Another Commentary on the Apocalypse?

From the Preface to Tales of the End

by David L. Barr (Polebridge Press, 1998)

Literary works, no less than children, are apt to answer only the questions we ask of them. They do not often volunteer information on their own. They only seem to be repositories of information available to any reader. Even the most cursory review of the development of literary criticism will show that each generation of critics brings new questions, new methods, new concerns to the texts: one generation asks about the biography of the author and the text's relations with contemporary events; another generation asks about the inner world of the text, disclaiming any interest in the author; another is concerned about the structure of the text. Not surprisingly, each finds only what it is looking for.

This implies two important conclusions. We can never be through writing commentaries on literary works, for each new set of questions we bring them will produce new interpretations, new insights, new answers. When a friend asks, only partly in jest, why I would want to write another commentary on the Apocalypse--after nearly two thousand years hasn't everything been said?--the answer is clear: this old work has more to say, if we can just think of the right questions to ask it. Second, this commentary will differ significantly from most other commentaries on the Apocalypse, because it asks a different set of questions.

When commentators asked the Apocalypse to describe the end of the world and tell them when it would occur, they got certain kinds of answers back. All too often, these answers turned out to be nonsense, for the world has stubbornly refused to end. When commentators shifted their ground and asked, rather, that the Apocalypse describe life in the first century, another kind of answer echoed back. We have learned much about the Roman Empire, persecution and tolerance, the development of city life in Asia Minor, divergent forms of Christianity, and much else, by asking these questions. When we moved on to ask about the symbolic forms employed, the feelings expressed, the psychological states addressed, the social situation involved, we learned much about the deep human longings manifested here.

While informed by these earlier questions and answers, this commentary has other concerns. We ask the Apocalypse to answer our questions about stories, how they are told, whom they are about, what they consist of, where they go. These questions, often simple, will sometimes take on a complex character as we refine them in the light of recent studies of

narrative. Technical vocabulary and scholarly disputes will be kept to a minimum, for our effort is to hear the answers not to display the questions. When other points of view need to be considered, or when I want to refer to further reading, I have used endnotes. When I have wanted to add further comments that did not directly affect the argument, I have used foodnotes. These notes are never necessary for following the main argument.

My hope is that this work will not be used simply as a reference work, as is usually the case with historical-critical commentaries. I do not think one can read a verse or paragraph of the story in isolation and understand it. Such a portion must be heard in the larger context of the scene, segment, and story of which it is a part. One must consider the setting, characterization, and sequence of action that leads to (and from) the incident. Thus the comments on each section begin first with these broader concerns and only then do we consider the details of smaller textual units. Ideally, one would read a section of the story in Revelation, read the comments on this section, and then reread the story. To avoid repetition and to direct the reader to broader issues, I have made frequent use of cross references.

The Book of Revelation has been subjected to much abuse by interpreters and I could offer no better preliminary advice than to forget whatever you have heard about its meaning and to read the book afresh. It was only when I began to listen to John's story without the prejudicial readings of my culture (particularly those readings by people who fancy themselves prophets) that I discovered what a wonderful story this is. You will find my understanding of that story in the pages that follow, but that is not my purpose. Rather, the purpose of this commentary is to provide the knowledge and resources needed for you to make your own fresh reading of John's Revelation as a story.

Of course Revelation is a strange book and one cannot expect to just pick it up and read it without some preliminary knowledge. The first chapter is designed to consider these necessary preliminaries. It is, in very general terms, the road map that will guide our whole journey. Then follow three further chapters, one on each major narrative unit in Revelation. Each provides a general overview of the unit and then detailed discussion of the structure, plot, characters, settings and other relevant details. The goal in each case is to assist you to make a viable interpretation of the story. A final chapter reflects further on some of the underlying issues, such as the way this story has been used in America, the significance of this kind of literature, and the implications of this story for understanding its original audience.

The commentary is based on the Greek text of Revelation but the remarks are always oriented to the New Revised Standard Version. The Greek text is cited (in transliteration) and translated when necessary to see some interesting use of language.

The book is expected in March and can be ordered from Amazon.com.]

Return to Dr Barr's Homepage