Reviews by Simon Woodman, Meredith Warren, and Alison Jack, of Paul Middleton, The Violence of the Lamb: Martyrs as Agents of Divine Judgement in the Book of Revelation (London: T&T Clark, 2018)
These were presented at the Revelation Seminar of the British New Testament Society Conference, September 2019, and are here reproduced by kind permission of the authors.

Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.

Simon Woodman, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church and King’s College London.

Let me begin by saying how much I enjoyed reading this book. It is a comprehensive study, which brings an uncompromising challenge to the much-debated topic of violence in the book of Revelation.

Middleton’s core assertion is clear and characteristically punchy: all those who follow the Lamb are called to martyrdom, and to share with the Lamb in the violent final judgment of the nations. As he says, ‘in John’s narrative, all faithful Christians are martyrs’.[1] Those who follow the Lamb are those who resist the beast, refuse his mark, and face inevitable martyrdom.[2]

However, martyrdom is not the end, with those who follow the Lamb unto death also sharing with the Lamb in resurrection and vindication. So within the literary scheme of Revelation the call for the faithful to ‘conquer’ (2.7, 11, 17, 26; 3.5, 12, 21) becomes a call both to martyrdom and to participation with the Lamb in the conquest of those who oppose the reign of the Lamb (5.5;. 12.11; 15.2; 17.4; 21.7). This, according to Middleton, is a universal expectation. He comments that,

John does not envisage a faithful Christian who will not be martyred… For John, martyrs are conquerors, who are victorious not because they offer non-violent resistance, but because they follow the proto-martyr, the Lamb, whose death was followed by vindication and glorification such that he shares God’s throne and is the agent or arbiter of judgment.[3]

The thesis for the book is that ‘In the book of Revelation, martyrdom is not an act of non-violent resistance’, rather martyrs ‘become agents of divine wrath’. The consequence of this is that ‘non-violent readings that … hold up the martyr as a paradigm of non-violent resistance … [are] fundamentally flawed.’[4]

Middleton lends credence to his assertion that John expects all Christians to face martyrdom by locating Revelation in a context where early experience of the ‘sacrifice test’ (as described by Pliny in the early second century),[5] provides a milieu of potential persecution unto death.[6]

From the dating implications of the ‘persecution’ assumed in the text, attention in the bulk of the book turns to the key Christological image of the slain Lamb, who is seen as a proto-martyr and as an agent of divine judgment, with the vindication of the martyrs becoming the outworking of the vindictive judgment of God through those martyred. In essence, the central message of the apocalypse is that everybody dies, what matters is whose side you will die on. And the fantasy violence of the text is a threat to John’s readers that if they choose the wrong side, the results will be horrific.[7] It is much better to die as a martyr, because then you get to share in the resurrection of the lamb, and join with him in the punishment of those who declined to repent.

The assertion that martyrdom in Revelation is a universal expectation of the faithful is intriguing, and enables Middleton to take square-aim at those who have sought to offer nonviolent (or less-violent) readings of Revelation. By his reading, far from being an exemplar of passive resistance, the slain-yet-alive lamb is presented as the agent of divine wrath to be emulated by all faithful followers. It’s worth hearing Middleton at his best here:

As martyrdom is so prevalent, many commentators have found it a convenient hook on which to hang non-violent readings of the Apocalypse that seek to mitigate against the violent judgement found elsewhere. The martyrs and the slaughtered Lamb become the dominant lens through which to refract the violence. Martyrs become the symbol of non-violent resistance, such that ‘suffering and not brute power’ is the means by which God will triumph, and weakness is the most potent weapon in overcoming the Beast.

However, this is to misunderstand the theology of martyrdom in the Apocalypse. For John, martyrs are conquerors, who are victorious not because they offer non-violent resistance, but because they follow the proto-martyr, the Lamb, whose death was followed by vindication and glorification such that he shares God’s throne and is the agent or arbiter of judgement… As a ruler he exercises violent judgment. It is my contention that martyrs conquer through death, because martyrdom is the means by which they too access the power to sit on Christ’s throne and participate in the Lamb’s warring judgement.[8]

So, is there anywhere remaining for a nonviolent reading of Revelation to hide, perhaps in the caves or among the rocks of the mountains (6.15-16)? Or do those of us who have espoused such approaches in the past, simply have to accept that there is nowhere left for us to stand?

