Good morning! Today we’ll start with Johann David Michaelis’ INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT, first published in 1750. Michaelis was Prussian by some accounts, and German by others; he was also a Lutheran, and a very well-known scholar of his time. He was specifically a scholar in Hebrew and Arabic, and through the study of these languages and the customs of the people who spoke them, he attempted to throw some additional light on interpreting Scripture. Also, he is claimed as a Preterist by preteristarchive.org .
I have quite a bit of his material I want to share. It comes from chapter 33 of the fourth volume:
“…The various questions, which here present themselves for examination, whether they relate to the style of the Apocalypse, or the year in which it was published, or the qualifications, which every man must necessarily possess, who attempts to expound it, depend entirely on the main question, whether it is a genuine work of St. John the Evangelist, or not. And on the main question I candidly confess, that I have not been able to obtain that certainty, which I have obtained in respect to other books of the New Testament…
“Irenaeus undoubtedly received the Apocalypse as a genuine work of St. John the Apostle; and like wise asserted, at least according to the common interpretation of his words, that the visions were seen by St. John, in the reign of Domitian. This last assertion would in my opinion, extremely weaken the testimony of Irenaeus, the Apocalypse can hardly be a canonical work, if it was written so late, as the reign of Domitian…”
I don’t really understand his logic here regarding “the weakness” of Irenaeus’ argument, and while he goes on to talk about someone else’s refutation of this problem, he doesn’t give any details of what those refutations are. More than that, Irenaeus is a very respected source, so it’s odd that the only reason Michaelis gave for doubting him involved his own preterist leanings and no other, more scholarly debate.
Back to Michaelis:
“…when a book lays claim to prophecy, and the question is agitated, not whether this or that Apostle wrote it, but in general whether it was inspired by the Deity, there is another method of coming to a decision, which we in the eighteenth century may apply, but which was not applicable in the earliest ages of Christianity. We have only to inquire, whether the prophecies contained in it have been fulfilled. If they have not been fulfilled, we must consider the work as a mere production of the human imagination: but on the other hand, if it be certain that they have been fulfilled, we have an infallible criterion, from which we may at once, and without any further critical inquiries, pronounce in favor of its divinity. Here however an almost insuperable difficulty presents itself at the very outset, and that is, the difficulty of determining what the prophecies in the Apocalypse really mean: for that which by one commentator is considered as fulfilled…has according to another commentator not yet received its completion.”
I have to interrupt here: To suggest that 1700 years is too far in the future for a Bible Prophet, much less an Apostle, to prophesy is putting an unwarranted limit on God’s abilities. There is also an underlying tone of: The Bible and all it’s prophesies are completed, we are just looking at it as something of historical interest. Realizing this made me look further into Michaelis, and it’s not surprising that jewishvirtuallibrary.org credits him with writing the first textbook ‘on the historical-critical approach to the New Testament.’ This site also says: ‘Through his extremely diverse academic and literary activities he enjoyed a worldwide reputation; however, in his later years, as a result of weakness of character and of scholarship, he became progressively isolated.’ Also unsurprising.
Onward with Michaelis:
“If it be objected, that the prophecies in the Apocalypse are not yet fulfilled, that they are therefore not fully understood, and that hence arises the difference of opinion in respect to their meaning, I answer, that if these prophecies are not yet fulfilled, it is wholly impossible that the Apocalypse should be a divine work, since the author expressly declares, ch. i. 1. that it contains ‘things which must shortly come to pass.’ Consequently, either a great part of them, I will not say all, must have been fulfilled, or the author’s declaration..is not consistent with matter of fact…it is difficult to avoid suspecting, that the claim of such a book is ungrounded: and I confess that these very contradictions in the explanation of it are still more unfavorable to it, than the ancient testimonies before the time of Eusebius. On the other hand it must be admitted, that, even when it is certain that a work contains divine prophecies, our own ignorance may be such, that we are unable to explain them. For instance, the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah relating to Edam, Moab, and Ammon, we are unable to explain from real history: but this circumstance excites not suspicion against their divinity, because the history of the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Ammonites, for several centuries is totally unknown to us. And that the commentators on the Apocalypse, even the most learned of them, have been deficient in qualifications…“
Michaelis was heralded as a linguistic scholar, yet Greek was not listed as one of his languages, and founders.archive.gov provides a loosely translated letter written by Michaelis whose Latin was so bad that the website notes that they cannot provide an intelligible translation. (As a matter of interest, the letter was written to Benjamin Franklin, whom Michaelis met in Germany.) So, he doesn’t seem to have been conversant in Latin either. He obviously has taken the King James translation of ‘things which must shortly come to pass’ as the only way to translate that phrase from the Greek (or maybe he used Luther’s German translation…). We’ll look at this more closely later on.
