The Importance of Literary Genre in Interpreting Revelation

Part of what makes interpreting Revelation so difficult is the question of literary genre.  The literary genre of a text is related to such things as narrative technique, tone, and the specific content of the text.  In Revelation there are three distinct genres employed:


  • Epistle (or letter)

  • Prophecy

  • Apocalyptic


Epistle: The opening of Revelation clearly states that it was written as a letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 1:4).  As an epistle it must be interpreted in light of the culture it was written in, the historic setting of the recipients, and the individual passages must be interpreted in the overall context of Revelation, as well as in the greater context of the entire Scriptures.  


A knowledge of the prevalent religions within Asia Minor is needed.  We also need an understanding the political climate under Roman rule as well as the local administration of that rule.  In the ancient world, politics and religion were often deeply embedded in each other.  We also need an understanding of the flow of history, both the then-current history surrounding the epistle called Revelation, but we also need an understanding of the overall flow of ancient history.


The primary purpose of Revelation as an epistle was to encourage Christians who were facing persecution, but it also warns them that horrific persecution was still coming.  A tough wrinkle to flatten out is the question of “when?”  Is this past, present, or future, from our perspective?  


As we study this book, we must remember that a fundamental rule of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) is that the text cannot mean something that would have been incomprehensible to its original audience.


Prophecy: Obviously a large portion of the revelation is revealing what will happen in the reader’s future.  John stands in the long tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, and much of his language points back to prophesy recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.  


With that in mind, we must recognize that there is the heavy use of symbolism to convey truths that literal language could not convey.  The 

events are literal events, but sometimes they’re described literally, and at other times they are not described in literal language.


The question soon becomes, “Which passages are literal, and which are symbolic?”  The answer to that is not always obvious.


Apocalyptic: One formal definition of this genre is:


A genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an other-worldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world. 


It seems to me that the definition needs a definition.


This genre includes descriptions of events surrounding the end of world history.  It often references God, angels, demons, and other non-corporeal intermediaries.  Visions and dreams are regularly recorded as the writer seeks to describe things that are beyond human experience.  

Elaborate and sometimes bizarre symbols and images are employed.  


What makes Revelation unique from among the huge volume of other ancient apocalyptic literature is a regular self-reference to it being prophetic.  It contains calls to repentance, and reveals that Jesus has already completed our atonement.  It is, in spite of the terrifying images, optimistic; ultimately God wins, and with Him His people also win.  Within this framework is embedded the belief that the end began with Jesus’ first coming, and everything is now happening according to plan.


There is also extensive use of numeric symbols, the number 144,000 being 12 X 12 X 1000, twelve is the number of the tribes of Israel.  Is this number a literal number?  Is it indicative of the company of the redeemed as the fulfillment of God’s promises?  How about 666, is it significant that each of these numbers is one less than seven, the number for completeness?  Do three “6’s” point to an unholy trinity?


With all of this in mind, probably the best approach is to take each scene in light of the overall context, and in view of applicable Old Testament literature, and in view of the historic setting, and then do our best to make application… tentatively.


Source: William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Jr., consulting ed., Kermit Ecklebarger, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Word Publishing, Dallas, TX.: 1993), 366-374.