Sources of Apocalyptic

Sources of Apocalyptic December 1, 2016

In his 1892 Lectures on the Apocalypse (29–30), William Milligan argues that “the symbolism of the Revelation is wholly and exclusively Jewish.”

He illustrates:

Even “the crown of life” in chap. i. 10 is not the wreath of the victor in the Grecian games, but the Hebrew crown of royalty and joy—the crown of “KingSolomon, wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.” The “white stone,” with the new name written in it, of chap. i. 17, is not suggested by the white pebble which, cast in heathen courts of justice into the ballot box, expressed the judge’s acquittal of the prisoner at the bar, but in all probability by the glistering plate borne by the high-priest upon his forehead. And all good commentators are agreed that the palms of chap. vii. 9 are not the palms of heathen victors either in the battle or the games, but the palms of the Feast of Tabernacles when, in the most joyful of all her national festivals, Israel celebrated that life of independence on which she entered when she marched from Eameses to Succoth, and exchanged her dwellings in the hot brick fields of Egypt for the free air of the wilderness, and the “booths” which she erected in the open country.

That “wholly and exclusively” is an exaggeration. Biblical symbols don’t exist in a vacuum. The Bible uses sacrificial imagery in a world full of sacrifice; the Bible often employs natural imagery that is more or less accessible to everybody (seeds going into the earth and dying, for instance). Biblical symbolism fulfills the symbolism of pagan religion.

But Milligan is right that the rest of the Bible is the primary source for the imagery of Revelation. The Bible is a single book, and our first instinct should be to try to understand it on its own terms.

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