Some thoughts about prophets, apocalyptic literature & eschatology
My husband Bill & I have been testing out fresh ways of looking at the Bible, based on contemporary Jewish ways of thinking/writing and the historical & cultural context. We find it fruitful and life-giving.
It is changing our mindset about some ‘familiar’ concepts, eg kingdom of God, day of the Lord, end times, world.
Here are a few principles which we are learning to apply.
Read what the Bible says, not what we have been told it says
This is very difficult to do.
Eg 1: Matthew - the Sermon on the Mount
Knowing the historical context helps keep us straight.
I was reading in Matthew recently (NT Greek text) re ‘Do not commit adultery’. Jesus says that it’s better to pull out your wandering right eye than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna (the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem). That word body in English is body in the Greek. Not a word about souls or hell. Yet how often have I 'heard' this passage as saying that it’s better to pluck out your offending eye ‘...or you’ll go to hell when you die’.
Jesus gives good practical advice here for daily living: if we don’t want our lives to sink into ever worsening mess/evil, if we want our lives to count for some use – we need to pick up on ‘small’ secret sins before they grow.
Yes, there’ll also be eternal consequences if we keep letting that right eye do its stuff; but that isn’t all that Jesus is talking about this time.
If someone spoke to us today about throwing bodies or body parts into the local tip, we would not immediately think they meant souls bound for hell, would we?
Eg 2: Matthew 24-26
‘As in the days of Noah...’
We have been trained (at least I was) to read this passage as 'thw righteous person will be taken away to God, the evil person left on earth'.
But Jesus actually says that the evildoers kept doing ordinary everyday life ‘...until the flood came and took them away’. IE it was those who disobeyed who were ‘taken away’. Did you notice?
The difference might not be a big deal for everyday Christian life. But this example does warn us:
not to quote this particular verse as a proof text of rapture!
not to trust ourselves. We happily read into Scripture what is not there - even for decades - before the Spirit jolts us into seeing what it really says.
Greek (pagan) philosophy affected the Western church & culture
Lots that could be said here about Hebrew vs Western (pagan Greek philosophical) thinking. If we want to understand the Bible but we come to it with a Greek mindset, we’ll misconstrue things or get frustrated.
The idea that ‘body’ is evil and ‘spirit’ as the good part of mankind trapped in a corrupt body, is a pagan Greek concept. Paul & John would be perplexed (horrified) by some of the traditional Western church’s teaching on the ‘flesh’. Jewish thought (Biblical thought) is that man/woman is a whole body-spirit being, & all of that being was created by a good God.
Our Western mindset is logical – chronological – concerned with exact wording. Whereas the Hebrew way of writing & thinking was less concerned with chronology or category, more oriented to heart/gut/overall theme.
Eg 1: Daniel
The chapters in Daniel jump around chronologically. Look at which king is on the throne in the starting verses of each chapter! But (at least some) chapters are grouped thematically.
Worse: chapters of Daniel wander around in the various ancient copies. Not a problem for a Hebrew thinker; these different versions showed different emphases. Big problem for a Westerner trying to trace 'historical accuracy' or 'the correct version' in Greek-mindset terms.
Eg 2: Hebrews
The sloppy reasoning applied in Hebrews used to appall me. Then I learnt that Jewish OT students didn’t use Greek logical methodolgy to comprehend the majesty & depths of Yahweh's inspired writings. The use of quotations in Hebrews is faithful to Jewish thought & understanding of the Scriptures.
Using historical & cultural context to interpret the Bible is not cheating
AAARGH!! What about Sola Scriptura, I hear?
It’s a Reformation principle, not a Biblical mandate. Oddly, if you insist on Sola Scriptura, you add a tradition of man onto the words of the Bible! Catch 22.
Yes, the Bible often interprets its own words. But no one, not even the most literal literalist, relies on the words of Scripture alone. We all imbibe extra-Biblical information to help our Christian journey: eg the knowledge that in Biblical times sheep were led, but goats were driven. This guides our understanding of the text.
By ‘historical context’ of the Bible, I don’t imply that the original intended readers needed an ancient history degree. I mean the shared, common knowledge of the readers & author at the time a book was written. Biblical authors, just like every other communicator, took shared knowledge & assumptions into account.
- The Book of Hebrews assumes knowledge of the Torah.
The NT was written within, & drew on, overlapping Greek, Jewish & Roman cultures. Each group interacted, knew something of each other’s ways & shared certain social & political settings.
What happens if we don’t share that same background knowledge? We are likely to miss things that were obvious to the first readers.