And returning to Michaelis:
“In the first place, every man, who attempts to comment on a work, must be complete master of the language in which it is written…the Apocalypse, though written in Greek, is at the same time full of Hebraisms (footnote: No book in the whole New Testament has so many Hebraisms….): its language is figurative, and the figures have reference to Jewish customs…mere Hebrew philology, or such as is derived only from the study of the Hebrew Bible, and the use of a Hebrew Lexicon, is insufficient…But the commentators on the Apocalypse, especially those who have taken the lead…have for the most part been very deficient in this necessary qualification, and moreover have been biassed with prejudices…Thus the Franciscans in the middle ages explained many passages of the Apocalypse as denouncing vengeance to the Pope, because they were proscribed by Papal authority, the Lutherans discovered in it prophecies against the church, from which they had withdrawn: and in the last century the reformers in France irritated by the revocation of the edict of Nantes found the means of consolation in the Apocalypse, by explaining it to the disadvantage of their persecutors…The late Dr. Lange for instance, though a very zealous commentator on the Apocalypse, was possessed of very little knowledge of the oriental languages: and Bengal, though upon the whole a very accurate and very respectable critic, had never made oriental philology his particular study. An exception may perhaps be made in favor of Vitringa: but even Vitringa did not possess oriental philology in its full extent…Yet his merits are very great: and, if he had not been a disciple of Cocceius, might not have known more of the Apocalypse, than most other interpreters…But Wetstein and Harenberg have not set the fashion to others: on the contrary, the latter, if I am not mistaken, is very little read.”
Again, I can’t find any reference to Michaelis being a scholar of Greek. I’m sure he had some knowledge of it, but it certainly seems like he was over-confident in his abilities. The encyclopedic website theodora.com says of him: ‘…though for many years the most famous teacher of Semitic languages in Europe, he had little of the higher philological faculty, and neither his grammatical nor his critical work has left a permanent mark, with the exception perhaps of his text-critical studies on the Peshitta…His tastes were all for such studies as history, antiquities, and especially geography and natural science.’ It’s hard to square this with Michaelis’ criticism of other commentators.
Some names were mentioned: I can’t find anything on Dr. Lange. Campegius Vitringa (1669-1722) lived in Friesland, and, while he was well known in the 19th century, he doesn’t seem to be so now, as I can’t locate any copies of his book on Revelation, though there are references to it, including hints that he was not a preterist. Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) was born in Bremen in the venerable Coch family. He Latinized his last name as a young man, and was a professor of theology in Leyden, Holland. He was a Reformist and I was able to find one of his books for free, though it’s not about Revelation. The author next mentions Wetstein and Harenberg favorably, but I can’t find any of their works, even for money. I had trouble even finding Harenberg’s name online. But they are listed as preterists on the preterits website.
We continue with Michaelis:
“A second qualification, which an interpreter of the Apocalypse ought to possess, is a taste for poetry and painting…when a vision is well represented, the rules of poetry and painting are usually observed…”
Unfortunately, these rules change with changes in culture, so what an early 19th century person might think something means doesn’t always fit with what the 1st century AD person might have been have been trying to convey. The passage he uses to explain this is the passage about the Euphrates drying up so the armies of the East could pass. He is sure that this is a total poetic metaphor. In the meantime, the Euphrates is currently just about dry due to dams and water usage, making this Bible passage hardly a mystery or a miracle.
And on with Michaelis:
“It would really be worth while to write a particular history of the expositions of the Apocalypse [my thought exactly!], and to show in what manner the most ancient interpretations of it was gradually forsaken, in what manner the modern interpretation of it took, its rise among Protestants, and how this interpretation has spread into so many different branches. But as this would be an undertaking too extensive for the present work, I will briefly observe that the various expositions of the Apocalypse may be arranged under the following classes.
“1. To the first class may be referred all those commentaries, which are fashionable among protestants, and according to which the Apocalypse contains prophecies against the Pope and the church of Rome…the prophecies in the Apocalypse are considered as still fulfilling…
“2. To the second class belong those commentaries, which confine the prophecies of the Apocalypse to the three first centuries, at least such as relate to persecution and punishment; for the happy Millennium may, according to these commentaries, be made to commence with the conversion of Constantine the Great…
“3. A third class of commentators find in the Apocalypse nothing but the destruction of Jerusalem, and the flight of the Christians from that city to Pella [in Greece] before the commencement of the siege. This interpretation has been supported by Harenberg…and, in order to avoid the objection, that a prophecy relating only to Jerusalem was not a proper work to be dedicated to seven churches in Asia Minor, he contends that the seven churches …denoted seven synagogues in Jerusalem, which were called the synagogue of Ephesus…, etc, because they were respectively built by the inhabitants of those cities, who frequented Jerusalem…difficulties of another kind…present themselves…To mention only one : ‘That great city…’ can hardly denote Jerusalem; for it clearly characterizes Rome, and is, as it were, the name of that great capital.
I think even as far as we’ve gotten here, we can say that Michaelis’ view is pretty limited and most likely pretty biased. And certainly his #3 has not shown up in any part of it as an interpretation. But then, I probably have access to far more sources than Michaelis had in his day…even if I can’t find anything on Mr. Harenberg.
Another short one from Michaelis:
“…it appears, that the question, at what time the Apocalypse was written, very materially concerns the question, whether it be a divine work, for if its first prophecies relate to the destruction of Jerusalem, it must have been written before the Jewish war: but if the author of if wrote after the Jewish war, and, as is commonly supposed, in the reign of Domitian, the sixth chapter of Apocalypse cannot possibly predict the destruction of Jerusalem…”
And clearly Revelation does not prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem: that is the bad assumption in his thinking.
A last thought from Michaelis:
“…if the Apocalypse was written in the reign of Domitian, the coming of Christ admits of no other explanation than his coming to judge the world, or at least to put an end to the reign of the beast, and to establish his thousand years kingdom. But in the course of seventeen hundred years, neither of these events has taken place: and to assert that the term ‘quickly’ is consistent with so long a duration, because seventeen centuries is nothing in comparison of God’s eternity, is a mere subterfuge, in which the love of truth is sacrificed to the support of a pre-assumed opinion.”
Earlier the author talked about having to understand the language before interpreting this book. Many modern Greek scholars have come to understand that ‘quickly’, rather than ‘soon’ or ‘shortly’, is indeed the best translation of the word in question, and that what is being said in that line is that when the end comes, it will happen very quickly, rather than it will happen soon.
Now we’ll move on to the English cleric, theologian and evangelist, John Wesley. He started certain societies that became the Methodist movement of today, and most people have still heard of him. We’ll be looking at the introduction of his NOTES ON THE REVELATION OF JOHN, published in 1765:
“It is scarce possible for any that either love or fear God not to feel their hearts extremely affected in seriously reading either the beginning or the latter part of the Revelation. These, it is evident, we cannot consider too much; but the intermediate parts I did not study at all for many years; as utterly despairing of understanding them, after the fruitless attempts of so many wise and good men: and perhaps I should have lived and died in this sentiment, had I not seen the works of the great Bengelius [the Latinized name of J.A. Bengel]. But these revived my hopes of understanding even the prophecies of this book; at least many of them in some good degree: for perhaps some will not be opened but in eternity. Let us, however, bless God for the measure of light we may enjoy, and improve it to his glory. The following notes are mostly those of that excellent man; a few of which are taken from his Gnomon Novi Testamenti, but far more from his Ekklarte Offenbarung, which is a full and regular comment on the Revelation. Every part of this I do not undertake to defend. But none should condemn him without reading his proofs at large. It did not suit my design to insert these: they are above the capacity of ordinary readers. Nor had I room to insert the entire translation of a book which contains near twelve hundred pages. All I can do is, partly to translate, partly abridge, the most necessary of his observations; allowing myself the liberty to alter some of them, and to add a few notes where he is not full. His text, it may be observed, I have taken almost throughout, which I apprehend he has abundantly defended both in the Gnomon itself, and in his Apparatus and Crisis in Apocalypticism. Yet I by no means pretend to understand or explain all that is contained in this mysterious book. I only offer what help I can to the serious inquirer, and shall rejoice if any be moved thereby more carefully to read and more deeply to consider the words of this prophecy. Blessed is he that does this with a single eye. His labour shall not be in vain.“
The humble simplicity of this introduction is refreshing after the last writer! I also appreciate that he spends no time on who wrote the book or when; he allows the book to speak for itself.
We will end with quotes from the introduction of the book THE GENERAL HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH FROM HER BIRTH TO HER FINAL TRIMPHANT STATE IN HEAVEN DEDUCED FROM THE APOCALYPSE OF ST. JOHN THE APOSTLE, by Charles Warmesley, published in 1771. Warmesley was a Bishop who wrote under the pseudonym of Signor Patrorini. Here’s the first quote:
“The Apocalypse exhibits, in general, a summary of the whole history of the Christian Church from the date of its birth, to its triumphant and glorious state in Heaven after the close of time…[The reader] may, perhaps, then join us in thinking that the celebrated commentators, Bossuet and Calmet, have too much contracted this admirable prophecy, by confining the contents to so short a period as the four first centuries of the Christian era, and applying the whole, except the two last chapters, to the persecutions which the Church suffered from the pagan Roman emperors, and to the destruction of the Roman empire. For this reason the two above-mentioned authors have often been obliged to wrest the text, and give it a forced and improbable explication, to bring it within their system. On the same account they have derogated from the dignity and precision of that prophecy, by applying several texts to the same event; whereas, whoever looks attentively into the tenor of the Apocalypse, will perceive that St. John’s precision and brevity are such, that he never repeats the same thing.”
As we’ve seen, it was common early on to see Revelation as representing the history of the Church. And as we can see now, there are those still thinking this is the case. Bossuet was a French Bishop of the late 17th century, very famous for his oratory (compared with Cicero!), and a prolific writer. Calmet was a late 17th century/early 18th century French Benedictine monk, priest, and scholar. Both are listed as preterists, and I can’t find any writings on Revelation available.
I do agree with Warmesley that John did not repeat things.
One more paragraph from Warmesley:
“For the unfolding of the different parts of the Apocalypse, we have followed, in general, the plan laid down by Mr. De la Chetardie…It consists in a division of the whole Christian era to the end of time, into seven Ages, corresponding to the seven Seals, seven Trumpets, and seven Vials, mentioned in the Apocalypse; so that to each belong a Seal, Trumpet, and Vial…It must then be observed, that an age and a century must not here be taken for synonymous terms; but by an age in this history we shall understand one of the seven divisions of time above mentioned: neither are these divisions of time equal.”
So we can see that Warmesley reneged on his statement that John didn’t repeat himself. This ‘plan’ sounds like a joining of dispensationalism and preterism, and while I do admit to being a dispensationalist, I can’t agree with preterism.
We’ll leave it here for today. Next time we will be looking at the 19th century, which is when the true explosion of written works happened. I will work very hard to pare down what we’ll look at here. I’ll be praying for all of us to have patience with those we love.