James Tabor, proceeding from some initial work done with J. Masssyngberde Ford in her Anchor Bible Commentary (i), has recently argued that by a careful methodology of ‘reverse editing’ one can see that the Apocalypse of John was originally a non-Christian Jewish text that was later ‘Christianized’. Tabor has argued that one could effectively take out all references to “Jesus”, “Christ”, or “Jesus Christ” in all the passages of the Apocalypse, that contain them (aside from the letters to the seven churches—Rev. 2-3) and not in any way disturb the structure or essential meaning of the text.the_book_of_revelation_for_dummies_2For Tabor, is this strong evidence that there was a pre-Christian version of the Apocalypse that was later given a ‘Christian’ gloss in the form of the interpolating the name ‘Jesus/ Christ’(ii). Aside from difficult questions concerning the definition and ascription of degrees concerning how ‘Jewish’ or how ‘Christian’ the Apocalypse may be, the crucial exegetical and textual question to be raised is whether the contested interpolations can be taken out without disturbing the structure, syntax, or conceptual framework of the Greek text (iii). The nature of the content of the Apocalypse of John has been greatly debated with many from Tertullian to Rudolf Bultmann concluding that the work has such strong overtones of Jewish apocalypticism so as to virtually eclipse how the work might be ‘Christian’ in any manner (iv). What has not been done to a great extent is to argue that one can discern a ‘pre-Christian’ redactional layer to the work. Tabor has laid out an initial case for this hypothesis throughout a number of passages, but for our purposes we will confine ourselves to those instances in chapter 1 of the Apocalypse.

            It will be argued here that while Tabor’s case regarding chapter 1 cannot be dismissed as impossible, it is quite unlikely that the specific name of ‘Jesus Christ’ is a mere Christian gloss, but that rather it is more likely the specific explicit referent of the underlying thought of the Apocalypse as a whole. In addition, as argued by G.R. Beasley-Murray, the underlying conceptual framework of the Apocalypse as a whole, with chapter 5 as an instance, cannot be understood without reference to the concept of a crucified Messiah found within early Christian thought (v). Beasley-Murray’s insight makes Tabor’s argument all the more unlikely. We will first briefly look at Ford’s own conclusions on the matter concerning the Apocalypse as an originally Jewish work, then look at in detail the instances of the name ‘Jesus/Christ’ in chapter 1 that Tabor argues for as later interpolations, and then finally look at Beasley-Murray’s argument concerning the theology of chapter 5 of the Apocalypse. Once again, the conclusion of our argument will be that while Tabor’s initial case is possible, it is quite unlikely given the conceptual framework of the suffering Messiah found underlying the Apocalypse, and thus that the name ‘Jesus/Christ’ is most probably not a later interpolation but rather the explicit referent of the theology of the Apocalypse as a whole.

            The practice of Christian interpolation into what were quite possibly originally Jewish non-Christian texts is a well noted phenomenon among scholars which such copious examples from the Books of Adam and Eve, the Martyrdom of Isaiah, 1 Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, 3 Baruch, Psalms of Solomon, and the Jewish Sibyllines (vi). Of special importance for Ford however is the great absence of language of ‘Lordship’ concerning Jesus in the Apocalypse, which according to her count is only twice (Rev. 22:20, 21) out of twenty-two uses of the term. Also of importance are the relatively few mentions of the name “Jesus Christ” or “Jesus”, by Ford’s count being merely fourteen, which in comparison to the gospels for instance is quite slim (vii). Despite both of these observations Ford ultimately concludes,

We have seen that Revelation is unlike Jewish apocalypses adapted to Christianity because there are no clear Christian interpolations woven into the text; rather, a block of Christian material (chs. 1-3) has been grafted onto the beginning and four Christian verses (22:16-17a, 20-21) have been grafted onto the end. Neither shows the NT Christ. Revelation is therefore unique.(viii)

Ford’s conclusion then about the matter may be contrasted with Tabor’s much more ambitious hypothesis of finding just such a non-Christian Jewish apocalypse later adapted. Tabor’s project appears all the more ambitious when compared to the efforts of Ben Witherington III for instance, who while recognizing the lack of significant Christological terms applied to Jesus in the Apocalypse, concludes from this observation that it shows the Apocalypse was not written by the same ‘John’ of the gospel or the epistles (ix). For another example we can look at John W. Marshall, who while arguing against using the title ‘Christian’ as a category for classifying the Apocalypse, nevertheless says that, “…understanding of the Apocalypse of John as a Jewish document does not depend on excising every element or motif that is integral (and perhaps eventually exclusive) to the Christian reception of the book…” (x)

