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Sunday, 28 January 2018

How Hebrews Came to Interpret Psalm 102:25-27 as Spoken by God to/of the Son

Several years ago I wrote an article on Hebrews 1:10-12, arguing that this text unambiguously teaches the personal pre-existence of the Son of God. I also interacted with Christadelphian interpretations of this passage and discussed why I found their pre-existence-less interpretations unconvincing. Subsequently, as part of my theology studies, I wrote an essay on The Contribution of Hebrews to New Testament Christology, which interacted with scholarly views on Hebrews 1:10-12, among other passages in Hebrews.

I recently returned to examine this fascinating passage, prompted by an exposition that a Christadelphian friend, Mike MacDonald, sent me. Mike regards Psalm 102:25-27, as cited in Hebrews 1:10-12, as a conversation between the Son and the Father, with the content of v. 25 (where primeval existence is implied) addressed by the Son to the Father, and vv. 26-27 (which mention only future existence) addressed by the Father to the Son in reply. I dealt with this interpretation briefly in my original article, but Mike has marshaled a more substantial argument for it. I responded privately to Mike explaining why I did not find his exposition persuasive. I do not intend to reproduce my response here, but what I would like to do is add a few more comments on a puzzling matter: how the writer of Hebrews came to see Psalm 102:25-27 as words spoken by God to his Son. I am obliged to Mike for bringing to my attention the unique way (among New Testament writers) in which the author of Hebrews introduces biblical quotations, which is an important clue in resolving this puzzle.

The Quotation in Context

Hebrews 1 reads thus:
1 In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; 2 in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, 3 who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you”? Or again: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”? 6 And again, when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says: “He makes his angels winds and his ministers a fiery flame”; 8 but of the Son: “Your throne, O God, stands forever and ever; and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You loved justice and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions”; 10 and: “At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. 11 They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment. 12 You will roll them up like a cloak, and like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” 13 But to which of the angels has he ever said: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”? 14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb. 1:1-14 NABRE)
In vv. 10-12 the writer quotes from Psalm 102:25-27. However, rather than making his own translation from the Hebrew here, he quotes the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures that was widely used by Hellenistic Jews and Christians in the first century. Because of differences in versification between the English Translation and the Septuagint, he is actually quoting Psalm 101:26-28 LXX. We know his source is the Septuagint because the Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) at three points in this passage, and Hebrews follows the Septuagint in all three cases. The most significant of these are: (1) In Psalm 101:26 LXX and Hebrews 1:10 the statement is addressed to kyrie ("O Lord"), whereas Psalm 102:26 MT does not give the addressee any title. (2) In Psalm 101:26 LXX and Hebrews 1:10 the heavens are said to be the erga ("works," plural) of the addressee's hands, whereas Psalm 102:26 MT says the heavens are the מעשה ("work," singular) of the addressee's hands.1

For this reason, we need to turn to Psalm 101 LXX to get as near as we can to the text the writer of Hebrews was working from in Heb. 1:10-12.

The Speaker and Addressee of Psalm 101 LXX in Context

The psalm reads as follows in the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) (with some key verses highlighted in bold):
1 A prayer. Pertaining to the poor one. When he is weary and pours out his petition before the Lord. 2 O Lord, listen to my prayer, and let my cry come to you. 3 Do not turn away your face from me. In the day when I am afflicted, incline your ear to me; in the day when I call upon you, listen to me speedily, 4 because my days vanished like smoke and my bones were burnt up like firewood. 5 My heart was stricken like grass and it withered, because I forgot to eat my bread. 6 Due to the sound of my groaning, my bone clung to my flesh. 7 I resembled a desert pelican, I became like a long-eared owl on a building-site. 8 I lay awake, and I became like a lone sparrow on a housetop. 9 All day long my enemies would reproach me, and those who used to commend me would swear against me, 10 because I ate ashes like bread and would mix my drink with weeping, 11 from before your wrath and your anger, because when you had lifted me up you dashed me down. 12 My days faded like a shadow, and I, like grass, withered away. 13 But you, O Lord, remain forever, and the mention of you to generation and generation. 14 When you rise up you will have compassion on Sion, because it is the appointed time to have compassion on it, because the appointed time has come, 15 because your slaves held its stones dear and on its dust they will have compassion. 16 And the nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory, 17 because the Lord will build up Sion, and he will be seen in his glory. 18 He regarded the prayer of the lowly and did not despise their petition. 19 Let this be recorded for another generation, and a people, which is being created, will praise the Lord, 20 because he peered down from his holy height, the Lord from heaven looked at the earth, 21 to hear the groaning of the prisoners, to set free the sons of those put to death, 22 so that the name of the Lord might be declared in Sion, and his praise in Ierousalem, 23 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to be subject to the Lord. 24 He answered him in the way of his strength, "Tell me the paucity of my days. 25 Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days, while your years are in generation of generations!" 26 At the beginning it was you, O Lord, who founded the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. 27 They will perish, but you will endure, and they will all become old like a garment. Like clothing you will change them, and they will be changed. 28 But you are the same, and your years will not fail. 29 The sons of your slaves shall encamp, and their offspring shall prosper for ever.2
The overall theme of the psalm is described in v. 1: it is a prayer that a poor, weary person pours out before the Lord (ho kyrios). Verse 2 sets the syntactic structure of the psalm: it is a prayer from a singular speaker to the Lord. The direct second-person address of the Lord continues from v. 2 to v. 17 or 18, despite a subordinate clause in v. 17 (and 18?) that speaks of the Lord in the third person (explaining why "all the kings of the earth" will see "your glory"). From v. 19 to 23 we have an aside, a statement about the Lord that the psalmist wishes to have written down for posterity. In v. 24a, we have an odd statement about a third-person "he" who answers a third-person "him," which diverges significantly from the Masoretic Text, largely due to differences in vocalization of the Hebrew text, which originally lacked vowels.3 From v. 24b to 29, the psalmist returns to direct second-person address of the Lord, and it is from this portion that Heb. 1:10-12 quotes.

Thus, overall we have two portions of prayer addressed to the Lord (vv. 2-17/18 and 24b-29) separated by material referring to the Lord in the third person (vv. 18/19-24a). There are several indications that the one addressed in vv. 24b-29 is the same one addressed in vv. 2-17/18. (1) Who else besides the Lord might the psalmist address prayers to? (2) The vocative kyrie ("O Lord") is used in vv. 2 and 13 and then again in v. 26, so the same term of address is used for the addressee in both prayer sections. (3) In both v. 13 and v. 27, the petitioner declares to the one addressed as kyrie that he will "remain" forever (v. 13: menō; v. 27: diamenō). (4) In both v. 15 and v. 29 the psalmist refers to "your slaves". (5) In both v. 12 and vv. 24-25, the psalmist laments about the shortness of "my days". Thus, both sections of prayer in Psalm 101 LXX are addressed to the Lord.

There are two basic ways of reading the awkward syntax of v. 24, which (with punctuation removed) translates to, "He answered him in the way of his strength tell me the paucity of my days." (1) "He" could be the psalmist (the "poor one" of v. 1 who has been praying) and "him" the Lord. We would then read v. 24a as reintroducing the psalmist's prayer and 24b as recommencing the prayer itself, as the NETS translates above. A paraphrase might be, "He (the poor one) answered him (the Lord) according to what strength he had left, 'Tell me the paucity of my days...'" (2) "He" could be the Lord, and "him" the poor one. We would then read v. 24a as emphasizing that the Lord answered the psalmist's prayer and did so with his divine strength. In that case, 24b resumes the psalmist's prayer addressed to the Lord. Thus, "He (the Lord) answered him (the poor one) in the way of his strength. (Poor one's prayer continues:) 'Tell me the paucity of my days...'" Which interpretation of v. 24 is preferable? It is not easy to decide; both readings have difficulties.4 However, perhaps it does not matter, because in either case the addressee from v. 24b to 29 is the Lord.5

To summarise, the speaker and addressee throughout Psalm 101 LXX, with the exception of an aside from vv. 18/19 to 24a, are respectively the psalmist (represented as a poor, afflicted human) and the Lord, i.e. God. This brings into sharper focus the problem of how the writer of Hebrews interpreted the speaker and addressee of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX as respectively God and his Son. To the solution of this problem we now turn.

How might the Son be the Addressee of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX?

From vv. 2-15, the Lord is only mentioned in the vocative (direct address): "O Lord". In vv. 16-17, however, the syntax vacillates between referring to the Lord in the third person and the second person, which could be taken to imply two Lords: 
And the nations will fear the name of the Lord (third person), and all the kings of the earth your glory (second person), 17 because the Lord (third person) will build up Sion, and he will be seen in his glory (third person).
The LXX translator probably had no intention of distinguishing two Lords here. However, the early Christian imagination made much of such syntactic quirks in the Scriptures. Consider Gen. 19:24 LXX: "And the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrha brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven." From this, coupled with Abraham's interactions with "the Lord" on the earth in Genesis 18, second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr inferred that there are two distinct Lords in this passage, one of whom appeared on earth and one of whom remained in heaven (Dialogue with Trypho 56.15-23). It is also possible that the writer of the Hebrews read "the Lord...your glory...the Lord...his glory" in Psalm 101 as implying two Lords, one of whom "will appear" while the other "look[s] down from heaven". What makes this a likelihood rather than a possibility is what immediately follows the quotation of Psalm 101:26-28 in Hebrews 1:10-12. In Hebrews 1:13, the writer quotes the latter part of Psalm 109:1 LXX: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool." The unquoted introductory part of this verse mentions two Lords: "The Lord said to my Lord". In the MT (Psalm 110:1), the reference is to the divine name YHWH and the word אדן, "Lord." In the LXX, however, the divine name and אדן are both translated ho kyrios.

Since we know that the writer of Hebrews interpreted the two Lords of Psalm 109:1 LXX as God and his Son immediately after quoting Hebrews 1:10-12, it is also likely that the writer interpreted the two apparent Lords of Psalm 101:16-17 LXX as God and his Son. Making this connection would have followed the ancient rabbinic hermeneutical principle of gezerah shavah.6 The eschatological connotations of the language in vv. 14-23 ("appointed time," "another generation," "when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to be subject to the Lord") would have strengthened the conviction that one of these Lords is the Messiah—perhaps the one who will be "seen in his glory," since God himself is invisible. The writer would then have pondered which of the two Lords was being addressed as kyrie in v. 26, and he evidently concluded either that it was the second Lord (i.e. the Son), as direct agent of creation (cf. Heb. 1:2), or else that because the psalmist did not distinguish which Lord was being addressed, the words are equally applicable to both Lords. This is, in my view, the most plausible solution to the puzzle of how the writer of Hebrews came to interpret the Son as the Lord addressed in Psalm 101:26-28 LXX.7

How might God be the Speaker of Psalm 101:26-28?

We have suggested a solution to how the writer of Hebrews came to see the Son as the one addressed as kyrie ("O Lord") in Psalm 101:26-28. A second puzzle remains: how did the writer of Hebrews come to see God as the speaker of these words, the one addressing the Son ("But of the Son he says, [quotes Psalm 44:7-8 LXX], and, [quotes Psalm 101:26-28]")? After all, we have already noted, as per v. 1, that all the words addressed to the Lord in this psalm (vv. 2-17/18, vv. 24b-29) are spoken by "the poor one," the weary, afflicted human. Moreover, the speaker in vv. 24b-25a cannot possibly be God, since they concern about the fewness of the speaker's days.

The solution to this conundrum lies in the view of Scripture that is presupposed by the writer of Hebrews: since Scripture is literally the Word of God, any words of Scripture can be thought of as spoken by God, regardless of who the speaker is in the text's own local context. This view is evident in the unique way the writer introduces Scripture quotations: he consistently identifies them as spoken by God, even when the text itself refers to God in the third person. For instance, "when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.”" (Heb. 1:6). "But of the Son [he says]...You loved justice and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, anointed you..." (Heb. 1:8-9; the speaker in Psalm 44 LXX is the psalmist, addressing the king). Hebrews 4:7 declares that the words of Psalm 94:7-8 LXX were God "saying through David...'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts'." Hebrews 8:8-13 uses "he says" to introduce a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34 that repeatedly contains the words "declares the Lord." For other examples that have God speaking of himself in the third person, see Hebrews 7:21; 10:30.8

These examples show that even scriptural words that, in their original context, were spoken by human psalmists and prophets, and may even have mentioned God in the third person, were also considered by the author of Hebrews to have been "said" by God inasmuch as they were divinely inspired Scripture. Therefore, the writer of Hebrews would have recognised that the speaker's voice in Psalm 101:26-28 LXX was that of the human psalmist. However, just as he regarded the words of Psalm 94:7-8 LXX as God "saying" something "through David," so he would have regarded the words of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX. By inspiring the psalmist to address these words to the Son, God had endorsed their content as a true description of the Son.

Conclusion

It is not difficult to see that the writer of Hebrews understood the words quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12 to have been said by God to or of the Son.9 10 What is difficult is to see why the writer understood these words to have been said by God to the Son, particularly since, in the original context of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX, they are part of a prayer said by the psalmist to God.

In this article we have attempted to resolve this difficulty. First, noting that Psalm 101:16-17 LXX seems to refer to two Lords (kyrioi) in an eschatological context, we argued that the writer of Hebrews was prompted to identify these as God and the Son, as he did the two kyrioi of Psalm 109:1 LXX immediately thereafter (Heb. 1:13). This would have primed him to interpret the "Lord" addressed in v. 26 as the Son, or at least as equally applicable to God or his Son, both of whom are "Lord." Second, we noted the unique tendency in Hebrews to identify God as having "said" words of Scripture even when the psalmist or another human was the speaker in the immediate sense in the original context. We argued that this principle enabled the writer of Hebrews to construe God as having "said" the words of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX to/of the Son, albeit through the psalmist (as the writer says explicitly when quoting another psalm in Hebrews 4:7).


Footnotes

  • 1 George H. Guthrie, "Hebrews," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 940-41.
  • 2 Albert Pietersma, "Psalms," in A New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 597.
  • 3 On the Septuagint translation of Psalm 102:23(101:24 LXX) and its meaning, see Jody A. Barnard, The Mysticism of Hebrews: Exploring the Role of Jewish Apocalyptic Mysticism in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 229-33.
  • 4 The verb apokrinomai ("answer," "reply") would normally presuppose some prior speech to which one is responding (cf. Ps. 118:42 LXX: "I shall render answer to them that reproach me"), which does not fit Psalm 101, where the Lord has not said anything. However, apokrinomai can denote the continuation of speech (cf. Matt. 12:38; Mark 10:24), thus, "He continued (praying) to him in the way of his strength, '..." (cf. BDAG 113-14). "In the way of his strength" seems more suited to describing a divine response than the petition of a poor, afflicted man. In favour of the second reading, apokrinomai is used elsewhere of God's responses to human speech (cf. Ex. 19:19 LXX), and God's responsiveness to the prayer of the poor has already been emphasised in v. 18 ("He regarded the prayer of the lowly and did not despise their petition"). The main difficulty with the second option is its abruptness: the Lord's unspecified answer does not flow smoothly from what comes before (the prayer having broken off in v. 17/18), and cannot introduce the speech that follows in 24b (since the one speaking of the paucity of his days and pleading not to be taken away is clearly not the Lord). However, the abruptness can be explained by the LXX translator having misunderstood the Hebrew here.
  • 5 The NETS has the prayer of the "he" of v. 24a end in v. 25, with the original first-person speaker resuming his speech in v. 26. There is no reason to see a change of speaker at the end of v. 25, however, even though the speaker never refers to himself in the first person thereafter. In any case, the addressee is clearly still the Lord throughout, for reasons already discussed.
  • 6 This ancient rule of biblical exegesis entails interpreting two passages jointly when they share an important phrase (David Instone Brewer, Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis before 70 CE [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992], pp. 17-18). Scholars have noted the use of this principle elsewhere in Hebrews (Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006], 24), including in the joining of Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14 in Hebrews 1:5 (Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd edn [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 81-82).
  • 7 Guthrie, focusing on the LXX text of Psalm 101:24, suggests it implies that "the words of our quotation" (i.e., Psalm 101:26-28) "can be taken as the words of Yahweh spoken to one addressed as 'Lord'" ("Hebrews," 940; similarly, Radu Gheorgita, The Role of the Septuagint in Hebrews: An Investigation of its Influence with Special Consideration to the Use of Hab 2:3-4 in Heb 10:37-38 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 61-62). However, not only is it unlikely that Yahweh would directly address the Son as kyrie, as though he were Yahweh's superior; it is also very unlikely that Yahweh could be construed as the speaker of vv. 24b-25c ("Tell me the paucity of my days. Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days")! Since it would be very awkward to have Yahweh's "answer" begin only in v. 26 after several intervening lines of direct speech by someone else, the solution here seems preferable.
  • 8 This tendency seems to be unique to Hebrews within the New Testament. Paul, for instance, usually introduces biblical quotations with the formula, "It is written." Occasionally he refers to biblical quotations as having been "said" by God, but seemingly only when God was being quoted making first-person speech in the original context (Rom. 9:15; 9:25; 2 Cor. 4:6; 6:16). In other instances, Paul refers to what "Scripture" says, what "the Law" says, or what Moses, David or Isaiah says (Rom. 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 10:16; 10:19; 10:20; 11:2; 11:9), but as far as I can tell he never construes God as "saying" something in Scripture that refers to God in the third person. Again, I am obliged to Mike MacDonald for drawing my attention to this idiosyncrasy of Hebrews (at least among the NT writings).
  • 9 This is implied by the parallelism between vv. 8 and 10, with the word "And" in v. 10 showing that the writer is adding another example of what God says "to/of the Son" (pros de ton huion) in contrast to what he says "to/of the angels" (pros men tous aggelous, v. 7). (Compare v. 5, where only "and again" (kai palin) separates consecutive quotations from Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7).
  • 10 In writing "to/of" I am acknowledging the semantic ambiguity of the preposition pros when modifying an accusative: it could mean "towards, to" or "with reference/regard to" (BDAG 874-75).  The second-person address of the Son in vv. 8-9 and 10-12 might seem to favour "towards," but the parallelism with v. 7 (where the angels are referred to in the third person despite pros being used) neutralises this. Anyway, the distinction between "to" and "of" does not seem especially important to the meaning of Hebrews 1:7-12.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Heavenly Hieroglyphics: A Critique of the Political Heavens Hermeneutic


A long-standing mainstay of Christadelphian biblical interpretation has been the notion that Scripture uses cosmological terms like "heaven(s)," "earth," "sun," "moon," "stars," "sea," "earthquake," etc. as ciphers that denote political realities. Proponents of this hermeneutic do not of course insist that every instance of cosmological terminology in the Bible is symbolic; they do allow that such terminology is sometimes used literally. However, particularly in prophetic and apocalyptic literature, the hermeneutic is used quite heavily, resulting in radically different interpretations of a number of significant biblical passages than one would obtain otherwise. We will explore some examples below, but let us first outline the underlying hermeneutical principle in the words of Christadelphian founder Dr. John Thomas and a contemporary of his, Scottish religious writer William Cuninghame. (This serves to illustrate that John Thomas did not invent this hermeneutic; it was popular in the 19th century and probably goes back to the 17th or even 16th century, though I have not researched its origins.)

Commenting on Luke 21:25-26, Cuninghame writes:
Writers on prophecy are generally agreed, that by the Sun, in the language of symbols, is to be understood the Imperial or Royal power of the State, and by the Moon and Stars, the Nobles and Princes, who are under the king in authority; and if the reader refer to Jacob's interpretation of Joseph's Dream... he will find that the principles of this interpretation, are as old as the age of Jacob. They have, indeed, their foundation in nature itself; for since the natural universe is used in symbols, to express the moral and political universe, therefore the heavens and celestial luminaries, must represent the reigning and ruling powers, and subordinate dignities of the political heavens. By the same beautiful analogy, the roaring of the sea and the waves, denotes the populace, rising up in tumult and insurrection against the higher powers of the State."1
In Elpis Israel, the book in which Thomas articulated what would become the Christadelphian belief system, he writes:
By the ‘shining light of prophecy’ we shall be able to interpret the signs which God has revealed as appearing in the political heavens and earth. Events among the nations of the Roman habitable, and not atmospheric phenomena, are the signs of the coming of the Lord as a thief; whose nature, whether signs or not, can only be determined by "the testimony of God."2
What this means is that when biblical prophecy speaks of signs in heaven and on earth (such as in the Olivet discourse of Luke 21:11, 25-26 and parallels), it is symbolically foretelling political events. Thus, "the Bible is not a revelation of geological and meteorological phenomena...God’s signs are not in the atmosphere, or in astronomical appearances".3

Thomas drew an analogy between prophetic symbolism and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The latter
were not vague, uncertain things, but fixed and constant analogies, determinate in their own nature, or from the steady use that was made of them; and a language formed on such principles may be reasonably interpreted upon them.4
Thus, just as each Egyptian hieroglyphic pictogram had a fixed meaning that could be translated, so cosmological imagery in biblical prophecy, such as "heaven," "earth," "sea," "sun," "moon," and "stars," are code-words, each with a "fixed and constant" analogical meaning in human politics. So what are their meanings? Drawing on the work of previous biblical expositors, Thomas writes:
Hence, Mede is fully justified in saying that "Heavens mean Regnum Politicum, a political kingdom; Sun, secular government; moon, ecclesiastical government; and stars, ministers of religion;" but not these exclusively, as Jacob's interpretation of them in Joseph's dream clearly shows. "The Heaven of this political world," says he, "is the sovereign part thereof, whose host and stars are the powers ruling that world. In the highest place, gods or idols; next, kings, princes, magistrates, &c, and other such lights shining in that firmament, The Earth is the peasantry or vulgus hominum, together with the terrestrial creatures serving the use of man." The following writers also all agree that "Heavens" is the symbol for the higher places of the political universe discoursed of: Dr. H. More, Daubuz, Lancaster, Sykes, Dr. Wall, Vitringa, Lowth, Owen, and Warburton.5
Thomas continues, averring that
to 'ascend into heaven' must be 'to obtain new power and glory;' and Daubuz says, 'to ascend into heaven' is to obtain rule and dominion. That 'the sea and the waves roaring,' mean tumultuous assemblies of the people, and the sea by itself, the mass of the people, is manifest from many passages... 'As the sun and the moon, the stars and the sea, are symbolical expressions, to annex a dissimilar interpretation to the word earth, would be to incur the charge of inconsistency.' The earth is generally put for that over which the heavens do rule; but if there be any distinction between it and the sea, as there undoubtedly is, it is that the earth represents the people in a quiet, and the sea the same in a disturbed state. Thus, earthquake must mean, as Sir Isaac Newton observes, 'the shaking of kingdoms so as to overthrow them;' and Jurieu says, 'it is known by all who are versed in the prophets, that in the prophetic style an earthquake signifies a great commotion of nations...'6
Thus the "Rosetta Stone" that John Thomas proposed for interpreting cosmological symbols in Bible prophecy can be summarized thus:

Cosmological Symbol
Prophetic Meaning
Heavens
Rulers; a position of political sovereignty and power
Earth
The masses of people; a position of political subjection
Sun
Gods/idols; alternatively, kings and other secular/civil rulers
Moon
Ecclesiastical government; alternatively, princes and magistrates
Stars
Ministers of religion; alternatively, lesser political authorities
Sea
The masses of people, especially when in a disturbed political state
Earthquake
A great political commotion

What are we to make of this hermeneutical strategy for interpreting cosmological language in Bible prophecy, which we might call the "political heavens hermeneutic"?


One argument made by both Cuninghame and Thomas is that the political heavens hermeneutic had widespread support among biblical expositors of their day—at least those whose views mattered to them. However, such nonconformist thinkers did not adopt theological positions because of their popularity. What arguably made this hermeneutic compelling for writers like Cuninghame and Thomas was the way it enhanced the continuous-historical approach to biblical prophecy, which interprets Revelation and much other prophetic and apocalyptic content in the Bible as describing the trajectory of political and ecclesiastical history from biblical times until the end of the age. The historical events that interested these expositors were primarily wars, political and religious movements, the rise and fall of kingdoms and leaders, etc. Since the Bible contains a great deal of cosmological language, if this language is symbolic of political and/or ecclesiastical realities then the Bible will have a lot more to say about these realities. There will be a lot more material for the modern apocalyptic expositor to use in constructing a theological interpretation of political and ecclesiastical history.

More direct, exegetical arguments for adopting the political heavens hermeneutic are offered by Thomas, such as:
THAT language must be symbolical which, being taken from material objects, expresses things incompatible with the acknowledged properties of those bodies; as, for example, where it is said that stars fall to the earth; for since the stars are larger than the earth, they cannot literally fall to it.7
Besides this, Thomas observes that cosmological imagery is explicitly used in relation to human politics in passages such as the oracle against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14. One could add Rev. 17:15, where the waters on which the great prostitute sits (v. 1) are expressly interpreted as "large numbers of peoples, nations, and tongues." Furthermore, there are passages where cosmological language is used alongside political language. Thus, since Luke 21:25 mentions signs in the sun, moon and stars and subsequently refers to "distress of nations upon the earth, with perplexity," Thomas avers that "we can have no doubt that the latter is literal, and the former figurative".8 The contextual association between cosmological language and earthly political events is said to prove that such cosmological language symbolizes earthly political events.


The political heavens hermeneutic faces a number of serious problems. First, while Dr. John Thomas stressed its popularity among expositors as one reason for adopting it, this hermeneutic has little support among biblical scholars today. For instance, you may consult words like "heavens," "earth," "sun," "moon," "stars," etc. in any recent Bible dictionary and it is unlikely that you will find any reference to these terms being biblical symbols for political realities. The decline of the political heavens hermeneutic in biblical scholarship is probably tied to the decline of the continuous-historical approach to interpreting biblical prophecy and apocalyptic.

A second problem with this hermeneutic is reflected in Thomas's argument that we must interpret language about stars falling to earth (e.g., Isa. 34:4; Matt. 24:29) symbolically since stars are too large relative to the earth to literally fall to it. We must not press the literal sense to absurdity in order to justify a symbolic interpretation. For instance, Psalm 19:1 says that "The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands," while vv. 4-5 describe the heavens as "a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber" and "runs its course with joy." Because the heavens and firmament cannot literally talk, and the sun does not literally stay in a tent or "come out" and "run a course" across the sky each day, does this mean we should interpret "heavens," "firmament" and "sun" symbolically here? Of course not—the psalmist is exercising poetic license in describing the literal cosmos.

Furthermore, this argument from scientific impossibility presupposes a modern, post-Copernican cosmology that the ancient writers and readers of the Bible did not possess. It may be useful to summarize ancient Hebrew cosmology at this point:
The ancient Israelites' view of the physical world can be approximately reconstructed from such texts as Gen 1 and 7-8; Pss 33, 74, 104, 148; Job 38-41; and elsewhere. The universe, for them, is largely a closed entity consisting of three stories or levels. The earth is a flat disk surrounded by mountains or sea. Above is the firmament, a solid dome covering the entire world and resting on the mountains at the edges of the earth. Down in the heart of the earth is Sheol, the abode of the dead. The waters above and the waters below envelop the universe. The firmament overhead is transparent, allowing the blue color of the celestial water to be visible, and it has 'windows' or sluices to let down water in the form of rain. The heavens, including the sun, moon, and stars, are under this vast canopy. The earth is supported from below by pillars sunk into the watery abyss.9
Concerning views of the stars specifically in antiquity:
The Greeks also recognized meteors and comets. They called the meteors "falling stars" because they believed that the sporadic streaks of light were stars falling from the sky.10
Of course, even in modern vernacular meteors are still referred to as "shooting stars" or "falling stars."11 Similarly, in modern vernacular the planet Venus is still referred to as "the morning star." This reflects the ancient belief that planets were actually "wandering stars," a belief reflected in Jude 13 (the word "planet" actually derives from the Greek word planētēs, "wandering").12 Furthermore, the ancients, including the Israelites, believed that stars "were manifestations of gods or heavenly beings."13 That the biblical phrase "host of heaven" (צבא השמים) takes on "two meanings...namely, 'celestial bodies' and 'angelic beings,' reflect[s] a probable association between angels and stars in the Hebrew imagination."14 In short, the ancient biblical writers and readers regarded the stars very differently than we do today, and they would not have seen anything impossible about stars falling to earth. Indeed, many ancients thought they were witnessing this when they saw a meteor "fall" from the night sky, and it is likely that biblical references to falling stars are rooted in the identification of meteors as stars.

The Bible contains ancient cosmological ideas that we now know to be scientifically inaccurate. This calls for a complex hermeneutic, rooted in the notion that the Bible was written to reveal theological truth and not scientific truth, and thus it is infallible in the former but fallible in the latter. When we encounter talk of stars falling to earth, this does not automatically necessitate a figurative interpretation, but it does necessitate a critical interpretation. The description of the sky rolling up and all the stars falling like leaves from a tree (Isa. 34:4) is an ancient way of communicating a massive, consummate cosmic disaster. Perhaps it is hyperbole, or perhaps it really foretells the end of the world.

A third problem with the political heavens hermeneutic is that it wrongly assumes that symbolism in the Bible is based on what Thomas called "fixed and constant analogies." In fact, symbolism in the Bible is fluid and context-dependent. As Ramm explains,
There is nothing in the symbolism of the Bible which demands that each symbol have one and only one meaning. This appears to be the presupposition of some works on symbolism, and it is a false presupposition. The lion is at the same time the symbol of Christ (“the Lion of the tribe of Judah”) and of Satan (the lion seeking to devour Christians, 1 Peter 5:8). The lamb is a symbol of sacrifice and of lost sinners (1 Peter 2:25). Water means “the word” in Ephesians 5:26; the Spirit in 1 Cor. 12:13, and regeneration in Titus 3:5. Oil may mean the Holy Spirit, repentance, or readiness. Further, one entity may be represented by several symbols, e.g., Christ by the lamb, the lion, the branch, and the Holy Spirit by water, oil, wind and the dove. In general, care and good taste should govern one’s interpretation of uninterpreted symbols. An uncritical association of cross references in determining the meaning of symbols may be more harmful than helpful.15
Thus, if we were to find one passage where "earth" symbolizes the common people, this would not establish a fixed principle of interpretation whereby "earth" symbolizes the common people throughout biblical prophetic and apocalyptic literature. Perhaps in a particular context "earth" might symbolize something else. Moreover, the literal heavens and earth are theologically important enough that we would expect them to be mentioned in biblical prophetic and apocalyptic literature, so it would be a serious mistake to assume that "heavens" and "earth" are symbolic terms throughout this literature. Context is the key to discerning between various kinds of literal and figurative meanings.

A fourth problem with the political heavens hermeneutic is that it results in contextually inconsistent interpretations of particular passages. It will be best to illustrate this using a series of examples; these will follow in the next section.


Let us now explore a number of biblical passages where the political heavens hermeneutic has resulted in an illogical, contextually inconsistent interpretation.


There are numerous biblical passages where the heavens and/or the earth are addressed directly by God as vocatives. One such instance occurs in Isa. 1:2: "Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the Lord speaks: Sons have I raised and reared, but they have rebelled against me!" (NABRE) An article in a Christadelphian periodical explains:
Isaiah spoke to the Heavens and the Earth of his day, but he did not leave us to guess who he really was talking to. In verse 10 of Isaiah 1, he addressed them a second time. This time he called them the Rulers and the People.  
Heaven = Rulers 
Earth = the People  
The interpretation leaves no doubt. The word "Heaven" refers to the rulers or the government, and "Earth" is the symbolic term for those who were the subjects of the kingdom, the common people.
However, it is not at all clear that "O heavens" and "O earth" in v. 1 correspond respectively to "rulers of Sodom" and "people of Gomorrah" in v. 10. Notice the change in grammatical person in v. 5: verses 2-4 address the "heavens" and "earth" and refer to sinful Israel in the third person ("they"). From verse 5 on, the oracle addresses Israel directly in the second person ("you"). Thus, the addressees in v. 2 are different from the addressees in v. 10. What God is doing in vv. 2-4 is invoking the Torahic legal principle that an accusation be established by the testimony of at least two witnesses (Deut. 19:15). God's two witnesses are the very heavens and earth, which poetically illustrates the magnitude both of God's sovereignty and of Israel's sin. God is applying words that appear repeatedly in Deuteronomy, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today" (Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28). The "heavens" and "earth" here are figurative to the extent that God is not merely speaking to firmament and terrain; "heavens" and "earth" summarize the entirety of creation (Gen. 1:1), not only the physical cosmos but its inhabitants. Indeed, "heavens" can mean "the inhabitants of the heavens" by metonymy (e.g., Ps. 89:5), as "earth" can mean "the inhabitants of the earth" (e.g., Ps. 33:8). There is no basis, however, for reading "heavens" and "earth" as ciphers for two distinct sets of earthly political actors, namely rulers and ruled.

The use of anthropomorphic language in relation to heavens and earth is common in Scripture and is not limited to their being addressed by God; for instance, they also "see" and "speak" (Ps. 97:4-6). Nor is the use of such language limited to the heavens and the earth: Psalm 96:11-13 invites the sea and all that fills it to roar, the field and everything in it to exult, and all the trees of the forest to sing for joy. If "let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice" indicates that "heavens" and "earth" are symbols for political realities here, consistency dictates that we extend the symbolism and offer allegorical referents in the political sphere to "the sea and all that fills it," "the field and everything in it," and "all the trees of the forest"! A similar argument obtains in Psalm 148, where those called on to praise Yahweh include not only angels and all sorts of humans but "sun and moon... shining stars... highest heavens... waters above the heavens... great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind... mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds" (Ps. 148:3-10). We can speculate on what sort of political realities mist and cedars might symbolize, or we can recognise that this language is poetic. For other similar examples see Isa. 44:23; 45:8; 49:13.

One final passage to mention here is Hos. 2:23-24[21-22]:
23 On that day I will respond—oracle of the Lord—I will respond to the heavens, and they will respond to the earth; 24 The earth will respond to the grain, and wine, and oil, and these will respond to Jezreel.
This oracle has to do with agricultural fertility:
Yahweh's gracious response sets in motion a chain reaction which runs through all the stages in the fertility cycle: deity - heavens (rain) - land (soil) - grain, wine, oil (inclusive of crops, 2.8) - people.16
Political rulers do not exercise sovereignty over crop growth, so once again it is evident that despite the anthropomorphic language used for the heavens and the earth (as "answering" one another), these cosmological terms are not symbols of political realities.



Thomas writes:
In Isa. xxiv. 23 it is written, ‘Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign on Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem.’ If these words be construed literally, the expression is unintelligible, but if interpreted as the political heavens, the civil and ecclesiastical rulers of their former polity—‘the army of the high ones on high, and kings of the earth upon the earth,’—the saying is full of propriety and force.17
In the wider context of Isaiah 24, this interpretation runs up against serious internal inconsistencies. This oracle begins with a warning that Yahweh "will empty the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants" (Isa. 24:1). If "the earth" is here a symbolic term referring to the masses of the people, then what are "its inhabitants"? This term would be redundant! Moreover, what is the earth's "surface" if the earth is not literal here? Further along, what are "the ends of the earth," "the windows of heaven," and "the foundations of the earth" (vv. 16-18) if heaven and earth are symbols of human rulers and subjects in this chapter? What sense can we make of Yahweh punishing "the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth" (v. 21) if these are not literal cosmic terms? It is wiser to interpret the moon and the sun literally here than as political symbols. The description of them as being "confounded" and "ashamed" is poetic in line with the anthropomorphic language used of various cosmological and geographical entities in many passages that are clearly not conducive to allegorization (as discussed above).


This text reads,
7 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. 8 All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD. (ESV)
For John Thomas, this portion of the oracle against Pharaoh is
Another striking illustration of the Scripture use of the heavens and their luminaries as prophetic symbols… This passage is the only one in the entire prophecy that has not been literally fulfilled; and there exists no apparent reason for separating this verse from the whole context, and for not interpreting it as of Egypt’s political heavens, and therefore as having been fulfilled equally with the remainder when Pharaoh’s kingdom was absorbed into the Assyro-Babylonish empire. (Thomas 74)
It is very odd that Thomas claims the rest of the prophecy has been literally fulfilled, because much of it is a figurative description of Pharaoh as "like a dragon in the seas" (Ezek. 32:2). The oracle proceeds to describe how God will capture this dragon in a net and cast it on the ground, where the birds and beasts will feast on it, so that its flesh will be strewn upon the mountains, its carcass will fill the valleys and its blood will drench the land (vv. 3-6). In other words, this prophecy is anything but literal. The cosmic language of vv. 7-8 should therefore not be pressed too literally, but there is no indication that the cosmic terms (heavens, stars, sun, cloud, moon, land) have specific symbolic referents in the political sphere. Indeed, "heavens" has just been used literally (as the abode of birds) in v. 4. A more literal description of the coming judgment on Egypt proceeds in v. 11. There is nothing "striking" in Ezek. 32:7-8 that illustrates the validity of the political heavens hermeneutic.

6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. 7 And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts... 21 Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 22 and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother. (ESV)
Thomas insists that this passage illustrates the political heavens symbolism:
Haggai speaks of those days as well as of the days to come. ‘Thus saith the Lord: Yet once, it is a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea and the dry land;’ which signifies, as is explained in the next sentence, ‘And I will shake all the nations.’”18
Thomas claims that "And I will shake all nations" (v. 7) is an explanation of v. 6 rather than an addition to it (despite the initial waw-conjunction ["And I will shake..."] suggesting addition). What we actually have here is a description of cosmic and political events, not two descriptions of political events, one symbolic and one literal. It is clear from the use of Haggai 2 in Hebrews 12 that this early Christian writer did not interpret "the heavens and the earth" in this prophecy as symbols of political realities. Hebrews 12:18-21 refers to the glorious theophany at Mount Sinai recorded in Exodus 19 before making a contrast: the readers "have come to Mount Zion...the heavenly Jerusalem." So, Israel had encountered God at an earthly mountain, but the readers now encounter Him at a heavenly mountain. The analogy continues with a warning in vv. 25-26 that ends with a quotation from Hag. 2:6:
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens."
The contrast in v. 25 is between a warning on earth (at Mount Sinai in Ex. 19:12-13) and a warning from heaven. In v. 26 we have an allusion to a literal shaking of the literal earth (Ex. 19:18) contrasted with the promise of a future shaking of both earth and the heavens. The writer's analogy between the earthly events at Sinai and the earthly-and-heavenly eschatological events completely breaks down if heavens and earth in Hag. 2:6 are symbolic terms. The writer would then be comparing apples and oranges, so to speak! Indeed, the things to be shaken according to Hag. 2:6 are explicitly interpreted in Heb. 12:27 as "things that have been made"—a clear description of the physical creation!


In the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24 / Mark 13 / Luke 21) Jesus foretells cosmic signs. I will follow Luke's account here:
10 Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven... 25 And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:10-11, 25-27 ESV)
Now, Thomas's argument was that because the signs in heaven are mentioned alongside political events, the signs in heaven must also refer to political events; thus "heaven," "sun," "moon," "stars" and "sea" are not literal but symbolic of political realities. This interpretation creates a number of contextual inconsistencies. First, it requires us to alternate back and forth between literal and symbolic meaning in adjacent sentences: "Nation will rise against nation" is literal; "earthquakes" are symbolic. "Famines and pestilences" are literal; "signs from heaven," symbolic. "Signs in sun and moon and stars," symbolic; "distress of nations" literal; "roaring of the sea" symbolic; "people fainting" literal; "powers of the heavens" symbolic.

A second inconsistency is that we are asked to interpret cosmological language symbolically in vv. 25-26 even though there is literal cosmological language in v. 27: the "cloud" in which the Son of Man comes is clearly literal for Luke (see Acts 1:9-11). This problem is even more acute in Matthew, which says that "the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven," that the Son of Man will come "on the clouds of heaven," and that the angels will gather the elect "from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matt. 24:30-31). Unless we are going to claim that "heaven" also symbolizes political sovereignty in these three instances, we must concede that "heaven" assumes a completely different meaning in Matt. 24:30-31 than what it allegedly means in v. 29, with no indication of a semantic shift.

There is also a broader contextual inconsistency that arises from cosmic signs that appear within the narratives of the Gospels and Acts. Matthew 2:1-10 tells how the Magi followed a star to find the infant Jesus. At Jesus' baptism the heavens are "torn open," the Spirit descends like a dove and a voice from heaven is heard (Mark 1:10-11). The crucifixion narratives report an extended period of daytime darkness; Luke explains that "the sun's light failed" (Luke 23:44-45). Matthew tells us that the crucifixion was accompanied by an earthquake that was literal but supernatural: it awakened the dead (Matt. 27:51-54). Another supernatural but literal earthquake accompanies the resurrection narrative (Matt. 28:2). In Acts, both Stephen (7:56) and Peter (10:11) see the heavens opened, while Saul is blinded by a heavenly light "brighter than the sun" (26:13) and an earthquake precipitates a potential prison break (16:26). Thus, in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts, we have a number of heavenly signs involving the sun, a star, the heavens opening or being torn, and earthquakes, and all of them are literal. In no case is the cosmological language reducible to a symbolic description of political realities. Thus, when we encounter heavenly signs and earthquakes in the Olivet discourse, we have been contextually primed to interpret them literally. "The sun will be darkened" (Matt. 24:29)? It already was at the cross!

There is thus every reason to interpret the cosmic signs of the Olivet Discourse literally, albeit couched in the language of ancient cosmology (thus by "falling stars" in Matt. 24:29 moderns would understand "meteors").


The Johannine Apocalypse is replete with symbolic language, including (as we have already seen) an explicit identification of one particular instance of geographical terminology ("many waters") as representing a political reality ("peoples, nations, and languages," Rev. 17:15). However, this does not mean the reader has carte blanche to interpret cosmological language throughout the book (e.g., "heavens," "earth") as symbolising political realities. One reason is that the book mentions "heaven(s)" or "earth" scores of times (over 100 combined), many of which cases are unambiguously literal. Thus one must tread carefully in identifying which (if any) references to "heaven(s)," "earth" and other cosmological terms are symbols for political realities.

