Four genres? Isn’t the Revelation to St. John the Divine a part of the Apocalyptic tradition? Well yes, it is indeed an Apocalypse-proper. It uses many of the images and conventions that we’ve encountered so far in this course: the Heavenly throne room, an angelic guide, the use of animals and even stranger beasts to talk about politics, a heavy dose of the numbers three, six and seven to name a few examples. And it is ultimately about God’s intervention into the created order to bring about the end of history and the birth of a “new heavens and a new earth.” (21:1) But as the pre-eminent and canonical Christian apocalypse, it also consciously recapitulates much of the Christian biblical canon. And it does so by appealing to three other genres (see note 1) that are prominent in Scripture: Epistle, Prophecy and Gospel
Note the first-person greeting in 1:4 and how it follows the same conventions for starting off letters that St. Paul and others follow in their New Testament epistles. The letters to the seven churches express the pastoral, inspirational and imploring aims of John’s Apocalypse, as it seeks to address the real-world situations these communities found themselves in.
What is that situation? After the Romans set up shop in Jerusalem at the request of the Maccabees’ descendants, Jews became an integrated and protected religion of the Empire. They were generally free to worship however they wanted as long as they paid their taxes, accepted Rome’s hierarchical division of society, supported the Emperor’s pretensions to personal glory through military and economic expansion, and didn’t cause any trouble. This was a problem for the emerging community claiming that a crucified rabbi named Jesus—who welcomed, loved and served all people equally—was Messiah and Son of God, and that Caesar was not.
The extent to which Christians stuck to this conviction is the extent to which they were disfellowshipped from the Jewish communities in cities throughout the Empire. Those who “held firm” thus came out from under Judaism’s protected status and risked a violent Roman crackdown. As the letters to the seven churches suggest, the situation was mixed: some communities faced persecution, some continued to compromise their beliefs and practices, and some also had other internal disputes to resolve.
John makes clear in 1:9 that he’s among those who were persecuted. He wants to encourage and exhort his readers to maintain their faith and hope in God’s love and power in the midst of an Empire that seems all encompassing. As we’ll see in Part Two, his message employs the themes and aims of two other genres that are fundamental to Christian Scripture: Prophecy and Gospel.
(Background reflections for a course on Apocalyptic Literature taught on Zoom by Rev. Daniel Graves. I led the discussions of New Testament texts. The original posts for the Book of Revelation on Fr. Dan’s site can be found here and here. My notes on the Synoptic Apocalypses and selected Epistle passages can be found here.)
- This typology is based on a “Rock Garden Series” lecture by Rikk Watts, “Revelation: Genre,” New Life Community Church, Burnaby, BC, January 12, 2003. Available for purchase here.