The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John
A review of Loren Johns', "The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John," by Dr. David Mathewson.
Johns, Loren L. The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 167. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. 2003. 276 pp. €49. ISBN: 3-16-148164-X.
For many modern readers of the book of Revelation the visions contained in this book raise serious questions. Revelation is a book filled with warfare, bloodshed, judgment, and divinely sanctioned suffering of humanity. How can a modern Christian reader claim as Scripture a book filled with such violence? What do we do with a book that portrays Christ as a warrior who eliminates large portions of humanity? It is these questions that Loren L. Johns attempts to answer in his revised Princeton Theological Seminary Ph.D. dissertation. To illustrate the problem, his work begins with a brief historical survey of the effect Revelation has had on subsequent generations of readers. From David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, who utilized it to justify their actions, to D. H. Lawrence, who expressed resentment and hatred for the book, Revelation has engendered a variety of responses in those who have entered into its visions. Based on his brief foray into the history of interpreting Revelation, Johns concludes that “The Apocalypse of John is arguably the most dangerous book in the history of Christendom in terms of the history of its effects” (p. 5). Johns’ thesis in this book is that readers have failed to take seriously the lamb Christology in the book of Revelation.
Two of the most crucial chapters for Johns’ argument are Chapter 2, which consists of a lexical analysis of arnion (lamb), and Chapter 4, where he considers possible Jewish backgrounds for a “victorious lamb.” After surveying evidence from the OT, Josephus, and Philo for potential background for interpreting arnion, it is in the LXX, where arnion symbolizes vulnerability, that Johns finds the most fitting background for the use of arnion in Revelation as a designation for Christ. The upshot of this discussion is that when the reader of Revelation is confronted with the “victorious lamb,” no greater anomaly could be found. In Chapter 4, Johns challenges previous attempts to find the background for Revelation’s “victorious lamb” in the lamb and “warrior ram” found in some early Jewish texts. Johns spends most of his time discussing 1 Enoch 89-90, part of the well-know “Animal Apocalypse.” Here Enoch envisions a lamb that grows horns and becomes a ram. However, Johns rightly cautions against too quickly co-opting Enoch as a background for Revelation. Not only is the lamb in 1 Enoch not a messianic or eschatological figure, but the lamb has to become a ram before exercising its leadership role. Therefore, Johns concludes that there is no clear evidence for a warrior lamb figure in early Jewish literature that would provide a backdrop for John’s victorious lamb in Revelation.
So where did John get his lamb imagery? In Chap. 4 Johns suggests that the LXX and its usage of arnion to connote vulnerability provide the primary background against which Christ the lamb is to be read. But what is more important is how John uses the lamb symbolism in light of his socio-historical context. Johns rightly distances himself from previous conceptions of an emperor-sanctioned, empire-wide persecution of Christians, and instead opts for a more balanced approach that sees persecution and pressure to conform as more sporadic and local. Against this backdrop, Revelation calls for non-violent resistance, a call accomplished primarily through the lamb (vulnerable and slain) symbolism.
The final chapter of the book turns to address the question of how the lamb of the Apocalypse is both vulnerable and war-like. By juxtaposing military and lamb imagery, the author accomplishes a profound reversal of the nature of overcoming and resistance. The lamb conquers ironically through his vulnerability, suffering and death, not through military might. In this way the lamb imagery does not carry nuances of atonement or sacrifice, but vulnerability and weakness as the author redefines the nature of resistance to evil. Furthermore, the Christology of Revelation has ethical implications. As Christ was a faithful witness to death, so his followers must resist in the same manner: nonviolently, even in the face of death. Johns ends his final chapter by surveying various modern attempts to solve the problem of the violent nature of John’s rhetoric, but finds them all wanting. Misreadings of Revelation’s imagery stem from a failure to perceive the rhetorical force of John’s lamb symbolism and the historical context in which it was used. Revelation consistently portrays victory over evil as coming through the nonviolent witness of the lamb and his followers. The book ends with two appendices on the semantic domain of “lamb” in the OT, and on other Christological titles in Revelation.
Johns’ book to date provides the most significant attempt to wrestle with the lamb Christology of Revelation as it relates to the questions of how we should treat the violent nature of Revelation’s visions. In doing so he has rightly shown that the author of Revelation offers a significant reversal of our understanding of power and overcoming, both for first century readers and today. However, I was still left with a number of questions. First, while the LXX background for arnion as vulnerability plays a key role in Johns’ argument, he never bothers to engage the fairly strong consensus to the contrary that although John may at times be in touch with a LXX or Aramaic version, the Hebrew OT provides the primary quarry for Revelation. Second, Johns is probably incorrect to downplay the sacrificial and atonement nuances of the lamb imagery. Texts like Revelation 1.5 and 5.9 make his thesis difficult to sustain, notwithstanding Johns’ argument to the contrary (pp. 169-70 n. 70). Furthermore, it is doubtful that the militaristic imagery of 19.11-21 can be dispensed with quite so easily. True, there is no actual battle narrated. But the wholesale destruction of God’s enemies is still difficult to avoid. Furthermore, I was still left with the question of exactly how death and martyrdom will ultimately eliminate evil at Christ’s Second Coming (Rev. 19-20). And how does Christ overcome nonviolently since his enemies are thrown into the lake of fire? So while Johns has made a significant contribution to understanding the lamb Christology and the violent rhetoric of Revelation, he has not uttered the final word. Meanwhile, I would suggest that anyone who wants to engage the lamb imagery in Revelation and the question of how we understand its violent imagery, must interact with Johns’ work. In reading through the book I noted relatively few typos (unlike other works I have read in this same series).
David Mathewson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies