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Apocalypse now.

Mysterious and symbolic writing makes Revelation one of the most difficult books of the Bible to understand. "It's typical of apocalypticism to reveal secrets only partially; it's to tantalize, to make you wonder what else there is to be revealed so you'll keep coming back to talk to the prophet or to listen," says Adela Yarbro Collins.

Collins, professor of scripture at the University of Chicago, has written several articles and commentaries on Revelation. She is also the author of Crisis & Catharsis (Westminster/John Knox, 1984) and The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (Fortress, 1992).

Collins advises us that Revelation "also has a theological point, which is to say that God is revealing to us through this prophet John what is to be. But don't be arrogant about that knowledge because it's a much greater mystery than the human mind can grasp."

The Book of Revelation seems so bizarre. Why is it in the Bible?

Presumably the people who preserved the book knew the author personally and accepted his authority as a prophet of God, and, in a sense, it became prophecy fulfilled. At the time the Book of Revelation was written, persecution was not that big of a deal. In the 60s the Roman emperor, Nero, persecuted Christians in the city of Rome so he could get rid of some slums and do some more of his monumental building, but that was an isolated incident. In the Book of Revelation the author talks about massive persecution to the point that some scholars argue that he thought all Christians would be martyred. Now that's probably an exaggeration, but he certainly speaks as though that's going to be a major event, and in fact, 100 to 200 years later that happened. Diocletian and other Roman emperors actually outlawed Christianity throughout the empire and tried to eliminate the movement. So the Book of Revelation was vindicated in that way. And that was during the time that the Canon of the Bible was being formed.

Who wrote Revelation?

The traditional understanding was that it was written by John, the Son of Zebedee, who was one of the twelve apostles. The substitute theory was that perhaps it was John the Elder, who's mentioned by the early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea. What I and many others have concluded is that the Book of Revelation was written by an early Christian named John, who was recognized in the early church as a Christian prophet. He seems to think of himself as more than just a local leader who's inspired by the Spirit. And he seems to be claiming the same authority as the Old Testament prophets because he models his book on theirs. But we don't know anything else about him other than this book.

Do we know where he lived?

The seven cities that he addressed are all in western Asia Minor--the part of Turkey that had earlier been colonized heavily by Greeks. And he says that he received the revelation on the island of Patmos. The early Christian tradition says that he was exiled to Patmos for being a Christian. He just says, "I was on Patmos." That can be taken as, "I was banished there because I was preaching the word of the Lord, and the Roman governor kicked me out." Or it could be read, "I went there to preach the word of the Lord." That second reading is somewhat unlikely because it was not a very heavily populated island, and most Christian missionaries went to the major cities.

I think that he was exiled to Patmos. He may have gone to that general area as a refugee from the Jewish-Roman War that went on from 66 to 72. That would explain his intense knowledge of Jewish scripture and his concern about the city of Jerusalem.

What is the main point of the Book of Revelation?

In the culture of the time, the dominant worldview was Roman. whoever was emperor at the time was Apollo incarnate or even Zeus incarnate. Roman power was legitimated by divine will, and the way for people to be blessed and happy and to share in prosperity in this world and the next was to be part of the Roman system.

John's view opposes that. He took the notion of Jesus as the Messiah very seriously in an earthly sense. Paul did, too. Paul could write in Romans 13 that followers of Christ should obey the authorities because he felt that the end was coming soon, and it didn't matter what the emperor did because God would judge the emperor in the near future. But I think for John it did matter. It was a problem that Christ's power was not manifested on earth. So what he was arguing was that you must choose between these two claims for loyalty and that in the end, followers of Christ will be victorious, and even in the present one can share in the true power of God and Christ by being a Christian.

John knew the communities he addresses in the first chapter, and he is admonishing and praising them for their behavior. Any community can identify with one or more of those seven communities, and John's admonitions are open to interpretation to fit later historical situations or to fit typical moral situations. That is part of the reason why this text can function as scripture. The ultimate message is: if you're a good Christian, you're going to be poor and you're going to be persecuted.

Who was John writing for?

Some people think that the author was not writing for Christians of his time but for those who would live at the time of the end of the world, and that's usually the current generation. For example, when the Common Market was formed in Europe, people interpreted it as a fulfillment of some of Revelation's prophecies: the ten countries were the ten horns of the beast; the Common Market was the beginning of a world wide government leading to a world empire with one world political leader and a false religious leader, who many ultraconservative Protestants thought was going to be the pope. But historical critics and biblical scholars argue that we need to read those images not in terms of what's going on in the world in our time, but in terms of what we can learn about what was going on in the world in John's time.

