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Revelation: The Human Drama


(Published by Lehigh University Press, 2001)

Rather than challenge the biblical scholarship of the past century, this study simply accepts the minority position of scholars in dating the composition of Revelation. Robert M. Grant, F. F. Bruce, and others consider the early date of approximately A.D. 69 feasible. This study looks for historical referents in the events surrounding the seven-year war between Rome and the Judean state that lasted from A.D. 66 to A.D. 73. by "assuming" such a rhetorical situation for the composition of Revelation, the study avoids being bogged down in endless debate, yet offers a reading of this book from a context which has been far less scrutinized than the context of the majority reading.

The book introduces Kenneth Burke's view of synecdoche and relates discussion to the analysis of the "representative anecdote" of Revelation. From a Burkean perspective, G. B. Caird's use of the term "kaleidoscopic" to describe John's imagery in Revelation is unsatisfactory. "Kaleidoscopic" is metonymic, not synecdochic. The book provides a more synecdochic term "magma" to replace Caird's "kaleidoscope."

From a poetics perspective, the book examines the dramatic structure of Revelation. Revelation is based upon an implicit chiastic structure. John appears to be relying on a form which combines the Greek dramatic structure of the trilogy-turned-tetralogy and the chiastic or mirror-image structure which John Kirby has seen in Homer's combination of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

From a psychological perspective, Burke's definition of "form" as "the arousing and fulfilling of expectation" is examined. The clearest use of such psychological powers in "form" occurs in John's use of the numbers six and seven. Since the archetypal "seven" form relates the reader to the seven days of creation in Genesis, it arouses the expectation that at the end of day six, the task is completely finished. Day seven is a day of rest. Hence, John consistently places his readers at number six. He situates them on the "brink" of the end.

From a sociopolitical perspective, Leland Griffin's model of social movements (based upon Burkean theory) is called into play. The book identifies the sociopolitical struggle which is occurring in Revelation as the intra-Jewish rivalry between Christian Jews and the High Priestly party. The study places this struggle within the periods of Griffin's model.

Finally, from a rhetorical perspective, the book views the "death" that is being recommended in Revelation. Using Burke's concept of "transcendence," the study demonstrates that "victims" are changed into "conquerors," rhetorically. Burke's action-motion dichotomy is presented as the method by which the transcendence is accomplished.

Since (virtually) all Revelation scholars are agreed that Rome is the Beast of Revelation, the primary issue with which the book deals is the issue, "Who can war against the Beast?" The Jewish extremists (Zealots and Sicarii) believed that they could actually defeat Rome. hence, the seven-year war began. The High Priestly party believed that they could not defeat Rome. Hence, they sought privately to subvert the Jewish attempt at independence. The Christians (or at least John) believed that they could "win" but not by warfare. John's approach was to have the Christians become "conquerors" as the Lamb "conquered." by "transcending" the distinction between "conqueror" and "conquered," John recommended winning through martyrdom.


     This book is an attempt to provide a fresh framework for interpreting The Revelation to John.  Revelation was written in the last half of the first century A.D.  The author, a Jewish Christian prophet known only by the name John, was adept at the use of figurative language.  This use of figurative language has allowed many far-ranging interpretations of Revelation to be produced.  Some believe the book incorrectly predicts the Roman Empire will fall in 100 A.D.  Some believe the book predicts the return of Christ in the 21st century A.D.  Some believe the book is an allegorical account of God's battle with Satan.
     Using Burkean methodology to understand various levels of symbolic meaning, this study shows that John creates a form of transcendence for early believers.  This extends into a pattern of continuity that other approaches to Revelation do not offer.  The notion of drama is central to all of this.  Kenneth Burke views language as a form of dramatic action and by taking us into the biblical text through that particular window readers are better able to understand how the language of Revelation works inside the text.  Readers can understand how the notion of drama gives readers an extra-historical, transcendent framework for being in the world.
     Revelation is John's version of the human drama.  He views that drama as having a beginning, a middle, and an end.  He views the beginning (in Act One) as the Genesis account of the creation of heavens and earth.  He looks forward to Act Three--the reign of Christ and his followers on the earth.  He foretells the end of the drama (in the epilogue) the destruction of heavens and earth and the creation of a new heavens and new earth inhabited by a new Jerusalem.  John spends most of his time, however, detailing the events at the end of Act Two of the human drama--the transition from the suffering of old Jerusalem/Israel to the triumph of New Jerusalem/the Church.
       The events of the drama which John supplies may be set forth


briefly.  The structure of Revelation is based primarily on groups of seven (an important number symbolizing completion/perfection--based upon the seven days of creation in Genesis).  The first group of seven in chapters 2 and 3 sets forth letters to seven churches in Asia Minor.  Most of the churches have good and bad traits.  The churches are encouraged to repent from their bad traits so they will be prepared for the coming "end" of Act Two.  Chapters 4 and 5 describe an important shift in the heavenly economy.  In chapter 4 God alone is worthy of worship in heaven.  In chapter 5, the Lamb who was slain (a very important character in the drama) also becomes worthy of worship.  This Lamb's accomplishments have allowed him to open a scroll that begins to unfold the drama to John and his audience.  Chapters 6 through 11 describe the second group of seven, the opening of the seven seals of that scroll.  The prelude to opening the seventh seal is comprised of a third group of seven, the seven last trumpets.  When the seventh trumpet sounds and the seventh seal is opened, the "end" (of Act Two) will arrive.  Chapters 12 through 14 introduce (and reintroduce) most of the major dramatis personae of John's Drama--woman, dragon, beast from the sea, beast from the land (the false prophet), the Lamb (who was initially introduced in chapter 5) and the 144,000 virgins (who were initially introduced in chapter 7).  The harlot Babylon is introduced more fully in chapter 17.  These dramatis personae are involved in the drama presented largely in the second half of Revelation.  The fourth and final group of seven, the seven last plagues, are presented in chapters 15 through 18.  This is the end of Act Two.
     Act Three:  Having destroyed the harlot Babylon in the battle of Armageddon, the Lamb and his bride celebrate and rule the earth in 19.1-20.6.  The beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire.  The dragon is confined for a thousand years to the Abyss.  The Christian martyrs are resurrected and reign for one thousand years with Christ.  Revelation 20:7-15 describes the final events of humanity's earthly existence.  After the thousand years, Satan is released to raise one final army to fight against the camp of God's people, the city he loves.  Satan's final world powers, Gog and Magog, are destroyed by fire.  Satan and all whose names are not found in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire.  Death itself is thrown into the lake of fire.  The epilogue, chapters 21 and 22, describe the new heavens and new earth in which the Lamb and his bride will spend eternity.
     Revelation is the most difficult book in the entire Bible.  The most significant Revelation scholar of the twentieth century observes that


this conclusion is universal from the earliest ages of the Church.  "School after school has essayed its interpretation, and school after school has in turn retired in failure from the task."[i]  While that observation makes the task attempted here daunting it also makes it challenging.
       I have personally experienced frustrations associated with reading the book from the persectives of Contemporary-Historical critics, allegorical interpreters, source-theorists, sectarian advocates, premillennialists, postmillennialists, and amillennialists.  The commonly accepted date for the writing of Revelation is 96 A.D.  The frustrations associated with reading Contemporary-Historical critics (those who apply the symbolism to historical events at the time the book was written) relate to the great difficulty with finding historical referents to the symbols in the last decade of the first century.  The frustration associated with reading source-theorists (those who believe the book is compiled by various authors using various sources at various times) is the scholarly consensus that Revelation's unique grammar argues convincingly that it was written by a single author at a particular time.  The frustration associated with reading allegorical interpreters, sectarian advocates, and premillennialists is that they are uncritical; they use no scientific method.  They are free to attach almost any meaning to any symbol.  The frustration with reading postmillennialists (those who regard the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 as figurative referring to the long time that precedes the coming reign of Christ) is that Revelation clearly states that Christ will reign for a thousand years.  The frustration with reading amillennialists (those who hold that the thousand year period is completely figurative) is that there is definite evidence of Jewish teachings in the first century which predicted a literal thousand or two thousand year reign of the Messiah.  My research for the past thirty years has been for a less frustrating perspective.  I have found that perspective in the methodology of the prominent literary and rhetorical critic, Kenneth Burke, quite arguably the most significant rhetorical critic/dramatist of the twentieth century.  Using insights from Kenneth Burke, this book analyzes Revelation from four perspectives--poetic, psychological, socio-political, and rhetorical.
     Revelation: The Human Drama is a scholarly study of the book of Revelation utilizing Burkean entelechial criticism, a critical method which is rather new to Biblical Studies.  Burkean criticism provides insights into Revelation which have not been uncovered by other critical methods.  Furthermore, many of the insights provided support


