Using Plot to Discern Structure

in John's Apocalypse

Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Mid-West Biblical Societies 15, 1995, 23-33

David L. Barr

Wright State University

Dayton Ohio 45435

The complexity of Revelation can be seen in the fact that there is no consensus on how we should organize or outline the material in the book.(1) There are almost as many outlines as there are commentators doing the organizing. Scholars who look for additional sets of Seven beyond those John explicitly numbered find them.(2) Those who look for parallels with the apocalyptic discourses in the gospels find them.(3) Those who look for chiastic structures find them.(4) One point clearly emerges: how you arrange the material depends on what you are looking for.

Too much of the discussion has been based on the outmoded model of looking for an outline, as if the work were an essay.(5) Rather than looking for an outline, this paper approaches the Apocalypse as a narrative work and tries to uncover the way in which the plotting of the incidents provides an overall structure to the work. By structure I refer to the architectonics of a work, the formal pattern(s) by which the whole takes shape. Some patterns are obvious and visible, like a sonnet or limerick. Others are obscure and baffling, like a badly written academic paper. Still others are ambiguous, even Promethean, depending on what one is looking for. What I am asking is what sort of structure appears for the Apocalypse when one looks for plot? Specifically, I suggest that attention to plot suggests that the structure of the Apocalypse is neither linear nor circular but spiral.

1 Reflecting on Plotting

At the heart of the notion of plot is the idea of a causal connection between events in a sequence. Aristotle defined plot as the relationship between the incidents (Poetics 1450a 51), the cause-and-effect logic that binds the incidents together and mandates that one follow the other. E. M. Forster illustrates plot with the little story:

This is a story, but it lacks a plot, for there is no cause-and-effect logic between the incidents. He suggests another story, one with a plot:

Now a causal relationship exists--or can be imagined--between the incidents. Forster's point is a useful one, helping us see more clearly what is meant by causal connection. But I wonder if he gives the reader enough credit, for even in the first sequence one tries to imagine a connection between the events and may well have made a plotted story of them even before the writer supplied the explicit connection. Plotting-- creating causal connections between events in a sequence--is a cooperative venture involving both author and audience. One should not assume that there is only one possible plot, except in the simplest of stories.

In fact, stories range over a spectrum from simple, unilinear, tightly plotted sequences (a joke) to complex, multilinear, sequences wherein any number of possible connections between events may be inferred (an epic). The Apocalypse is a complex story and no one reading will ever imagine all the possible connections between incidents. What follows is one reading of one set of interconnections.

One way critics simplify complex stories is by classifying incidents into two separate categories: kernels (incidents that are directly linked and determinative of the future course of the action) and satellites (incidents that orbit around these kernels adding nuance and complexity).(7) This is a useful tool, as long as we recognize that the selection of kernels is an interpretive act; different readers may see different relationships. Nor should we think kernel incidents are more important than satellite incidents. They are more significant for plot, but plot is only one aspect of story. Other incidents may be more important for other aspects. In fact, the satellites carry experiences and information crucial to the reading experience.

One final caveat, one person's satellite might be another person's kernel. And if it is, a different story will be imagined. As Wolfgang Iser so aptly illustrated, the interplay between text and reader is a dynamic interplay between the fixed and the variable:

The incidents depicted in a text are like the fixed stars of the heavens, objectively available to all. But the constellations depend on our observations. One observer draws lines between these two; another between those.

The metaphor would be more compelling if one believed that the stars were placed with purpose by some grand artist who was trying to tell us something. But even so, it reminds us that the construction of meaning is neither an objective or a subjective process; it is both. Or rather it is an intersubjective process in which we try to show each other the constellations we have found.

My own reading of the dominant line of action in the Apocalypse sees it as a series of three interrelated stories set in a common frame. Let me elaborate.

2 Structuring a Plot: The Stories as Distinct Actions

After some preliminaries, the writer begins to tell an autobiographical tale:

This first story segment details what happened to him on Patmos. (A majestic human being appears to him and dictates seven messages to the angels of seven churches.) Having finished this task, John is called up to heaven, where he observes a scene at the divine court. This second story concerns the process by which a slaughtered-standing lamb opens a divine scroll and reveals its contents. John next looks into the heavenly temple and sees strange new signs. In this third story a cosmic dragon pursues a cosmic woman but is eventually defeated by a cosmic warrior, resulting in the establishment of a wholly new cosmic order.

