Towards Understanding Revelation


Good morning! Here we are, heading into the Renaissance!

In 1455, Gutenberg printed his 42-line, Gutenberg Bible. We now begin to see the fruit of this: we are going to notice a change in how the Bible is discussed. This is mostly because the Bible started to be cheaper to buy and was starting to find it’s way into the hands of priests, ministers, the wealthy, the middle class, and even the literate poor as the Renaissance goes on.

The other key reason for the Bible being increasingly well disseminated is that it was finally being translated into vernacular languages.  In 1380, John Wycliffe (1329-1384) took it upon himself to translate the Bible into English. It was an exact translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible; exact in the sense that it was clunky and often didn’t make sense in English. In 1388, after Wycliffe’s death, it was revised by John Purvey to read more smoothly. Of course, the Wycliffe Bible was a hand-copied bible that was still far too expensive for the common man (even if he was literate)…and, it was immediately banned in England and by the Church. Wycliffe died of a stroke while saying Mass in 1384. That was fortunate for him. Shortly after that, the Church excommunicated him posthumously and started burning his followers at the stake, often with a copy of the Wycliffe Bible tied around their necks. They even dug up Wycliffe’s bones, burned them and scattered them. Meanwhile, the bans in England just made the Bible a more popular book, and made people want to learn to read so they could see what all the excitement was about. The New Testament of the Wycliffe Bible was printed in 1731, and the whole Bible, with critical commentary, was finally printed in 1850. Of course, by that time it was more of a curiosity than a serious Bible.

Martin Luther released his New Testament in German in 1522, and then released the full Bible in 1534. William Tyndale got a copy of Luther’s New Testament and started translating the Bible around 1522 as well, starting with the New Testament from the Greek and the Latin Vulgate. While on the run from the Church, he managed to print 6,000 copies of the New Testament in 1526. He succeeded in translating 5 books of the Old Testament before his location was betrayed to the Church in 1534, and he was subsequently strangled and burned at the stake for the crime of ‘producing a Bible in the vernacular.’

Meanwhile, Luther had been excommunicated and declared an outlaw in 1521. He was assisted into going into hiding where he made his translations. On returning to his home he was able to avoid the anger of the Church and start a new church, mainly because he had the support of some powerful princes, in whose territory he lived, and because he was thought of so highly in his town of Wittenberg.

About the time that Luther was releasing his complete translated Bible, King Henry VIII was defying the Catholic Church in order to take a new wife (in the attempt to get a male heir). He was excommunicated by the Church, and in response he started the Church of England. He also commissioned the first authorized edition of the Bible in English prepared by Myles Coverdale. Henry wanted the Bible read aloud in English in Churches every Sunday. This version was first printed in 1539 and was called The Great Bible (because of it’s size). It included much from the Tyndale Bible. Coverdale ‘corrected’ the things in the Tyndale Bible that were objected to, and then translated the parts of the Old Testament that Tyndale hadn’t been able to do before he was killed. The Great Bible was also called the Cromwell Bible (Thomas Cromwell directed it’s publication), Whitchurch’s Bible (Whitchurch was the first printer), The Chained Bible (they were chained to a stand in the churches), and Cranmer’s Bible (Thomas Cranmer wrote the preface for the second edition).

England’s Queen Mary I (1553-1558) was the eldest daughter of Henry VIII (whose one son didn’t survive infant-hood), but she was Catholic like her mother. She was burning Protestants at the stake. A number of Protestant scholars fled from Mary’s England to Geneva, Switzerland. In Geneva, William Whittingham led a group of these scholars in translating a new version of the Bible. It was printed as The Geneva Bible in 1560 on the continent, but not in England. It wasn’t printed in England until 1576, and in Scotland in 1579. The version printed in Scotland had commentary influenced by Calvin and Knox, so it’s said that there was a law passed that all Scotsmen of sufficient means must buy a copy.

The Geneva Bible was very popular, probably because it was the first Bible that was technically printed and mass-produced. It was also made in convenient sizes (as opposed to the Great Bible) that individuals could afford to buy and carry around with them. It was the main Bible carried to the New World by the Puritans; it was the Bible read by Shakespeare. This Bible is also known as the first one to use verse numbers. The annotations in it were Calvinist and Puritan, making it very unpopular with the Anglicans of the Church of England. Queen Elisabeth I (Henry’s second daughter, who got the throne after Mary’s death, 1558-1603), an Anglican,  didn’t like it, and commissioned the production of the Bishop’s Bible in 1568. The most important person who didn’t like it was King James I (James IV in Scotland from 1567, and as James I in England 1603-1625 after the union of the Scottish and English crowns). He commissioned the production of the King James Bible in 1604, which was published in 1611. 

The Catholics finally came out with an English Bible in response to the popularity of the Geneva Bible: the Rheims-Douai Bible. The New Testament was printed in 1582, and the complete Bible printed in two volumes in 1609 and 1610.

Now we’ll start with a quote from the book THE IMAGE OF BOTH CHURCHES by John Bale, written in about 1550:

“No where it is more clearly specified, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost to be one everlasting God, and Jesus Christ to be the eternal Son of that living Father, which are the first and chief grounds of our christian faith, than here…Herein is the true christian church, which is the meek spouse of the Lamb without spot, in her right-fashioned colors described. So is the proud church of hypocrites, the rose-colored whore, the paramour of antichrist, and the sinful synagogue of Satan, in her just proportion depainted, to the merciful forewarning of the Lord’s elect. And that is the cause why I have here entitled this book, The Image of both Churches. Neither here spares the Holy Ghost their hypocrisy nor pride, their idolatry nor whoredom, their covetousness nor most cruel tyranny, with their other outrageous mischiefs. No, he touches them so closely that we should the better know them, and be the more ware of them, that he shows them to be such a spiritual sort as makes daily merchandise of the bodies and souls of men…

 “Unto St John the Evangelist were these mysteries of the whole Trinity revealed (as I showed afore), such time as he was of the emperor Domitian exiled for his preaching into the isle of Patmos, at the cruel complaints of the idolatrous priests and bishops; and of him so written and sent out of the same exile into the congregations.”

Notice how we are no longer reading about personal revelations and visions, or political prophecy. We are reading a commentary on Revelation by someone who has read and studied the whole Bible. We can see the influence of the Reformation: we were seeing these attitudes in the build up to the Reformation as well…but being less accepted, it was a bit more hidden. And another difference here, perhaps, is that we are seeing a whole book written about the topic.

Look at the line “exiled for his preaching into the isle of Patmos, at the cruel complaints of the idolatrous priests and bishops”.  As far as I know, there were no “idolatrous priests and bishops” turning people in during the first century. Any Christian leader during that time would be at risk, and would hardly be making “cruel complaints” to anyone. But, in 1550, this type of thing was definitely happening.

Next I’m going to attempt an excerpt from a book entitled A CATHOLIC EXPOSITION UPON THE REVELATION OF SAINT JOHN by Augustinus Marloratus from 1574 (it’s my understanding that men of learning liked to ‘latinize’ their names) . It’s very difficult to read, so hopefully I get it correctly:

“Although many have doubted heretofore of the authority and certainty of this Book, yea and many have very stiffly rejected it; yet notwithstanding forasmuch as whatsoever is contained in it, both greatly profit to the edifying furtherance of Christ’s church, and hath been admitted by most of the ancient fathers with common consent: it were known no reason to call in question the truth and authority thereof by any means. Howbeit, even at this day the expounders of holy scriptures are scarcely agreed of the author…that he was called John, whosoever he was, that was the writer of this Revelation. But forasmuch as many men, and those not of the meanest sort, even in the time the  Apostles, did wear the name of John: it is doubted…even at this day, who this John should be. They that deny him to have been the Apostle and Evangelist, although they be moved by likely conjectures: yet are not their  conjectures of sufficient force to prove that which they go about. But to emit their reasons which are washed away now long ago by men of singular learning: we must assure our selves, that the conjecture of them is more probable, which have fathered this holy Book replenished with incredible comfort, either upon John the Apostle, or upon Mark, who also was surnamed John.”

As you can see, this first paragraph is a discussion on the authorship of Revelation. We have not seen much, if any, of this doubt of authorship up to now. We will see a lot more of it as we go forward. It seems that previous to the 1500’s most people still found the first and second century Church Fathers trustworthy. Perhaps after 1500 years, people began to wonder if Revelation was ever going to become clear to them, and maybe they thought that the Church Fathers had been duped into accepting something as prophecy that was clearly not going to come to pass…and that couldn’t have been written by an Apostle.

The next book I have from the 16th century is called A PLAINE DISCOVERIE OF THE WHOLE REVELATION OF SAINT JOHN, by John Napeir published in 1594. Again, it’s a copy of an original, so hard to read, but it’s generally a better copy than the previous book. Here’s the first bit:

“To the Godly and Christian Reader. Although the nature of the truth be of such force and efficacy, that after it is heard by the spiritual man, it is immediately believed, credited and embraced: yet the natural man is so infirm, and weak, that his belief must be supplied by natural reasons, and evident arguments: Wherefore, many learned and godly men of the primitive Church have gathered…diverse pithy forcible, natural and philosophical arguments, to prove and confirm the Christian faith thereby: As in the 1 Corinthians 15:36, Paul the learned and godly teacher of the Gentiles, persuading the[m] to confess  the resurrection of the dead, induces a marvelous pithy and familiar argument by a natural comparison of seed sown in the ground, that first must  die and be corrupt in the earth, and then doth it quicken up and rise again…”

We are dealing with the King’s English here, instead of the translations into modern English from other languages that we were dealing with before. I find their thoughts interesting, even if difficult to decipher. If you found it too difficult, even in the modern vernacular, he is saying that while a spiritual man understands the truth as soon as he hears it, the natural man needs little stories based on everyday life (i.e. farm life), like Paul’s story of the seed dying in order to grow, to be able to understand the truth. (If you didn’t need my interpretation then I apologize for offering it!) But the concept is truly an underpinning of much of the New Testament. Jesus was more likely to use a parable to hide the truth from those who were not ready for the truth, whereas Paul was more likely to use the “pithy” story to illustrate a truth in a more down-to-earth and understandable way.

The last book is from 1599, entitled SERMONS UPON THE WHOLE BOOK OF THE REVELATION, by George Giffard, Preacher of the Word at Mauldin in Essex. Let’s look at the beginning of this one:

“The argument of the book, unto the Christian Reader. It shall not be amiss (good reader) to set down briefly the matters which are handled in this prophecy: seeing the book seems dark unto many, yea so dark, that it cannot be made clear to their understanding. True it is, that if a man light upon some piece of it, and take it by itself, he shall find it dark: but if he look upon the whole course of the matters throughout the book, and see how things be iterated, he shall find no such darkness as he fears, and for that respect I suppose that a brief opening is necessary, I will not stand upon an exquisite division of this prophecy into the main parts, and so into subdivisions: but in a more plain or rude course I will proceed, even as the matters do lie in order. First, therefore we are to know, that this book is a prophecy which opens the state of things to come in the world from the time that it was given to John, even to the great day of the general judgement. The three first chapters are to be joined together, because in them there is no opening or foreshowing of things to come, but of matters that were then present. For in the first chapter after the general title of the book in three verses, and the salutation John to the seven churches in five verses, ye have the first vision, in which the Lord appears unto John, calls him and authorizes him, to receive this prophecy, to write it, and to send it to the Churches, where the mystery of the seven stars, and of the seven candlesticks is opened. In the second chapter, and in the third, there is opened by seven several Epistles sent from the Lord, the state of everyone of the 7 churches of Asia, unto which this prophecy was to be sent: so that by them we may see in what estate the universal church militant was at that time: for as some of these seven as yet stood firm, and other some had much declined, so was it with other churches. There be many right excellent instructions in these three chapters, both for the pastors and for their flocks and nothing dark or difficult, because the Lord himself expounded that mystery of the 7 stars, and of the 7 golden candlesticks…”

The prologue continues with a complete overview of Revelation. He admits that there is some “brief darkness” in chapters 8 to 11, but as he goes through it he is very sure that all the bad stuff only happens to the “wicked”.

I would like to go on and include the beginning of the first sermon:

“It is not many years past (as you know) since I did expound this book even in this place, and unto this auditory: and therefore least any should marvel, why I undertake to expound it again, I let you understand, that there is great reason to move me hereunto, as namely, that the book is a most excellent and most precious jewel, which god has bestowed upon his Church, and great pity it is, that all Gods servants are not thoroughly acquainted with it, especially in theses times…If any will say, why especially in these days? let him mark a little. This book (at least one great part of it) does describe and paint out as it were in lively colors, the tyrannous kingdom of Antichrist, even great Babylon, the mother of whoredoms and abominations of the earth. It has pleased God, of his great goodness, and abundant mercy towards his people, a little before our days, and in our days, to power forth a vial of wrath upon the very throne of that Babylonical beast, and to make his kingdom wax dark. The pure light of Gods word has displayed and disclosed all their filthiness. They gnaw their tongues for sorrow, they be vexed in mind. They be studious now in learning…to find any thing which may make some show of defense for themselves…and all, if it were possible, is to recover their ancient glory, and to repair the breaches which are made in the walls of their great city. Is it not then good that men should be armed against them with the things revealed in this book? Is not now these days, the very heat of the battle between them and us? and this prophecy leaves them open, whereby you may well perceive, that there is great reason to expound it again and again, that it may arm the servants of God. But here will be objections and show of reasons brought forth, to prove that this Revelation is not to be meddled with…The Papists indeed cannot abide, that the people should have any part of the holy Scriptures in a known language, nor that they should have any skill or understanding in them: because all sacred Scriptures detect and betray their treacheries…”

You can see that the author is off to a rip-roaring start. He goes on to lament that the learned can’t always see that Babylon is Rome, the papistry is the evil kingdom, and the Pope is the Antichrist. Be that as it may, he has some interesting points. I’m especially drawn to the argument: “to find any thing which may make some show of defense for themselves…and all, if it were possible, is to recover their ancient glory, and to repair the breaches which are made in the walls of their great city.” Isn’t this another way of saying that they “want to get back to normal”? And interesting that the implication seems to be that the contents of Revelation is causing this damage… suggesting that it is the two-edged sword coming from the mouth of Jesus. Wonderful food for thought.

Well, that’s it for today. On to the 17th century next time. Til then I’ll be praying for our deeper understanding.

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