Peter Williamson- "Revelation"
10:39PM Jul 7, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
We're delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Peter Williamson. Adam Cardinal mighta chair in Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart major Seminary in Detroit and the author of several books, including the texts that we'll be discussing today, the commentary revelation in the Catholic commentary on Sacred Scripture series. Dr. Williamson, thank you so much for joining us today.
A pleasure to be with you, Dr. Armstrong.
Dr. Williamson, in the introduction to your commentary, you know, there there are two major theories concerning the dating of the book of Revelation. The book was probably written either in the 60sAD under the persecution of Nero, or in the 90sAD under the persecution of domitian. Please tell us why you favor this latter date.
Well, I'm not dogmatic about it. But I think a lot more With probably the majority of commentators, I take the statements of Irenaeus in the second half of the first century, who, who says directly that the book of Revelation was written during the reign of the mission. I actually think I have his quote here, john beheld the apocalyptic vision not a very long time ago, but almost the entire day towards the end of the missions reign. And then other ancient authors and commentators, early commentators on revelation said the same thing, I don't think that the interpretation that I present in the commentary depends on that it could have happened at an earlier time. Now, there's other factors to that there were some things about the circumstances that are referred to in the book of Revelation that might suit the time of domitian. For instance, lay out the sia is described as as wealthy, prosperous, secure, and so on and at the end of CHAPTER THREE, the church is described that way there. But we know that in the year 60, which would have been close to the time of Nero, or during the time of Nero, there was a major earthquake that very that powerfully affected the city destroyed it and so on. So it might seem less likely to describe the city as and the people there as prosperous well off, comfortable, secure, and so on. But by 30 years later, that would have been pretty reasonable so that we put revelation in the in the 90s is where I would come out on that.
Dr. Williamson, would you be willing to say something about the structure of the book of Revelation to many of us, it's a very confounding book. How is it that we can get a big picture of the text?
Yeah, thank you. Well, I just to say, I, like many Christians for many years, I did not read the book of Revelation. It was just too confusing. Some people found it frightening. I didn't find it frightening, but I just couldn't make heads or tails of it. So I was grateful to have to teach it. I also had some very good teachers. And I gradually felt like I came to sort of understand the basic structure and you know enough to eventually want to write about it. So, at the beginning of the book, I'll get my Bible here. It during the initial vision, the risen Jesus speaks to john. And he says, Now, right what you see, that's chapter one, verse 19, what is and what is to take place hereafter? So I see a basic division in the book between things, that's the period of the present, what is and then the things that are to take place hereafter? And the clearest thing that refers to the present time in the book of Revelation is chapters two and three, the so called letters to the churches, although they're not letters, they're actually prophecies or articles directed to the seven churches of Asia. But when. But when that ends at the end of chapter three in the beginning of chapter four, we read, come up here and I will show you what must take place after this. So chapter four begins the revelation of the things that have to do with the future. Then what happens next is in chapters four and five, we have the vision of heaven, and the throne room of God. And we see that you know, Christ, the Lamb receives the scroll from God who's seated on the throne. And this scroll contains, if you will, the plan for human history, God's plan of salvation. And in the chapters that follow, as as first of all as, as john, or as Christ as Christ takes over opens the seals, a variety events occur, the seventh the opening of the seven seals. And then then we have seven trumpets. And then when we are six trumpets, and then before the seventh trumpet, we we get another vision in chapter 10 of now the open scroll brought to john the Prophet, and he's told to eat it. And it's as though God is saying to john, now I want you to digest this revelation that I'm giving you, I want you to assimilate it and then I want you to prophesied to the nations or about nations. So that, that becomes sort of the, the now articulation of what the scroll contains in the chapters that follow chapters 11 to 21, which basically tell God's plan of salvation. Now, there's a lot more details and complications in there, but what we get is first And exposure of the spiritual warfare that's taking place in chapter 12. A rather chapter is chapter 12. And then 13 unfold about the first beast and the second beast, sort of describing the spiritual warfare. We get visions of the role of the church in chapter 11 and 14, where the church is called to worship, you know, before the altar in the temple, and also called to witness and the witness the two witnesses and the churches witness. And then also to follow Jesus the hundred and 44,000 that follow the lamb wherever he goes. But in between those visions of the call of the church, we have the description of these powerful enemies, the beast and the second beast. And then in chapters 15 and 16, we get if you will, the the bowls of wrath, so it's the third time series of seven. But rather than partial judgments that have the intention of kind of bringing people to their senses and waking them up, these bowls manifest the outpouring of God's final judgment on a world that is in rebellion. And then and then the enemies are dealt with in the eye of God and His people are dealt with in the following chapters, beginning in the inverse order of their introduction, so first Babylon is destroyed, then the beast and the false prophet are destroyed. And then finally, Satan is destroyed and cast into the lake of fire and death and Hades, which which were introduced first are finally destroyed as well. So and then we have in the final two chapters, the book the picture of the New Jerusalem, of the new world that that Christ brings. That is the kind of fulfillment of all the hopes and promises of the Old Testament. So that's my kind of quick overview of the book of Revelation. That is a nonlinear telling of history. There's a lot of repetition. Things are viewed from more than one angle. And so like other parts of the Bible where multiple visions may speak about the same event, Daniel two and Daniel seven, both describe four kingdoms that are overcome by Christ. Well, similarly here we have sort of multiple pictures of, of the sufferings of the church, the trial of the church, the persecution of the church, and yet we also have multiple pictures of the destruction of God's enemies. You know, a couple times we three times we hear about the destruction of Babylon, and each time it's a little bit different. Twice we hear about the destruction of the beast and the enemies of God. So That's a little bit I'm not sure that that's makes it real easy to follow you. They need to read the book.
No, that is incredibly helpful. Thank you for that overview of the structure of Revelation. Dr. Williamson, one of the very other very helpful features of the text are these living tradition paragraphs that you have inserted these special features. And here on page 65, you have one titled St. Polycarp, the church of submariners, most illustrious martyr, in these living tradition paragraphs you tie the teaching of the book of revelation to the tradition of the church, both modern and ancient. Would you be willing to describe how St. Polycarp fits into this story?
Yeah, well Polycarp was grew up in Smyrna and he may have actually been present when the book of Revelation was first read there, because Smyrna is one of the seven churches to which it's addressed. It's a city a little bit north of emphasis and he would have been maybe in his teens or 20s, in the in the mid 90s. So he could well and he was raised a Christian. He later became the bishop, the leader of that local church, he lived to a long, great old age for that day or for our day he lived, I think, 86 or so. And in the end, he was, he was martyred for his faith in Christ. And so he in a certain sense, embodies the heroism, the call to faithfulness unto death that the book of Revelation is about and he manifest the kind of persecution that the church was subject to at the time. I mean, he was one of the things that people think is that the persecution was constant all the time, but it wasn't it was sporadic and it would break out in one place locally, but not be so bad in other places and So he was the victim of that. And I guess 155 is is the date that it's given for his death, his birth around age six at around the year 69 ad. So I tried to bring in those those examples of living tradition, that is to say stories of the past or writing of church fathers about, you know, where they comment on various texts, but I also talk about things in the contemporary life of the church. That's why we call living tradition, not just dead tradition, or not just past ancient tradition. So a couple pages after that I have a sidebar on the church and the Jewish people today, because the the letter to Smyrna addresses the situation of I know the slander of those who claim to be Jews and are not but rather are members of the assembly of Satan. Well, that can sound rather harsh. And so it's important to sort of say, how do we create But in particular, does the Catholic Church look at the Jewish people so in that living tradition, texts, it kind of explains a little bit more the perspective of the church on the Jewish people. Up likewise will refer to the Catechism. Sometimes the, the Catholic the teaching of the Catholic Church is rather well summarized in a, in a in a big book catechism that came out in 1992 or 93. And so, so when we're kind of connecting doctrine and scripture, that's one place we would turn and and so I include those kind of statements sometimes in these living tradition sidebars as well. Another kind of sidebar that we have is biblical background sidebars, which might take up themes from the Bible or historical background, that kind of stuff. Thank you,
Dr. Williamson. Different interpreters of the book of Revelation have different views whether the text is speaking about future reality. These or partially future realities or even past events? What's your view in this debate?
Yeah. Well, I think it's speaking about past, present and future. So now there are some that wants that, that have what's called the preterist view of the book of Revelation that it all refers to things that happened in the first century. But that can't be true because the book of Revelation clearly speaks about the second coming of Christ, say in chapter 19, when the Word of God comes on a white horse, or, and it speaks about the end of history and the final judgment, and the structure of the enemies of God. So that all didn't get finished in the first century that's still going on the warfare, the persecution and so on. So clearly, Revelation speaks about the end of history. To earlier how it addresses things at the present time and contemporary to the book of Revelation in the letters to the churches where it addresses their spiritual condition. But it's also the case that it speaks about dynamics that continue through through all of Christian history. So although Babylon, probably referred in the first century context, to the culture of Rome, and the, the economic power of Rome, and the corrupting power of Rome, you know, the cultural way in which it prevented presented as a kind of temptation, and a persecution of Christians. Babylon isn't isn't, didn't end with Rome. We live in Babylon. You know, we live in a culture that is seductive that attracts by comfort, by luxury, by By morality and that persecute Christians. We live just as Babylon is described in chapter 18. As, as a great market, you know, all the world's merchants became rich and babylons great men were merchants. So also, do we today live in a society in the United States of America or in the Western countries, we live in the greatest market of the world that buys from everybody all over and makes everybody rich. Yet this culture is one that is at the same time, anti christian really, and and trying to draw people away from from from God. So I think that it that the book of Revelation addresses the time in which it took place, it addresses the end of history, but it's given by God to the church to address Christians at every age, summoning us to discern in our own day, where do we see something like the beast? Something like the Antichrist? Where do we see in our system in our world, something like Babylon? And these are perennial spiritual realities. If we take the example of the beast, who which Christian tradition has taken to be the same figure as the man of lawlessness in Second Thessalonians two and and the antichrist in, in first, john? Well, first john says this, you know, you have heard the Antichrist is coming many as a Christ have already come, and the spirit of antichrist is already in the world. So, the beast was present then, but he continues to be present now in various governmental powers or forms that are working against God's people that are commanding worship to themselves totalitarian regimes James.
Likewise, Paul says the mystery of iniquity referring to the man of lawlessness is already at work. So we're speaking about spiritual dynamism that were present in the first century, and endure throughout the life of the church and its history, and are present in our world today. Sometimes one is greater than the other. I don't see the figure of antichrist so clearly are so sharply now, but Babylon is very visible to me. So those are a couple thoughts about a one more thing about the past. Clearly, Revelation refers to the past. And it does so for instance, in chapter 12, when it speaks about the birth of the male child who is to rule the nation's who is then caught up to heaven. It's about two verses long at the beginning of revelation 12. But it actually is speaking about the the Incarnation and the ministry of Christ and His ascension. So it kind of in a few words, looks at the pastor of the church. before it goes on to this to describe the churches present spiritual warfare. As Satan the dragon, the serpent pursues the woman who represents the church, the people of God. So, past, present and future, and we need to keep those those times in mind as we read the book, not not relegating it to just one or the other.
