Professor Bruce J. Malina, a leading scholar in the Context Group, has written a book on the genre and message of the book of Revelation in which he interprets it as an astral prophecy. This is from the dust jacket blurb of On The Genre And Message Of Revelation: Star Visions and Sky Journeys (1995):
As one of the pioneers of applying social criticism to the biblical text, author Bruce Malina has helped revolutionize the way we think about the text and our models for interpretation. Now in a compelling new study—and one that will surely be his most controversial—Malina offers a completely new lens for viewing the book of Revelation. Malina contends that John the Seer’s milieu was one of intense interest and fascination with the sky, especially with those “beings” in the sky—constellations, planets, comets, sun, moon, and zodiac—that controlled the destiny of the Earth and its inhabitants. He asserts that John has his own interpretation of the sky that follows not the Greco-Roman astrological myths but the Jewish and Christian story of God’s salvation in Messiah. John thus stands as an “astral prophet” who interprets the sky in accordance with what has taken place in Christ. This vibrant reading of Revelation is buttressed by innumerable ancient literary and archeological sources that demonstrate that John’s world was indeed one enamored with the sky and its significance for planet Earth.
According to Revelation 4:1, John the Seer looks in the sky and observes an “open door.” Then the “first voice” invites John “up” to the heavens to witness what must take place. “In the spirit,” John describes what he sees in the sky. Is John really looking at the sky? . . . . . . Is John the Seer’s language of special numbers, brilliant colors, heavenly thrones, elders, angels, sun, moon, and stars more in keeping with descriptions of the sky than with apocalyptic visions? Bruce Malina thinks so, and he builds an unusually impressive case that will surely stir the interpretive waters surrounding John’s Apocalypse. On the Genre and Message of Revelation does what Bruce Malina has done so well for decades: he challenges Western readers to think like ancient Mediterraneans, to slough off biased, scientific presuppositions, and to explore the world of Jesus and his followers with a new map, one that leads to a richer understanding of the New Testament witness of Revelation.
Malina explains his view of the genre of Revelation:
[T]he events and entities described in the book of Revelation are not very different from what is generally called “astronomical” or “astrological” literature. However, the author of the book of Revelation claims to be a prophet; he ranks his work among the prophecy of his day and age. Consequently, by his own estimation, his writing would be a subset of the genre or type of astronomical and/or astrological literature, but of a prophetic sort, for there were other writings that formed other subsets of astronomical and/or astrological literature. For example, there were writings on the meaning of thunder . . . , forecasts for the year based on given constellations of the zodiac . . . . , writings indicating which planets and their deities or angels are in control of hours of the day; and of course there were horoscopes . . . . But none of these claimed to be prophecy the way John’s work does. . . .
For the ancients the sky (Malina prefers this term to “heaven”) was filled with living cosmic beings controlling events in the sky and on earth. Ancient authors of astral prophecies believed they were given divinely inspired understandings of celestial phenomena, and . . .
Distinctive of the astral prophecy in Revelation (and other writings like it) is that the prophet describes events in story form, that is, in narrative.
So we may say that as a genre or type of writing, astral prophecy, like that in the book of Revelation, is a type of astronomic writing with a narrative framework which sets forth information derived from the prophet’s interaction with celestial entities. (p. 26)
Malina explains the historical-social contextual reasons we have come to think of Revelation quite differently, and I look forward to outlining these in another post. Also I’d like to discuss the evidence Malina shows us for strong Jewish interest in astral divinities — just like their Gentile counterparts in the Hellenistic world.
Malina leads readers through the complexities of the ways ancients in various eras understood the happenings in the heavens (sky), and helpfully produces maps to clarify the different topographical compartments, regions, places in the sky where different “astral entities” (the living beings we know as constellations, stars, planets, comets, meteors . . .) “acted” in their various capacities and in relation to one another.
His discussion of the images and actions we read of in Revelation 12, the chapter describing the woman in heaven who is clothed with the sun, who is about to bear a child, and before whom “stands” a dragon, reminded me of other discussions about the meaning of Galatians 4:4 which says Jesus was “born of a woman”. On the surface those words are clear enough, but at the same time they can be legitimately seen as too clear — not the sort of thing one normally says of the origins of a fellow human. So unusual that Shakespeare was able to make dramatic use of the phrase in Macbeth. (Malina makes no such comparison with Galatians 4:4 and is not arguing against the idea that Jesus was a historical person.)
The woman, Malina argues (and supports with a rich tapestry of evidence) is what we know as the constellation of Virgo. But in Revelation 12 she is pregnant, while other astrological concepts of this constellation understood her to be nursing a child, like Isis with Horus. The dragon, Satan, is also “standing” before her in heaven. The word for “standing”, explains Malina, is a technical astrological term identifying the location of a constellation. The setting, he argues, is in pre-history. John is shown a detail of pre-history here, and events before Satan fell and before the one to become the Messiah (identified with the Enochian Son of Man — Enochian literature is filled with similar astrological imagery) was born.
But this child is born of this heavenly woman in this “prehistoric” time setting and taken to another place (in the sky) where God’s throne is. The dragon (Malina turns to ancient records to show the constellation of Scorpio at that time stretched from Virgo and through Scorpio to the Serpent Cupbearer (Ophiuchos). The tail covered an area of the sky with few stars visible to the naked eye but that was a setting for regular meteor showers.
John therefore sees the messianic figure being born of a woman in the heavens.
The first piece of activity after the presentation of the characters is the birth of a son from the Pregnant Woman. The action, then, involves the separation of our constellation from another, with the removal of the new constellation to yet another called the son’s throne, undoubtedly like the thrones of the elders/decans mentioned in the previous sector. Again, such thrones are not surprising. In Matt 25:31 we are told that the son of Man likewise has a throne in the sky. . . . (p. 162)
There can be little doubt that with the prehistoric birth of the sky Woman’s son, enthroned with God early in the history of the cosmos, we are viewing with John the origins of Enoch’s Son of Man. And there is equally no doubt that this Enochian Son of Man is the Messiah of Israelite expectation. “The Lord of Spirits and his Messiah” are mentioned in one breath at the end of the passage where the Son of Man is described (1 Enoch 48:10, OTP). And later we are told: “All these things which you have seen happened by the authority of the Messiah so that he may give orders and be praised upon the earth” (1 Enoch 52:4, OTP). While the story developed in this sector of the book of Revelation is not about the Messiah’s activity, it seems John’s vision of the Dragon’s origin necessarily involves the Messiah’s cosmic origin as well. (p. 164)
It is then that the woman falls to earth, which is a wilderness. Malina seeks to understand this through the writings of the day — by Aratus, the Sibylline Oracles, Seneca and Nonnos — that describe the heavenly woman coming to a barren earth and a great war depicted in heaven among the constellations.
For Aratus, Virgo . . . once lived on earth. She left for her present position in the sky . . . to avoid the terrible earth which became wicked . . .
On the other hand, Seneca describes how the starry Virgo comes down to earth. . . But this is an abandoned earth, the earth at the end of the present world order. John does not explain the descent of the starry Woman or tell of her fate. Rather, he simply says that God takes care of the woman in the wilderness. . . . (pp. 164-5)
There are many details covered by Malina that I cannot list here. But there is one interesting link Malina draws between the “pre-historic” heavenly birth image and a passage in Ephesians 1:4:
The third action scenario (12:17) depicts the frustrated Dragon full of fury, on his way to wage an earth war. Against whom? The astral prophet abruptly and surprisingly informs us that the sky Woman has other offspring, called “her seed” (as in the case of Eve in Gen 3:15). These offspring are not prehistoric persons kept with God, but human beings in John’s world who keep God’s commandments and adhere to the witness of Jesus. However, their relationship to the cosmic sky Woman who gave birth to the cosmic Child enthroned with God before the foundation of the world intimates that these followers of Jesus likewise derive somehow from that ancient period. This is not unlike the Pauline tradition in which God is acknowledged for choosing the followers of Jesus “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). (p. 172)
I am not arguing that the author of Galatians 4:4 had John’s cosmic scenario in mind. I do not know what was in the mind of whoever wrote those words. But I do find Malina’s expedition into the thought-worlds of the ancients quite an unusual experience. I cannot help but be reminded of Earl Doherty’s constant message that so much of the New Testament has been understood through modern concepts and hence misunderstood. To read it through the eyes of the ancients themselves takes effort and wider reading to understand that thought-world.
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