I make three preliminary observations about these stories. First, they are ever more fantastic. The audience is led into ever stranger territory and witnesses ever more bizarre actions. The story progresses from John standing on Patmos (a real world event), to the vision experience, to a trip to heaven, to a cosmic battle. Then we are taken quickly back to earth again in the closing address to the reader. It is a fantastic journey--rather like a shaman's journey.(9) In literary terms, we find three different literary types sandwiched between realistic narratives of John on Patmos: the revelation theophany, the throne vision (Merkavah), and the cosmic war story.

Second, while these three stories are themselves sequences of causally connected action, there is very little connection between the incidents in the separate stories. Each sequence has its own logic, its own set of characters, its own base locale, and John plays a somewhat different role in each. These stories may be set forth schematically as follows:

Story One Story Two Story Three
Place Patmos Heaven Earth
Characters Jesus as Majestic Human



Jesus as Lamb-Slain

Elders and

Heavenly Beings

Jesus as Heavenly Warrior

Dragon and Beasts

Woman and her children

Action Letter Writing Worship War
John Presented as Secretary Heavenly Traveler Seer/Prophet
Mythic Paradigm Theophany Throne Vision Holy War
Chapters 1-3 4-11 12-22(10)

If I briefly sketch the action of each segment, two points will become clear: they each can be viewed as a unified action, but they do not form a causal sequence between them. I would characterize the kernel incidents of these stories as follows. One: A majestic human being appears to John on Patmos and commands him to write a scroll and send it to the seven churches of Asia. After a detailed description of this divine figure, the figure comforts John, explains particular symbols to him, and then dictates seven messages to the angels of the seven churches. Two: John ascends to heaven at divine initiative, sees God on the throne surrounded by the heavenly court, and hears the heavenly liturgy. A scroll is presented that is sealed and that no one can open, causing John to weep. Then a character, announced as a lion but revealed as a slain-standing lamb, proceeds to open the scroll in seven stages. In the silence of the seventh seal, seven trumpets sound, followed by the announcement: God's kingdom has come. Three: A majestic heavenly woman about to give birth is pursued by a heavenly dragon who seeks to consume her child. The woman is saved and the child preserved, but the dragon turns to make war on her other children. Two great beasts are conjured from the sea and the earth; the lamb gathers 144,000 on Mt Zion. Scenes of heavenly harvest predict earthly judgment, then enacted in seven plague events, leading to the great announcement: it is done (16:17). Just what is done is now related in two sets of scenes, one grouped around the great prostitute (war against heaven, heavenly warrior, destruction, a thousand years of peace, final battle, final judgment, new creation) and the bride/wife of the lamb (restoration of the city).

Third, each of these three actions is built on a distinct model. The first story is clearly a theophany; and the third is just as surely a holy war. I am not so clear how to characterize the second, except to say it is neither theophany nor holy war. While our knowledge of Merkavah mysticism is limited, there does seem to have been a throne vision genre, perhaps built on Isaiah's famous vision (Isa. 6). Some would also connect the throne scene with the rituals of the imperial court.(11)

Thus each of these three units can be viewed as a unified action, but what becomes obvious is that there is no real connection between the three actions. While one can point to strong thematic continuity between these sections, there is not a continuity of action. The action of the first movement does not lead to that of the second or the third. They do not form a causal sequence, yet within each movement there is a reasonably clear causal sequence. How should we understand their relationship? Is Revelation one story or three?

There is an O. Henry short story called "Roads of Destiny" that offers some analogy to John's narrative strategy. In O. Henry's story a young man leaves his native village to explore the world and write poetry. But when he comes to a fork in the road, he cannot decide which way to proceed. So the story is told showing him take all three options: first he takes one branch; then the second; and finally he returns to his village. For each path taken a different series of events ensues, but each leads inexorably to the same end: the young man is shot and killed--each time with the very same pistol. Now clearly all three events belong in the same narrative, for the narrative could not make its point without all them. Yet just as clearly the actions within each event can have no causal connection with actions in the other two; for the initial act of choosing one road excludes the acts that lie down another path. It would be to miss the point were we to ask whether our young man went down path two before or after going down path one. The connection is not one of before and after. What then are the connections between the three?

These connections have to do with theme (destiny) and characters rather than with continuous sequential actions. Yet they gain their meaning only by being seen in comparison within the same narrative.(12) When one finishes O. Henry's story one understands the seductive/destructive allure of poetry in a new way, a way that takes destiny beyond accidental encounters. One also understands that action within a story is not necessarily sequential.

In a similar way, John's three dramatic actions do not constitute a sequential, unified action. One does not happen before or after the other. They represent alternative tellings of the story of Jesus with a common theme and overlapping characters. The Dragon does not attack the Woman's children (chapter 12) after Jesus dictates the letters (chapters 2-3) or after the triumphant consummation of heavenly worship (chapter 11); that attack is contemporaneous with the life of the church and is as old as Eve. The third action is a retelling of the story of the coming of God's rule with a new focus. It is as if the narrator finished the triumphant heavenly announcement that the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of God and of the Christ (11:15) and then turned to the audience and said, "Do you wonder how that came about? Well, let me tell you . . .." The focus now is on the attack of the Dragon and the ensuing cosmic war, with Jesus being presented (rather ironically) in the guise of the Divine Warrior.

This lack of causal sequence can be seen in the ending of each of these story segments, for each ends with a partial closure, a sense of an end that is no end. At the end of the Letter Scroll Jesus promises to come to any who will open the door (3:20); at the end of the Worship Scroll, the voice announces that Messiah's kingdom has come (11:15); at the end of the War Scroll evil appears to be destroyed and the new Jerusalem descends (21:1). Yet even in this last instance we are told that nothing unclean can enter the city (21:27); and as life in the city is described in glowing terms we are also told "Outside are the dogs" (22:15). This is a story that appears to end, repeatedly, but never finally does.

Rather than one unfolding event, Revelation presents three interrelated tellings of the story of Jesus. One does not lead to the other, yet they gain their meaning by appearing together. Let us now consider more carefully just how they are put together.

3 Plotting a Structure

The Apocalypse is presented an aural experience of an audience (1:3) and part of the unity of the work may be no more than the unity of that performance. But we can also point to two techniques that help the audience experience it as a unified work. First all three stories are presented within a common framework and second some of the same characters and events appear in the different stories.

3.1 The Framing

The aural experience of the Apocalypse would have a definite beginning and ending, and John has so arranged these to emphasize a sense of completion. Many have observed the strong correlation between the beginning and the ending. There are at least eleven points of correspondence, in addition to the epistolary framework (1:4; 22:21).

1:1, 4, 9 John names himself 22:8
1:1 An Angel sent 22:6
1:1 Will soon take place 22:6
1:1 The servants 22:6
1:3 Reader blessed 22:7
1:3 The Time is near 22:10
1:4 Grace to you 22:21
1:8 The Alpha and Omega 22:13
1:10 The Spirit 22:17
1:16, 20 Stars and Angels 22:16
1:17 John falls at feet 22:8

But the parallels are more than just verbal and thematic, there is also a parallel of action. Set within the context of a letter that begins "John to the seven churches" (1:4) and ends with the letter formula so familiar from Paul's letters, "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all" (22:21), the action starts with John directly addressing the audience and describing his sojourn on Patmos where he has a vision (1:9-10). It ends with John directly addressing the reader, saying this is what he heard and saw (22:8). It is the classic technique of the storyteller: I was off alone one day and I saw something very interesting. . .. The actual story is one further stage removed from the audience by the additional frame of the letter. This double envelope of letter and vision-report frames all the action of the story and helps the audience experience it as a unity.

This sense of unity is also enhanced by John's creative use of characters.

3.2 The Characters who Wander

One of the primary ways John gives the illusion of unity to the larger story is by the use of characters and characterization. John is the only character that persists by name through all three stories, and even his characterization varies from scene to scene. Jesus appears in all three stories, but under radically different images: majestic human, lamb, divine warrior. But just here something interesting happens, for the lamb wanders.

