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Showing posts with label continuous historical. Show all posts
Showing posts with label continuous historical. Show all posts

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.


  • 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).

Tuesday 15 March 2016

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

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

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
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
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


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.


  • 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).


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


  • 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.