A Sad Old Commentary

Audio Version of A Sad Old Commentary

The word commentary — what does it mean to you? What comes to mind when someone mentions that word? Do you think of a thick, old, rarely-opened reference book that stands unnoticed on a library shelf somewhere, alongside others of its kind, waiting, waiting, waiting, indefinitely waiting in tedious silence, gathering dust, feeling ever sadder and unfulfilled? I do. When I think of a commentary, that is exactly what comes to mind. And although I have been told that books have no feelings nor longings nor pangs of forlorn grief, I am nonetheless inclined to feel pity for sad, neglected, unnoticed commentaries. The months, the years of waiting for a reader must be nigh to insufferable.

Sympathies aside, however, perhaps commentaries go unnoticed for a reason. Most library browsers do not see the particular pertinence of said commentaries, I would venture to say. Otherwise, they would not go neglected. What is a sad, dry, aging commentary even good for? Why bother paging through a commentary? More often than not, commentaries are just books about other books. Sometimes commentaries are even books about books about books. I beg you: Try not to let that confuse you. I will make that concept of bookish regress less abstract in just a few sentences. Though it is not a book, this here blog post is about a particular commentary, which, in turn, is about a New Testament book, yea, the 27th and terminal book. In other words, what you are reading is my own commentary, about a very old commentary, about an even older book.

Hang it there, please. Thinking it through backwards might help. The book at the terminus is the Book of Revelation. The commentary in the middle is Andreas of Caesarea’s Commentary on the Apocalypse. And the blog post most immediate is what you have before you. Simple enough; yes?

Okay then: Now why should you care about what some old, old churchman from Caesarea of Cappadocia said nearly 1400 years ago? And where in the world is this Caesarea of Cappadocia? Starting with the last question first, the city of Caesarea was located not too far from the seven cities mentioned at the beginning of Revelation. Today it is known as Kayseri, Turkey. And as for why should you care about what Andreas of Caesarea had to say about the Book of Revelation, that is a fair question; and I am glad you asked. Many of my readers/listeners probably have never even heard of Andreas of Caesarea before, I suppose. Andreas is otherwise known in the English speaking world as Andrew. The most concise answer as to why you should care about what Andreas-Andrew of Caesarea had to say is this: Andreas-Andrew of Caesarea wrote the first, good, complete, surviving commentary about the Book of Revelation ever, in all of commentary history. Again, Andrew’s Commentary on the Apocalypse was the first, good, complete, surviving commentary.

Yes, I had to write it exactly that way. His commentary is not really the first known commentary on Revelation in history. It is the first good commentary. It is also complete, insofar as it covers the entire Book of Revelation from its first verse to its last. And somewhat surprisingly, it has survived nearly fifteen hundred years. If those four factors are taken together — its age, its quality, its complete-ness, and its having-survived-ness — Andreas of Caesarea’s Commentary on the Apocalypse understandably prompts interest among Book of Revelation aficionados and scholars, even wannabe scholars, like yours truly.

Put another way and summarized a bit, Andreas of Caesarea gives us an open window into how the Book of Revelation was read early-on and understood by Christians very long ago. How, then, did people long ago make sense of the Book of Revelation? Given that they lived much closer to when it was written, did Andreas and the Christians of his day understand the Book of Revelation any better than us today? Or did they understand it worse than us today?  

The answer to that question really depends on whom you count as us today, because we have a wide variety of interpretations circulating today, as you may be aware. Some of our current interpretations are pretty good, while others, not so much.   

Until recently, English speakers did not have immediate lingual access to Andreas-Andrew’s commentary. But about five years ago (that is, in 2015) a good translation from the original Greek was published. The translator’s name is Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou. She is now a professor of New Testament at a seminary in beautiful San Diego, California.  

Within the last 12 days, I acquired Constantinou’s translation of Andreas’s commentary in an electronic format and began to read it. In particular, I wanted to learn how Andreas interprets some of the more controversial and difficult passages in Revelation. (Incidentally, I also want to know how his working manuscript of Revelation compares with what we now have.) Thus far, I have found what he says insightful and intriguing. That’s not to say that I think he is frequently right. He is not; and one reason he is not frequently right is because he commits himself early on to a particular chronology or textual timeline. Andreas believes that after the first three chapters the rest of the Book of Revelation must necessarily reference the future, and not the past. Because of his commitment to a futurist understanding, Andreas misreads entire sections of the book, IMHO. But then again, a lot interpreters do the same thing today: They commit themselves to a futurist chronology (or alternatively, to a long past chronology), and then attempt to force everything in Revelation to fit that pre-selected chronology. Alas, if an interpreter’s assumed chronology is faulty or skewed it will always distort how the Book of Revelation is read and understood. Yet choosing a chronology is unavoidable, as Revelation by its very nature does require chronological decisions from any would-be interpreter. 

Although I disagree with his chronological scheme, I must say that Andreas’s reading is theologically sophisticated, and surprisingly so. In his favor, Andrew-Andreas understands that much of the Book of Revelation must be read symbolically. And he constantly endeavors to explain the various symbols. I am not surprised by that, though. He was (probably) a native Greek speaker; and knowledge of Greek makes the symbolic nature of Revelation all the more obvious. Sadly, English and English translations often stand in our way of understanding aspects of the Book of Revelation. Sad, but true.    

Finally and to be fair, Andrew-Andreas does get some very important things right. For example, he correctly explains that the introductory benediction in 1:4-5 can be understood as trinitarian, noting that “the One who is, and was, and is to come” can be understood in verse four to refer specifically to the Father, and that the Seven Spirits can be understood as “the activity of the Live-Giving Spirit,” and that Jesus Christ “became a man for our sake,” by which Andreas implies Jesus’ pre-existent divinity. Andreas thus interprets the book’s introductory benediction as a person-by-person-by-person depiction of the Trinity, which is exactly right and how it ought to be understood. Andreas nails the benediction.    

Screenshot of the Commentary

All of these are just a few of my initial reading observations, though. I do look forward to learning more about Andrew-Andreas of Caesarea (Caesarea in Cappadocia, that is) and reading more of the English translation of his Commentary on the Apocalypse.

In conclusion, even very old commentaries should be appreciated, picked up, and read. It makes them feel purposeful, appreciated, and far less lonely. They also have more to offer than you might assume.

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