Why is the book sometimes called the Apocalypse and sometimes Revelation?

Is there a difference in the meaning of those two words?

The word apocalypse and all the related English words come from the second word of the Book of Revelation. This Greek word apocalypse means literally "uncovering" but has come to mean the "coming of the end." In Latin and English translations the word revelation is used, which has come to mean "revealed divine truth." Apocalypticism can mean imminent expectation of the end of the world or revelation of heavenly secrets. I think the best definition is one that has both aspects.

If you look at the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation as classic examples of apocalyptic literature, what they have in common is a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension is an interest in the heavenly world with a vision of God enthroned and of heavenly beings around the throne. Heaven is often described as a place where the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. The horizontal dimension is the future--the end of the world, the last judgment, and the general resurrection of the dead. A classic apocalypse is a work that has those two interests.

Do you think John really believes his prophecies will happen?

I think so. If you read chapters 13 and 17 of the Book of Revelation, John describes the Antichrist. He doesn't use that word, but in effect he's describing the coming of the Antichrist in imagery that has to do with war on earth. He expects armies from the East to come and do battle with Rome, and he's expecting that to be the turning point. That's analogous to 20th-century humans expecting a nuclear war in the near future.

The writers and audiences of the day took prophecies literally to a certain degree. For example, I think Saint Paul did believe that Christ would return in the near future and that the dead would be raised and the living changed to a heavenly existence. But I don't think he had a lot invested in a timetable or in minute details of how it was going to happen. He felt that certain things were revealed, but when he speaks about it, it's more poetic than literal. So, in the end, what apocalyptic writers say should be taken seriously but not literally.

What do the author's visions mean?

In chapter four John has a vision of God enthroned as creator, which is very similar to Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6. Then chapte five introduces the Lamb. One of the big debates about the Christology of the apocalypse comes up in chapter five because John sees a scroll in the hand of the One who is enthroned, God, and he sees that it's sealed, and there's an invitation to open the scroll, but nobody comes forward. John weeps at this situation, and one of the 24 elders tells him not to worry because the lion, the root of Jesse, the lion of Judah has triumphed, and he will open the scroll. That is typical messianic language. But when John looks, he doesn't see a lion, he sees a lamb, which has been slain. There are a number of theologians who say that the Christology of the apocalypse is rejecting militarism, violence, and conflict, and that it is saying the only real victory is victory in suffering.

My own understanding of chapter five, in light of chapter 19, which is filled with battle imagery and bloodshed, is that John is saying that the fact that Jesus was crucified does not negate the understanding that he is still a powerful messiah. Even though he is not now king on earth, even though the Romans have the earthly power, Christ has the real power, which is hidden but will become manifest in the future.

What do the seven seals mean?

In the ancient world it was customary to identify things with a picture or word made by impressing a cylinder or cut stone into something soft, like clay. The term seal can refer either to the instrument that makes the mark or the impression made. Often a bit of clay marked in this way was used to seal documents. The seal is a legal authorization. This image is used metaphorically in the description of the heavenly scroll.

The interpretation of the visions of the seven seals is more debated than most of the other series of seven. Since it comes at the beginning, the account of seven seals is probably the shortest and the most enigmatic vision.

The first four seals are the four horsemen. The first one is a rider on a white horse with a crown and a bow, and people argue over whether it's a positive or negative image or whether it's Christ. I think that the first rider is most likely representing the Parthians, who were the successors to the Persian Empire in the East, because their armies typically rode horses and had bows and arrows as opposed to Roman and Greek armies, who traveled mostly on foot and had other kinds of weapons. This would be a positive image for John because he sees the army from the East, the Parthians, as the ones who are going to defeat the Romans. And since Rome is the new Babylon, it's a good thing for Rome to be defeated. After that, I think you just have typical images of distress and woes of the end time that are taken from the distress that's typical of war and social breakdown.

What comes after the four horsemen?

The fifth seal contains the souls under the altar. One thing that's interesting to me about this passage is that the souls are said to be those who have been slain for the word of God. So I think John is trying to express that these are not just Christians who have been killed but all the righteous dead--from Abel onward. Later Christian tradition talks about Jesus liberating the righteous from Hades and their being exalted to heaven with Him. The souls ask when their blood will be avenged. They're told when the number is complete of those who must be killed. So in a way that's a subtle advocacy of martyrdom. the more people who die for their faith, the sooner the end will come.

