If what God says is the ultimate truth and all things that contradict such truth are non-truths, then consider the following scenario that follows from a doctrine of double imputation:
1) God says that as far as he is concerned, I’m innocent and perfectly righteous.
2) The Bible, my pastor, my friends, and my wife say that as far as God is concerned, I sin, and that I’m a sinner, and that I should constantly confess my sin to God, repent of it, etc. etc.
If the Bible is God’s word, then God says I’m perfect (1), then proceeds to tell me that I’m a sinner and need to confess my sins and repent of them (2).
Of course, the easy way out of this dilemma would be the “paradox vs. contradiction” distinction (i.e. they aren’t both true in the same sense). But it’s not that easy …
Both status claims are with respect to ultimate human culpability before God now and at the day of judgment. It is precisely because they are both claims about our status WITH RESPECT TO THE SAME THING that when we are declared righteous, it REPLACES our previous status as culpable sinners. That is, the logical preconditions for the doctrine of double imputation is dependent on the status of righteousness being an alternative status of the same kind in order for it to be a replacement.
But the implication of this would seem to be that we have two status’ before God—and whatever status’ we have before God are with respect to our ultimate culpability before God now and at the day of judgment. Therefore, we have two ultimate status’: 1) filthy, deserving of eternal damnation sinner and 2) perfectly righteous and deserving of eternal life.
If the status of Christ replaces our natural/earned/inherent status in Adam, then such entities must apply to the same KIND of status God has in mind for judging us on the last day, and therefore, it would not seem easy to use the paradox vs. contradiction distinction (at least not without a lengthy philosophical explanation or invoking of the category of mystery in the face of an apparent contradiction).
Other practical problems arise. Whoever is perfect actually deserves eternal life. If Christians are perfect in the present time (since God says they are once they believe in Christ and right now they are believers), they should be treated as perfect (i.e. we should live according to God’s ultimate truth).
If I really believe that the most ultimate truth about my brother in Christ’s status is that he is perfect, I should seek to treat him according to God’s truth—as one who is perfect. This goes beyond merely comforting him that he will be accepted by God on the day of judgment, but treating him as perfect every day of his life NOW (since this is God’s truth NOW and FOREVER).
But, of course, God’s word also says everyone (except Jesus) still sins and is therefore a sinner. And this is the tension I am trying to shine a light on. Do you see it? God says we are both perfect and not perfect, and it seems to be in the same sense—that is, this sense: before Him, in his judgment, as it relates to his evaluation of our culpability and moral status.
For those who accuse the double imputation of being guilty of a legal fiction (God proclaiming us to be something that we are in fact not), the response is usually this: Whatever God declares about us IS what’s true about us, so if God says we are perfect, it’s not a legal fiction—it’s the truth.
Before God, and in the sense of his moral and ethical evaluation of Christians, they are both perfect and non-perfect at the same time and (seemingly) in the same sense.
I could’ve spend a lot more time trying to articulate this tension more carefully and eloquently, but I don’t have the time. Sorry. Hope you get it. I’m sure this has been discussed somewhere in depth in some theological or philosophical journal somewhere, but I would love to read something in depth on this to get answers.
Anyone have any helpful thoughts or resources?
The following is a book review of Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006). 538 pgs.
For hundreds of years now, Christians have been told their main sources for the person of Jesus are corrupt. The real historical Jesus, if he can be known at all, cannot be known by the NT gospels.
Does history, then, undermine faith?
Bauckham does not think so, and he makes an unprecedented historical case for understanding the gospels as faithfully representing the eyewitness testimony of early Christians who knew Jesus and witnessed his ministry, miracles, and resurrection. His exceptionally conservative approach, although not shared by most scholars and historians, has created a splash in New Testament studies. His case cannot simply be ignored.
Bacukham’s proposal in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for understanding the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, though lucid and cogent, is nevertheless complex and multifaceted. The ingenious originality of this work, combined with its broad scope of unexplored possibilities, have led at least one reviewer to criticize it on the grounds that “the sheer amount of information and analysis … presented is overwhelming at times” (Byron, 115).
To get a handle on a quick summary, this review will attempt to first explain the significance of the work by setting it in the context of mainstream scholarship on the gospels. Second, we will briefly highlight Bauckham’s reconstruction of the historiographic context in which the gospels were written, how oral tradition and memory fit into his argument, his explanation of the unexplained phenomenon of names in the gospels, and finally, his case for the identity of the “beloved disciple.”
Uncontrolled Oral Transmission Over Several Generations
Central to the current project of form criticism, argues Bauckham, is this assumption: by the time the oral Jesus traditions crystallized in the written gospels of the Christian canon, they no longer faithfully preserved the real history of Jesus of Nazareth. This is because such oral traditions were, according to form critics, subjected to “a long process of anonymous transmission” relatively uncontrolled (6, 8). The original arguments of form critics such as Bultmann compared the oral transmission process to folklore, which passed from generation to generation over long periods of time. Such a model, it was thought, explains why such a wide variety of both similarity and dissimilarity exists between the gospels.
Such a model is now rejected. The unchecked presupposition of form critics that the anonymous transmission over a long span of time, however, stubbornly remains (7, 249). Thus, speculations about what Sitz im Leben each literary unit originated from leave the impression that the gospels shed more light on the early church’s faith than the historical person of Jesus (244). Such a dichotomy inevitably forces historians to reconstruct alternative Jesus’s with imaginative speculations (3).
