My foray into Ben Witherington III books continues with the reading of his book, Revelation
which is part of the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series. Though I have thoroughly enjoyed the other books that I’ve read by him, I had real trouble getting through this one.
His other books provided great insight into contemporary writing styles and, thus, insight into what the original text would have meant to the original hearers. Obviously, this is critical to an understanding of what Scripture means to us. Scripture cannot mean something to us that it did not mean to the original hearers. That does not mean that Scripture isn’t applicable and relevant to circumstances that didn’t exist in the first century. It is, instead, the simple hermeneutical principle that we cannot allow our own biases, cultures, and theology to determine the meaning of Scripture. What determines its meaning is what the author originally intended it to mean.
However, in Revelation, Witherington has not done a good job of connecting us with what the hearers of Revelation would have understood. Part of this is the difficulty of Revelation itself. With all its symbolic language, visions of the future, and pictographic explanations of the past, there is much to stumble over. Determining how the original hearers would have understood all this can be an intimidating venture.
Unfortunately, Witherington stumbles in a number of areas. Because of the generality of some of the images, Witherington suggests several meanings but then leaves us hanging as to what he thinks could be the accurate depiction. Though this is not problematic if done occasionally, there are so many pictures that Witherington is unwilling to definitively state his ideas on that we are left wondering what he believes. Though an interesting read to find out the ‘what could it mean’ perspective, Witherington gives no consistent explanation of his take on the whole book.
There are, however, some noteworthy strengths:
- I was intrigued with his proposition that rather than a simple short-term chronology for the seals/trumpets/bowls immediately prior to the millennium (dispensational pre-millennialism), Revelation actually is describing an overlapping, long-term chronology of God’s judgment over time, culminating in the Great Tribulation prior to the millennium. Perhaps it’s just me, but some visuals for how these items overlap would have been helpful to me since I had a hard time abstractly understanding where he was going with this.
- I especially appreciated his work on the images of Babylon vs. New Jerusalem. I think he makes a valid, and often missed, point that much of the latter half of the letter is a verbal comparison between the best that Satan has to offer and the best that God has to offer.
- I am convinced that Witherington is correct in saying that the letter is written to churches under persecution as a means of encouraging them to stand firm – that God is far more in control than can ever be seen from earth’s vantage point. This adds an important theme to the material that gives greater meaning and purpose to it. However (and this is in no way Witherington’s fault), I think the material could have been that much more powerful if written by someone who had actually been through modern persecution and was able to write from first-hand experience about the hope that Revelation brings to those going through persecution. Perhaps one day one of our brothers or sisters from the persecuted church will take up this project and help the rest of us who have no clue what true persecution is like.
Overall, although not a bad commentary, I did not find that it sparked my interest enough to be expectantly turning each page to see what other truths he could illuminate for me. Though I’m not unconvinced by his propositions, I’m not sure he’s made the best case for those propositions.
--Posted by PhilThreeten to PhilThreeten at 1/05/2006 02:53:00 PM