Monday, September 3, 2012

General, Yet Historical

I started G.K. Beale's The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text.  I'll use as my starting-point what Beale says on pages 48-49 about his own approach to the Book of Revelation:

"A more viable, modified version of the idealist perspective would acknowledge a final consummation in salvation and judgment.  Perhaps it would be best to call this fifth view 'eclecticism.'  Accordingly, no specific prophesied historical events are discerned in the book, except for the final coming of Christ to deliver and judge and to establish the final form of the kingdom in a consummated new creation----though there are a few exceptions to this rule.  [Beale's footnote: E.g., 2:10, 22 and 3:9-10, which are unconditional prophecies to be fulfilled immediately in the specific local churches of Smyrna, Thyatira, and Philadelphia.]  The Apocalypse symbolically portrays events throughout history, which is understood to be under the sovereignty of the Lamb as a result of his death and resurrection.  He will guide the events depicted until they finally issue in the last judgment and the definitive establishment of his kingdom.  This means that specific events throughout the age extending from Christ's first coming to his second may be identified with one narrative or symbol.  We may call this age inaugurated by Christ's first coming and concluded by his final appearance 'the church age,' 'the interadventural age,' or 'the latter days.'  The majority of symbols in the book are transtemporal in the sense that they are applicable to events throughout 'the church age'...Therefore, the historicists may sometimes be right in their precise historical identifications, but wrong in limiting the identification only to one historical reality.  The same verdict may be passed on the preterist school of thought, especially the Roman version.  And certainly there are prophecies of the future in Revelation.  The crucial yet problematic task of the interpreter is to identify through careful exegesis and against the original historical background those texts which pertain respectively to past, present, and future."

This accords with some of what I have read of this commentary so far, as Beale treats certain passages in the Book of Revelation as general rather than specific.  Revelation 17:9-11 refers to seven (or, technically, eight) kings----five have fallen, one is, one is yet to come, and the Beast is the eighth king----and Beale says on pages 23-24 that "More likely the seven kings are not to be identified with any specific historical rulers but represent rather the oppressive power of world government throughout the ages, which arrogates to itself divine prerogatives and persecutes God's people."  Beale appears to be skeptical of the scholarly argument that 666 refers to Caesar Nero just because transliterating his name into Hebrew and using gematria results in 666, for Beale says that there were a lot of possible ways to transliterate Nero into Hebrew (so I guess he's asking why we should assume that 666 is about Nero just because one of those transliterations happens to work out), that we shouldn't assume that Greek speakers knew Hebrew and Hebrew gematria, that it's puzzling that the author of Revelation used the Hebrew rather than the Greek form of Nero, and that the "numerical value in Hebrew of the Greek word [therion] ("beast") is 666" (page 24).  Beale's argument may be (and I am open to correction as I read this book) that the Beast of Revelation 13 is not Nero, per se, but that Revelation 13 is exhorting "believers to perceive spiritually the deceptive nature of the satanic, beastly institutions to which they are being tempted to accommodate" (page 24).  And, while Beale believes that the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 were actual churches in the first century, he also thinks that they're relevant to churches throughout the church age, in which there have been some churches that have lost their fervor, and others that are committed to Christ.

At the same time, Beale does believe that the Book of Revelation originated to speak to a specific historical context.  He argues that its origin was in the time of Domitian (who reigned in 81-96 C.E.), which was a time when Christian aristocrats were being persecuted for not worshiping the emperor.  Beale also contends that there was pressure on Christians in first century Asia Minor to "attend trade guild festivities honoring patron gods" (page 32).  Some did so, according to Beale, because they felt that would enable them to know the "deep things of Satan" (Revelation 2:24)----to know what their enemy Satan was up to.  But the author of Revelation did not approve of their activity.  (Regarding authorship, Beale is open, but he does not buy the argument that it couldn't have been John the Apostle on account of the different styles and ideas in Revelation as opposed to the Johannine writings, for Beale says that Revelation is a different genre and thus would be different from John's Gospel, and also that there are parallels between Revelation and John's Gospel.)

For Beale, the author of Revelation is appealing to a transcendent reality to speak to a first century audience.  I'm curious as to how Beale will handle the passages in Revelation that present the Second Coming of Christ as imminent.  Thus far (and I could be wrong on this), he seems to think that the author of Revelation is drawing from concepts that are general and applicable to all sorts of historical settings, in his attempts to speak to the situation of certain first century Christians.

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