Whilst Middleton is surely right to place the issue of martyrdom front-centre of John’s theological scheme, his fusion of ‘the martyrs’ with ‘all Christians’ raises questions for consideration. For the next part of my response I want to consider briefly the role of the implied second resurrection, the fruit of the second harvest, and the fate of ‘the nations’ who walk by the light of the new Jerusalem.

Middleton identifies the ‘first resurrection’ of chapter 20.4-6 as, ‘the clearest image of the vindication of the martyrs’,[9] because it is here that those who have been ‘beheaded for their witness to Jesus’ are both resurrected and begin reigning with Christ to exercise judgment.

He is, I think, correct in resisting those readings that seek to broaden the scope of the first resurrection to include non-martyrs;[10] however asserting that not only is the first resurrection for all martyrs, but for all Christians, on the basis that all Christians are martyrs, creates its own problem: which is that if all believers are raised at the first resurrection, and all other humans are judged and the subject of divine wrath as meted out by the Lamb and the martyrs, who is left to be raised at the implied ‘second’ resurrection?

A reading contra Middleton, which sees the martyrs as a sub-set of all believers, rather than coterminous with them, would alleviate this problem. In this way, the martyrs duly enter the throne room of God at the point of their martyrdom, the ‘first resurrection’, but they then function as a first-fruit harvest for ‘the rest of the dead’ who ‘do not come to life until the thousand years are ended’ 20.5 (cf. 14.4, 14–16), these receive their gift of life at a later time. The martyrs are thus spared the ongoing experience of a life of tribulation in the face of faithful witness.

By this reading John combines the metaphor of the millennium with the image of the first resurrection, to portray the martyrs as safe and secure with God, fulfilling both royal and priestly functions in heaven, as the Church militant continues to fulfil those same functions on the earth (20.6). The following table sets out this suggestion in more detail.[11]

Turning now from the first and second resurrections, to the first and second harvests. Middleton presents the two harvests of 14.14-20 as depicting firstly the fate of the saved, and secondly the fate of the damned. The grain harvest (14.14-16), reaped by the one like a son of man, is the ingathering of the martyrs (with those scholars who see a wider, more universal salvation here labelled ‘mistaken’);[12] while the grape harvest (14.17-20) is the wrathful destruction of everyone else, who are God’s enemies.[13]

However, this binary division of humanity into martyrs and damned overlooks a crucial implication of the description earlier in the same chapter of the 144,000 as the ‘first fruits’ (14.4), evoking the Jewish practice of offering the first fruits of a harvest to symbolize that the whole harvest belongs to God.[14] If the 144,000 are indeed ‘first fruits’ within John’s scheme, then they are definitionally a sub-set of the total harvest, an early offering of the few in anticipation of the greater return to come. To insist that both the 144,000 and the grain harvest in its totality are images for the martyrs, who are the sum total of those saved, is therefore to minimise the force of the imagery of the 144,00 as ‘first fruits’.

However, if the 144,000 are seen as the church militant (including, but not restricted to, the martyrs), then the grain harvest becomes the wider ingathering of the whole earth. This is consonant with the image of ‘first fruits’ elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Rom. 8.23; 11.16; 1 Cor. 15.20, 23; 2 Thess. 2.13; James 1.18), as well as in the Hebrew Bible where the image conveys the intent of a larger, greater harvest to follow. By this reading, the grape harvest forms a parallel to the outcome of the great battle of Armageddon, where it is the armies of the beast are put to the sword by the one who treads ‘the press of the fury of the wrath of God’ (19.15, 21). The grape harvest thus represents the uncompromising judgement of God on the beast and all his powers and structures, rather than on all those who are the un-martyred, and it offers assurance to John’s audience that the satanic empire will eventually face the consequences of its actions. The blood that flows from the winepress thus represents the very real and bloody human consequences of humanity’s infatuation with the beast, but not God’s bloody judgment on all those who have not demonstrated their faithfulness through martyrdom.

Finally, I want to consider the fate of ‘the nations’ who walk by the light of the new Jerusalem (21.23-24). According to Middleton’s reading, the nations meet their sticky and bloody end on the receiving end of the divinely sanctioned violence meted out by the Lamb, the rider on the white horse, and the martyrs.[15] The world is divided into two clear camps: the nations of the earth who receive the mark of the Beast and worship him, and the martyrs, the followers of the Lamb, who bear faithful testimony, refuse to worship the image of the Beast, and in consequence are slain, before being resurrected to judge the nations that oppose them.[16] The fact that the nations, and the kings of the nations, incongruously reappear in the narrative despite having been already consigned to the lake of fire (20.15, cf. 22.14-15) is ascribed by Middleton to a ‘continuity error… in John’s narrative’.[17]

