Who Says? Who Hears?

The Narrative Rhetoric of John's Apocalypse

David L. Barr

Wright State University

Working Draft for the Rhetoric and the New Testament Section

Society of Biblical Literature, Orlando, 1998

The inferences we make as we occupy the narrative audience position

lead us to a complicated vision.... Phelan, 151


John's Apocalypse is a complex narrative meant to be read aloud to an audience. Before we can assess the rhetorical intent of any statement in the text we must first assess the voice with which it is presented (Who says?) and the ear to which it is addressed (Who hears?). By distinguishing the various levels of narration and assessing the appeal to the various narratees created by the text at each narrative level, we can reconstruct the persuasive force of John's story on the implied oral audience.



The seminal works both in narrative theory and in rhetoric came from the mind of one man, Aristotle. Yet there is scant overlap between the two. The Poetics never discusses the rhetoric of a narrative work(1) and the Rhetoric never develops a way to deal with the rhetoric of narratives. The closest overlap is the recommendation that a well-constructed rhetorical speech, especially in judicial rhetoric, should begin with a narrative of the disputed action told from the point of view of the speaker. This implies a concept of the rhetorical force of narrative.(2)

The exploration of those implications was left to the modern Aristotelian, Wayne Booth. Since the 1961 publication of The Rhetoric of Fiction interest in the idea that narratives persuade has grown apace. This is no place to review that literature, nor am I the one to do the review.(3) Here I only want to be clear that the standard categories and techniques of rhetoric are not of much use in analyzing narratives.(4) Booth's achievement was to demonstrate the ways aspects of narrative (realism, the author's voice, the nature, person, and reliability of the narrator, presentations of character and of the reader's distance from the characters) act in concert to influence the reader; that is, they are elements of the rhetoric of the narrative. Thus the rhetorical force of a narrative is not so much in what is said (the story) as in how it is said (the discourse).

This paper attempts a preliminary and partial analysis of the narrative rhetoric of John's Apocalypse by examining especially the narrative levels of the story and the interactions of the narrators and narratees on these various levels with each other and with the implied audience of the whole story.(5) While partial--neglecting as it does important aspects of plot, characterization, and intertextuality--it is not random; for I have chosen what I take to be the most rhetorically significant aspect of the story. And while preliminary, its conclusion suggests important hermeneutical issues in understanding the Apocalypse.

A simplified overview of the narrative levels of the Apocalypse is necessary to begin the analysis. While the actual telling of the story is more complex, I argue that there are three basic levels to John's narrative: the level of the reader/hearer, the level of the revealer, and the level of the revealed. Let's trace this out in the narrative.

The story opens with an unattributed voice addressing the implied audience, declaring:

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.

This titular declaration summarizes all that follows: something has been shown to John and he must now show it to God's servants "whatever he saw." We might regard this as a metanarrative statement, except that it constitutes the opening of the narrative. As such it makes a claim on every actual (as well as implied) reader of the text. This claim becomes explicit in the text, when it further declares:

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.

But whose voice is this, explaining where the revelation comes from (God/Jesus) and what its result will be (blessedness)? And to whom does it speak? On the one hand, it is not the voice of anyone in the story. It refers to John, for example, in the third person.(6) As the last sentence notes, it is literally the voice of the lector, the one who reads aloud. But even this person is referred to in the third person. On the other hand, it is clearly John, at least to the degree that John is the implied author of the work. But this is a non-answer, since the implied author stands behind the whole work. Rather, what we note here is that the implied author chooses to introduce the narrative with a heterodiegetic narrator, one who stands on a different fictional level than the characters in the story. Such narrators, often appearing omniscient, stand "above" the story and provide perspective on it.

To whom does our narrator narrate? Even as it is possible to construe this voice as the implied author, we can construe the narratee as the implied audience. But it is an audience that is obliquely portrayed in the story as "those who hear" the oral reading of the narrative. Even as "literally" the oral reader is the person voicing the story, literally the hearer is the community gathered for the reading. This comes very close to erasing the distinction between the implied and the actual audience.(7) At least, this is the narrative audience that corresponds most closely to the position of the reader of the narrative.

If I belabor this point it is to destroy the illusion that the Apocalypse is a straightforward narration by John the prophet. Only after this opening scene has been set do we realize the significance of John as the author of a letter addressed to seven churches (1:4). Now we know our speaker: John. This letter from John is embedded in the larger framework of the revelation, but rather than proceeding like a letter, the narrator becomes autobiographical:

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea." (1:9-11)

There is some marvelous obsfucation here: in a letter embedded in a book, John tells us he is to write a book and send it to the same seven churches to which the letter is addressed. However, the clear point I want to note is that we have a new narrator and a new narrative level; what I called above the level of the revealer. This is the "show" of what John "saw" (1:1-2). The narratee at this level consists of these seven churches, which like John appear as characters in this section. Each church is individually characterized in the messages John is to record. Far from being the historical audience of the work, these churches constitute the second-level narratee of the story.(8)

A further distinction needs to be drawn, this time between John who is standing on the beach on Patmos and John "in the spirit" who sees and interacts with the majestic, human-like figure. That is, part of what John "saw" and now "shows" is himself experiencing a vision; this self that John saw is obviously not the same as the John who sees it--like dreaming of oneself: the self in the dream is not the self who dreams.(9) This is the third level of the narrative--the level of the revealed. The "I John" who directly addresses the narratee disappears until the end of the story (22:8--"I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things.") In the interim this John appears only as one of several characters in the vision; he speaks with other characters in the vision, but never to the second-level narratee. It is the John-in-the-vision who goes to heaven (and who now sees himself having a vision "in the spirit" 4:1). This John is confused (5:4), uncertain (7:14), and unaware of the larger story (10:4). He is, in other words, no longer the narrator. Who is?

In one sense, of course, it is still the John of the opening sequence. But it is not quite that simple. The best I can suggest is an analogy. Suppose I tell you a story about going on a trip, and while I am on that trip, I have a dream that I also recount to you. You recognize me as the narrator of both, but in a different way. I can be held accountable for a sensible story about my trip, but if my dream story remains obscure that is not my fault. For in a strict sense, I am only the re-teller of that story. It was narrated to me, so to speak, by my unconscious. Like me narrating a story about myself in which I have a dream about myself, John is at once narrator, narratee, and character in the visions.(10)

In my admittedly over-simplified scheme then we have three levels of narration: at level one the heterodiegetic narrator addresses the extradiegetic narratee (neither is a part of the story); at level two John addresses the seven churches; and at level three Jesus/God addresses John. Working from these distinctions, let us now consider what appeal is made to each narratee and how the three interrelate.

The extradiegetic narratee is defined very minimally and appealed to very generally. We know only two things: they correspond to the "servants" of Jesus to whom these things are to be shown (1:1); and they gather in groups to hear the narrative (1:3). Likewise only two appeals are made to them. They are to "hear" and "keep" (thre/w to guard, keep, preserve) the things written in the story--neither adding to or subtracting from them (22:18-19). They are promised blessedness when they fulfill this role. This is all extremely general; it is a role that can be taken on by any Christian reader.

Both the second level narratee and the appeal to them are much more detailed. These are the seven churches of Asia Minor and each is individually characterized in a message directed to its angel. Together they form a complex group containing both rich and poor, faithful and wavering, harsh and loving, hard-working and sleepers; those who reject other teachers and those who tolerate them; unified communities and divided communities. Corpus mixtum. As dramatized narratees they appear as characters in the action of the story and receive direct commands. The appeals to this group include: repent (2:5, 16; 3:3, 19); work (2:5); do not fear (2:10); be faithful (2:10); hold fast (2:25; 3:11); wake up (3:2); remember (3:3). Like the community, the appeals are mixed, though appeals to change predominate. As a group they do not measure up.

This is not the case with the third-level narratee; all that John lacks is understanding and that is provided by the visions and by characters in the visions. When he doesn't know the identity of the redeemed throng, and Elder informs him (7:13-14); when he weeps because no one worthy to open the scroll has been found, and Elder comforts and informs him (5:3-5); and while he must be repeatedly instructed about the meaning of what he sees, he is never told to change, repent, or improve.(11) Rather than a direct address to the narratee on this visionary level, the appeal is made by the presentation of the story and its characters. John is moved to decision and action by what he sees and hears.

While the story is told to John, it is told about the fate of the faithful, and it is in the actions and characterizations of these faithful that the appeal of the visions lies. Of course there is a strong correlation between John and the faithful: both are "servants" (1:1-2) and he is their brother and partner in both affliction and God's reign (1:9). So there are analogies between levels of the narrative (or maybe even homologies, as Leonard Thompson might say). More on that in a moment.

The two most striking things about the faithful in these visions is their seeming perfection and their extreme suffering. Like John, they are never advised to change or repent. They are sealed for preservation from nearly their first appearance on the stage (7:3); they appear in white robes of victory, emerging victorious from the great tribulation (7:14). As witnesses in allegorical Sodom, they are faithful unto death (11:1-13). There are no negative references. When exhorted to action it is to be patient (6:11; 14:12); to worship God (14:7); and to come out of Babylon that her judgment may ensue (18:4). Unlike the level-two narratees, this is an unmixed body. Corpus unum.

