I am a fan of Richard Bauckham — I discuss two of his other books here and here on this blogsite — and so I sought out this book. I’m glad that I did; while it did not dazzle me as much as his other books, that is owing in part to Revelation’s genre being quite different from the Gospels’.
Here’s a good description of the book that appears on the back cover and on the flyleaf:
The Book of Revelation is a work of profound theology. But its literary form makes it impenetrable to many modern readers and open to all kinds of misinterpretations. Richard Bauckham explains how the book’s imagery conveyed meaning in its original context and how the book’s theology is inseparable from its literary structure and composition. Revelation is seen to offer not an esoteric and encoded forecast of historical events but rather a theocentric vision of the coming of God’s universal kingdom, contextualized in the late first-century world dominated by Roman power and ideology. It calls on Christians to confront the political idolatries of the time and to participate in God’s purpose of gathering all the nations into his kingdom. Once Revelation is properly grounded in its original context it is seen to transcend that context and speak to the contemporary church. This study concludes by highlighting Revelation’s continuing relevance for today.
The author as always provides a close and erudite reading of biblical text, filled with insight. It is perhaps most on display in this book as he describes how John, the author of Revelation, skillfully weaves in so much Old Testament prophecy, a recurrent theme (144):
Revelation has a unique place in the Christian canon of Scripture. It is the only work of Christian prophecy that forms part of the canon. Moreover, it is a work of Christian prophecy which understands itself to be the culmination of the whole biblical prophetic tradition. Its continuity with Old Testament prophecy is deliberate and impressively comprehensive.
This book is short: only 164 pages of text, with two pages of “Further reading” suggestions and a three-page index. The seven chapters are “Reading the Book of Revelation”; “The One who is and who was and who is to come”; “The Lamb on the throne”; “The victory of the Lamb and his followers”; “The Spirit of prophecy”; “The New Jerusalem”; and “Revelation for today.”
I’ll add that the book is part of a series on “New Testament Theology” that sounds like it is aimed at seminarians and, at the conclusion of his preface here, divinity professor James D.G. Dunn, who is general editor of the series, states that the series’ volumes “are directed at those who already have one or two years of full-time New Testament and theological study behind them.” But don’t let that intimidate you, dear reader: This book did not seem particularly technical or dense to me.
In this vein, I should also note that the author has another, longer book titled, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation, which he describes here (165) as a “collection of essays, many of which develop aspects of the argument of the present book at greater length.”
Finally, I’m happy to report that the entire book is available for free online, posted apparently by the Mission India Bible College here.
I flagged three passages in the book as particularly important.
First, Bauckham declares (83) that chapter 11, verses 1-13, “contains, in nuce [in a nutshell], the central message of John’s whole prophecy.” I can’t resist noting that these verses fall squarely in the middle of Revelation, and that Bauckham’s declaration in turn falls squarely in the middle of his book. Straussians, take note! Here, by the way, is Revelation 11:1-13:
11 I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, with its worshipers. 2 But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months. 3 And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” 4 They are “the two olive trees” and the two lampstands, and “they stand before the Lord of the earth.”5 If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. 6 They have power to shut up the heavens so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want.
7 Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. 8 Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. 10 The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.
11 But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.
13 At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
The second passage I flagged is on pages 116-17:
The Spirit enables John to receive the visions in which he is given his prophetic revelations. The Spirit thus performs a role distinct from the chain of revelation by which the content of John’s prophecy comes to him from God (God – Christ – angel – John: 1:1; cf. 22:16). The Spirit does not give the content of the revelation, but the visionary experience which enables John to receive the revelation. These references to the Spirit do constitute a claim to real visionary experience underlying the book, though this does not mean that the book is simply a transcript of that experience. The book is far too complex and elaborate a literary composition for that to be possible, and much of its meaning is embodied in purely literary form. Whatever John’s visionary experiences were, he has transmuted them, by a long process of reflection, study and literary composition, into a literary work which communicates their message to others. But even more than a claim to visionary experience, these four references to the Spirit are a claim that his prophecy is divinely inspired. They complement the claim that the revelation came from God and reinforce the very strong claim to divine authority (cf. 22:18-19) by which John places his work in the same category as the canonical prophets – or gives it in a certain sense even a higher status, as the final prophetic revelation in which the whole tradition of biblical prophecy culminates (cf. 10:7).
And the third flagged passage is on page 146:
Given its character and its relation to the rest of the Christian canon of Scripture, the place which Revelation now occupies at the close of the whole canon could not be more appropriate. No other biblical book gathers up so comprehensively the whole biblical tradition in its direction towards the eschatological future. It draws out the sense in which the biblical history, not least its climax in the Christ event, points towards the universal kingdom of God, and it gives the whole canon the character of the book which enables us to live towards that future.
