Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.14

Ben Witherington III, Revelation.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. 307.  ISBN 0-521-80609-7.  $55.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-00068-8.  $20.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Susan F. Mathews, University of Scranton (
Word count: 2149 words

At last, a comprehensive socio-rhetorical commentary on the entire Book of Revelation (Apocalypse of St. John)! This commentary is for serious readers only. A solid piece of scholarship on the last book of the Bible, this New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NCBC) volume is written by the general editor of the series. Commentaries in this recently established biblical series are aimed at elucidating the Scriptures for scholars as well as a wide audience. New Testament scholars will enjoy the academic rigor and scholarly perspective found in this work, while the intellectual non-specialist will appreciate the intelligent, careful exposition of the text that is mostly free of discipline-specific jargon and discussed in terms of its relevance for culture and religious and political life.

Every reader should delight in the fresh approach W. offers: a commentary that makes substantial use of classical, archaeological, and anthropological resources as it systematically reconstructs the socio-politico-historical setting of Revelation as precisely as possible with the latest, most reliable evidence. W.'s basic premise is that John the seer writes to the churches of urban Asia Minor using various forms of rhetoric to help these churches "get through a dark period of oppression and suppression that sometimes led to martyrdom" (p. 9) and thus to persuade them not to compromise their faith. One of the functions of the rhetoric is to give the Christians perspective on the crisis they face, especially about good and evil; another is to assist John in asserting his prophetic authority in order to drive home his message.

W.'s Revelation contains standard fare for a commentary on a New Testament book: a short preface, a list of abbreviations, an introduction, a section by section textual commentary, a bibliography, and appropriate indices (Author, Extra-Biblical Texts, Scriptural, and Subject). The biblical translation used throughout the volume is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The NCBC volumes apply rhetorical and social science criticism to the study of the Scriptures, bringing to the fore these critical methods that have been underutilized (p.iii). It is getting easier to find various articles applying these newer methods, but it is rare to find whole commentaries that do. W.'s Revelation shows how socio-rhetorical analysis works in conjunction with the historical critical method thereby demonstrating the benefits of applying socio-rhetorical criticism for a fuller and more accurate reading of Revelation.

The Introduction (part I) contains several short chapters: The Authorship, Date, and Audience of the Apocalypse; The Resources, Rhetoric, and Restructuring of Revelation; Revelation in its Social Setting in Western Asia Minor; The Christology of Revelation; The Genre of Revelation; and A Brief Tour of the Book of Revelation. W. thinks that the author of Revelation is a prophet from the Johannine community in a time when there was no apostolic presence left in that community (thus he is neither the son of Zebedee nor the elder). W. favors a late first century date for its writing. The socio-political context for the work is the reign of Domitian with its systematic persecution of Christians by Roman officials. W. rejects the notion that Revelation is written under fear of persecution rather than the real social crisis actual persecution generates. The dominant form of rhetoric in Revelation is forensic, though John employs other rhetorical techniques (for example, overlap, performative) to persuade his audience in apocalyptic visions, letters, and oracles. With regard to structure and composition of the Book Revelation, W. basically adopts the position that the septenary sets are a combination of recapitulation and progression. He gives an overview of his exegetical exposition in "A Brief Tour of the Book of Revelation", useful for the reader who wants a summary of what is later laid out in more detail in the commentary section.

Part II, "Suggested Reading on Revelation", is divided into nine sections: The Genre of Revelation; Commentaries; Rhetorical Studies; Sociological and Anthropological Approaches; Classical and Archaeological Resources; History of Interpretation; Theology; Important Monographs; and Articles of Interest. This Suggested Reading list is perhaps the most useful part of W.'s book, conveniently placed after the Introduction, which is helpful if one wants to learn about the literature associated with this text, but initially offputting if one expects to find the bibliography in its traditional place at the end of the volume. The bibliography is annotated and the reading lists are self-contained, organized by publication type. It is up-to-date, providing helpful, at-one's-fingertips data on some important literature on Revelation. It is not meant to be exhaustive, though W. points to where one can find an exhaustive bibliography -- again, something helpful to the uninitiated. After listing the most valuable general introductions to Revelation under "Genre and Commentaries," W. lists under "Commentaries" the "usual suspects" (like D. Aune and R. H. Charles), with accurate assessments of their value for studying Revelation. This reader found "Rhetorical Studies" the most valuable of Part II. W. divides rhetorical studies of Revelation into two camps: those who use ancient canons of Greco-Roman rhetoric and those who use the modern rhetorical approach (following V. Robbins). The remaining sections read like reviews of the significant contributions to the respective areas and are helpful to readers at all levels. "Articles of Interest" is a selected list of articles W. himself has found useful because they offer insights or provide summaries of major issues or themes in interpreting the Book of Revelation. The Suggested Reading lists contain approximately 170 entries, including both the old standards and recent works.

The textual commentary on the Book of Revelation makes up Part III, the largest section of the volume, as one would expect. W. follows a basic, widely accepted structure of Revelation: 1:1-1:3; 1:4-20; 2-3; 4-5; 6:1-8:5; 8:5-11:19; 12; 13:1-14:5; 14:6-14:20; 15:1-16:21; 17:1-19:10; 19:11-21:8; 21:9-22:5; 22:6-22:21. Each section of the text commented upon begins with the NRSV translation and is followed by commentary, which first presents an overview and then detailed exegesis. W.'s interpretation is always rooted in the historical context of the Roman Empire in the late first century A.D. with a systematic application of socio-rhetorical analysis throughout. For example, the social history behind Revelation shows that residents of western Asia Minor did not have the same outlook on Rome and the Empire as did the Jews of Judea and Galilee (no legions were stationed in western Asia Minor and the people did not consider themselves subjugated by Rome), and there was little social unrest in that region (p. 22). Elsewhere W. explains the importance of temples in the imperial cult in terms that a modern reader can understand, explaining that they were the "banks of antiquity, not merely because they provided storage for valuable property, but they also loaned money at interest ...", etc. (p. 23) W. also shows that there had been an increase in imperial cult activity at the end of the first century A.D., something most biblical commentators overlook because they do not connect Revelation to its social matrix. Since Revelation is an attempt to persuade John's audience not to compromise with the wider culture, John's rhetoric seeks to "interject some cognitive dissonance" into a situation that is too comfortable with the wider culture (p. 27). W.'s exegesis employs in a substantial and comprehensive way the findings of classical, archaelogical, and anthroplogical scholarship, rather than in the usual biblical approach that reduces this material into "sound bites" fitted to prove particular points (p. 55). W.'s analysis is thus more reliable and fresh with regard to using these resources than other studies of Revelation.

The commentary proper contains frequent "Closer Look" sections that study Greco-Roman world factors that have a bearing on the text's meaning and "Bridging the Horizons" articles that provide a contemporary connection to that ancient world. These features, the hallmark of the NCBC volumes, are refreshing modifications to the strictly chapter and verse commentary format. W.'s theology is solid, though this reader found some of the Bridging the Horizons sections almost preachy (e.g., the last one, pp. 284-85), though others were incisive and moving. For example, in a fine excursus on Revelation 4, W. deftly illustrates why the pretribulation rapture ideas found in some dispensationalist circles and popularized in the Left Behind (T. LaHaye, et al.) novels cannot be read here. In the segment after Rev 6:1-8:5, W. presents a stirring reflection on the nature and meaning of prayer as motivated by these texts. In another, he discusses spirituality and sexuality (at the section on Babylon the Harlot) and the nature of true worship (pp. 237-9) while laying out some implications for the modern reader.

The Closer Look sections apply socio-rhetorical analysis to interpreting Revelation in a way that makes the contemporary setting of the book more vivid, John's urgency more understandable, and his rhetoric persuasive. For example, the use of legal language, such as "witness", helps set the forensic rhetorical tone from the start. Thus the rhetoric helps establish that Revelation is about justice and vindication of those under pressure and the prospect of death for faithful witness (p. 67). W. later emphasizes that there was a range of responses by Christians in western Asia Minor to the wider culture and that perhaps John's "sectarian stance" was a minority opinion. Thus, W. cautions that one must take into account archaeological and social data from the region before making generalizations, in other words: "John's perspective is John's perspective." (pp. 97-98). One Closer Look segment is on how to read Revelation 6-16, in which W. illustrates why the rhetorical character of Revelation's discourse must be taken seriously, namely, one cannot read Revelation 6-16 as just about the future; it is narrative forensic meant to prepare and exhort John's audience (p. 131) by using a symbolism that conveys God is in control and history is oriented to God's ultimate triumph. Another (after Rev 17:1-19:10) explores the religious meaning of urban space, a keen exposition of the ancient city as the center of culture and worship (pp. 220-22). These Closer Look segments are one of the more practical contributions of W.'s reading of Revelation, making sense of the ancient social and rhetorical elements in the book for today's audience.

Part IV contains a short appendix entitled "A Millennial Problem" in which W. discusses some of the major difficulties in interpreting Rev 20:4-6. It was intriguing to see an entire appendix devoted to Rev 20:4-6 since this passage is notoriously an exegetical quagmire. Here, as one might expect, W. briefly lays out the major millennial viewpoints of various Christian groups as well as that of John himself. He concludes, as one does not quite expect from a commentator with his approach, that John was a millennialist, that is, he believed in "a future millennial reign upon the earth of Christ with at least some of the saints" which would occur after the series of seven judgments but before the final judgment (p. 291). But W. reasonably argues that John's millennialism is grounded in his own socio-politico-historical context and is not a matter for wild speculation, either for himself or anyone reading Revelation then or now. Neither, says W., can one impose one's own form of millennialism onto John, including not accepting John was a millennialist himself.

W.'s writing style is crisp and lucid. There are a couple of minor errors in the text. In the first chapter (p. 1) the subheading is "The Authorship, Date, and Audience of the Apocalypse" though the title Revelation is elsewhere always used (this should have been caught in editing). On p. 254 the expression should be "objet d'art" not "objet de art". But these are minor things; W. has such felicitous turns of phrase and a manner of writing that makes reading such dense material delightful.

I would especially recommend this book for faculty in the humanities who wish to learn about the Book of Revelation without getting bogged down in the usual inside exchange among biblical scholars; that sort of exclusive conversation does not happen in the text or its notes. I would also recommend this book to the biblical scholar who still thinks that the historical critical method is the only real tool at our disposal; W. has convincingly demonstrated that socio-rhetorical criticism can meaningfully enhance the findings of historical criticism (and, so, yes, W. has also shown that historical criticism is still the most fundamental tool in the box). In his preface, W. says that while writing this commentary he was in dialogue with R. Bauckham and C. Koester, two noteable scholars of Revelation. The work is dedicated to Bauckham, with whom W. has apparently had much private and professional conversation about Revelation, and Koester read through W.'s manuscript. This book forms a sort of triad with theirs: there is no one better on the theology of Revelation than Bauckham, and no one better for a compact introductory historical critical exegesis than Koester. W.'s work completes the triad, successfully achieving what it claims to be, namely, the first innovative socio-rhetorical commentary on the book of Revelation.

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