History of Interpretation of the Book of Revelation

In opening ourselves to the richness of God’s word in a book, it can be enlightening to see what fruit previous generations derived from it.

In our times, what the faithful generally know about Revelation is that there is imagery of Christ as the Lamb, there is the Marian image of a woman clothed with the sun, there are four animals representing the four evangelists, and that’s about it.

But what about past ages of the Church – what did they dwell on?

In the early Church, Revelation was the manifesto of Christian martyrdom.

Many Acts of the martyrs borrow language from Rev to describe the sufferings and the victory of their protagonists. In the letter to the Churches of Lyons and Vienne, the martyrs are said to follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Rev 14:4) (Eusebius of Caesarea, Hist. 5:1-62). The Acts of St. Perpetua say that she is carried to the throne of God and to the 4 living creatures so that she may enjoy the ceaseless Holy, Holy, Holy like John in Rev 4 (Martyrdom of Perpetua 12:1-4).

Another important theme for the early Church was the 1000-year reign. Many writers understood it as being inaugurated even within history in this world.

Justin Martyr held that belief in the 1000-year reign was the distinctive mark of the true believer. Irenaeus, in dispute with Gnostics who denied the salvation of the body and the resurrection of the flesh, sees it as part of his comprehensive vision of recapitulation of all things in Christ. This was the great utopia of the first Christian centuries. It was Origen, St. Jerome and St. Augustine in particular who opposed this view – for the moment.

Ticonius (d. ca. 390 in North Africa) was a very influential commentator on Revelation. He wrote a biblical treatise codifying 7 rules of Scripture interpretation, which he then applied to Rev. St. Augustine would borrow these rules and make them commonplace.

As to his interpretation of Rev, Ticonius, a rigorist Donatist, viewed the book through a spiritualizing and moralizing lens: he reduces everything to a contrast between the body of Christ and the body of Satan, between true brethren and false ones. The sixth of his 7 rules was to posit the interpretive lens of recapitulation, namely, that the author discusses the same events several times but changes the images each time. In his view, Rev was not written to refer to historical circumstances but was atemporal and so applicable to every age, in which the battle between the Church and the kingdom of the devil continued. This helped overcome the utopian views of earlier Fathers. Later writers like St. Bede followed Ticonius though purging his views of Donatist errors: St. Bede saw a mystical meaning in the repetition of the number 7 and was the first to divide the book into 7 visions or sections.

  • Among the Greeks there were not many commentators but those who write on Rev stressed the salvation-historical approach: the Lamb unrolling the scroll reveals the designs of God from the Incarnation to the Parousia and puts them into action.

A period of more intense interest in Rev was sparked by Joachim of Flora, a Cistercian abbot (d. 1202) who revived millenarianism (a this-worldly realisation of the kingdom of God) by reading Revelation as a foretelling of the seven ages of the Church.

He, Joachim, was in the sixth but there would be a time of great war between spiritual men on the one hand and the Dragon and the two Beasts on the other. In the seventh age, God would definitively destroy Satan and establish his reign on earth. Many medieval followed or accentuated this Church-historical reading and it fuelled much Catholic-Protestant debate (hence the title of Luther’s work, Babylonian Captivity).

Lastly, in our own times, the last two centuries have seen much historical-critical and literary criticism of Rev: study of its literary form, its structure, content, sources, and so on.

There has been an emphasis, finally, on recovering a view on the unity of the book as a whole.

%d bloggers like this: