7.5.4. Searching for Meaning in all the Wrong Places

Among commentators of the last book of the Bible, a stark dividing line can be seen in regard to where they go looking for an understanding of the symbols which they encounter in the text. The three main sources which are appealed to are pagan mythology, Jewish apocryphal writings, and the Old Testament. Depending upon which of these three sources one emphasizes, a quite different picture of John’s communication emerges. The decision of where to go looking for meaning is perhaps second only to the art and science of interpretation in its effect upon the resulting understanding. It is our belief that those who utilize pagan mythology and uninspired Jewish apocrypha in order to understand the book of Revelation have a deficient view of the perspicuity and sufficiency of the inspired Scriptures (Ps. Ps. 19:1-14; John John 8:31; 1Cor. 1Cor. 4:6; 2Ti. 2Ti. 3:15-17; Heb. Heb. 4:12-13; 2Pe. 2Pe. 1:3, 2Pe. 1:19-21; Jude Jude 1:3).

Some commentators assume a near equivalence among these three sources in the pursuit of meaning.

The sources for interpreting them [symbols] come from the OT, intertestamental literature, and the Greco-Roman world—in other words, in the common world of the original readers in the province of Asia.1

Though the OT, Judaism, NT, and immediate context of the Apocalypse provide the primary background for its imagery, much work remains to be done on surveying the various sources of the Greco-Roman world to broaden the multiple ideas associated with many of the images in the Apocalypse.2

Others go so far as to assert that the meaning of the book of Revelation cannot be found within the confines of inspired Scripture because certain symbols are not treated therein: Rev. 12:1-2+] has no parallel in the O.T.” [emphasis added]3

Is it really true that God delivered inspired Scripture to John for our understanding, but expects us to search extra-biblical sources for the necessary keys? And what of those who only have the inspired Word of God at their disposal, but lack the historical and cultural materials which some commentators assert are necessary? It is one thing to recognize that access to historical and cultural writings may enhance our understanding of biblical material. It is quite another to say that it is a requisite for our understanding. The latter view effectively denies the sufficiency of Scripture and elevates extra-biblical material on a par with inspired Scripture in making the latter dependent upon the former.

In contrast to these views, Thomas observes: “An attempt has been made to elevate extra-biblical material referred to by John to the level of the OT among his sources. Yet no conclusive evidence proves that he used sources, written or oral, outside the OT.”4 Those who assert John’s dependence upon outside sources are unable to provide clear-cut examples and often are simply reflecting the anti-supernaturalism so prevalent in academic circles today. Beale wisely cautions:

In recognizing the presence of allusions to sources other than the OT, whether Jewish or Greco-Roman . . . One must be circumspect in the search for dependence on such other literary sources and resist the temptation to find parallels where there are none.5


1 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 17.

2 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 58.

3 Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998, 1906), cxxviii.

4 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 41.

5 Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 79.