Damien F. Mackey
The great soaring Eagle, St. John the Evangelist, introduced the Book of Revelation (1:1) in this fashion:
This is the Revelation given by God to Jesus Christ so that He could tell His servants about the things which are now to take place very soon; He sent His angel to make it known to His servant John, and John has written down everything he saw and swears it is the word of God guaranteed by Jesus Christ. Happy the man who reads this prophecy, and happy those who listen to him, if they treasure all that it says, because the Time is close.
Now if Plato were correct in the observation he made in his Republic that: “The beginning is the most important part of the work”, then this passage of Revelation will be deserving of our closest attention.
In an ideal world one would not need to make any significant future amendments to a book one had once written. But one would also be very foolish - and not a genuine lover of truth - not to do so if, in retrospect, it became apparent that such amendment was needed. Whilst prevention is better than cure, not to cure when circumstances demand it could be obstinate folly.
In the 1980’s I wrote an article on The Five First Saturdays (the popular name for the Communion of Reparation asked for by Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima on 13 July, 1917) in which article - for the parts pertaining to the Apocalypse - I fairly uncritically followed Fr. Herman B. Kramer’s captivating The Book of Destiny (Tan, 1975).
By 1994 this Marian article had become a published book, with no changes at all to my acceptance of Fr. Kramer’s interpretation of the Apocalypse, according to which he had quite ingeniously linked each chapter literally to an important era of Christian history. For instance, Revelation chapters 8 and 9 Fr. Kramer aligned with, respectively, the Great Western Schism (C14th-15th AD) and the Protestant Reformation (C16th AD). Perhaps Fr. Kramer’s lynchpin for all this was his identifying of the Eagle, or angel of judgment, of Revelation 8:13, or 14:6, with St. Vincent Ferrer, OP. (ibid., pp. 208-9):
By a wonderful co-incidence a great saint appears at this stage [the Western Schism] in the history of the Church. His eminence and influence procured for him the distinction of an eagle flying through mid-heaven. This was the Dominican priest, St. Vincent Ferrer. When in 1398 he lay at death’s door with fever, our Lord, St. Francis and St. Dominic appeared to him, miraculously cured him of his fever and commissioned him to preach penance and prepare men for the coming judgments. Preaching in the open space in San Esteban on October 3, 1408 he solemnly declared that he was the angel of the judgment spoken of by St. John in the Apocalypse. The body of a woman was just being carried to St. Paul’s church nearby for burial. St. Vincent ordered the bearers to bring the corpse before him. He adjured the dead to testify whether his claim was true or not. The dead woman came to life and in the hearing of all bore witness to the truth of the saint’s claim and then slept again in death (Fr. Stanislaus Hogan O.P.).
Just as this, St. Vincent Ferrer’s extraordinary miracle, had convinced the Dominican Fathers, his superiors, that he was correct in his claim to be the angel of Apocalypse, so was it all the proof that I needed back in the 1980’s to accept Fr. Kramer’s opinion that Revelation 8 (which includes reference to a warning angel) was fixed to the very time of St. Vincent Ferrer. And so I, quite content with the way Apocalypse had been incorporated into The Five First Saturdays book - now up-dated as:
The Five First Saturdays of Our Lady of Fatima
- moved on to consider other things relevant to that book, for example (in regard to the many similarities found between the Book of Esther and the Fatima events) to locate the precise era of Queen Esther, her uncle Mordecai, and their foe Haman. This was in order to provide a solid historical foundation to the whole Esther saga. Instead of my puzzling overmuch anymore about who, or what, might be the seven-headed Beast of Revelation 13:1, I became preoccupied now with trying to discover who in history was “Haman ... the persecutor of the Jews” (3:10); that most ambitious and cruel character in Esther who, Hitler-like, had singlemindedly set about to exterminate the entire Jewish race, but was thwarted at the eleventh hour by Queen Esther and Mordecai.
See now, e.g.:
I know that many today will regard all this as quite ridiculous, a complete waste of time. They will insist that one will never succeed in identifying the historical era for Queen Esther because she never actually existed, never sat on the Persian throne at Susa, was only a character of fiction. But my own research has revealed a different trend, as in the case of the Book of Judith - which contemporary exegetes likewise refer to as “historical fiction”. After years of research into the Book of Judith I am convinced, from a detailed comparison of Judith with the neo-Assyrian records, that the story about this Jewish heroine fits snugly into the era of King Hezekiah of Jerusalem, when King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded his kingdom in c.700 BC.
Judith is indeed real history. See e.g. my:
“Nadin went into everlasting darkness”
Providentially, I was invited in the year of 1999 to write a postgraduate thesis on this very same era, that of King Hezekiah.
And I am equally convinced that Esther is true history; though, as with Judith, it has taken some time and intellectual effort to demonstrate this. I only made real progress with Judith when I put aside peripheral details to track down the main incident: the defeat of the massive Assyrian army.
The Book of Revelation
Despite the superficial ingenuity of Fr. Kramer’s interpretation, it does not - on closer scrutiny - match itself appropriately to St. John’s own words. Whereas Fr. Kramer tumbled out, like far flung dice, the events that the Evangelist described, spinning them right down through the centuries, even to our own time, St. John - as we read in his introductory quote above - was clearly talking about an early fulfilment of the events that Jesus Christ had revealed to him. See my:
As noted in that article, I am greatly indebted to the insights of Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry on this subject.
There is a pronounced dichotomy here between the standard interpretations of Revelation and the actual words of the author. St. John said emphatically that these events were to happen “soon”; that is, soon for St. John’s era and generation of the C1st AD. That St. John meant that soon-ness literally (indeed he repeats it in various ways) is going to become more and more obvious in the course of this book. Thus a literal fulfilment of Revelation 8 in St. Vincent Ferrer’s time, almost a millennium and a half after St. John, as Fr. Kramer had proposed, would not seem to be compatible with St. John’s “soon”.
This does not at all shake St. Vincent’s testimony. The bull of canonization compares him to an “angel flying through mid-heaven”. The breviary uses similar language. St. Vincent could well have been the apocalyptical angel of judgment in the sense that Our Lord said of St. John the Baptist that “... he, if you will believe Me, is the Elijah who was to return” (Matthew 11:14); even though St. John the Baptist had point blank told the priests and Levites who asked him, ‘Are you Elijah?’ ... ‘I am not’ (John 1:21). The Baptist ‘was’ Elijah in the sense that he came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).
God has apparently created ‘types’; a classical example being the one that we have just looked at of St. John the Baptist being an Elijah type.
According to Pope Pius XI, St. Thomas Aquinas is somewhat reminiscent of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph, saviour of Egypt. See my:
That Pope hinted at this in his encyclical, “Studiorum Ducem” (29 June, 1923), when he wrote:
Accordingly, just as it was said to the Egyptians of old in time of famine: Go to Joseph, so that they should receive a supply of corn from him to nourish their bodies, so We now say to all such as are desirous of the truth: Go to Thomas, and ask him to give you from his ample store the food of substantial doctrine wherewith to nourish your souls unto eternal life.
This passage became the inspiration for me to write an earlier article, “Go To Thomas”, leading me to discover various unexpected but striking parallels between the lives of St. Thomas and Joseph. And the intuitive reader will be able to discern many others types as well of holy men and women down through the ages.
Now St. Vincent Ferrer could likewise, as with the Baptist, have come so much “in the spirit and power of” a holy predecessor (angel or human) as to be identifiable with, yet not literally, that predecessor. As we are going to see, St. Vincent certainly shared a common vocation with St. John the Evangelist inasmuch as he foretold a pending judgment that he insisted would occur soon. Moreover, his soon-ness has been just as misunderstood and misinterpreted as has the Evangelist’s.
In St. Vincent’s case, the matter of typology is further complicated by the difficulty of deciding whether his type is the Eagle/angel of Revelation 8 or Revelation 14; a difficulty that Fr. Kramer obviously has at least - just as he also seems to stumble over the fact that the Dominican saint was, like the Evangelist, utterly convinced that the judgments he foretold were to be fulfilled very soon (op. cit., p. 209):
The above testimony [of the miracle] is accepted by all biographers of St. Vincent as a proof of his claim. But they make his reference to the Apocalypse indicate chapter XIV. 6, for they say he often chose it as his text, ‘Fear God, and give Him honor, for the day of His judgment is at hand’. They do not prove that he pronounced himself that particular angel. And he seems to have had only the general revelation that he was appointed “the angel of the judgment”.
By designating him the angel of chapter XIV.6, the commentators run into inexplicable difficulties. For St. Vincent emphatically and repeatedly asserted that the day of Wrath was to come “soon, very soon, within a short time”, cito, bene cito et valde breviter. St. John announced that the judgment was to come very quickly (Apoc. III. II), which meant that it would begin to operate soon. Since St. Vincent uttered these prophecies, five centuries have elapsed, and the end of the world and last judgment have not come. Some try to explain it by saying that the saint meant the particular judgment; but that is meaningless. Others contend that he predicted the approach of the last judgment conditionally, as Jonas predicted the destruction of Nineveh .... But these are all conjectures of biographers. St. Vincent did not aver that he was the angel of chapter XIV. or that the General Judgment was very near.
Fr. Kramer, after writing at some length in this rather tortuous vein, goes on to wonder whether St. Vincent might not have been entirely correct about his own apocalyptical identification, because he certainly estimated wrongly in another major matter (ibid., p. 211):
Now that St. Vincent himself might have been mistaken about the place assigned to him in the apocalyptic prophecies need not appear strange. He adhered to the anti-pope, Benedict XIII, and sincerely believed him to be the legitimate pontiff. This was a matter in which his human judgment gave the decision. And this judgment can easily err. So also, since it was not explicitly revealed to him what angel of the Apocalypse he was, he may have drawn the mistaken conclusion that it was the one of chapter XIV. 6. However, it has not been proven that he claimed to be that angel or even thought he was. This latter angel has the commission to preach to EVERY “nation and tribe, and tongue, and people”. St. Vincent, even though his fame spread over it all, so that he was like “one flying through mid-heaven”, personally reached only a small part of Christendom.
Fr. Kramer’s entanglements here only reinforce me in my decision to consider St. Vincent as, at best, an apocalyptical type only.
Confusion is exacerbated by failure to recognise that the judgment about which St. John was referring was intended for that generation (c. 30-70 AD), culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD), and that it equates with the “coming” that Our Lord and the Apostles frequently referred to in regard to the generation that had crucifed Him: a “coming” in judgment. Not to recognise this is to make a mockery of Our Lord’s clear words and of other New Testament prophecies. It also takes away the concreteness intended by Our Lord. When, prior to his Passion, He had placed before Him by “some people” the examples of (i) those slain by Pilate’s Roman troops, and (ii) others killed by a falling tower, He had insisted: ‘Unless you do penance you will all perish as they did [that is, by a violent death]’ (Luke 13:1-5). Whilst this statement is also open to spiritual interpretation, it should immediately be understood in the concrete sense, that this is exactly what was going to happen physically to that generation of Jews if they did not have a change of heart within the allotted period of mercy. At the end of the 40 years of probation thousands upon thousands of Jews did die violent deaths at the hands of the Roman troops, with towers likewise falling upon them, as well as missiles, stones and fire.
The same sort of warnings applied apparently to St. Vincent Ferrer’s generation. And they apply also to ours. The Vatican II era has been an era of Divine mercy extended to a wicked generation; but it also portends an Advent, or Coming of Christ. Will the early Third Millennium witness the emergence of a new apocalyptical ‘angel’ to proclaim ‘cito, bene cito et valde breviter’?
The increasingly intensive force of the disasters that daily assail our planet, as we read about or sometimes even experience, seems to presage a final terrible culmination. One has only to tune in to a news report on any given day to hear a litany of fresh disasters and tragedies. Nerves of steel are needed nowadays, seemingly, to watch or listen to the news; a situation that was humorously summed up some years ago in Skyhooks’ song about the “Horror movie” that is “the 6.30 news:
The planes are a-crashing,
The cars are a-smashing,
The cops are a-bashing, Oh, yeah ....
The kids are a-fighting,
The fires are a-lighting,
The dogs are a-biting, Oh, yeah”.
Jesus Christ came to bring us ‘Good News’. But, because the world has largely rejected His Gospel, it now finds itself having to exist on a daily diet of Bad News.
Part Two: Apocalypse Now, or Then?
Biblical commentators can have a tendency to take ancient incidents and predictions and to re-invent them, even in their most literal sense, as, now, C21st AD situations.
The question is, should their “Apocalypse Now” really be seen as “Apocalypse Then”?
Lack of Urgency
Fr. Kramer’s whole argument for a late fulfilment of Revelation amounts to a (no doubt unwitting) denial of the urgency, and the concreteness, of Our Lord’s predictions, and those of His disciples. A re-assessment of Fr. Kramer’s commentary is needed in light of St. John’s own words, and this will be the task undertaken here. The conclusions that will be reached in this article are now given, with comments to them following immediately:
- St. John wrote Revelation, not in 95 AD - as most commentators (Catholic and non Catholic alike) insist - but prior to the destruction of the City of Jerusalem by the Romans under Titus in 70 AD;
- St. John likely wrote Revelation (that we now have in Greek) in a Semitic language - either Hebrew or its sister language, Aramaïc; this being a further argument in favour of early composition;
- The events described in Revelation were all literally fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (though they have a spiritual significance for all times, including our own).
1. Date of Writing
70 AD or 95 AD
Commentators base their conclusion of late date of authorship on the crucial testimony of St. Irenæus, Bishop of Lyons, who claimed to have known Polycarp, disciple of St. John. The evidence from Irenæus that is deemed so compelling is found in Book 5 of his Against Heresies (at 5:30:3), at the end of a section in which Irenæus is dealing with the identification of “666” in Revelation 13:18 (emphasis added):
We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in the present time, it would have been announced by him who had beheld the apocalyptic vision [i.e St. John the Evangelist]. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.
If the conventional date of c. 95 AD for “the end of Domitian’s reign” is correct then it - in conjunction with Irenæus’ testimony - would put paid in one blow to my entire thesis [not however my original idea – see Part One] that Revelation pre-dates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
In answering this - which answer will necessitate my providing at least an outline for a proposed revision of Roman imperial history - I shall endeavour to show why I think Emperor Domitian is to be dated significantly earlier than 95 AD; a conclusion that would in no way contravene anything that St. Irenæus wrote - for Irenæus never said that the Apocalypse was conceived in 95 AD (a quarter of a century after the destruction of Jerusalem), but merely “towards the end of Domitian’s reign”.
Contemporary chronologists are the ones who have fixed Domitian to that approximate date.
Firstly I list for the reader the early Roman emperors (with their conventional dates) up to the destruction of Jerusalem. Some commence their list with Julius Cæsar (49-44 BC):
1. Augustus (31 BC-AD 14)
2. Tiberius (AD 14-37)
3. Gaius, also known as Caligula (AD 37-41)
4. Claudius (AD 41-54)
5. Nero (AD 54-68)
6. Galba (AD 68-69)
7. Otho (AD 69)
8. Vitellius (AD 69)
9. Vespasian (AD 69-79)
Conventionally, Domitian would be listed a bit further on, c. 95 AD.
But I am now going to propose that Domitian might be the same person as Nero.
[Some of what follows is from old articles].
I strongly suspect that there has occurred, in the construction of Roman imperial history, the same sort of duplication that revisionists have observed in early Egyptian history. Chronologists, scientists, anthropologists, seem to have a pathological tendency to want to stretch things out. Procrustes in action with his rack. The so-called Stone Ages they stretch out over several million years, in single file, though there is abundant evidence for overlap. Astronomers keep wanting to expand the size of the universe, galaxy upon galaxy, based on the Doppler Effect (or should that be the Doppelgänger Effect?); and to expand the age of the universe by billions of year (give or take a zero).
The same extending has been done to ancient history. In my MA thesis, The Sothic Star Theory of the Egyptian Calendar, deemed in some circles of academia to be “irrefutable”, I argued that Egyptian chronology has been artificially stretched on the rack to the tune of 500 years or more. It needs a benign Procrustes to shrink it back to its original size. Dr. D. Courville, in The Exodus Problem and its Ramifications, rightly concluded that Egypt’s Old and Middle kingdoms - conventionally separated the one from the other (at their beginnings) by 700 years - were in actual fact contemporaneous, and not successive. Chronological reality is often like that; more of a ‘pond-ripple effect’, spreading outwards, than an ‘Indian file’ successive extension.