            Following then from this we can see from the examples of Witherington III and Marshall that the strong statistical lack of Christological titles does not pose an obstacle to understanding the Apocalypse’s Christology as a whole, nor does the presence of such titles even to the smallest degree need necessarily to classify the Apocalypse as a ‘Christian’ document. The importance for Ford’s argument from the lack of Christological titles is to show her larger schema of the Apocalypse as partly from sources going back to John the Baptist, which almost no scholar has followed in arguing (xi). The importance for Tabor then for the excision of the name ‘Jesus/Christ’ from the Apocalypse is all the more difficult to discern given that he neither subscribes to Ford’s schema, nor argues for an early dating for the Apocalypse as a whole. What is of more importance however, than either Ford or Tabor’s reasons for wanting to discern a pre-Christian redactional layer to the Apocalypse, are their arguments for such a hypothesis. While Ford’s arguments cannot be dealt with here in detail, we will proceed to examine Tabor’s instances in chapter one of the Apocalypse.

            Tabor argues for sixteen interpolations overall, but of immediate concern to us are the four instances in chapter 1 of the Apocalypse. His four instances are Revelation 1:1, 2, 5, & 9 (xii), for which passages we will list below in the NRSV (xiii) with the excisions Tabor proposes emboldened, next to the critical Greek text of Nestle-Aland, for comparison.

“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place…” (Rev. 1:1) Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἣν ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ ὁ θεὸς δεῖξαι τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐν τάχει…
“…who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” (Rev. 1:2) ὃς ἐμαρτύρησεν τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ὅσα εἶδεν…
And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (Rev. 1:5-6) καὶ ἀπὸ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὁ μάρτυς, ὁ πιστός, ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ὁ ἄρχων τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς. Τῷ ἀγαπῶντι ἡμᾶς καὶ λύσαντι ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ αἵματι αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐποίησεν ἡμᾶς βασιλείαν, ἱερεῖς τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ, αὐτῷ ἡ δόξα καὶ τὸ κράτος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας [τῶν αἰώνων]· ἀμήν.
“I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (Rev. 1:9) Ἐγὼ Ἰωάννης, ὁ ἀδελφὸς ὑμῶν καὶ συγκοινωνὸς ἐν τῇ θλίψει καὶ βασιλείᾳ καὶ ὑπομονῇ ἐν Ἰησοῦ, ἐγενόμην ἐν τῇ νήσῳ τῇ καλουμένῃ Πάτμῳ διὰ τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ

It is important to note, that according to the team of contributors of the critical apparatus of the Nestle-Aland 28th edition of the Greek text, there appear to be no significant variations within our manuscript tradition concerning these particular verses that relate in particular to the notion that these highlighted sections were later interpolated (xiv). To stress the point further then we must recognize that Tabor’s hypothesis is scholarly speculation and conjecture, with no strong basis in any manuscript evidence, leaving us to test his hypothesis on the ground of syntax and grammar alone.

            Beginning then with v.1 there is nothing necessitated by the noun ἀποκάλυψις to have a genitive complement such as of Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, so there is nothing inherently impossible about that construction. As for the second, that of the dative of αὐτῷ, while again there is nothing inherently impossible about removing this dative, in the other places in the Apocalypse when its complementary verb ἔδωκεν is used in that exact form (3rd person, masculine, singular, 1st aorist, active of δίδωμι—Rev. 13:2,4; 15:7; 17:17; 20:13), in three instances, those being 13:2, 4 and 15:7, a dative complement is used, and in the other two they have an accusative complement. It would be strange then in this one instance to have neither an accusative or dative complement for the verb (xv). With v.2 there is nothing inherently impossible about excising the second object of the clause, that of τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, however it is worthy to note that this appears to be one half of a pair that often occurs within the Apocalypse (Rev. 1:9, 6:9, 12:17). Tabor argues for interpolations in 1:9 and 12:17 as well, but he has left 6:9 out of consideration, most likely due to its absence of the specific name ‘Jesus’. However, while it is possible that all four of these pairs, along with 19:10, and 20:4, which also mention τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, are interpolations (xvi), it does seem much more likely that it is instead a theme running throughout the work often made in conjunction with the word (λόγον) (1:2, 9; 6:9; 20:4) or commandments (ἐντολάς) (12:17), of God (τοῦ θεοῦ) (xvii).

