RevelationWritten by John Sweet Reviewed By Richard Bauckham
The primary and very difficult task in understanding the book of Revelation is to try to hear the language as its original readers heard it, to catch the Old Testament allusions which cluster around almost every phrase, to recapture the connotations which the symbols had in the imagination of first-century Asian Christians. The difficulty of this task explains why Revelation has so often been either a closed book or a grossly misinterpreted book. What the ordinary reader needs above all in a commentary on this book is insight into the range of association which the language and imagery carried for the original readers. Only by means of that kind of insight will he be able to share something of the book’s prophetic insight.
John Sweet’s new commentary provides very well for precisely that need. Its strength is its sensitivity to the literary form and imaginative content of the book. (Sweet is something of a disciple of Austin Farrer, whom the index reveals to be the previous commentator most often mentioned; he has Farrer’s appreciation of the imagery of Revelation, but he refrains from following Farrer’s more speculative explorations of the background of the imagery.) The commentary keeps the reader aware of the Old Testament allusions: not just by providing strings of references (which readers rarely look up) but by explaining how John is using his Old Testament sources (so that the reader is enticed into turning them up and seeing for himself). It keeps the reader aware of the overall structure of the book, which is so important to the understanding of each part—reminding him, for example, that the passages of destructive judgement are set within a larger whole whose total meaning is constructive. It keeps the reader aware of the situation to which the book was addressed: the precise conditions of the seven churches, since Sweet, like a number of recent commentators, rightly insists that the seven letters are the key to the rest of the book. The section of the introduction on ‘Situation’ (pp. 27–35) is a masterly brief reconstruction of the Sitz im Leben, given a date in the reign of Domitian (which Sweet concludes, rather tentatively, is still preferable to the earlier date which John Robinson has recently advocated).
For a book of the length and complexity of Revelation 320 pages of commentary is little enough. Sweet makes excellent use of it. One would often have wished for fuller discussions of particular points, but many of his brief sentences manage to say more than other people’s paragraphs. This is a commentary to read slowly and thoughtfully.
Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews