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Showing posts with label Apocalypse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Apocalypse. Show all posts

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

A Tale of Two Cities: The Bride and the Whore in the Book of Revelation

The Apocalypse of John contains some of the most striking feminine imagery in the Bible and indeed in all of ancient literature. Two female figures, in particular, stand out as dualistic counterparts: the Bride and the Whore. This article explores these two figures against their biblical and early Christian background, with a view to correctly interpreting them.

The Bride

On the one hand, we have "the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." This woman appears in the latter visions of the book (chs. 19 and 20-21), where the bridal imagery is part of a broader picture of the consummation of all things as the Lamb's marriage feast. She is also identified as a city, "the holy city, new Jerusalem" (21:2, 9-10).1 The people of God have already been depicted as a woman in Revelation 12, using imagery that draws heavily on Genesis 3 ("the seed of the woman"). The metaphor of the Church as the betrothed or the bride of Christ is found elsewhere in the New Testament, in the "great mystery" expounded in Ephesians 5:22-32 (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2). Such imagery is undoubtedly rooted in the language of the Hebrew prophets, who depict Yahweh as a bridegroom or husband and Israel as his bride or wife.2 The New Testament's recasting of Jesus in the role of bridegroom, possibly based on Jesus' own words,3 has profound Christological implications, but our focus in this article is on the bride. Besides using feminine imagery for Israel as a whole, the Hebrew Bible also uses feminine imagery for cities. In Ezekiel 16 and 23, for instance, the cities of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Sodom are depicted as sisters whose misdeeds bring shame on their family.4 The holy city of Jerusalem is frequently referred to in the prophets as the "daughter of Zion" or "daughter of Jerusalem,"5 and this name for the city is echoed in the Gospels (Matthew 21:5; John 12:15). Meanwhile, the identification of the Church with a transcendent Jerusalem is also found elsewhere in the New Testament.6 Thus, when the author of Revelation depicted the Church both as a woman and as a transcendent city, he built on rich biblical foundations, and was not the only New Testament writer to use such imagery.

The Whore

The other woman in the Apocalypse is the "Great Whore," who is described in a lurid vision in Revelation 17:1-6. A whore or prostitute is of course a radically different image from a bride. The Bride is clothed in "fine linen, bright and pure," symbolising "the righteous deeds of the saints" (Rev. 19:8), the Whore also wears "fine linen," but of a different colour, "purple and scarlet," which undoubtedly correspond to her "abominations and impurities" (Rev. 17:4), her violence and sensuous luxury. The Whore holds in her hand a "golden cup" full of abominations. While Revelation does not explicitly associate the Bride with a cup, the Eucharistic connotations of the "marriage supper of the Lamb" for which the Bride has prepared herself are obvious.7 Furthermore, the Whore, like the Bride, is identified with a city, namely "Babylon," "the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth"(Rev. 17:5, 18). Earlier in the book, "the great city" is said to have "the symbolic names 'Sodom' and 'Egypt'" and is identified with the place "where their Lord was crucified," i.e. Jerusalem (Rev. 11:8). The Whore Babylon is mentioned briefly in Rev. 14:8 and 16:19, described in lurid detail in chapter 17, and is the subject of a judgment woe in chapter 18. As with the Bride, much of the language used for the Whore draws on the biblical prophets. The antithesis between Jerusalem and Babylon is exemplified by the imprecations of Psalm 137. The exact name "Babylon the Great" (Greek: Babulōn hē megalē) used in Revelation 17:5 is taken verbatim from Nebuchadnezzar's boast in Daniel 4:30 LXX. The phrase "the/this great city" in the prophets is used of Nineveh (Jonah 3:2-3) and of ungodly Jerusalem (Jeremiah 22:8). The phrase "Fallen, fallen is Babylon!" (Revelation 14:8; 18:2) is taken from Isaiah 21:9. Much of the imagery used of the Whore in Revelation 17-18 is borrowed from oracles against Babylon in Isaiah 13-14 and Jeremiah 25 and 50-51. The Hebrew Bible never explicitly calls Babylon a whore or prostitute, but the oracle of Isaiah 47 implicitly does. There, the "virgin daughter of Babylon," "daughter of the Chaldeans," is told, "Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen...you shall no more be called the mistress of the kingdoms" (Isa. 47:3-5). This same oracle accuses Babylon of "sorceries" (Isa. 47:9, 12), a charge that is leveled at the Whore in Revelation 18:23. The metaphor of a prostitute is applied explicitly to Nineveh in Nahum 3:4-78 and to Tyre in Isaiah 23:16-18.9 Israel and Judah, Samaria and Jerusalem are also frequently labelled as a whore in the Hebrew prophets.10 The Bride in Revelation is an aggregation of biblical prophetic language about the people of God and the holy city Jerusalem, while the Whore in Revelation is an aggregation of biblical prophetic language about various ungodly nations and cities, both Gentile and Israelite. The Whore is thus a composite figure,11 which militates against interpreting her as corresponding to any one historical city or entity.

The Bride and the Whore as an instance of the Two Cities Motif

Although Revelation never mentions the Bride and the Whore together, there is clearly an implicit comparison between the two, an apocalyptic subplot that we might call, in Dickensian fashion, "a tale of two cities." These two entities share much in common: they are both women with symbolic apparel and cities with symbolic names. The Whore is the Bride's evil antithesis, her ugly stepsister. The Bride is the wife of the Lamb, the singular King of Kings who receives authority from God (Rev. 2:27), who loves the Bride and ransomed her with his blood (Rev. 5:9). The Whore sits astride a Beast (who receives authority from the Dragon, Satan; Rev. 13:2-4) whose many heads and horns represent numerous kings. She fornicates with these kings and dominates them, but they and the Beast hate her and make her desolate (Rev. 17:2, 16, 18).

This ecclesiological antithesis between two women or two cities is not unique to Revelation in early Christian literature. It is found in Paul's allegorical interpretation of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:22-31, where the apostle contrasts "the present Jerusalem" who is "in slavery with her children" with "the Jerusalem above" who "is free, and...is our mother." The two Jerusalems recur in the Letter to the Hebrews, where the author describes "the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God...a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (Hebrews 11:10, 16). The readers are told that they have "come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (12:22). Subsequently, referring to the earthly Jerusalem (specifically "outside the gate" where Jesus suffered), he emphasises, "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come" (13:14). This "two cities" contrast appears again in The Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century apocalypse that is surely relevant to the interpretation of Revelation inasmuch as it is "the other major work of early Christian prophecy which has survived."12 The Similitudes or Parables portion of the book contains the following passage:
1 He said to me, 'You know that you slaves of God are living in a foreign land. For your own city is a long way from this one. If then,' he said, 'you know your own city, where you are about to live, why are you preparing fields, expensive furnishings, buildings, and pointless rooms for yourselves here? 2 Anyone who prepares these things in this city, therefore, cannot return to his own city. 3. You foolish, double-minded, and miserable person! do you now understand that all these things belong to another and are under someone else's control? For the ruler of this city will say, 'I do not want you living in my city; leave it, because you are not living by my laws.' 4. And so, you who have fields and houses and many other possessions—when he casts you out, what will you do with your field and house and whatever else you have prepared for yourself? For the ruler of this country rightly says to you, 'Either live by my laws or leave my country.' 5. And so what will you do, you who have a law from your own city? Will you completely renounce your own law for the sake of your fields and whatever else you own, and follow the law of the city you are in now? Take care, because renouncing your law may be against your own interests. For if you want to return to your own city, you will not be welcomed, because you have renounced its law; and you will be shut out of it. 6. And so take care. Since you are living in a foreign land, fix nothing up for yourself except what is absolutely necessary; and be ready, so that when the master of this city wants to banish you for not adhering to his law, you can leave his city and go to your own, and live according to your own law gladly, suffering no mistreatment. 7. Take care, then, you who are enslaved to the Lord and have him in your heart. Do the works of God, remembering his commandments and the promises he made; and trust in him, because he will do these things, if his commandments are guarded. 8. Instead of fields, then, purchase souls that have been afflicted, insofar as you can, and take care of widows and orphans and do not neglect them; spend your wealth and all your furnishings for such fields and houses as you have received from God. 9. For this is why the Master made you rich, that you may carry out these ministries for him. It is much better to purchase the fields, goods, and houses you find in your own city when you return to it...' (Hermas, Similitudes 1.1-9)13
The parallels between this parable and the New Testament texts we have mentioned are impressive. Hermas's two cities correspond to two laws, just as Paul's two Jerusalems correspond to two covenants (Gal. 4:24-26). Hermas emphasises detachment from the goods of the present city in favour of the goods of the future city, just as Hebrews does (11:9-16; 13:12-14). Hermas teaches that failure to obey God's commandments will result in exclusion from the future city, just as Revelation does (21:27; 22:14-15). Also, Hermas notes that the respective cities have rulers (God and the Devil),14 just as Revelation identifies one city as that of God and the Lamb, and the other as that of the Beast (who is empowered by the Dragon, i.e. the Devil).

Noting that both Hebrews and Hermas use "city" interchangeably with "country," and contrast the two cities temporally as present and future, we may be justified in linking the "two cities" motif with the "two worlds" or "two ages" motif that is a prominent feature of Second Temple Jewish and early Christian literature.15

The foregoing parallels represent, in this writer's view, compelling evidence that the Bride and the Whore in Revelation correspond to the two cities motif found elsewhere in early Christian literature, which basically contrasts the moral, spiritual, and economic life of those who belong to God (the Church) and those who do not, together with the conflict between the two communities and their diverging eternal destinies.

Interpreting the Bride and the Whore in Revelation

The Bride is the easier symbol to interpret, both in the original literary-historical context and for today: the Bride is the Church who, speaking together with the Spirit, ever awaits Jesus' promised coming (Rev. 22:17). The majority of biblical scholars identify the Whore of Revelation with ancient Rome; a minority interpretation identifies the Whore instead with Jerusalem.16 The reference to the woman sitting on seven mountains (Rev. 17:9) and her description as "the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth" (Rev. 17:18) both point to Rome, the city of seven hills. "Babylon" is used as a cipher for Rome in other post-70 A.D. Jewish literature (and probably also in 1 Peter 5:13), probably because Rome had, like ancient Babylon, sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.17 However, "whore" imagery in the prophets is most commonly linked with Judah and Jerusalem, and "the great city" is described in Rev. 11:8 as "where their Lord was crucified." The apocalyptic Babylon thus cannot be limited to the physical city of Rome. It is a composite reality that transcends any particular earthly city,18 which was exemplified in John's day by Rome. To interpret the symbol for today, we need to look for the locus of moral, spiritual, and economic corruption in today's world. That locus cannot be identified with any one contemporary city or system. Babylon's footprint can be seen wherever idolatry, greed, injustice, sexual immorality and other abominations flourish. This is not to deny the possibility that a more concrete manifestation of Babylon (like imperial Rome) could occur before the Lord's Second Coming. However, we should exercise the same hermeneutical restraint as Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in a sermon of 1935 (at the height of Nazi pomp) preached the following:
Who is Babylon? Was it Rome? Where is it today? Today, we dare not yet say–not because we fear the world! Rather because the Christian community does not know yet–but we see terrible things and revelations drawing near.

Footnotes

  • 1 See also Rev. 3:12; 11:1-2; 14:1.
  • 2 See, e.g., Isaiah 54:5-6; 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2, 32; 3:20; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2:16-20.
  • 3 See Mark 2:19-20; Matthew 25:1-13; cf. John 3:29.
  • 4 See also Isaiah 1:21; Lamenations 1:1ff.
  • 5 See, e.g., 2 Kings 19:21; Psalm 9:14; Isaiah 10:32; 62:11; Jeremiah 4:31; Lamentations 2:13-15; Micah 4:8-10; Zephaniah 3:14; Zechariah 9:9.
  • 6 See, e.g., Matthew 5:14 (cp. v. 35); Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14.
  • 7 The Lord's Supper in early Christianity is where the cup of blessing, the cup of the Lord's blood, is drunk (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:20-25). The psalmist declares that his response to the Lord's goodness is to "raise the cup of salvation" (Ps. 116:13). St. Athansius of Alexandria, in his Festal Letters 5.3, interprets the "cup of salvation" to refer to the Eucharistic cup. Two earlier writers, Origen (Exhortation to Martyrdom 28-29) and St. Cyprian of Carthage (Epistles 76.4), take the cup of salvation to refer to martyrdom, probably in light of Ps. 116:15 and the metaphor of martyrdom as a "cup" in the Gospels (cf. Mark 10:38-39; 14:36). Elsewhere in Revelation, the "cup" functions as a metaphor for God's wrath, directed at Babylon the Great (Rev. 16:19; 18:6; cf. 14:10). In Rev. 18:6, "repay her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed" suggests that the punishment she inflicted on others will be inflicted on her, so probably the "abominations" in the Whore's golden cup in 17:4 include the blood of the martyrs, with which she is "drunk" (17:6).
  • 8 Nineveh is also described in unflattering feminine terms in Zephaniah 2:13-15, which closely parallels oracles against Babylon in Isaiah 13 and 47.
  • 9 Language from the same oracle against Tyre (Isa. 23:8) is borrowed in Rev. 18:23. Tyre is also depicted as a female figure in Ezekiel 26:17.
  • 10 See, e.g., Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 3:1-8; Ezekiel 16; Ezekiel 23; Hosea 2-4; 9:1.
  • 11 "the Babylon of Revelation 17-18 combines in itself the evils of the two great evil cities of the Old Testament prophetic oracles: Babylon and Tyre. Of the two, Babylon is the city whose name John uses as a cipher for Rome" (Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation [London: T&T Clark, 1993], 345).
  • 12 Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 144.
  • 13 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2:307, 309).
  • 14 The identity of the ruler of this city is discussed in note 42 of my forthcoming study The Intimate and Ultimate Adversary: Satanology in Early Second-Century Christian Literature.
  • 15 For the writer of Hebrews, "the city that is to come" (13:14) is also "the world to come" (2:5) and "the age to come" (6:5). The Pauline letters contrast "this present time," "the present life," "this present darkness, "this present age," "this present world," which is "passing away," with "the glory that is to be revealed," "the life to come," the age to come (Rom. 8:18; Eph. 1:21; 6:12; 1 Tim. 6:17; 1 Tim. 4:8; 2 Tim. 4:10; 1 Cor. 7:31). The Synoptic Gospels likewise contrast "this age" with "the age to come" (e.g., Mark 10:30; Matt. 12:32; Luke 20:34-35). Similar antitheses are probably presupposed in statements about the/this world in the Gospel and Letters of John (see, e.g., John 12:25-31; 18:36; 1 John 2:15-17) and in James 4:4. The temporal contrast is also present in Revelation: the Whore is presently active (as is evident from 17:9-10), while the vision of the Bride is first mentioned (19:7) only after the vision of the Whore's judgment concludes.
  • 16 "Most commentators agree that ‘Babylon’ in the Apocalypse is a symbolic name for Rome" (Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse [Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 57). Commenting on "the great city" in Rev. 17:18, George Elton Ladd wrote, "In the first century, this stood for Rome; but in the end time, it will stand for eschatological Babylon" (George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972], 234). "The identity of this woman leaves no room for doubt: v. 5 gives her name; it is Babylon, about which we know since Rev 14:8 that the name designates with veiled language, but without ambiguity, Rome, the capital of the empire" (Pierre Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John, trans. Wendy Pradels [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004], 485). A detailed argument for the Jerusalem interpretation is offered by D. Ragan Ewing, The Identification Of Babylon The Harlot In The Book Of Revelation (Th.M Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2002). Further discussion and a refutation of the Jerusalem view can be found in G. Biguzzi, "Is the Babylon of Revelation Rome or Jerusalem?" Biblica 87 (2006): 371-386. See also the summary of arguments for the Babylon and Jerusalem interpretations respectively in A. J. Beagley, “Babylon,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development (ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 111-12.
  • 17 "Just as Babylon destroyed the first temple and sent Israel into exile, so Rome came to be called ‘Babylon’ in some sectors of Judaism because it also destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and exiled Israel (so Midr. Rab. Num. 7.10; Midr. Pss. 137.1, 8; cf. Targ. Lam. 1:19)" (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 755). "Most of the occurrences of Babylon as a symbolic name for Rome in Jewish literature are in the Apocalypse of Ezra (4 Ezra = 2 Esdras 3-14), the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Apoc. Bar.), and the fifth book of the Sibylline Oracles. In each case where it occurs in these three works, the context makes it abundantly clear why the name Babylon was chosen. Rome is called Babylon because her forces, like those of Babylon at an earlier time, destroyed the temple and Jerusalem. It is probable that John learned this symbolic name from his fellow Jews and that it quickly became traditional" (Collins, Crisis and Catharsis, 57-58).
  • 18 "As a symbol, Babylon embraces more than the empire, city, and culture of Rome. It is the sphere of idolatry and worldliness under the temporary control of Satan, a worldliness in opposition to the people and work of God, a worldliness epitomized first by Babylon and then by Rome. Babylon as the mother of harlots and abominations in opposition to God (17:5) is the antithesis of the Church as the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of God" (Duane F. Watson, “Babylon,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:566). Beale refers to the city of Revelation 11:8, which he identifies with Babylon, as "the ungodly world-city" (The Book of Revelation, 593). Later, he avers, "The ungodly social, political, and economic system dominated by the Roman Empire placed believers in the same position as Israel was in under Babylon...Therefore, here in the Apocalypse Rome and all wicked world systems take on the symbolic name ‘Babylon the Great’ (op. cit., 755). He summarises his view: "‘The great city’ has been identified as Jerusalem, Rome, or the ungodly world system, which would include Jerusalem, Rome, and all other wicked people groups. The third view is preferable" (op. cit., 843). "Any institution or facet of culture that is characterized by pride (see on v 5), economic overabundance, persecution, and idolatry is part of Babylon" (op. cit., 856).

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Christadelphian apologetics, modern scholarship, and the historicist interpretation of Revelation

Introduction
The appeal to mainstream biblical scholarship in Christadelphian apologetics
Modern scholarship and the historicist view of Revelation
Response in Christadelphian apologetics
Conclusion

The purpose of this article is to point out an inconsistency in recent Christadelphian apologetics, namely the tendency to appeal to mainstream biblical scholarship to 'confirm' the validity of Christadelphian exegetical and theological positions, but to dismiss or even ignore mainstream biblical scholarship where its conclusions contradict Christadelphian exegetical and theological positions. This seems to be a straightforward case of confirmation bias, 'in which people selectively attend to evidence that supports their conclusion and overlook contrary evidence.'1


In some Christadelphian circles, modern critical scholarship of the Bible is being pressed into service as a tool for apologetics. This seems to be particularly characteristic of the work of Jonathan and Dave Burke, two of the foremost Christadelphian apologists. Jonathan Burke has devoted a ten-part series of blog posts to advocating the use of 'scholarly literature' in Christadelphian biblical interpretation and apologetics. Here, Burke claims that his proposal is nothing new: 'Professional scholarship has long been used by Christadelphians to help interpret the Bible and to defend our faith.'

Moreover, the Christadelphian apologetics periodical Defence and Confirmation, for which both Burkes serve as editors, recently devoted an entire issue to discussing how modern, mainstream scholarship has, over the last century, 'increasingly supported the Christadelphian view on most of our doctrines'. The issue contains articles highlighting support in modern scholarship for Christadelphian beliefs in five areas: Jesus' self-understanding, baptism, the immortality of the soul, the atonement, and Satan/demons. These appeals to modern scholarship are problematic for several reasons,2 but my purpose here is simply to note the form of the argument.

If increasing scholarly support for a Christadelphian viewpoint leads to increasing confidence in this position, to what does decreasing scholarly support for a Christadelphian viewpoint lead? We will revisit this question after demonstrating its relevance using a case in point.


Christadelphians have traditionally held to the continuous historical or historicist interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which interprets the visions from chapter 4 onward as a long-term forecast of world history from the end of the first century through the present and into the eschatological future. This view was introduced to the Christadelphians by Dr. John Thomas (1805-71), the movement's founder, whose magnum opus was Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, a three-volume work written toward the end of his life. Dr. Thomas appears to have regarded the historicist interpretation of Revelation as virtually an article of faith. A Statement of Faith provided by Dr. Thomas to the editor of a magazine in 1869 included the following among the propositions that Christadelphians 'from the very first most surely believed and [which have been] taught by their recognized scribes and their literature':
19. They regard the Roman church as “the Mother of Harlots;” and the papal dynasty as “the name of blasphemy,” seated on the seven heads of Rome (Rev. xiii. 1; xvii. 9,) and the paramour of the Old Mother. They hold, also, that their harlot-daughters answer to the state churches of Anti-Christendom; and the “abominations of the earth,” to all the dissenting names and denominations, aggregately styled “names of blasphemy,” of which the European body politic, symbolized by the eight-headed scarlet-coloured beast, is said to be “full.” – (Rev. xvii. 3.) 
24. They teach we are living in the period of the sixth vial, in which Christ appears upon the theatre of mundane events; and that the two great leading and notable signs of the times are the drying-up up of the Ottoman Power, and the imperial French Frog Power in its political operations in Rome, Vienna, and Constantinople, during the past twenty-one years. – (Rev xvi. 12, 16)3
It seems Dr. Thomas took it for granted that all Christadelphians agreed with these interpretations of apocalyptic symbols. However, the Birmingham Statement of Faith authored by Robert Roberts after Dr. Thomas' death in 1871 omitted any explicit reference to symbols from Revelation, presumably reflecting a view that these did not form part of the core doctrines of the 'One Faith' necessary for fellowship. Consequently, the continuous historical view of Revelation has never been enforced as a boundary marker for Christadelphian fellowship (with the exception of certain ultra-conservative ecclesias.)4

Nevertheless, while not enforced as a matter of fellowship, the continuous historical view has dominated Christadelphian interpretation of Revelation. Jonathan Burke helpfully provides a table summarizing interpretations of Revelation through history. Among the Christadelphian expositors listed there are 48 historicists (49 if we count Burke himself), three futurists, one 'partial futurist', one preterist, one 'partial preterist', and two unknowns. Thus, according to this tally, over 85% of Christadelphians who have written on the Book of Revelation have advocated the continuous historical view. Indeed, no non-historicist Christadelphian appears in the table before 1956. This suggests that the continuous historical view enjoyed unchallenged status for the first century of Christadelphian history. Its popularity may be waning, however: of the nine Christadelphian works since 1980, plus Burke's own, only six (60%) have been historicist.


Quotations from a few scholars will suffice to establish the unfavourable verdict that modern scholarship has passed on the historicist interpretation of Revelation. Osborne writes as follows:
Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new period in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers; see also Beale 1999; 46), few scholars today take this approach.5
Pate:
The primary strength of this view lies in its attempt to make sense of Revelation for the interpreter by correlating the prophecies directed to the seven churches of Asia Minor with the stages comprising church history. The vast majority of scholars agree, however, that this single strength is far outweighed by its many weaknesses.6
Boring:
The major problems [with the historicist view], of course, are apparent: (a) The book would have meant nothing to its first readers, who would have to wait centuries before it could be properly understood; (b) it misunderstands prophecy by reducing it to prediction; (c) the variety of interpretations cancel each other out and invalidate the method. Although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view.7
In a popular-level book, Wagner and Helyer write:
The historicist interpretation has an impressive list of proponents from the past, including Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Knox, William Tyndale, Sir Isaac Newton, John Wesley, and C.H. Spurgeon. However, like disco music and tapered jeans, the historicist approach is out of style today. Few people in the twenty-first century subscribe to this perspective.8
In his book Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis (note the last word in the title), Newport remarks on 'how central historicism has been, and continues to be, to the Millerite-Seventh-day Adventist-Davidian/Branch Davidian tradition'.9 He continues:
it is clear from the evidence that while historicism and mainstream scholarly biblical studies were destined to go their separate ways during the course of the nineteenth century, historicism itself continues to live on, indeed to thrive, in this narrower, largely non-critical context.10
Response in Christadelphian apologetics

We observed earlier that Christadelphian apologists have recently been claiming that Christadelphian theology has increasingly been vindicated by mainstream biblical scholarship. However, we are now faced with a clear counterexample: a case where a traditional Christadelphian hermeneutic, despite enjoying reasonable popularity in centuries past, has now been abandoned by mainstream biblical scholarship.

How do Christadelphian apologists respond to this counterexample? Largely, it would seem, by dismissing or ignoring it. For instance, Jonathan Burke, the most vocal proponent of the 'vindication by modern scholarship' apologetic, published a table of interpretations of Revelation through history which we referred to above. Burke's list extends through 2007 and yet it omits virtually all the mainstream, technical commentaries on Revelation from the past 50 years, of which there have been plenty.11 Alongside numerous Christadelphian writers, Burke includes four non-Christadelphian defenders of the historicist view in his table from the past 50 years. They are as follows:
  • Francis Nigel Lee, a Presbyterian systematic theologian and Church historian whose books on eschatology seem to have been published by obscure denominational publishers.12 Lee was unquestionably a learned man and an ardent defender of the historicist view (or 'historicalist', as he preferred to call it). In his book John's Revelation Unveiled, Lee included a list of defenders of the 'historicalist' view down through history.13 The list is quite impressive through the nineteenth century but then conspicuously thins out!
  • David Pio Gullon, a Seventh Day Adventist exegete (apparently a faculty member at the Universidad Adventista del Plata in Argentina) who wrote a paper on the interpretation of Revelation in a SDA denominational peer-reviewed journal. Gullon notes that the historicist view has been gradually rejected by the mainstream but comments, 'It is difficult to say just why the historicist school of interpretation faded in popularity'.14 Gullon thus appears sympathetic to the historicist view (unsurprisingly, given his denominational affiliation), but he does not defend it in this article.
  • Alan Campbell, who apparently authored a webpage (now defunct) entitled Opening the Seals of the Apocalypse.
  • E.G. Cook, a Baptist who apparently wrote a work in 1970 (no bibliographical information is provided by Burke)
On another website, Burke has provided detailed information about 'historicist exposition' of specific sections and symbols within Revelation. For seven distinct sections within the book, Burke provides a separate table summarizing interpretation of the symbols down through history. Each page bears the subtitle 'Expositors Agree'. Curiously, though, each table truncates in the mid-twentieth century, and sources cited from the 20th century are mostly Christadelphian.

In short, Burke's work on Revelation shows a distinct interest in non-Christadelphian support for the historicist view, but an equally distinct failure to acknowledge the rejection of the historicist view by contemporary, mainstream biblical scholarship. It is not merely that Burke fails to critically engage with mainstream scholarship on Revelation; he seems to act as though it didn't exist! Yet Burke claims that Christadelphians have traditionally 'quick to identify and use scholarly Bible commentary (even from apostate theologians)'. Why has he been so slow to identify and use scholarly Bible commentary on the interpretation of the Apocalypse?

While one cannot presume to know Burke's motives, it seems entirely possible that mainstream biblical scholarship has been ignored in this case precisely because its unfavourable verdict on the historicist view of Revelation clashes with his apologetic narrative in which mainstream biblical scholarship progressively vindicates Christadelphian theology.

Dave Burke has published a paper online entitled Revelation: Four Interpretive Models. Perhaps written as an academic assignment, this paper is more forthright about the decline of historicism, acknowledging that it has been 'widely abandoned' and 'long overtaken in popularity by futurism'. However, he adds that 'it retains strong support among some conservative Christian denominations and sects, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christadelphians'. Burke does not cite a single Baptist or Presbyterian (or Seventh Day Adventist) in support of this statement, and also appears not to draw any distinction between scholarly and non-scholarly support here (odd in an academic paper). Burke does not appear to have appreciated historicism's complete lack of support within mainstream biblical scholarship today.

After describing the four models and their historical pedigrees, Burke moves on to evaluation. He judiciously asserts, 'None of the exegetical models reviewed by this paper is without its problems, however minor.' However, he then proceeds to lambast the preterist, futurist and idealist views, describing them with terms like 'demonstrably partisan', 'suspect', 'arbitrary', 'highly subjective', 'dubious', '[having a] severe weakness', and 'ad hoc'. When he gets to historicism, though, he does not admit any problems. Acknowledging its widespread abandonment, he dismisses this because 'it was the prevailing model for at [sic] 1,700 years'. Thus Burke thrusts aside modern scholarship via an appeal to tradition - the precise opposite of the approach favoured in Defence and Confirmation, where tradition is thrust aside via an appeal to modern scholarship! Moreover, Burke virtually ignores scholarly criticism of the historicist view.15

Conclusion

By comparing the 'appeal to mainstream scholarly opinion' argument used by prominent Christadelphian apologists with same apologists' neglect of or disdain for mainstream scholarly opinion on the historicist view of Revelation, what do we learn? We learn that the 'confirmation from mainstream scholarship' argument carries little weight, because it is a case of confirmation bias. Where scholarly opinion drifts toward the Christadelphian position on a particular exegetical or theological issue,16 it is heralded and celebrated; where scholarly opinion drifts in the other direction, it is dismissed or ignored.

If increasing scholarly support for a position held by Christadelphians is construed as strengthening the dogmatic posture of Christadelphians, but decreasing scholarly support for a position held by Christadelphians is not construed as weakening the dogmatic posture of Christadelphians, then the appeal to scholarship is arbitrary and tendentious.

This kind of engagement with scholarly literature contains little scope for self-criticism, and that is what makes it particularly dangerous. Indeed, while Burke says Christadelphians have traditionally been quick to 'use' biblical scholarship, often with an explicitly apologetic goal,17 Christadelphians have not traditionally been quick to do biblical scholarship - that is, to participate in it and make meaningful contributions to it. Christadelphians have traditionally 'used' biblical scholarship from the sidelines. Here, the apologist can weave together a literature review (often highly selective) that gives his claims the appearance of scholarly rigour, whilst remaining exempt from criticism by the scholarly community itself. Such use of critical scholarship is unfortunately not very critical or scholarly.

However, there is perhaps some reason for optimism. On Revelation specifically, non-historicist interpretations seem to be gaining ground among Christadelphians. On the broader issue of Christadelphians' relationship to mainstream biblical scholarship, it appears that the number of Christadelphians undertaking formal biblical and/or theological studies is on the rise (the Burkes included, I believe). Christadelphians seem poised to begin moving from the grandstand of biblical scholarship into the arena. This will no doubt be to the benefit of scholarship, which will be challenged by a fresh perspective in a number of areas, and to Christadelphian theology, which may finally have its day in the court of academic opinion.

