Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002. Location: Ellis BS 2825.53.O73 2002
The actual social setting in which Revelation was written makes a significant difference in the way we interpret it. Osborne observes that some scholars think the events may have served to heighten readers’ awareness of opposition which was not always known to them (Osborne 2002, 10). Identifying the actual social pressures faced by the audience is difficult, especially since we don’t have a clear date or location. Osborne surveys a number of possibilities suggested by various authors. The fact is that the early Christians faced conflicts within themselves, their church communities, their broader society, and world cultural forces. Life was complicated in many ways (Osborne 2002, 11).
Revelation is complicated in terms of its genre. It is an epistle, written to people and intended to be read as a letter. It contains a great deal of prophetic material. It mostly fits into the genre of apocalypse as well (Osborne 2002, 12). The work is internally called a prophecy. Apocalypse is a subset of prophetic writing (Osborne 2002, 13). However, apocalyptic literature normally looks forward to a coming judgment. Revelation sees the judgment as already completed in Christ, but not yet fully applied (Osborne 2002, 14). All in all, Osborne recognizes Revelation as a primarily apocalyptic prophecy.
Interpretation of the symbols and the symbolic language of Revelation is a challenge. Osborne notes that Revelation is largely opaque without an understanding of the social context (Osborne 2002, 15). Discussion of reading methods can be problematic. “There is a false dichotomy between ‘literal’ and ‘symbolic’ in many circles. Those who call themselves literal are only selective in doing so” (Osborne 2002, 15-16). Of course, the opposite holds true as well. It is important to consider individual events and symbols in their historic and cultural contexts so as to reach a sound interpretation. As an example, Osborne notes that the numbers 4, 7, 10, and 12 are used frequently in Scripture to regard some type of completion. When these numbers are used and combined in Revelation they often seem to carry a similar force (Osborne 2002, 17).
Osborne notes that there are several overall methods of interpretation which can be applied to Revelation as a whole. In a historicist approach, the various events are considered prophecies of future events which can be located in specific histories (Osborne 2002, 18). This approach was popular for some time since the 12th century, but has largely fallen out of favor. A preterist approach holds that the events in Revelation refer to things at or before the time of authorship (Osborne 2002, 19). Some preterist approaches will include events such as the persecutions and the fall of Rome in the scope of Revelation. An idealist approach sees the symbolic events in Revelation as referring to timeless ideas (Osborne 2002, 20). In contrast to this, a futurist approach to Revelation considers it to refer mostly to events yet to come. Futurist views were popular in the early church, then became popular again in the dispensational movement (Osborne 2002, 21). In recent years, many scholars take an eclectic approach, allowing features of multiple views, especially dependent on the passage. Osborne tends toward a futurist point of view. However, he sees the events as applicable to John and his original readers as well (Osborne 2002, 22).