While the lamb belongs logically only to the second story, a story of liturgy, temple, and sacrifice, he shows up also in the third. Often this is a mere reference, having the effect of referring back to the second story.(13) But in three places in the third story the lamb actually usurps the action of the divine warrior. At the beginning of chapter 14 it is the lamb who gathers the 144,000 sacred warriors on Mt Zion; at 17:14 it is the lamb who will conquer ten kings; and at 19:7 it is the lamb who will marry in the post-war victory celebration.

This is strikingly inappropriate, of course, and is probably motivated largely by ideological concerns.(14) John is never far from his conviction that the divine will prevails through faithful witness rather than through the exercise of power. Even when the heavenly warrior is portrayed, he slays his enemies by "the sword of his mouth" (19:21). Carrying over the character of the lamb allows John to undermine much of the ideology of holy war, deconstructing the basic framework of his own third story.

But more than ideology is at work. By carrying over this character John ties these two stories together and sets up echoes between them. John's portrayal of Jesus-as-victim and Jesus-as-victor are both inadequate until the two images permeate each other.

Most of the other characters stay home, with modest exceptions. The 144,000 sacred warriors first emerge in the throne vision (7:1ff); the beasts make an unannounced appearance in the throne vision (11:7); the elders make cameo return appearances in the war sequence (14:3 & 19:4). At one point the voice of that dictated the seven messages seems to appear out of nowhere in the war sequence (22:7), and the heavenly warrior is given some of the descriptive traits of the majestic human of the theophany story (19:12- 16). All in all, these overlapping characters give one the illusion that these actions are related.

3.3 The Actions that Recur

Maybe so, but this is at least the fifth such quake in Revelation (6:12; 8:5; 11:13; 11:19). Even the most naive and preliminary reading of Revelation must notice the repetitiveness of some of the actions in the story. Often the repetition is not so formulaic as John's earthquake language, and serves more than summary and transitional needs.

Genette's classic study of temporal sequence in story distinguishes frequency of occurence (repetition) as one of the three crucial aspects of narrative action.(15) In addition to straight repetitions wherein the same action is repeatedly told, Genette notes actions that are repeated in differing contexts so as to constitute different actions. It is this second type of repetition that I am calling echoed actions.

Every commentator, for example, notices that the actions of the Seven Bowls (in story three) parallels the actions of the Seven Trumpets (in story two). This redundancy causes the audience to sense that these two stories are interconnected even though there is no connection between the logic of the actions of the two narrative sequences. That is to say, the narrative sequence of the throne vision now seems to be connected to the narrative sequence of the holy war by means of this echoed action, even though there is no causal connection posited in the narrative. Even more, this echo reinforces the homologue (in Leonard Thompson's famous words) between the heavenly liturgy and the earthly war: as in heaven so on earth.

There are at least five narrative enactments of the final battle and perhaps a half- dozen depictions of the fall of Babylon, though these all occur in the final narrative segment that I call the War Scroll. This redundancy delegitimates any literal or simply lineal reading of the text. The reader is forced to confront the meaning of the text on another level, and once again the correspondence between heaven and earth comes to the fore. For these narrative enactments must also relate to worldly events, not directly but at least metaphorically. On this level the final battle is never final and Babylon has fallen, is falling, and is yet to fall. Let me try to draw these implications together in a summary if not a conclusion.

4 Reflecting on Structure

On one level the story is circular, or at least omega-shaped. The end of the story returns to its origin: John addressing the audience. Yet everything has changed. It is this duality that intrigues me: how a story seems to be about the End (ultimate closure!) yet seems to return to the indeterminacy of the present. This circular shape is consonant with the mythic origins of apocalyptic thought, but when the myth is tied to Jesus it breaks the circle. Something has changed.

Yet this is not simply linear change. This is evident at every level in the Apocalypse. There is a lack of causal connection between narrative units. A great deal of the action, especially of the important action, is repeated with variation. But no matter how many times repeated, the action never quite reaches closure. There is no end, but rather a curious doubling back at every climactic point in the narrative.

There is change with repetition and repetition with change. Each narrative segment raises the intensity of the action. Just as the seven bowls intensify the same actions as imaged in the seven trumpets so that now destruction is pervasive rather than partial (one- third), so also the final battle against Gog and Magog destroys Satan and not just Satan's agents (as did the final battle at Harmagedon).

