Julie M. Smith introduces Apocalypse: Reading Revelation 21–22
This guest post is from Julie M. Smith, editor of Apocalypse: Reading Revelation 21–22. The book is now available in print and digital formats. Digital subscribers to the Maxwell Institute can access the entire book online here.In what would become the standard explanation of how parables work, biblical scholar C. H. Dodd proclaimed that the parable “arrest[s] the hearer by its vividness of strangeness, and leave[s] the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” ((C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribner, 1961), 16.)) What is true of parables is doubly, if not triply, true of the book of Revelation. Two millennia have apparently not been enough for a consensus to emerge regarding the interpretation of this enigmatic text. Why is that? The book itself gives us two clues in its very first verse, where John describes the text and how it came to be. First, he calls it an apokalypsis (see Revelation 1:1). We recognize the English cognate apocalypse and think, perhaps, of big-budget disaster movies, but the Greek word has a different nuance: it means “uncovering.” The author thus describes his task in writing as one of uncovering truth for the reader, but what truths does he intend to uncover, and how are they to be uncovered? These questions bring us to our second clue: as the Revelator describes the process by which the revelation was transmitted, he explains that it was “signified” by an angel (Revelation 1:1). From a Greek word meaning “to give a sign” (sēmainō), this word implies that the revelation was conveyed through signs or symbols. Putting this clue together with the other, we can say that the author will be uncovering truths by using symbols. This is no surprise. As even the most casual student of the book of Revelation knows, it is chock-full of symbols, many of which strike modern readers as more disturbing than inspiring (what are we to make of seven-headed beasts or death riding a horse?). How do such symbols work? What do they symbolize? If we uncover them, what will we find? How can we know if we are interpreting a symbol correctly? Faced as much with these rich interpretive opportunities as with the attendant perplexing questions, it is no wonder that Revelation has inspired artists, stumped scholars, fueled cranks, and terrified children. Into this wonderland tumbled six LDS scholars interested in gleaning meaning from the final two chapters of Revelation. ((To ease the difficulty of jumping into a conversation that has been going on for nearly twenty centuries, Eric D. Huntsman—one of this project’s contributors—provided participants with a summary of the major ways the book of Revelation is being interpreted. This essay, titled “Interpretive Approaches to Revelation,” can be accessed here.)) The unique format of the Mormon Theology Seminar gave us the space to engage this most mysterious of texts. This volume gathers the papers that resulted from our collaborative study. It is our hope that these essays will open new lines of theological inquiry into the book of Revelation among Latter-day Saints. As the only book-length apocalypse in the standard works, as the final book in the New Testament, and as one of the few biblical texts referenced in the Book of Mormon, the book of Revelation holds a special place in the LDS canon. It demands more of its readers than most scriptural books, but it also offers them more. If we make some small contribution to expanding the circumference of Mormon thought concerning the book of Revelation, we will be greatly rewarded for our efforts. Apocalypse: Reading Revelation 21–22 is available here. Maxwell Institute digital pass subscribers can access the entire book free of charge here.