Footnotes

  • 1 Prinstein, Michael J. (Ed.) (2013). The Portable Mentor: Expert Guide to a Successful Career in Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Springer, p. 128.
  • 2 Not least of these, in the area of Satan and demons, is the failure to acknowledge that the 'accommodation theory' of the Synoptic accounts of demon possession and exorcism has no standing in mainstream scholarship.
  • 3 Quoted in Hemingray, Peter. (2003/2008). John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith (2nd ed.). The Christadelphian Tidings, pp. 335-338.
  • 4 The Republic, Missouri Unamended Ecclesia has added articles to the Doctrines to be Rejected portion of its Statement of Faith explicitly rejecting the futurist and preterist views of Revelation and, indeed, rejects the notion 'that any theory that radically departs from the "continuous historical intepretation" as generally elaborated by John Thomas in Eureka is to be received.' The following qualifier is added: '(This does not require unqualified acceptance of the interpretation of all events  and symbols-simply that the events "which must shortly come to pass" began to transpire shortly after the Apocalypse was given to the Apostle John in Patmos and that they have continued to unfold in the nearly 1900 years since that divine revelation.)'
  • 5 Osborne, Grant R. (2002). Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 19. Emphasis added.
  • 6 Pate, C. Marvin. (2009). Reading Revelation: A Comparison of Four Interpretive Translations of the Apocalypse. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, p. 9. Emphasis added. He continues, listing the weaknesses of the historicist view: 'The historicist outline applies only to the history of the Western church, ignoring the spread of Christianity throughout the rest of the world. Since images such as the beast of Revelation 13 are always identified with people and events contemporary to the interpreter, the historicist reading of Revelation is constantly being revised as new events occur and new figures emerge. Most problematic for historicism is the complete lack of agreement about the various outlines of church history. History is like a moving target for those who want to read Revelation in this way, and there is no consensus about what the book means, even among interpreters within the same school of interpretation.'
  • 7 Boring, M. Eugene. (2011). Revelation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 48-49. Emphasis added.
  • 8 Helyer, Larry R. & Wagner, Richard. (2008). The Book of Revelation for Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley, p. 74. Emphasis added.
  • 9 Newport, Kenneth G.C. (2000). Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 17.
  • 10 ibid. Emphasis added.
  • 11 Beale, Osborne, Mounce, Aune, Kistemaker, Thomas, Patterson, Prigent, Witherington, Harrington, Ford, Thompson, Roloff, Kraft, etc.
  • 12 Lee's book John's Revelation Unveiled scarcely interacted with contemporary technical commentaries on Revelation, and appears to have been ignored or gone unnoticed by subsequent scholarship (for instance, Google Scholar finds only one citation of it).
  • 13 Lee, Francis Nigel. (2000). John's Revelation Unveiled. Lynwoodrif: Ligstryders, p. 6.
  • 14 Gullon, David Pio. (1998). Two Hundred Years from Lacunza: The Impact of His Eschatological Thought on Prophetic Studies and Modern Futurism. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 9(1-2), 71-95. Here p. 79 n. 46. Gullon suggests 'excessive date-setting' and 'diversity in its interpretations' as possible explanations, but does not mention the first reason given by Boring, which seems to me to be the primary reason for scholars' rejection of historicism.
  • 15 Burke interacts with just one critic (Herrick) of historicism, and on just one point of criticism - which is relegated to a footnote. Burke's reference list is, moreover, noticeably light on scholarly commentaries on Revelation. The only book-length commentaries on Revelation he cites are those of Garrow and Cory, neither of which could be described as technical.
  • 16 One might go as far as to say, whenever support for a Christadelphian position is found in scholarship!
  • 17 As Burke writes, 'Professional scholarship has long been used by Christadelphians to help interpret the Bible and to defend our faith.'

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Male Child of Revelation 12: Constantine or Christ?

Note: my brief analysis of the interpretation of the male child of Revelation 12 in the Church up to the 8th century can be found here.
Revelation 12:1-6 reads as follows:
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; 2 and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. 4 And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. 6 Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.1
Who is symbolized by the male child described in v. 5? Answering this question is the goal of this post, which is written at a popular rather than academic level.2

The traditional Christadelphian interpretation

If you have grown up in a Christadelphian ecclesia or read Christadelphian literature (either the classical, 'Pioneer' writings or contemporary periodicals) you will probably be aware that the traditional, and still seemingly dominant, interpretation of this child is that he symbolizes Constantine. Indeed, the language of chapter 12 as a whole is thought to foretell the events of the fourth century A.D., when Constantine and the apostate Church (the woman) wrested control of the Roman Empire from the pagan authorities (the dragon). (Note: if you are already familiar with traditional Christadelphian teaching on Rev. 12:5 you may wish to skip down to the exegesis.)

This interpretation was introduced to Christadelphia by the founder of the group, Dr. John Thomas (1805-1871), although it was not invented by him.3 In his magnum opus, Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, Dr. Thomas wrote the following concerning the child of Rev. 12:5:
It was not a female child that was to be born; but a man, whose birth had long been foretold in the prophets. In Psa. 10:15,18, he is styled ‘the wicked and evil man,’ and "the Man of the Earth," whose arm is broken in the epoch when ‘Yahweh’ becomes ‘King of the hidden period and beyond; and the heathen are perished out of His land.’4
The specific historical referent of the male child is then identified.
Now, the Pagan Imperial Roman Power existed before the Woman; and so did Jesus Christ. Neither of them, therefore, could be the son to be born of her. But in the days of Constantine, there was a great revolution in the State, the effects of which are felt in all Europe and America to this day.5
Dr. Thomas offers the following explanation of the sense in which Constantine was caught up to God and to His throne:
Before the Woman's Son could "rule ALL the nations" of the Roman Habitable, it was necessary that he be placed upon the throne of the Deity. "There is no power but of the Deity," says Paul; "and the powers that be are ordered of the Deity." The throne of the Deity upon the Roman Habitable would be the seat of the Supreme and Sole Sovereignty of the empire, wherever it might be located... a people formed from among the Gentiles for the Divine Name. This people came to contend with the Pagan Dragon for supreme power. After a long and bloody conflict they acquired it by the will of the Deity, "of whom are all things'" (1 Cor. 8:6). Their military commander is, therefore, said to have arrived at the Deity and his throne. Hence Constantine, as sole emperor of the Roman world, invested with supreme power in all spiritual and temporal affairs, is the illustration of the import of the text predicting the translation of the Woman's Son 'to the Deity and his throne.'6
Concerning the verb 'caught up' specifically, he adds:
The word in the original indicating this necessity, is herpasthe; rendered in the Common Version, "was caught up." The phrase "to the Deity" implies ascending from a lower to the highest position. Hence the word "up." The word implies violence in the action it represents; as, to convey, take or carry by force. I have, therefore, rendered it, was forcibly carried up. Her son did not forcibly translate himself into the possession of supreme power; but he was carried up to that high position by his victorious armies, whose hearts and arms were energized by Divine power.7
Dr. Thomas' protégé and the first editor of The Christadelphian periodical, Robert Roberts, echoed his mentor's view that Revelation 12 foretells Constantine's rise to power in the fourth century. On the male child specifically, in his Thirteen Lectures on...the Apocalypse, he writes:
Thus the woman’s son [Constantine] was born after a season of acute parturition agonies. But he was not yet what he was destined to become – sole monarch of the Roman world. This destiny is expressed by the symbolism of verse 5. ‘She brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up unto God and to His throne.’ Some apply this to the ascension of Christ. A moment’s reflection will suffice to show this a mistake. What John saw was a representation of things which a voice told him (Rev. iv. 1) ‘must come to pass hereafter.’ He was told this A.D. 96. How, then, could this scene represent an event that had taken place sixty years before? Besides, such an interpretation would ignore the primary characteristic of the Apocalypse as an exhibition of things in sign or hieroglyph. No; the woman in the case is the Christian community, and her son the imperial champion, begotten in her midst as the result of the operation of her principles on Roman society. This son in being born and caught up to God and to His throne, was (1) to become developed as an acknowledged emperor, and (2) to be elevated in the operations of Providence into the position of sole monarch of the world. ‘God ruleth in the kingdoms of men’ – (Dan. iv. 32). Hence, for Constantine to be placed over them all by the force of circumstances, was symbolically to be ‘caught up to God and to His throne.’ This came about in due time.8
Roberts' successor as editor of The Christadelphian, C.C. Walker, in his Notes on the Apocalypse repeated the same view, showing that it had effectively attained the status of Christadelphian orthodoxy:
'To rule all nations.' Hence to be sole emperor. In 308 there were no less than six emperors in office. In 324, by the defeat of Licinius in the battle of Adrianople, Constantine alone remained and 'ruled all.' 'Caught up to God, and to His throne.' Not the ascension of Christ, as often said, for that was long past; whereas this was one of the things to come to pass “hereafter”—i.e., after A.D. 96 (see note on ch. 4:1). The same objection, of course, applies to the Roman Catholic interpretation of the 'woman' as the Virgin Mary. Solomon was exalted to the throne of God in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 29:23) 'The powers that be are ordained of God.' Hence Constantine 'ordained of God' as Roman Emperor is thus symbolised.9
This view has been echoed repeatedly by numerous Christadelphian writers in the century since Walker wrote, including H.P. Mansfield,10 Glen Simpson,11 Kenneth & James Styles,12 Graham Pearce,13 David Green,14 Joseph Banta,15 Paul Billington,16 and (seemingly) Jonathan Burke.17