The “generally accepted” dates for the gospels make any comparison with folklore entirely inappropriate by severely limiting the intervening period of time between the events of Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Jesus traditions (7). Furthermore, the assumptions by which form critics understood themselves to be discovering the pure form of the oral tradition have been undermined by subsequent scholarship. For example, Mark’s gospel was thought to be composed of short saying or stories about Jesus superficially strung together by the redactor (242).
More sophisticated connectivity and plot, however, have long since been recognized in Mark by form critics themselves (243). Scandinavian scholars have examined models of oral transmission in rabbinic Judaism (as opposed to Folklore or Hellenistic literature) and concluded that it provides a model for understanding the early Jesus traditions (249). Kenneth Baily’s studies on oral tradition have also influenced scholars like N. T. Wright and James Dunn, moving scholarship well beyond the initial form critical mold (252). Scholars now openly challenge Bultmann’s “laws” of tradition (247) and believe “the kind of tradition history Bultmann thought could be reconstructed did not exist” (248).
The Historiographic Context of Early Christianity
Contrary to form critical orthodoxy, the earliest evidence for how the early Christians would have conceived of the composition of the gospels suggests that the Jesus traditions were “attached to specific named eyewitnesses” or “tradents” (20). Papias might have written in 110 C.E., but the time period he recalls when the Jesus traditions were still being sought after was much earlier, which makes the Papian fragments crucial evidence for the “historiographic context” in which the gospels were composed (14, 24). Bauckham’s analysis concludes that Papias’s wording reflects the “historiographic ‘best practice’” of valuing first-hand eyewitness as the most important source in historical accounts (24).
Borrowing the language of Byrskog, Bauckham understands Papias to have sought either “autopsy” or “indirect autopsy” (from living eyewitnesses such as John the Elder or disciples of such tradents such as Aristion) according to the standard practice of the day for writing history (24). His “deliberate” language of the viva vox had “wide currency” during this time (cf. Loveday Alexander’s research, 21-23) and therefore is the proper historiographic context for understanding how the gospels were written (22, 25). Eyewitness testimony was considered the most important source, but the job of the historian was to preserve these faithfully while giving them the “properly ordered form,” as Kürzinger’s translation makes more clear in Papias’s intentional appeal to this language (26).
For Bauckham, “a key implication” is this: the evidence of the Papian fragments shows that the Jesus traditions were tied to the eyewitnesses who originated them (28). Diametrically opposed to the assumptions of form critics, Papias’s account shows that the more “anonymous” the tradition was, the less valuable it was to Papias (29). If this is the earliest extra-biblical evidence for how early Christians sought to write their own account of Jesus’ life and ministry, we should expect that the gospels were written with the same historiographic goal in mind. This would make sense, for example, of the strong extrabiblical tradition that the gospel of Mark was derived chiefly from the eyewitness of Peter, and the parallel to Papias’s Prologue in Luke’s introduction (Luke 1:2).
Formally Controlled Transmission with Limited Flexibility
Bauckham borrows from Bailey’s work (as do Wright and Dunn) to suggest that the historiographic context (in which individual tradents of the Jesus tradition were authoritative guarantors) calls for a more nuanced conception in which the essentials of the oral tradition were “formally controlled” from the outset by eyewitness who were such “from the beginning” (262) while a limited amount of flexibility was allowed regarding the retelling of peripheral details (258, 287). In this case, a reasonable use of Ockham’s Razor would suggest that “there is no good reason to suppose that the range of variation of particular traditions was even greater than the range we find in the Gospels themselves” (259).
This is confirmed by Pauline language of “the traditions” (1 Cor 11:2) that he “received” and subsequently “delivered,” expecting them to “hold fast” to it (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1,3; Gal 1:9; Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6) without corrupting it (264). Paul understood himself to be the “mechanism of control” (258) of this tradition in the Christian communities while the Jerusalem church still played the central role of authority (265-266).
The Role and Reliability of Memory
Bauckham also wants to rid readers of the impression that once oral tradition is absorbed into the “collective memory” of a community, it becomes disconnected with the individual memory of the eyewitness tradent (292-293). Since the content of these formally controlled traditions involves memory, and since reconstructive theories have tended to emphasize the unreliability of memory, Bauckham navigates the research to explore how the evidence of such research can in fact support the general reliability of the eyewitness testimony of the earliest disciples, and how “deferred meaning” can be a legitimate way of making better sense of the whole of one’s experience, retrospectively constructing a more satisfying “meaning” in the present from the “facts” of the past (319-357).
The Phenomenon of Names & The Synoptic Problem
If Papias was so eager to tell his readers that his rendition of the Jesus traditions was informed by eyewitness sources, and this was so important to the early Christian community—why are the gospels not also prefaced with attributes to their sources? With some qualifications, Bauckham is able to argue that the gospels, in a subtle way, do in fact attribute the whole of their account to eyewitness.
Although eyewitnesses other than the twelve appear in the gospels indicating eyewitness testimony of minor tradents (especially for Luke’s account), the outstanding preservation of lists of those who were with Jesus “from the beginning” also demonstrates their central role in the controlling of the traditions (114-147). Bauckham’s chapter on Palestinian Jewish names shows that it is unlikely these names were simply added as literary devices (67-84). This makes the claim that they were preserved because they were the sources behind the traditions more plausible (84).
Although among the twelve disciples only a few of them have any significant roles in these gospels, their names are carefully preserved with Peter always at the front of the list due to the chief role of his eyewitness authority. There are traces of a “Peterine perspective in Mark” along with what Bauckham calls the literary devise of inclusio in which Peter’s name is carefully placed at the beginning and end of the book to indicate qualification for being the authentic eyewitness source for Mark’s gospel (155-182).
This is confirmed again by Papias’s fragments that speak of Mark as Peter’s “interpreter” (which just means he had to translate Peter’s Aramaic into Greek like a secretary, 206). Certain anonymous persons who aided Jesus, anointed him as Messiah in his messianic visit to Jerusalem, or defended him with use of violence at his arrest remain anonymous for protective purposes (this he calls “protective anonymity,” 183-201).
Bauckham argues that Papias must have compared Mark unfavorably to the other gospels, however, for its lack of chronological order (taxis), and this explains why the other synoptic gospels were written (219). Luke’s gospel built off Peter’s testimony in Mark, and therefore similarly has the Petrine inclusio, yet is especially enriched by the women eyewitnesses and thus forms a double inclusio (130-132).
Mark’s lack of taxis also helps explain why Matthew wrote his gospel, according to Papias, in “the Hebrew language” with taxis, but then the ordinary freedom others took in translating it tarnished this order (222-224). This helps explain, in turn, why the gospel of John, with its more precise chronology, was written (225), which contains the name of its eyewitness author—the “beloved disciple” (227-228).
The Case for the Identity of the Gospel of John
Bauckham reestablishes the epilogue as authentic and integral to the gospel then argues that the author of the gospel who speaks with an “authoritative we” in John is none other than “the beloved disciple”—an eyewitness “from the beginning” according to that gospel (358-383). The author wrote this gospel through self autopsy with the help of other individual disciples; this explains the gospel’s eccentricity (403). It is the most theologically audacious gospel also for this reason—it was the only gospel written by an eyewitness “from the beginning” (411). But who is its author?
Papias’s Johannine language, list of disciples, and favoring of John’s gospel, along with his talk about “John the Elder,” makes it plausible that this John was the author of the gospel (417-423) but Eusebius edited his comments about this due to his own bias (424). The Muratorian Canon also appears to rely on Papias (427). Polycrates identifies John of Ephesus as “a priest, wearing the high-priestly frontlet,” the most unambiguous way to designate him as high priest (445-446). The simplest explanation, suggests Bauckham, is that Polycrates and the Ephesus tradition simply identified John with the John in Acts 4:6, for such exegetical identification was common in the early Christian movement (451). But this means they did not identify him with John the son of Zebedee (452). Finally, Irenaeus, who came from the province of Asia, identifies the John of Ephesus with the author of the gospel of John (453).
STARING ACROSS LESSING’S GREAT DITCH
Details of Bauckham’s case may be disputed, but his approach as a whole, as Bond points out, depends on “whether the hypothesis as a whole accounts for the evidence better than that of the form critics” (Bond, 270). If it stands the test of further research, scholars who have become cozy and comfortable in their skepticism may find themselves uncomfortably close to the real Jesus of history. Rather than a chasm between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, Lessing’s Great Ditch will be narrowed to only a short leap. For many this might open the floodgates of exciting new possibilities for a union between synoptic historical integrity and Christian faith.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: OTHER REVIEWS CONSULTED
Bond, Helen K. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal of Theological Studies, no. 1 (April, 2008): 268 – 271.
Byron, John. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Ashland Theological Journal 39 (2007): 113 – 115.
Downing, Gerald F. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Theology 111, no. 861 (May-June, 2008): 190 – 191.
Köstenberger, Andreas J. Stephen O. Stout. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Bulletin for Biblical Research 18, no. 2 (2008): 209 – 231.
Paget, James Carleton. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal of Ecclesiastical History 59, no. 1 (January, 2008): 83 – 84.
Palmer, Darryl W. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Austrailian Biblical Review 56 (2008): 77 – 79.
Perry, Peter S. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Currents in Theology and Mission 35, no. 6 (December, 2008): 450.
Scaer, Peter J. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Logia 16, no. 4 (2007): 58 – 60.
Taylor, Nicholas H. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 5 (2008): 40 – 41.
Tolppanen, Kari. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Toronto Journal of Theology 24, no. 1 (2008): 98 – 100.
Wicker, James R. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Southwestern Journal of Theology 50, no. 1 (2007): 96 – 98.
The following is my Book Review of: Kenneth L. Gentry, The Beast of Revelation. Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, 2002.
Although Kenneth Gentry has amassed considerable evidence from historical sources in his attempt to argue for the preterist position, he rightly complains that church tradition has played too large of a role in the dating of the book of Revelation while the internal evidence often is not given its proper weight (4-5). Although Gentry must assume an early date of Revelation for his position to carry any weight, he nevertheless organizes his book so that the internal evidence is given prominent importance.
The first half of his book is spent showing just how impressively the Roman Emperor Nero appears to satisfy all the prophecies of the Book of Revelation. The second half of the book, however, is given to strengthening Gentry’s position by exploring the different types of evidences for an early date of Revelation—including external evidence. While giving internal evidence the loudest voice for the dating of Revelation, Gentry by no means marginalizes external evidence. On the contrary, he gives a thorough look at the evidence used for a late date and engages late-date arguments with remarkable aptitude.
