Imagery in the Book of Revelation by M. Labahn and O.
Lehtipuu (Contributions to Biblical Exegesis & Theology:
Peeters) Understanding the Book of Reveladon means understanding its ,
imagery. This puzzling book contains a fascinating world of
pictures and images — every chapter and every page of it is filled
with different kinds of images coming from different traditions and
developing different sorts of meaning. The search for the origins of
the seer's imagery, its cultural, social-historical, and religious
meaning, the problem of Johannitie rhetoric, and reader responses to
the text are important tasks that merit further discussion. The
contributions of this collection explore different aspects of this
intriguing field by discussing Selected issues of the wide range of
materials. The contributors different methodological approaches and
apply different tools adopted from a variety of disciplines, such as
narrative criticism, intertextuality, social/historical criticism,
history of religious comparison, gender studies.
The book contains contributions by David Barr, Johannes Beutler, Marco Frenschkowski, Steven Friesen, Lászlo Attila Hubbes, Konrad Huber, Michael Labahn, Kirsi Siitonen, Rebecca Skaggs, Thomas Doyle, Hanna Stenstrom and Robyn J. Whitaker. Most of the articles were presented and discussed at the seminar Early Christianity between Judaism and Hellenism at the international meeting of the SBL/EABS in Vienna, Austria, 2007.
This collection of essays brings new impulses and new methodological and hermeneutical approaches into the discussion on how to understand the imagery in Revelation.
Understanding the book of Revelation means understanding its imagery. 'This puzzling book contains a fascinating world of pictures and images — every chapter and every page of it is filled with different kinds of images coming from different traditions and developing different sorts of meaning.1 This imagery has inspired readers in all centuries, including artists and poets, to try to open this special world of pictures and to reflect it in various ways. However, in contrast to the undisputed meaning of imagery the images in the book of Revelation are often elusive and puzzling. It is difficult to proceed from the distinct pictures to a whole "painting", in other words, to develop generally accepted theories about their origins, forms, functions, and meanings or even an appropriate methodological or hermeneutical approach.
To learn something new about this fascinating topic, we invited a
of scholars whose works reflect diverse theological interests as well as
divergent methodological and hermeneutical approaches to a seminar on The Imagery in the Book of Revelation. The seminar was part of the program of the Joint Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the European Association of Biblical Studies, held in Vienna in August 2007. It is our great pleasure to publish these challenging contributions. We are happy that the vast majority of contributors were ready to accept our invitation and to revise their papers for publication. At a final stage, two more articles by scholars who were not able to participate in the seminar were added to the collection.
During the last decades of research in Biblical scholarship, there has been a growing interest in pictures, symbols, images, and metaphors. This is due not only to the awareness of how important it is to explore the Biblical imagery in order to understand the writings themselves but also to a growing discussion between Biblical scholarship and other disciplines, such as linguistics, philosophy, philology, social sciences, etc. This interdisciplinary dialogue offers new hermeneutical paradigms and methodological tools to analyze Biblical imagery in a more sophisticated way. Scholars have learned about the role and function of imagery in building up meaning, in forming group identity or identities, in arguing for certain ethic and so on.
On the whole, the book of Revelation largely develops its story by the use of different kinds of imagery. Therefore, understanding the imagery of Revelation is crucial for understanding how this prophetic book develops its meaning. Furthermore, regarding the reception history of Revelation, it is important to know how interpreters of the book have under-stood themselves and the world they live in the light of such imagery. The research in this seminar covers topics that range from the history of interpretation to different forms of symbolic interpretation.
"Imagery" is a complex category for reading texts, especially texts such as the Revelation of John. Any discussion of the imagery of the book of Revelation must focus not only on the different kinds of images that John the seer uses, but also on the very nature of these images themselves and the hermeneutics of imagery and metaphor. Further, the imagery of a narrative text does not consist simply of the pictures used by the narrator and by his / her characters. Rather, narratives themselves and aspects of their settings also form images. For example, the narrative of the woman bearing a son and being threatened by a beast (Rev 12,1ff.) is a story that uses different images from different traditions and religious contexts but also creates an image or a program of images of its own. The presentation of the narrative world by the text is in some sense part of the imagery of that particular text.