a conservative, Evangelical reading of the book.  Burkean criticism helps tie up many loose ends while remaining faithful to established critical scholarship.  In fact, Burkean criticism may provide a way of transcending the division currently existing between Evangelical scholars and critical scholars on the interpretation of this difficult book.  The book makes contributions to those in biblical, rhetorical, and literary-critical disciplines.
     The term "drama" in the subtitle has threefold significance.  First, Revelation contains many parallels to Greek drama.  Second, Kenneth Burke's system of analysis is named "dramatism" based upon his dictum, "Things move, People act."  Since Revelation is the "act" of a single human, Burkean "dramatistic" analysis is a particularly useful analytical and critical method to apply to Revelation.   Third, as opposed to Greek dramas dealing with limited events in human history, Revelation appears to be implicitly summing up the entirety of human history.  Revelation is not concerned with a short segment of human history (as is the Oresteia, for example).  Revelation is concerned with "The Human Drama."
     Rhetorical Criticism is now well-established in Biblical Studies and (since he is the most dominant rhetorical theorist of the twentieth century) Kenneth Burke's methods are somewhat known to Biblical scholars.  Yet, Burkean rhetorical criticism differs from (the currently emphasized) Classical rhetorical criticism in its emphasis on the "implicit."  When Burke's grandson, Harry Chapin, penned the lyrics to the song "Cat's in the Cradle," he was using (and exemplifying) "rhetoric."  Here was powerful "persuasion" at work.  But the "persuasion" was not "explicit," it was "implicit."  According to Burke, Aristotle's rhetoric is explicit:  "Here's what to say if you want to smear a man . . . to build him up . . . and so on."  Burke, on the other hand, borrows the term "entelechy," which Aristotle uses to describe the implicit, predictable motions and changes of "nature," and better uses it to describe how humans persuade themselves and each other "implicitly."
Chapter Summaries
     Revelation is analyzed here from four perspectives--poetic, psychological, socio-political, and rhetorical.  The poetic analysis may be accomplished virtually without respect to the historical circumstances in which Revelation was composed.  The text alone is necessary.  Burke suggests that the psychological and sociopolitical


perspectives require going beyond the text.  The psychological perspective requires examining the context of the primary audience to determine what expectations might be aroused by the use of specific forms.  The socio-political perspective requires examining the social order in which the work was produced to determine what reinforcements and/or changes of the status quo the author might be recommending.  Hence, Burke recommends beginning with the Poetics perspective, by ascertaining what is internal--that which exists if the work exists.
     Before presenting these four perspectives on Revelation, three preliminary steps are taken.  Since the audience for this book is comprised of both biblical scholars and rhetorical scholars, chapters are provided which introduce rhetorical scholars to Revelation scholarship and biblical scholars to Burkean methodology.  Then the trope synecdoche (primarily, the sense in which the part represents the whole, and vice versa) is explained in accordance with Burkean use.  This trope is of great significance in interpreting Revelation.
     Chapter Two presents the two fundamental premises of the reading supplied here.  Premise One:  John wrote the Book of Revelation in or around 69 A.D.  John was anticipating the impending destruction of Jerusalem and was intent upon incorporating this most significant chapter of Jewish history into his view of "The Human Drama."  The premise that Revelation was written in 69 A.D. is not established as fact.  At this stage of scholarship, it is the minority view among Revelation scholars.  The majority view would place the writing of Revelation near the end of the first century.  Yet, the majority view is frustrating.  It is very difficult to make historical sense of the symbols of Revelation if one assumes with the majority it is written in 96 A.D.  Chapter Two does not attempt to resolve the difficult historical issues associated with determining the date of the writing of Revelation.  However, the basic arguments favoring an early date and those favoring a late date are briefly explained in the chapter.    
     Premise Two:  The writing of Revelation is the "act" of a single author.  This premise has achieved much wider acceptance among Revelation scholars of the last one hundred years than has the first premise.  While earlier fragmentation-based theories of authorship have survived, the majority view now holds that the work is a unity by one author.  In this regard, the nature of Revelation as an "act" of a single author is emphasized.  As an "act," the work is open to what Kenneth Burke calls "dramatistic" analysis.  For Burke, dramatistic analysis of human symbolic action suggests a cycle of at least five


