AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 68, 2020
PETER J. LEITHART, Revelation 1–11 and Revelation 12–22 (ITC; London: Bloomsbury: T&T Clark, 2018).
2 vols. Pp. x + 502. Hardback. US$110.00 per volume.
This long and thought-provoking commentary is part of a new international theological commentary series, the distinctive features of which are helpfully set out in a General Editors’ Preface (vi–vii of both volumes). These commentaries are meant to be different in drawing from the theological resources of Christianity, including “dependence upon the creedal and confessional heritage of the church” (vi) and discussing “how the biblical literature impinges on, comes into confrontation with, or aligns with contemporary questions” (vii).
This commentary fulfills that mandate by regularly using discussion of the biblical text to reflect on and discuss theological issues, including issues relevant today rather than at the time of the initial writing of the text. For example, the author’s discussion of apocalyptic not only considers apocalypse as an ancient genre and an “apocalyptic worldview” but also discusses modern interest in apocalyptic as a theological and philosophical category, considering such authors as Cyril O’Regan, J. Louis Martyn, Thomas J. J. Altizer, Catherine Keller, and Jacques Derrida, among others (1:56–67). Volume 2 also concludes with brief theological reflections on subjects such as predestination, Trinity and time. The commentary also draws strongly on patristic and later Christian authors (Andrew of Caesarea and Oecumenius, authors of two early commentaries on Revelation from 7th century, are often referenced, as is Bede) but Leithart also discusses most of the recent commentators (such as Aune, Koester, Beale, Mounce, Smalley, Reddish and Boxall).
This commentary is distinctive in many other ways. For example, it takes minority positions on most issues related to the understanding of Revelation, defending apostolic authorship by John and reading Revel-tion as a kind of sequel to the Fourth Gospel (1:21–24), arguing for an early dating of Revelation (1:21,36–43), and reading Revelation largely as a prediction of the A.D.70 disaster for Jerusalem (1:24–32); for example, this leads him to translate gē (γῆ) as “land” (i.e. Israel) rather than “earth” (as in the planet) and yields unusual outcomes.
Perhaps because of the guidelines for this series, Leithart also spends little time on historical context of the first century, especially the Greco-Roman context, and makes few references to Jewish apocalyptic literature or even Josephus, which one might have expected considering the focus on the Roman-Jewish war. Instead he interprets Revelation largely in a canonical context, drawing on his reading of the Old Testament, and other New Testament authors also, in the service of what he calls a “typological preterist” (1:14) reading. Leithart makes his own construction of Old Testament themes, and doesn’t always argue for his interpretation; this sometimes produces surprising but stimulating analysis. For example, rejecting the more common contemporary view of Revelation’s attitude to the Roman empire, Leithart suggests that God raised up the series of empires mentioned in Daniel as protectors of post-exilic Israel, a system he calls oikumene (1:32–35), even though they frequently became adversaries instead, and sees Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and its temple as both God’s judgment on idolatrous Judaism and God’s ending of that era in view of Christ’s foundation of the “fifth monarchy” implied by Daniel 2, which is his reading of the collapse of the old creation (including Rome) and the introduction of the new creation. Hence Leithart reads Revelation as predicting real imminent events (mainly around A.D.70) using apocalyptic language (see 1:47; 2:129). He also highlights the central role of martyrdom in fulfilling God’s plan here, unveiling the true condition and guilty state of Jews and Romans alike.
This commentary gives a lot of attention to structure. Leithart has a clear idea of the overall structure of Revelation as narrative (1:43–50) and draws on Exodus and Song of Solomon in this discussion. He dismisses the idea of digressions or interludes in the text, seeing the three sets of seven as including all the material of Chapters 7–16, for example. He also sees chiasm everywhere, both at the macro-level and in discussion of short passages. Some of this is more convincing than others. He frequently illustrates parallels with tables, especially where he is drawing parallels between the sevens and the seven days of creation from Genesis 1. He is also forever counting uses of certain words and phrases and looking for significant numbers of uses (e.g. 2:165).
As readers might gather from the above, this is an unusual commentary in more than one way, and certainly not an exegetical commentary in the usual sense. Readers will probably find Leithart’s interpretations at times exasperating, at times stimulating, but probably not uninteresting. He delves into topics most other commentators don’t discuss, ignores other issues that all other commentaries consider and challenges many accepted views.
He helpfully sets out his line of interpretation at the outset and in a summary at the end (2:431–39). Each volume also has its own bibliography, author index, biblical index and extensive subject index, which certainly helps readers navigate the material and was necessary since each volume has its own page numbering, unlike Aune’s three-volume commentary. Like any index, it doesn’t cover every topic.
In summary, I found this commentary provocative, idiosyncratic, stimulating and frequently (but not always) convincing.
Alphacrucis College, Melbourne