Friday 20 November 2020

One of the most impressive descriptions of the last events is the picture drawn by Tertullian in the last chapter of his treatise De spectaculis. In this work, dated around the years 197-200, the author condemns the Roman shows in their different forms, explaining why Christians should not attend this kind of entertainment. In chapter 30, Tertullian sharply describes what is the real and great spectacle for the Christians: the Parousia and the last judgment in which they will be the real spectators of the terrible sufferings and damnation of the others:

But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One! What that exultation of the angelic hosts! What the glory of the rising saints! What the kingdom of the just thereafter! What the city New Jerusalem! Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame![1]

The images which Tertullian had in mind when he wrote this treatise are certainly derived from Revelation 19 – 21; ‘advent of our Lord’ (the coming of the millennial kingdom), ‘glory of the rising saints’ (Rev 20:4.6), ‘the city New Jerusalem’ (Rev 20:9 and 21:1.10).  Here, the Apocalypse is used in the description of the overturn which will take place at the end of the days; the ones who enjoyed Christians being persecuted will be precisely the suffering ones!

But what was the reception of the last book of the New Testament, especially with reference to the chapters related to the millennial kingdom?  In order to answer this question, we first need to look at its textual transmission: the role that the Apocalypse has played in the Canon has considerably affected its journey through Christian communities. Many authors from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, in fact, excluded it from the Canon and/or did not quote it. This brought to the following consequences: we possess only 310 Greek direct witnesses[2], the first Greek commentaries are late (the most ancient is the one written by Oecumenius, from the VI century), and there is no Greek lectionary which contains quotations from Revelation.

Nevertheless, on the other side of the Empire, there is a rich tradition on this book: Victorinus of Pettau wrote a commentary on it in the third century, and quotations and allusions to Revelation are present in Christian authors starting from Tertullian, the first Latin theologian. Particularly in North Africa, the Apocalypse occupied a relevant place, and this is why I chose this region to investigate the reception of chapters 19 – 21.

Besides, we find references to the Apocalypse also in martyrdom literature. We can take as an example the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, a document which narrates the events of a group of Christians executed in Carthage on the 7th March 203. This writing presents many images taken from Revelation, especially in the visions of the martyrs dreaming about their destiny after death. In the vision of Saturus, in fact, there is reference to the New Jerusalem of Rev 21 mixed with other elements taken from the Apocalypse:

Then we came to a place whose walls seemed to be constructed of light (Rev 21:11.23). And in front of the gate stood four angels, who entered in and put on white robes (Rev 3:5.18; etc..). We also entered and we heard the sound of voices in unison chanting endlessly: ‘Holy, holy, holy’ (Rev 4:8)[3]

Moving on chronologically we notice mentions to Revelation in the writings of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, where the image of the millennial reign (Rev 20:4-6) characterises the hopes of Christian persecuted. In chapter 12 of the treatise Ad Fortunatum (written to exhort Christians to endure persecution), Cyprian describes the rewards gained through the martyrdom. With reference to verses 20:4-6, martyrs vixerunt et regnaverunt cum Christo/“lived and reigned with Christ.”[4]

Between the third and the fourth century, Lactantius offered an exegesis of Revelation interwoven with millenarian ideas and pagan sources. In the seventh book of his major work, the Divinae Institutiones, the author talks about the end of the world with references to Rev 19 – 21 (in chapters 24 – 26). Here, the new world is pictured with elements taken from Millenarianism and Virgil’s Golden Age:

After God’s coming the just will gather from all over the world, and after his judgment the holy city will be set up at the centre of earth, and God himself will dwell in it with the just in control.…The earth will disclose its fertility and breed rich fruit of its own accord, the rocks of the hills will ooze with honey, and the rivers will swell with milk; the world itself will rejoice and all nature will be glad at being plucked into freedom from the dominion of evil, impiety, wickedness and error.[5]

Thus, Revelation 19 – 21 was employed in North African Christian communities in order to portray the new kingdom inaugurated by God in the last days. It was also interpreted in a context of justice (as we saw, for example, in Tertullian and Cyprian). However, when the Roman Empire became a “Christian” Empire, something changed. A turning point could be recognised in the work of Tyconius, a theologian who lived in North Africa in the last part of the fourth century. In his commentary on Revelation, the millennial reign, in fact, will be no longer something to wait for, but it becomes the present, and the New Jerusalem represents the actual Church. Referring to Revelation, Tyconius will write: Nihil est enim quod praeter ecclesiam describat/“what he (John) describes is nothing else but the church.”[6]

[1] ANF.

[2] M. Lembke, D. Müller and U. Schmid, Text und Textwert der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments. VI: Die Apokalyspe. Teststellenkollation und Auswertungen (Berlin, 2017), 85-86.

[3] 12,1-2 (Musurillo, 1972).

[4] CCSL, English translation my own.

[5] VII,24,6-7 (Bowen and Garnsey, 2003).

[6] Latin text from 2,49 (CCSL), English translation from Fathers of the Church (2017).


Martina is a PhD candidate in Systematic & Historical Theology at the University of St Andrews. Her research topic is the exegesis of Rev 19 – 21 in North African Christian Communities from the II to the V century.


Photo by Gavin Allanwood on Unsplash

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