Friday, March 16, 2018

The Place of the Apocalypse

Last year came and went without any recognized appearances of Our Lady of Fatima to either encourage or discourage the world, something I found disappointing but not surprising. The wild-eyed events of St. John’s Apocalypse do not seem to be transpiring, but Christians all over America still look for the Second Coming around every military action, every papal inscrutability, and every presidential tweet.

The Apocalypse has not received a great deal of respect in the history of the Church. The early Fathers hotly debated its authenticity and thus its canonicity. It rarely appears in liturgical texts, Western or Eastern. (The Sanctus is originally from the prophecy of Isaias.) Even the old Catholic Encyclopedia deconstructs it into its component parts with no veneration shown to its inspired character. Scott Hahn’s more recent exposition of the book as a mirror of the liturgy—and the Novus Ordo, at that—has not especially increased its prestige.

The Jesus that appears in the Apocalypse is not entirely recognizable as the Jesus of the Gospels, at least at first glance. And different indeed is this picture of Christ from the effeminate Jesus of women mystics like Maria Faustina Kowalska and Julian of Norwich. He is completely glorified: surrounded by seraphic hosts, simultaneously grotesque and beautiful, clothed in immense power, and arrayed in mind-breaking symbols. Very far is the King of Kings trodding the winepress of his Father’s wrath from the mild Infant of Bethlehem.

St. John’s authorship has been questioned by many, some finding a middle ground by arguing that the “Seer” of the Apocalypse is the fifth or sixth “John” or “Johaninne community” to write Scripture. The difficulty of its authorship is increased by uncertainty about the biographies of the Apostles, many versions containing some odd chronologies if not outright impossibilities. The author names himself John but does not claim apostolic authority. Still, if this John was the brother of James, the first-martyred of the Apostles, it would add a certain poignancy to the vision of the souls of those slain for God under the celestial altar.

The visions recorded in the book are alternately exalting and incomprehensible. There appears to be little chronological coherence, and most exegetes posit that the same period of time is simply repeated with different emphases. The moral judgments upon the seven churches in the early chapters are the most coherent parts of the book, but even those tend to be allegorized into the Ages of the Church.

The citizens both of Heaven and Hell are monstrous. The human events on Earth too are couched in bestial and Babylonian imagery. Symbols are multi-layered and opaque. Some passages that seem straightforward, like that of the 1000 years, led to serious doctrinal error when read plainly.

Yet, the Apocalypse records some of the kindest words of comfort in all of Holy Writ. Promises of God’s good will toward his people abound, and the final chapters are the most tangible representations of eternal beatitude ever inspired. The book also shows the most terrible punishments against the wicked, and is perhaps not unlikely to inflame an uncharitable glee in certain minds.

Is this book something best left unread by the unready, as the ancient Jews were said to forbid younger men from reading the Canticle of Canticles? Who can say? Catholic theologians tend to gravitate towards books of clearer doctrine and surer usefulness. It is not without its difficulties, and its rewards are ambiguous. But if this book is dangerous, let us not pretend that the rest of Scripture is safe and cannot be twisted by heretical graspers. Always keep in mind that the best defense against errant readings is a strong orthodox reading. How can we develop that if we do not study the book at all?


  1. Ezekiel was also not to be read by young Jews before the age of 30. It also has some apocalyptic imagery wich the Apocalypse borrows from.

  2. That was the first book of the Sacred Scriptures i've read. It was so captivating i've read it in one breath when i was like 13 or 14, but of course i didn't draw any doctrinal or eschatological conclusions from that kind of reading...

    But still, my rating:
    would totally read it into eternity

  3. Austin Farrer's "The Rebirth of Images" is the best book on the Apocalypse that I know. It helps that he treats it as God-breathed from the start, working with his unique idea of inspiration as a divine form of poetic inspiration. He traces all (but all) of the imagery in the prophetic OT, and peels back layer on layer of significance in the series of sevens - they are weeks, and they are the seasons of the Jewish festal calendar. He emphasises strongly that the book isn't meant to be visual imagery (Durer, enough!) and demystifies it be rooting it entirely in the OT, yet an OT oriented to Christ as Lord. I think it's fantastic, as you might have guessed.

    I disagree with his take on authorship. He thinks that the "presbyter" John of Ephesus (Papias) has been conflated with the Apostle John by some, erroneously supposed to be a second John of Ephesus in addition to the Apostle by others (Eusebius). He suggests a single John the presbyter (not Apostle) who wrote the Apocalypse first, the Gospel second.

    For what it is worth, my own opinion is that John the Apostle, just like Peter, identified himself as "presbyter", because the apostolic college of the church of Jerusalem is the origin of the presbyterate, and James was the original "bishop". Both college and episcopate were understood to have passed to Rome with Peter after the martyrdom of James & the destruction of Jerusalem... the Epilogue to the Gospel of John is the typological expression of this based on Christ's post-resurrection prophecy to Peter, and was written by John after Peter's death: i.e. the Petrine primacy emerged in the main after Peter's martyrdom. Apologies for taking up space with this last paragraph with my pet theory & hobby horse.

    1. Is his book profitable for Catholics then, you'd say?

    2. Yes, like all the great Anglo-Catholic scholarship of the mid-20th C produced by him and others such as Dix.

  4. Dear J. In his library ABS has a copy of Dom Orchard's "A Catholic Commentary" and it asserts Apocalypse was written by John and he observes that many Early Church Fathers - Justin, Tertullian, Irenaeus etc and the author of the article, C.C. Martindale goes on to say it was written by one author, Saint John and he describes the patter on the prophetic book.

    It was a healthy surprise to see that as late as the early 1950s Catholic authorities were claiming Saint John as the sole author