branch out, people

J.P. Moreland recounts a time when, during his doctoral program, he encountered a man in the library reading the Septuagint (LXX). In the original language. Because he wanted to. Moreland, naturally intrigued, struck up a conversation with the man only to learn that he was a specialist in ancient Greek mythology. Not only that, but the man was a recent convert from Judaism to Christianity. Intrigued by this, Moreland asked the man about his conversion. The man says:

Dr Moreland, I have studied myth most of my education. I know the earmarks of myth; that’s all I study. My undergraduate training was in mythology; my graduate training has been in mythology. And I was practicing Koine Greek reading the Gospel of Luke, and I got half way through it, and as a Jew, I said, ‘My God, this man really did these things. What am I going to do?’ This is history. It reads likes history. It doesn’t read like myth. I know what myth tastes like because all I do is read it, and this is not myth.

–J.P. Moreland & Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? (1993), 60

This morning, while doing my pre-study study, I heard Robert Cara (rightly) profess:

One reason (multiple reasons, really)–One reason most of you [have trouble] reading Revelation is: you pretty much never read another Apocalypse. [Revelation] is the only one you’re reading, so you don’t know what’s normal; the whole book seems un-normal–except for the seven letters.

–Robert Cara, “Pauline Letter Format”, lecture 1 of Pauline Epistles

I cannot begin to agree more with Cara’s diagnosis. Even taking into account texts like Daniel 9-12, Mark 13 and Matthew 24, as Christians we are largely unfamiliar with the basic genre of apocalypse (and the basics of that genre). I might dare say that this unfamiliarity tends to haunt our steps as we read Revelation, causing us to adopt a simple hermeneutic and run straight through the book screaming, “This means X, and that must refer to Y, and I see no other explanation for Z.”

This sort of approach is not only unhelpful but also inappropriate. It fails to do justice to the nature and genre of the book. It fails to wrestle with the complexity of the imagery and the beauty of the book’s construction. It fails to allow strange things to be strange, to let profound mysteries be profound and mysterious, and to recognize the intentionality and purpose of ambiguity. Moreover, and more basically, it fails to take into consideration the theological and social function of (Jewish) apocalyptic literature.

These failures can only be spotted by being familiar with what Revelation is, and being familiar means a willingness (and readiness) to branch out and read more apocalypses. I’m not saying accept other (Jewish) apocalyptic texts as canonical; I’m simply suggesting that we give Revelation the respect it deserves as both an apocalyptic text and a canonical book. Moreover, by being familiar with the apocalyptic genre, we will be able to notice not only where Revelation is similar (e.g. style, structure, function) but also steps outside of the “norm” (of apocalyptic writing), doing exciting and creative things.

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4 comments

  1. Love it. Right on the button Carl. But for those not in the know, where can we find other examples of apocalyptic literature so that this awareness and comparison of the genre can be made? Grace2U brother.

    1. Hey Richard! Thanks for the encouraging feedback. As far as other examples go, the basic texts are 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. If you want to read them, I would suggest these but in reverse order–1 Enoch is stinking long. There are certainly others, but I would say start with the basics. Other biblical examples–albeit much shorter than Revelation–are Daniel 7-12, Mark 13 and 2 Thessalonians 2.

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