However, I am not convinced that the reappearance of the nations at the end can be so easily dismissed. As a counter-proposal to Middleton’s reading I would want to suggest that the image of the 144,000 as the first fruits, points to the great harvest being the eventual salvation of all the nations. I agree with Middleton that John is universal in the scope of his judgment, but I would disagree as to the final outcome. By his reading everyone dies, what matters is whether you die as a victoriously resurrected martyr, or as a condemned and violently massacred recipient of divine judgment. An alternative reading is to see the scope of salvation in Revelation as universal, something which Middleton firmly dismisses.[18]

It is my contention that the Book of Revelation has in view the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant. Rather than seeing the union of Christ and Church as the final goal of creation, the possibility arises that there is a much greater inheritance due to the Church as the Abrahamic covenant finds its completion in the proclamation of the gospel for ‘every nation and tribe and language and people’ (14.6). If the bride is understood as the Church, the first fruits of the great harvest (14.4), then the Abrahamic covenant finds its fulfilment as the people of God become a source of blessing to all peoples, drawing them from the ruins of Babylon to their eternal destination in the new Jerusalem. So the Church and the Spirit join their voices in calling the nations of the world, those beyond the gates of the new Jerusalem (cf. 22.15), to enter in and drink from the river of life which runs through the city (22.1–2).

For a time it looks as if the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant is threatened, with the nations who have placed themselves in opposition to the people of God dominating the earth, marching to surround the encampment of the saints. However in fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant, the nations reappear after their consumption by the fire of heaven (20.9), and are seen walking by the light of the glory of God in the streets of the new Jerusalem (21.24).[19] With the final destruction of the beast, death, and Hades, the nations are freed from the satanic deception that has consistently led them into conflict with the Church, and the prophecy of the 144,000 is fulfilled as the nations emerge from the lake of fire to worship God (15.3–4).

The glory and honour of the nations are carried into the new Jerusalem in a scene reminiscent of returning with the spoils of war (21.26).[20] No longer do the nations pay tribute to Babylon, sending their treasures to the evil city; rather they give homage to God himself. This is the liturgical response on the part of the nations to the invitation issued by the Spirit and the bride to ‘come’ into the new Jerusalem (22.17).

The final vision of the nations in Revelation is therefore one of profound hope, as fractured human society is finally healed, and all nations are united in the praise and adoration of God. In a symbolic reversal of the relationships of Eden (Gen. 2.9; 3.13–24), the tree in the centre of the new Jerusalem is ‘for the healing of the nations’ (22.2). The purpose of Israel is thus fulfilled, as the people of God finally and definitively become a blessing for all the nations of the earth.[21]

Overall, then, Middleton has offered us an important book, which rightly challenges those who might seek to impose contemporary ethical concerns onto a first century text. However, I am not convinced that his reading of Revelation rules out an ultimately nonviolent and universally hopeful reading of John’s theological scheme.


[1] Paul Middleton, The Violence of the Lamb: Martyrs as Agents of Divine Judgement in the Book of Revelation (London: T&T Clark, 2018), 187.

[2] Middleton, 221.

[3] Middleton, 224.

[4] Middleton, 1.

[5] Middleton, 39-44.

[6] Middleton, 63.

[7] Middleton, 237.

[8] Middleton, 224-5.

[9] Middleton, 229.

[10] Middleton, 229.

[11] Simon Woodman, The Book of Revelation (London: SCM, 2008), 108-9.

[12] Middleton, 172.

[13] Middleton, 173.

[14] Middleton, 73, 77, 172, 225.

[15] Middleton, 225.

[16] Middleton, 14.

[17] Middleton, 186-7, n.197; cf. 124.

[18] Middleton, 163, 173.

[19] cf. Isa. 60.3.

[20] cf. Isa. 60.5.

[21] Woodman, 133-4.

Meredith J C Warren, University of Sheffield

Let me start by saying that I think this book makes very important and necessary conclusions about the role of divine violence in Revelation. I completely agree with Middleton that the Lamb is a force of divine violence and readings that foreground non-violence misread the text. I am also convinced of Middleton’s arguments about the limited scope of the Seer’s vision of whom is saved; the seven assemblies to which he writes represent the only righteous communities on earth. That self-sacrifice as witness to Christ is a necessary act for salvation among those communities is also convincing. John’s vision is brutal and unrelenting and Middleton’s reading of it accurately reflects, in my view, the extremist and sectarian views held by the author.

I could spend a lot of time going through all the places where I scribbled “YES” and “GOOD POINT” in the margins of Middleton’s book. However, because I only get fifteen minutes, I would like to spend them pushing back on one aspect of the book that struck me as out of place with the otherwise careful, historically grounded analysis that Middleton has produced. For example, Middleton is rightly cautious about defining the term martus and ensuring that it is not used anachronistically.[1] This is important for Middleton’s discussion of the importance of the martus for Revelation’s core theology. However, I would like to urge that same caution for the term Christian.

There are three underlying issues with the book’s employment of the term Christian to describe John’s audience or community. First is the ever-present issue of the parting of the ways. Second is the issue that Revelation, to my mind, does not see itself as a Christian text. And third is that the use of the term somewhat undermines the argument that John imagines only a limited group of his readers being saved in the final judgement.

PARTING OF THE WAYS

The first issue, to do with the parting of the ways, relies to some extent on how one dates the Apocalypse. Middleton traces the debate among early and late daters of the Apocalypse; no one dates it later than the first century CE, but Middleton is not interested in a specific date for Revelation.[2] I don’t think I need to tell anyone here that the question of how, when, and whether the early followers of the Jesus movement attempted to distinguish themselves from Jews is a complex one. But because of this complexity, I would urge caution on the use of Christian to describe anything in the first century and to a large degree into the first half of the second century, including and perhaps especially Revelation.[3] I think that Adele Reinhartz’s model of the ‘multi-lane highway’ is the most useful metaphor for conceptualizing the so-called parting of the ways; it allows us to envision multiple partings across a variety of temporal and geographical locations, some of which rejoin only to split again farther along the road.[4]

As such, rather than one division that occurs in all places at one time, as some New Testament texts would have us believe, I think—and I am not alone in this— it is more likely a lot fuzzier than that. While Reinhartz reminds us that such distinctions between Judaism and Christianity are possible in the first century (specifically citing the Gospel of John and Ephesus as an example), identifying such a split should emerge from the community and its associated texts, and be applied on a case-by-case basis. It is also crucial to acknowledge the slipperiness of terms like “Ioudaios,” Christian, church, assembly, and synagogue, which have multiple and overlapping meanings well into the fourth century.[5]

REVELATION AS JEWISH

The question, then of whether the term Christian can or should be applied to Revelation must emerge from what we know of the communities highlighted in John’s writing. As Paul Middleton points out throughout his book, while the authors of the Gospel of John and Revelation are almost certainly different Johns, there is some overlap in theology. We also note that, if Reinhartz is correct about a Johannine split with Judaism and of an Ephesian provenance for John’s Gospel, we have some geographical overlap between the Gospel and the Apocalypse as well. However, despite the literary construction of a clear split in John’s Gospel between the implied author’s point of view and that of the group he labels “the Jews”, the insider group of Jesus-followers never takes on an identity of Christian, and indeed maintains practices, symbolism, and relationships from among Jews.[6]

If geographical overlap is important in this case, then, we should note that even in the Johannine community, a split is not without its fuzzy edges. Turning to Revelation, I would suggest that such a split has not taken place, and that a different model of identity formation is happening instead. I’ll end up agreeing with Middleton’s repeated argument that John the Seer is narrow in his formation of an insider group, and that his message is not, as some would argue, a universal message of salvation. But to me, avoiding the term Christian is key in recognizing the peculiar communities to which John writes.

Revelation itself never uses the term Christian or Christianity, and this should immediately give interpreters pause.[7] Indeed, I would suggest that Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 imply that John’s issue is not who is a true Christian but who is a true Jew. He writes, “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9). In Violence of the Lamb these verses are treated in two footnotes.[8] Middleton argues that “John imagines some hostility to be coming from the synagogue,”[9] and that this verse reflects a conflict between “Church and Synagogue” as opposed to an intra-Christian debate between John’s communities and Judaizers.[10] However, this is to assume the existence of something that could be called a church and to neglect to consider that, rather than a Judaizing tendency within “Christianity” the tension could rather reflect an intra-Jewish debate about how best to live under empire while anticipating the eschaton, or alternately between John’s Jewish communities and Gentile Jesus-followers whom he does not perceive as true Jews.[11] In other words, John of Patmos sees himself as a true Jew and attempts to police the use of the term use by other groups. David Frankfurter argues, and I agree, that these ‘false Jews’ include “Pauline and neo-Pauline proselytes to the Jesus movement who were not, in John’s eyes (and many others’ in the first century), halakhically pure enough to merit this term in its practical sense.”[12] These verses, coupled with the fact that in the rest of Revelation, John never situates himself as opposed to Judaism and rather upholds Jewish notions of purity and ritual,[13] indicates that Christianity is not an operative category for the Seer.[14]

SECTARIAN OR ECUMENICAL?

Now this discussion might seem peripheral to the main points of Violence of the Lamb, but I think it is actually integral to one of Middleton’s most important observations, namely that John of Patmos does not write about divine violence in order to convince the lackadaisical to adhere to his more strenuous interpretations of worship and purity. Rather, Middleton argues that the Seer understands salvation to be pre-ordained for only those assemblies to which John writes; the rest of the world is already damned. This is clear in sections where Middleton expressly states as much, for example, when he writes that “general repentance is not a particular concern of Revelation […] there is no evidence that John’s missionary call extends beyond those already within the walls of the church.”[15] However, especially in the last chapters of the book, this important and convincing conclusion is obscured by the use of the term Christian. The dualism that Revelation expresses is profound and includes a strict separation between those who live on earth and follow the Beast, and those whose place is in John’s seven assemblies. John does not imagine a wider ecumenical collection of people who might fall under the category of Christian, but the universalising connotations of the book’s use of ‘Christian’ to discuss John’s communities, when John himself considers them and himself true Jews, obscures this important fact. In some places in the book this is more critical than others, for instance when Middleton writes that “John’s call to conquer is a call to martyrdom, and it is made to all faithful Christians.”[16] While I agree with Middleton’s core point that martyrdom is what John expects of his followers, the phrase ‘all faithful Christians’ is confusing, since it makes it easy to slip into the mindset that Revelation’s salvation is open to any who choose it.

One of the most important critiques Middleton’s book offers is that it attempts to break the scholarly habit of wishfully reading non-violence into a text which unceremoniously rejects it. Part of this issue is, as Middleton rightly observes, the underlying attempt at identifying with this two-thousand year-old text; there has been a tendency to read back one’s own theological and Christological beliefs into Revelation.[17] The use of Christian, in my view, makes such a slip much easier for those who would today call themselves Christian. It is all too easy for a present-day Christian to imagine themselves in John’s good books. Avoiding the term for its anachronism and, I would argue, inaccuracy in the case of Revelation, would strengthen Middleton’s important efforts to reinforce that distance between author and reader.


[1] Middleton, Violence of the Lamb, 109.

[2] Middleton, Violence of the Lamb, 38.

[3] For example, Middleton calls John “the first Christian writer to invoke the Greek version of the divine name, which was common among contemporaneous Jews,” (106) which sets up an anachronistic dichotomy between Jews and Christians; in my view, it would be more accurate to locate John within Greek Jewish use of this phrasing.

[4] “Cars and their passengers move in and out of these lanes as speed, destination, weather, and roadwork require; they travel in the same direction at various points as they merge and diverge, exit and double back. Yet the lanes themselves are marked off from each other, and the exit signs are clearly labelled. If the highway does not finally split in two until the beginning of the fourth century, neither does it move along without its share of exits and parallel routes. Thus, while we can no longer claim that there was a single “parting of the ways,” nor can we, in my view, declare that the ways did not part at all in the first few centuries of the Common Era.” Adele Reinhartz, “A Fork in the Road or a Multi-Lane Highway? New Perspectives on the ‘Parting of the Ways’ Between Judaism and Christianity,” The Changing Face of Judaism, Christianity, and Other Greco-Roman Religions in Antiquity. Presented to James H. Charlesworth on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. (Ian H. Henderson and Gerbern S. Oegema, eds.; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2006) 293.

[5] See, e.g. Ross Kraemer, “On the Meaning of the Term Jew in Greco-Roman Inscriptions,” HTR 82 (1989), 32-53; Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Unvertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 25-139; the Marginalia Review of Books forum on the Jew/Judean debate (https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/jew-judean-forum/); David Horrell, “The Label χριστιανός: 1 Peter and the Formation of Christian Identity,” JBL 126.2 (2007): 361-381.

[6] Reinhartz, “A Fork in the Road,” 292. Reinhartz does not adhere to the ‘expulsion theory’ model of Johannine community formation. For examples of John’s Jewishness, see Adele Reinhartz, “Judaism in the Gospel of John,” Interpretation 63.4 (2009): 382-93.

[7] Acts 11:26 records a hostile use of the label by outsiders; 1 Peter, likely written after Revelation, may record the earliest use of the label as a self-designation. See David Horrell, “The Label χριστιανός,” 362. Pliny’s use of it in his Epistle to Trajan also post-dates Revelation, as does Tacitus’s use of the term in Ann. 15.44.

[8] Paul Middleton, Violence of the Lamb, 22-23 nn 34, 35.

[9] Middleton, Violence of the Lamb, 22 n 34.

[10] Middleton, Violence of the Lamb, 23 n 35.

[11] David Frankfurter, “Revelation,” The Jewish Annotated New Testament,543.

[12] David Frankfurter, “Jews or Not? Reconstructing the ‘Other’ in Rev 2:9 and 3:9,” Harvard Theological Review 94:4 (2001), 403-425, here 403. Later, Frankfurter takes issue with putative associations between the Jews of Smyrna and Roman authorities as set out in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a second century text (406).

[13] Compare Rev 12:17; 14:4; 21:27; 22:14 with purity laws preserved in Qumran; 2:14, 20 can be compared with Jewish dietary law; 2:20-22; 14:4; 17; 22:14-15 with sexual impurity; and 1:6; 5:10; 20:6b, 9 with priestly identity (Frankfurter, “Revelation,” 543).

[14] To paraphrase Anthony Saldarini, to say that Revelation “is Christian, meaning a member of a clearly separate religion which is not Jewish, contradicts the complex and overlapping relationships among varieties of Jews, including some groups who believed in Jesus.” Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 11.

[15] Middleton, Violence of the Lamb, 164.

[16] Middleton, Violence of the Lamb, 197. Emphasis added. See also “whole Christian community” and “all Christians” on p. 212; “all faithful Christians” on p. 238, etc.

[17] Middleton, Violence of the Lamb, 238, e.g.

Alison Jack, University of Edinburgh

I wouldn’t consider myself a Revelation specialist- my PhD thesis was on the book of Revelation, but that was completed nearly 25 years ago. And it was more about ways to read the book than the content of the book itself, really. That reception-history approach is what I’ve worked on since, moving more into the Gospels. So I don’t really have skin in the game, as I believe they say nowadays.

But in a way that makes me appreciate Paul’s book even more. Because, as well as many other things, it is an excellent introduction to the current field of Revelation scholarship. This includes the debate about the nature of martyrdom in the text: as non-violent resistance and or active participation in the vengeance of God on the created world. It also includes the significance of the sexualised image of the imperial power of Rome as the Whore of Babylon, and her gory end. And the dating of the text- is it early or late; and the extent of the threat of persecution- or maybe its reality in the life of the readers of John’s Apocalypse. All of these issues and many others are dealt with as stepping stones on the way to the construction of Paul’s central thesis about the purpose of the text. Which is, for him, that it is a pretty terrifying warning to believers to accept martyrdom in order to avoid worse to come- and to look forward to participating in that ‘worse’ along with the model-martyr Jesus. And that comprehensiveness, and confidence in dealing with the breadth of the field and the important voices within it, is one of the great strengths of this book.

Others on the panel will comment on these current issues in Revelation research, I’m sure, and debate whether or not Paul’s views are congruent with theirs. But I want to take some time to explore where Paul’s book crosses over into my area of interest, and that is the way Revelation is read, has been read, might be read. Even should be read.  Paul is pretty critical of readings which are influenced by concerns which go beyond the recovery of John’s intention and his hearers’ context. Or at least which do so without declaring that they are doing so. Readings, for example, which want to read Revelation through the lens of a Gospel Jesus who preaches love for enemies rather than participation in their torture and eternal drowning in a sea of fire, all in the sight, presumably, of those in the sparkly coolness of the New Jerusalem. Academic exegetes, Paul argues, do this because the way Revelation is read matters to many exegetes, even those in the objective heights of biblical scholarship.

I agree with him, that readings of this text matter to many, but I wondered if he was right- or if he was right, why it was- that this text matters more than other biblical texts. And is it ever possible to read only for a first reader anyway, without bringing something of one’s own perspective to the text.

I remember being very influenced by Tina Pippin’s work on Revelation when I was deep in PhD study- and I came to see Revelation as a text which was irredeemable within the canon of scripture. For women certainly but also for anyone, so infected was it with a lust for violent retribution. Paul judges Pippin as someone who can’t see past the violence, for whom there is no way the text can be salvaged because of the way the martyrs enjoy their role as torturers and God leads a massacre of cosmic proportions. He implies that her feminist sensitivities are so offended, she is unable to rise above them to take a cool historical-critical approach which is value-neutral. I understand Paul’s approach which says that committed readings such as those of Pippin’s are valid, if their assumptions are stated, but that he is trying to do something different. I just wonder how possible or satisfying as a reader/scholar that is? If, having established the Apocalypse as the hard-line response of a persecuted minority, can we as readers avoid a response which is repelled by the horrific logic of the writer? I wonder if, having constructed what we believe is the historical world view of the writer, don’t we have some sort of a role to play in pushing back against those who find in the text a comforting message for those on the right side of things. To point out the cost of this perceived comfort.  Also to query the way that some environmentalists are finding in the Apocalypse some sort of vocabulary to describe the state of the world, as teetering on the edge of destruction. Because if we accept Paul’s reading- and I find it compelling- then really, this text is about a world which is irredeemable. Salvation is possible only for those who buy in to its message of martyrdom as witness to Christ, and of vengeful, even gleeful participation in the destruction of those who have opposed this worldview. For everyone else, and for the world as we know it, destruction is inevitable. Revelation is scarcely a text which is easily applied to the laudable aims of those with concerns about the environment, and perhaps we as biblical critics need to point this out.

 An alternative approach is to suggest to readers that this is a fantasy world, with an imagined future rather than a literal expectation. Paul mentions fantasy at the end of this book- he calls it fantasy with a coercive purpose- but perhaps this could be pushed further to highlight the difference between such apocalyptic fantasy worlds, and propaganda with violent consequences. Whether this distinction can ever be situated firmly in historical reality is difficult to establish, but to read the text as an imaginative exercise rather than prophetic expectation or, as Paul hints is a possibility, the wanderings of a deranged mind, does open up new possibilities.

Following on from this, one area of the book which gladdened my heart was its refusal to plot a linear narrative within Revelation. Instead, it sits lightly to the need to find logic in the array of images and series of events depicted. The final day of judgement, in this view, is described from a variety of standpoints, so each series of events involving trumpets or bowls is understood to be referring to the same moment in time. The result is that what may be called ‘continuity errors’ in terms of categories of people or natural phenomenon are not significant or troubling. What a relief that is! Paul finds consistency and narrative drive through the text without being distracted by issues raised by a naïve and literal reading (how could a lamb open a scroll, for example?). This combination of openness to metaphor and the shifting of images and to a commitment to an overarching message in Revelation is unusual, it seems to me. But gosh, it’s liberating. Historical critical, with hints of post-modern knowingness: everything a 21st century biblical monograph should be! Thank you, Paul, for offering this excellent model for us all.

Response: Paul Middleton, University of Chester

I want to begin by saying how grateful I am to the reviewers, not just for taking the time to comment on my book, but also for their kind and constructive critical comments. I also want to thank Michelle and Garrick for creating this opportunity.

I don’t really want to take much time here because the respondents have done a fantastic job in summarising the main thrust of what I tried to argue. All three have brought up really important wider questions about the responsibilities of readers of ancient texts such as the Apocalypse, which would be worth further discussion, I have some specific responses to Simon, but perhaps a bit less to say about Alison’s and Meredith’s responses, basically because I more or less accept the points they make.

I suppose all three in some way challenge my claim to have (at least so far as the book is concerned) no interest in how Revelation is read today. Alison wonders if that is possible, and perhaps more importantly desirable, or even responsible. Meredith suggests if I was really serious about that agenda, then it is careless to use the term ‘Christian’ to describe John’s recipients, because that creates an almost inevitable chain of succession that leads to those who identify as Christians today. I actually entirely accept the problem, and although I don’t agree Revelation is quite as ‘Jewish’ as Meredith (the martyrs are from every tribe and nation in Revelation 7). I’m also bit less inclined to accept the ‘ways that never parted’ model. Nonetheless, I entirely agree that ‘Christian’ is a problematic term for at least the first few generations of the church. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that so long we continually remind ourselves of the problem, I’m not sure there is a better term, but that’s certainly an important discussion point.

