The Question of Legitimacy

Kirsch credits the Book of Revelation as one of the primary texts that began the apocalyptic tradition in Western society. Even today, Christian fundamentalists maintain that Revelation is a truthful account of the events that will come to pass at the end of the world. For a text that has such a far-reaching effect on Western culture, I found it interesting that there is a surprising amount of doubt surrounding its legitimacy. As Kirsch mentions, when Revelation was first transcribed, it was “regarded with alarm and suspicion by some of the more cautious church authorities,” who did not want to acknowledge the work of an ordinary man that claimed to hear the voice of God. Furthermore, while it is traditionally maintained that John the Apostle wrote the Book of Revelation, some scholars point to evidence within the text and in historical records that proves the author was an entirely different John. I think the difference lies in the meaning of the word “legitimate” for a fundamentalist as opposed to someone like Kirsch.

Within the Book of Revelation, John takes great care to establish himself unquestionably as the true prophet of God. In Rev. 13, he introduces the character of the beast, a false prophet that is conjured up by Stan in order to deceive mankind. Men, enthralled by the miracles that the beast performs, create and worship an image of the beast, highlighting the power of images to deceive and lead men astray from the word of God. In contrast to the false prophet, there is John, who has heard the true “voice” of God. As much as his vision consists of him seeing the end of the world, much of the narrative also focuses on what he has “heard” from the voice of God. Therefore, throughout the text, he admonishes true believes to listen through the refrain of “he that hath an ear, let him hear” (and if in not those exact words, then with a similar sentiment). In conclusion, this is a rather convoluted way of saying that John establishes the primacy of speech as opposed to images as the medium of heavenly communication. This is particularly interesting when considering that originally Revelation was most probably a sermon and those that believed it were known as “hearers.”

If the sermon (or the text) and its communication are most important, then the identity of the individual author seems unnecessary to its interpretation. If the text is seen as the product of a higher being, where the author is merely the vehicle for divine inspiration, then it doesn’t really matter which John wrote the Book of Revelation, as long as the book was written. The importance of the identity of the author to the interpretation of the text seems to me to be the product of a more modern type of literary criticism. For Kirsch, who to some extent treats the Book of Revelation as a historical and literary text, it is important to evaluate the text in light of the author’s identity, as well as the biographical details that might have influenced its creation as well as its propagation. For a true believe, on the other hand, I think it would be heretical to even assume that the text holds the biases of a human author, as opposed to the prophetic warnings of a heavenly voice. As long as people believe that the author of the text is a true prophet, then there is no need to question its legitimacy.

As a quick aside, I don’t have a background in the Judeo-Christian tradition so I have to wonder what makes the Book of Revelation different from other apocryphal writing with questionable authenticity, which were excluded from the New Testament.

2 thoughts on “The Question of Legitimacy

  1. I think you make some interesting points, especially in contrast to Whitney’s post about what makes a religious text “count.” You two have similar arguments, yet you come from different places: while Whitney is frustrated by the lack of questioning that surrounds the Book of Revelation due to seemingly obvious biases, you understand why these were overlooked and rather question the amount of doubt about the Book of Revelation’s authenticity. You two seem to agree, however, that the interpretation of the Book of Revelation is ultimately what is important. As you both explain, though there is certain information that can be gleaned by analyzing the Book of Revelation as a historical text and attempting to discern the identity of the author, it is what faithful readers (or “hearers”) have done with it over the past two millennia that is perhaps more important in today’s apocalyptic culture.

  2. The text “holding biases of a human author” has certainly come up in many of our responses. I agree that John’s identity and social/ religious circumstances of the time may have bared great influence on his prophecy. If the prophecy isn’t solely based on John’s nightmarish dream, but also consists of many conscious additions, our doubt of authenticity for this Book of Revelation is in fact legitimized. Being that he was a person and not a heavenly figure, as you point out, further intimates that the goriness John presents throughout his text is all part of his intention to proselytize for his biblical version of the apocalypse.

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