Context, Culture and Conjecture

As we begin to dive into the Book of the Revelation at Bedford Road Baptist Church, it is important that we be honest about this particular portion of Scripture. There is a great deal that we do not know about this book, and there is nothing even approximating a scholarly agreement on how to interpret it. While we have every confidence that the original audience received the book with comprehension, the fact is that much of the context is lost to us.

We simply do not know what life was like for the Christians of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) at the end of the first century CE when the book was written. While some secular history exists from the time, it documents the lives of the Roman elites; and the division between the upper and lower classes in the Roman world was so enormous as to make them two distinct cultures. Asia Minor, composed of largely autonomous Greek metropolitan areas with only light Roman oversight, would have likewise been very different from the rest of the empire.

When we try to find sources for the everyday life of these Christians, they are few and far between. Books like Didache give us insight into their worship, and other sources like the letters of Pliny and Trajan, show the Roman attitude toward the Christian communities; but overall, their everyday life is a mystery to us. Even Paul’s epistles are decades earlier and deal mostly with doctrinal issues.

Reading the Revelation means that we must, to some extent, conjecture what the original audience was like. We simply do not know anything beyond generalities. Since, like any book, the Revelation was written for that audience, we are somewhat at a loss. We may base our conjecture about their context on valid research and scholarly pursuit; but that still does not change the fact that sometimes, we just have to draw some lines where there are no dots and assume some things.

It is not wrong to make assumptions. Sometimes, they are all we have. We must be cautious, however, not to treat assumptions the same way we treat evidence. Nowhere is that more evident in the Scriptures than in the Revelation.

More poor exegesis has been based on assumptions about the context of passages in the Revelation than probably another book in the Bible. Any interpreter should pad statements about possible interpretations with honest self-examination. Often, when I comment on things in the Revelation, I say things like:

  • It appears to be…
  • If what we know is correct, then…
  • Our perspective is so different than theirs that…
  • By the context, we can guess/propose that…

These statements are not cop-outs or poor scholarship. They are honesty. We really do not know, and while the broadest sense of the Revelation can be clearly understood, details are often obscure.

If you need any further proof of this, just consider how little we understand about the material culture of the Revelation. Words like jasper (ἵασπις) and sardine/carnelion (σάρδιον) are just transliterated from Greek (Rev 4:2). There is absolutely no indication of what they actually are. It was simply assumed that the readers knew. What is more, the Greek word for jasper is itself transliterated from Hebrew! That is just stones. Imagine the issues with more complex ideas.

What did it mean for the original audience to read about receiving “white garments” (στολή λευκή)? Plenty of commentators have made connections to it lots of Old Testament literature, but what if there was some kind of context for the everyday culture? Did people in places like Sardis have a practice that included the receipt of a white garment (Rev 3:4)? Why is the returning army also dressed in white (Rev 19:11)? We just don’t know. We can conjecture; but there is no reason to be sure.

All of this is to say that we need to be cautious. When you read a commentary or hear a sermon, test the sources of anything that is stated definitively. Often, when I question thise kinds of things, I discover that statements are not based on any kind of substantial source but on a conjecture that is treated as fact. We cannot err in not trusting the simplest, most literal readings of things; but we also should not err in believing that anything a “scholar” says is so is actually so. This is doubly true about a book that has been misinterpreted and twisted as thoroughly and as often as the Revelation.

So, what are some guidelines for reading this sometimes confusing book?

  1. Internal context is often the best interpreter of difficult things. If you encounter something that seems odd, mark it or write it down. Step back and ask, “What is the context of this?” What is the greater narrative that this concept or image is couched in? Difficult ideas or words can often be understood within the flow of their greater context. Go back and read, asking how this idea or image connects to the bigger things going on.
  2. Only seldom do odd things determine meaning of clear things. The weirdness is secondary to the clear concepts. Often, people invert the priority of these two. Do not get bogged down in minutiae or speculation.
  3. The original context is the original context. This is somewhat unique to the Revelation, but when interpreters try to turn visions into something they are not, they get weird. When John see “locusts” (ἀκρίς), John saw locusts. He did not see Apache helicopters. He is writing in language people could understand then. We might not get all the nuances, but the obvious answer is usually the best.

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