AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 62, 2014
JOHN C. THOMAS, The Apocalypse: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Cleveland, TN: CTP Press, 2012). Pp. xvii + 716. Paperback. ISBN 9781935931270. $US29.95 RRP.
This new commentary on the Book of Revelation comes from Professor John Christopher Thomas who serves at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee, and is the Director of the Centre for Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies at Bangor University in Wales. It is promoted (on the back cover) as a specifically Pentecostal reading of Revelation, “the most extensive reading of the Apocalypse offered by a Pentecostal scholar to date,” “shaped by the Pentecostal and wider communities” which “reflects the heart of Pentecostal theology and spirituality.” We are led to expect an interpretation that is both scholarly and Pentecostal and by and large that’s what we find here.
The commentary begins with a lengthy Introduction, notable for its discussion of the structure of Revelation, as shown in phrases such as “in the Spirit” and “and I saw” and the series of sevens (2–8), and the genre/s of the text, where Thomas emphasises that Revelation is designed for “oral enactment” (8), “comes from a prophetic community” (13), draws on the “apocalyptic conceptual world” (16) and has a strong intertextual relationship with the Old Testament. Thomas goes on to discuss the canonical function of Revelation and its implied audience, which Thomas characterises as a group familiar with both the Old Testament and the Johannine community literature and as “people of the Spirit” (24). He points out that the members of this group include a number of significant women and they all face significant pressure for their witness to Jesus. There is an extended discussion of the date of composition, which Thomas views as deliberately ambiguous (39), and of the authorship of the text, leading to the modest conclusion that John was at least part of the
Johannine community. The Introduction concludes with a (35 page) discussion of the interpretation and influence of Revelation over the centuries, including “disastrous interpretations” (51), other Johannine apocalypses, art, music, poetry, film and commentaries. Remarkably, there is here no discussion of its influence on modern Pentecostalism or previous Pentecostal interpreters, other than a single poem from 1907 (73–74). Much of the discussion in the Introduction underpins the subsequent commentary proper.
Perhaps the two most noticeable distinctive features of Thomas’ commentary are its constant attention to the experience of the original hearers, which shapes the language of almost every part of the commentary, and its characterisation of these hearers as a Johannine community familiar with the Fourth Gospel and the Letters of John, texts that Thomas has previously written on. There are therefore very frequent references to this Johannine literature throughout the book. The emphasis on the original hearers is refreshing but very repetitive and, for me, eventually a little tiring. Another distinctive feature, which reflects the author’s Pentecostalism, is the frequent reference to “pneumatic discernment” in relation to how the original audience would interpret the imagery, symbols and narrative features of the text. Here Thomas brings in fruitful discussion of potential intertextual references from the Old Testament, the Johannine texts and other ancient sources but not a lot of specifically ‘pneumatic’ features.
Thomas offers detailed comments on every verse, as one would expect from a commentary of this length, informed by analysis of the Greek text and some conversation with secondary sources, though mostly he avoids extended discussion of other views and rarely quotes from other authors, referring to them only in footnotes. He also avoids taking positions on the bigger interpretive disputes related to the major readings of Revelation. Sometimes this means that he glosses over areas of dissonance but it also means that the writing flows.
As a Pentecostal reader, I was interested to see how much the commentary would contribute a distinctively Pentecostal perspective to illuminate the text, especially as some other recent commentaries by Pentecostals, such as Gordon Fee, hardly attempted this. Thomas’ commentary has a mixed track record in this case. Certainly he gives due attention to the work of the Spirit/s in Revelation and the role of the Spirit in the church’s witness and Christian prophecy, especially in his discussion of Rev 19:10 (572–73). He has some intriguing suggestions about pneumatic interpretation and “"writing in the Spirit,” where he suggests an analogy with speaking in tongues (44–45). His Pentecostalism probably influences his missiological emphasis, which may also owe something to Richard Bauckham, an acknowledged inspiration for Thomas’ research on Revelation (x). Like Bauckham, Thomas sees John as envisaging the conversion of the nations in a much more optimistic and inclusive sense than many conservative writers (654–61). After mentioning Pentecostalism’s “fivefold gospel” (ix), Thomas fails to investigate whether or not Revelation supports this, especially the idea of Jesus as Holy Spirit Baptiser. He also makes very little reference to potential intertextual links with the Book of Acts, Pentecostalism’s central New Testament text, and rarely engages with other Pentecostal interpretations of the Apocalypse.
In conclusion, Thomas has given us a readable, useful, credible and focused commentary informed by a broadly Pentecostal perspective, which offers its own distinctive contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Apocalypse.
Harvest Bible College