The Book of Revelation

Written by G. R. Beasley-Murray Reviewed By Richard Bauckham

Everyone knows the peculiar perils of expounding the Apocalypse. When Austin Farrer was writing his commentary on it, he was told by a friend: ‘There will be a mighty chorus of previous expositors to welcome you into the other world. “So you did one too,” they will say. “In that case you will find a great deal to surprise you up here.” ’ (Farrer, The End of Man, p. 130). Farrer’s friend was a church historian, doubtless aware that the history of Apocalypse commentating is an extraordinary example of the limitless possibilities of eisegetical fantasy. But the modern commentator need not be confined to the kind of subjective guesswork with which most of his pre-critical predecessors had to work. His two great advantages over them are a reasonable degree of historical access to the context of apocalyptic thought-forms and imagery within which John wrote, and the knowledge that John wrote to be understood by his contemporaries. Doubtless he will be just as surprised hereafter, but he may have realised that it was scarcely John’s intention to prevent that.

Dr Beasley-Murray, who gave us stimulating foretastes of his approach to Revelation in The New Bible Commentary Revised (IVP 1970) and in his Highlights of the Book of Revelation (1972), has provided a commentary which exploits those advantages a good deal more consistently than many recent commentaries on the Apocalypse. His broad acquaintance with Jewish apocalyptic literature is apparent throughout the work, and perhaps even more striking are his discussions of John’s allusions to pagan mythological and astrological concepts. Conservative commentators in particular have been slow to admit that John makes use of pagan myth: it is interesting to compare, as recent conservative commentaries, Beasley-Murray with Leon Morris and G. E. Ladd. Ladd contrives to treat Revelation 12 without even passing mention of the various mythological backgrounds to the chapter which numerous scholars since Dieterich and Gunkel have discerned, while Morris’s verdict on these suggestions is almost wholly negative. In part this represents a proper reaction against a portrait of John as no more than a scarcely competent redactor of pagan material. But Beasley-Murray (following the lead of G. B. Caird and others) shows that where John takes up the imagery of pagan myth he does so to further his central theological purposes. Probably the aspect of John’s work which emerges with greater clarity here than in any previous study is his representation of Christ as the fulfilment (in unexpected fashion: cf. Beasley-Murray’s comments on 5:6) of both Jewish hopes of Messianic deliverance and the highest aspirations of contemporary paganism.

This I am convinced is both well grounded in the evidence and also enables us to recapture something of the richness of the Apocalyptic symbolism in its contemporary context. But this is not to say that in detail Beasley-Murray’s discussion of the derivation of imagery may not be disputed. Testament of Joseph 19:8, for example, is an insecure foundation for his contention that the Messiah was already portrayed as a lamb in Jewish apocalyptic (p. 125): on any showing this verse has been subject to Christian interpolation and how much of it may have been originally Jewish is at present almost anyone’s guess. (Similar doubts might be raised about the reference to Testament of Dn. 5:6 on p. 144.) In discussing chap. 12 Beasley-Murray avoids the question of which pagan myth(s) John has used by means of the idea of an ‘international myth’ combining the relevant features of almost all the various myths which have been suggested. This is a dubious procedure (though by no means unprecedented in studies of Rev. 12). Myths which have next to nothing in common with each other can be made to look deceptively like variants of a hypothetical international myth simply by telling them in such a way as to highlight their points of contact with Revelation 12. (Compare Beasley-Murray’s confidently straightforward account of the Horus and Typhon myth with the bewilderingly various versions discussed in J. Gwyn Griffiths, The Conflict of Horus and Seth.) Some of this material (the Iranian, in part) is not attested until long after John’s time, while it cannot be assumed without evidence (which I do not know to be forthcoming) that the ancient myth of the victory over the chaos monster was still a living myth in the first century A.D., either in its Babylonian form of the battle with Tiamat or in its Canaanite form of the battle with Lotan (Leviathan). (Beasley-Murray seems not to know the Canaanite version, but its claim to consideration here is slightly more plausible than the Babylonian.) The international myth is a phantom which ought not to deflect us from the admittedly difficult task of determining precisely what mythological associations John’s images would be likely to evoke for readers in the province of Asia at the end of the first century. The Leto-Apollo-Python myth was certainly well-known to them, and happens also to be closest to Revelation 12. The Isis-Horus-Typhon myth also deserves a hearing, though the evidence at present is very uncertain.

To recognise that John wrote not merely an apocalyptic prophecy for his contemporaries, but an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a pastoral letter for the Christians of the seven churches, is of great relevance for exegetical method. As Beasley-Murray points out, ‘no exegesis can be faithful to John’s intention unless the seven churches are kept steadily in view’ (p. 53). This principle effectively controls his estimate of the eschatological perspective of the book: ‘John was constrained to adapt the Christian hope to the situation which was developing in Asia Minor’ (p. 13). The resulting combination of ‘praeterism’ and ‘futurism’ is usually convincing. But the seven churches nevertheless rather easily slip from the reader’s mind, and there are many specific ways in which it would be helpful to be reminded of them. When, for example, the question of the true Israel arises in chapter 7, the reader ought to be aware of this as a specific issue of burning relevance to the Christians at Philadelphia in particular (3:7ff.). The impending conflict with the imperial cult is by no means the only aspect of the Sitz im Leben of the Apocalypse which is relevant to the exegesis of chapters 4–22, but most commentaries give that impression and this is unfortunately no exception. To have drawn out the links of the later chapters with the various different themes of the seven messages to the churches would only have strengthened Beasley-Murray’s stress on the rootedness of John’s presentation of eschatology within the churches’ own situation.

Beasley-Murray, like all students of Revelation but more so than some, is greatly indebted to R. H. Charles. From Charles, in part, comes his positive appreciation of John’s kinship with the Jewish apocalyptists. But also to Charles he owes a theory that John incorporates Jewish apocalyptic sources into his work. Unlike Charles and other critics of Charles’ generation who practised extensive source-criticism of the Apocalypse, Beasley-Murray holds that the book as we have it is a consistent and carefully constructed unity. But he believes that in some places, notably in chapters 7, 11, 12, 17, John has taken over existing oracles or visions with a minimum of adaptation. I find none of the specific arguments for this convincing, while on the other side it must be said that verbatim transcription of sources is wholly unlike John’s observable use of known sources (the Old Testament and in a few cases the Synoptic tradition). In the case of a writer of such careful literary artistry as John, it is a strange counsel of despair to argue, with Beasley-Murray, that John used sources which can be detected because they do not quite say what John would have said were he writing the passage himself. Moreover the theory involves attributing to John’s predecessors images and concepts which are characteristically his and entirely unparalleled in extant Jewish apocalyptic (e.g. Satan as the dragon in Rev. 12).

One last criticism concerns the millennium. There are always readers who turn immediately to chapter 20 in any new commentary on Revelation; they will find, not a discussion of the various alternative views, but a brief and theologically thoughtful statement of Beasley-Murray’s own non-dispensational premillennialism. I have no quarrel with the contention that John presents the millennium as the consequence of the parousia, but it seems to me that Beasley-Murray succumbs to the common premillennial temptation to make too much of the millennium. His argument that the New Jerusalem must be a feature as much of the millenium as of the new heaven and earth (pp. 315f.) is logically cogent but beside the point: John portrays it in the latter context because the new heaven and earth are the real focus of Christian hope. The millennium seems to have a single function: the demonstration of the achievement of the kingdom of Christ and the saints (so, essentially, Beasley-Murray, p. 287). There is no real basis on which to describe it as ‘the restoration of paradise’ (p. 291) or as a period in which the nations will be converted (p. 236). John is relatively uninterested in the millennium.

Nevertheless this is a very fine commentary, notably sensitive to the functions of apocalyptic imagery and appreciative of the Apocalypse’s very weighty theological contribution. Asked (as I often am) to recommend a commentary on Revelation, I would now choose Beasley-Murray without hesitation, and if possible I would place beside it Paul Minear’s I Saw a New Earth (1968), whose approach is very different, and recommend the reading of the two together as complementary stimuli to the understanding of the Apocalypse.

Richard Bauckham

Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews