The life and times of the New Testament’s most mystifying and incendiary book
Few biblical books have been as revered and reviled as Revelation. Many hail it as the pinnacle of prophetic vision, the cornerstone of the biblical canon, and, for those with eyes to see, the key to understanding the past, present, and future. Others denounce it as the work of a disturbed individual whose horrific dreams of inhumane violence should never have been allowed into the Bible. Timothy Beal provides a concise cultural history of Revelation and the apocalyptic imaginations it has fueled.
Taking readers from the book’s composition amid the Christian persecutions of first-century Rome to its enduring influence today in popular culture, media, and visual art, Beal explores the often wildly contradictory lives of this sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring biblical vision. He shows how such figures as Augustine and Hildegard of Bingen made Revelation central to their own mystical worldviews, and how, thanks to the vivid works of art it inspired, the book remained popular even as it was denounced by later church leaders such as Martin Luther. Attributed to a mysterious prophet identified only as John, Revelation speaks with a voice unlike any other in the Bible. Beal demonstrates how the book is a multimedia constellation of stories and images that mutate and evolve as they take hold in new contexts, and how Revelation is reinvented in the hearts and minds of each new generation.
This succinct book traces how Revelation continues to inspire new diagrams of history, new fantasies of rapture, and new nightmares of being left behind.
About the Author
Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. His many books include The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book and Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know. He lives in Denver.
Read an Excerpt
The book of Revelation, located at the end of the New Testament, contains a series of dramatic apocalyptic visions that a man named John claims God reveals to him during his stay on Patmos, a small island off the west coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Probably writing sometime between the beginning of the Jewish wars with Rome, which culminate in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE, and the end of the first century CE, this otherwise unknown John addresses his text to seven churches located on the nearby mainland. He exhorts them to persevere in their faithful obedience, describing wildly violent tribulations and a divine judgment that is soon to come, all of which will end in the annihilation of the present world. In its place, God will create a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem where he and his Christ will reign with their angels and saints forever.
Also known as the Apocalypse of John (from the Greek apokalupsis, "from hiding" or "covering"), Revelation does not so much present a vision or prediction of the end of the world as it unveils the edge of the world. It is an ending that is also a beginning; it is an overwhelmingly violent, cosmopolitical end that is, in the same moment, an overwhelmingly extravagant new beginning in which death and suffering will be no more. And all of it, all this shock and awe, is brought on as much by God, his Christ, and his angels as by God's monstrously diabolical enemies, the Satanic red dragon and his beasts. Dreadful and hopeful, dreamy and disgusting, Revelation is a sticky bit of biblical tradition: hard to grasp firmly and even harder to let go.
Indeed, no biblical book — perhaps no religious book — has been so simultaneously revered and reviled as Revelation. Many hail it as the pinnacle of prophetic vision and imagination, the cornerstone of the biblical canon, and, for those with eyes to see, the key to understanding the past, present, and future of the world and its creator. Others denounce it as downright diagnosable, the work of a highly disturbed individual whose highly disturbing dreams of inhumane and often misogynistic violence should never have been allowed into the Bible in the first place.
In fact, for as long as people have been reading this apocalyptic text, they have been arguing about its scriptural status and value. In the third century, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria reported that many Christians reject it, "pronouncing it without sense and without reason ... covered with such a dense and thick veil of ignorance." In his Ecclesiastical History (325 CE), Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea placed it in two mutually incompatible categories: as "undisputed" for some (that is, unquestionably belonging in the canon of Christian scriptures) and as "disputed" for others. And although Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, included it in his canonical list of New Testament scriptures in 367 CE, his contemporary, Cyril of Jerusalem, excluded it from his.
Over a millennium later, during the Reformation, the book of Revelation's status was still in question. In his 1522 edition of the New Testament, for example, Martin Luther wrote that he saw no evidence of its inspiration, that no one knows what it means, and that "there are many far better books for us to keep." Ironically, as we will see in chapter 6, Lucas Cranach the Elder's wildly creative woodcut illustrations of Revelation made it one of the most popular books in Luther's Bible.
Debates over the social and theological value of Revelation have chased it through history and continue to this day. Contemporary feminist biblical scholars, for example, disagree sharply as to its potential to contribute to social justice and liberation for women and nonheteronormative people. Some, notably Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, argue that when its androcentric language is recognized as the "conventional, generic" rhetoric of its social-historical context, the narrative can proclaim a promise of liberation for poor and oppressed people regardless of gender and sexual identity. Others, notably Tina Pippin and Caroline Vander Stichele, argue that its gendered language of sexual violence is irredeemable insofar as it not only reflects but reinforces and ordains patriarchal norms and misogynistic representations of women.
We will return to these debates about Revelation's scriptural status and value in subsequent chapters. For now, suffice it to say that, despite its great host of critics, the book of Revelation has not only survived, but thrived. Whether or not you have ever read the text, you are probably familiar with many of its scenes, characters, and images: the seven seals, the four horsemen, the red dragon, the "woman clothed in the sun," the archangel Michael, the "grapes of wrath," the "mark of the beast," the "whore of Babylon," the Second Coming, the thousand-year or millennial reign, the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, the "book of life," the new Jerusalem, and so on. For better or worse, this book's extremely provocative visions have kindled the apocalyptic imaginations of so many artists, writers, leaders, and movements throughout history that it is virtually impossible for most people to imagine the world, or its end, without conjuring it.
Revelation begins in a place of displacement. "I was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God," its otherwise unknown author writes, "and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, 'Write in a book what you see'?" (Revelation 1:10–11). That sense of being out of place, never quite at home, has never left it. Revelation is an outsider, a fringy, apocalyptic weirdo. Even when it finds itself welcomed into the palaces and temples of power and influence, as it often does, it remains a refugee and a stranger, an other within. As such, it never quite settles down. It continues to move, survive, and thrive by taking on different identities and adopting different forms in different times and places.
This biography of Revelation, then, is not about its life, but rather its many lives and the apocalyptic imaginations it has fueled. It explores the legion of often wildly contradictory lives of strangely familiar — sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring — biblical visions. It is the story of how Revelation continues to become something new, reinventing itself and taking on new forms of life in the hearts, minds, and imaginations of those who become its hosts.
My approach to this biography is that of a cultural historian. In the field of biblical studies, cultural history explores how biblical words, images, things, and ideas (including ideas of "the Bible") take particular meaningful forms in particular cultural contexts. A cultural-historical approach begins with the fact that there is no singular, fixed, original "Bible" or "book of the Bible" to be received across history. Rather, there are multiple, often competing, symbolic and material productions of the Bible — that is, biblical media — that are generated and generative in different cultural contexts. In this light, the "book" of Revelation is not a self-evident, original literary thing created once and for all in the past and then incarnated in various interpretations throughout history. It constantly changes, forever being made and remade in different cultural productions of meaning.
This, then, is a "life" in and of fragments, bits and pieces, traces of traces of traces — often almost entirely detached from their "original" contexts — that keep mutating and replicating, congealing and dissolving into new cultural gene pools. Revelation is not so much a literary text, let alone a book to be received in later works, as it is a multimedia constellation of images, stories, and story-shaped images; it expands and contracts, with parts of it attaching to and detaching from other cultural artifacts within different media ecologies throughout history. It becomes part of different cultural works in unanticipated ways — ways that biblical scholars would often judge to be misuses, abuses, poor receptions, or no receptions at all.
Very often, as we will see, this constellation becomes so diffuse and scattered that its elements detach altogether from anything like a "book." Unmoored from any kind of narrative whole, they circulate as snapshots that take on lives of their own, evolving, mutating, and reproducing in new contexts and combining with other cultural fragments of story and image.
Of course, floating somewhere near the dense middle of this multimedia constellation is a text, or rather a literary tradition, which, for the sake of convenience, we will call "the book of Revelation." This, too, is a constellation, an intertextual field whose boundaries and subfields are difficult, if not impossible, to map. There is no single "original" text of Revelation, but rather a large variety of manuscripts and bits of manuscripts — over three hundred, in fact — written in Greek, Latin, and other ancient languages and dated to the early centuries of Christianity. Biblical scholars sometimes call these various early manuscripts "witnesses" to a hypothetical original text. Whether such a singular original existed is a serious question. In any case, the oldest of these "witnesses" by far, Papyrus 98, a small fragment of papyrus scroll with nine verses from Revelation (1:13–2:1), dates to the second century CE. Even in its few surviving lines, its text does not entirely match later witnesses, including those that are primarily used to reconstruct the text of Revelation in most modern translations. Another early witness, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 115, from the late third or early fourth century, gives the number of the beast in Revelation 13:18 as 616 rather than 666 (as do some other manuscripts).
Surrounding this amalgamation of early manuscripts and manuscript fragments are the numerous critical scholarly editions and translations of Revelation. Some of these texts are translations of translations — early modern German and English translations from the Latin Vulgate ("common" or "popular") translation, for example. Others are translations of the so-called textus receptus, that is, the "received" whole Greek text of the New Testament that was used by Erasmus, Martin Luther, and the translators of the Geneva Bible and Authorized or "King James Version" Bible. Still others, including most modern translations like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, are based on a reconstruction of what scholars hypothesize to have most likely been the "original" text based on critical assessment of the various "witnesses" to it. This text is known as the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, which is now in its twenty-eighth revision.
These days, moreover, many versions and translations of Revelation proliferate well beyond traditional print book media, taking the form of everything from memes on social media like Instagram to huge online interfaces like Bible.com, which provides access to thousands of translations and encourages interaction with them via sharing in various social media.
We could go on, tracing the many paths of this literary constellation that we are short-handing as the "book" of Revelation: countless sermons, commentaries, interpretations, critical analyses, and so on. We could also look deeper into the middle of this literary mass and find the Jewish scriptural traditions that were worked and reworked into it. Indeed, much as John himself eats the scroll that the angel feeds him (Revelation 10:9–10), the text of Revelation itself is a voracious consumer of other texts. More than half of its verses are drawn from Jewish Scripture, especially prophetic texts like Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel.
All that is to say, even when we try to narrow our focus to Revelation as a literary text, we find ourselves lost in a process of dissemination that calls into question the very notion that there is an original "book" behind it all. The closer we look, the more it seems to resist our desire for an origin, an arche to its literary expansions and contractions. To borrow from biblical media scholar Michael Hemenway, Revelation possesses a kind of anarchic textuality, a dynamism without beginning or end.
Bolts in the Neck
In many respects, the multimedia constellation that we call Revelation is very like the popular cultural phenomenon that we call Frankenstein. First and most obviously, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Revelation is, at least in some sense, the monstrous creation of its writer, John of Patmos. Moreover, just as Shelley famously bid her "hideous progeny go forth and prosper" in the introduction of her 1831 republication of the novel, so John sent forth his own work into the world, where it has certainly prospered.
Yet John's text of Revelation is not only like Shelley's novel; it is also like the novel's monster, just as John is also like the monster's creator, Dr. Frankenstein. For, as we will see, the text of Revelation is not so much born from the mind of its creator as it is stitched together from pieces of other texts and then animated, given a life of its own.
Finally, like the Frankenstein phenomenon, Revelation is much more than its literary text. Just as many people know a lot about Frankenstein's monster without ever reading a word of the novel, so, too, many people know a lot about Revelation without ever having read a word of the biblical text.
What they know, moreover, often has little or nothing to do with that "original" text. How many think Frankenstein is the name of the monster, not its creator? How many believe he was brought to life by a lightening-gathering machine on a stormy night, when the novel describes no such dramatic scene? (Rather, Dr. Frankenstein very briefly recalls that he had a few medical instruments to "infuse a spark of being" while rain "pattered dismally" on the window pain.) Why do so many imagine the monster was hugely tall, with green skin and bolts sticking out of its neck, when no such features are described in the novel? And why do we imagine him dull and nearly mute, when Shelley's monster is exceptionally eloquent and deeply reflective about his existential predicament? Because the idea of Frankenstein is a multimedia cultural phenomenon that is far more than, and far different from, its "original" text. Like the monster itself, Frankenstein, as multimedia cultural phenomenon, has taken on a life — or rather many lives — of its own.
So, too, Revelation. How many think Revelation is where we learn about the Antichrist? Why do so many believe that Revelation claims believers will be taken up to heaven in the rapture? And why do so many believe it predicts the ultimate end of the world, when its final vision is of a renewed world — a new heaven and earth with a new Jerusalem? Because Revelation, too, is a multimedia cultural phenomenon that is far more than, and far different from, its "original" text tradition. The rapture and the Antichrist are like the bolts in the monster's neck.
And yet, one might justifiably point out, there it is at the end of the Christian Bible: Revelation, a text of about twelve thousand words, divided into twenty-two chapters and 404 verses. Fair enough. It is as good a place to dive in as any.
If you have never read the book of Revelation, you are not alone. Many try but very few, Bible thumpers and Bible bashers alike, actually make it all the way through. Not because it has too many three-dollar words or difficult theological concepts. On the contrary, what drives the text is action: scenes of angels, gods, and monsters doing things, mostly violently ruinous things, to the earth and its human population, largely without any interpretation or explanation. Moreover, the main actors — the enthroned God, the image of the risen Christ as "the Lamb," the red dragon "who is the Devil and Satan," the beast, the beast's deputy prophet, and the hosts of angels breaking seals, blowing trumpets, and pouring out bowls of wrath — seem to spring from John's head out of nowhere, with little or no precedent in the rest of the New Testament. They simply do not seem like good "Bible." In actions and in appearance, they do not match what most consider the biblical ideas of God, Jesus, angels, Satan, the Gospel, and how all of them relate to humans and the rest of the world. Thus, the experience of reading Revelation does not jibe with what most expect from the Christian Bible.
Granted, it is easy enough to outline this biblical book. Most commentaries break it down something like this:
I. Introduction and opening vision of "one like the Son of Man" (Revelation 1:1–20)
II. Letters to seven churches in Asia (2:1–3:22)
III. The throne room of heaven (4:1–5:14)
IV. Tribulations, ending with the fall of Babylon, personified as a woman (5:1–18:24)
V. The Second Coming and thousand-year reign of Christ, and the Last Judgment (19:1–20:15)
VI. The new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem (21:1–22:21)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Book of Revelation"
Copyright © 2018 Timothy Beal.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Introduction 1
Chapter 2 Pale Rider: Obscure Origins 32
Chapter 3 Apocalypse Not Now: Augustine's Tale of Two Cities 49
Chapter 4 Cry Out and Write: Hildegard's Apocalypse 70
Chapter 5 Mind's Eye: Joachim in the Forests of History 94
Chapter 6 September's Testament: Luther's Bible vs. Cranach's Revelation 117
Chapter 7 New World of Gods and Monsters: Othering Other Religions 138
Chapter 8 Heaven in a Garage: James Hampton's Throne Room 155
Chapter 9 Left Behind, Again: The Rise and Fall of Evangelical Rapture Horror Culture 174
Chapter 10 Post Script: Revelation Becomes Us 198
Further Reading 209