I will begin by making a positive case that the male child in fact symbolizes Christ. I could look at the whole chapter more broadly, and try to correctly identify all the symbols, including the woman, the dragon, etc. However, within the limited space of this post I am instead going to focus simply on identifying the male child by reading the language of v. 5 within its broader context in Revelation and in Scripture. This is important because the Book of Revelation is extremely rich in biblical allusions, and correctly identifying the symbols will depend on appreciating the biblical background of the imagery. This hermeneutic will be more reliable than mining the annals of history for events which can be plausibly read back into the imagery.

Again, this verse reads as follows:
And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.
A son...who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron

This male child is described as a son (huios) who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (hos mellei poimainein panta ta ethnē en rhabdō sidēra). Notice first that the text does not say the child ruled all the nations, but that he is to rule the nations (a present-indicative-with-present-infinitive construction). The other verbs in v. 5 are aorist, indicating completed events, so the present tense here breaks the flow of the narrative and establishes a contrast. In short, it appears that "who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron" is not part of the vision that John saw, but is an "aside" assisting the reader in identifying the child.

Who, then, is this 'son' who 'is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron'? Fortunately, the biblical background to this language is unmistakably clear. In Psalm 2:7-9 we read of one addressed as 'son' who is told, "You shall break them with a rod of iron", them being "the nations" of v. 8. The NASB tells us in a footnote on 'break' that "Another reading is rule." Whatever the case with the Hebrew, however, the Septuagint corresponds very closely to Rev. 12:5. In Psalm 2:7 LXX the addressee is referred to as huios mou ('my son'), and in v. 9 he is told, poimaneis autous en rhabdō sidēra ("You shall shepherd them with an iron rod", NETS). Autous ('them') here refers back to ethnē ('nations') in v. 8. The Greek is essentially identical except that Rev. 12:5 adds for emphasis "all the nations."18

It would seem to be obvious, then, that Rev. 12:5 indicates for us that the male child symbolizes the 'son' of Psalm 2:7-9 who would rule the nations with a rod of iron. The referent of Psalm 2:7-9 is, of course, none other than the Messiah, Jesus, as New Testament writers authoritatively confirm for us (Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5).

The identification is further strengthened when we observe that the imagery of Psalm 2:9 is applied to Christ elsewhere in Revelation. In Rev. 19:11-16 we have a description of a figure called Faithful and True and named the Word of God, who comes with an army on horseback.
From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, 'KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.' (Rev. 19:15-16)
I don't think any Christadelphian would dispute that this passage refers to Christ, and so it must be admitted that the author of Revelation understands Psalm 2:9 to be speaking of the future rule of the exalted Christ.

Psalm 2:9 is also quoted in Rev. 2:27 where, surprisingly, it is applied to the faithful saints:
26 He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; 27 and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father;
Does this indicate that the writer of Revelation was prepared to give various different interpretations to Psalm 2:9? Not at all. What the exalted Christ is declaring here is that He has been given authority by the Father (in Psalm 2:9) to rule the nations with a rod of iron, and He is promising to share this prerogative with the saints. The idea of the saints sharing in Christ's eschatological rule is found elsewhere in the Apocalypse (Rev. 20:4; 5:9-10; see Dan. 7:18; 2 Tim. 2:12). The idea of Christ sharing His prerogatives with the saints is also found in Rev. 3:21: "He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne."

The verb poimainō ('to rule', literally 'to shepherd') used in Rev. 12:5 is also used of the exalted Christ in Rev. 7:17.

While some Christadelphian writers have simply ignored this wider context in their discussion of Revelation 12, others have acknowledged it and attempted to explain it. Dr. Thomas writes:
The kingdom of "the Michael and his angels" shadowed forth the kingdom of Christ, the real Michael, and his angels, the Saints. Constantine, like Cyrus, in his military career, and in his ecclesiastical relation to the Catholic Church, was a type of Christ. The typical hero established his kingdom in its fullest extent on the ejection of the pagan dragon from the heaven; Christ will establish his by binding the Catholic Dragon, and shutting him down in the abyss (Apoc. 20:2,3). The typical hero attained "to Deity and his throne;" Christ will sit down with Deity upon his throne (Apoc. 3:21). The typical hero acquired all the kingdoms of the Roman earth; Christ will acquire all the kingdoms of the globe (Apoc. 11:15). The typical hero ruled all the Roman nations with an iron sceptre; Christ will rule all the nations of the globe with an iron sceptre (Apoc. 19:15)19
Whether it is plausible that Michael (or 'the Michael' in this translation) in Rev. 12:7 symbolizes Constantine is a subject for another day. The main point here is that Dr. Thomas is aware that the language used of the male child in Rev. 12:5 is used elsewhere of Christ, but he claims that this points to a typological relationship between Constantine and Christ.20 This claim appears to be arbitrary, since there is nothing in the text indicating that the figure of Rev. 12:5 is merely a type of the figure in Rev. 19:15. The seer treats them in the same terms and, to highlight a larger problem with the Christadelphian exegesis of Revelation 12, there is absolutely no negative language used of the woman or her child in this chapter. Contrast this with the language used of the dragon, of the beast in ch. 13, or the woman of ch. 17. Dr. Thomas' claim that the male child is prophesied in Psalm 10 as 'the wicked and evil man' is equally arbitrary because there is nothing evil about the male child in Revelation 12. There is no clue that would indicate to us that the application of a Messianic prophecy to him is intended in an ironic or typological sense.

Accordingly, we conclude that the quotation from Psalm 2:9 and the use of this language elsewhere in Revelation strongly support the identification of the male child of Revelation 12:5 as Christ.

And her child was caught up to God and to His throne

Within the narrative that John saw, the child was caught up to God and to His throne (kai hērpasthe to teknon autēs pros ton theon kai pros ton thronon autou).

To what does this clause refer? Let us first consider the literal meaning, i.e. what John saw in the vision, and then we will consider its symbolic significance. John saw the child "caught up" to God and to His throne. The verb here, harpazō, as some Christadelphian exegetes have identified, is an emphatic one: 'to snatch, seize, i.e. take suddenly and vehemently' (BDAG lexicon). This can be done 'forcefully', or 'in such a way that no resistance is offered'. There are several instances in the NT where this verb is used to describe a supernatural transportation of some kind. In Acts 8:39 we read that "the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away." In 2 Cor. 12:2-4 Paul describes a man who was "caught up to the third heaven...caught up into Paradise." And in 1 Thess. 4:17 the Apostle states, "Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air". Hence, there is a precedent for harpazō to be used for supernatural transportation experiences. Indeed, 2 Cor. 12:2-4, 1 Thess. 4:17 and Rev. 12:5 are the only NT texts where the verb harpazō is used in the passive voice.

Other verbs are used in a similar way to indicate a journey to heaven, usually in the passive voice. These include analambanō ('to lift up and carry away, take up': 4 Kgdms 2:10f LXX, 1 Maccabees 2:58; Sirach 48:9; 49:14; Mark 16:19; Acts 1:2, 11, 22; 10:16; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Clement 5.7) and epairō ('be taken up', Acts 1:9, 1 Clement 45.8). The only difference is that harpazō is a more emphatic verb, emphasizing the suddenness and vehemence of the action: to be snatched as opposed to merely taken. The reason for the choice of the emphatic harpazō in Rev. 12:5 is obvious from v. 4: the dragon stood before the woman hoping to devour the child when she gave birth. The child was snatched away to safety. This is what John saw in the vision.

To where was the child snatched? "To God and to His throne." God's throne is mentioned frequently in Revelation, and it is located in heaven: "Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne" (Rev. 4:2). The One sitting on the throne is God (vv. 10-11). The preposition pros ('to/toward God'), read in conjunction with the active verb, indicates spatial movement here. Hence, what John saw in the vision is clear: the child was caught up to God's throne in heaven.

Now that we know what John saw, what does it signify? In Revelation, the only individual besides God who is present at God's throne is the exalted Christ. We have already heard Christ declare in Rev. 3:21 that he sat down with the Father on His throne. In Revelation 5, following on the heavenly throne-room vision of ch. 4, the Lamb (Christ) comes and takes a scroll from the One sitting on the throne. God and the Lamb then receive worship together. In Rev. 7:9-17, a multitude gathers "before the throne and before the Lamb," who is subsequently called "the Lamb in the center of the throne." In Rev. 22:1-3, the throne is called "the throne of God and of the Lamb." Besides this evidence from Revelation itself, the theme of Christ's ascension to God's right hand in heaven is prevalent throughout the New Testament. Note especially Hebrews 8:1: "we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens."

All of this leads us to a remarkably simple and straightforward conclusion: the male child being caught up to God and to His throne symbolizes Christ's ascension and exaltation.

How do Christadelphians interpret this language?

Green argues as follows:
This is not a reference to God’s dwelling place. The throne of rulership in any kingdom belongs to God, Who gives it to anyone He wishes (Dan. 4:17,25,32; Rom. 13:1). By defeating Licinius in 314 and again in 324, the force of Constantine’s victorious armies took him up to the throne of the whole empire in the Roman political heavens21
However, the text says the child was caught up "to God and to His throne." Green fails to explain what "to God" means under this interpretation. Moreover, it is quite a stretch to claim that because God installs and deposes earthly rulers, therefore any throne may be called "His throne" (literally 'the throne of Him'). This is especially true in Revelation, in which the "throne of God" or "His throne" is consistently God's throne (Rev. 1:4; 3:21; 22:1-3) which is clearly distinguished from the throne of God's enemy, Satan/the dragon (Rev. 2:13; 13:2).22

So much for Green's view. Pearce argues differently: he states that "Constantine saw himself as God's ruler, on God's throne, as the kings of Israel were rulers on God's throne." After referring to some coins and other historical records of Constantine's victories, he asks:
In the light of the evidence of these coins, and the quotations from people living at the time, and the view expressed that God was reigning through Constantine, what is difficult in applying the symbolism of the man-child ascending the throne of God to Constantine?23
There are two major difficulties. Firstly, Pearce focuses only on the child ascending the throne of God. However, the text states the child was caught up "to God and to His throne." In what sense could Constantine have been said to ascend to God (pros ton theon)? Pearce, like Green, offers no explanation of this. Secondly, Pearce's assumption here is that Constantine ascended God's throne, not in reality, but only in the viewpoint of Constantine himself and people living at the time. In Pearce's view, Constantine did not really ascend God's throne, but was a usurper buoyed up by the theological errors of an apostate Church. However, once again, the text provides no indication that these words are to be taken ironically. Again, nothing negative is said about the male child, in stark contrast to (for instance) the beast of ch. 13, who receives the dragon's throne and speaks "arrogant words and blasphemies." Moreover, would a usurper's seizing of the throne be described with a passive verb?

The third, and most extreme, interpretation of this clause is that of Mansfield, followed by Billington. They argue that "God" here is not really "God" but a false god. Mansfield states that Constantine
ascended the political and ecclesiastical heavens. His influence and authority paved the way for the emergence of the god of the earth (Dan 11:38; Rev 11:4) to whose throne (or Church) he ascended24
Mansfield offers no evidence that "the Lord of the earth" in Rev. 11:4 is a false god rather than the Lord Himself. Nor is there any basis in the text for identifying "God" (literally 'the god', ho theos) in Rev. 12:5 with "a god of fortresses, a god whom his fathers did not know" mentioned in Dan. 11:38. Billington makes a similar argument:
When Rev. 12:5 says in its code-language that ‘her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne,’ we should be aware that the ruler of the Roman heaven, August Caesar etc., was worshipped as a god. Men and women actually offered sacrifices before his statue and in this way expressed their loyalty to the State… So when Constantine became emperor, we can understand that he was in fact ‘caught up unto (the Roman) god, and to his throne.’25
On what basis in the text of Rev. 12:5 do Mansfield and Billington identify ho theos as a false god; as anything other than God? There is no basis whatsoever; this is simply eisegesis of a particularly dangerous sort. How do they propose to distinguish the false god mentioned in v. 5 from the other references to ho theos in this chapter (vv. 6, 10, 17). The text certainly gives no indication that the referent has changed. 

Indeed, within the Book of Revelation, apart from Rev. 12:5, the word theos occurs 94 times. Every last instance refers to God Himself. How plausible is it that the writer would use the word here - a very sacred word at that - with a different, antithetical referent, without giving any indication of the shift? Within the New Testament more broadly, ho theos with the definite article refers to something other than God on only two occasions, and in both cases the term is carefully qualified to indicate this (2 Cor. 4:4; Phil. 3:19).

It is apparent that Christadelphian exegetes have been less interested in what John actually wrote in Rev. 12:5 than in forcing Constantine into the text.

Responding to Christadelphian arguments

In Christadelphian literature one encounters three main arguments for interpreting the male child as Constantine and not Christ:
  1. Revelation concerns future, not past events: "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things." (Rev. 4:1)
  2. The imagery in Revelation 12 fits well with the historical record of Constantine's rise to power in the fourth century
  3. The description of the child doesn't fit well with the events of Christ's life
In the first place, it is true that Rev. 4:1 states that the visions will concern what must take place in the future, and that Rev. 1:1 says the book shows "the things which must soon take place". However, this must not be pressed to a woodenly literal extreme whereby literally every line of the book describes future events. For instance, one of the few places in the book where the angelus interpres provides an explanation of a vision occurs in Rev. 17:7-18. If this explanation were absent, a Christadelphian might well argue that the beast and its seven heads described in the vision in Rev. 17:1-6 can only symbolize future events. However, the angelus interpres explicitly tells John that "The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction" (v. 8). The beast represents past and future events. Similarly, "The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come" (vv. 9-10). The heads symbolize past, present and future kings. 

Clearly, then, not every element of every vision in Revelation is futuristic. In Revelation 12-13, the vision places the present and future circumstances of the Church in the context of cosmic conflict and salvation history. The dragon's war on the Church began as a war on her Saviour. This provides encouragement along the lines of John 15:18 and 16:33: "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you"; "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." Since the dragon was unable to devour the male child (Christ), he will also be unable to destroy the woman (Israel, natural and spiritual).

As to the second argument, any incidental correspondence between the events of Constantine's life and the description of the child is rendered void when one reads the language of Rev. 12:5 carefully and in its biblical context. Any Roman Emperor could be said to "rule the nations with a rod of iron," but there is only one ruler concerning whom Scripture prophesies this, and it is Christ. If Constantine was an apostate Christian, as Christadelphians claim, then in no way was he caught up to God.

