Adamsen on Garrow (review)

Revelation Reviews ISSN 1397-2936.
Volume 2.001. Jan 1998 (Publication date: 15 Jan 1998)

Alan J.P. Garrow: Revelation . New Testament Readings. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp. 140. ISBN: 0-415-14641-0.

This book is part of the New Testament Readings series which is “designed as a group of individual interpretations or ‘readings’ of the text, offering fresh and stimulating methods of approach” (John M. Court, editor in his preface p. viii). It is based on the authors M Phil thesis presented to Coventry University in 1994. Garrow does indeed offer a fresh and stimulating approach making it possible to solve a number of problems concerning the interpretation of Revelation. For this reason the book is recommended. Garrows offers stimulating insight into the problem of structure, but his overall analysis of the structure cannot explain a number of observations. I will return to that later.

Garrow intends to find the “author’s intended meaning”. The method of approach is “to reproduce the context of the original intended receivers as closely as possible” (p 3). It is possible to ascertain one of the aspects thereof with a high degree of accurracy, viz. the co- textual context defined as “the context created by as much of the text as has already been received” (p 3). A second aspect is the ‘theatre of reception’ which may be described as the particular setting in which John intended Revelation to be received, viz. the particular setting of a Sunday service possibly accompanied by a eucharist (p 4). A third aspect is the historical context. (pp 1-4)

In chapter 2 Garrow recognises that ‘what must soon take place’ (Rev 1,1) and a number of other expressions testify to the presence of a ‘story’, and the challenge is to locate the story (or to explain why it is absent) (p 5f). Garrow then reviews five different solutions to this problem: 1. the text is incoherent because of a compositional process (e.g. Charles) or 2. because of the genre (e.g. Kiddle; Sweet). 3. The story is obscured because of the complex structure, i.e. various forms of the ‘recapitulation’-theory (e.g. Victorinus; Caird; AY Collins). 4. The text is thematically organised (Fiorenza) and 5. the text is told and expanded (Bauckham; Mazzaferri) where Garrow agrees with both Bauckham and Mazzaferri that the crucial issue is to define where the content of the scroll in 5.1 is actually found in Revelation. (pp. 5-13).

In chapter 3 Garrow looks for a new approach to help him determine the content of the scroll. He refers to Chatman (Garrow, however, calls this well-known author “Chatham” which is erroneous[1]) and uses the concept ‘foreshadowing’ defined as “an announcement of a future occurrence in the story-line which leaves the audience partially uncertain as to the exact nature or timing of that event” (p 15). This is the most important contribution by Garrow to introduce this concept to Revelation scholarship. He analyses 6:1-17; 7,9-17; 8,2-9.21; 11:14; 10:3-4; (10:1-11) 11:1-13 and shows that the concept of foreshadowing is a useful and indeed – in my opinion – an indispensable concept. This part of the book (pp 14-35) should be required reading for all Revelation scholars.

Garrow continues introducing another concept, that of serialization. According to Garrow, the problem is that it will take approximately two hours to read Revelation alound. He therefore proposes that John has designed Revelation so that it may be read in parts. The modern concept of serialization, i.e. the modern knowledge about ending an episode at a point where the audience feels the need to return to the next episode, and about determining where such breaks must occur, is introduced exemplified on ‘Doctor Who’. The technical terms used to explain the phenomenon is ‘cliffhangers’, ‘suspense’ and ‘instalments’. Through an analysis of 8:1-2 and 11:15-21:1, Garrow find eight common features (suspense, the use of derivatives of ANOIGW, actions derived from heaven, signs of the coming God, closing hymns, pictures of final outcome, eucharistic references and instalment length). With the help of these features, Garrow tries to identify further breaks: 3:22; 15:4 and 19:10. On the basis of these analyses, Garrow concludes that Revelation was designed to be heard in six separate instalments, cf table 1 at pp 50-51 and the summary of functions in Revelation found at pp 62f (pp 35-53).

Through an analysis of 1:1-3:22 Garrow argues that the external evidence cannot be disregarded and that the authority of the implied author suggests that ‘John’ must be the apostle John (pp 53-59). Concerning the intended audience, Garrow treats the specificity of it, the consequences for them of listening and not listening and the immediacy of the events expected to take place (p 59). The function of 4:2-5:14 is to describe the “control-room of the universe” and the rest of this chapter (pp 60-65) tries to determine how to locate the story of Revelation. Garrow concludes that 12:1-14:5; 15:6-16:21 and 19:11b-21:8 is the story of Revelation (while 17:1-18 and 21:9-22:5 is classified as “commentary” and consequently cannot function as storyline).

In chapter 4, Garrow argues that the story should be dated to the reign of Titus (c. AD 80) because “Nero is identified as the first head of the beast, so that Titus is the emperor ‘who is’ according to the prophecy of the seven kings (17.10)” (p 78). Moreover, Garrow suggests that the sixth seal vision may allude to the eruption of Vesuvius. In order to argue his thesis, Garrow dismisses Irenaeus’ testimony claiming that it is of dubious reliability because “it was motivated by the need to clinch an argument” (p 78) and because it is in conflict with the internal evidence. C. AD 80, the Nero redivivus myth was current in Asia Minor.

In chapter 5, Garrow interprets the story which he has now found (12:1-14:5; 15:6-16:21; 19:11b-21:8) and dated (c. AD 80). The texts are quoted in full from NRSV and to each paragraph Garrow has a description of characters and action (pp 80-102) and the same story is summarised in big and ugly diagrams (pp 103-117). Garrow has several very good observations and proposals in his analyses. Garrow proposes that it is Michael who defeats the Dragon in 12:7ff “so that the complete destruction of Satan may be accomplished by Christ in the closing stages of the story” (p. 82). With regard to the 144.000 in Rev 14:1-5, Garrow suggests that “the fact that they are described as first fruits (14.4) implies that they are, as yet, an incomplete army” (p. 92). Concerning the term Harmagedon, Garrow thinks that “the function and significance of this location is made plain by the relationship of this mountain to Mount Zion (14.1)” (p. 94).

In chapter 6 (pp 118-123), Garrow proposes why Revelation was written after all. John depicted Nero as the destroyer of Rome who would return after Domitian’s reign. Historically, this failed, but John’s overall purpose did not fail because he intended to “inspire an active response from his hearers”: “to remain faithful to Christ even to the point of death, and in this way to conquer” (p 118). Because there was a number of competing calls, John “had to overturn his opponents’ visions of the future” (p. 118), so John’s story is really a “polemic response” (p 119) directed against supporters of Rome, Nero and traditional Judaism. In his final paragraph, Garrow concludes that John’s basis for his prediction of the future was his “vision of the present, in which Christ is eternally victorious over evil” and that “his opponents’ views would prove to be incomplete” (p 123).

Garrow summarises his work in his conclusion (pp 124-126), and a list of Roman Emperors, a select bibliography and two indices of subjects and references follows (127-140).

Garrow’s book is very stimulating. It would not be fair to expect a Ph.D.-level argumentation from a M Phil thesis. His methodological approach is interesting and fruitful, and he has many very good observations. The publication of this book is justified because it really offers “fresh and stimulating methods of approach” (cf Court’s preface). Personally, this approach seems to help me to solve a number of problems dealing with the structure and with several occurrences of ‘missing’ information.

The book has a number of weaknesses, however. The most important weakness has to do with his problem.

Garrow presents two problems. The first is the problem of structure (chapter 2), the other is the length of the text (beginning of chapter 3). He shows that the first problem is a real and well recognised problem, but he does not even attempt to show that his second problem is a problem to current scholarship. Nor does he make any attempts to show why it should be recognised as a problem. Garrow claims that the fact that it takes ca. two hours to read Revelation aloud makes it necessary to find some ‘cliffhangers’ and thereby identify the texts used for the various instalments. I do not think that the length is a problem. How often was (and is) biblical texts read in their entirety? how often were they read during service, and how much were they studied afterwards? Perhaps a more detailed discussion of the relationship between the initial reading (aloud) of all the book in the congregation and later studies of parts may have helped Garrow to clarify whether there is a problem at all. Because Garrow fails to persuade at least me to accept his problem, I reject his six instalment-solution as well. However, even if the problem were accepted, his solution may be questioned on other grounds.

In order to argue for his six instalment-thesis, he claims that two points in Revelation seem to be “designed to accommodate a cliffhanging instalment ending” (p 38), viz. 8:1-2 and 11:15-12:1. After an analysis of the features present, he looks for these features in the rest of the book. This is not really methodologically sound. Cliffhangers should be identified on their own, and with the help of present structural features. Garrow, however, does not even ask how the relationship between his six instalments and the overall structure of Revelation is. It may be helpful to analyse modern film and fiction using the serialisation-theory because modern series are obviously designed or at least redesigned as separate installments. That Revelation is serialised, however, cannot be taken for granted. In fact, the structure of Revelation as analysed e.g. by Richard Bauckham [2] or in the new commentary by J. Ramsey Michaels [3] is not easily harmonised with Garrow’s theory. Rev 17:1-8 and 21:9-22:5 are not in my opinion comments on the preceding stories, and cannot be. One of the main reasons for that is the use of EN PNEUMATI (‘in the Spirit’) in 17:3 and 21:10. Even if the instalment- theory should be considered, I doubt whether 7:17; 11:18; 15:4 and 19:10 is really well- functioning cliffhangers.

Garrow’s dating of Revelation to AD 80 is an example that the evidence may be formed in order to produce the desired conclusion. He dismisses both the Neronic and the Domitianic dating and proposes Titus, but I have not been able to figure out why this is so important. According to Garrow, John was historically mistaken and therefore the historical basis is not really important to John’s overall purpose. Nevertheless, if the historical basis is not important, then I have difficulty to find out why Garrow makes his historical analysis (chapter 4). If it is important, it might be tempting to ask whether this particular historical reconstruction is really helpful, since it forces the interpreter to attribute ‘historical errors’ to John.

Garrow is probably correct when he claims that it is important to identify the content of the scroll in Rev 5:1 and the content of ‘what is going to take place’ in 1:1 as well. However, the Danielic character of at least the latter expression might be helpful for the determination of the content, but Garrow does not analyse that.

Garrow has problems with 21:14 and therefore argues that 21:14 and 21:19-20 are late(r) additions (pp 56-58). This is methodologically unsound and weakens his case for the apostolic authorship.

Despite these critical points, I am grateful that this book has been published. It is very stimulating offering a fresh and eye-opening methodology. The most important contribution is not — in my view — his (erroneous) conclusions about the six instalments and the dating under Titus, but his alternative approach to explain repetitions in the text. This merit stands — even if his structural analyses, his instalment-theory and the dating are not accepted. I hope that he will continue his work and offer new stimulating readings in the future as well.

[1] Chatman, S.: Story and Discourse.. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1978.
[2] Bauckham, R.: The Climax of Prophecy. Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993.
[3] Michaels, J. Ramsey: Revelation. (IVPNTC, 20). Downers Grove, IL; Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 1997.

Reviewed by cand.theol. Georg S. Adamsen, then at The Lutheran School of Theology in Aarhus.

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