There are certain basic images and metaphors that seem to be universal. Most people may believe that the inter-cultural relationship of symbol systems is a modern phenomenon related to globalization. However, inter-cultural relationships — sometimes leading into aggression and delimitation and sometimes into dialogue and communication — have a long history in human social exchange. The imagery of the book of Revelation is embedded in a complex inter-cultural and inter-religious web using motifs and traditions from both Jewish and Hellenistic Roman environments. Revelation is an example of a cultural encounter that ranges from interchange to delimitation and even claims of domi-nation.
The search for the origin of the seer's imagery, its cultural, social-historical, and religious meaning, the problem of Johannine rhetoric, and reader responses to the text are important tasks that merit further discussion. Adequate hermeneutical models still need to be explored to come to an interpretation of the book of Revelation which gives clues for its wide range of difficult problems. No collection of essays dealing with the imagery in the book of Revelation can be exhaustive. The contributions of this collection explore different aspects of this intriguing field by discussing selected issues of the wide range of materials and of methodological and hermeneutical questions.
The collection starts with David Barr's article "Idol Meat and Satanic Synagogues: From Imagery to History in John's Apocalypse". It discusses the relationship of imagery to the historical background of John's apocalyptic narrative. His starting point is a negative observation: "John's Apocalypse does not provide a window into late first century Asian culture; it is an imaginative construct of that world". Nevertheless, Barr develops guidelines how to get from the "imaginative con-struct" to "actuality" and applies them to the images of "idol food" and of the "synagogue of Satan" as descriptions of opponents in the text. He points out that both images correspond to one another although they refer to different groups, one inside and one outside of John's community, who are blamed for a tendency of assimilation. He finally concludes that any step from John's fictional narrative to history can only be done with great methodologically reflected caution.
A hermeneutical reflection about the Book of Revelation is presented by Johannes Beutler. In his article "Die Hermeneutik der Apokalypse und ihrer Bildersprache angesichts ihrer fundamentalistischen Deutungen" (The Hermeneutic of Apocalypse and its Imagery Language in the Light of Fundamentalistic Interpretation), Beutler starts with an analysis of the use and misuse of the book of Revelation around the year 2000. His own hermeneutic approach of the book challenges the approaches that are based on a mere eschatological interpretation of Revelation. In his read-ing, the book aims at providing comfort and orientation to a contempo-rary audience. Within such an interpretation concepts such as "New Jerusalem", the lamb, the witnesses, and "cult and song" are not con-cepts of otherworldly hope but rather images to encourage a community in the present. By developing a fusion of horizons between earth and heaven, between present and future the author creates a metaphor for God as the final power to save his people.
Marco Frenschkowski's article "Utopia and Apocalypsis: The Case of the Golden City" brings scholars studying apocalypticism and those studying utopian literature into a dialogue. The latter has so far mostly been an interest of scholars of literature and philosophy but Frenschkowski's study on the Golden City motif takes a step into this direction. In juxtaposing Lucian's description of the centre of the Isle of the Blessed, the Golden City in his famous True Stories 2,11-14 with the portrait of the heavenly "New Jerusalem" in Rev 21,1-22,5 he points to strong parallel motifs, such as the monthly harvest in the city. Nevertheless, he opts against a direct literary relationship and argues for a "common general background" that became part of a dialogue between utopia and apocalyptic in Church history.
In his article "Roman Imperial Imagery in Revelation: Space, Knowledge, and Time", Steven Friesen deals with Roman imperial imagery and how it is used in constructing social identity. In conversation with other recent interpretations, he underscores that Revelation has to be read as a strategy of liberation and of oppression, of resistance and of assimilation. In his analysis, he integrates the aspects of social and gender inequalities into the analysis of the book of Revelation and its imagery. In order to understand Roman imperial imagery, Friesen focuses on themes of space, knowledge and time using concepts developed by Michel de Certeau such as "strategy" and "tactic", at the same time critically showing the limits of such a heuristic concept. Friesen describes the Temple of Sebastoi at Ephesus as a strategic institution that generates knowledge of social structure and meaning by the Asian elites. For John, this dominant space is something negative, ruled by Satan and due to final destruction while something new is to come. His addressees are part of the dominant Imperial space and power claims authority in the addressees' social space. Therefore, Friesen describes this concept as "part strategy — part tactic". De Certeau's system of categories comes beyond its limits by John's claim of "a secret historical process unfolding that is hidden to those who accept dominant knowledge".
