The exercise of summarizing each of the books of the New Testament proved more useful than I had first imagined. My primary goal was for students to do a quick, skim read of each of the books of the New Testament so as to get an overview. I’ve been thinking about having everyone do the same thing at the end of the semester to see if your summaries would change, but I haven’t decided whether to do that yet. One way to go about this is to see whether and how your individual summaries cohere or conflict with some of the handouts I provided at the start of the semester about the authorship and date of the books of the New Testament.
Even at this point, though, at least one poignant take-away comes to mind. A very brief comparison of everyone’s individual summaries reveals lots of overlaps, but also lots of differences.
How is it possible that all of us read over the same books and yet have came up with such different summaries of their meanings?
You may recall that one of the methods we discussed in Week 2 is Reader Response. The basic idea of this method is that readers bring their own meaning and interpretive tendencies to the text. This is not necessarily bad. Indeed, good texts often intentionally leave gaps so as to create more engagement from a greater variety of readers.
Ironically, one of the best ways to see this tendency is in the history of the interpretation of the book of Revelation.
Remember the pictures of Jesus, how different cultures make Jesus look like them?
That’s exactly what happens all the time with the book of Revelation. People frequently use Revelation to predict the end of the world in their own lifetimes.
Each generation the predictions and players change, but one thing remains consistent across history.
All of their predictions end up being dead wrong.
Luther, for instance, pictured the Pope as the Anti-Christ and predicted the end of the world in the 16th century. His end times predictions helped him start the German Reformation, but they obviously ended up being wrong.
Seventh Day Adventists (a denomination of 17 million today) were started by a preacher named William Miller who predicted end of the world would come in the 19th century and people could see it on a mountain. His were obviously wrong, but the hype leading up to his predictions led to this grand error being known as the “Great Disappointment.”
Those are just two examples out of hundreds.
More problematic is that these interpretations of Revelation tend to be very ethnocentric and nationalistic. US interpreters tend to picture the US as God’s chosen people and picture foreigners (Russians during the Red Scare, Arabs/Muslims more recently) as the bad guys.
So Revelation is used to underwrite American exceptionalist prejudices and geopolitical stances.
This class—and the scholarly study of the New Testament—is about shaking ourselves free of our national and cultural prejudices and learning how to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who created these texts.
The author of Revelation lived in the Roman Empire. His whole world—and that of his fellow Jews—was turned upside down when Roman legions invaded Judea and destroyed Jerusalem and the 2nd Temple. The apocalypse written in response is saturated with references to these events and describes in exquisite and imaginative detail how divine vengeance and judgment will come upon the city, emperors, and empire of Rome.
Pick up any scholarly commentary on Revelation, and it will show you all of these historical and literary connections. But turn on the radio or go to most churches, and you won’t hear anything about them.
Scholarly commentaries are trying to teach you how to read these texts well. Many popular sermons today are doing something quite different, either scaring people into believing in God (fear sells), claiming some kind of esoteric, prophetic insight into the events of the day (so smart!), or just underwriting a deeply prejudicial view of Christianity and the US vs. the rest of the world (poo on the EU). 😉
It’s a false choice to say that one has to choose between saying Revelation is about the Roman empire or saying Revelation is about a future end of the world. In its original context, it’s about both. It’s about the end of the world as envisioned by people living in the Roman empire and suffering unimaginable disappointment when their temple, capital, and much of their culture was destroyed.
The true choice is to decide whether you will read Revelation to try to understand how it is about others (ancient interpreters) or whether to remain entrenched in our cultural biases and prejudices that make Revelation all about us (modern readers in the US).
Again, it’s just like the pictures of Jesus. We can try to respect and understand him as someone very different than us, or we can re-make him in our own cultural image so that he is little more than a reflection of us.
Reader response reminds us that people will see whatever they want, that they will see themselves, their culture, their biases and prejudices embedded in texts. But good Bible scholars should respect these texts and their original creators enough at least to try to see them from the point of view of their ancient creators.