Take, for example, the first few mentions of "heaven" in Revelation. In Rev. 3:12, the exalted Jesus refers to "the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven" (cf. Rev. 21:2). Under the political heavens hermeneutic, ascent to heaven denotes coming to political power, so descent from heaven would logically denote losing political power. However, clearly this is not the point being made about the new Jerusalem. Rather, the point is to emphasize the divine, transcendent source of this eschatological city. "Heaven" refers literally to the abode of God here. The next mentions of "heaven" occur in Rev. 4:1-2:
1 After this I had a vision of an open door to heaven, and I heard the trumpetlike voice that had spoken to me before, saying, “Come up here and I will show you what must happen afterwards.” 2 At once I was caught up in spirit. A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat 3 one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian. (Rev. 4:1-3 NABRE)
Here the seer has a vision of an open door to heaven and a voice invites him to "come up here." He then beholds a throne "in heaven," and proceeds to describe the throne-room and its occupants for the rest of chapters 4 and 5. This throne-room "in heaven" remains the setting from which heavenly beings launch the various visionary experiences that follow in subsequent chapters. It seems indisputable that this "heaven" that functions as the setting for the throne-room vision is literal heaven. Could one have a vision of God, the Lamb and myriads of angels in a symbolic political heaven? Clearly not; and in light of this contextual data any application of the political heavens hermeneutic in Revelation would require compelling clues that the cosmological language has shifted toward a symbolic sense.

We will now consider two instances in Revelation where John Thomas understood "heaven" to symbolize worldly political sovereignty in defiance of the context.


Revelation 11:7-10 describes the killing of the two witnesses by the beast from the abyss. Verses 11-12 describe a reversal of their circumstances:
11 But after the three and a half days, a breath of life from God entered them. When they stood on their feet, great fear fell on those who saw them. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven say to them, “Come up here.” So they went up to heaven in a cloud as their enemies looked on. (Rev. 11:11-12 NABRE)
Now, without being too precise about what the two witnesses/prophets represent (due to space), it is fairly clear from the context that they denote obedient subjects of God who undergo persecution. The "loud voice from heaven" inviting them, "Come up here" recalls the voice from heaven that said these words to John in Rev. 4:1. That "up here" referred to literal, transcendent heaven in chapter 4 strongly suggests that it has the same sense here. (The Elijah typology in this chapter is also unmistakable, with references to prophets having power to shut the sky from rain, and to going up to heaven.) However, for John Thomas, "heaven" here refers to earthly political power, and Rev. 11:11-12 foretells political events that would precipitate the French Revolution in 1789:
Now, "after three days and a half the breath of life from God entered into the witnesses;" that is, after the three months and a half of day-years had fully expired, "they stood upon their feet." The death-period elapsed on Feb. 18, 1789, and in two months and fourteen days after, being May 4, they accepted the invitation of "a great voice from the heaven," saying to them, "Come up hither!" This great voice was the royal proclamation by which the States General were convened, and in which the witnesses took their seats as the third estate of the kingdom. They soon proved their existence there by the events which followed. They ascended to power in a portentous cloud, which burst upon the devoted heads of their enemies; and in the earthquake which followed they shook the world.19
Thomas was clearly so zealous about finding modern political events to have been foretold in Revelation that he had conditioned himself to read "heaven" symbolically without any regard to contextual clues indicating a literal meaning.


A second example comes from the ensuing chapter. In the context of a wider conflict involving the woman clothed with the sun, her male child and the great red dragon, we read the following:
7 Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, 8 but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. (Rev. 12:7-9 NABRE)
Now, Michael is an important figure in Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic. Elsewhere in the Bible he appears in Dan. 10:13, 10:21, 12:1 and Jude 9. In the Old Greek of Dan. 10:21 he is explicitly identified as an "angel" and in Jude 9 (where he is also in conflict with the devil) he is called an "archangel." If there were any remaining doubt in the first-century reader's mind who Michael was, that he was "in heaven" and had "angels" under his command would surely have sealed it. Bear in mind that according to the throne-room vision of Revelation 4-5, heaven is the abode of myriads of angels praising the Lamb (Rev. 5:11-12). Thus, it would seem that when John sees a war in heaven between "Michael and his angels" and another group of angels led by the dragon, which symbolizes the Devil and Satan (as Rev. 12:9 explicitly states), this refers to an actual cosmic conflict.

Not so, says John Thomas. Now, I have previously discussed and criticized the traditional Christadelphian interpretation of other symbols in Revelation 12, (namely, that "woman clothed with the sun" symbolizes a divided and largely corrupted Church and that her "male child" symbolizes the emperor Constantine). John Thomas regarded the whole of Revelation 12 as foretelling the political rise of Christianity in the fourth century A.D. As such, he understood the "war" described in Rev. 12:7-9 as a literal war, not in literal heaven but in the "the Roman [political] heaven,"20 and not fought between literal angels but between corrupt Christians (Michael and his angels) and pagans (the dragon and his angels). In one of the strangest exegetical turns in his entire system, John Thomas understands "Michael" in this verse to refer to Constantine!21 This interpretation will rightly strike most readers as extremely fanciful and out of touch with the context of Revelation and of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. However, as in Thomas's interpretation of Rev. 11:11-12, close attention to context has been trumped by an overriding concern to find in Revelation a coded narrative of post-biblical European political history.


We can conclude our critique of the political heavens hermeneutic by stating categorically that there is no "fixed and constant analogy" in Scripture whereby cosmological realities such as "heavens," "earth," "sun," "moon," "stars," "sea," "earthquakes," correspond symbolically to respective political realities. Nor is such an analogy present in most of the passages where it has been identified by Christadelphian expositors. In light of passages like Rev. 17:15, I would not want to make a blanket statement that cosmological or geographical terms in Scripture never symbolize political realities, but the political heavens hermeneutic is not a Rosetta Stone that unlocks the hidden, political meaning of biblical prophecy. Rather, this hermeneutic often robs the biblical writers of their poetic license. Even more seriously, it sometimes reduces the transcendent, theological content of the inspired oracles to earthbound, anthropological content, and restricts the Holy Spirit's ability to foretell real cosmic signs of the kind that were so prevalent during the earthly life of Jesus and the early Church. This politicizing hermeneutic is unworthy of a sect that has always eschewed participation in worldly politics.

Footnotes

  • 1 William Cuninghame, The Political Destiny of the Earth as Revealed in the Bible (Philadelphia: Orrin Rogers, 1840), 31-32, emphasis added.
  • 2 John Thomas, Elpis Israel, 4th ed. (Findon: Logos Publications, 1866/2000), 398-99, emphasis added.
  • 3 John Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, 5 (1855): 78.
  • 4 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 73.
  • 5 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 73.
  • 6 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 74.
  • 7 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 73.
  • 8 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 73.
  • 9 Douglas A. Knight, "Cosmology," in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990), 175.
  • 10 Nicholas A. Pananides and Thomas Arny, Introductory Astronomy (Boston: Addison Wesley, 1979), 6.
  • 11 "Formerly, meteors were often called shooting stars or falling stars but now these terms are hardly ever encountered in scientific writings for the reason that there is nothing at all in common between real stars-distant suns-and meteors that flame through the earth's atmosphere." (V. Fedynsky, Meteors [Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002], 5.)
  • 12 "In the New Testament (Jude 13), as with all other early Christian literature, planētēs is used only in conjunction with asteres, 'star.' So, in the pre-Copernican cosmological systems, planets were viewed as wandering stars, whose heavenly paths were irregular" (Kyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015], 89).
  • 13 J. Edward Wright, The Early History of Heaven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 59. Wright continues: "Judges 5:20, part of a poem that may date as early as the tenth century BCE and that provides insight into early Israelite beliefs, mentions that during Deborah's battle against the Canaanite king Sisera, the stars fought against one another as the human forces battled on earth. The stars, therefore, are gods fighting in heaven, and the outcome of their celestial battle determines the outcome of the battle on earth. Job 38:7 mentions that when God created the world 'the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings (בני אלהים, bene elohim, literally children of God) shouted for joy.' The parallelism here of morning stars and heavenly beings indicated that this author equates the stars with the heavenly beings."
  • 14 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (eds.), "Heaven," in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 372-73. Similarly, Wright: "The phrase 'host of heaven' (צבא השמים) designates the vast assembly of heavenly beings and/or celestial bodies" (Early History of Heaven, 60).
  • 15 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics for Conservative Protestants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), 215. Similarly, Mickelsen: "Observe the frequency and distribution of a symbol (how often and where found), but allow each context to control the meaning. Do not force symbols into preconceived schemes of uniformity." (A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963], 278).
  • 16 James Luther Mays, Hosea: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 52.
  • 17 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 74.
  • 18 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 76.
  • 19 Thomas, Elpis Israel, 369.
  • 20 "In 312-3, the man-child was born of the Woman as the military chieftain destined to cast the pagan dragon out of the Roman heaven" (Thomas, Elpis Israel, 356).
  • 21 "Constantine, as the military chieftain of the Catholic Church, which the Deity had predetermined should have the rule instead of the Pagan Priesthood, is styled in the prophecy ho Michael, the Michael: that is, the Michael of the situation. This name is Hebrew in a Greek dress. The Hebrew is resolvable into three words put interrogatively, as Miyka'el, or Mi, who, cah, like, ail power? Or Who like that power Divinely energized to cast the Pagan Dragon, surnamed the Diabolos and the Satan, out of the Roman heaven? There was no contemporary power under this Sixth Seal that was able to contend successfully against it. Hence Constantine, as the instrument of the Deity in the development of his purpose, is styled "the Michael". He was not personally the Michael, or "first of the chief princes'9 spoken of in Dan. 10:13, nor the Michael termed in Dan. 12:1, "the great Prince who standeth for the children of Daniel's people;" but for the time being he filled the office that will hereafter be more potently and gloriously illustrated by the Great Prince from heaven, who will bind the Dragon and shut him down in the abyss for a thousand years (Apoc. 20:2,3)." (John Thomas, Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, 5 vols. [Findon: Logos Publications, 1869/1992], 4:102-103). Thomas's interpretation of ho Michael as "the Michael [of the situation]" ignores that proper names in Greek frequently occur with the definite article, including in the only other NT reference to Michael in Jude 9.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Woman of Revelation 12: Good or Bad?

1. Introduction
2. The Traditional Christadelphian Interpretation
3. Problems with the Christadelphian Interpretation
4. The Woman's Appearance
5. Identifying the Woman
6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

A couple of years ago I wrote an article entitled The Male Child of Revelation 12: Constantine or Christ? There I challenged the traditional Christadelphian interpretation that the "male child" of Rev. 12:5 is Constantine, the fourth-century Roman emperor, and explained why biblical scholars universally agree that the male child is Christ. Unfortunately, this misidentification of the male child is just one of three major "wrong turns" that Christadelphian expositors have made in their reading of Revelation 12. The other two concern the meaning of the "woman clothed with the sun" (Rev. 12:1) and the "great red dragon" (Rev. 12:3) respectively. Although the dragon is explicitly identified as the Devil (Rev. 12:9), this does not resolve the issue for Christadelphians due to their idiosyncratic understanding of the biblical Devil. In fact, Christadelphians have traditionally regarded the dragon in Revelation as symbolizing the pagan Roman Empire. The dragon will not be discussed in detail in this article (but see note 22). Instead, this article examines the identity of the "woman clothed with the sun" who is the male child's mother in the vision. A translation of the most relevant verses of Revelation 12 is as follows:
1 A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. 4 Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. 6 The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God, that there she might be taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days... 
13 When the dragon saw that it had been thrown down to the earth, it pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly to her place in the desert, where, far from the serpent, she was taken care of for a year, two years, and a half-year. 15 The serpent, however, spewed a torrent of water out of his mouth after the woman to sweep her away with the current. 16 But the earth helped the woman and opened its mouth and swallowed the flood that the dragon spewed out of its mouth. 17 Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus. (Rev. 12:1-6, 13-17 NABRE) 

Christadelphians have traditionally applied a historicist hermeneutic to the Book of Revelation, reading its signs and symbols as prophecies of significant historical events from the first century A.D. (when the book was written) through the present to the future consummation of all things. Within this historicist paradigm, Christadelphians have seen in chapter 12 of Revelation a prophecy concerning the political and ecclesiastical events of the fourth century A.D., particularly the rise of Constantine to the imperial throne and the consequent change of Christianity's political fortunes from persecuted underground movement to State-endorsed religion.