In my “Osman’s ‘Osmosis’ of Moses” and “Re-discovering the Egyptianized Moses”, written for The Glozel Newsletter, I built upon Courville’s important re-alignment. What conventional history has cleft in two, artificially separating the parts by 500-700 years, needs to be rejoined together. That the same sort of folding as with Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms needs to be applied to Roman imperial history - though thankfully not a fold of 700 years, but more like 60 years - will become evident from various testimonies.
One frequently encounters in Egyptology queries over whether some artefact, piece of literature, or even a destructive action, ought to be dated to the Old or Middle Kingdom. This very querying is often a tell-tale sign that folding is required (so that chronologists will no longer be forced into a dispute over a range of estimates incorporating many centuries).
Now the same tendency of querying I am finding in historical discussions of Nero and Domitian. Historians puzzle over whether such and such a persecution, or event, occurred during the reign of the one or the other Roman emperor.
A tell-tale sign?
It can be (though one can also end up with egg on one’s face when the situation is misread). Some commentators, who cannot make up their mind whether St. John the Evangelist was exiled to the island of Patmos during the reign of Nero, or of Domitian, end up by compromising and suggesting that he may have experienced two exiles.
One of the first things I decided to do, to test if there might be any possibility of folding with Nero and Domitian was to look at Nero’s other names. Like we, the ancients often had a set of names; and this can be the cause of much confusion and duplication.
So is there the chance that Nero was also called Domitian?
Even with this new theory in mind, I read over Nero’s four names, without a pause, once I had found them in K. Gentry’s The Beast of Revelation (p. 14). Perhaps I was distracted by Nero’s nickname, Ahenobarbus; a description of his red facial hair. I was only stopped in my tracks a bit further along when I read that a name of Nero’s father was Domitius. I quickly scanned back to Nero’s set of names and saw that, yes, Nero certainly had as one of his names, Domitius, the Roman version of Domitian.
He was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero Cæsar).
This similarity of names in itself is of course no certain proof of identity between Nero and Domitian. But it, coupled with evidences for an early Apocalypse, and the queries of historians, begins to shape up to some sort of a real picture.
Moreover, the current chronology for the life of St. John the Evangelist would have him ending up as an unrealistically sprightly nonagenarian. St. Irenæus wrote (op. cit.) that St. John “continued with the Elders till the times of [the emperor] Trajan”, who came even after Domitian. According to the reckonings of conventional Roman chronology, St. John would have been in his nineties by the time of his dwelling at Ephesus after his return from exile. Yet the activity that he is then said to have undertaken is that of a younger person. Eusebius wholeheartedly endorsed Clement of Alexandria’s account that John not only travelled about the region of Ephesus appointing bishops and reconciling whole churches, but also that while on horseback he chased with all of his might a young man. Unlikely energy for a person in his nineties.
Here are some further examples of the queries historians make between Nero and Domitian:
- Despite the strong conviction by some that the emperor worship that they detect in Revelation can be found no earlier than Domitian, others insist that Nero practised it. Nero was particularly infatuated with Apollo, and even claimed the title, “Son of Apollos”. Seneca, one of young Nero’s tutors, convinced Nero that he was destined to become the very revelation of Augustus and Apollo.
- Despite unanimity amongst early Fathers that St. John was banished to Patmos in the reign of Domitian, shortly after his being dipped in a cauldron of burning oil, St. Jerome said that this dipping occurred in Nero’s reign (Against Jovinianum 11:26). That total picture would be appropriate if Nero were Domitian.That there is something quite wrong with the conventional chronology, and its application to the Apocalypse, is attested by the evidences in the latter that the Temple of Jerusalem was still standing when St. John wrote his book. I have already discussed this situation in:
I Am Barabbas
But that is not all. The conventional chronology of imperial Rome has also served to throw out of kilter the early history of the Roman Catholic Church that has been chronologically tied to it. Let us take the case of Pope St. Clement I of Rome. Clement, like St. John, is supposed to have written around 90-95 AD, yet he likewise spoke as if the Jerusalem Temple were still standing. Clement’s relevant statement is as follows (I Clement 41):
Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone. And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high-priest and the aforesaid ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes.
This statement clearly pre-dates 70 AD. Clement as a writer, therefore, needs to be retro-dated by at least 20 years. That similar anomalies occur with the current chronology of Pope Pius I is shown in some detail by Gentry in Before Jerusalem Fell (pp. 93ff).
Added to all this is another strange afterglow about 60 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, with the Emperor Hadrian (conventionally dated to c. 130 AD), putting down a so-called ‘Second’ Jewish Revolt in the Holy Land, and supposedly removing all the stones of the Temple. This, rather than Titus’ destruction of the city, is considered by some to be the more perfect fulfilment of Jesus Christ’s prophecy that ‘... not a single stone here will be left on another; everything will be destroyed’ (Matthew 24:2).
But I ask how could the Jews have rallied so mightily, re-populated the area to such an extent, so soon after 70 AD, when their city had been absolutely burned to the ground, and whatever citizens survived were sold into slavery?
Might not the Emperor Hadrian himself be a duplicate of an earlier emperor?
Interestingly, the so-called ‘Second’ Jewish Revolt lasted as long as the First - the three and a half years of Revelation. Hadrian’s main Jewish opponent was the legendary Simon bar Kochba (son of the Star), thought by the Jews to be the Messiah. Indeed Rabbi Aqiba, intellectual leader of the Jews, proclaimed Simon as such. Had not Our Lord warned that some would rise up claiming to be the Christ, i.e. the Messiah (Matthew 24:24)? And Simon perfectly fits this description. Simon was a guerilla fighter, and is very reminiscent of the terrible Simon Giora of 70 AD, guerilla fighter, who led one of the three factions in Jerusalem, fighting amongst themselves even when the Romans had the city encircled.
Part Three: Language of the Apocalypse.
Are the text books correct about the date of authorship of the Book of Revelation and the original language in which it was written?
Greek or Semitic?
The text books, in perfect accord with a conventional view of chronology, inform us that St. John wrote the Book of Revelation in tradesmanlike Greek.
No mean achievement for one of Jewish ethnicity!
Biblical commentators have arrived at the same conclusion about certain other books in the New Testament. But Fr. Jean Carmignac has, in his book The Birth of the Synoptics, shown that the Synoptic Gospels were originally written in Hebrew, or Aramaïc. This leads him to date much of the New Testament significantly earlier than do his colleagues.
I fully concur with Fr. Carmignac’s line of research.
Now a fortiori in the case of Revelation do the same conclusions as Fr. Carmignac’s need to be drawn: namely, the recognition of a Semitic original, leading to an earlier dating of the book. For even those (by far the majority) who think that St. John wrote his book in Greek are forced to admit - what has long been recognised - that Revelation is one of the more “Jewish” books of the New Testament. “More than any other book in the New Testament, the Apocalypse of John shows a Jewish cast”, wrote G. Kruger in History of Early Christian Literature in the First Three Centuries (p. 35).
“Indeed, one of the arguments that historically has been granted the most weight for its early date (as per Westcott and Hort) is that [Revelation’s] language is so intensely Hebraïc in comparison to the Gospel’s smoother Greek”, wrote K. Gentry (Before Jerusalem Fell, p. 209). Torrey and others have gone so far as to suggest an Aramaïc original because of this (ibid.). And, Gentry again (pp. 239-10):
In Charles’s introduction to Revelation, he included a major section entitled “A Short Grammar of the Apocalypse”. Section 10 of this “Grammar” is entitled “the Hebraic Style of the Apocalypse”. There Charles well notes that “while [John] writes in Greek, he thinks in Hebrew”. As Sweet puts it: “The probability is that the writer, thinking in Hebrew or Aramaic, consciously or unconsciously carried over semitic idioms into his Greek, and that his ‘howlers’ are deliberate attempts to reproduce the grammar of classical Hebrew at certain points”.
Actually it should likely be viewed the other way around: a translator would have converted St. John’s original semitic version of Apocalypse into Greek. I return to Gentry:
What is more, other names in Revelation are, as a matter of fact, very Hebraic. For instance, the words “Abaddon” (Rev. 9:11) and “Armageddon” (Rev. 16:16) are carefully given [sic] Greek equivalents; “Satan” is said to be “the devil” (Rev. 12:9).
Scholars are usually at pains to understand the name of St. John’s 666 “man” (Revelation 13:18) in terms of Greek letters and numbers; a system known as gematria. But, in light of the growing evidence that St. John originally wrote the book in a semitic language, we may also need to take a new approach towards solving this age-old mystery.
Part Four: Literal Sense of Scripture.
Are the text books correct about the date of authorship of the Book of Revelation and the original language in which it was written?
Levels of Scriptural Meaning
Literal and Spiritual
To kick off this section I had better distinguish immediately for the reader between the literal and spiritual levels of Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, recalling ancient tradition, nicely sums it all up:
The senses of Scripture
115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of the Scripture in the Church.
116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal”. [St. Thomas, Sth I, 1, 10, ad 1].
117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realties and events about which it speaks can be signs.
1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism. [Cf. I Cor. 10:2].
2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”. [I Cor. 10:11; cf. Heb. 3-4:11].
3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem. [ Cf. Rev. 21:1-22:5].
118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:
The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.
[Lettera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia].
119 “It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the word of God” [Dei Verbum 12§3].
University professor Mons. George A. Kelly distinguishes more briefly between the literal and spiritual sense [which he calls the “fuller sense”] in The New Biblical Theorists. Raymond E. Brown and Beyond (1983), 13 (highlight emphasis only added):
The search for the literal sense, the meaning intended by the human author and therefore what God inspired, is considered to be the first obligation of anyone who would read or study scripture seriously. It is also commonly held that only one literal sense to a text is possible, although the words may seem at times to convey double meanings or subordinate meanings. .... St. Thomas Aquinas is usually cited as a leading Church doctor who knew the importance of discovering the literal sense. Modern scholars insist on this as their first priority.
The aspect of Fr. Kramer’s commentary that I had especially found most compelling, initially, was that he did not by-pass the historico-literal level of interpretation. He did not go straight for the spiritual and symbolical level, as some do (even giving a spiritual sense and then calling it literal), but tried to nail the various parts of the Apocalypse to specific historical events.
Mons. Kelly now explains the next, and higher, level:
The quest for the fuller sense to biblical texts is as old as scripture itself. It is based on the conviction that God intended his Word to be meaningful far beyond the time and place of its original composition. Biblical exegetes from the early Church Fathers onwards have sought these meanings. New Testament authors used Old Testament texts this way, explaining Christ’s birth and passion, for example, through quotations from Isaiah and the Psalms. New Testament exegesis in Matthew and Paul also read Christ’s presence back into Old Testament scenes. Church Fathers made a specialty of searching for proof texts referring to Christ, and of extrapolating the fuller spiritual or allegorical meaning. The first great Christian school of exegesis in Alexandria was allegorically inclined; by contrast, the Antioch school stressed the literal meaning.
