How do you read Revelation? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
At the start, this chapter looks promising. Ehrman does give an important consideration on context when reading. As he says:
When you change the context , you change the meaning . That is true of written words as well as spoken . If you read in a science fiction novel that a highly toxic virus has accidentally leaked from a top secret governmental lab and infected the entire water supply of New York City , you’d pretty much know where the story’s going . But if you read it on the front page of the New York Times , you might well get going yourself . The literary context of words is therefore just as important as their historical context . A science fiction novel is not a newspaper article ; a short story is not a haiku ; a limerick is not an epic . Every genre of literature involves an unexpressed contract between the author and her readers . Both writer and reader know the rules of this particular game , understanding what is to be expected and how expectations can be met . If the rules are bent or even virtually twisted out of shape , the reader can at least see what the author is doing and grants her the freedom to do so . Even so , there are limits . You will not find serious biographies of FDR that discuss his peace negotiations with the Martians and you will not find nineteenth – century novels comprised of highly compressed metaphors adjusted according to the requirements of rhyme and meter to fit within fourteen lines.
It’s really difficult to see something to disagree with here. Ehrman rightly says we need the literary and historical context of Revelation. Too many interpreters of the book today read it like it was written for modern times. God left a book and the main audience for the book was apparently not the people it was sent to, but a distant generation thousands of years later.
He does talk about Daniel and says there never was a Babylonian King named Belshazzar. However, he was a historical figure as we now know and could have more been described as a crown prince and perhaps a co-regent, but the best word Daniel could find was king. Now here’s something to consider. Why did Belshazzar offer Daniel the third highest position in the land? Why not #2?
Answer: It was not his to give, unless he wanted to abdicate his position. He was the son of Nabodinus, who was the king at the time and when he was away, Belshazzar would be in charge. Ironically, Belshazzar was such an unimportant figure that his name didn’t show up in later historical writings. After all, he never was the main guy sitting on the throne, and yet he shows up in Daniel. Both of these facts actually argue AGAINST a later date.
He also says it couldn’t have been written at the time of the Babylonian Exile because Aramaic wasn’t being used in Israel. However, Daniel is not writing from Israel. He is writing from Babylon and Aramaic certainly was used in Babylon at the time. Ehrman writes as if all scholarship agrees. By this, he could mean secular scholarship, and perhaps they do, but we should still look at the evidence. Furthermore, where did Daniel come from? Who was this figure that was so prominent that a later author chose to use that name instead of his own?
Ehrman, however, does get something else right in what he says about Revelation and its message:
In broad terms, the “transcendent truths” conveyed by Daniel and John are very similar. The world is a hostile place for the people of God, who are experiencing (at least in the author’s view) intense persecution. In light of their suffering, it may appear that God is not actually in control. But he is. There is evil on the earth now, but God has planned to destroy it and his plan will soon be carried out. In the near future he will obliterate those who are harming his people and exalt his chosen ones, giving them power and dominion over the other nations, forever and ever.
This is the point where a Baptist preacher would say “That’ll preach.”
He goes on to explain an example using the Whore of Babylon. He sees this as Rome, but I disagree. After all, the Beast in Revelation represents Rome in some sense, but the Beast hates the harlot. Why? The harlot has to be someone else that Rome would war against. However, she also has to represent a force that was opposed to Christianity. Now let’s see. Is there anyone in the Old Testament described as a harlot and yet also warred against Christianity in the New Testament times that the readers would know about?
This is the only interpretive point I disagree with him on. I do agree with him that the first beast in Revelation 13 is Nero Caesar. I also agree that the second beast represents cult imperial worship of the emperor.
But as we go forward, there will be much more to disagree with.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)