John Thomas, the founder of Christadelphians, wrote a voluminous work on Revelation entitled Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse which set the tone for most Christadelphian interpretation of Revelation to follow.1 Thomas consistently assumed that cosmological terminology (e.g., sun, moon, heaven, earth) in Revelation denotes political realities. Thus he referred to the sun mentioned in Rev. 12:1 as "the Roman Sun," symbolic of imperial power that the pagan State surrendered under Constantine: "The total eclipse of the pagan sun...finally and effectually signalized the departure of the pagan heaven as a scroll rolled up."2 He adds that
the sun of imperial power and majesty emerged again from the hair-sackcloth blackness of the darkening and sanguinary revolution by which it had been obscured...Whatever the woman may signify, this investiture [with the sun] symbolizes the clothing of the thing signified with supreme imperial authority, so that whatever might emanate from the woman would be by the sanction and co-operation of the highest orders of the state.3
Thomas believed that the woman of Revelation 12 had to be interpreted in continuity with two negative female figures mentioned in the book: the pseudo-prophetess Jezebel mentioned in the oracle to Thyatira (Rev. 2:20-23) and the great prostitute Babylon seen in the vision of Rev. 17:1-6. Balancing this desire for continuity with the apparently positive things said about the woman of Revelation 12, Thomas arrived at a complex interpretive scheme in which the woman of Revelation 12 is a twofold woman:
Hence the figurative woman of ch. 12, invested with the Roman Sun, and fleeing from the Dragon, represents the whole ANTIPAGAN COMMUNITY; the vast majority of which answered to Jezebel and her children; while the remainder, with whom alone the doctrine of Christ was to be found, refused to have anything to do with a church in alliance with the "dreadful and terrible beast having seven heads and ten horns." These two divisions of the antipagans, though opposed on the question of church and state alliance, were agreed in their hostility to the ascendancy of the existing Imperial Idolatry, which grievously afflicted them all. The first ecclesiastical separation of these two divisions did not occur till after the birth of the woman's son, who was to rule all the Greek and Latin nations with an iron sceptre. When this event transpired, the anti-state church party repudiated the desecrating alliance with emperors and their courts. They refused to recognize the emperor's claim of being at once the representative of the Sixth Head of the Dragon, and Bishop of the Bishops of Christ. The truth was with this party. They seceded; and by their secession incurred the enmity and bitter hostility of the New Church imperially established. The secessionists became the subject of virulent persecution by this new power, which caused them to take refuge in the wilderness. In this flight they are prefigured by the woman, who therefore leaves behind her the sun and moon, and wreath of twelve stars...But, though "the Lamb's Woman" refused to be,allied to the Roman State, and retired into the wilderness, the State-Church Woman, Jezebel, was not so scrupulous. As "the church by law established" she retained her place in the heaven; and became "the Great Harlot" of the world. Little notice is taken of her apocalyptically until she is exhibited in ch. 17:1, in all the enormity of her profligate career. In this scene, she appears in the wilderness, into which the Anti-State Church Woman fled... What a remarkable contrast between these two apocalyptic women. The one, Jezebel, the Great Harlot and the Mother of Harlots; the other, the Lamb's wife and the Mother of all the Saints.4
Thus, according to John Thomas Revelation 12 foretells a struggle between Christians and pagans, but also a struggle between two women representing two constituencies within the Church: the false woman Jezebel who aligned herself with imperial power, and so became the great prostitute of Revelation 17, and the true woman who refused to so align herself and thus seceded from the Church. What historical individuals and groups does Thomas identify with this true woman?
But when Constantine came to recognize the catholic sect as his Mother Church, what became of the rest of the Anti-pagan Body — "the whole body of the Christians" besides, namely, of the Novatians, Donatists, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulists, Cataphrygians, and others? They were still "the Woman," only minus the catholic sect. Whatever other differences obtained among them, they were generally opposed to the union of church and state; for, as all of them could not be the world's church, they were displeased at any one sect enjoying that pre-eminence over the rest. "What," said they, "has the emperor to do with the church? What have Christians to do with kings, or what have bishops to do at court?" Hence, without ceasing to be anti-pagan, they now became an ANTI-CATHOLIC BODY. This was the Woman" of the sixth verse of this twelfth chapter — the ANTI-CATHOLIC WOMAN.5
In short, whatever non-Catholic sects existed in fourth-century Christianity, Thomas lumps together as "the anti-Catholic woman." He hastens to add that this anti-Catholic woman cannot be straightforwardly identified with Christ's faithful church, "for there were sects in her communion whose principles and practices were both worldly and unscriptural"; nevertheless he infers from Rev. 12:17 the existence of a faithful remnant, whom he likens to the Christadelphians of his own day. Thomas takes particular interest in the Donatists, with whose cause he identifies the flight into the wilderness in Rev. 12:6. He qualifies,
There was, doubtless, error and wrong-doing both with the Donatists and Catholics; but, as from among the Anti-baptist Campbellites was originated...by the laver of the water with doctrine (Eph. 5:26), the CHRISTADELPHIAN DENOMINATION; so from among the anti-catholic Donatists began to be manifested in the three years of their trials before Constantine and his bishops, by the sealing angel that had ascended from the East (Apoc. 7:2), the first of "the remnants of the woman's seed, who keep the commandments of the Deity, and hold the testimony of the anointed Jesus." The name of this first remnant, if it had any other than Donatist, has not come down to us. But it matters not what it was called in its beginning—it was the sect composed of 'the servants of the Deity sealed in their foreheads.' This is the apocalyptic description of it. Arising in the epoch of the Donatist trials, and being with the Donatists intensely anti-catholic, it is very likely to have been confounded with them...6
Let us be clear about what Thomas is doing in this paragraph. He believes the historical circumstances of the Donatists fit the text of Rev. 12:6 well, but he knows that what is known of Donatist doctrine does not align with Christadelphian doctrine. Because he cannot claim the Donatists as the spiritual forebears of Christadelphians, he imagines into existence, without a shred of historical evidence, a group that broke away from the Donatists and shared identical doctrines with modern-day Christadelphians. This is about as fanciful and speculative as biblical interpretation gets!

John Thomas's protégé and successor as de facto leader of the Christadelphian community, Robert Roberts, upheld his mentor's view in his own work Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse. "There is no difficulty," Roberts explained, "in seeing whom [the woman of Revelation 12] symbolizes." She represents "the community of those who belong to Christ", but more specifically "Christ's church or ecclesia in Christ's absence and in the land of his enemies." He emphasizes that the woman here is not in an exalted state but a "mixed state" that includes those "who are in her and of her" but "do not belong to her". As Roberts moves to the sun, moon and stars imagery, the interpretation moves decisively in a political direction. To be clothed with the sun means to have the political ascendancy that comes with the emperor Constantine's friendship. To have the moon under her feet means to have absorbed the pagan priesthood into the Church. To wear a diadem of twelve stars means to bear the power of the pagan emperors of the past.7

It thus appears that, far from merely having "many in her and of her" who do not belong to her, the Church has already been thoroughly corrupted by political and pagan influence at the beginning of the vision. Roberts then discusses the dragon and the male child, understood as pagan Rome and Constantine respectively, before commenting on v. 6. He admits that the woman's flight into the wilderness "seems a strange sequel" to her being robed and crowned with political power, but like Thomas he attempts to explain this paradox in terms of an internal division of the Christian community into the false Christians who "continued in the sun-invested position" of political power and the remnant of true Christians who refused to become involved in political and military affairs but kept the commandments of God as mentioned in v. 17.
Broadly viewed, they were both one community and therefore in relation to the Pagan dragon, one woman. In another relation of things, they were two -- the one the shell, the other the kernel -- the one the shadow, the other the substance. To the one class, Jesus tells us he will say in the day of account, "I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23). To the other, he will unite himself in glorious marriage as a bridegroom to a bride. In the ultimate aspect of things, the latter class only are the woman -- the Bride, the Lamb's wife; and although in relation to the aspects of human history, the nominal are part of the woman as well as the true, yet in even the current recognitions of Christ, the true only are the woman. The false are finally symbolized in the Apocalypse as a shameless prostitute.8
Thus the pioneers of Christadelphia understood the woman of Revelation 12 as the Church of the fourth century, a community that had been largely corrupted by political and pagan influence but included a faithful remnant that had seceded from the main catholic Church. In short, the woman of Revelation 12 is largely a negative figure. Indeed she is the same woman as that seen in Revelation 17, where she has become the great prostitute, Babylon.

This strategy for interpreting the woman of Revelation 12 still prevails among Christadelphians today. David Green, for example, in a recent article on Revelation 12, explains that the woman in Revelation is "The church, chaste as the bride of Christ, a prostitute when apostate".9 He goes on to explain "The dual aspect of the woman":
Why is it that in Revelation 12:1 the vision shows the church as a woman in the political heavens, glorified and powerful, and yet by verse 6 she is seen fleeing into the wilderness? The answer lies in the fact that the Christian church split into two distinct sections, the majority exercising power and the minority being persecuted. So it was that one woman became two.10
Green follows Thomas in arguing that "the woman in the wilderness" of Rev. 12:6 refers to the Donatist schismatics,11 and hypothesizing the existence of a remnant, apparently within the Donatists, that "had a knowledge of the Truth," i.e. held to Christadelphian theology (despite a total absence of historical evidence for such a group).12

To summarise, the traditional Christadelphian interpretation holds that the woman of Revelation 12 is the Church of the fourth century, a community that was largely disobedient, power-hungry and doctrinally corrupt (as the symbols of the sun, moon and stars signify) but that included a nameless remnant lost to history who believed Christadelphian doctrines and were persecuted by the larger Catholic Church.