That there is real unity between these two approaches, literal and spiritual, is apparent from Pope John Paul II’s address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission and Pontifical Biblical Institute (23rd April, 1993), in which he reflects upon the biblical encyclicals of two predecessor Popes - Leo XIII’s “Providentissimus Deus” (18 Nov., 1893) and Pius XII’s “Divino afflante Spiritu” (50 years later). In this address Pope John Paul shows that the Popes are not afraid of the discoveries of science, but are only too willing to incorporate any genuine scientific developments (§5, highlight emphasis added):
... it became necessary [for Leo XIII] to respond to attacks coming from the supporters of the so-called “mystical” exegesis (EB, n.552), who sought to have the Magisterium condemn the efforts of scientific exegesis. How did the Encyclical respond? It could have limited itself to stressing the usefulness and even the necessity of these efforts for defending the faith, which would have favoured a kind of dichotomy between scientific exegesis, intended for external use, and spiritual interpretation, reserved for internal use.
But Pope Pius XII did not opt for so restrictive a view:
In Divino afflante Spiritu, Pius XII deliberately avoided this approach. On the contrary, he vindicated the close unity of the two approaches, on the one hand emphasizing the “theological” significance of the literal sense, methodically defined (EB, n. 551), and on the other, asserting that, to be recognized as the sense of a biblical text, the spiritual sense must offer proof of its authenticity. A merely subjective inspiration is insufficient. One must be able to show that it is a sense “willed by God himself”, a spiritual meaning “given by God” to the inspired text (EB, nn. 552-553). Determining the spiritual sense then, belongs itself to the realm of exegetical science. Thus we note that, despite the great difference in the difficulties [the two Popes] had to face, the two Encyclicals are in complete agreement at the deepest level. Both of them reject a split between the human and the divine, between the scientific research and respect for the faith, between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. They thus appear to be in perfect harmony with the mystery of the Incarnation.
In this article, I am basically interested in the historico-literal, or scientific level of interpreting Revelation, in order - hopefully - to establish a sound historical basis for Revelation.
The inspiration of St. Thomas Aquinas (cf. §116 above) had previously helped me with the difficult work of anchoring the literal. It was with his written encouragement that I had worked on the historicity of the Book of Job; for St. Thomas had insisted - against strong criticism of his day - that the holy man, Job, was a real person. When I read this it gave great impetus to the work I was already engaged in, leading to my conclusion, ultimately, that Job was the same as Tobit’s son, Tobias (in his old age); an C8-7th BC character. This long article was eventually published in its entirety, as “Job’s Life and Times”, in the international journal Mentalities/Mentalités. It has since been up-dated in various articles, including one under that same title:
This enabled me, as I hope, to have removed a great deal of mystery from the Book of Job, making it possible for a down-to-earth substratum to be laid upon which to interpret the rather enigmatic Dialogue section of the book.
It gave the book ‘a body’, so to speak.
And that is precisely what I think needs to be done, too, in the case of Revelation. And indeed able scholars have already made important progress in this regard.
In one aspect the Book of Revelation is far less of a challenge than was the Book of Job inasmuch as proposed dates for the authorship and life of Job had ranged over a 1200 year period of uncertainty (from c.1400-150 BC); whereas the terminal dates for the Apocalypse are closer to, say, 50 years (c. 50-100 AD).
Seeking out the historico-literal sense, apart from being the first task of the exegete, can bring its own rewards. It was in fact whilst I was in the process of trying to establish the historicity of another part of the Old Testament - the era of King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam (c. 920 BC), when a Pharaoh sacked the Temple - that the notion first came to me that the Evangelist John was writing Revelation during a time before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, whilst the Judaïc system of things (the Temple, the Golden altar, the sabbath restrictions in the land) was still in place. Because all that Jewish legalism went right out the window with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. I refer to the following quote by Dr. Eva Danelius in her article, “Did Thutmose III Despoil the Temple in Jerusalem?” SIS Review (p. 70), which quote really made me sit up and begin to re-assess Fr. Kramer:
For the attentive reader it is obvious that parts of John’s visions - the 24 elders, the importance of clean white garments, the punishment of those who neglect their duty as watchmen - reflect details of the duties of priests and Levites on watch in the Beth Moked, the northernmost building of the Temple compound, where the keys to the Temple mound were guarded under measures of the strictest security.
It eventually became apparent to me that the whole book of Revelation reflected a pre-70 AD atmosphere, and that St. John was preparing his own generation for what was soon about to befall it, just as Our Lord had warned that same generation a few decades earlier. After my experiences with conventional Egyptian history, over a long period of time, I was not going to allow myself to be restricted any more by conventional dating. So, when I read that something was supposed to have happened in 95 AD (namely the writing of the Apocalypse), I had to ask myself: On what basis?
Whilst I willingly accept Irenæus’ impressive testimony that Apocalypse was written late in the reign of Domitian, I do not so willingly accept the conventional assessment that Domitian reigned in 95 AD. Unless that can be proved beyond doubt.
For me, now, the literal sense of the Apocalypse is that it reflects real historical events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The emphasis here on the literal sense should not be seen as an attempt to exalt that sense over the spiritual. The whole point is, as with Job, to establish a substratum in order to make the higher senses more intelligible. (A bit like the way the philosophia perennis is meant to be used as a sound underpinning for theological studies).
The Popes too, taking things much further than had St. Thomas Aquinas, have been most encouraging for the historical and archæological approach. I recall that one of the Popes (Pius XII) referred to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb as “a resurrection”. The Popes, as I said, are not frightened of genuine scientific discoveries, but greatly urge their use. As far back as the days of Leo XIII, the Popes have been insisting that biblical scholars learn the ancient languages of the east in order the better to be able to understand the minds of the sacred writers. Now that papal advice, I believe, is going to prove crucial to a right understanding of the literal meaning of Revelation.
Pope John Paul II has noted that even by the time of Pius XII, the fruits of his predecessor Leo XIII’s biblical guidelines were already quite manifest:
Fifty years later, in Divino afflante Spiritu Pope Pius XII could note the fruitfulness of the directives given by Providentissimus Deus; “Due to a better knowledge of the biblical languages and of everything regarding the east, ... a good number of the questions raised at the time of Leo XIII against the authenticity, antiquity, integrity and historical value of the sacred Books ... have now been sorted out and resolved” (EB, n,. 546). The work of Catholic exegetes “who correctly use the intellectual weapons employed by their adversaries” (n. 562) has borne its fruit. ...
The archæological discoveries of the past 150 years have been a tremendous boon for biblical studies insofar as they have enabled us the better to understand the past and the scribal methods and idioms once employed. These discoveries, hidden from some of the great biblical scholars of bygone days - because these lived in times when many major ancient cities lay still buried in their shroud cloths of sand - have given an unfair advantage to we who live in the scientific age. We should be, and seemingly are, more conscious of the historical sense; and that is why this sense has come to the fore in more recent times.
There is an interesting example in a writing of St. John of the Cross, in his classic, Dark Night of the Soul, of the use of the “mystical” sense (of which Pope John Paul II speaks) to eclipse, as it were, the literal meaning intended by the original author - in this case Moses. St. John of the Cross is of course the great Doctor of Mystical Theology in the Church. In his discussion of infused contemplation and its effects, the abstraction which it causes in its human subject, he writes of those who are under its influence as having difficulty speaking. No doubt this great Saint was talking from personal experience. In fact it is said of him that he was often so abstract in mind that, when in conversation with another, he had to hit his hand against a table periodically in order to maintain his concentration. The same sort of fits of abstraction are legendary in the life of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Now St. John of the Cross always applied a mystical interpretation even to the Old Testament texts of Moses and David. No doubt this is quite legitimate inasmuch as the Holy Spirit has written the Scriptures for mystics as well as for historians, and the Scriptures are ever open to be interpreted on the mystical level. But St. John of the Cross, perhaps less sensitive to the literal level than would be a modern commentator, sometimes - at least as I estimate it - deprived the text of its natural meaning. Thus, when Moses complained to God that he could not approach Pharaoh, because he was naturally taciturn, St. John of the Cross immediately took this to mean that Moses was under the influence of infused contemplation, and that his speech had therefore been taken away from him (Bk. II):
For the speech of God possesses this property: that when it is most secret, infused and spiritual, as to transcend all sense, it instantly suspends and silences the whole harmony and ability of the exterior and interior senses. Whereof we have instances and examples in the Divine Scriptures ....
And this dullness of the interior, that is, of the inner sense of the imagination conjointly with the exterior sense in respect of this, Moses also made proof of in the presence of God in the burning bush, when he not only said to God, that after he had spoken with him, he knew not how, nor was able, to speak ....
But, if we read the text closely, we learn that Moses said before God that he had been dull of speech all his life: ‘But, my Lord, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence, either before or since You have spoken to Your servant. I am a slow speaker and not able to speak well’ (Exodus 4:10). It is hardly likely that he was for all his 80 years under the influence of infused contemplation. Moreover God, far from praising Moses for his reticence (He at least would have looked favourably upon Moses if he had been dull of speech in the sense meant by St. John of the Cross), became angry with him (vv.11-14).
St. John of the Cross had earlier written, with St. Mary Magdalene at Christ’s tomb in mind, that it is typical of ardent love to think “... all things possible, and that everyone is seeking what it seeks itself”. Perhaps the great Doctor of Mysticism carried that very principle into his purely mystical interpretation of Moses and misread the latter’s more basic meaning comment.
But I stand to be corrected on this.
By all means ought spiritually minded scholars look for the mystical meaning of the entire Scriptures as intended by the Holy Spirit. But now too, in this Third Millennium era, with the Popes also urging the importance of the historico-critical method, all exegetes might strive to be more conscious of the need firstly to lay down the substratum.
I have gone into some detail about this because - despite the Magisterium’s emphasis on the importance of the historico-critical method - I know that my approach of emphasising the literal will bring criticism; as it already has. Whilst I welcome legitimate criticism, some of it, I believe, has been misinformed and Fundamentalistic in nature. I feel greatly encouraged again, this time by Pope John Paul II, in that he, in his address referred to above, was both highly critical of the Fundamentalist approach and supportive of an historical exegesis as long as it is according to the analogy of Faith.
Some commentators, striving for orthodoxy, are too inclined to label liberal scholars as “modern exegetes”. That would tend to indicate that, to be orthodox, one has to be non-modern, fixed in the past - that there is no development. But Pope John Paul II made it clear on a number of occasions that the static state is not genuine Catholicism. Pope John Paul II was modern, but he always adhered to the analogy of the Faith.
Maybe we should rather be distinguishing between modern and modernistic, which latter doctrine completely ignores the analogy of the Faith
Pope John Paul II’s address, in which he was at pains to point out the significance of the Incarnation for biblical studies, is likely to become so important in the future that we need to linger with it for a while (§ 4. emphasis added):
In both cases [the two predecessor encyclicals] the reaction of the Magisterium was significant, for instead of giving a purely defensive response, it went to the heart of the problem and thus showed (let us note this at once) the Church’s faith in the mystery of the incarnation. Against the offensive of liberal exegesis, which presented its allegations as conclusions based on the achievements of science, one could have reacted by anathematizing the use of science in biblical interpretation and ordering Catholic exegetes to hold to a “spiritual” explanation of the texts.
