AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 68, 2020
KAYLE B. DE WAAL, An Aural-Performance Analysis of Revelation 1 and 11 (Studies in Biblical Literature 163; New York: Peter Lang, 2015). Pp. xviii + 210. Hardback. US$96.85.
This volume by de Waal has a twofold aim: firstly, to highlight the importance of an aural-critical approach to interpreting the Book of Revelation, and secondly, to suggest a critical methodology for such an approach. Though limited to just two chapters, the work draws together a variety of important disciplines in creating this aural-critical methodology, and in so doing succeeds in presenting a helpful perspective on the text.
De Waal begins with a compact yet thorough literature review which engages with his key conversation partners: specifically, he presents an overview of the emerging field of biblical performance criticism, interacting with key scholars in the field such as Rhoads, Doan and Giles, Hearon, and Mathews. He correctly identifies that performance criticism continues to be a broad pastiche of different methods and disciplines, and offers his own take: a method informed by sound mapping and auditory neuroscience, which he goes on to demonstrate in Chapters 5 and 6.
Chapter 2 paints a picture of John’s audience, and here de Waal creates a careful and helpful distinction between three different groupings within the audience: the “informed,” the “minimal” and the “competent.” Herein lies an interesting issue: though all three are identified, the book does not consistently engage with all three throughout its analysis, by and large focusing on the “competent” audience as the overall listeners of John’s message. The consequences of this decision are seen in the later chapters when the book analyses the text—much of the analysis focuses on the perspective of the “competent” Jewish audience. Whilst this helps to keep the later analysis focused, it tends to present a somewhat oversimplified portrait of early Christian believers across Asia Minor, as de Waal does not believe that many Greek or Roman educated, “informed” audience members would have been present in the congregations. Making this claim allows him to safely bypass many of the Greco-Roman allusions being made in the text and focus more on the Jewish ideas (particularly referencing Daniel and Ezekiel). This certainly helps to streamline the analysis, but runs the very real risk of ignoring the particular Greco-Roman cultural connotations being made by John; although de Waal does later engage with certain unavoidable allusions. Whilst this is problematic, it is by no means a fatal flaw, and allows de Waal to present a much tighter view of the text.
Whilst he does briefly explore the conceptual differences between “orality” and “rhetoric,” this is swiftly dealt with in order to focus on the method being created. In order to do so, de Waal firstly shows how the concept of orality/aurality is leveraged throughout the New Testament before narrowing down to the text of Revelation. Here, he identifies a variety of influences in the ancient Mediterranean world, such as drama and liturgy, and explains the practice of letter-reading (or performance), setting the stage well for his subsequent chapters.
Chapters 3 and 4 serve to provide a backdrop for de Waal’s arguments; he firstly discusses the mechanics of an oral performance of the text, and then engages with a wide variety of literature concerning approaches to both New Testament texts and other first century Jewish literature. These chapters are well researched and cover a great breadth of material. De Waal helpfully points out that listeners of the text would not have simply heard it once over a long sitting, but rather explores the effect of listening to the text several times, recognising the difficulty for an audience in comprehending a single, non-stop performance of a dense text. He argues for ακούω as a marker of significance for the book of Revelation, and demonstrates the relative importance of this word in the other texts, acknowledging its meaningful usage whilst not overstating his case.
Chapters 5 and 6 are an application of the method developed over the previous four chapters, and follow largely the same formula: de Waal sets out the text according to particular acoustic markers, in so doing highlighting the different “periods” of meaning in the text. He then engages in an analysis of the text that is guided by these markers, commenting on how the text might have been performed, and how its audience might have understood it. As mentioned earlier, the analysis tends to focus on the “competent” audience members, which narrows its scope but does exclude a large portion of the text’s possible audience.
There are some other criticisms to be made: though de Waal briefly engages with visual exegesis through the work of Maier and through references to the influence of coinage in Domitian’s reign, he does not pay sufficient attention to the visual aspects of Revelation in this work. This can be said to be broadly symptomatic of the field of performance criticism, as many scholars tend to focus upon a particular aspect of performance—and, it must be remembered, it is extraordinarily difficult to form a holistic picture given the scant evidence.
Whilst de Waal’s division of the text into various “periods” may be contentious to some, they are a helpful way of engaging with the text, and the divisions are generally very well justified. This micro-level structuring engages each sentence of the text in granular detail, and serves to demonstrate the skill of the prophet-performer in delivering this text to an audience. The idea of “periods” also allows de Waal to both convincingly demonstrate John’s use of particular Hebrew Bible references and to draw out how the audience might have understood these references.
Every chapter in the text is founded on solid research, and engages well with a wide variety of experts in the various disciplines. Though some of his claims may be contentious (particularly his identification of John’s audience), this text presents a helpful new method that is well supported by the evidence provided. Perhaps the greatest failing of this book is that it is too short—further engagement in order to more carefully demonstrate the method’s applicability to other parts of Revelation, particularly Revelation 2–3, would have been very helpful. This book is a helpful reference for all Revelation scholars and presents an intriguing approach that deserves more attention.
Alphacrucis College, Melbourne