Towards Understanding Revelation


Good morning all.

I’ve been gathering resources and reading a lot! The middle ages is very difficult to find out about. I read about books written by different people and when I go to find them I discover that either the book is lost, or it’s been worked on but it’s only in Latin or German or Greek, or no one has actually worked on it yet so it’s not in print.

I have translations of Tertullian’s Commentary on the Apocalypse and on Victorinus’ Commentary. Neither of them have an introduction, but I will be able to use their comments when we start in on Revelation itself.

In reading about Tertullian and Victorinus, I came across Tyconius (active from 370 to 390), who wrote a commentary as well. But, all that’s left of his commentary is what was copied out in other books. And all those other books are in languages other than English.

Mostly I’m having to learn what the thoughts of middle ages were from books about the middle ages. The “middle ages” span the time from about 350 (early middle ages) to the end of the 1400’s (late middle ages). The middle ages are also referred to as “medieval” and “the dark ages”. These unfortunate names were applied by the people of the Renaissance, who looked back on their ancestors with a fair bit of disdain, and wished to distance themselves from them. While the arts and architecture flourished quite a bit in the middle ages, the average person’s life didn’t change much during that time, which may be why the common idea is that it was a stagnant time. And, while people today think of the middle ages as “dirty” and “unwashed”, the people of that time kept themselves far cleaner than those of the 16th to 19th century.

So let’s start with a book called THE APOCALYPSE COMMENTARY OF TYCONIUS: A HISTORY OF ITS RECEPTION AND INFLUENCE. This is by Kenneth B. Steinhauser, and it’s his PhD thesis from 1946. The first quote talks about the relationship between Tyconius, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Jerome. It’s very interesting and rather telling. You will notice that while in earlier days, if someone wrote something not “agreed with”, they were labeled heretics and books were written “Against…” them. Here we see a whole other idea of how to handle people not agreed with: their work is just changed so that now it agrees. 

There is a mention of the Codex Ottobonianus latinos in this passage. This is a group of papers from various authors that was discovered in 1881 and now preserved in the Vatican library. It contains, among many other things, 2 different copies of Victorinus’ commentary on the Apocalypse. If it peaks your interest, I put a link to a page about it in the source list. 

Chiliasm is also mentioned. Just in case you haven’t heard of it: chiliasm is a doctrine stating that Jesus will reign on earth for 1,000 years. It is the same as Millennialism. Millennialism or millenarianism comes from the Latin, meaning 1,000, and Chiliasm comes from the Greek meaning the same thing.

Here’s the quote:

“In 1916 HauBleiter first published the EDITIO VICTORINI, namely the original commentary of Victorinus which had been preserved in the Codex Ottobonianus latinos 3288A and two secondary manuscripts. Before the discover of the manuscript, the work was known only in Jerome’s edition. Since Jerome had become one of the foremost scholars of the West, his advice was often sought, especially in regard to exegetical questions. One such seeker of wisdom was a certain unknown Anatolius, who had come into possession of the original commentary of Victorinus on the Apocalypse. Anatolius asked Jerome to judge the worth of the commentary. This request presented Jerome with an extremely difficult problem. First, Jerome was a staunch opponent of any literal interpretation of the Apocalypse and its chiliastic conclusions which he considered Jewish mythology. On the other hand, Jerome was confronted with the exegetical work of a bishop and martyr, and thus had to be extremely cautious in his criticism. His solution was simply to revise the commentary.  First, Jerome corrected the primitive Latin of Victorinus. Second, he introduced in the text quotations from a later translation of the sacred scriptures. Third, he also occasionally changed the wording of the exposition of Victorinus. Fourth, he omitted what displeased him, above all the chiliastic sections towards the end of the commentary. Fifth, he also added his own comments and included several sections which he had taken from his contemporary Tyconius. Sixth, he transposed certain sections of the original commentary. After the major revision of Jerome, the commentary underwent two further revisions…”

Here’s a second quote; this one discusses the principle of “recapitulation”:

“At this point we must consider two aspects of the method of Victorinus. First, what is to be under the expression of ‘commentary’? Victorious does not give a verse by verse commentary of the entire text of a biblical book. From his Apocalypse commentary it is evident that he selected critical passages and explained them to his readers…The second and perhaps more important aspect of the method of Victorinus is his theory of ‘recapitulatio’. He was the first to use this principle which later became incorporated as an independent rule in the LIBER REGULARUM (Book of Rules) of Tyconius. Both Victorinus and Tyconius seem to have been influenced by Tertullian who uses the term without the precision of the subsequent exegetes. According to the theory of recapitulation, the Apocalypse does not present a continuous series of future events but rather repeats the same succession of event under different forms. Strange as it may seem, this theory, which enabled Victorinus to develop his chiliastic interpretation, is the same theory which Tyconius used to free himself from chiliasm. By refusing to see an historical unity in the apocalyptic visions, Victorinus was forced to construct a theological unity based on millenarianism. Tyconius, on the other hand, was much more literary in his approach and used the theory of recapitulation as an exegetical principle to free him from a literal interpretation of the Apocalypse. In any event, the theory is extremely productive toward developing a consistent and integral interpretation of the events recorded in the Apocalypse.”

I wanted to bring this principle to your attention because this is a good description of how it started. It was more prevalent in the past, but we will definitely see it in some of the books we will be looking at. I’ve seen it put forth in detail: that we are looking at the same events told 3 different ways: i.e. that the first seal is the same event as the first trumpet and the same event as the first vial or bowl. 

It is certainly possible that it was meant to be read that way, with each telling of the event getting worse and worse. But so far I am leaning towards the Revelation being chronological; there are some unexplainable discrepancies when you stack them up like that, despite the author’s conclusion that the theory helps develop “a consistent and integral interpretation”. We’ll look at this more closely as we get into some of the later books pushing this idea.

Another interesting thing is when the author says that Victorinus was “refusing to see an historical unity in the apocalyptic visions.” The author is taking it as a given that the account is historical and not prophetic; and this without any discussion previously on this issue. I suspect he was trying to duck the controversy because he was writing about Tyconius, and not actually about the Apocalypse. Yet, a few sentences to acknowledge the controversy would have been nice.

In the same passage, it is also interesting that the author thinks Victorinus was forced to utilize chiliasm to make up for the loss of historical ‘unity’, while the issue with Tyconius had nothing to do with ‘unity’: we don’t even know if Tyconius had ‘unity’ or not. I guess it was enough that Tyconius was able to free himself from having to think of the Apocalypse literally.

It’s probably lucky I wasn’t on this author’s PhD committee.

That’s it for today. I have a few books about Medieval thought regarding the Apocalypse that I need to go through before we hit the Renaissance. After that things should speed up a bit. 

Take care out there, and I’ll be praying for your walk in Christ. k

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