Revelation as Jewish Literature

(By Dr. Eli)

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. (Rev. 1:1-2)

The work is known to us as “Revelation of John” begins similarly, to how some other Jewish apocalyptic writings do:

Rev.1:1-2 explains what it is? (Revelation of Jesus Christ), why it was given? (to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place), how it was given? (God sent and communicated it by His angel) and who in fact was the primary recipient of this revelation? (his bond-servant, John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw).

The Book of Revelation combines in itself the Apocalyptic, Epistolary and Prophetic styles of Jewish literature. So that you can see that this type of apocalyptic opening is not just typical, but fully predictable for this Jewish literary genre, let us briefly review how some other apocalyptic books also open. For example, we read in Enoch 1:1-2:

The word of the blessing of Enoch, how he blessed the elect and the righteous, who were to exist in the time of trouble; rejecting all the wicked and ungodly. Enoch, a righteous man, who was with God, answered and spoke, while his eyes were open, and while he saw a holy vision in the heavens. This the angels showed me. From them I heard all things, and understood what I saw; that which will not take place in this generation, but in a generation which is to succeed at a distant period, on account of the elect.

We also read in 3 Baruch 1:1-8 (Apocalypse of Baruch):

Verily I Baruch was weeping in my mind and sorrowing on account of the people, and that Nebuchadnezzar the king was permitted by God to destroy His city… and behold as I was weeping and saying such things, I saw an angel of the Lord coming and saying to me: Understand, O man, greatly beloved, and trouble not thyself so greatly concerning the salvation of Jerusalem, for thus saith the Lord God, the Almighty. For He sent me before thee, to make known and to show to thee all (the things)… and the angel of the powers said to me, Come, and I will show thee the mysteries of God.

The above-quoted passages demonstrate clearly that what we read in Revelation’s opening verses is, in fact, is strikingly similar to other Jewish apocalyptic accounts authored around or at least traceable to roughly the same time period.

Moreover, the Jewishness of the Book of Revelation is so obvious that a number of scholars who don’t see Jesus traditions as originally Jewish, erroneously concluded that the current form of Book of Revelation is full of clustered Christian interpellations (mostly in Chap.1 and 22) which were inserted at some point. The theory is that the original pre-Christian version had no distinctively Christian theological trademarks. Such presumed Christianization of the original Jewish Book of Revelation can be argued as follows: If one removes “the Christian material”, the text itself can be read just as smoothly, if not smoother (in bold are alleged Christian interpellations to the Jewish original). So for example in Rev. 1:1-3 we read:

The revelation [of Jesus Christ,] which God gave [him] to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and [to the testimony of Jesus Christ], even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

Although intriguing, the above exercise is viewed by us as futile and utterly subjective. There is no scientific way to decide what should be cut out. Many phrases that have no connections with Christian doctrines can be removed just as easily. Therefore, this in and of itself proves nothing. There are other things to consider too.

Please, let us illustrate. It has been observed that the Samaritan version of the Torah reads much smoother than the Jewish Torah. Jewish Torah is far more unpolished and at times inconsistent and convoluted in its presentation of events. But, if anything, the smoother reading argues for the later editorial activity of the Samaritan scribes and not the other way around.

So, we believe, the case is here: just because the text makes the reading smoother once the explicitly “Christian” content is cut out, does not mean anything except that. To conclude more than that is to overstate the evidence that is otherwise nothing more than a curious and intriguing possibility that has absolutely no evidence to back it up.

But there is another more central problem that we believe plagues those who argue that the original Jewish Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) was tempered with and Christianized by someone in the end of the first century or even later. In short they fail to see that such phrases (designated by them in bold) as Jesus Christ and his “testimony” (among others) are first century Jewish names and native Jewish concepts too that only centuries later get alienated from its original Israelite context. Such differentiation between “Jewish” and “Christian” material is an anachronistic and artificial argument, which lacks the understanding of first-century Jewish environment. In our conversation we will continue to think through this and many other important issues.

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