I should note as well that, in the very last section (“Revelation’s Relevance Today,” 159-64), the author “highlights briefly some [eleven, to be exact] points which have emerged in this study as offering theological directions for contemporary reflection.” They are not easily summarized, but the interested leader can look them up in the online version of the book linked to above.
In concluding this discussion of the book’s key takeaways, I’ll quote what I think is the most important sentence in the back-cover/flyleaf summary referenced above, namely that the book believes, “It [Revelation] calls on Christians to confront the political idolatries of the time and to participate in God’s purpose of gathering all the nations into his kingdom.”
What is the author’s attitude toward this Biblical text? I suppose one might say that Bauckham takes John seriously (which is certainly reassuring) but not literally (which is perhaps also reassuring).
Believing that John carefully crafted the book, as Bauckham argues, does not mean that he did not also have his dramatic, prophetic, and apocalyptic vision. The author suggests, rather, that John simply elaborated on this vision in the course of memorializing it.
In this regard, I should note also that Bauckham believes that the Gospels were likewise carefully crafted. This, as I noted in an earlier post here, is potentially in tension with an argument that the veracity of the Gospels is enhanced by the fact that they appear to be straightforward and rather raw factual accounts (a point C.S. Lewis makes); whether that is so or not, it seems to me to be less of a problem, or at least a different sort of problem, with a book like Revelation.
The author notes (see, e.g., 152-56) that the prophecy here might have both a contemporary (to John) and a contemporary (to us) relevance. I would add that this sort of two-track prophecy ought to be one with which Christians are particularly comfortable, since we commonly interpret Old Testament prophecy as relevant to the the ancient Jews’ immediate predicaments — but also as foretelling Christ and His coming.
Three short additional points:
- As noted, in the back-cover/flyleaf summary of the book quoted above, the key thematic sentence is, “It [that is, Revelation] calls on Christians to confront the political idolatries of the time and to participate in God’s purpose of gathering all the nations into his kingdom.” If this book is correct in interpreting Revelation to call for pushback against Rome and other secular oppressors, that argues against a broad interpretation of Paul’s letters as calling for acceptance of those authorities. Of course, one could also argue conversely that Paul’s letters argue against too broad an interpretation of Revelation in calling for pushback. The two are not inconsistent: There’s obviously a balance to be struck here in deciding what should be rendered to Caesar and what to God, and reading Paul’s letters and Revelation together can help us strike that balance correctly.
- I have to confess that my anti-PC antennae went up when the author spoke of Revelation’s opposition to political oppression and economic exploitation. That’s because the terms are used now in contexts where there’s little being actually oppressed or exploited. But that may be unfair to the author here, since of course sometimes real political oppression and economic exploitation have existed, and if John was talking about Rome actually putting people to the sword and stealing their treasure — well, that’s indeed something God would want us to oppose (see 155, “totalitarian control of economic life”; elsewhere the author is himself gently anti-PC, regarding some feminist and anti-sovereignty claims).
- I also very much liked this quote (149): “God’s kingdom must come — or God would not be God — but the predicted manner of its coming is conditional on human response and on God’s freedom to embrace human freedom in his purpose.”
One reason I sought out this book, besides being (as noted at the outset of this post) a fan of the author’s, is that I’ve been wrestling with Revelation’s relation to the canon, with its place in the Bible.
Simply as a literary matter, the book makes perfect sense. The Bible’s “Once upon a time”/”In the beginning” start needs a finish, an end to the story. And, one can argue, the same need is there as a non-literary, Scriptural matter, too.
To wit: God created the universe, including people, whom He wants to love Him and each other. To this end, He chose a people, the Jews, to work through. After a couple of thousand years, God the Father sent His Son to earth, the better to bring this message to all people. Now, obviously some have gotten the message and some haven’t. It’s possible that this state of affairs could simply continue indefinitely, with no end promised: the good and bad both living out their earthly lives, and their being rewarded or punished as appropriate now and, especially, in the afterlife. But, when you think about it, nothing lasts forever; the earth certainly cannot last forever. And apparently, for His own reasons, God does not intend the current state of affairs to last forever. So for both natural and supernatural reasons there will be an end — and it makes sense for Scripture to describe the end, just as it described the beginning and the middle, to complete the narrative and finish the job of Scripture: instructing us all, reassuring the faithful, and warning those who are tempted to be less so.