We're discussing this morning revelation, the commentary revelation by Dr. Peter Williamson in the Catholic commentary on Sacred Scripture series. Dr. Williamson, one of the most complex and difficult aspects of the book of Revelation for modern readers, is this constant appeal to symbolism that we have throughout How are we to understand for example, the vision of the bowls of God's wrath in this book,
that was also one of the things that was very off putting for me about the book of Revelation was the confusing amount of symbolism and, you know, I think we modern Americans are kind of more literal people. And especially I started reading revelation when I was a young man. And I think young people are more literal people more literal often than older people. But like, other visions in the Bible, the book of Revelation conveys its message in symbol, and, so we, you know, the dreams and visions that we find in the Bible, whether it's Zechariah, or whether it's Daniel, or whether it's Joseph's dreams. truths were told about real truths about history, about things that were really going to happen, but they were told, not in a direct, straightforward, descriptive manner, but in a symbolic manner. So that's one of the things we have to deal with when we Dealing with a book of Revelation. Actually, the introduction to my book speaks about this symbolism and it is online. So if somebody were to search Catholic commentary on Sacred Scripture and then click on the volume revelation, I, the introduction to my book is available there and people could read some of the main symbols in the book of Revelation. But to respond to your question about the seven bowls. They seem to me to be not so much a literal description of specific events, but a way of symbolically referring to God's Final Judgment. They, they build on the previous two set of sevens, seven seals, and then seven trumpets, and the seven bowls of the combination when God's judgment on wickedness finally comes They draw on the imagery or not just the imagery, but the the story and the fact of God's judgment on Egypt. So God's judgment on Egypt in the time of the deliverance from Egypt and the time of the accidents is sort of a paradigm that gets repeated for in that in this case, all the nations of the world that oppose God. And as most of Egypt didn't repent, as Pharaoh didn't repent, so most of the world doesn't repent. So I see it as symbolic of God's Final Judgment. And the way we see that is that is that while the the first set of seven, the seven seals destroyed a quarter of the earth's population, and then the seven trumpets hit a third of the world's, you know of the world with natural disasters, these are described as hitting everything, all the people who are followers of the beast We're covered with with boils or sores. You know, all of the sun was struck all of the throne of the beast was struck all of Babylon was destroyed. But it's a kind of symbolic representative way of saying it. In the case of Babylon, it's quite curious. It's the seventh bowl describes judgment finally happening to Babylon and what it describes it as as an earthquake, and the city split into three pieces. But then the very next chapter 17 tells a different story about the destruction of Babylon. It says that the beast and the 10 kings were hostile towards Babylon attacked it and burnt it and destroyed it. Oh, if you will, the first one is a kind of symbolic representation of about of what's going to happen in history in a different way. So, I hope that's helpful. It's one of the most challenging things is trying to answer interpret the symbols. And that's the way dreams and visions are and we pray for wisdom and we can't be too confident about our own interpretations.
Thank you so much for those reflections. Dr. Williamson, one of the purposes of this program is to create a dialogue across the various Christian traditions, the various historic Orthodox Christian traditions. And I'd like to ask you, are there parts of this commentary that you feel would have been different? Had they been written by a Protestant scholar, you are a Catholic scholar writing from a Catholic seminary, how might your interpretation of the book be different from your Protestant colleagues? Yeah. Well,
I'd say first of all, that there's actually there's an awful lot that would be exactly the same. I did rely on Protestant commentators in what I wrote. And if a person looks at the suggested resources at the back It refers to some of these that I used. I relied on Gk Beals Book of Revelation grant Osborne's book on revelation Craigie caster's revelation in the end of all things, and in fact, some of the scholars that I disagreed most with work we're Catholics. So I criticized Wilfred Harrington's Sacra patina volume because it interpreted Satan as merely a symbol of evil and the and interpreted the lake of fire as annihilation which is contrary to Catholic teaching, as well as that of most Christians. in other respects, though Harrington's book had a lot to offer. He was a good scholar and set up and gathered a lot of good information. So where would my Catholic perspective bring about a different view? Well, for instance, in Revelation 12, where it speaks about the woman As a Catholic, I'm more likely to see in that account, a kind of reference to Mary, not exclusively, because I think that Mary B that the woman there represents in some ways Israel or Zion, daughter, Zion, who gives birth to the Messiah, and also represents the church. The woman is described as being persecuted by the dragon her children are those who, who acts who follow the teaching of Jesus or keep the commandments of Jesus. But it describes a woman who actually gives birth to the Messiah. So I see Mary herself there, and therefore, there's a link. Mary is in some ways, a type of the church and our Catholic understanding of her.
