Heptads of History

Monday, July 5, 2021

Heptads of History – Audio Version

To make sense of the Book of Revelation, a careful reader must necessarily grapple with four consecutive, structural sets of seven: four literary heptads in succession. The word heptad is specialized shorthand for structural sets of seven; it derives from the Greek word ἑπτά, which just means seven.

The first literary set of seven — the first heptad — a reader will encounter in the Book of Revelation is a collection of short diagnostic messages from Christ in Heaven Above addressed to seven turn-of-the-second-century municipal churches on Earth Below, and more precisely, seven pastors and churches within the Roman province of Asia. These diagnostic messages were meant for them, way back when, and yet can and do selectively apply to us, now. 

The second literary heptad is a binding legal document — a scroll secured with seven seals — seals that are ceremoniously and sequentially broken open. The seals are broken open by a uniquely-worthy, universally-worshiped sacrificial Lamb. As the Lamb breaks open each of the seven seals, the narrator of Revelation reports scenes of colored horses, beheaded supplicants, and a terrified and imminently doomed populace. These seven seals symbolically review the sad and sordid Old Testament history of the people of Israel up to (and just beyond) the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE.

The third literary heptad is a drawn-out fanfare of sequential shofar-trumpet blasts, with lots of surreal thirds of plague and destruction along the way — twelve-thirds of surreal destruction, in fact. These seven shofar-trumpet blasts symbolically review, view, and preview the New Testament history of the peacefully-militant people of God: the conquering, persecuted, triumphant Church.

The fourth and final literary heptad is an utterly horrifying “week” of cosmic anti-creative devastation during which the just and judicial wrath of God is dispensed in measure — bowl by bowl by bowl — upon a variety of terrestrial environs and locales. These seven bowls symbolically preview and foretell a dystopian future time period on Planet Earth.

Yes, all quite weird. But that is precisely what a patient, thorough reader will encounter.

Should you attempt to survey the academic scholarship devoted to these four Apocalyptic heptads, you may be surprised at the amount of progress and scholarly consensus that has slowly emerged over the last 50 years, as it pertains to some (but definitely not all) of the symbolism and sections in the Book of Revelation. However, there is still a lot of collegial debate and disagreement about how to pull it all together into a single, coherent message. 

So… is there a single, coherent message? And if so, what is it? 

To answer that, perhaps we need to consider its purpose. A very basic question to ask about the Book of Revelation pertains to its original, intended purpose: Why is it even there? What does it contribute to the Church? Does it have a unique role in the Bible? And if it does, what is that role?

My Edu-ma-cated Assertion: The purpose of the Book of Revelation is to give the Church a selective, interpretive overview of its history and its future — the sweep of Church History: past, present, and future. Revelation reveals Church History from the vantage point of Heaven. Readers of Revelation are given cryptic, symbolic access to God’s own perspective on Church History.  

An immediate corollary: Yes, the Book of Revelation definitely does have a single, coherent message. And the message is that the Triune Sovereign God retains complete control over the course and eventualities of Church History, even when it all seems uncertain, unlikely, and untrue… because at times God’s control and sovereignty over history will seem uncertain, unlikely, and untrue, especially in the tumultous time period immediately before Christ returns. 

Note that I worded the last paragraph very carefully, with particular emphasis upon the period immediately before the Second Coming (or Advent) of Christ, because the Book of Revelation itself focuses a great deal upon that singular period of time. It is a critical period of time in Church History. And the Book of Revelation is intended to prepare the Church for that particular, forthcoming period of time.

Personally, I wonder if and suspect that we may have already entered that tumultuous time period. But I say that with considerable trepidation and great caution, knowing that others have errantly made the same claim in the past.


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.

Dominus et Deus

Monday, May 25th, 2020

A Roman-Era Key

Dominus et Deus, Audio Version

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” 

Mark Twain may or may not have said or written that. Hitherto, no one has been able to verify that the quote originated with Mark Twain. It has just been attributed to him. Maybe someday someone will find a letter or a scrap of writing in a library or an attic somewhere that verifies the quote did originate with Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. But whatever. Most of us do not need nor care to know the source of the quote. We just recognize that the quote itself is quite true. It is axiomatic. While history never does repeat itself exactly, it does often rhyme. 

Not only is that observation of history axiomatic, it is also quite biblical. Much of the prophetic material in the Bible should be read on that very premise. What has happened before will someday be recapitulated in a slightly different way. If you grasp that, you will be able to make much better sense of prophecy throughout all of scripture. A particular prophecy will describe an immediate historical event, with at least one future event also in view, and sometimes more than one. I could give several examples of this characteristic of prophecy; but for the moment, please just humor the notion that it might be so.      