In this review I will attempt to mostly summarize Gentry’s reasoning, with words of appraisal more or less sprinkled throughout. Because the material on the evidence for a late date is more complex and difficult to summarize, my comments about the second half of the book will be selective. It is no wonder that the evidence and argumentation Gentry marshals for an early date and Neronic theory of the Beast has been compelling enough to cause those who still hold for future fulfillment of the prophecies of revelation to capitulate by granting an first century fulfillment of the majority of the events of Revelation—“though they attempted to argue for a double fulfillment of prophecies” (96).
The Neronic Theory: The Beast of Revelation
Gentry begins by listing all the biblical details about the beast in the book of Revelation (8-10). The beast
1) has a number—666—which is “that of a man” (Rev 13:18)
2) is an evil man of debased character (Rev 13, 17, 18)
a) depicted as a compound of three wild carnivores (Rev 13:2)
b) wages war against the saints (Rev 13:7)
c) demands worship for himself (13:8, 12, 15)
d) arrogantly blasphemes God (13:5-6)
e) carries with him a despicable harlot (Rev 17:3-4) that is drunk on the blood of the saints (Rev 17:6; 18:24)
3) possesses “great authority” (Rev 13:2, 7)
4) is one of John’s contemporaries (Rev 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10)
5) is relevant to first century Christians (Rev 1:3-4, 11, 13:8)
Based on this criterion for identification of the beast, Gentry disagrees with Leon Morris that possibilities for identifying the beast are endless (10). He calls the shift in imagery from identifying the beast as a kingdom in some places (Rev 13:1 cf. 17:10-11) and an individual in other places (Rev 13:8; 17:11) a shift between the “generic and the specific” and admits it is a frustrating aspect of the description of the beast: is it a kingdom or a man? (10).
Rather than picking between the two, Gentry identifies the beast “generically considered” as the Roman Empire, and the beast individually considered as a first century Roman Emperor: Nero Claudius Caesar (13). The seven heads, which the book of Revelation interprets as the “seven mountains” (Rev 17:9) undoubtedly refers to the Rome, “the one city in history distinguished by and recognized for its seven mountains” (12). What is more, “both secular and ecclesiastical history record that the first imperial persecution of Christianity began in this seven-hilled city under the emperor Nero Caesar in A.D. 64.” (12).
A brief historical survey of Nero’s life—without explicitly pressing any analogy to the beast of Revelation—leaves the reader half-way convinced before the book really gets into the details of argumentation (11-19). If nothing else, the reader is convinced that Nero fits the description of an evil man of debased character.
He castrated the boy Sporus, tried to make a woman out of him, then he “married” him with the usual wedding ceremonies of the day (16); he covered himself in wild animal skins and attacked the private parts of men and women bound to stakes as a game; he murder his own mother (who was the one responsible for bringing him to power!) and ordered Seneca to commit suicide (which he did!); he divorced his wife to marry his mistress Poppaea; he banished Octavia to an island upon Poppaea’s orders and had him beheaded, then later kicked Poppaea to death while she was pregnant and ill; he exhausted the imperial treasures for “self-glorifying building projects and profligate living,” and falsely accused Roman nobles of various crimes in order to confiscate their estates; he is said by Suetonius to have “showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whomsoever he pleased on any pretext whatever”; he accused Christians of starting the fire that burnt Rome and persecuted them mercilessly; he neglected his rule of Rome for a two year visit to Greece to appear in their musical festival—because he vainly fancied himself as one of the world’s greatest musicians (16-17)!
His wickedness was so great, his own subjects and military leaders rebelled against him, and when he heard they were going to put him to a cruel and shameful death, he rammed a sword through his own neck with the assistance of his secretary Epaphroditus (18).
In his chapter, “The Relevance of the Beast,” Gentry drives home the “strategic placement of the time references” (John carefully brackets Revelation with bold time references) and the “frequent repetition” of these time references (24). In at least eleven verses John warns his audience of the nearness of the events prophesied in the book (Rev 1:1, 3; 2:16; 3:10-11; 6:17; 10:6; 22:6, 7, 10, 12, 20). John’s varied expression of the temporal references makes it difficult to doubt his meaning (24-25). These temporal references parallel the temporal references in the other New Testament books (Mt 23:36; 24:34; 26:64; Mk 9:1; Acts 2:16-20, 40; Rom 13:11, 12; 16:20; 1 Cor 7:26, 29-31; Col 3:6; 1 Thess 2:16; Heb 10:25, 37; Jm 5:8, 9; 1 Pt 4:5, 7). A helpful comparison with Daniel shows that while Daniel seals his prophetic work because its events were far off in the distant future, John, on the other hand, was commanded not to seal his work on account of the nearness of the time (Dan 12:4; Rev 22:10).
Interpretations that understand John’s warning that “the time is near” (Rev 1:3) to be telling his persecuted audience that “when help comes it will come with swiftness—even though it may not come until two or three thousand years later” (e.g. Walvoord and Ice) or “the events are always imminent—though the readers and their great, great grandchildren may never experience them” (e.g. Mounce and Johnson) or “God will send help soon—according to the way the Eternal God measures time” (e.g. Swete and Morris) would be tantamount to a cruel mocking of the circumstances of the churches to which John wrote (27-28). Gentry believes that these approaches are “destroyed by the very fact that John repeats and varies his terms” for temporal proximity (27). He also reminds his readers that Revelation functions as an “occasional epistle” to first century Christians (28).
In light of the temporal references in Revelation (not to mention the obvious references to first century entities), why would anyone have trouble understanding the prophecies of Revelation to be fulfilled in the first century A.D.? The most obvious answer is this: the temporal references also apparently apply to the second coming of Jesus Christ, which does not appear to have occurred: “Behold, He is coming with the clouds and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him” (Rev 1:7); “I am coming quickly” (Rev 3:11).
This leads less conservative handlers of the biblical revelation to conclude that John’s expectancy—like that of the early church in general—was simply mistaken, much like religious enthusiasts throughout Church history that expected Christ to return in a certain year during their lifetime (26). This seems to force those who believe in the doctrine of inspiration to find some other way to interpret the temporal references like Walvoord, Ice, Mounce, Johnson, Swete, Morris, and many others have done. However, Gentry offers a much easier and viable alternative: rather than mustering up strained interpretations of the temporal references, Gentry’s approach is to understand the language about Christ’s “coming” on the clouds from the vantage point of apocalyptic symbolism (28-29).
This cloud-coming of Christ in judgment reminds us of Old Testament cloud-comings of God in judgment upon ancient historical people and nations (Pss. 18:7-15; 104:3; Isa. 19:1; Joel 2:1, 2; Hab. 1:2ff.; Zeph. 1:14, 15). For example, Isaiah 19:1 speaks of an historical, Old Testament judgment upon Egypt: “The oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud, and is about to come to Egypt; the idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them” (29).
Just as this cloud-coming imagery is employed when God used the armies of the ancient empires to bring his judicial judgment upon whatever people he desired in the Old Testament, including Israel, so John, operating within the Jewish tradition, employs similar language to prophesy judicial judgment upon “those who pierced him” (Rev 1:7). Who are those who pierced him? “The New Testament emphatically points to first century Israel as responsible for crucifying Christ (John 19:6, 15; Acts 2:22-23, 36; 3:13-15; 5:30; 7:52; 1 Thess 2:14-15)” (29). What is more, Jesus also warned the Jewish leaders that they would witness this coming judgment (Mt 26:64 cf. 23:31-36; 24:30, 34). Not only did the Jewish War with Rome bring about the slaughter of 1.1 million Jews according to Josephus, but historians record “the utter devastation of Jerusalem, the final destruction of the temple and the conclusive cessation of the sacrificial system … [which was] a unifying national symbol” (30).
God’s using Rome to execute his punishment on the Jews reminds us of the devastation God brought upon Israel by means of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, but “the covenantal significance of the temple’s demise stands as the most dramatic outcome of the war” (31). It brought an end to Torah-keeping Judaism because without the temple keeping the details of Torah is impossible (31). “The loss of the temple was an unrepeatable loss, for it has never been rebuilt … any Jewish calamity after A.D. 70 would pale in comparison to the redemptive-historical significance of the loss of the temple” (31). Because the prophecies of the Beast are entwined with the prophecies of soon-to-come judgment of the Jewish nation—which was fulfilled in 70 A.D. when Rome sacked Jerusalem—the Beast must be a first century figure. “To assert that the Beast is any contemporary figure existing in our own time (or in our future) absolutely misses John’s entire point” (32).
As satisfying as Gentry’s hermeneutics are compared to those whose interpretations do not do the temporal references justice, his arguments for the number of the Beast are even more satisfying and fascinating. He does not regard the number 666 as an uncertain mysterious riddle, but a number that John expected his contemporaries to understand (Rev 13:18). The practice of cryptogram—using the double function of alphabets to assign a given name a numerical value—was a common phenomenon in Ancient cultures. “Archaeologists have discovered many illustrations of cryptograms as graffiti on ancient city walls” (38).
For example, the Greek inscription “I love her whose number is 545” was found in an excavation at Pompeii (38). Thereby, “the name of the lover is concealed; the beloved will know it when she recognizes her name in the sum of the numerical value of the 3 letters” (40). More relevant to our topic, “anti-Nero cryptograms were already circulating when John wrote Revelation” (40). Consulting the Babylonian Talmud and other ancient Rabbinic writings shows that the practice of cryptogram was also used by Jewish Rabbis. “The ancient Christian sibylline Oracles has Jesus’ name as equivalent to ‘888’ and makes use of number values to indicate initials of various Roman emperors, including Nero” (40).
John’s reducing the name of the Beast (“the number of a man”) to the numerical value of the letters of his name, then, was a common practice of his day—not our own. “Several scholars of the nineteenth century—Fritzsche, Holtzmann, Benary, Hitzig and Reuss—each stumbled independently upon the name Nero Caesar almost simultaneously” (42). The spelling of Nero’s name as it is found in Hebrew spellings in archeological finds turns out to yield exactly the number 666 (42). Giving even more confirmation is the fact that a significant number of manuscript variants have 616 rather than 666. Such a variant is not easily dismissed as a copyist error, but is widely believed to have been intentional. Gentry reasons:
When Revelation began circulating among those less acquainted with Hebrew, a well-meaning copyist who knew the meaning of 666 might have intended to make its deciphering easier by altering it to 616. It surely is no mere coincidence that 616 is the numerical value of “Nero Caesar,” when spelled in Hebrew by transliterating it from its more common Latin spelling. This conjecture satisfactorily explains the rationale for the divergence: so that the non-Hebrew might more readily discern the identity of the Beast. Even late-date advocate Donald Guthrie, who rejects the Nero theory, grants that this variant gives the designation Nero “a distinct advantage.” As renowned Greek scholar Bruce Metzger says: “Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters (nrwn qsr) is equivalent to 666, whereas the Latin form Nero Caesar (nrw qsr) is equivalent to 616.” Such a possibility offers a remarkable confirmation of the designation of Nero (43).
