I’ve been finding a number of pieces from the Middle Ages, both commentary-type pieces as well as writings that mention the Apocalypse. Most of these will be used when we go through Revelation line by line.
In looking at all these early Church Fathers I found the dating difficult to keep in my head, so I made a table with the dates. I figured out how to post the table, so you will find it on the next post (Feb 7). This table will be updated as I get more information.
Today I want to start with a small amount of basic information about apocalyptic literature in general. This is from a book called VISIONS OF THE END: APOCALYPTIC TRADITIONS IN THE MIDDLE AGES by Bernard McGinn. It was published in 1979 (see source list), and my excerpts today are from the Introduction.
“Apocalyptic texts from various religious backgrounds and different ages display family resemblances in key areas that include: first, a sense of the unity and structure of history conceived as a divinely predetermined totality; second, pessimism about the present and conviction of its imminent crisis; and third, belief in the proximate judgment of evil and triumph of the good, the element of vindication. This vindication can take many forms — this-worldly or other-worldly, individual or collective, temporary or definitive, or a combination of some or all of these elements. I should not like to say that any of these areas is more central than another, and I admit that my election of them is that of a medievalist seeking to find sufficient continuity between the Jewish apocalypses and their later influence to allow us to speak of an apocalyptic tradition; but these three characteristics do seem to provide a way to conceive of the unity of the apocalypse tradition in all its changing variety.
“The problem of the unity of apocalyptic traditions becomes more complex when we reflect upon the relation of the earliest Christian apocalypticism to its Jewish heritage. Christianity was born apocalyptic and has remained so, not in the sense that apocalyptic hopes exhaust the meaning of Christian belief, but because they have never been absent from it…”
I wanted to include this information, not because I think it’s terribly important, but because this is how some people study Revelation. They do not think it has any meaning beyond “pessimism about current times” and feelings of “imminent crisis.” In other words, these apocalypses are the writings of more primitive peoples who sought to control their feelings of “imminent crisis’’ by writing pieces that indicate that history is a fore-gone conclusion and we, the ‘good guys’, always win in the end. In this sense, many, if not all religions are apocalyptic in origin, though most that have survived down through the ages have left apocalypticism behind. In fact, modern Christianity as currently practiced is mostly non-apocalyptic. Thus the idea that it’s only the early, more primitive peoples that believed that, as well as the more crazy of Christians. But, I will put it to you now: if people read Nostradamus and/or other psychics, believe in alien space ships coming to save us, avidly follow political pundits that believe as they do (and hate the ones believing opposite things), or read their horoscope, then those people have more than a little feelings of “imminent crisis” and apocalyptic ideas. Even in the placid 1950’s there was a feeling of “imminent crisis”.
The description of apocalyptic literature given by Mr. McGinn fits many modern movies and books, so as we go on, just bear that in mind. He goes on:
“The Revelation of John is so closely tied to the meaning of the entire Christian apocalyptic tradition that any simple characterization is impossible. The book is at once a summary of preceding literature, an appropriation of the genre on a new level, and the point of departure for much subsequent commentary and expansion…”
Considering that Revelation is the only piece of self-identifying Christian apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it’s interesting that he speaks of “Christian apocalyptic tradition”, and “appropriation of the genre”(and we’ll see later that he and his ilk identify other New Testament pieces as “apocalyptic”). Earlier, he summarizes the debate about who wrote Revelation, and he also states that John was “eschewing the traditional pseudonymity of apocalyptic writers”, which implies that he believes that the author was John the Apostle, though he doesn’t say it. There were a number of apocalyptic writers in the early Christian era, and they all used the names of an apostle or other famous person as a pseudonym (they did not use the name of an unknown person). I’ve looked at a few of the apocryphal apocalypses and found them quite different in character from Revelation, and disagreeing with scripture quite a bit. As mentioned in the quote, the “book is…a summary of preceding literature”, meaning that it summarizes and agrees with preceding scripture. To me, that implies that the Revelation of Jesus Christ is not in the category that Mr. McGinn has so neatly laid out. The genre may have been “appropriated”, but it was done by Jesus, not John.
I have trouble with Mr. McGinn’s characterizations of Christianity as he doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of it, especially for a Medievalist. The Church was a BIG player during the Middle Ages. To not understand it on a deeper level would imply that he would miss some of the deeper, more subtle meanings of the writings of that time. And make no mistake, the people of the Middle Ages were very subtle, intricate and detailed thinkers. They loved intrigue; their royal courts were full of intrigue and conspiracy. You can see the intricacy of writing even starting in the New Testament. That complexity continued through the Middle Ages, and probably deepened.
Here’s another quote from the Introduction that I want you to see because it tells a lot about Mr. McGinn’s view of Christianity:
“The earliest datable witness to Christianity that we possess, the First Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians (probably A.D. 51), is not an apocalypse in form but contains apocalyptic teaching of importance in 4:13 to 5:11, showing how strong expectation of the End was in the first Christian communities. The specific literary form created by early Christianity, the Gospel, had intimate relations with apocalyptic, both in form and in content. Norman Perrin has shown how the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, occasioned by the crisis of the Jewish Wars and the fall of Jerusalem and written shortly after A.D. 70, is organized according to a three-act apocalyptic drama. The innovation of the first evangelist was to make use of realistic descriptions to convey his message.”
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do. (1Thessalonians 4:13-5:1, KJV)
First of all, while I can see why someone might see this as an apocalyptic piece, that designation seems to be designed to minimize the prophetic impact. After all, if it’s just following a “form” then it’s not really prophetic. And that leads me to wonder about Revelation and if the prophetic impact of that book isn’t lessened by concentrating on the “form”.
In terms of the Gospels having “intimate relations with apocalyptic,” it was because the actual, real story of Jesus had the “form” of the apocalyptic: there was strife, He was killed, He won by returning from the dead, and the sinners will be punished. But in my humble opinion, to focus on the “apocalyptic” reduces the impact of the true message of the Gospels: that of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, just as the prophetic impact was lessened.
Of course the biggest problem with the above paragraph is the reporting of Mr. Perrin’s ideas as if they are settled fact. Again, there is the total avoidance of the idea that Jesus’ story is the reason for the “form” of the Gospel. But more importantly, for Mr. Perrin to suggest that the fall of Jerusalem indicates a date of “shortly after A.D. 70” for the Gospel of Mark, means that he does not believe Jesus did, or could, prophecy that event. He’s suggesting that Mark added that prophecy after the fact.
And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. (Mark 13:2; KJV)
So, briefly, this assumption of Mr. Perrin’s that the Gospel of Mark was written after A.D. 70 is based solely on his basic assumption that Jesus could not have prophesied the future. This makes Jesus out to be, at best, the foil in Mark’s story, or, at worst, a liar. All the other evidence points to Mark being written in the 50’s, just 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection. If you are interested in seeing all the evidence laid out, go to the link listed on the sources page.
One more comment on the above quote of Mr. McGinn: regarding the last line “The innovation of the first evangelist was to make use of realistic descriptions to convey his message.” There are many Old Testament passages that include “realistic descriptions,” and the Gospels fit into those patterns pretty well. And, the message being conveyed was not Mark’s message, but Jesus’, or at least Peter’s. If you look at the evidence for the timing of the writing of Mark’s Gospel, you’ll see that Mark wrote Peter’s reminiscences of what Jesus said and did. To state that it was the “evangelist’s” message implies that it all was from Mark’s head and he wrote it to “evangelize” others. (Notice, I didn’t even mention that the Scriptures are God-breathed.)
Mr. McGinn continues:
“The Gospels are books of the nascent church. They can tell us much about the apocalyptic beliefs of the early Christians, and even perhaps about the apocalyptic elements in the preaching of Jesus. The most important apocalyptic text ascribed to Jesus by the synoptics is the so-called Little Apocalypse or Apocalyptic Discourse of Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21. The theory that a written source, specifically a brief Jewish apocalypse, lies behind Mark 13 and its parallels was first advanced in 1864. (Such a theory implies that the Little Apocalypse has nothing to do with the actual preaching of Jesus.) An extensive controversial literature has developed on the problem of the Little Apocalypse…”
Of course, we know the “Little Apocalypse” or “Apocalypse Discourse” as The Sermon on the Mount.
He goes on to describe yet another theory that suggests that the Gospels were written to a “form” and were not reporting the words of Jesus. He ends the thought by admitting that “there is at present a strong tendency among many Scripture scholars to minimize the extent of apocalyptic influence detectable in what they hold to be the probably authentic fragments of the preaching of Jesus contained in the Gospels.” He footnoted this line, so the implication is that he didn’t think of it himself, but he agrees with it. And I have to admit, the words “probably authentic fragments” really irk me.
This excursion into secular research regarding the Revelation has been interesting and informative. It makes me really appreciate the commentaries written by men (and a few women) of God. It also points out how difficult it is to have a meaningful understanding of Scripture without admitting the underlying beliefs, such as Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. As I came to Christianity late in life, I can remember when I read the Bible cover to cover as a non-believer, and could understand only the basic things, like the resurrection, as being important. It all read like a history to me (or perhaps like an “apocalypse” for Mr. McGinn), with the deeper meanings totally missing. After accepting Christ into my life I was amazed at how differently the Bible read.
I will be reading further to see if there is anything more we want to say about the Middle Ages before we dive into the Renaissance. Until then, I will be praying for your understanding of Scripture. k