Again, I accept Alison’s point that all readings probably come from somewhere. I am very self-consciously reacting against what I see as a theological ‘infection’ that predetermines the range of acceptable historical-critical readings that are compatible with a book that is – rather than came to be – scripture. I’m sure if the Texas Chainsaw Massacre was canonised, we’d get a whole range of interpretations insisting that the protagonist was really a non-violent messianic figure [I should say I’ve not actually seen it!]. That said, I do want to affirm two things though in response to Alison. I do think neutrality – in the sense that one doesn’t have to adopt a series of special presuppositions to understand a reading – is both desirable and possible. However, secondly, I do absolutely want to affirm the legitimacy, the desirability, indeed the necessity for self-consciously feminist, queer, non-violent, anti-empire readings of the text. I am just not persuaded that John is a feminist, non-violent, or for that matter, anti-empire, although he’s certainly anti-Roman-empire, or even anti-human-empire!

This brings me to Simon’s response. While at the end of the day we just disagree, I want to once again express my appreciation for his patient and accurate summary, as well as his selection of some of my more fruity writing. (A colleague who checked the final draft of the manuscript said my writing was “blokey”!)

I think all three of Simon’s exegetical challenges cluster around the general question of who is saved and who is damned. Since we all probably have views on each of the passages he highlights, rather than answering each point, let me just restate the more difficult claim I make: that everyone who is saved are martyrs. It is important to stress that I mean this within John’s narrative world; the literary world of the text, not the experience on the ground. I am not saying that all faithful Christ-believers will be martyred, or even that John expected them to be. I think it was actually quite difficult to get martyred in the late first/early second century! This is the reason, I think, those who see martyrdom as a prominent theme in Revelation end up arguing what John is urging is readiness for martyrdom rather than martyrdom. I think that’s probably correct on the ground, but not in the literary world of the text.

Simon’s first point, which is the only one I want to deal with in a little detail, concerns the second resurrection. Who gets raised? My answer is everyone that raised at the second resurrection gets thrown into the lake of fire; everyone whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life. As Simon notes, there are three characteristics of those who do not experience the second death:

  • those who ‘conquer’ (2.11);
  • those who have experienced the first resurrection (20.6);
  • and those whose names are written in the book of life (20.15).

I say these are three characteristics of the same group. I presume Simon says these characteristics do not all describe all those who are saved. So there may be some whose names are written in book of life who do not conquer, some conquers who do not experience the first resurrection, or some other combination.

However, in chapter 13 the world is divided into followers of the Lamb and worshippers of the Beast.

It [the Beast] was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation. And all who dwell on the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written…in the book of life of the Lamb. (13.7–8).

So, in other words, not being in the Lamb’s book of life is the determining factor in whether or not one is a Beast worshipper or a Lamb-follower (after all, the names were written before the foundation of the world!)

But what happens to those whose name is in the Lamb’s book of life – remember this is also the category who will escape the second death?

The other beast was allowed to give breath ot the image of the beast so that the image of the beast should even speak, and to cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain (13.15).

I say John has two categories of people:

  • Beast-worshippers whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life, and who will experience the second death;
  • Lamb-followers, whose names are in the Lamb’s book of life, and therefore refuse to worship the Beast, and who will therefore be slain.

Simon says there is a third category:

  • Those whose names are in the book of life who are not slain.

However, given the only category of person who is not slain by the beast are those who worshipped the beast, there must be those whose names are in the lamb’s book of life who nonetheless worship the Beast. There may well be, but I can’t find them in the text!

Finally, Simon is right to note that the nations do appear in the final chapters after they’ve been thrown into the lake of fire. I’m not sure, however, that they’ve really emerged from the lake of fire. This is where I appeal to the category of “continuity error”, not as a kind of exegetical “get out of jail free” card, but because, as Alison notes, I don’t see these continuity errors as interfering with the main narrative flow of the text. No one could possibly deny such continuity errors exist – how many times are the sun and the earth destroyed!? This, I think, rules out those who see an actual narrative running from beginning to end (I’m particularly aiming at Barr here). So that the kings of the earth reappear is only problematic if you want to tell the story of the kings of the earth. However, if Revelation is really a narrative about the readers of the text, urging them to make the right choice, then the extras can appear, disappear, get destroyed under mountains, reappear to be tortured by scorpions, get eaten by birds, reappear to make war against the rider on the horse, get slaughtered, get raised and thrown in the lake of fire, and then pay due honours to God and the inhabitants of the holy city. The nations of the earth, Babylon, the Beasts, and Satan, are the Wile E. Coyote of the Apocalypse; props – the victims of fantasy violence, but ultimately peripheral to the roadrunners of the story; the saints.

Guest blog: Three reviews of ‘The Violence of the Lamb: Martyrs as Agents of Divine Judgement in the Book of Revelation’ by Paul Middleton, with response by the author.
Tagged on:                 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 × four =