it is used in Re 1:1.

Or, is it a prophecy? Re 1:3 speaks of ‘the words of the prophecy.’

Or, is Revelation an epistle? Re 1:4 declares John to be the author, and addresses the churches in the Roman province of Asia. It includes the formulary benediction [grace to you and peace …] and doxology [to him who loves us and released us from our sins…] that is characteristic of an epistolary work.

Bauckham [RB] opens saying that misinterpretations often arise from misunderstanding what kind of work it is. Is it an apocalypse, a prophecy, or an epistle? I have heard vicious debates on this subject. Perhaps you have heard those as well. This is because answer to that question shape what we expect to find in the book of Revelation. So it matters.

Then RB notes that the Revelation is unique in that it is cast not as one but three literary genres cast in one work. It is an apocalypse. It is a prophecy. It is an epistle. And justice must be done to all three literary genres to read this work seriously.

Revelation is ‘an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia.’ RB, Theology of the Revelation, p. 2.