I would like to issue a challenge to Christadelphians who favour the interpretation outlined above. This interpretation regards the woman of Revelation 12 as largely evil and in continuity with "that woman Jezebel" in Rev. 2:20-23 and the great prostitute Babylon in Rev. 17-18. In both Rev. 2:20-23 and Rev. 17-18 there is unmistakably negative imagery indicating unambiguously that the woman symbolizes an evil entity. "Jezebel" is named for a wicked Old Testament queen, is accused of practicing immorality and adultery and seducing others to do the same, and is warned of impending judgment if she does not repent. "Babylon" is named for a wicked Old Testament kingdom, is called a prostitute, is accused of sexual immorality and abominations, and her judgment and total desolation is foretold. My challenge to Christadelphians is this: where is this unambiguously negative language in Revelation 12? Where is the woman of Revelation 12 given a bad name, accused of anything or warned of impending judgment? I cannot find anything negative said about the woman in Revelation 12. The alleged negativity seems to be tied up in dubious interpretations of two other symbols in the chapter: the notion that the male child of Rev. 12:5 symbolizes Constantine, and the notion that the sun, moon and stars of Rev. 12:1 symbolize political ascendancy and/or religious corruption. I have dealt with the male child (who is clearly Christ) elsewhere, so will consider the symbolism of Rev. 12:1 below.

The second problem with the Christadelphian interpretation is that it requires the woman of Revelation 12 to be a dual figure who is sharply divided into two women: the Jezebel/Babylon prostitute figure and the Bride, the righteous remnant. However, the text of Revelation 12 does not indicate any such duality. The dual figure seems to rest entirely on assumption about "the rest of her offspring...those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 12:17), namely that this group stands in moral and ecclesiastical opposition to the woman herself, or to the bulk of her offspring. However, the text does not indicate any such moral opposition or division. As will be discussed below, "the rest of her offspring" means besides Jesus himself, the woman's offspring par excellence.

The absence of any negative language used of the woman in Revelation 12 contrasts sharply with female figures in Rev. 2:20-23 and Rev. 17:1-6, whose negative characteristics are described in lurid detail. This contrast, together with the absence of any explicit duality or internal division in the woman, makes it extremely unlikely that the author of Revelation intends the reader to understand the woman of Revelation 12 as a morally compromised figure.


The vision is introduced with, "And a great sign appeared in heaven". Christadelphian expositors typically assume that "heaven" here refers to the "political heavens", a widely used and highly dubious notion in interpretation of biblical apocalyptic. However, the "heaven" described in this chapter is the abode of Michael and his angels (Rev. 12:7). Michael is unquestionably an actual angel (cf. Jude 9), and angels inhabit actual heaven (Gen. 22:11; 28:12; Matt. 18:10; Mark 12:25; Rev. 10:1; etc.), not any earthly political heaven. Throughout Revelation we read of voices from heaven, the God of heaven, God's temple in heaven, etc. Thus it should be regarded as very likely that "heaven" in Rev. 12:1 means "heaven"! Corroborating this, the Bride of the Lamb, the new Jerusalem, is later depicted as "coming down from heaven" (Rev. 21:2, 9-10). This corresponds also with other New Testament passages where a transcendent Jerusalem is described as heavenly (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 11:16; 12:22-23). Rather than viewing the heavenly location of the sign as some indication of the woman's political connections, we should take it as an indication that the woman represents a transcendent reality, namely the elect people of God.13

Rather than relying on the fanciful, speculative political interpretation of the woman's garb, let us seek to ground our interpretation in biblical background. Before considering the significance of the sun, moon and stars, let us consider the significance of her wearing bright clothing and a crown (garland, to be precise). In Ps. 104:1-2, God clothes himself "with light as with a garment". Within Revelation, both the one like a son of man (Rev. 1:16) and a mighty angel (Rev. 10:1) have their faces likened to the brightness of the sun, while clothing, especially white or bright robes, represent purity and sanctity (Rev. 3:4-5; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9; 7:13-14; 19:14). Most strikingly, Rev. 19:8 states concerning the Lamb's Bride, "It was granted to her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure - for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints." The Greek word translated "bright" here, lampros, can depict the brightness of heavenly bodies, as in Rev. 22:16, "I, Jesus...the bright morning star." There is no instance in Revelation of white or light-coloured clothing symbolizing something negative. Garlands/crowns also have predominantly a positive connotation in Revelation (2:10; 3:11; 4:4; 4:10; 14:14; but see 6:2; 9:7). Thus, prima facie the picture of a brightly clothed, crowned figure in heaven suggests a righteous entity in good standing with God.

What does the sun, moon and stars imagery add to this picture? Prigent observes how 
Isaiah announces to the new Jerusalem, to whom he addresses himself as the bride of Yahweh, the mother of the eschatological people of God, that she will appear in divine light and beauty: 'Your sun shall no longer set, nor shall your moon disappear' (Isa 60:20).14
Joseph's dream recounted in Gen. 37:9, in which the sun, moon and eleven stars represent his father, mother and brothers respectively, also support interpreting the woman's garb as representing corporate Israel, with the twelve stars denoting the twelve tribes.15 Elsewhere in Revelation, imagery involving the number twelve is explicitly associated with the twelve tribes of Israel. In Rev. 7:4-8, the number of the sealed, 144 000, is divided into twelve groups of 12 000 each according to "every tribe of the sons of Israel." Again, the description of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21—which city is explicitly identified with "the Bride, the wife of the Lamb" (Rev. 21:9-10)includes twelve gates inscribed with "the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel." The number twelve never takes on a negative significance in Revelation. The sun and the moon may represent majesty and beauty.16


For these reasons, the description of the woman in Rev. 12:1 best coheres with the interpretation that she denotes the elect people of God. This is the consensus among biblical scholars, although it is debated whether the woman denotes Israel, the Church or both.17 If the woman is Israel, then her plural "offspring" may be understood as Christians,18 or perhaps Gentile Christians specifically. This would correspond with Revelation 7, where the 144 000 sealed on their foreheads represent only the twelve tribes of Israel, with Gentile believers mentioned separately as the "great multitude...from every nation" (Rev. 7:9).19 If, on the other hand, the woman is understood to be the Messianic Community (that which became the Church) without regard to ethnicity, then the woman's plural "offspring" should probably not be sharply distinguished from the woman herself. Perhaps the woman represents the Church in a more idealized or abstract sense, while "the rest of her offspring" refer concretely to individual believers who would suffer persecution in the future.20 For me, in light of Rev. 7:4-9, the most likely eventuality is that the woman denotes the faithful of the house of Israel while the "rest of her offspring" denote Gentile believers. In either case, it is important to note that "the rest of her offspring" who hold to the testimony of Jesus are not "the rest" in relation to other, disobedient offspring, but in relation to Jesus himself, the "male child"—the only other "offspring" of the woman previously mentioned in Revelation 12.21 This coincides with the theology of Paul, who depicts Christ as "the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom. 8:29) and also understands "offspring" or "seed" in Old Testament promises as both singular (Christ) and plural (his brethren) (Gal. 3:16, 29).


If we summarize the symbolic narrative concerning the woman in Revelation 12, it is evident that nothing negative is said about her. Her luminous appearance underscores her transcendent status as the people of God. Her conflict with the dragon-serpent (identified in the text as the Devil, evidently an angelic being)22 concerning her offspring no doubt reflects Gen. 3:15. She gives birth to the Messiah and then flees to a place of refuge prepared for her by God (v. 6). She is given the wings of the great eagle (cf. Isa. 40:31), nourished in the wilderness and protected from the dragon's flood in language that reflects Old Testament narratives such as the story of Elijah and the Exodus (v. 14).

Furthermore, the entirely favourable depiction of the woman in Revelation 12 rules out the possibility that the great prostitute of Revelation 17 (described in lurid terms) is the same woman, as has been asserted by Christadelphian writers. A study of Revelation 17 will have to await a future article, but the woman of Revelation 12 in fact represents the antithesis of the woman in Revelation 17.23

Finally, the dominant and correct interpretation of the woman of Revelation 12 as the people of God does not rule out a secondary interpretation, popular in Church history, in which the woman is identified the Virgin Mary. This is because the Virgin Mary, besides being the literal mother of the "male child" Jesus, is the embodiment of the faithful people of God who await the Messiah, and the new Eve who is victorious over the dragon-serpent where the first Eve failed.


