The Book of Revelation, its original meaning and modern misunderstandings

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor Bruce J. Malina has had a special interest in understanding what was in the minds of the those who wrote, read (and heard being read) the New Testament literature, and in recent posts I have glimpsed a couple of sections of his On the Genre and Message of Revelation where he guides readers to understand this book the way its original audience may have understood it. This post looks at Malina’s explanation and history of the name and genre of the book, and why Malina believes it has been misunderstood and misread because of ignorance of the literary and religious culture that produced it.

Professor Malina’s words are also applicable to the challenge by mythicists to professional scholars and nonprofessional students of New Testament interpretation in general. (Malina is not a mythicist, and the association is my own. Note Thomas L. Thompson’s observation that HJ scholars have always begun with the assumption that there is a historical Jesus to talk about.)

The approach to the book of Revelation adopted in this book in terms of the Hellenistic conception of the sky is a radically historical one. The goal is to understand the document in terms that would have made sense to a first-century A.D. audience. Only such a historical approach can be considered fair and adequate to the prophet’s concern about “anyone taking away from the utterances of the scroll of this prophecy” (21:19).

The task of helping a modern audience understand the book of Revelation, however, faces numerous obstacles. As is the case when working with all ancient documents, the obstacles derive not from the book of Revelation itself, but from both nonprofessional and professional students of the Bible who bring their own scenarios to their reading of the book (see Malina 1991). On the other hand, the historically minded interpreter must overcome  the nonprofessional’s uncritical acceptance of spurious information both about the genre or type of the work and about the experience it purportedly describes. For many nonprofessionals the book of Revelation has become a repository of predictions concerning the end of the world. This has been a quite common perspective ever since Pharisees and Christians sought to determine the “true” age of creation to determine the beginning of the seventh millennium — the Sabbath of the cosmos (see Landes 1988). (p. 10, my emphasis and paragraphing, links are to the Google-book previews.)

Spurious familiarity

I love the phrase “spurious familiarity” that Malina uses in addressing the problem of interpreting a NT book — no, not for lay readers — “for a modern scholarly audience”:

On the other hand, the basic difficulty with interpreting this book for a modern scholarly audience is the spurious familiarity with which modern scholars are burdened. Scholarly spurious familiarity derives

  1. from nineteenth-century northern European ideology and categorization,
  2. from attempts of recent scholars to maintain continuity with that nineteenth-century tradition,
  3. from theological ideology,
  4. and from attempts to find this book relevant in terms of that ideology.

People who are ideologically indisposed invariably adhere to the “Received View” (see Malina 1986).

(p. 10, my numbered-list formatting)

Genre of Revelation — what type of book is it?

Revelation is generally labelled a work of “apocalyptic” literature. “Apocalypse” is the first word of the book, and ancients often assigned titles to books according to their opening words, but Malina argues that the word does nothing to inform us of the type of book it is.

It was the German scholar F. Lücke (in 1852) who decided to use “apocalypse” as a label for the genre or category of this document and documents similar to it, such as the book of Daniel and those Israelite writings called Enoch, Ezra, and Baruch (Kvanvig 1989: 40,56). Aside from the precedent of our ancient and medieval ancestors who often chose the first word(s) of a writing to serve as a title, it is difficult to understand why this label has been maintained by historical scholarship since the revealed quality of the information is provided in these books was hardly noted.

Similarly, “eschatology” is scarcely appropriate, says Malina. This word derives from a Greek word meaning the study of the end, usually meaning the end of the world. This is not really the same idea of writing consoling literature to fellow-believers and uttering a “just you wait and see” threat upon outsiders.