Providentissimus Deus did not take this route. On the contrary, the Encyclical earnestly invites Catholic exegetes to acquire genuine scientific expertise so that they may surpass their adversaries in their own field.
“The first means of defence”, it said, “is found in studying the ancient languages of the east as well as the practice of scientific criticism” (EB, n. 118). The Church is not afraid of scientific criticism. She distrusts only preconceived opinions that claim to be based on science, but which in reality surreptitiously cause science to depart from its domain.
Pope John Paul II will now further develop this important concept in a new section:
The harmony between Catholic exegesis and the mystery of the Incarnation
6. The strict relationship uniting the inspired biblical texts with the mystery of the incarnation was expressed by the Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu in the following terms: “Just as the substantial Word of God became like men in every respect except sin, so too the words of God, expressed in human languages, became like human language in every respect except error” (EB, n. 559). Repeated almost literally by the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum (n. 13), this statement sheds light on a parallelism rich in meaning.
It is true that putting God’s words into writing, through the charism of scriptural inspiration, was the first step toward the incarnation of the Word of God. The written words, in fact, were an abiding means of communication and communion between the chosen people and their one Lord. On the other hand, it is because of the prophetic aspect of these words that it was possible to recognize the fulfilment of God’s plan when “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). After the heavenly glorification of the humanity of the Word made flesh, it is again due to written words that his stay among us is attested to in an abiding way. Joined to the inspired writings of the first covenant, the inspired writings of the new covenant are a verifiable means of communication and communion between the believing people and God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means certainly can never be separated from the stream of spiritual life that flows from the Heart of Jesus crucified and which spreads through the Church’s sacrament. It has nevertheless its own consistency precisely as a written text which verifies it.
7. Consequently, the two Encyclicals require that Catholic exegetes remain in full harmony with the mystery of the incarnation, a mystery of the union of the divine and the human in a determinate historical life. The earthly life of Jesus is not defined only by the places and dates at the beginning of the first century in Judea and Galilee, but also by his deep roots in the long history of a small nation of the ancient Near East, with its weaknesses and its greatness, with its men of God and its sinners, with its slow cultural evolution and its political misadventures, with its defeats and its victories, with its longing for peace and the kingdom of God. The Church of Christ takes the realism of the incarnation seriously, and this is why she attaches great importance to the “historico-critical” study of the Bible. Far from condemning it, as those who support “mystical” exegesis would want, my Predecessors vigorously approved. “Artis criticæ disciplinam”, Leo XIII wrote, “quippe percipiendæ penitus hagiographiorum sententiæ perutilem, Nobis vehementer probantibus, nostri (exegetæ, scilicet, catholic) ecolant” (Apostolic Letter Viglilantiæ, establishing the Biblical commission, 30 October 1902: EB, n. 142). The same “vehemence” in the approval and the same adverb (“vehementer”) are found in Divino afflante Spiritu regarding research in textual criticism (cf EB, n. 548).
In the next very important section Pope John Paul II described the false view of God and the Incarnation that some hold (the sort of view that Aristotle had of God as a distant Creator, and one that the Fundamentalists presently hold):
8. Divino afflante Spiritu, we know, particularly recommended that exegetes study the literary genres used in the Sacred Books, going so far as to say that Catholic exegesis must “be convinced that this part of its task cannot be neglected without serious harm to Catholic exegesis” (EB, n. 560). This recommendation starts from the concern to understand the meaning of the texts with all the accuracy and precision possible, and, thus, in their historical, cultural context. A false idea of God and the incarnation presses a certain number of Christians to take the opposite approach. They tend to believe that, since God is the absolute Being, each of his words has an absolute value, independent of all the conditions of human language. Thus, according to them, there is no room for studying these conditions in order to make distinctions that would relativize the significance of the words. However, that is where the illusion occurs and the mysteries of scriptural inspiration and the incarnation are really rejected, by clinging to a false notion of the Absolute. The God of the Bible is not an Absolute Being who, crushing everything he touches, would suppress all differences and all nuances. On the contrary, he is God the Creator, who created the atonishing variety of beings “each according to its kind”, as the Genesis account says repeatedly (Gn 1). far from destroying differences, God respects them and makes use of them (cf I Cor 12:18, 24, 28).
Pope John Paul II was extremely broad-minded in all this:
Although [God] expresses himself in human language, he does not give each expression a uniform value, but uses its possible nuances with extreme flexibility and likewise accepts its limitations. That is what makes the task of the exegetes so complex, so necessary and so fascinating! None of the human aspects of language can be neglected. The recent progress in linguistic, literary and hermeneutical research have led biblical exegesis to add many other points of view (rhetorical, narrative, structuralist) to the study of literary genres; other human sciences, such as psychology and sociology, have likewise been employed. To all this one can apply the charge which Leo XIII gave the members of the Biblical commission: “Let them consider nothing that the diligent research of modern scholars will have newly found as foreign to their realm; quite the contrary, let them be alert to adopt without delay anything useful that each period brings to biblical exegesis” (Viglilantiæ: EB, n. 140). Studying the human circumstances of the word of God should be pursued with ever renewed interest.
10. Nevertheless, this study is not enough. In order to respect the coherence of the Church’s faith and of scriptural inspiration, Catholic exegesis must be careful not to limit itself to the human aspects of the biblical texts. First and foremost, it must help the Christian people more clearly perceive the word of God in these texts so that they can better accept them in order to live in full communion with God. To this end it is obviously necessary that the exegete himself perceive the divine word in the texts. He can do this only if his intellectual work is sustained by a vigorous spiritual life.