terms (pentad) implicit in an act--scene, act, agent, agency, and purpose.  Burke borrows these terms from drama which he, at first, holds to be a metaphor for human "action."  Later, Burke modifies his dramatistic perspective to claim that "dramatism" is not a metaphor; that people do literally "act" (Dramatism and Development, hereafter DD, 12).
     Chapter Three is an attempt to provide a concise overview of Burkean entelechial theory and methodology.  This is probably too ambitious a task for one chapter, so if the reader requires more background on Burke, s/he is referred to Implicit Rhetoric:  Kenneth Burke's Extension of Aristotle's Concept of Entelechy.[ii]  Burke borrows the terminology of entelechy from Aristotle.  Burke understands Aristotle's entelechy to involve the process of kinêsis, which implies for Aristotle both action and motion (but with the emphasis on biological motion). By contrast, Burke's entelechy emphasizes action almost exclusively.[iii]  Action requires free will on the part of the agent; motion (biological) is deterministic.  Form, for Burke, becomes not the "future shape" of a mature plant, but the "chronology" of a drama.  Form becomes "the arousing and fulfilling of expectation" drawn out into an "arpeggio."  Likewise, "material [hulê]" in drama is not the "fixed" material of a biological organism.  "Material" in drama is composed of "words," symbols developed not unilaterally or automatically, but cooperatively.  The audience participates in the production of the words, tropes, grammar--the hulê from which the drama is constructed.  Chapter Three, therefore, provides Burke's methodology for analyzing this linguistic hulê.
     In Chapter Four, Burke's view of the trope synecdoche is applied to Revelation.  George Kennedy credits Stoic grammatical studies for producing "the theory of tropes, which is first expressly mentioned in a rhetorical treatise by Cicero (Brutus 69)."[iv]  Burke, in his theorizing, narrows the list of tropes from the eight of the "grammatical treatises" to four master tropes--metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (GM 503).  Of these four, Burke shows a marked preference for synecdoche.  Burke claims that synecdoche is the key trope for handling matters of representation.
     Two levels in which John employs synecdoche in the imagery of Revelation are presented.  John's first-level use of synecdoche is to be found in his choice of a primary representative anecdote, the Eve vs. Serpent anecdote of Genesis.  This anecdote, with the help of a plot twist from John, provides the story John dramatizes.  John's second-level use of synecdoche is evident in the synecdochic fashion in which his specific heroes and villains are brought forth


from the magma of his two major streams, only to melt back into the magma and reemerge later as different entities, which hold synecdochic relationships with the earlier entities.  This second-level employment of synecdoche requires a more extensive explanation.  The former level is set forth rather succinctly.
     The Poetics perspective is the perspective of John, the author of Revelation.  Chapter Five presents a two-fold Poetics argument:  (1) that John employs mirror-image symmetry to perfect a plot for his human drama, and (2) that he tracks down the implications of his two primary characters (woman and serpent) to perfect the dramatis personae of his human drama.  This chapter seeks to answer the question What does John do for John?
     Chapter Six takes the psychological perspective.  The chapter turns from a consideration of the perspective of the author of Revelation to a consideration of the perspective of the readers comprising the primary audience of Revelation.  It seeks to answer the question What does John do for his audience?  Such a move necessitates going beyond the text to find other historical materials.  Materials exist which make such a move possible.  Judeo-Christian Scriptures which were formative for John's primary audience emphasize the expectations implicit in the "seven" structure, the creation week archetype.  Hence, Chapter Six considers the seven structure (or, more specifically, the number six) as an example of entelechial criticism from a psychological perspective.  Following Burke's definition of form/psychology, the chapter considers what expectations are aroused and fulfilled in Revelation.
     Criticism from a sociopolitical perspective in Chapter Seven requires significantly greater access to extra-textual material.  Furthermore, sociopolitical criticism requires a precise assessment of the sociopolitical context in which the literary work is produced.  At this point the perspective presented here begins to take a route substantially different from the route taken by the majority of Revelation scholars.  Chapter Seven posits that Revelation was written in an intra-Jewish sociopolitical context prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  Following Leland Griffin's adaptation of Burkean theory into a social movements model first century Christianity is presented as a social movement within Judaism.  Revelation is then placed within this intra-Jewish sociopolitical context and an entelechial critique from a sociopolitical perspective is provided.
     Chapter Eight supplies a rhetorical perspective on Revelation.  Since the time of Aristotle, the rhetorical perspective has been characterized by the term persuasion.  Aristotle defines rhetoric as "the


faculty of discovering, in any given case, the available means of persuasion."  Aristotle's definition of rhetoric conceives of persuasion as the telos, the goal for which the available means of achievement is to be found.  Burke extends Aristotle's concept of rhetoric, recommending the addition of the strategies identification and transcendence.  John uses strategies similar to Burkean identification and transcendence as means of persuading his audience to take the ultimate action, death as a martyr.
Other Dramatistic Approaches to Revelation
     Biblical scholars have seen that John writes a drama.  Revelation scholar and former President of the Society of Biblical Literature, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, states that Revelation interpreters have claimed that Revelation is strongly patterned after the Greek drama.[v]  Yet, the vast majority of Revelation interpreters are content to consider the book in the time-honored fashion--writing commentaries.  Little elaborate dramatic critique of Revelation has been presented.  Fiorenza's own book does not present an elaborate dramatic critique.  The Book of Revelation:  Justice and Judgment indicates that Fiorenza is interested in the methodological, historical-theological, and literary problems of Revelation.[vi]  Her book is a collection of scholarly essays she published over a period of twenty years on such issues.  She sees them functioning as a preliminary introduction to her commentary on Revelation."[vii] 
     Revelation scholar, Adela Yarbro Collins, sounds Burkean when she claims, "The Revelation to John makes use of holy war traditions to interpret the situation of its first readers [emphasis mine]."[viii]  In 1931, Kenneth Burke states in Counter-Statement (hereafter CS) that a Symbol (such as a drama) "appeals:  As the interpretation of a situation [emphasis Burke's]" (CS 154). Burke's elaboration of the way in which a Symbol appeals as the interpretation of a situation is enlightening.  Burke points out that a Symbol "presenting in a . . . consistent manner some situation" helps "give simplicity and order to an otherwise unclarified complexity."  Surely, the original audience of Revelation (as well as audiences in subsequent generations) found itself in a situation with some unclarified complexity.  To this complex situation Revelation gave simplicity and order.  Part of the complexity encountered by the audience was due to the "irrelevancies" in its situation.  With the "elimination of irrelevancies" the audience is enabled to interpret its situation in a consistent and ide-


alized Symbol/drama.  Burke's term "consistent" is of overwhelming importance in understanding Revelation.  Whereas the various commentaries demonstrate the diversity of opinions regarding the many aspects of the book, a dramatistic analysis would look for the consistency in the book.  Yarbro Collins' approach to Revelation suffers because she finds too much inconsistency in the book.
     Yarbro Collins claims biblical critics have learned a great deal from literary critics, philosophers, and others.  Her problem is that some people are apt to say Revelation is "only a symbol," and therefore it is not to be as highly regarded as inspired scripture or empirical proof.  For true believers what Yarbro Collins wants to do with Revelation is unacceptable because believers do not want to found their lives "on something less than absolute bedrock."[ix]  One flaw in Yarbro Collins' handling of Revelation is that she herself views Revelation historically as "something less than absolute bedrock."  After granting some validity to the classic historical-critical approach,[x] she retreats to a "perceived crisis" discussion.[xi]  Her perception of Revelation appears to be rather along the lines of her lay critics' comments--that it is "only a symbol."  She writes:  "It is not because I believe that the author of Revelation was intentionally deceptive or that he was a psychopathic personality.  It is rather because he was a human like the rest of us."  Her historical quest leads her to a quite difficult position--an inconsistency.  On the one hand, she cites external evidence for "a date [of writing] of about 95 or 96"[xii] under the reign of Domitian.  On the other hand, she knows that "[t]here is insufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that Domitian persecuted Christians as Christians."[xiii]  She points out that many interpreters see Revelation as a response to this situation:  Domitian was persecuting Christians, even forcing them to worship the emperor.  She says this entire scenario is false.[xiv]  Yarbro Collins claims the crisis addressed in Revelation is more perceived than real.  This is frustrating.  A more elaborate dramatistic analysis is possible if scholars revisit the dating of Revelation.  More historical consistency may be found by dating the writing in 69 A.D.  A more consistent and elaborate dramatistic analysis of Revelation is what this book attempts to accomplish.


[i]R. H. Charles, Lectures on the Apocalypse (London:  Oxford University Press, 1923), 1.

[ii] Stan A. Lindsay, Implicit Rhetoric:  Kenneth Burke's Extension of Aristotle's Concept of Entelechy (Lanham, MD:  University Press of America, 1998).

[iii] Borrowing one of Burke's favorite Latin expressions, Burke, as he extends entelechy to the realm of symbolic action, makes the necessary adjustments, "mutatis mutandis."  When Burke considers a "dramatic," or "tragic," or "narrative" form, he converts mutatis mutandis the "chord" (instantaneous expression) of the "sculpture" into the "arpeggio" (expression spread out over time) of the "drama."  Therefore, Burkean "form" becomes a "process" as opposed to a fixed "state."

[iv] George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1963), 297.

[v] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation:  Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press,  1985), 166.

[vi] Fiorenza, 10.

[vii] Fiorenza, 10.

[viii] Adela Yarbro Collins, Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalyptism in Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, Ed. John J. Collins (Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1996), 217.

[ix] Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis:  The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1984), 15-16.

[x] Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 18-19.

[xi] Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 84-110.

[xii] Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 76.

[xiii] Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 77.

[xiv] Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 77.