Q&A: Jews and The Revelation of John

Jews and The Revelation of John

Question

The small group in my church has been studying Revelation. At the same time, I have been reading Our Father Abraham by Marvin Wilson and read that the very early church was predominately Jewish. I don't even begin to have a handle on Revelation but it seems that the book is very Hebraic in terms of writing style, ideas, idioms etc. I am thinking that if we could understand the roots of the tree we're grafted into we might better understand the Bible a little better.

Do you think the Apostle John when writing the Book of Revelation had the Jewish community in mind?
Also, could you recommend to me some texts on uses and understanding of Hebrew idioms and thought and logic?

Answer

First, please let me affirm for you that Jesus' Jewishness was very important to him and to his ministry. As you note in Romans 11, being Jewish is even important for Gentile Christians. In the Old Testament, the greatest covenant blessings were reserved for the community of Israel, and within that community the greatest blessings were reserved for free male Jews. Fortunately for us, Jesus was a free male Jew who inherited all the covenant blessings. In our union with him, we receive his status as covenant-keeping free male Jew, and thus he shares his blessings with us.

Second, Revelation certainly has many Old Testament themes and allusions, which might make it appear very Jewish. It was also written by a Jew, which also gives it a Jewish flavor. Further, it is really the only prophetic/apocalyptic book in the New Testament — all the other books that closely resemble it are in the Old Testament, which may also make it appear Jewish.

On the other hand, most of the books of the New Testament were written by Jews (some argue that even Luke and Mark were Jewish), which should not be surprising since all the apostles were Jewish. But this leaves us with a distinct lack of Gentile Christian apocalyptic/prophetic literature for purposes of comparison. In other words, there is really no good way to tell if Revelation is distinctly Jewish in style, or if it is simply Christian in style (with Jewish and Gentile Christians sharing the same style). Several facts imply that the original audience of Revelation was not distinctly Jewish: 1) Revelation does not distinguish between Jews and Gentiles in the church, implying that such a distinction is not very relevant to how its message is received; 2) Revelation was written in Greek (not Aramaic or Hebrew), indicating that any Jews in the original audience were at least somewhat Hellenized; 3) the original audience dwelled in Asia Minor, which was a predominantly Gentile area; 4) the biblical information regarding other churches in Asia Minor, such as that contained in Acts and the Pauline epistles, indicates that they contained both Jews and Gentiles — this is explicitly the case with Paul's letter to the Ephesians, and Ephesus was part of the original audience of Revelation.

I'm not sure what data Wilson uses to argue that the apostolic church was predominantly Jewish, but the best data we have for analysis is the New Testament itself, which does not support that claim. Clearly the churches in Judea were predominantly Jewish at the beginning (remember the shock of Gentile conversion in Acts 10-11). But it is significant that the most successful missionary of the New Testament era was Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (e.g. Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:8; 1 Tim. 2:7). Of course Paul also had a heart for the Jews and did not exclude them from his ministry, frequently going to synagogues as a launching point in new areas — but note that even the synagogues were mixed groups including both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. Within the lifetimes of the apostles, a huge influx of Gentiles took place, which is why much of the New Testament speaks to the tensions between Jews and Gentiles in the church. At any rate, it had always been the goal — even in the Old Testament — that one day the people of God would be predominantly Gentile (all the nations were to worship Israel's God, and Israel was much smaller than the other nations combined; cf. Rom. 9:25-32). This began to be realized as a result of the ministry of the apostles, which is all to say that the predominance of Gentiles in the church was both a Jewish ideal and the result of Jewish ministry.

The New Testament at large was not written to Jews or Gentiles exclusively or even primarily. Paul's letters were explicitly written to mixed audiences, and some seem to have been written to predominantly Gentile audiences (Rom. 1:13; Eph. 2:11; 1 Thess. 2:14). Matthew, Mark, John and Acts all contain Greek translations of terms that would be unfamiliar to Christians who did not speak Aramaic or Hebrew (e.g. Matt. 1:23; 27:33,46; Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:34; 15:22,34; John 1:38,41,42; 9:7; 20:16; Acts 4:36; 13:8), indicating that their intended audiences were at the very least Hellenized Jews who did not know Aramaic or Hebrew, but more likely that their intended audiences were at least partly Gentile. Because Acts was written by the same person and for the same audience as the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1; Acts 1:3), the same can be said of Luke as well. Certainly the bulk of the Old Testament was written to mainly Jewish audiences, though even in the Old Testament there are indications of broader audiences (e.g. the ministries and oracles recorded in the books of Obadiah and Jonah were to Gentile nations).

In one sense, all Christianity has and ought to have a Jewish flavor because it was through the Jews that God gave thousands of years of special revelation and through whom he sent our Messiah. But it is important to remember that the goal of Jewish ministry was worldwide conversion and expansion of the kingdom of God. This expansion began to be realized on a broad scale in the very early years of the church, and this was a very good thing. In order to minister properly to the many Gentile converts, the apostles adapted their language, style, etc. to mixed audiences.

So, on the one hand, it is true that knowing more about Jewish thought and culture greatly helps us understand the authors of Scripture as well as some parts of the original audiences of the New Testament. This is a study that is largely neglected in modern Evangelicalism. On the other hand, the cure ought to be a cure, not an alternate disease. That is, an underemphasis on Jewish context ought not to be corrected by use of an overemphasis on Jewish context. I would say that remarks to the effect that the Jewish context is the primary context of the New Testament qualify as overemphasis. A better corrective would be an appropriate emphasis on the importance of Jewish thought and context that did not disparage the importance of Gentile thought and context. It is probably the case that your church (like most churches) needs to hear more things about Jewish thought and context (as He Gave Us Stories would suggest). Just be careful that in offering that kind of help, you don't "overmedicate," as it were. In your own thinking, don't opt for the simplistic solution "It's not Gentile — it's Jewish." The truth is more complex.

For insight into Jewish idiom, thought, etc., beyond that found in the Old Testament, I would read the Mishnah and scholarly commentaries on the Old Testament. There is also a good dictionary series edited by Van Gemeren called The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis — it has a lot of Hebrew, but it's keyed to Strong's so that if you are really dedicated you can get through it. For many resources, however, it might be worth your while to learn Hebrew — it's always better to read original sources than someone else's interpretation of them.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.