            The next of Tabor’s proposed interpolations that he wishes to excise is the largest section of chapter 1, namely Revelation 1:5-6 as a whole. Not much can be said with regard to the syntax here, for the excision is certainly possible without disturbing the grammar of the passage. The only oddity with regards to this that may be worth pointing out is that if v.5, 6 are excised it is quite difficult to see who the subject of the verb ἔρχεται in v.7, for the immediate preceding possible subjects would either be John or God himself as ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος. God returning to save his people would of course be of no theological difficultly for a Jewish apocalypse, but the rest of v.7 describes the one returning as one who had been pierced (καὶ οἵτινες αὐτὸν ἐξεκέντησαν), which creates a theological difficulty of God as the one who had been pierced. However, if the argued for excision is not made, the subject of v.7 as the Jesus in v.6 would make complete theological sense, understanding Jesus as the one who had been pierced and would return. The last of our argued-for excisions in chapter 1 is v.9, the latter half of which, namely καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ, has already been addressed sufficiently with its parallel form in v.2. It is then the first half of the proposed excision in v.9 to which we will conclude this part of the argument. The excision of ἐν Ἰησοῦ in v.9 however is the most difficult in chapter 1 due to the fact that the phrase appears strongly in the Greek to suggest the unity of the first three subjects of τῇ θλίψει καὶ βασιλείᾳ καὶ ὑπομονῇ, the list of which is made with only one definite article (xviii). Again, while nothing about this excision is inherently impossible, it does appear to be immensely unlikely due to its apparent role in the clarification and unification of the prior three subjects.

            Having now found that though according to Greek grammar and syntax there is nothing inherently impossible about the excisions of Tabor’s proposed reverse editing concerning chapter 1, all of the instances do appear to have a low probability of being later interpolations into the passages, due to their roles in the passages and, most especially, due to the conceptual framework of the passages. It is here where Beasley-Murray’s argument concerning the theological framework chapter 5 of the Apocalypse can best summarize the argument concerning the implausibility concerning Tabor’s argued for interpolations due to the theological framework of the Apocalypse as a whole. Beasley-Murray in comparing Revelation 5 with chapter 19 of the Testament of Joseph, which also presents a victorious lamb Messiah, concludes that

…an event unprecedented and unprovided for in Jewish apocalyptic has taken place: the Lamb stands “as though it had been slain”, i.e. It has been slaughtered, but lives again…Here we have passed over from the traditional Messiah of prophetic and apocalyptic hope to the crucified and risen Redeemer of the new covenant. (xix)

What Beasley-Murray argues then concerning chapter 5 of the Apocalypse is that, though it is devoid of the specific name of “Jesus/Christ”, it is nevertheless a conceptually different framework using the same symbols to convey a meaning unprecedented in Jewish apocalyptic literature, that of the lamb as the slaughtered messiah who redeems the people of God (xx). It is this underlying framework that Tabor leaves unaddressed, and ignores to the point of arguing that somehow if much of the content of the Apocalypse could be shown to be of ‘Jewish’ origin that that would somehow show that it was non-Christian in origin (xxi). Contrary to this, as Beasley-Murray as wisely argued, one must distinguish between form and content, for while the Apocalypse may be described as Jewish apocalyptic literature par excellence, it is not the form or even primarily the symbols and other such content which may be used that determines the meaning but rather how such things are employed (xxii).

            In summation then, we have looked at the instances in chapter 1 of the Apocalypse for which Tabor argues that through a process of reverse editing could be excised from the work without disturbing the grammar or meaning, and found that while they were all possible, they were not very probable. Given the improbability of those instances in chapter 1 of the Apocalypse, and Beasley-Murray’s argument concerning the underlying theological framework of the Apocalypse as a whole, we may safely conclude that the name ‘Jesus/Christ’ was not a later interpolation into an originally non-Christian Jewish text but was rather the explicit referent of the theology of the Apocalypse as a whole. It may be said, as perhaps Tabor’s hypothesis has also shown, that while redactional theorizing can of course help us to discern the history of a text, as for instance in the case of Q, that it can also often give scholarly imagination too free a reign, without the proper restrictions of a working scholarly hypothesis.

Works Cited List

Beasley-Murray, G.R. “How Christian is the Book of Revelation?” In Reconciliation and Hope. New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology Presented to L.L. Morris on his 60th Birthday, edited by Robert Banks, 275–84. Carlisle, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1974.

