New Kid in Town: Newest Anchor Bible Commentary on Revelation

This seems to be the year for commentaries on Revelation. And although there are a couple more on the way, Craig R. Koester’s work is such a good example of the genre that I’m crawling out from under my rock to write a bit about it.

First off, it’s the newest addition to the Anchor Bible, joining an earlier volume on Revelation by Josephine Massyngberde Ford, so it’s labeled as volume 38a. It was published September, 30, 2014, and weighs in at 881 pages plus 43 pages of lists and a preface. Tiny print, too: looks like 11 pt in the introductory matter and 10 pt in the body.

For those of you in the tl;dr camp: if you want one commentary on Revelation, this is the one you want to check out from the library because its list price on Amazon is $118. Used copies are available for a marked down price of $110, and third party sources go as low as $87.56.

That said, this is a well done commentary written from a more centrist Christian viewpoint than the Evangelical commentaries that have recently dominated the market. By this, I do not mean to suggest that this latter group are not fine commentaries, but that they have now been joined by another, and equally interesting, point of view.

One of the strengths of this commentary is its engagement with reception history. Thirty or so pages are dedicated to an overview of this in the introductory section and the main body of the commentary features more detailed insights. The contextualization this provides is fascinating, and helpful in seeing Revelation as scripture rather than a guide to the eschaton. One of my favorite parts so far is this bit on the millennium, which is a concept found only in Revelation (749):

Since the second century, Revelation’s vision of the millennium has been linked to expectations for the transformation of the earth. What is striking is that almost not of the usual elements of this transformation appears in Rev 20:1-6. Nothing is said about the earth yielding superabundant harvests, animals peacefully coexisting with each other and human beings, increased longevity, or the restoration of Jerusalem… The millennium does not have this role in Revelation.

What then, according to Koester, is the purpose of the millennium? Justice! Satan threatened the freedom of the saints, so he is himself bound, and the suffering of the martyrs (and perhaps others) is reversed by their resurrection. This is a classic example of the eschatological reversal as well as a powerful reminder of the eminent place that justice holds among Christian virtues.

This is also the most gender inclusive reading of Revelation I have seen. In particular, those appalled by the more common approaches to the PARTHENOI (male virgins) of 14:1-4 will appreciate Koester’s take. So interesting is his reading of this pericope, and the nuptial imagery of chaps. 12-22, that I think I may cover some of these points in separate posts later on this week or the next.

Koester also explicitly declines to declare his reading according to the traditional forms of preterite, futurist, historicist, and idealist. According to him, “these categories are more problematic than helpful. In practice, interpreters often blur the lines between categories and ask many other types of questions” (xiii). In this, Koester is right: most modern commentaries are eclectic.

Finally, Koester’s choices for structure are a welcome recognition of the complexity of Revelation’s narrative. Although no single structure captures all the nuances, he follows the work of Adele Yarbro Collins with six visionary cycles bounded by an introduction and an epilogue. In addition to the six cycles, Koester also acknowledges the break between chaps. 11 and 12 and a variety of chiastic structures that act to tie major sections together. In the end, he characterizes Revelation’s plot as a “forward moving spiral,” indicating both repetition and narrative progress.

So Koester’s volume is pretty much “state of the art” as these things go in the world of biblical studies and, in general, those with questions about Revelation can consult this commentary with good confidence. For LDS readers, however, there is a bit of a cloud in this otherwise sunny sky. Although very little has been done with Revelation in the LDS tradition, what does exist does not cohere well with historical-critical scholarship. Readers should expect that resolving these issues will take some time, and perhaps a bit of patience as the tensions are slowly resolved.

In the meantime, for a shorter (223 pp) but still excellent introduction to Revelation you might consider an earlier work by Koester that my students use profitably:

Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

And I think that, in general, many LDS readers might enjoy these two books by Richard Bauckham:

Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. New York: T&T Clark, 2000. (570 pp.)
______________. The Theology of Revelation. New York: Cambridge, 1993. (181 pp.)