Thursday, November 15, 2018

Timothy Beal's "The Book of Revelation"

Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. His many books include The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book and Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know.

Beal applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Book of Revelation: A Biography, and reported the following:
Page 99 has me deep within the "forests of histories" envisioned by a medieval Italian monk known as Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202). Much as Ford Madox Ford believed that the whole of a book is revealed in one of its pages, so Joachim believed that the whole of sacred history is revealed in one of the Bible's books, Revelation.

A saint to some and a heretic to others, Joachim was a "picture thinker" whose thick descriptions of his visions were often accompanied by lavish illustrations (see examples from his Book of Figures here).

For Joachim, history was not only linear, moving in one direction from beginning to end; it was also spatial, a landscape of interrelated patterns in which beginnings, middles, and ends interacted with and folded onto one another. Revelation, with its wild descriptions of angels, gods, and monsters was for him the interpretive key to understanding these interrelated forests of histories, a kaleidoscopic lens through which to see God's plan for creation. What Joachim believed he saw was that he was standing at the very edge of the world, moments before its ultimate consummation and rebirth. The end/beginning was near.

In my book I suggest that, for Joachim, Revelation was something like a medieval codec. The first modern-day codecs were hardware devices like CD recorders that encoded analog data into digital form for storage and decoded that data back into analog for users to access (the term itself is a portmanteau of the words “code” and “decode”). Later the term was adopted for computer programs like Quicktime and MPEG. In Joachim’s hands, Revelation works similarly, as a kind of machine for encoding and decoding information about the past, present, and future. Those with eyes to see could discover that information encoded and stored within it, and then watch as it decoded itself into the full meaning of the entirety of sacred history.

My book is about the many different lives of Revelation. Some are fascinating; others are incredibly disturbing. Joachim of Fiore gave Revelation a new lease on life, as the means to seeing and understanding, well, everything. His influence to this day on the visual culture of Revelation is undeniable (run an image search for "revelation" and "diagram" or "chart" for some examples). Yet none of Joachim's theological heirs live up to the stunningly rich intellectual and aesthetic elegance, symmetry, and complexity of his writings and illustrations.
Visit Timothy Beal's website.

Learn more about The Book of Revelation at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue