A Commentary on the Apocalypse of John
A Commentary on the Apocalypse of John. By Edmondo Lupieri. Translated by Mafia Poggi Johnson & Adam Kamesar. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006. Pp. xxx + 395. Paper, $36.00.
The goal of this commentary (smoothly translated from the Italian) is to understand “the Apocalypse of John in light of its historical and cultural background, with as little as possible in the way of linguistic or philological commentary, analysis of manuscript variants and discussion of the subsequent history” (xi). This may not sound different from the plethora of commentaries available, but Lupieri’s specific contribution is to read the Apocalypse as a polemic between Jewish groups, especially in light of texts from Qumran.
The book is divided into three sections: an introduction, translation with Greek text, and verse-by-verse commentary. The introduction gives a concise and helpful overview of the history of interpretation. Then Lupieri situates the Apocalypse within a historical reconstruction of Jewish Apocalyptic, emphasizing inter-Jewish conflict. Based on the introduction, this reader expected that the Apocalypse’s argument would be portrayed as against the “pagan Greek world” and the Christians and non-Christian Jews who accommodate it. The subsequent commentary, however, subordinates conflict with the Greco–Roman world under the struggle between Christian and non-Christian Jews. The introduction does not include an overview of this argument; so the reader is compelled to go through the commentary to discover this point of view.
The translation of the Greek is one of the most helpful features of the book. The Greek text (NA26) is provided on the left facing page, allowing the pastor or scholar to consider the translation choices. He offers some fresh alternatives, such as “marsh of fire” rather than “lake of fire” (Apoc 19-20). The translation consistently renders Greek roots to help readers detect repetition, such as “prostitution” and “prostitute,” “victor” and “victorious” (although uses he “conqueror” at 15:2). It is a literal translation, at times slavishly so, for example, “the eagle, the great one” (12:14). The translation emphasizes the androcentrism of the text (e.g., translating every anthropos as “man”), a feature that he argues reflects first-century society.
The commentary addresses each verse without introductory sections or excursus. Lupieri consistently discusses parallels found in Enochic and Qumranic literature. For example, he explains the “millennium” of Apocalypse 20 by discussing the theme of temporary torment in 1 Enoch, Qumran texts, and 2 Baruch. Lupieri argues that the millennium should not be understood as a part of the messianic reign but should be associated with Satan’s temporary punishment (312). The discussion of parallels with Enochic and Qumranic materials is helpful, although the commentary omits the distinction between non-sectarian, pre-sectarian, and sectarian Qumran documents that has been important in recent scholarship.
The focus on Enochic and Qumranic texts, however, is also the commentary’s weakness. By situating the Apocalypse in such close, even exclusive, relationship to these materials, the Apocalypse seems as though it was read and used in Qumran and not in Asia Minor. The radical separation from other Jews in Qumran’s sectarian documents is juxtaposed with the Apocalypse, reading a polemic against non-Christian Jews in almost every verse, even though such conflict is clear in only two of the seven cities listed in Apocalypse 2-3.
With its unremitting focus on Enochic and Qumranic documents, the Apocalypse is separated from the Greco–Roman environment of Asia Minor. The engagement with Greco–Roman literature is negligible and the vast scholarship that connects the Seer’s critique to the Roman Empire is minimized. Although not a novel point of view (cf., e. g., Chilton, Ford), he rejects the position that Rome is the whore pictured in Apocalypse 17-19, arguing that she is Jerusalem/Judaism who has been corrupted by Satan (e. g., 299). The climax of Apocalypse 17, which announces that “the woman that you saw is the city, the great one, that has rule over the kings of the earth” (17:18), is understood to refer to Judaism’s exaltation of the historic Davidic kingdom (281). Lupieri is surely right that the Seer’s prophetic critique is crafted from many sources (including oracles against Jerusalem) and is made in a way that may be applied in various times. But in first-century Asia Minor with its eager Imperial cults, if Jew or Gentile had been asked what city ruled over the kings of the world, Rome would surely have been the quick and exclusive reply.
In summary, this commentary offers a fresh translation and a way of reading the Apocalypse as an inter-Jewish polemic in the vein of Qumran’s sectarian documents. Its attractiveness to scholars will be diminished by its lack of footnotes and substantial argument for its position. Even its usefulness to pastors and lay people will be limited because this reading of the Apocalypse contains little for application in a non-sectarian age.
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