The next article deals with the impact of motifs in Revelation on later art. László Attila Hubbes' "Apocalyptic Motifs in the Early Christian Literature and Art: The Book of Revelation and its Contribution to the Formation of an Apocalyptic Art" moves from the "apocalyptic category" in art history to the book of Revelation itself. He argues that such an "apocalyptic category" has its origins in the book of Revelation and that "two kinds of apocalyptic traditions have emerged from the motifs in the Book of Revelation: a plastic-figurative line represented by the depictions of the last judgment, and a dramatic-narrative line of eschatological Antichrist and Armageddon stories". He closes his article with a view into modern Western art and culture that re-uses the different motifs when referring to recent challenges to humanity.
Revelation 14,14-20 stands in the focus of Konrad Huber's "Die Emte des Menschensohngleichen. Zur Ambivalenz eines Gerichtsbildes in der Johannesoffenbarung" (The Harvest of the One like the Son of Man: On the Ambivalence of an Image of Judgment in the Revelation of John). In a detailed analysis of the first part of the passage in Rev 14,14-16, Huber scrutinizes the language of the passage, its intertextual references and, finally, its entire context. He argues that the imagery of the harvest by the one like a son of man describes a process of judgment with an open end. The harvest refers to an investigation with God's final statement, not to an actual judgment, either negative or positive, although the con-text might suggest the possibility of a positive outcome.
Michael Labahn investigates the geographical imagery of the Book of Revelation. In his article "`Apokalyptische' Geographie. Einfiihrende Überlegungen zu einer Toponomie der Johannesoffenbarung" (Apocalyptic' Geography: Preliminary Reflections on the Toponomy of the Revelation of John) he takes as his starting point the fact that any geographical view is related to the constructive human mind and builds up a "mental map". On the other hand, any geographical presentation, especially in narratives, builds up its own geographical map which may be called a "Sinnatlas" ("map of meaning") as such narrative often conveys a certain meaning in its narrated geography. Finally, the concept of "place" / geography also plays a role in sociology where it is used to describe group identity in relation to the insiders or to others. Based on these premises, he presents an analysis of the toponomy of selected places in the narrative and sets them into the narrative concept of time. This analysis shows that the narrative geography of Revelation develops a "map of meaning" which aims at the reader's consent. It understands the textual world as a meaningful entity which is part of a clear development of history. Any reader consenting with that view might see his or her world with different eyes, a world guided by God's power, limited earthly power and the world as a place for moral probation.
In her essay "Merchants and Commerce in the Book of Revelation", Kirsi Siitonen addresses the economic imagery of the book of Revelation and explores what can be said about the social situation of the Christian communities on their basis. The imagery of the book of Revelation is symbolic but at the same time it deals with the social reality of the addressed Christian churches. She raises the question of whether economic imagery is part of a general social criticism that belongs to the critique of the power of the Roman Empire or whether it also critically addresses Christian merchants. While Siitonen opts for the latter alternative, her answer is not exclusive; the commercial theme touches a world full of idolatry which is related to the criticism of Roman Empire and its imperial cult. However, she emphasizes an inner-Christian conflict about economic interest, for example, in Laodicea. According to her reading, Jezebel of Thyatira with her followers might belong to local trade guilds and this tension is reflected in the text. At the end, the aim of John's criticism is open, to avoid certain items in trade or to stay out of commerce at all.
The task Rebecca Skaggs and Thomas Doyle set for themselves in their article "Revelation 7: Three Critical Questions" is to answer the following questions concerning the 144,000 from each tribe of ethnic Israel and the great multitude in Rev 7,4.9: "1. Are these actually one group or two? 2. What is the author trying to convey by this intentional contrast? 3. What is the nature of the relationship between them, and how does this relationship inform our understanding of the Apocalypse?" As they see it, references to quantity, quality, location, and situation underscore a separation of two different groups representing different origins. The group of 144,000 has to be understood by taking into account their second appearance is the text, in Rev 14,1-5. The group is related to Jewish messianic eschatological concepts and therefore stands for "an eschatological Jewish constituency" and the multitude reflects "the expansion of the Abrahamic promise to the whole world". Finally, the two groups form a re-interpretation of one another transforming both concepts into a "new synergy": "the lion triumphs by faithful witness, not military might; the Lamb becomes more courageous in order to stand in Faithful Witness". With this, their contribution aims to solve the difficult relation of pictures of power / war on the one hand and of fragibility and weakness on the other, occurring side by side, e.g., in the image of the slaughtered lamb.
Hanna Stenström addresses the androcentric gender relation in the imagery of the book of Revelation in her article "Is Salvation Only for True Men? On Gendered Imagery in the Book of Revelation". In her critical reading of the imagery of John, she starts with the important observation that the book has a rhetorical aim which is deeply rooted in the contemporary cultural understanding of sexuality and gender. Her article develops what a gender-orientated analysis contributes to the understanding of Revelation, its rhetoric, and especially the construction of identity developed in the text. Reflecting on the results of recent scholarship, her article focuses on imagery of masculinity in Christian identity construction. She first deals with the condemned in Rev 21,8 and 22,15 in contrast to the saved in 14,1-5. The normative saved is accord-ing to Stenström described as man while the condemned is depicted as man lacking of masculinity : "their lack of virtue may be understood as also a lack of masculinity in a culture where manliness is associated with moral excellence". Identity of female and masculine members is there-fore structured around a self-identification as a masculine person. Stenström concludes her essay by addressing other topics related to gender studies including the political dimension and the anti-imperial rhetoric of Revelation.
In her article "Falling Stars and Rising Smoke: Imperial
Idolatry in Revelation", Robyn J. Whitaker investigates the Greco-
Roman context of the book of Revelation and shows that it also reflects a thorough knowledge and understanding of the political-religious milieu of the Roman Power, including the funeral practices and astrological imagery. Her analysis starts with an interpretation of the fall of Babylon narrative (Rev 18) that is read against the background of Roman funeral rituals with special attention to Dio Cassius' presentation of the funerals of Augustus and Pertinax and to Herodian's presentation of the funeral of Septimius Severus. In a second part, she reads the imagery of fallen stars from the book of Revelation in relation to contemporary imagery in art and in texts. She argues that the Roman imperial concept of apothe-osis and deification are of great importance for the author's rhetoric. Intertextuality relating to Jewish scriptures alone is not sufficient for understanding his criticism of the Roman empire and its religious and political claims.
As general conclusions, it can be stated that the contributors use a whole range of methodological approaches and apply different tools adopted from a variety of disciplines, such as narrative criticism (e.g., Barr, Labahn), intertextuality (Huber), social / historical criticism (Barr, Siitonen), history of religious comparison (Whitaker), gender studies (Stenström). Most innovative, and perhaps therefore most open for discussion, is Friesen's adaptation of Michel de Certeau's concept of differentiation between strategy and tactic to the study of the book Revelation. It is somewhat surprising to note that there is only little discussion in the various articles on how they are related to the overall theme of imagery. There is still some need to further elaborate and define the phenomenon of imagery itself.
This collection of essays brings new impulses and new methodological and hermeneutical approaches into the discussion on how to understand the imagery in Revelation, as, for example, Friesen's use of Michel de Certeau's distinction between strategies and tactics or Barr's and Labahn's attempt to show in different ways how the Revelation of John constructs its own intratextual reality and its own narrative world — a concept which is applied to gender studies by Stenström.
Such new methodological approaches may foster a better understanding of this old book with its imagery that still remains strange. However, no one method or exclusive hermeneutical passe partout suffices to interpret the imagery of Revelation. Our feeling is that an integration and combination of different interpretative techniques to understand the imagery of the book is becoming a more and more serious methodological need.
The Revelation of John is a text with rhetorical objectives. The author wishes to convince his audience in Christian communities living in a non-Christian environment. The imagery of the book is one of the tools that the seer uses to achieve this goal. Understanding the imagery and the narrative and rhetorical strategies in which this imagery is set is therefore an important step in understanding the book itself. As a narrative text with a rhetorical aim, the Revelation of John is deeply embedded in ancient culture, religion, history and literature. Intertextuality, comparison of religious phenomena, and contributions of social and historical sciences are necessary in order to locate the book in the sphere where it operates. In order not to lose critical distance and not to ignore the critical role of Revelation in modern religious discourse, the hermeneutical discussion about the book and its imagery has to go on.
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