Moreover, attempts to date the events of Revelation 12 to the fourth century by positing a symbolic gestation period of the Church of 280 days = 280 years from A.D. 33 (as Mansfield has done) are unconvincing. The text does not mention the child's conception or any such event that might stress the beginning of a period. A literal translation of v. 2 might be, "and being with child she doth cry out, travailing and pained to bring forth" (YLT). This places no emphasis at all on the gestation period or its duration. It is only in v. 4 that we have an imperfect verb: "And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth" (kai ho drakōn hestēken enōpion tēs gunaikos), which stresses some unspecified duration to the labour pains, but not to the gestation period as a whole.

The third argument has been proposed by Burke. He asks, "The description of events in Revelation 12 doesn't look very much like Christ's life, does it?" Yes, in fact, it does. Even Christadelphians have acknowledged, "At first glance, then, the Man Child is the Lord Jesus Christ himself." This is precisely because of the obvious correspondence of the description of events concerning the male child to events in Christ's life. Christ is the son who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron. Christ is the one who was caught up to God and to His throne. The description of the dragon's desire to devour the child may allude to the tradition of Herod's desire to kill the newborn King of the Jews (Matthew 2).26 Or it may be a more general reference to Satan's desire to destroy Christ and prevent the salvation of God's people.27

It is not problematic that there is no description of Christ's death and resurrection since the purpose of the vision is not to retell the life story of Jesus but to place the Church's suffering in the context of cosmic conflict and salvation history. In any case, the reader is reminded of Christ's sacrificial work in the words of the heavenly voice (Rev. 12:10-12).

Conclusion

The traditional Christadelphian view of the male child in Revelation 12 as Constantine is an example of eisegesis. It ignores obvious clues identifying the child as Christ in order to impose upon the text a particular perspective on later Church history. This exegetical error casts doubt on Christadelphian interpretation of other symbols in this chapter and in the rest of the Apocalypse. The fact that this interpretation has remained popular, if not dominant, in the Christadelphian community for 150 years calls into question the community's hermeneutical tendencies as a whole. Self-critical introspection seems to have been stifled in this case by dogmatism.

However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. On a Christadelphian Daily Bible Readings page, two out of three comments by (presumably Christadelphian) users concerning Rev. 12:5 correctly interpret the child to be Christ. Furthermore, a helpful study by a Christadelphian named Paul Wyns has put the matter into perspective in an article entitled The Revelation of Jesus Christ. He laments the "eccentric" interpretations, "riddled with inconsistencies", that arise when faulty hermeneutical principles are brought to bear on the Book of Revelation. He then uses Rev. 12:5 as a case in point, and offers a word of warning which will serve as our conclusion:
Example (2)’“The man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron’ (Rev.12:5). This is understood to be Constantine, the man-child, as the champion of the Christians defeats his pagan rivals, and is the sole ruler in the ‘heaven’ of the Roman world. The context of this quote, which is from Ps.2:9 demands that it can only be used of Christ (or by proxy, of his ecclesia – see Rev. 2:27) especially since this Psalm was extensively quoted by the apostles during their witnessing campaign in the first century. (Acts 4: 26-27 note the words thy holy child Jesus = man child). Have our senses become so dulled with dogma that we no longer recognise passages that speak of our Lord?
‘I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep and am known of mine.’ (John 10:14)
This is no longer exegesis but exit Jesus. If proper hermeneutic principles are not adhered to we no longer have a valid interpretation.28

Footnotes

  • 1 All biblical quotations are taken from the NASB unless otherwise indicated.
  • 2 What I mean is that in this article I don't interact with academic biblical scholarship as I do in some of my posts. The reason is that some Christadelphians find such interaction to be an irrelevant distraction and only want to hear from the Bible directly. Others, of course, will pronounce my arguments worthless precisely because I haven't interacted with academic biblical scholarship. You can't please everyone!
  • 3 It had apparently been quite popular among non-conformist writers beginning in the 17th century. I haven't researched this myself, but see the table provided by Jonathan Burke here. I have written my own brief analysis of the interpretation of the male child of Rev. 12:5 in the Church up to the 8th century here.
  • 4 Thomas, J. (1869/1992). Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse (Vol. 4). Adelaide: Logos Publications, p. 88.
  • 5 ibid., p. 93.
  • 6 ibid., p. 101.
  • 7 ibid., p. 101.
  • 8 Roberts, R. (1880). Thirteen Lectures on the things revealed in the last book of the New Testament commonly known as ‘Revelation,’ but more appropriately distinguished as The Apocalypse. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, pp. 116-117.
  • 9 Walker, C.C. (1922). Notes on the Apocalypse. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 101.
  • 10 Mansfield, H.P. (1964/1996). L’Apocalypse Analysée (M. Guérin, trans.). Menai: Carelinks Publications. pp. 132-133. Excerpts in English can be found here, abbreviated ApEp.
  • 11 Simpson, G. (2002). How to Read the Revelation. The Tidings, May 2002. Accessed at http://www.tidings.org/2002/05/how-to-read-the-revelation/.
  • 12 Styles, K. & Styles, J. (n.d.). The Great Delusion: A Scriptural Analysis of Christianity’s ‘Future Antichrist’. Torrens Park: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service.
  • 13 Pearce, G. (1982). The Revelation – Which Interpretation? Torrens Park: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service.
  • 14 Green, D. (2005). Understanding Revelation 12, Part 1: Symbols and background history. The Testimony, November 2005, 429-433, accessed at http://www.testimony-magazine.org/back/nov2005/green1.pdf; Green, D. (2006). Understanding Revelation 12, Part 2: The interpretation of Revelation 12:1-4. The Testimony, January 2006, 25-31, accessed at http://testimony-magazine.org/back/jan2006/green.pdf; Green, D. (2006). Understanding Revelation 12, Part 3: The interpretation of Revelation 12:5-17. The Testimony, February 2006, 60-65, accessed at http://www.testimony-magazine.org/back/feb2006/green.pdf.
  • 15 Banta, J. (2002). The Apocalypse: A Background Study. Dearborn: PAK. Accessed at http://thechristadelphians.org/htm/books/Apocalypse/p19.htm
  • 16 Billington, P. (1999). Europe’s Catholic Roots. The Bible Magazine, 13(1), 12-17, accessed at http://www.biblemagazine.com/magazine/vol-13/v13i1mag.pdf.
  • 17 Burke has not, to my knowledge, published a work discussing this passage, but he appears to have defended the traditional Christadelphian interpretation on a web discussion board, here and here.
  • 18 This universal emphasis seems in any case to be present in Psalm 2:8b, "the ends of the earth."
  • 19 Thomas, op. cit., p. 114.
  • 20 Essentially the same claim is made by Banta, op. cit.
  • 21 Green, D. (2006b). op. cit., p. 61.
  • 22 One could devote an entire article to criticizing the "political heavens" idea, which is a mainstay of Christadelphian allegorical interpretation. Green regards "heaven" as a symbol for "The ruling or higher strata of society" and justifies this by citing Isa. 1:2, 10; 13:13 and Rev. 21:1, but none of these texts provide support for such symbolism (should we also give allegorical meanings to "you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it" in Isa. 44:23?) There are, in fact, no biblical passages in which 'heaven' unambiguously refers to "The ruling or higher strata of society."
  • 23 Pearce, op. cit., p. 65.
  • 24 Mansfield, op. cit..
  • 25 Billington, op. cit., p. 16.
  • 26 This was itself an anti-type of Pharaoh's slaughter of Hebrew boys in Exodus 1:15-22; and it is noteworthy that Pharaoh is referred to in Ezekiel 29:3 LXX as "the great dragon".
  • 27 The broad idea of God thwarting Satan's or evil powers' attempts to prevent Christ's redemptive work can be found in a number of other Christian texts prior to or roughly contemporaneous with Revelation (e.g. Luke 22:53; 1 Cor. 2:8; Ascension of Isaiah 10.29; 11.19; Ignatius' Epistle to the Ephesians 19.1).
  • 28 Wyns, P. (n.d.). Introduction to the study of Revelation. Accessed at http://carelinks.net/doc/revelation-en/1.