The Context of Apocalyptic Literature
In watching a film, we follow the film-makers story by observing the interaction of individuals with each other and their environment. We learn about the characters through what they say and do, and on occasion we hear their inner reflections. We notice each scene and locale, whether beautiful or destitute. The characters and their story become intimately tied with their surroundings. These elements constitute the context of the film. The time in which its characters live, the words they speak, the kingdom, country, city, state and village in which they reside with its political, economic and social air, their way of life, their ancestral history, and their religious beliefs among others are intimately tied to the story. If you share the story of the film with a friend, you attempt to give an accurate account of the film. The burden is on you to thoroughly reconstruct the story in its context as intended by the author.
Context is like the canvas on which an artist paints; the frame on which it is stretched; and the wall on which it is hung. Without one the others have not useful.
A daily newspaper spotlights a breaking story with a large photography. We expect that the photo on the front page of a daily to correspond with the content of the article. An artist may take this photo along with others from diverse sources. By juxtaposing the, he creates a collage. Together the elements speak a new and different message. However the original context and intent of the newspaper photo and the others has been lost, and may be very difficult to determine as time elapses. They are out of their original context.
The burden of the reconstruction of the historical and literary context of the Apocalypse (script) is on the scholar, teacher, pastor, student, layman, and even the casual reader. Understanding the world (setting, theatre) in which the characters and the events of the Apocalypse take place goes a long way toward understanding and interpreting its visions (acts, scenes).
We must study the political, social, economic and religious milieu of the Roman Empire because it is a large part of the interrelated conditions in which the Christians and the Jews of the first century lived. We must understand that there is a significant Jewish and Roman influence on the writer, the recipients and the text of the Apocalypse. Without drawing attention to the broad context of which we speak, misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Apocalypse can be expected.
We must consider the archaeology of the world of the Apocalypse, which includes literature, inscriptions, architecture, art, daily utensils and so forth. Primary literature that was written prior and contemporary to that of the Apocalypse should be the foundation of our study and helps shed light on the details of the text. Our understanding of these ancient peoples and their concerns begin with what they have left behind. Whether these documents were recorded accurately, tainted with bias or wholly falsified, they speak of volumes about the author and the society and culture in which they lived. In conjunction, we must follow the lead of scholars, both biblical and secular, and their research, in hope to properly interpret and weigh of all such remains.
Being a good student of scripture requires that we learn to ask the right questions of any given text and we learn to look in the right places for their answers. “What occasion arose that spawned the writing of the Apocalypse?” “What can be said of the writer and his audience that will further explain the Apocalypse?” What internal evidence help to describe the world of the Apocalypse? “What external evidence can be gathered which will expand our understanding of the text?”
Place yourself in the time and place of the first century Christians. Try to believe, think, act, and speak like them. Acquaint yourself with the literary documents which they had access. When the heard or read a particular vision, with its imagery and its words, phrases, clauses, what did they recall and how did they interpret it? Try to imagine what it would have been like to be sitting in a first century Christian community hearing the Apocalypse first time. What religious tradition did the Apocalypse build upon?