While the terms “apocalypse” or “eschatologial apocalyptic” sound duly esoteric and learned, the terms shed little light on the sort of book this last document of the New Testament really is. . . . [I]t seems, rather, that “apocalypse” and “eschatology” are simply part and parcel of the theological jargon of the past century that fossilized perception and misdirect interpretation. Thus, while the Greek word “apocalypse” (αποκαλυψις) originally meant the process of revealing or making known something secret about persons, the word is inadequate to describe the book of Revelation. Moreover, while it is true that all information imparted by the sky-oriented prophets and seers of antiquity consisted of uncovered secrets, not all revelations or secrets were or are derived from the sky. As a matter of fact, the book of Revelation and works like it (e.g., the books of Enoch) are really a subset of the astronomical and astrological literature of antiquity. (p. 12, my emphasis)

Malina informs us that there were many types of astronomical/astrological literature, and that since the author of Revelation claims to be a prophet, we can say that Revelation that this is a prophetic form of “astronomics” (the term, coined by a Greek philosopher, is explained below). Other types of astronomic literature was about

  • the meaning of thunder (everything in the sky — thunder, meteors, stars, the moon — was part of the sky/heavens)
  • forecasts of the year based on zodiacal constellations
  • writings indicating which planet or their deities or angels are in control of the hours of the day
  • horoscopes explaining the best times to begin a trip, start a business, etc.
  • weather, farming and sailing advice

And then there were astronomic prophecies, such as John’s Revelation.

The name of the book

The first word of the book is αποκαλυψις (apokalypsis), transliterated “apocalypse” and translated “revelation”.

The reason for the translation is that in the last centuries B.C. the verb form (αποκαλυπτω, apokalypto) commonly meant: “to make known something secret about someone; to reveal secrets about someone” (Smith 1983: 12). (p. 6)

The social context of the word was originally interpersonal communication that involved revealing secrets about other people. Malina does not use the word, but this sounds to me as though it could include gossip.

But at about the same time that the word began to be used in the social, interpersonal sense, Babylonian astronomical and/or astrological knowledge was spreading throughout the Mediterranean world . . . . This Babylonian knowledge moved westward, largely mediated through eastern Mediterranean coastal ethnic groups: Phoenician, Israelite, Egyptian. As people acquired this new knowledge, they either directly or, more usually, indirectly increasingly contributed to the local production of astronomical and astrological lore. And so secrets about things and persons divine rooted in the new knowledge could now be made known. It would seem that the newly appropriated “Chaldean” (meaning “Babylonian”) lore greatly stimulated awareness that the god(s) had vitally important secrets readily discernible to those who could read the sky. (p. 6)

So the author of the book of Revelation used a common word for revealing personal secrets to refer to a revealing of secrets of the stars, since stars were equally regarded as living, personal beings, although divine.

The first century universe

Malina describes what the first century universe looked like among Mediterranean peoples, and covers the same sorts of beliefs I have previously posted on in Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons . . . .  Beings populated all areas of the universe, from the heavens to the earth. (In addition, Malina shows us that the dominant understanding of the earth itself was that it was a sphere.)

The Israelite beliefs were little different from the ways other peoples thought of the cosmos; they were little different also in understanding that the secrets of the gods could be discerned through reading the stars.

Just like the other Mediterranean peoples of the period . . . the house of Israel used the new found astronomical lore to learn about its deity’s activities. Only for Israelites, the presumption was that their deity, the YHWH God of their ancestors, was the supreme deity. While not at all denying the reality of the gods of those other nations, Israelites were forbidden to call them “god.” Instead they used other Mediterranean designations for the cosmic being inhabiting the sky and impacting the earth, i.e., spirit, demon, or angel. Though they changed the names, the way of perceiving the reality and function of those beings remained the same from one end of the world (Indus Valley) to the other (Spain). Israelites also readily identified planets with angels of good demons and saw the function of such astral beings either to act as deities or to serve as agents of assistants of the “Most High” God. Now in the Israelite tradition, this God could be known both from traditions deriving from the prophet Moses and from reading the sky. (p. 8)

Cumulative wisdom

Knowledge of astrological lore was cumulative. This way Mesopotamian learning was recorded along with new knowledge or interpretations of other ethnic groups. Yet each cultural group adapted this knowledge to its own traditional stories. Thus the Roman Venus, the Greek Aphrodite, the Egyptian Isis, the Phoenician/Israelite Anatu/Ashtarte, and the Hellenistic Babylonian Aphrodite/Anaitis were related to each other. The particular impact of this planet would be very similar for all peoples, and each ethnic group would have its own beliefs about the planet expanded by the foreign influences. Malina quotes a passage from Hippolytus to illustrate the way some Christians interpreted the sky in order to understand the Bible, and how they began by first studying the earliest knowledge. The following passage is from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hippolytus4.html. It is also interesting when read alongside my other recent posts reviewing Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter Harry Christ, since he also discusses the significant role of the Serpent/Dragon constellation that is central here:


Aratus says that there are in the sky revolving, that is, gyrating stars, because from east to west, and west to east, they journey perpetually, (and) in an orbicular figure. And he says that there revolves towards “The Bears” themselves, like some stream of a river, an enormous and prodigious monster, (the) Serpent; and that this is what the devil says in the book of Job to the Deity, when (Satan) uses these words: “I have traversed earth under heaven, and have gone around,” that is, that I have been turned around, and thereby have been able to survey the worlds. For they suppose that towards the North Pole is situated the Dragon, the Serpent, from the highest pole looking upon all (the objects), and gazing on all the works of creation, in order that nothing of the things that are being made may escape his notice. For though all the stars in the firmament set, the pole of this (luminary) alone never sets, but, careering high above the horizon, surveys and beholds all things, and none of the works of creation, he says, can escape his notice.

The author of Revelation stood in this tradition, according to Malina:

In Revelation, John follows the path of many of his contemporaries and records his “readings” in the sky. As the document indicates, the prophet John stands within the traditions of Second Temple Israel and reads the sky in terms of the Yahwism that was Israel’s elite ideology. (p. 10)

Revelation as a subset of astronomics

“Astronomics” was the term used by Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who was also credited with coining the world “economics”. Astronomics referred to the study of anything we might classify as either astronomy or astrology with a view to “accumulating and applying practical information for the welfare of human beings.”

It is easy for us to overlook the significance of “astronomics” among peoples of the first century.

The study of the sky “fascinated the Hellenistic world and held with a paralyzing grip the Hellenistic mind (C. K. Barrett 1961: 35). And thus “many of us (historians of antiquity) lack the training or the particular type of imagination necessary to enable us to understand a horoscope as a peripheral matter” (Nock 1972: 1.502). The fact is, as MacMullen has noted:

From the period of the Roman Empire alone, the surviving astrological corpus matches in bulk the entire historical corpus; and though examined in detail by students of ancient religion, language, and science, it has been quite neglected by the social historian (MacMullen 1971: 105). (p. 17)

Malina cites passages from Philo, 4 Maccabees, Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremiah, Josephus, the Qumran scrolls and other Jewish apocryphal writings to illustrate the major importance of “astronomics” to ancient Israelites, too. They, as much as their pagan neighbours, believed in the stars as living beings, and in “sky servants” performing the will of God on earth, in atmospheric and celestial events being caused by heavenly personages.

But practical astronomic concern in Israel should come as no surprise. After all, all Mediterraneans sought the signs of the times** in atmospheric and celestial events (see Matt. 16:3; and Theophrastus, On Weather Signs) and believed sky entities were alive, with sky events caused by celestial personages. (p. 18)

** Note that in much contemporary theology, the signs of the times are social.
Hence theological biblical commentaries presume the existence of salvation history,
the revelation of God in social processes in human history.
Such, of course, was not the case in any period that might be called”biblical times.”

Who, how and for whom?


  1. The learned scholars: — these were in awe of the sky and believed no one could ever really grasp their greatness and magnificence. These advised standing in awe of the Creator and heeding nothing more exalted than astral advice about farming, sailing, etc.
  2. “Magi”, prophets, seers, astrologers, astronomers: — these “understood” the impact celestial beings had on human societies below.


First century Mediterranean astral prophets came to know about the celestial secrets they reported through:

  1. the study of star phenomena, going back to early Babylonian years
  2. and direct contact with sky beings (i.e. via ecstasy, visions, dreams and sky trips)

For whom?

