The Social Setting of the Revelation to John: Conflicts Within, Fears Without -- By: David A. deSilva

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 54:2 (Fall 1992)
Article: The Social Setting of the Revelation to John: Conflicts Within, Fears Without
Author: David A. deSilva

The Social Setting of the Revelation to John:
Conflicts Within, Fears Without

David A. deSilva

The work of sociologists of religion has opened new vistas for inquiry into questions of NT introduction. The aim of this study is to explore how work in sociology of religion leads to clarification of the social dimensions of the Revelation to John, the Apocalypse. It particularly seeks to clarify the role of John with respect to the seven churches to which he addresses his work, hence his self-understanding as well, the social tensions between these church communities and the larger social communities around them, and the tensions within the church communities themselves. From this examination of John’s role and the tensions expressed in Revelation, we shall attempt to understand the situation in sociological terms, and in the same terms examine John’s agenda for the churches communicated through the Apocalypse. This will lead to an examination of the social function of the Apocalypse in relation to the social history of the period and finally to a reexamination of the social function of apocalyptic itself. We must ground the whole of this inquiry in as precise a historical reconstruction as possible if the social analyses are to be accurate, and so we turn first to the problem of when John wrote his Apocalypse and what historical situation occasioned it.

I. Historical Location

The author of Revelation clearly indicates his location and the location of the churches he addresses. He writes from the island of Patmos, which lies approximately eighty-eight miles from the southwest coast of Asia Minor, to seven churches in the western portion of the province of Asia. These churches—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—form a circle or a horseshoe, a fact that might indicate the nature of John’s ministry as an itinerant prophet. Most lie within a day’s or two days’ journey of each other, that is, between twenty and thirty miles. Their proximity united them under the same imperial province, and hence under the same governor, although, of course, their local situations would not necessarily be the same.

The date of the Revelation, and hence of the nature of the situation that occasioned it, is considerably more widely disputed. Scholars divide fairly evenly between placing the work in the “Year of the Four Kings,” AD 68/69, and near the end of Domitian’s reign,

AD 94 or 95. The only other real option suggested in the history of interpretation is some time during the reign of Trajan, although some have seen in Caligula an early possibility, however unlikely. What is at stake in the answer to this question is the historical and s...

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