At the end of the story everything has changed. Satan has been destroyed; there is a new creation. At the end of the story nothing has changed. John is still on Patmos addressing the audience and urging them to consistent resistance. And as we gather to celebrate the common meal within the walls of the New Jerusalem, we are reminded that there is still an outside, for "outside are the dogs" (22:15).

If we want an image of the structure neither the circle nor the line will do, but rather the circling line. The structure of Revelation is best seen as a spiral, moving forward yet open and incomplete.(16)


(1)Many commentaries will include a brief survey in their introductions; see, for example, the list in J. Ramsey Michaels, Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992) 69n9. For a chart of eight representative outlines see Edith Humphrey, "The Ladies and the Cities: Transformation and Identity in Four Apocalypses" (Ph. D. Thesis, McGill University, 1991) 106. Perhaps closest to my own view of the structure of Revelation is that of Jürgen Roloff, who sees four thematic sections to Revelation: 1-3; 4-11; 12-19:10; 19:11-22:21; with the last three growing out of the throne vision in 4:1-5:14 "the theological fulcrum of the entire book." The Revelation of John: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 15-17. Whereas he sees two actions in the last half of the book (demonic attack and divine conquest), I see them as two parts of the one action of holy war. See also the divisions proposed by Robert W. Wall in New International Biblical Commentary: Revelation (Hendrikson, 1991) 41- 42, who proposes similar divisions but with quite different significance. Return to text

(2)See chapter one of Adela Yarbro Collins, The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation (Chico: Scholars Press, 1976); Austin Farrer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). Return

(3)See J. P. M. Sweet, Revelation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979) 44-54 (Republished By Trinity Press International, 1990). Return

(4)See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Fortress Press 1991) 35-36. See also her more extended discussion in "Composition and Structure of the Book of Revelation," CBQ 39(1977) 344-66. Also see Jan Lambrecht, "A Structuration of Revelation 4:1 - 22:5," In L'Apocalypse johannique...., (Louvain: University Press 1980) 77-104. Return

(5)One recent exception is M. Eugene Boring's commentary, Revelation (John Knox 1989) 30. Although Boring calls his organization an outline, it is clearly based on narrative principles of action, characters, and place. His three segments are God speaks to the church in the city (1- 3); God judges the great city (4-18); God redeems the holy city (19-22). The title of his second section does not, however, fit the material in 4-11. Return

(6)E. M. Foster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Penguin Books, 1962) 87 Return

(7)The terms are Seymour Chatman's, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (New York: Cornell University Press, 1978) 53f. According to Chatman, "Kernels are narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events." "Kernels cannot be deleted without destroying the narrative logic." Return

(8)Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974) 282. Return

(9)See the vivid story of the shaman's descent into the womb/underworld in Claude Levi-Strauss, "The Effectiveness of Symbols," In Structural Anthropology (New York: Anchor/Doubleday 1967) 181-202. Return

(10)Actually I agree with David Aune that the new action begins with the opening of the heavenly temple in 11:19, but use the round chapter numbers for convenience. Return

(11)David E. Aune, "The Influence of Roman Imperial Court Ceremonial on the Apocalypse of John," Biblical Research 18 1983:05-26. Return

(12)I first encountered the O. Henry story in Thomas M. Leitch's What Stories Are (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986) 47-48. Leitch makes the point that what changes in such a story is the audience's, not the hero's, understanding of the world. Return

(13)This referential effect can be seen at 12:11; 13:8; 14:10; 15:3; 21:14, and 21:22-23. Return

(14)On subverted images see David L. Barr. The Apocalypse as a Symbolic Transformation of the World: A Literary Analysis Interpretation 38(1984) 39- 50. Return

(15)The three elements of time relations in narrative are order, duration, and frequency. See Gerard Genette. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980) 33-160. Genette sought to call attention to the impact of the ways stories are told by examining the congruences and incongruences between story and discourse (event and narrative; signified and signifier). In regard to frequency he noted the singulative (one event one narration), the repetitive (one event multiple narrations), the repetitious (similar events multiple narrations), and the iterative (many events one narration). Return

(16)I owe the metaphor to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 171. Return

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