The Bible: Read it as Being Correct OR Take Seriously What it Actually Says?

From James McGrath, who’s been following the strange and embarrassing saga of Obama-as-Anti-Christ rhetoric, comes what turns into quite an interesting reflection on the tension between wanting the Bible to be prophetically correct, and wanting to read what the text is really, literally trying to say.

As McGrath explains, that tension is particularly high in the Bible’s final chapter. Revelations, the fevered dream of a Christian-vindicating apocalypse, has always been one of the Bible’s most controversial inclusions. While there’s always the possibility that some other apocalypse would have taken its place (they were quite popular theological devices at the time), its hard to even imagine what Western History would have looked like without its long series of end of the world cults and the omnipresent fear the world was ever heading towards the greatest darkness imaginable.

But Biblical scholars have long known that the clearest, simplest meaning of the text is that it refers to and end of days that prominently features Roman Empire. And not just any future possible Roman Empire: the very one that is now non-existent. Given the specific continuities described in Revelatons, any attempt to fit any modern Anti-Christ du jour runs into some severe problems, per McGrath:

Once one realizes this, suddenly it becomes clear that fundamentalists are forced to believe that the temple will be rebuilt and a new Roman empire created, simply to make the world the way it was when the book was written, so that its imagery can still have a future reference. But it makes no sense to say that John refers to a series of 6 emperors, and then ignores all the others that followed until Obama became president of the United States, and suddenly he is the last one. There is nothing in the text and nothing in any form of intelligent reasoning that could make such a leap justified.

And so we’re left with a real dilemma for fundamentalist literalists (though few will likely acknowledge it): which is more important? That the Bible must be seen as correctly predicting future events, at all costs, no matter how elaborate the interpretive gymnastics required to keep it even potentially viable? Or that you should read and take seriously the plain text meaning of the words?

3 Responses to The Bible: Read it as Being Correct OR Take Seriously What it Actually Says?

  1. Dean Esmay says:

    Well, far be it from me to defend the pre-millenialist fundamentalists–that’s a branch of Christianity I exited rather forcefully, and am often critical of–but all but the most daffy of them will have to admit that it’s mighty difficult to assign “plain meaning” to the book of Revelation (which I prefer to call the Apocolypse of John). It is quite true that the book is controversial, as it was one of the few that a significant number of the Bishops who put together the New Testament canon argued against. It’s stayed controversial, so much so that even Martin Luther, over a thousand years after the finalization of the Canon, openly questioned whether it should be there (and at one point rather forcefully insisted it be removed, although he seems to have backed off on that). Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and some other Protestant groups still by policy do not read from it often or at all during church services, and rather freely acknowledge that the book is very difficult to understand and that even the best and most respected scholars don’t really understand everything in it.

    As a Catholic I usually find that when dealing with non-Catholics it’s a good idea to quote Orthodox sources, just because they can’t be accused of taking marching orders from the sinister Vatican. I think their take on this particular book is right on the money:

    That said, I generally agree that the analysis which states that most of the events described in Revelation are properly interpreted as stuff that already happened, and most other uses of the text these days (which are not new, it just goes in cycles) are spiritually pernicious and morally and intellectually suspect to say the least.

  2. Bad says:

    The thing is though, as you later note, it really does seem like there is a plain meaning to the book. So while it’s true that few fundamentalists accept that plain meaning, that’s sort of the point: it’s in their interest not to do so. Because they believe it has some non-plain, predictive meaning.

    Now, you’re right to point out that most of them do not pretend that they themselves can interpret the book and foretell the future by matching it to current events (though this is more common in practice than just the purview of the daffy as a stroll through the religious sections of many bookstore illustrates), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that at least after Armageddon they’ll be able to look back on the course of events, compare it to Revelations, and say “hunh! So THAT’s what that was all about!”

    As I noted, it’s really sort of interesting to imagine what Christianity, and indeed Western History, would have been like without any apocalyptic literature getting the Biblical green light, or even the Orthodox take on things that you linked to being more widespread.

  3. Jackson says:

    Good post. Can’t wait to read a lot more about this subject.

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