Wilful ignorance is not higher spirituality. Wherever there is historical background information that God in his grace has allowed to be preserved until our time, & it helps us to understand more fully what he has done & said: that's great! Let's appreciate those people who diligently seek to understand the background to some 'hard passages' and can help the rest of us.
Eg: 2 Thessalonians
In this NT book, Paul talks of the ‘restraint’ and then the ‘restrainer’ holding back the antichrist. There are so many interpretations of this ‘restrainer’, you could fill another book. But the earliest Christians who preserved this letter didn't think that was worth doing.
Let’s look at one possibility based on contemporary common knowledge.
The Thessalonians were well aware that:
Claudius was emperor
his name is related to the Latin word claudere which means ‘to close’, but is sometimes translated as ‘to hold back, to restrain’
you didn’t openly write critical stuff about the emperor’s family, or carry such seditious literature along Roman roads, or read it aloud in a public church setting. Cyphers were very handy in letters
Claudius’ niece Agrippina (she was probably his wife by that time) was ruthless, ambitious & gaining power
Claudius did reasonably well as emperor (coming just after Caligula!). By the time this letter was sent, he was getting older, tireder & rather overruled by his staff & Agrippina
his own reign had begun with the previous emperor’s assassination. Who knew what might happen to Claudius; or what might happen after he died? Rome was corrupt to the core
the apostasia which Paul says must happen before the man of lawlessness is revealed, at the time he wrote it basically meant ‘rebellion’. The Jewish historian Josephus used apostasia not many years later, to describe the Jewish revolt which led to the destruction of Jerusalem & the temple in AD 70.
Given this background: this passage of the letter could take on quite another shape from that favoured by certain sectors of the 20th century church. The restraint/restrainer might not be some mysterious future-time figure that Paul was shown in a vision, or which he construed from a Bible verse that no one else has noticed (and we too have the Holy Spirit). The apostasia might not be a final falling away of half-baked Christians in thousands, just before Jesus comes back for good.
Instead: it might be a comment from a real life letterwriter to his real life friends, about real, contemporary issues. Imperial law as embodied in the emperor (neuter for the abstract 'restraint', masculine for the emperor 'restrainer') has power to hold back destructive forces, for a time. Nonetheless, the reports out of Jerusalem are worrying. The country is in a right mess. What was prophesied must happen. As many times before: if the Jews continue to rebel against God & his Christ, & against the prevailing political powers, they will be 'judged' guilty and punished. There will be war, and against the efficient Roman army a divided, enraged, foolish Jewish people will lose badly. The temple will again be desecrated. If that's what Paul meant: he was right.
What if this passage in Thessalonians is a contemporary allusion to the bad times bound to come when a very hot political pot boils over? That is a situation which Christians have faced in many cultures & times since. They need(ed) the same encouragement as the Thessalonians. It would not be inexplicable, would it, that the Spirit would allow such a letter to be retained through the centuries?
I'm not laying down the law from my small knowledge. Maybe Claudius is not Paul’s ‘restraining one’, or maybe Paul also meant a last days ultimate restrainer. But let’s not reject an obvious contemporary meaning because of our contemporary hunger for last days fodder. When Jewish Paul, hounded out of Thessalonika for his new faith, wrote to his troubled new-Christian friends who he’d left behind there, he probably had other things on his mind than 21st century Western Christians & our global politics.
I descend into sarcasm there. But much of today’s eschatology strikes me as suspiciously now-centred, West-centred & US-centred, in an age when self-centredness is a besetting sin.
But isn’t Scripture inspired - it’s not just about Thessalonika? The idea that the restrainer was a then-present-day person does not diminish the ‘inspiredness’ of this letter. That kind of argument is not how we treat other parts of the Bible. The Bible is replete with texts specific to historical events & context, showing principles which we can apply in our time.
We don’t construe a possible ‘end times prophecy’ or advice for godly footwear from Boaz exchanging sandals with his cousin at the gate of Bethlehem. (Swapping sandals before the elders at the town gate sealed a contract.) Nor does anyone whinge that it’s a contemporary cultural detail which we oughtn't have to know to understand the book of Ruth, and the Almighty is unfair.
We do see in it a valuable principle: a promise is a binding commitment before God & community.
Claudius in 2 Thessalonians (if he is there) would show lasting principles too: that God determines times & seasons; that he uses even pagan powers for his purposes; that evil can’t get loose until He allows it; that we are to make the best use of the present times, & remain faithful if/when they worsen.
Be true to the literary style
A letter is not a theological PhD thesis. Neither is a prophetic book, such as Revelation.
