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.) Continue reading “The Book of Revelation, its original meaning and modern misunderstandings”
In my previous post I spoke of a leading Context Group scholar, Bruce Malina, who has a particular interest in understanding the New Testament through the minds of first or second century readers. The first chapter of On the Genre and Message of Revelation addresses at length the problem of reading the book of Revelation with modern assumptions and with only limited awareness of the thought-world of its original readers.
A striking illustration of this appears on page 104:
To call the Messiah “the light of the world” or to designate him as leader at the head of the periodic changes of the universe in the form of the constellation Aries would not be very different things.
In all my years of church attendance and piously motivated Bible study I never once thought to associate the image of “light of the world” with a heavenly constellation known to us as a “ram” (but as something slightly different in Jewish zodiacs of that time). But this is Malina’s point. In summing up his argument he writes:
In conclusion, we might note that astral lore was well known in the social world of our author.
So here is what Malina tells us about the cosmic lamb in Revelation against the background of ancient knowledge of astral lore. (I follow with Malina’s discussion of the place and purpose of literature like Revelation among the early Christians.) Continue reading “The Cosmic Lamb and the Light of the World”
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.