Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation
Michael Thompson's review of "Seeing Things Johnâ€™s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation" by David deSilva.
David A. deSilva. Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. ix + 349 pp. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-664-22449-3.
In our culture there is no shortage of books on Revelation, though mostly these discussions are dominated by popular paperbacks which claim to have unlocked some mysterious code, provide the unveiling of the antichrist and final world order, or give the details of a world that will have been left behind during a so-called post-rapture age. However, it appears that within the world of biblical studies the interest in The Apocalypse is also growing, which means that more responsible exegesis and investigation is now forming a solid foundation to those who seek to understand this challenging text. Further, we are now witnessing investigation which explores the richness of Revelation in its own merit, rather than simply producing volumes which seek to respond and refute the claims made from the world of eschatological hysteria.
It is in this vein that David deSilva’s book comes as a welcome addition to the conversation surrounding Revelation. Grounded in the world of first-century Jewish apocalyptic, this volume seeks to provide the exegete with a solid context in which to work and understand. There are certainly a number of approaches available to read Revelation, and deSilva chooses to focus on the rhetoric used to compose the work. This decision stems from deSilva’s own academic strengths, and he consistently demonstrates a good familiarity with Jewish apocalyptic.
The rhetorical approach can also bring some problems, for much of the literary criticism in the field of biblical studies accomplishes little more than imposing modern theory upon ancient texts, and thereby making assertions that are otherwise foreign to the original context. But deSilva does well at navigating this, keeping the rhetorical discussion within the appropriate context of the first century. And he also writes with an understanding of his own limitations in this area, keeping an eye on the limitations of understanding and applying ancient rhetorical theory.
This isn’t to say that deSilva gets everything correct in his reading, however. Perhaps the biggest problem with his approach is that at times becomes so fond of the trees that he misses the larger forest. A clear key of reading Revelation is to know when to stop interpreting and allow the larger brush strokes of the work to invoke the intended message. Those who read with a close eye on the literary details must caution against this, and deSilva doesn’t always keep this in mind. For one example, in his desire to place John within the proper historical context the author at times makes the entirety of The Apocalypse about Rome rather than seeing the larger context of world history and the sinful bent of humanity – often in the ongoing comparisons in Revelation between “the followers of the Lamb” and “the people of the earth.” When this step is missed, it makes Revelation appear to be much narrower than it is intended to be.
Although these concerns remain, one cannot deny that deSilva’s overall approach to Revelation understands the nature of Jewish apocalyptic and is built on the right foundation. In terms of presentation, this book is ordered topically rather than sequentially (although deSilva provides a chapter-by-chapter guide to help students locate specific passages within the book, p. x).
Chapter One provides a brief history of interpreting Revelation, an introduction to the nature of apocalypse, as well as what this “rhetorical analysis” of Revelation should look like. DeSilva prefers a “contemporary-historical” reading which seeks to understand the text from within its original context, as well as its timely application (6). He also rightly approaches Revelation as a threefold work, consisting entirely of epistolary, prophetic, and apocalyptic genres (9-14), with the dominant framework of apocalyptic coloring the entirety of the work: “More than seeking to be interpreted, Revelation seeks to interpret the reality of the audience, showing them the true character of features of that landscape . . .” (14, emphasis in original).
Chapter Two then takes the discussion to the cultural context of Revelation’s first audience, seven churches in the first century Roman providence of Asia minor. Here one will find a brief discussion on authorship, circumstances of writing, dating, and surrounding context. At this point, the reading of Revelation is correct in understanding the context of pax Romana, the political atmosphere of the Roman Empire, localized pressures on the first Christians, and the struggles to compromise their faith – which is the greatest warning throughout Revelation.
Chapter Three is perhaps one of the most difficult to read for the average evangelical, due in large part to the nature of rhetorical criticism itself. The question in this chapter is to determine John’s goals in writing Revelation (What is it that John expected would happen?). Frank discussions on this topic will certain strike more conservative readers as a challenge to divine inspiration, though this is nowhere in deSilva’s thinking. His conclusion that “John wants ‘conquerors’” (70) places John within the prophetic tradition and allows his voice to be supportive to the Lamb’s agenda. DeSilva sees this as John’s call for the church to distance itself from the prevalent Roman culture, thereby making the strong distinction between the Lamb and the world.
Beginning with Chapter Four deSilva starts to interact with Revelation’s narrative more pointedly, and progresses topically through the themes of the book. Since he has introduced the reader to a strong framework within which he reads Revelation, the discussion that comes through the remainder of the book is worthwhile and helpful. One disappointing factor at this point is inherent with the nature of the topical discussion, which breaks up the flow of Revelation’s narrative perhaps a bit too much. When discussing Revelation 13, deSilva makes the common conclusion that 666 is a use of Hebrew gematria and thus is a reference to Nero (106). However, this comes without an adequate discussion of Revelation 12-13 as it provides a trio of grotesque creatures which are in parody of the Trinity, thus losing sight of the greater evil that is at play in the world than simply Rome. The topical break seems to have distracted from this, and a few other, areas in the narrative.
Chapter Six is a discussion regarding John’s use of Scripture (Old Testament) within the narrative. This topic is quite difficult in that the number of allusions and echoes are almost incalculable within a work of this nature, especially since the use of imagery is so prevalent. DeSilva mentions that constant direct quotation would distract from the narrative itself, such as footnotes would become cumbersome throughout a novel (149), and perhaps this is true. But more recent study on Second Temple Judaism has also shown how the fusion of Scripture and its themes appear throughout Jewish thought as an act of widespread memorization of the text (cf. New Perspective on Paul). Thus, the rhetorical method may be focusing too much on the words that appear on the page and missing the surrounding worldview of the culture.
As the book progresses, deSilva does indeed begin to widen the perspective of Revelation and incorporate themes that are more timely to our modern world than simply leaving the narrative within the first century world. And his method of doing so demonstrates a strong reading of The Apocalypse, knowing that it is a message intended for all generations. The criticism of his approach here is simply that this methodology could have been more present in the earlier discussions. In interpreting the fate of Babylon (Revelation 18) he concludes, “Every seat of empire, no matter how prosperous at its peak, will one day sit as a ruin, and Rome will be no different” (206).
And so also deSilva demonstrates that John’s vision beyond the Roman world will result in the new heavens and new earth which join together at the climax of creation. The imagery that is used throughout the apocalyptic narrative thus challenges, inspires, and admonishes all believers to participate in the coming kingdom of God. In the end, this book is well worth the read for those who are interested in understanding Revelation. We are far from scholarly consensus on so many issues, but the discussion is well under way. DeSilva provides a solid contribution, and gives the exegete another tool with which to unpack The Apocalypse.
One final note: After teaching an undergraduate course on Revelation for a few years, I am unconvinced that this would be an appropriate introductory text for that level. However, for graduate-level introductions to Revelation this would be a much more useful work.
Michael C. Thompson, M.A.
Senior Pastor, Winding Waters Church (Elkhart, Indiana)