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The Situation Is Key

Something to Keep in Mind While Reading Religious (And Any) Text

By Valerie HoltPublished 5 years ago 5 min read

To fully understand a piece of writing, you must look at the original message of the writing. The only way to do that accurately is to understand the social situation in which the writing was created. The social situation will influence any piece of work, as well as influence the way we understand the work. This is no different for the understanding the Bible, more specifically the Book of Revelation. Thus, to understand the Book of Revelation, we must first find the social situation that John was in when he wrote the Book of Revelation. This includes the happenings of the Church, of the Roman Empire, and of John’s own life.

The biggest insight we have into the Church’s happenings is in the letters to the Church (Rev 2-3). The letter to the Church gives us solid evidence about the congregation of John’s time and seems to reflect that their churches were in urban environments. The churches he discusses in the Book of Revelation were Christian communities in Western Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. During the time of John, Christianity was under extreme pressure to worship the emperor, but Judaism wasn’t. In the eyes of the Roman Empire, the Jewish community was an ethnic group of an ancient religion, which is why they were exempt from emperor worship. Meanwhile, Jews were turning Christians in, since they were no longer following the Jewish faith. This is where John probably got the synagogue of Sagan. This points to the political system becoming more and more anti-Christian. Within the church itself, there was pressure from non-Christian Jews, which can be seen in the letters to Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11) and Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13). Gentile Christians were expanding and doing things John took offense to, things such as listening to false prophets, fornication, and emperor worship (Rev. 2:14, 2:20). There was also a fear that the Roman emperor would want everyone to worship him, and of course that he would execute Christians.

As previously discussed, the Christian Church was under pressure from the Roman Empire. The Book of Revelation was probably written towards the end of the Domitian reign, with the most compelling evidence being Irenaeus saying it. Domitian’s policy towards Christians was ambiguous due to the different accounts we have of his reign, which could be attributed to exaggeration and propaganda from his predecessors. In fact, this topic is still up for debate in the scholarly community. Regardless of his actual policies, Domitian’s reign came after the reign of Nero, due to the fact that Galba, Otho, and Vitellius all reigned briefly. Nero was well known for his torture and persecution of Christians. Even though the Book of Revelation was written after the death of Nero, his memory was deeply ingrained to the point of fear that he would return. At the time, it was rumored that Nero didn’t die in his suicide attempt but instead fled to the east. This is the main argument for why the beast, whose number is 666, is emperor Nero. The beast was an emperor and would then come back as the eight (Rev. 17:8-19). If one translates Nero’s name into Hebrew, it would add up to the number 666.

What is known about John, the writer of Revelation, is that he probably was an itinerant preacher. While it has been argued that the John who wrote the Book of Revelation is also John the son of Zebedee, one of the 12 apostles, this probably wasn’t true, as it was common to attribute books to the twelve when authorship was not clearly known. John the son of Zebedee spoke Aramaic and the Book of Revelation is written in Greek with a Hebrew/Aramaic feel either because it was a second language or, more likely, because he wanted it to sound like the Hebrew Scriptures. John writes in his own name (Rev. 1:1-3) and does not reveal esoteric knowledge, as many other apocalyptic writers do. Many use a pseudonymity to make their work more credible. In addition, John of Revelations never claimed to be one of the apostles and the text treats the twelve as figures of the Church’s past (Rev. 12:14). John makes his credibility by saying it was a message from God (Rev. 1:1) and calls his book a prophecy (Rev. 1:3), while following much the same patterns in his writing to other biblical prophets. Through the many allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures, we know he assumed his readers knew the Hebrew Scriptures as well (Rev. 1:13-15 compared to Dan. 7:9, 13; 10:5-6 and Rev. 13:1-2 compared to Dan. 7:2-7). Many of John’s allusions are from Daniel, and much of his theology is from Enoch and Esdras, e.g. meaningful life after death. This takes us to the personal. John was obviously a Jewish Christian and had taken issue with the happenings of the church, as previously discussed. The reason for John being in Patmos is debatable. John explicitly states it was “because of the word of God” (Rev. 1:9). Due to the fact that Patmos was a desolate island, to which no one would want to go to, there were most likely outside stimuli as well. It is possible that he could have been exiled, a common practice at the time for troublemakers, or John could have simply fled in fear of persecution.

Only after looking at the situation that the Book of Revelation was written in can one truly understand its meaning. The book of Revelation was written in a dangerous time for the Church when tensions were high. With the memory of Nero still fresh in their minds, many feared the Roman Empire and persecution. Meanwhile, John struggled with the direction that the Church was heading in, and for one reason or another went to the island of Patmos, where he eventually wrote the Book of Revelation. After knowing the facts, one can start on the more difficult task of interpretation.


About the Creator

Valerie Holt

In permanent beta: learning, improving, evolving...

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