One of the major objections to this view of the mark of the Beast is the silence of the early church fathers (44). But Gentry points out that Irenaeus admits ignorance on the matter rather than proposing an alternative designation for the cryptogram (44-45). Arguments from silence are the weakest kind (45). After exploring several arguments against the Nero theory, Gentry concludes: “Only with great difficulty may we discount the many ways in which Nero fits the expectations of Revelation. [Nero] is the only first-century historical figure that can possibly fulfill all of the requirements.”
In chapters four through seven, Gentry shows how Nero, the Beast specifically considered, sufficiently and uniquely fulfills the depictions of the character, war, worship of the Beast, and how the Roman Empire of the first century, generically considered, fulfills the depiction of the death and revival of the Beast. Gentry shows how Nero more than qualifies to fulfill the expectation of the character depicted of the beast in the book of Revelation. Nero was of such a beastly nature, he was given the nickname “beast” by a pagan writer Apollonius (53). The Sibylline Oracles refer to Nero as “a destructive beast” and “the great beast” (53). Corresponding to Revelation’s imagery of the Beast as one who is given “power to make ware against the saints” (Rev 13:7) for forty-two months (Rev 13:5), Nero removed Christianity from the protected status of religio licita and began the first Roman imperial persecution of Christians, setting a legal precedent that undoubtedly influenced future persecutions of Christians by other Roman emperors (62-63).
What is more, a cacophony of historians witness that Nero’s assault on Christians was arguably the most severe, consisting of “public butcheries frequently recurring on a colossal scale” (65-66). As if this were not enough, the Neronic persecutions lasted from the latter part of Novermber in A.D. 64 to June A.D. 68—exactly the length of time (but for a few days) the writer of the apocalypse of Revelation prophecies! In contrast with this, the Domitianic “persecution” is scarcely even documented—not even mentioned by a single secular historian of the era (69). Corresponding to the imagery of the worship of the Beast (Rev 13:4), Nero received and demanded worship while still alive—a practice even bolder than the imperial cult of emperor worship that was a familiar feature of Rome’s imperial history which allowed for emperors to be worshiped only after they were dead (81-82). “Nero himself actually demanded such worship in a way unsurpassed by any previous emperor, except, perhaps, for Caligula” (84).
The manner of Nero’s death—suicide by sword—corresponds to the prophecy of Revelation 13:10 (89-90). The chaos that ensued after Nero’s death corresponds to the mortal sword wound inflicted on the head as a wound that should have been fatal to the Beast generically considered in Revelation 13:3-4 (91). With the death of Nero, “the Julio-Claudian line of emperors perished from the earth,” and the civil wars that followed were of such great ferocity and of such dramatic proportions that they almost destroyed the empire (92). However, what might have been the death blow of the Roman empire was rescued when the Flavian family firmly established a new royal line (95). This unexpected bounce back was enough to add to the Roman prestige. “The relevant verses in Revelation reflect the death and revivification of the Beast, that is, the earth-shaking historical events of the late 60s wherein Rome died (A.D. 68), as it were, and returned again to life (A.D. 69).
The seven heads of the Beast represent seven kings, and the Beast is herein considered generically as the Roman Empire with its line of emperors: “Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction” (Rev 17:9-11). Because “the beast” imagery in this passage represents the Roman Empire—not an individual Emperor—the eighth king refers “to the revival of the Empire itself under one [Vespasian] who is outside of the originally specified seven kings. … In addition, the number eight appears to be the number of resurrection” in first century Jewish thought because “the eighth day is the beginning of a new week” (97).
The Dating of Revelation: Internal and External Evidence
In the second half of his book, Gentry focuses on the dating of Revelation. He underscores its importance for interpretation. The early date outlook views Revelation as having been written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—Gentry opts for sometime between A.D. 64 (after the Neronic persecutions broke out) to early 67 A.D. (just prior to Rome’s attack against the Jews known as the Jewish Wars). “The position one takes on this issue has a great bearing on the interpretive possibilities available” (106). Gentry’s basic argument is that the early date allows for Revelation to contain the appropriate level of relevance to its immediate audience while the late date lends the prophecies of Revelation to “be opened to an endless series of speculative scenarios, which could be extrapolated into the indefinite future” and minimizing original audience relevance (110-111).
The broad consensus about the theme of Revelation strengthens Gentry’s argument because the theme is the soon “coming” of Christ, which was intended to comfort the first century churches undergoing persecution (116-117). Comforting the early church by prophesying a soon coming of Christ against “those who pierced him” makes little sense if such a “coming” lie millennia away and would in no way alter the situation of the early church. “Only a pre-A.D. 70 date fits the circumstances” (127). Furthermore, the “tribes of the earth” who “morn” at this coming refer to the Jewish tribes because the Greek word translated “earth” is better translated “land,” in which case the theme verse of Revelation would read:
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him [i.e. the Jews: John 19:6, 15; Acts 2:22-23, 36; 3:13-15; 5:30; 7:52; 1 Thess 2:14-15] ; and all the tribes of the land will mourn over Him. –Revelation 1:7
When the word “the land” occurs with the definite article and without any modifiers in the Bible it signifies the Promise Land—namely, Israel (120-121). Couple this with Jesus’ seven woe’s and warnings that to the Jewish leaders, saying “upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth … All this will come upon this generation. … Look, your house [i.e. the temple] is left to you desolate” (Mt 23:35-36, 38). The Christians, then, who had experienced persecution from the Jews and imperial Rome, would be comforted by the prophecies of Revelation that assured them of the coming destruction of both the Jews (Rev 1:7) and the Beast [Nero] (13:10; 17:11) “must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). In light of this, any understanding of these prophecies that anticipate their fulfillment over two millenniums beyond the persecuted Christians to whom John wrote to comfort is hard to understand.
The theme of Revelation, then, and the very reasons for being written, are internal evidence in favor of a pre-A.D. 70 date. In the book of Revelation, the “sixth king” is the one who “now is” (i.e. is presently reigning). If Gentry’s interpretation is correct, then, this would have to refer to Nero. It just so happens, that Nero was the sixth ruler of the Roman Empire (139). But there is yet more. “Historically the next ruler of the Empire reigned only briefly. … The next ruler to appear after Nero was Galba, who reigned only seven months. … By almost any standard, Galba’s brief rule of seven months was a ‘little while’—Nero’s immediately preceding rule had exceeded thirteen years” (139). Although some object that Nero was actually the fifth ruler of the Roman Empire on the grounds that Julius Caesar was technically not an emperor and that John is talking about “kings” and not emperors, the audience of John’s day—including Roman and Jewish historians—unanimously understood Julius Caesar to be the first of the line of Emperors, and the ancient writers had the tendency to call the emperors “kings” (141-42).
The most compelling evidence against the early date is a statement by the early church father Irenaeus:
We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.
“The late-date advocate argues that this serves as compelling evidence that John ‘saw’ the Revelation ‘at the end of the reign of Domitian’” who ruled after, not before A.D. 70 (205). However, several problems with this argument are apparent upon closer examination. Among such problems, and arguably the most serious challenge for late date advocates is this: the understanding of the words “that was seen” is disputed because it could be translated “it was seen” also, in which case it would refer to John himself, not the apocalyptic revelation which John saw (206). “Either one will work grammatically,” but this puts Irenaeus’ statement as evidence for a late date in serious doubt, for it must assume a disputable translation (206).
The sheer amount of specific ways Nero seems to fit the prophetic imagery of Revelation—his character, his being the sixth emperor of Rome, his death by sword, his number, his being relevant to the situation of the original audience, his ability to fit the time limitations of the prophecies, his extreme vanity and demand to be worshipped, his establishing the first and most severe official imperial persecution of Christians, his coming from the city of “seven hills,” his reigning just before the civil wars of Rome that threatened the empire’s power, his affiliation with the power entity that destroyed Jerusalem and the temple that ceased Torah based Judaism—is historically verifiable evidence that hits the reader like a “river that no man can cross” (18).
Never in my life have I read or heard more persuasive argumentation for the interpretation of the Book of Revelation than in Gentry’s book. Although some of the pieces of Gentry’s position are less persuasive, his approach as a whole makes more sense of the internal and external evidence while providing satisfying confidence about the biblical prophetic imagery.
The following is a book review of the following book: Thomas F. Madden, The New Conscise History of the Crusades (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 280 pgs.
Madden’s Concerns and Emphases
Madden is driven by the concern that popular histories retell myths about the Crusades long dispelled by historians, an error which he hopes to correct with his own popular treatment that will be more reflective of the “fruits of half a century of modern scholarship” (x). He also desires to emphasize that the “numbered crusades” approach (which only analyses the crusades’ “peaks”) oversimplifies the complexity of the historical situation, fails to account for the broader phenomenon of crusading that transcends pilgrimages to the Holy Land (in which case “there is no reason its history should abruptly end in 1291”), and tends to give the curious impression that Europe simply “periodically exploded with crusading zeal” (xi). The author is concerned to show that the crusades were first and foremost a reaction to Islamic expansion—the Spanish reconquista was equal in sanctity to the eastern expeditions (xii).
One of the myths the author wants to dispel is the colonial/imperial theory based on a certain interpretation of demographic evidence. Europe’s population may have soared during the tenth century (and this might have created a need for more land), but to think of the crusades as Europe’s first colonial wars (in Madden’s informed opinion) fails to take into account Jonathan Riley-Smith’s studies that show “solid evidence” to the contrary (11-12). Madden thinks Sir Steven Runiciman’s three-volume work History of the Crusades (1951-54) “single-handedly crafted the current popular concept of the crusades” which he hopes to correct (216).
Only miniscule percentage of noble knights even accompanied the crusade. The vast majority of these knights were not “spare sons” looking for lands to rule because they were already “lords” of their own estates back home (11-12). Furthermore, just to go on the crusades meant in many cases spending up to six years of annual income (i.e. to impoverish one’s family) and the pope made clear that “all lands captured were to belong to the ‘prince’ in command at the time” (12). The vast majority of crusaders “returned to Europe with neither riches nor land” (12). Therefore, it is unsound to suppose these crusaders were basically aristocrats (and their armies) inspired at the idea of acquiring land and wealth. They may not have been saints (and war crimes no doubt occurred), yet “most noblemen who joined the crusade did so from a simple and sincere love of God” (13).
Madden tells of Godfrey of Bouillon, for example, to show how the crusade leaders were motivated more by religious hopes than material hopes, for Godfrey’s efforts to join the crusade inverted his hard earned gains to losses, yet he went anyway and “clearly planned to come home after the crusade” (20). On the other hand, he depicts the Byzantine Emperor Alexius as a manipulative and “cunning” ruler (22). Richard the Lionheart is perhaps another example, for while he sacrificed his time and talent to the enterprise on the Levant, his lands back home were being taken by Philip the August (94). Richard had no plans to stay in Jerusalem for personal gains.
Locating Madden in Historiographies on Crusades
In the big picture, Madden sees his own historical approach to the crusades as “a middle course between the traditional and revisionist constructions” (xiii). By this, he basically means that: 1) like the traditional constructions he spends the majority of his time focusing on the foreign expeditions (although he believes the phenomena of crusading transcends these “numbered” crusades) yet 2) as a revisionist he extends his treatment beyond the fall of Acre in 1291 “until the point that (it seems to [him]) that Europeans themselves lost interest in” crusading (xiii). Rather than going by the traditional periodization of through the ninth crusade, he typically divides the crusades according to imperial investment (e.g. the crudes of Fredrick II, 143; the crusades of St. Louis, 167) or century (e.g. the crusades of the fourteenth century, 192; crusading the fifteenth century, 201).
Madden’s Discernable Assumptions
He thinks post-Enlightenment ideology wrongly tends to lead to the conviction that religious beliefs are largely irrelevant (1), which tips off the reader that the author himself must believe that religious beliefs are in fact relevant. When Madden claims that the nature of war is basically constant, with only peripheral details fluxing (such as technology, tactics, etc.), this unfortunately gives the reader the impression that distinctions between just war and unjust war are superficial, since the nature of just and unjust wars alike are, to the author, only different in their use of weapons and tactics (1).
In other words, the author’s comments on page one seem to suggest that he disdain’s war—regardless of context. Given this impression, when the author notes that Christianity was a peaceful religion from its inception and Islam was a war-making religion from its inception (1-3), the reader is left to guess that Madden probably favors Christianity over Islam—or at least that it has more potential. His notice that it is human nature to fight for what is most dear to them (whether secular or religious) does not relieve this tension (223), for given his earlier statements, the implication is still this: whether just or unjust, religious or secular, war is all basically the same.
By commenting on the violence of the anti-Jewish crusade leaders, the author uses only one word to describe their nature—“infamous” (18). Not surprisingly, by describing the events this way and failing to defend the “justness” of these raids, he implicitly concedes of their embarrassingly shameful character.
When Madden tells the reader that the medieval widespread belief of “right made might” (a crafty turn of phrase inverting ethical relativism’s maxim “might makes right”) would receive a blow during the crusading movement, he appears to hint at the naïveté of the maxim and its inability to explain reality (15). This is further reinforced when the author, in spite of victory against all odds, summarizes the entire first crusade as a “naïve enterprise” (34). The reader gets the impression that the crusaders won their victory against all odds not because God was with them, but out of sheer luck.
Complementing this, the author is not satisfied to let the “visions” seen by crusaders in desperate times be explained apart from anthropological considerations: “It is not surprising,” he says, “that in such desperate straits, the visions that were always a part of the crusade increased in frequency” (29). This short comment may reveal that the author is skeptical about the claim that these visions really came from divine revelation since they are sufficiently explained in light of human desperation. The author also appears skeptical about the interpretation of astronomical signs that gave hope to the crusaders (33).
Most of the detail in Madden’s book was new to me. The summaries of the crusades in previous overviews of church history were only enough to give me a general impression of what the crusades were like. Madden’s general retelling of the history did not contradict this initial impression but rather further confirmed it.
In spite of Madden’s warnings against seeing the crusades as a colonial/imperial enterprise, I could not help but notice how many times (from the beginning to the end) internal factions over who ruled what, booty distribution, and other purely secular concerns often took precedence over the initial/formal/religious reasons for the enterprise of the crusades.
For example, Behemond of Taranto appears to fit something like the colonial theory. He was a son of the Normal leader Robert Guiscard and had lost his hopes for power, so was “ambitious for personal gain” (22). Immediately after taking Antioch, Bohemond and Raymond begin to squabble over who “deserved to have the city” (30). As Baldwin IV rots of his leprosy, Count Raymond III of Tripoli, Archbishop William of Tyre, Agnes of Courtenay and Reynald of Chatillon, as well as Joscelin III of Courtenay and Guy of Lusignan all composed factions vying for control (71). After Sibylla was crowned queen of Jerusalem and outmaneuvered the party to get Guy on the throne with her, Raymond, in his bitterness over his loss of power, made an alliance with Saladin (74).
These sorts of internal factions and betrayals over power are so commonplace in Madden’s recounting of the crusades and the history of the crusader states, one begins to see how easy it would be for the crusades to be fashioned by historians as something like a colonial enterprise. While there is no doubt that Christians were reacting to Muslim aggression and that the Muslims were anything but peaceful (as Madden laments they are depicted in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Talisman, 214), at the same time, this reader laments the extent to which Christianity’s reputation has been so marred by the historical reality of the crusades–myths aside.