so and a type of the people have yes of the people of God. So that's one ways I'm more inclined to recognize the presence of Mary there. But then also in chapter 20, when it speaks about the thousand year reign of the saints, I take this to be the reign of the saints of the martyrs and saints in heaven with Christ, during the period between the first coming of Christ and His second coming, and it describes them as functioning as priests of God and of Christ. And I take this to refer to the intercession of the saints in heaven, for the people of God, which is a matter of Catholic doctrine and also a matter of doctrine that, you know, in the early church in the, you may know that in Copernican, where they found the House of Peter. And when they did, as you know, they started which had been turned into the church into a church in the second century, they found inscribed on his walls from maybe third or fourth century graffiti. We said, Peter, pray for us. So we know that there was an early tradition of asking martyrs and saints to pray for the people of God. This is part of our Catholic practice, not part of, of Protestant practice, for the most part, but I see this as in some ways confirmed in Revelation with the the sharing in the rule and priestly ministry of Christ, of the saints and martyrs in Revelation 15. So are revelation 20. So those would be a couple of examples.
Thank you so much, Dr. Williamson.
And if I may close this interview with a question that we've been asking all of the guests on this program and that is this. What would it mean for the church to be united today? And how can we as Christians pursue the Unity for which Jesus prays in john 17.
And that's a wonderful question. And I thank you for it and for your for your concern and interest in unity, what form our unity can take, God only knows. And I think that his prayer will be answered and we'll reach a greater sort of oneness than we presently experience. There has been a great deal of progress. And I'm grateful for that, as far as what we can do to do it to to advance towards greater unity. I think talking to one another, just as we're talking here, about our understanding of the Bible, looking for the things that we have in common rather than emphasizing the differences that we have, looking for the common causes in which we can support and defend one another. For instance, the pro life movement is a place of great collaboration between Protestants and Catholics, and Christians, all different kind of denominations praying together when we can I personally belong to an ecumenical prayer community. And it involves Protestants and Catholics of different, you know, Protestants, a variety of churches. And I've been a part of it for many years. And we really share life Christian life together in a pretty profound way. So I think that that's mainly it is pray together, get to know one another find common ground. And when when tensions arise recently, I was in total, a young student contacted me at a university in the area saying, we're having trouble with a Protestant group. They're really anti Catholic. What can we do? Well, there's a Protestant group that I give to generously regularly, and I support some of their missionaries in the support some of their activity. And so I'm going to try to make contact with the leadership of that group and see if we can kind of get more ecumenical more interdenominational recognizing one another kind of perspective. Maybe a final point is The great division in the human race is between those who are in Christ and those who are not in Christ. And we need to not exaggerate the other differences. The fundamental thing is, who is my brother in Christ, who is my sister in Christ? And that needs to be our fundamental outlook, rather than one focusing on our denominational differences? Yes, there. There are sincere and real disagreements, and God has to show us the way pass them to a deeper unity. And he'll do that I believe, in his own good time.
It's been our distinct pleasure today to be speaking with Dr. Peter Williamson, the Adam Cardinal mighta chair in a Sacred Scripture at the Sacred Heart major Seminary in Detroit and author of the text that we've been discussing today. Revelation, the commentary in the Catholic commentary on Sacred Scripture series. Dr. Williamson, thank you so much for your time today.
Thank you very much, Dr. Armstrong, pleasure being with you. Wonderful to talk about this thing.