Apocalyptic writing was ‘in’ in Jewish circles in the 1st century AD. Apocalyptic literature was a peculiarly Jewish form of writing: figurative, steeped in striking imagery & symbolism.
This literature was written to an audience that was suffering...to give them hope that...victory and better days were ahead.
(https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/apocalyptic-literature, accessed 19/8/22)
Revelation was written by a man steeped in Jewish Scriptures, living in a time of intense Messaianic expectation. This expectation that the Christ would arrive very soon sent people back again and again to the prophets. It was a time of much-read ‘intertestamental’ writings, some of them apocalyptic in language and theme. Revelation even calls itself The apocalypsis of Jesus Christ. Surely that is a clue we are not to ignore! The book is stuffed with symbolism and language typical of other writings in the apocalyptic genre. It also refers heavily to Daniel, another apocalyptic book.
So, really important questions as we read the book of Revelation are: what is Jewish apocalyptic literature and what did contemporary authors expect their readers to take from it?
For starters, the NT Greek word ‘apocalypsis’ did not mean (as it does now in English) ‘an immense disaster such as to end the world, or a significant portion of it’. Nor did it mean ‘hidden secrets’ – despite the common attitude in churches that Revelation is too difficult & mysterious to bother with. Or that you need many pages of multi-coloured charts to interpret it.
‘Apocalypsis’ means uncovering, disclosure of truth, revelation. All those highblown visions & mystical creatures are meant to be perfectly clear to us, dear readers. So what tools did the early Christians have to unlock Revelation? If we use the same tools, we should get the same revelations from this book as they did & as John intended us to.
When I write a poem, I allow for conventions of my language & poetic style, & the culture that I write for. That way I will be understood. Ditto for writing & reading apocalyptic literature. John saw heavenly visions & understood (or failed to understand) various heavenly things, which he then had to put into mere human words. To do so, he used the usual language of the prophets of his culture & the writers of his own time: the style of books he was familiar with & he knew his readers were familiar with. We shouldn’t be surprised, should we?
‘...[apocalyptic literature is] highly symbolic, and part of the reason for that symbolism is to evoke emotion about the message...’
...In Daniel 7...Daniel sees a great sea, and from the sea emerge four terrifying creatures. Before you ever try to figure out what the creatures might represent, try to place yourself in Daniel's shoes and imagine the horror of what he's seen, because that's a large part of what the literature was trying to accomplish.
(https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/apocalyptic-literature, accessed 19/8/22)
That’s the general idea of the apocalyptic style. It’s not the sort of essay writing that would gain you a B Th, or a reputation as the clearest preacher on the block. But a Jewish reader of that day would go away thinking, ‘I know just what you mean’, even if they couldn’t express it in words. Heart language. Exaggerations to get a ‘feeling’ across. Cosmic language to describe earthly events of heavenly significance.
The river of life pouring from the temple into the Dead Sea and bringing even it alive… I think I know what Ezekiel means to convey, and I can’t express it any more concretely than he has. It can only be carried in visionary terms. New life coming in an alarming this-is-impossible, overwhelmingly beautiful, powerful, all we could ever have longed for, redeeming way that only God could do.
Dead bones will rise from scattered chaos. When we thought all was lost, they will re-assemble into living men… life from dry dust.
Like with parables, you don’t poke at apocalyptic imagery too hard or too literally. I don’t think Ezekiel’s point is ‘go & build a new stone temple’. The NT tells us that Jesus’ followers are now the temple of the Holy Spirit). Nor does he prophesy to the dry bones while worrying that the Israelites need extra marriage rules, before one of this army of soon-to-come beings wants to marry his great-great-great-granddaughter & mess up Jewish genealogy.
Can we even destroy understanding, if we focus on detailed literal interpretation? If we try to agree on an exact diagram of Ezekiel’s beings & their wheels, do we get more revelation or more arguments? Isn’t the main point that what Ezekiel saw was beyond description or human experience: that it could only betoken the presence of the Almighty Holy One, who - incredibly - revealed himself to this mere son of man? He would not be much of a God if he was easily depicted in a few hundred words, or a choice simile. He would be no more than all the idols which look just like created things, and thus are very easily described. Ezekiel gives unique glory to the One, by trying to pen the indescribable.
Symbols only work as a means of communication because their signification is accepted, shared knowledge between author & reader. This was a useful thought for me. It follows that symbolism in prophetic books does not mean the same as metaphors.
A symbol has a known, consistent meaning. Eg an unbroken line down the middle of the road: drivers are not free to apply their own interpretation. Nor can the roads authority decide that on some roads, it will use a solid line to mean ‘yes you can overtake’ and a broken one to mean ‘no you can’t’. If either party departs from the known, shared meaning of the ‘unbroken line’ symbol in the context of ‘down the middle of the road’: everyone agrees this is a dishonest or wrong interpretation.
When I write a metaphor in one of my poems, I know what I mean by it. Often the metaphor has more than one meaning bundled in. But readers are quite free to take a different sense from my verse from what I had intended. I don’t consider that ‘dishonest’, and rarely ‘wrong’.
Saying that Revelation is rich in symbolic language does not mean we have carte blanche to invent our own interpretation for the symbols.
What does each image or symbol mean, then?
That's a part of the journey that I have barely begun! I hope to
share some hints we’ve received so far, in another Musing. As you’d
expect, there are impressionistic gists of meanings, rather than precise
correlations. Different modern writers describe the symbols slightly
differently. No need for alarm: they usually contribute to the same general
sense, which is what the writer was probably after.
The West thinks ‘either-or’; Hebrew thought was more ‘and..’, ‘on the
other hand...’, ‘let’s look at it another way...’. Six visions in one book of prophecy can be 6
takes on the same theme; they need not be 6 different or consecutive
events. They help build a picture in our hearts of an underlying truth, which is bigger than the colour of a beast or size of its heads or exactly which Roman emperor it might correlate to.
Why so fantastical?
Like when Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, there were things John couldn’t say openly in Revelation while Rome ruled. Like John says, ‘Let the reader understand’.
As a prisoner, John couldn’t accompany his own letter and explain further what he meant. He had to protect the carriers of his message too, as well as its hearers if there were wolves among the flock. He wanted to ensure his message got to its destination(s) to encourage the churches.The symbols of apocalyptic writing were the ideal way to ‘reveal’ while ‘hiding’ his message.
God knew that, when He chose to show John the visions that He did.
Apocalyptic language was also ideally suited to express what John saw and what he wanted to say. What is weird to us was not strange to the 1st century Christians who received John’s message.
Ancient people would have read lots of apocalypses and would have understood how these apocalypses were functioning; they’re functioning to provide hope because they’re all about how there are wicked forces in charge of this world that God is going to overcome if you just hold on, if you just keep the faith.
(https://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/video-gallery/a/apocalyptic-literature, accessed 19/8/22)
Early Jewish Christians (eg the apostles) were immersed in the Old Testament and Jewish culture. They read what we now call apocrypha & pseudepigrapha, and the flush of apocalyptic writings that arose around their time. NT writers drew on this shared knowledge (eg Jude alludes to the book of Enoch).
Ex-Gentile Christians had either learnt to understand apocalyptic writings as ‘godfearers’ in the synagogues; or their new Jewish brothers & sisters helped to light their way through the apocalyptic books like Daniel & Revelation. That notion has sparked some thoughts on our being grafted in & nourished by the cultivated olive tree.
What of It?
As these ideas pervade how I read the Bible, I find it says unexpected things. It cuts away brash certainties which could narrow my vision.
Eg: The day of the Lord
Bill & I can no longer read ‘the day of the Lord’ only as ‘The Day of the Lord’: ie one final day of Jesus’ return as King.
In different contexts, there was a day of the Lord to judge Moab, and there were other days of the Lord for Egypt and Babylonia and the towns of the Philistines. The day of the Lord was often a day of judgment for God’s people. Judgment involved 'guilty' sentences and punishments, but also vindication for God’s maligned prophets & for the faithful remnant. There are days of the Lord not only of judgment, but of salvation & great rejoicing.
The Lord's Day is the day of Christ’s death as well as the day of His resurrection. It is the day of His return. But - in keeping with the OT usage for those many Days when the Lord intervened in power & love - I think now that it is also the eagerly anticipated Day(s) which we pray to experience before That Day. Days on which He breaks suddenly into our lives & nations, to bring the downfall of some of His enemies, & glorious redemption & justice for the downtrodden. May it happen many times, in many ways, on many Days.
When we read the NT with this kind of ‘the Lord’s Day’ in mind, the letters burst with hope for now. Jesus is transforming this earth & its cultures; He is ‘discipling the nations’. Not by taking disciples out from godless nations, but by sending people imbued with his new life into every nation. As Kingdom of God leaven in the dough. As a river of living water flowing from God's temple (his people) into the Dead Sea, turning its salt water into fresh water teeming with life.
That's adventure enough until Jesus returns as King of all Kings.