Faithful, sealed, victorious prove to be ironic traits for these characters, for their dominant characterization is their suffering. They are the souls under the altar, who were killed for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (6:9-11); they are the great multitude from every nation who have come out of the great tribulation with robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb (7:9-14); they are the two witnesses whose testimony causes the beast to launch war on them, kill them, and leave them unburied in the streets (11:7-9); they are the rest of the woman's seed on whom the dragon makes war (12:17); they are the blessed dead (14:13); they are the saints and martyrs with whose blood the great prostitute is fatally drunk (17:6; 18:24).

Two comments are important to note. First, it is this characterization that has caused the consistent misreading of Revelation as a book written in response to persecution. When interpreters misread these characters in the third-level narrative as the real audience, they assumed the audience was a persecuted minority. Not only can this be shown to be a historical improbability,(12) it is a literary blunder. Second, nearly all the suffering portrayed in the Apocalypse occurs in this third-level narrative. The second-level narratees are not characterized with this kind of overwhelming suffering. They experience slander (2:9); anticipate some future imprisonment (2:10); and one of their members has been killed (2:13). No great persecution. And there is not even a hint of suffering for the first-level narratee.

Before we move to a consideration of the rhetorical significance of these discrepancies, I need to explore the notion of a narrative audience and especially the relationship between that audience and the narratees.(13) They are complementary but not identical aspects of the narrative.

John's Apocalypse is a second-person narrative, addressing the reader as a "you"--at least from the beginning of the letter-form at 1:4. Readers of a second-person narrative feel addressed, feel pressure to take on the role of the narratee.(14) We might even say that the reader's first role is to identify with the narratee, to hear the story. James Phelan argues that the less explicitly characterized the narratee the more pressure for identification.(15) And conversely, the more fully characterized the narratee, the more distance readers experience. This leads to reflection on a second role the reader assumes: the observer. Like an audience at a play, the readers are aware both of identification with the action and of their role in observing the action. It is this becoming aware of themselves as observers of the drama that defines the narrative audience and differentiates it from the narratee (145). John, in fact, dramatizes this role of the observer by using as first-level narratee those who gather for the public reading of the story; they both identify with and observe the subsequent levels of the narrative. This first-level narratee is also the implied audience and their very general level of characterization encourages very strong identification with them; but the actual audience observes even them.

In showing what he has been shown (1:1-2), John facilitates both these roles: identification and observation. As observer of this vision, the audience stands in John's place, seeing what John saw. By identifying with the undramatized narratee of the opening, the audience adopts the role of one who listens to and keeps these words. By identifying with the dramatized narratee of the letters, the audience adopts the role of those who must repent, become faithful, and persevere to victory. By identifying with the narratee-cum-narrator of the visions, the audience adopts the role of one who learns by witnessing the action of the truly faithful: the saints and martyrs. If, as Amos Wilder argued,(16) such apocalyptic hierophany is meant to take hold of one's will and intentionality, to what does this narrative move the audience?

The Apocalypse's drama of suffering led Michael Harris to posit that the ideal reader of the Apocalypse is a martyr.(17) But this is not quite right, for it ignores the audience's role of observer, an observer of all three narrative levels. What is the rhetorical effect of recognizing that the narrative audience is not simply the narratee?

If the audience of the Apocalypse were the saints and martyrs, we might imagine its rhetorical purpose to be the giving of courage and comfort to those who suffer, as earlier interpreters argued. If the audience were the seven churches, we might imagine its rhetorical purpose to be advocating the martyrdoms portrayed in the visions. Although the narrative audience identifies with each of these, it occupies the role of observer: those who see the challenge and faithfulness of others.

Thus, the rhetorical force of the Apocalypse is to teach the audience/hearers to see the world from a certain perspective, to see the plot of the world as a contest between the powers of beasts and saints. The story is constructed so that they see the power of the beast operating through Rome, Roman political hegemony, Roman economic exploitation. By teaching them to see themselves not as loyal Roman subjects but as the faithful members of the Asian congregations and the warrior/heroes of the final, cosmic actions of the visions, the Apocalypse persuades its audience to despise Rome and resist Roman power and culture. It would lead me much too far afield to try to spell out what this would have meant in first-century Roman Asia Minor when any participation in culture involved participation in religion--whether family or state, from education to employment, from sport to theater, from bathing to eating meat sold in the market--all involved some token recognition of divinity.

Christians could reasonably reach different conclusions on their participation in that culture. John's Revelation invites them into a complex, multi-leveled narrative, wherein they both observe and identify with those who fight the beast, those who must repent and remain faithful, and (most directly) with those who gather to hear these words read aloud. It persuades its audience not with the propositions, arguments, and rebuttals of classical rhetoric, but with the rhetorical force of a story.

We have looked at only one aspect of that story, its narratees and narrative audience, looking not so much at the story told but at the way of telling the story. A central aspect of John's narrative technique is a sort of deflecting of the audience's identification with the various narratees- -from the extradiegetic narratee of the whole vision, to the specific church-recipients of the messages, to the character John, who hears of the fate of the saints and martyrs. The story is constructed in a way that distances the reader from Roman culture and values. Further analysis of the plot, characterizations, points of view, temporal distortions, and intertextuality will, I believe, strengthen this view.(18)

While partial and preliminary, the results of this analysis suggest that John does not tell his story to reveal the mysteries of the future. Revelation intends to reveal not the future but the present; or more precisely, it intends to reveal the true nature of Roman culture to those who may be blinded by its gaudy dress. It reveals an apocalyptic world in which things are not as they seem, where goodness is hidden and evil sits enthroned on seven hill, ruling over the kings of the earth.

Interpreters who examine Revelation for clues about the future fail to understand the narrative rhetoric of the book. Revelation is concerned, rather, with the nature of culture and politics, with the human response to totalitarian power, with the injustice of those who trade in "gold, silver...and human lives." Revelation tells us a story about how the world is remade, but its rhetorical purpose is to remake the lives of its audience. And even if Aristotle never dealt with narrative rhetoric, he did teach us to understand the power of poetry as its power to exert an influence on the soul (Poetics 1450a; 6.74).


(1)Though it does discuss the use of rhetoric in constructing speeches in a drama, what Aristotle calls thought: 1456a. (return)

(2)The rhetorical force of narrative is also implied in the assertion that both the structure of a drama and the rhetoric of the speeches should have the same effect; Poetics 1456a (return).

(3)See James Phelan, "Supplementary Bibliography, 1961-1982," In Rhetoric of Fiction (Wayne Booth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983:495-520) and the bibliography in James Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1996:221-28). (return)

(4)Though they may be useful in analyzing aspects of narratives, such as speeches by characters or letters; see John Kirby, "The Rhetorical Situations of Revelation 1-3," NTS 34 1988:197-207. (return)

(5)Pioneering work on the rhetoric of the Apocalypse has been done by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza; see especially Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) and "The Ethics of Interpretation: De-centering Biblical Scholarship," Journal of Biblical Literature 107 1988:3-17. While deeply indebted to her work, I take a more narrative approach. (return)

(6)Observed already by J. Ramsey Michaels, "Revelation 1.19 and the Narrative Voices of the Apocalypse," New Testament Studies 37/4 1991:604-620. (return)

(7)Except to the degree that the oral reading is part of the fiction. Most actual readers do not hear Revelation as an oral presentation. Still, we are asked to assume that fictional stance. (return)

(8)Michael A. Harris reaches a similar conclusion in The Literary Function of the Hymns in the Apocalypse. Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989:232. (return)

(9)There is an interesting discussion of the nature of dream-reality in Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998:271-83). As one character explains his dream to another, he admits that he knew more about the situation of the dream than the person in his dream. "Well I reckon you and him had to of been two different people then." "How so?" "Because if you were the same then one would know what the other knew." (272). In the same way John the revealer knows more than John the character in the revelation. For a theoretical discussion of the narrative significance of dreams see Bert O. States, Dreaming and Storytelling (Ithaca London: Cornell University Press, 1993). (return)

(10)And if the repetition of the formula "I came to be in the spirit" at 4:1 indicates entrance into a vision, then we have a vision within a vision; as if I dreamed I had a dream. (return)

(11)The one exception is the admonition that he not worship the angel who brings him the message (19:10; 22:8-9). He is rather to worship God, which I take to be the central theme of the work. (return)

(12)At least for the actual audience; see Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). (return)

(13)I was prompted down this line by the excellent discussion in James Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1996), especially part three: Audiences and Ideologies. (return)

(14)For a complex look at the phonemon of inscribed readers see Garrett. Stewart, Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience in Nineteenth-century British Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). (return)

(15)Narrative as Rhetoric, 137. (return)

(16)Amos N. Wilder, "The Rhetoric of Ancient and Modern Apocalyptic," Interpretation 25 1971:436-53. (return)

(17)The Literary Function of the Hymns, 227-301. (return)

(18)As I try to show in Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1998). (return)


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