Blount, Brian K. Revelation: a commentary. 1st ed. The New Testament library. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Ford, J. Massyngberde, ed. Revelation. 1st ed. The Anchor Bible 38. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1975.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Z. Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. New Revised Standard Version. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.

Lupieri, Edmondo. A commentary on the Apocalypse of John. Italian texts & studies on religion & society. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2006.

Marshall, John W. Parables of War: Reading John’s Jewish Apocalypse. Studies in Christianity and Judaism. Waterloo, Ont.: Published for the Canadian Corp. for Studies in Religion = Corp. canadienne des Sciences religieuses by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001.

Murphy, Frederick James. Fallen is Babylon: the Revelation to John. The New Testament in context. Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International, 1998.

Nestle, Eberhard, and Erwin Nestle. Novum Testamentum Graece based on the work of Eberhard and Erwin Nestle. Edited by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, Holger Strutwolf, and Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung (Münster. 28th Revised Edition. [Stuttgart]: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012.

Tabor, James. “Can A Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation Be Recovered?” Archaeological News. Bible History Daily, October 24, 2013. <http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/can-a-pre-christian-version-of-the-book-of-revelation-be-recovered/?mqsc=E3658958&utm_source= WhatCountsEmail&utm_medium=BHDDailyNewsletter&utm_campaign=E3BO28>

Witherington III, Ben. Revelation. New Cambridge Bible commentary. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Notes

(i) J. Massyngberde Ford, ed., Revelation, 1st ed, The Anchor Bible 38 (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1975).

(ii) James Tabor, “Can A Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation Be Recovered?,” Bible History Daily, October 24, 2013, <http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/can-a-pre-christian-version-of-the-book-of-revelation-be-recovered/?mqsc= E3658958&utm_source=WhatCountsEmail&utm_medium =BHDDailyNewsletter&utm_campaign=E3BO28>

(iii) For which we will use: Eberhard Nestle and Erwin Nestle, Novum Testamentum Graece based on the work of Eberhard and Erwin Nestle, ed. Barbara Aland et al., 28th Revised Edition ([Stuttgart]: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

(iv) G.R. Beasley-Murray, “How Christian is the Book of Revelation?,” in Reconciliation and Hope. New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology Presented to L.L. Morris on his 60th Birthday, ed. Robert Banks (Carlisle, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1974), 275–84.

(v) Ibid.

(vi) Books of Adam and Eve 29:7-10, 42:2-5; Martyrdom of Isaiah 1:7, 13; 1 Enoch 105:2, and many others cited and discussed in: Ford, Revelation, 22–26.

(vi) Ibid., 17–18.

(viii) Ibid., 27–28.

(ix) Ben Witherington III, Revelation, New Cambridge Bible commentary (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 28.

(x) John W Marshall, Parables of War: Reading John’s Jewish Apocalypse, Studies in Christianity and Judaism (Waterloo, Ont.: Published for the Canadian Corp. for Studies in Religion = Corp. canadienne des Sciences religieuses by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001), 5.

(xi) For which schema see: Ford, Revelation, 28–37.

(xii) Tabor, “Can A Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation Be Recovered?”

(xiii) For which: Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament, New Revised Standard Version (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011).

(xiv) With v.9 there is variation on the name, but the options range from ‘Χριστω’, ᾽Χριστω Ιησου’, or Ἰησου Χριστοω᾽. For the notes see: Nestle and Nestle, Novum Testamentum Graece based on the work of Eberhard and Erwin Nestle, 735–736.

(xv) One could of course argue that τοῖς δούλοις is the dative complement, but it is clear that it is the dative complement to δεῖξαι and not ἔδωκεν.

(xvi) Tabor, “Can A Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation Be Recovered?”

(xvii) Rev. 14:12 could also be added to this list of parallel phrases, though the term τὴν μαρτυρίαν is not itself used. Of those who make this argument see: Brian K. Blount, Revelation: a commentary, 1st ed, The New Testament library (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 28; Edmondo Lupieri, A commentary on the Apocalypse of John, Italian texts & studies on religion & society (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2006), 97–98; 313–315; Frederick James Murphy, Fallen is Babylon: the Revelation to John, The New Testament in context (Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International, 1998), 62–63.

(xviii) Ford, Revelation, 381; Murphy, Fallen is Babylon, 84–85.

(xix) Beasley-Murray, “How Christian is the Book of Revelation?” 279.

(xx) Ibid., 279–280.

(xxi) Tabor, “Can A Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation Be Recovered?”

(xxii) Beasley-Murray, “How Christian is the Book of Revelation?” 276–277.

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