Footnotes


  • 1 John Thomas, Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, 5 vols. (Adelaide: Logos Publications, 1869/1992).
  • 2 Thomas, Eureka 4:33.
  • 3 Thomas, Eureka 4:34.
  • 4 Thomas, Eureka 4:39-41.
  • 5 Thomas, Eureka 4:121.
  • 6 Thomas, Eureka 4:124-25.
  • 7 Robert Roberts, Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse (Birmingham: published by author, 1880), 113-114.
  • 8 Roberts, Thirteen Lectures, 117.
  • 9 David Green, "Understanding Revelation 12, Part 1: Symbols and background history," The Testimony, November 2005 (2005): 430, accessed at http://www.testimony-magazine.org/back/nov2005/green1.pdf
  • 10 David Green, "Understanding Revelation 12, Part 2: The interpretation of Revelation 12:1-4," The Testimony, January 2006 (2006): 26, accessed at http://testimony-magazine.org/back/jan2006/green.pdf
  • 11 Green, "Understanding Revelation 12, Part 2," 26.
  • 12 David Green, "Understanding Revelation 12, Part 3: The interpretation of Revelation 12:5-17," The Testimony, February 2006 (2006): 64, accessed at http://www.testimony-magazine.org/back/feb2006/green.pdf
  • 13 "The heavenly character and the extraordinary ornaments of the person thus identified pose no problem. Once we admit that every earthly reality of whatever importance has its place in the plan of God and thus has a heavenly counterpart (which is obviously the case for the Church), all of the features of this description lend themselves to an explanation as the echoes of prophetic texts." (Pierre Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John, trans. Wendy Pradels [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004], 378).
  • 14 Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 378-79.
  • 15 "The picture of the woman is based on Gen. 37:9 (cf. T. Naph. 5:3), where sun, moon, and eleven stars are metaphorical respectively for Jacob, his wife, and the eleven tribes of Israel. All these bow down to Joseph, representing the twelfth tribe. The depiction could also reflect the portrayal in Judaism of Abraham, Sarah and their progeny as sun, moon, and stars (T. Ab. [B] 7:4-16); in Midr. Rab. Num. 2:13 the sun symbolizes Abraham, the moon Isaac, and the stars Jacob and the seed of the patriarchs. The twelve stars represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The woman's appearance may also connote Israel's priestly character (cf. 1:6; 5:10), since in Philo's and Josephus's explanation of Exod. 28; 39 they use the imagery of a crown, the sun, moon, and twelve stars in describing the vestments of the Israelite high priests because they represented the twelve tribes before Yahweh in the temple service (see Josephus, Ant. 3.164-172, 179-187; Philo, Moses 2.111-112; 122-124; Spec. Laws 1.84-95). In fact, in these same texts the parts of the priestly garment symbolizing sun, moon, and stars are explicitly said to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. Such dual imagery was meant to indicate that Israel on earth also had an inviolable heavenly identity." (G. K. Beale and Sean M. McDonough, "Revelation", in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 1122 ).
  • 16 "In the OT imagery of the sun, moon, and stars has a broad spectrum of connotations, centering primarily on Yahweh's control over the constellations (Jer. 31:35): they praise and witness to God (Ps. 19:1-4; 148:3), symbolize endurance (Ps. 72:5) and are darkened on the day of wrath (Isa. 13:10; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15). In Ps. 104:2 Yahweh 'clothes himself with light like a garment,' showing that the woman being 'clothed with the sun' connotes majesty. 'The moon' in the OT signifies beauty (Song 6:10) and glory (Isa. 24:23; 30:26). The moon being 'under her feet' stresses her reign or dominion. The 'crown' is used in the Apocalypse to show the reign of Christ (14:14), the dominion of the twenty-four elders (4:4, 10), or the future reign of his people (2:10 [the 'victory wreath' of life]; 3:11). For the rider on the white horse (6:2) or the demonic locusts (9:7), the 'crown' is a temporary rule that God has sovereignly allowed the forces of evil. Thus, like the 'moon under her feet,' the 'crown of twelve stars' signifies the victory and glory that God has given people. The 'twelve stars' are generally taken to be the twelve tribes (Kraft, Prigent, Roloff, Thomas, Beale) or the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles (Sweet, Mounce) or the church itself (Lohmeyer 1926: 96 calls this 'ideal Israel'), though some have taken this as a reference to the signs of the zodiac (R. Charles, Beckwith, Beasley-Murray, Aune)."(Grant R. Osborne, Revelation [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002], 456-57).
  • 17 "Could it then be the people of God of the old covenant, the community of Israel which can indeed be seen as the mother of the Messiah and of the Christian Church? Or  more likely still as the faithful Israel, the chosen people whose existence is prolonged by the Judeo-Christian Church? But this identification once again hits a snag, in the form of the observation that the book of Revelation never seems to distinguish between the people of God of the old and the new covenants, except in order to show that the latter fulfill the prophecies detected in the history of the former. Furthermore, we should recall that we have not felt justified in distinguishing in Revelation any trace of the problem of Jewish vs. Gentile Christianity. The present text does not seem capable of overturning these conclusions. We must therefore identify the woman as the Church, although it should immediately be recalled that for our author, the Church has taken root in the history of Israel." (Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 378); "This woman is surely the bride, the heavenly Jerusalem (19:7-8; 21:9-10), antithesis of the harlot (Rome) (17:14; 18:16)." (Wilfrid J. Harrington, Revelation [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008], 128 n. 1); "The woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars (v. 1) sounds like the goddess Isis (so Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11:3-4), but such an identification would not fit this context. In this context, she can only be the people of God who are about to give birth to the Messiah. The imagery of the Jewish people giving birth to the Messiah is found already in Isa. 26:17-18 LXX and at Qumran (1 QH 3:4)." (Charles H. Talbert, The Apocalypse: A Reading of the Revelation of John [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 48.); "It is much more likely that he has combined a great many themes from historical and mythical woman/mother images in Israel's and the church's past, present, and future and fashioned them thematically into a representation of the church's corporate existence." (Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009], 225); "Therefore it seems likely that the woman here represents Israel, the people of God (with 12:17, where she represents the church, we can conclude that she represents the whole people of God, Israel and the church)." (Osborne, Revelation, 456); "What can be asked, given the fact that many of John's readers would be Jewish, is what identification would a Jewish individual immediately make with the radiant woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown of 12 stars on her head? For any Jewish reader this would call to mind the dream of Joseph recorded in Genesis 37, a dream that failed to endear Joseph to his 11 brothers. The second of Joseph's two dreams, recorded in Genesis 37:9, saw the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowing down to Joseph; and the similarity of the two visions would be brought to any Jewish mind, especially given the propensity of John to be influenced by the Old Testament. The woman is clothed with the sun, the moon is under her feet, and she has a crown of 12 stars on her head, evidently representing the 12 tribes of Israel... The only effective identification of the radiant woman, then, is to see her as the ethnic offspring of Abraham, the Jewish people. This accounts for the fact that many scholars have claimed that the radiant woman is representative of the Jewish nation, which gives birth to the Messiah." (Paige Patterson, Revelation [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012], 297); "The woman is not Mary the mother of Jesus but the messianic community, the ideal Israel. Zion as the mother of the people of God is a common theme in Jewish writings (Isa 54:1; II Esdr 10:7; cf. Gal 4:26). It is out of faithful Israel that Messiah will come. It should cause no trouble that within the same chapter the woman comes to signify the church (vs. 17). The people of God are one throughout all redemptive history" (Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977], 236); "There are, indeed, two Jerusalems in Revelation. There is New Jerusalem which comes down from heaven in the new creation. Like the harlot Babylon, the New Jerusalem is both a woman and a city: the bride and the wife of the Lamb (19:7; 21:2, 9) and 'the holy city the New Jerusalem' (21:2), 'the city of my God' (3:12). Babylon and the New Jerusalem are the contrasting pair of women-cities which dominates the later chapters of Revelation. But as well as the New Jerusalem of the future, there is also 'the holy city' of 11:2 and the heavenly woman of 12:1-6, 13-17. The city of 11:2 is not the earthly Jerusalem, in which Revelation shows no interest, and 11:1-2 does not allude to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, when the sanctuary in the temple was certainly not protected from the Roman armies. John is here reinterpreting Daniel's prophecies of the desecration of the temple (Dan. 8:9-14; 11:31; 12:11) and perhaps also the prophecies in the Gospels, dependent on Daniel, which prophesied the fall of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:20-4). He is reinterpreting them to refer to the persecution of the church in the symbolic three-and-a-half year period of the church's conflict with the Roman Empire. The holy city trampled by the Gentiles is the faithful church in its suffering and martyrdom at the hands of the beast. The sanctuary with its worshippers is the hidden presence of God to those who worship him in the churches... For the same period in which the sanctuary is protected, in which the holy city is trampled and the witnesses prophesy (11:1-3), the heavenly woman who has given birth to the Messiah is kept safe in the wilderness (12:6, 13-16), while the dragon, frustrated in his pursuit of her, turns his attacks onto her children (12:13-17). Her refuge in the wilderness is an alternative symbol for the same spiritual safety of the church in persecution as is depicted by the protection of the sanctuary in 11:1-2. She is kept safe while the beast rules and puts her children to death (13:5-7). She is the mother of Jesus and of Christians—Eve and Mary, Israel, Zion and the church all combined in an image of the spiritual essence of the covenant people of God. She is the female figure corresponding to the holy city of 11:2" (Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 126-28).
  • 18 "The 'offspring' of the woman and their identification as those who 'hold to the testimony of Jesus,' make it virtually certain that two separate groups are intended. The radiant woman, representing ethnic Israel is one object of Satan's fury. But the saints of the church—every follower of Jesus who bears his testimony—become the final object of satanic hatred. Since God remains beyond the reach of Satan, the devil's wrath against God is transferred to the two objects still partially within his sphere; Israel and the church of Jesus Christ" (Patterson, Revelation, 308).
  • 19 Marius Heemstra, The Fiscus Judaicus and the Parting of the Ways [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010], 132.
  • 20 "We should remark that the action of the dragon, which is presented here as new, is not fundamentally different from his enterprises against the woman (the people of God, the Church): it is the same intention that motivates the Adversary. That is why one must not distinguish the Christians described in v. 17, those who keep God's commandments and maintain the testimony of Jesus, from those who were implicitly described in the symbolic figure of the woman. When the text now speaks of 'the rest of her offspring', it is obviously by way of allusion to the prophecy contained in Gen 3:15: the time has now come when the posterity of the woman is called to confront victoriously the hostility of the serpent." (Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 395); "Others (P. Hughes 1990: 142-43; Glasson 1965: 78) have said the contrast is between the Palestinian church (the woman) and the Gentile church (the offspring), but there is no basis for that in the book (see Krodel 1989: 246). Still others (Mounce, Michaels, Johnson) believe the contrast is between the male seed, Christ (12:5, 13), and the church (12:13-17). Finally, some (Swete, Ladd, Caird, Krodel, Beale) see a contrast between the woman as the 'ideal church' from a heavenly perspective (12:6, 13-16) and the 'offspring' as the earthly church seen as a whole (12:17). In favor of this would be the depiction of hte woman in 12:1-2 as 'in heavene' and the idea of mother Zion bearing her children in Isa. 66:7-8. These last two options are not antithetical and together provide the solution. The 'rest of her offspring' is the church down through the ages as well as in this final three-and-a-half year period of history... σπέρμα (normally used of the male line) is found only here in the book and alludes to Gen. 3:15, where God curses the serpent" (Osborne, Revelation, 485); "The most plausible view is that the woman in vv. 6, 13-16 depicts the church (and the suffering she undergoes) as she is seen from the ideal, eternal, or heavenly perspective, and her offspring in v. 17 depict the multitude of individual believers (and the suffering they experience) as seen from an earthly or historical perspective." (G. K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015], 262-63).
  • 21 "Beale (264) thinks that the phrase "the rest of the offspring" implies that those mentions in vv. 6, 13-16 are also the woman's offspring. But 'rest of' could also relate to Christ the male child. They are "the siblings of the messianic son—that is, the church, the same entity symbolized by the two witnesses in chapter 11" (Blount, Revelation: A Commentary, 241-42); "Then the dragon was angry with the woman (= the people of God, up to this point apparently Israel) and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring (i.e., besides the Messiah, Jesus), on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (= Christians) (v. 17). When Satan is unable to devour the Messiah, he tries to destroy the Jewish people. When he is unable to do that, he goes off to war against the Christians. Chapter 12, then, lays the foundation for the dragon's hostility toward Christians" (Talbert, The Apocalypse, 51).
  • 22 Rev. 12:9 identifies the dragon as the Devil/Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. Inasmuch as the dragon has "angels" and does battle with "Michael and his angels" (Michael indisputably being an actual angel), the dragon can only be understood as an angelic being. This is corroborated by his being described in v. 10 as "the accuser of our brethren...who accuses them day and night before our God." This describes a being who has access to the heavenly court to accuse the people of God, reflecting Old Testament narratives in which the Satan functions as a heavenly prosecutor (Job 1-2; Zech. 3:1-2). For a full argument for identifying the New Testament Devil as a supernatural being, see my forthcoming article in the Journal of Theological Studies.
  • 23 "This woman [in Revelation 12] is surely the bride, the heavenly Jerusalem (19:7-8; 21:9-10), antithesis of the harlot (Rome) (17:14; 18:16)." (Harrington, Revelation, 128 n. 1); "Thus the New Jerusalem of the future, the bride of the Lamb, has both a forerunner in the present and an opposite in the present. The forerunner is the holy city, mother Zion. The opposite is Babylon, the great whore." (Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 128).