The sixth seal describes the end--everybody will cry out to the rocks and mountains, "Fall upon us and hide us" from God and the "wrath of the Lamb." That appears to be an image for the final judgment. It's interesting that the words "wrath of the Lamb" are used. It shows that the Lamb is not only passive, meek, mild, or simply a suffering figure but also a wrathful, powerful, judging figure. Then you have the interlude of the two visions of the 144,000 marked by the seal and the innumerable multitude. The innumerable multitude represents final salvation to a heavenly state.

So it's not just the 144,000 who are saved?

My reading is that the innumerable multitude is all the righteous, all those who will be judged as worthy of entering the new Jerusalem in the final judgment. The first part of chapter seven makes it sound as if the 144,000 are Jews. They're from each tribe--the reconstituted people of Israel, or the people of Israel in its fullness. Some people think that the 144,000 are Jewish Christians and that the second group is gentile Christians. But in chapter 14 the Lamb is standing on Mount Zion with the 144,000, and the language suggests that these are the ones who are pure and spotless, who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They are the first fruits for God, and they do not defile themselves with women because celibacy was analogous to martyrdom. So my reading is that the 144,000 are a special group within the faithful.

What happens when the seventh seal is opened?

After all this turmoil, John writes, "When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour." That's the most stunning moment in the whole book. It is a prelude to the woes that are to come after the seventh seal is opened.

Why is the number seven so important?

That's really hard for most modern people, especially people who are not mathematicians and scientists, to grasp. Most commentators make it sound very simple--seven was an ancient symbol for totality. So when John speaks about seven churches, that's a simple image for the whole church. But actually it's not that simple. It's Pythagorean ultimately and is based on such physical phenomena as the seven planets, including the sun and the moon--they didn't know about Pluto and Neptune; the seven days of the week; and the fact that at age seven one gets permanent teeth, after seven more years reaches puberty, and seven years later achieves full adult stature. The basic idea is that nature and human experience are orderly and that their essence can be quantified.

Is there a connection between Revelation and other books in the Bible?

The Book of Revelation is contrasted most often with the Sermon on the Mount. Revelation would appear to be the opposite of the Sermon on the Mount, which many believe expresses the essence of Jesus' teaching: turn the other cheek. But another view would be to say that it was possible to say that you should turn the other cheek because Jesus believed that time was short. In fact, I'm inclined to see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who brought a message of reconciliation. He did not say, "You come to me, you repent and meet my standards, and then you will be forgiven." Rather he went out to everyone where they were and said, "You are forgiven." But then he expected a transformed person and lifestyle after that.

As for its relation to the Old Testament, the Book of Revelation never explicitly quotes Hebrew scripture, but in almost every verse it echoes some older book of scripture, especially Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. In the first chapter of Revelation, God says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega--the one who is and who was and who is to come." The book emphasizes the intervention of God into human affairs and the picture of the last days. Those are images of God that would be similar to those found in the Old Testament. In Revelation, chapter four, the picture of God enthroned is typical of the prophetic books. The idea of God seeing to it that retribution is made for the good and the bad is also quite typical of the Hebrew Bible.

Are there parts of Catholic doctrine or Catholic tradition that come

straight from Revelation?

Yes, the 1,000-year reign and the new Jerusalem. There are some other images in Revelation that are also found in the gospel: Christ as the Lamb of God and the Water of Life. In Paul's writing (1 Cor. 15, for example) and in Revelation, we find the resurrection of the dead. The whole idea of Baptism as a seal comes from the Epistles and Revelation. The first part of chapter seven, when the 144,000 are sealed on the forehead, is probably a borrowing and reinterpretation of Ezekiel 9, where God sends the angels to mark an X on the foreheads of those who moan over all the abominations practiced within Jerusalem. In Revelation the seal, too, serves primarily as a sign of preservation, but it came to be read as the mark of Baptism.

Why is everything in Revelation so cryptic?

It's typical of apocalypticism to reveal secrets only partially; it's to tantalize, to make you wonder what else there is to be revealed so you'll keep coming back to talk to the prophet or to listen. But also it has a theological point, which is to say that God is revealing to us, through this prophet John, what is to be. But don't be arrogant about that knowledge because it's a much greater mystery than the human mind can grasp.

Should Catholics believe in apocalypticism?

I hope so, or otherwise I'm not a Catholic. Catholic teaching, like that of other denominations, would say that apocalypticism is part of our traditional faith--that there will eventually be a return of Christ, a general resurrection, a judgment, and a new age--Heaven, the Beatific Vision. That is a part of the Creed. So it's certainly an option to say, I'm going to read the Book of Revelation as more about spiritual, ethical issues in this life, and maybe the last part of the book relates to that distant future.
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Title Annotation:University of Chicago professor of scripture Adela Yarbro Collins
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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