The role of “prophet” in the Hellenistic world was a social one performed usually on behalf of a whole society. And given the structure of society, the role of prophet was usually a political one exercised on behalf of a king, emperor, general or the like. But at times the role was performed by a smaller group. In Revelation, the astral prophet John communicates to or for his “brothers” (see Malina 1993). (p. 21)

For Malina, this is very significant. Astral prophecies were invariably addressed publicly to kings or priests as the representatives of whole regions or ethnic groups.

[T]hey were not simply family matters, even a “church” family. [So] the social grouping to which John refers seems to have resulted from the fact that the group in question could not form a political unit of its own. It was a family by default, so to speak. The reason for saying this is that astral revelations are essentially public. Since they are about power in the cosmos affecting regions populated by human beings and their institutions, such revelations are always political. Politics deals with the public use of power. Hence revelations, especially celestial ones, were invariably directed to persons of high public status, notably kings and priests. . . . Thus the delivering of a prophecy to his “brothers” implies that the Israelite polity no longer served as a mooring for Christian groupings, either because John and his “brothers” were ejected from Israel or because the kingdom of Judea was dissolving or simply no longer existed. (pp. 21-22)

Consequently . . . 

Revelation is not what most modern readers think it is.

Consequently . . . as Grabbe has recently argued (1989), that there is no necessary connection between a writing like Revelation and groups looking forward to an imminent transformation of the world. As a matter of fact, astronomical and astrological writings, including Revelation, do not necessarily arise in times of crisis, nor are they always, if ever, a product of the oppressed, marginalized, and powerless. Rather, astral prophecy was usually produced by figures within some philosophical or scribal establishment for political elites. From the perspective of social function within a polity, prophecy, wisdom, and worship many be closely associated. (p. 22)

The Imagery in Revelation

The first thing to understand, Malina writes, is that for the ancient cultures being addressed, there was no division between society and the cosmos. Celestial events and human history were all one entity. The supernatural and natural were all part of the same world.

If a society was experiencing good times, then the astral prophecy would explain why the times were good. If bad times, then why the times were not so good, and how they would soon turn out, inevitably and organically, for the better. It is the celestial events that control the experiences and fates of people on earth, and the astral prophet is simply recording what has happened that explains the current situation, and what is about to happen to resolve it.

What astral prophecy does is seek out the recurrent causes [of situations on earth] . . . in celestial phenomena and personages. Once such causes are discovered, they are formulated in terms of laws deriving from the predictable behavior of celestial personages. These personages produce effects which eventually regulate the objects of human social concern. . . . [S]uch formations can be found in ancient thunder books, lightning books, earthquake books, beginning of the year books and the like . . .  (p. 23)

Geography is the study to understand and describe the earth; uranography is the study of the sky. Uranography also involves a study of the stars and the heavenly beings who control these and their impacts on humanity. The author of Revelation depicts a Semitic sky with its Hellenized constellations. The story structure he applies is derived from the Jewish Scriptures. The being enthroned in the centre of the cosmos is the God of Israel, and alongside him is the cosmic Lamb of God.

This is the background to my recent posts Born of a Woman in Heaven: Cosmic Origins of the Messiah and The Cosmic Lamb and Light of the World.




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  • beallen0417
    2011-06-11 14:56:21 UTC - 14:56 | Permalink

    Fascinating series of posts, Neil. I wonder what Malina would make of Pliny the Younger’s statement that Christians arose before dawn on one day of the week and sang hymns to Christ as to a god. If astronomics was as important as Malina seems to suggest, then this would almost certainly be the subtext of such a meeting.

  • 2011-06-12 09:15:06 UTC - 09:15 | Permalink

    I’m glad there are others who also find these interesting. To me they are much more interesting than responding to McGrath’s nonsense, though those posts attract far more attention. I sometimes feel an obligation to expose McGrath’s lies but these posts I share with others out of a passionate interest in the new understanding and ideas themselves.

  • beallen0417
    2011-06-12 10:18:41 UTC - 10:18 | Permalink

    Well, people generally are drawn to conflict. However, the primary point of your investigations, from my take on reading you, is that you want to have more clarity in your own mind about the origin of the Christian religion. In making posts such as this and the series on visions, you are creating a deep well of material to draw on if you wish to synthesize a more comprehensive theory at some point.

  • 2011-06-12 10:43:44 UTC - 10:43 | Permalink

    Yes. Since I’ve been exploring these discussions on visionary experiences (going way back to my posts on the significance of Mount Hermon and the setting of the transfiguration) I’m beginning to wonder if one day it will be possible to explain Christian origins within frames of reference that will mean nothing to most people today. I used to have time to work on synthesizing thoughts when I was most absorbed with studies on the Gospel of Mark. But now I keep thinking I will have to wait till I retire to have the time to bring all this together and write up something that makes coherent sense of it all.

    One direction I am heading the more I think about the visionary-mystic nature of Paul’s writings (excluding the interpolated Pastoral stream that appears across many of them) is that Paul’s letters do come from the pre-70 era after all. I’m not so sure there was a contemporaneous Galilean community (some call it the Q community), though.

    If it is reasonable to think of the post 70 era as a time of greater need to define clear group identity boundaries, then one can imagine among some groups a related need to control or extinguish relatively “anarchic” spirit-vision experiences. Is this what Mark is, in part, doing with his narrative? (For me, linking Mark on the side of Paul is not so easy as it appears to be for some. I used to sligthly like the idea, but I do find as many reasons to reject it as to embrace it.)

  • Otishpote
    2011-06-12 13:06:31 UTC - 13:06 | Permalink

    I really like this series of posts on the genre and message of Revelation, and the earlier post about the man of sin in 2 Thessalonians.

    “One direction I am heading the more I think about the visionary-mystic nature of Paul’s writings (excluding the interpolated Pastoral stream that appears across many of them) is that Paul’s letters do come from the pre-70 era after all.”

    I like how you worded that. 😉

  • Otishpote
    2011-06-12 13:53:08 UTC - 13:53 | Permalink

    I found a related and potentially very interesting article online. I haven’t had time to study it yet so I don’t know if it is actually any good.

    The Seven Seals of Revelation and the Seven Classical Planets
    by Lloyd D. Graham

    • 2011-06-12 18:34:18 UTC - 18:34 | Permalink

      Looks interesting. He includes many footnotes citing the same book by Malina that I have been discussing, so his article must be pretty good! 😉

      Malina believes the four horsemen are comets, since horses were one of the known symbols for comets, Graham sums up Malina’s idea:

      Although neglected for the better part of a century, Boll’s cosmological approach to Revelation has been revived and extended in recent times by Bruce Malina, Professor of Theology at Creighton University, Nebraska. Malina, who points out that John’s milieu was one of intense interest in and fascination with the sky, views Revelation as “astral prophecy.” For Rev 6, he interprets the horses of the first four seals as comets in the four cardinal directions of the sky, their rid- ers as members of the Zodiac, and the heav- enly altar as the constellation Ara, “The Altar.” Overall, Malina advances a planet- ary sequence for the seven seals which consists (in order) of Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Moon and Saturn; a double attribution for the sixth seal compensates for the lack of a planetary cognate for the fifth. His assignations for the second and third seals agree with those in Table 2, providing additional support for the (easy) identificat- ion of the red horse with Mars and the (less easy) identification of the black horse, with its balance-carrying rider, as Mercury. Of the latter, Malina writes “The planet Mercury, which in the Sino-Persian tradition corres- ponds to the color black, is here recognizable by the commercial scale typical of Mercury in Babylonian-Greek celestial interpretation.”

      Lloyd Graham’s article has a fascinating table of the colour/planetary correspondences of Hellenistic and Babylonian “astronomics” laid out beside the schema in Revelation. Thanks for notifying us of this!

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