(Published here by permission of Hymns Ancient and Modern)
If 'a text without a context is a con', there is good reason to suppose that the letter we call 'Revelation' is the source of more interpretative con-tricks than any piece of literature in the history of writing. For some it is an explosively subversive text; for others, a source of fascinating information about how the world will end. For some it radically challenges the political structures of our own day (because it exposes the dubious mechanics of human power games). For others, it underwrites the political structures of our day (because 'the end of the world is nigh', there is little point challenging its injustices). The author of Revelation has employed such varied and multivalent imagery that any attempt to interpret its contents is prone to suspicion.
Much recent scholarship, however, has sought to locate the message of the book firmly in its historical, literary and biblical context. Simon Woodman's reading of Revelation offers a clear and lively exposition of this quest, whilst at the same time adding further credibility and momentum to it. He achieves this at three levels:
Firstly, this study provides the student with an accessible introduction to the historical realities faced by the letter's initial recipients. The fact that it is addressed to small Christian congregations living in the shadow of the Roman Empire, already offers a clue to its interpretation. The military and ideological power exerted by the empire are symbolised respectively by the images of the beast and the whore, seemingly unconquerable foes. But the importance of maintaining a faithful witness to Jesus, a description of what this means for Christians, and a prophetic insight into the effects of this action upon the empire, all are emphasised with stunning clarity.
Secondly, for anyone writing about the universal Lordship of Christ in a world where Caesar is Lord, a particular style of writing is called for: apocalyptic. Simon Woodman introduces this literary genre, and uses it to provide consistent interpretation of the kaleidoscopic array of John's literary pictures. The explication of individual images is based not on some ad hoc 'this is that' hermeneutics, but upon a clear appreciation of how this literary genre functions in this particular historical setting.
Thirdly, this historical setting is one deeply immersed in Hebrew scriptures. Like many others, the present book helpfully reveals the biblical roots of the episodes, dramas and portraits of Revelation. But the greatest scholarly contribution of the present book is to provide a reading of the letter that situates it in deep continuity with the wider narrative of Scripture as a whole. The question of how God will honour his covenant with Abraham echoes throughout the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and Simon Woodman portrays a John who attends repeatedly, decisively and intriguingly to this primal question.
Its scholarly, analytic and lucid character, the provision of substantial amounts of 'hard-to-find' source material and the accessible nature of its layout, all prove this work to be an ideal guidebook for any student. But its value far exceeds that of a technical introduction. Although this book is the fruit of careful analysis and thought, it arises naturally from an obvious love for the text of Revelation itself. As such it would serve as an interpretative aid to all who are interested in exploring the meaning of the letter and its implications for those living in the modern west.
Ultimately, for anyone concerned with the question of how a God of justice can be trusted in a world plagued by injustice, this book has the capacity to provoke thought, inspire hope and compel the reader to enter into the subversive text of Revelation.
Rev Dr Simon Perry
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church