Rudolf Bultmann famously derided the biblical book of Revelation as “weakly Christianized Judaism” (Theology of the New Testament, 2:175). But, as Richard Bauckham points out, this phrase “betrays the influence of the tendency of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Christianity to deny its Jewish roots. It makes the extraordinary suggestion that only what is not Jewish is really Christian and that Christianity somehow came into being by negating Judaism. We should now be able to recognize . . . the unconscious tendency to anti-Semitism in this approach” (pp. 147-48).
The anti-Semitic approach is not the one that Bauckham himself follows in his helpful little book The Theology of the Book of Revelation. For Bauckham, first things are first as he gives primary consideration to the question of Revelation’s literary genre. Whole interpretive traditions get off track at precisely this point because they fail to see what kind of book Revelation is. Bauckham, however, sums it up nicely: “The opening verses of Revelation seem to indicate that it belongs not to just one but to three kinds of literature. . . Thus Revelation seems to be an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia” (pp. 1, 2). This consideration is no small matter because it is precisely ones understanding of the Revelation’s thoroughly Jewish genre that determines how one will interpret the book.
It is Bauckham’s understanding of Jewish prophecy that keeps him from the pitfalls of purely futurist or purely preterist interpretations of the Revelation.
Biblical prophecy always both addressed the prophet’s contemporaries about their own present and the future immediately impending for them and raised hopes which proved able to transcend their immediate relevance to the prophet’s contemporaries and to continue to direct later readers to God’s purpose for their future. Historicizing modern scholarship has sometimes stressed the former to the total exclusion of the latter, forgetting that most biblical prophecy was only preserved in the canon of Scripture because its relevance was not exhausted by its reference to its original context. Conversely, fundamentalist interpretation, which finds in biblical prophecy coded predictions of specific events many centuries later than the prophet, misunderstands prophecy’s continuing relevance by neglecting to ask what it meant to its first hearers (pp. 152-53).
I don’t think Bauckham’s book is flawless. I think his dismissal of a literal intermediate kingdom (the millenium) is not required by his hermenetical presuppositions nor is it faithful to the obvious sequencing John uses to structure Revelation (p. 108). I think there are also problems with Bauckham’s anthropological interjections concerning human freedom and autonomy (pp. 142, 149, 164) that seem to have little basis in the text itself.
Nevertheless, as a distillation of his previous scholarship on the book of Revelation, this 164 page primer is a must-read for anyone interested in a competent and learned summary of Revelation’s theology. I highly recommend it.