Okay, since you insist, I’ll give you one example: Hosea 11:1 says “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” In context, that statement clearly refers to the people of Israel. In the Exodus, God had called them out of Egypt. God speaks of the people of Israel figuratively, as a son. But Matthew 2:15 takes the very same figurative statement and applies it literally to Jesus. So it kind of happened twice. What was true of Israel is also true of Jesus. Like Israel, Jesus himself was called out and brought out of Egypt. Sometimes prophetic history rhymes.

Over the last 48 hours, I spent hours doing my own online historical sleuthing. No, I was not trying to track down and verify Mark Twain’s alleged quote. Instead, I was trying to find out whether Emperor Domitian ever irrefutably and explicitly referred to himself as “Lord and God.” Yes, it really does matter whether Domitian made such a claim or not. It matters because if Domitian did so, his self-aggrandizement probably precipitated an existential crisis for first century Christians. Here’s the question, stated precisely: Were Christians persecuted and even martyred because they refused to call Emperor Domitian “Lord and God”? 

Construction of the Colosseum was completed during Domitian’s reign.

The answer is very probably yes. At very least, Domitian allowed people to refer to him as “Lord and God” and even established an empire-wide cultic system where it was very much encouraged, if not formally mandated. Under Domitian’s magistrates, the populace of the empire felt political and economic pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to their dear leader, to the genius of the emperor. And toward the end of Domitian’s tyrannical tenure, that meant people felt the compulsion to address him not just as “Lord,” but as both “Lord and God.” Domitian was called Dominus et Deus, Lord and God. No emperor before Domitian had ever allowed that, let alone encouraged it. Emperors were deified after they died, not while alive.   

This is a crucially important point, precisely because it may well be the fulfillment of an intriguing Old Testament prophecy from the Book of Daniel. I believe and contend that Emperor Domitian fulfills that prophecy in Daniel 7:19-27. To establish this claim as historically sound, I need to throw out some names, dates, and data. 

Somewhere I read that Eusebius said so. Eusebius says that Domitian “was the first to order himself to be called Lord and God.” But I could not find the quote anywhere. As noted in previous blog posts, Eusebius wrote the indispensable history of the early Church. In English, that history is called The History of the Church or Ecclesiastical History. Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time trying to find where in Ecclesiastical History Eusebius says that Domitian referred to himself as “Lord and God.” Nothing. Initially, I came up empty. I was looking in the wrong place. I was perplexed. I knew that I had read or heard it somewhere. 

However, even if I were to find the quote, Eusebius is not enough. I needed other historical sources. That was easy enough. Roman historians from that era did indeed say that Emperor Domitian was called “Lord and God.” Suetonius is a non-Christian historian who in his history called The Twelve Caesars says this of Domitian: 

With equal arrogance, when he dictated the form of a letter to be used by his procurators, he began it thus: “Our lord and god commands so and so;” whence it became a rule that no one should style him otherwise either in writing or speaking.

This quote from Suetonius corroborated Eusebius, or at least what I thought I had heard of Eusebius. Suetonius’s quote might even be considered a smoking gun, a sure verification. Domitian definitely wanted to be addressed as Dominus et Deus. But wait, there’s more.

Though he had to flee for his life, Dio Chrysostum managed to escape the reach of the emperor’s magisterial minions and thus survived Domitian’s reign of terror. After Domitian’s assassination, here is what Dio Chrysostum had to say in his 45th Discourse:     

Well, how I bore my exile, not succumbing to loss of friends or lack of means or physical infirmity; and, besides all this, bearing up under the hatred, not of this or that one among my equals or peers, as they are sometimes called, but rather of the most powerful, stern man, who was called by all Greeks and barbarians both master and god, but who was in reality an evil demon…    

Notice that Dio Chrysostom here states that Domitian was called both master (or Lord) and god, but was in reality an evil demon. Suetonius also goes to great lengths to demonstrate Domitian’s diabolical tendencies. His contemporaries all said Domitian was sinister and evil.

And finally, I did find the quote from Eusebius. In addition to Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius also wrote an extensive chronology called Chronicon. Eusebius is precise in dating events in Chronicon, precisely because it is a chronology of events. Here is the much-anticipated, hard-to-locate information: During the 216th Olympiad Domitian was the first [Roman Emperor] to order himself to be called “Lord and God.” By our reckoning, this edict happened sometime around 90AD/CE. 

Now go read Daniel 7:19-27 (included below). See if Emperor Domitian does not seem to be a prophetic fit.

Most scholars believe that the Book of Revelation was written near the time of Domitian’s assassination in September, 96AD/CE.  If so, Revelation’s prophecies pick up precisely where Daniel’s prophecies end. To me, that is interesting indeed.