This post and those that follow will be a little tour of the Book of Revelation. I say “tour” rather than “commentary” because it will not be exhaustive, but a selection of some of the most famous sites along the way. I will not be giving my own opinions as authoritative, either—instead we will see how the principles gained from a close reading of Scripture in the light of the Church’s faith allow us greater access to the Book’s mysteries.
I will also make use of the commentary of the Venerable Bede, Saint and Doctor of the Church, who has written what must be the finest commentary on the Book of Revelation. The reason I did not just start giving St. Bede’s opinions in the beginning, or just translating his commentary, is that unless you already knew most everything in the last fourteen posts, it probably wouldn’t have made any sense to you.
I remember that many years ago when I read the Book of Revelation and didn’t understand it, the first thing I did was look to see if there were any commentaries on it. I found St. Bede’s, or at least the first few chapters that are translated into English, and it didn’t make any sense to me. It sounded entirely arbitrary and forced, like he was just making it up as he went along. Why did he say one thing rather than any old thing? It did not seem like wisdom at all.
Then sometime later I had a sort of crisis of Biblical interpretation. How was I to know who were reliable interpreters of the Scriptures? The Fathers had the weight of Church tradition, but didn’t seem to make much sense. Modern scholars used methods easily accessible to reason, but their results often seemed disconnected from the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church. Seeking for some sure foothold, I recalled something I had long known but not pursued systematically: Jesus, St. Paul, and others in the Scriptures themselves often quote a passage of the Old Testament and give an interpretation of it. Since the Scriptures are the word of God, I decided, these interpretations would be my reference point and the criteria by which I would judge all other interpreters whose word is not the word of God. To make sure I was being systematic and not selective, I read through the New Testament, writing down all such passages and comparing them with the Old Testament passages they quote. I highly recommend this exercise. It is one thing to be vaguely aware of this or take someone’s word for it, and quite another to see it for yourself.
I found that after doing this, I understood the Fathers of the Church. Not that I saw the sense in every last detail of all their interpretations. But I saw that the way they interpret Scripture is just the same way that Jesus and the Apostles do.
Since I also saw how Jesus and the New Testament authors saw multiple senses in the text, the historical approach of modern scholars no longer seemed to be at odds with the Fathers’ approach. Except, that is, insofar as some of them sometimes incorporate unacceptable assumptions into the principles from which they reason, like refusal to believe in God or his providence.
Then I returned to the Old Testament and read it through, armed with my new knowledge. There I found the Scriptural sources of many traditions scoffed at by those who have never bothered to read the Bible Jesus’ way. Then I re-read St. Bede, and found his commentary on Revelation riveting. I have kept my eyes open since and tried to learn all I can about the Scriptures. I have also had many excellent classes at the Dominican House of Studies, which have been very profitable intellectually and spiritually.
The main points of interpretation that I learned from Jesus, St. Paul, St. Matthew, and the rest I have presented in brief form in previous posts. We began with the basic principles of the Catholic faith concerning the Scriptures as enunciated in Vatican II, then read the Scriptures in light of them, with special attention to places where a Scriptural authority gives a clearer interpretation of a more obscure passage.
I hope you agree that it was worth the time, because being able to read the Bible like that will be of much greater benefit than just receiving an “answer key” of sorts that doesn’t explaining the reasoning that makes the answers make sense.
I have presented all this in talks before, and I find it takes me about an hour to an hour and a half to explain thoroughly. This is probably why most priests do not find suitable opportunities to expound the Book of Revelation to their parishioners, because they cannot assume their hearers have this background, and there is no way they can give it in the eight or so minutes they usually have in a Sunday homily.
In the upcoming posts when I say now and then, “St. Bede says that…,” I am not asking you merely to take what he says as an ipse dixit that you should not question. We owe him a certain amount of reverence as a saint and a Doctor of the Church, to be sure, and he doubtless had many more spiritual gifts of wisdom and discernment than I do. But his theological conclusions—what he decided by reasoning from what he believed in faith—are not of the same weight as what the Church proposes authoritatively. I hope you will think through the text using the principles from the previous posts to see if you find his interpretation as enlightening as I do.
Now, back to the Book itself!
Image: Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus