The Book of Revelation is one of the more interesting and controversial books of the Bible. Particularly in the lead up to the recent millennium, a large number of people took the opportunity to try to demonstrated how terrible everything had become, how things were getting worse, and how the earth was about to be destroyed with perhaps a new heavenly order to be installed. This is a very familiar tale, of course, for people have been claiming the immanent end of the world for as long as there have been people around to criticize what the younger ones were doing. Unfortunately, many of the writers who have given us their views in this regard have been unable to present a coherent and appropriately scholarly approach to the subject. Instead, they have often presented mishmash of half-digested fact, poorly selected references and personal convictions that combines the unbelievable with the unreadable. As a result, there is something of an air of disrepute over the whole subject.
Maurice A. Williams has entered the lists in this topic and in Revelation and the Fall of Judea he presents his ideas based on research largely centering on Roman primary texts (principally Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus) and a survey of apocalyptic literature through the ages. He has produced, as a result, an interesting account of the writing of Revelations based on those authors which necessarily, therefore, has a very narrow focus on Palestine and the Roman state and government. The primary authors constitute lively reading as always and it is a pleasure to go back to them. There is little consideration of the ancient world apart from the Palestine-Roman axis, however, with no mention at all of Egypt, only one of Parthia and complete disregard for the rest of the world. This apparent lack of awareness of most of humanity and the rest of the world is troublesome for a book that claims to describe important events in a new way. Williams is clearly and openly writing for a specific audience. As he says, "I am not a biblical scholar or a trained historian; I am an ordinary person like you. Like you I have had a good exposure to modern events through the news media" (pp. 15-6). In other words, he is writing for a middle-brow, middle-class audience which is, as can be seen from other details in the text, very much an audience of the USA. When someone who is not "a trained historian" and whose selection of sources is very narrow hopes to reinterpret past events in a new light, she or he must expect the work presented to be judged with a critical eye.
Williams' main argument is that the millennial events apparently described in Revelations have already happened. His narrative describes the biblical and the historical context of the Romans relentlessly bashing the Jews (or the Judeans as they are called) in the hope of showing that the two are similar events. This may or may not be true -- Revelations is like most mystical writing in being created with deliberate layers of ambiguity that allow the text to be interpreted simultaneously in multiple ways. What is much less likely is the corollary to Williams'' argument is that, as a result of earlier events involving Rome, the end of the age of the Church came as a result of the Reformation. This is described thus:
The Reformation and nationalism's rise in the fourteenth century weakened the Christian secular empire. The empire burst in the sixteenth century into separate and hostile nations. The nations waged war with each other, even over the question of religion. This coincides nicely with the release of Satan to deceive the nations." (p, 204)
No evidence is presented to substantiate the startling claims. What was this Christian secular empire that existed for a thousand years? Rome? Byzantium? France? The Holy Roman Empire? Did nations not exist prior to the fourteenth century? Were there no religious wars before then? What was so bad about the Reformation? Elsewhere, Williams seems quite pleased that the moral laxity of the clergy was challenged by Luther and others of his ilk but here the Reformation is the work of Satan. Was it the spread of education, of knowledge, art, and commerce that was so evil? What politics did rulers from the sixteenth century pursue that they had not before the fourteenth? Williams is quite silent about this.There are some other inconsistencies in the text from a purely authorial point of view. Firstly, Williams makes graet play about God's extending to man true freedom. Yet, at the same time, the only choice presented to man is completely obey God's desires or else disobey them and become unavoidably subject to merciless attacks -- plagues, locusts, wars, famines -- all of which are described in great detail. Faced with this decision, man's proper response is of course to stick two fingers up at the injustice and hold out (even without hope) for something better -- in other words, exactly the same spirit that motivated the Jews to hold on to their religion when continuously persecuted by the Romans and everyone else. There are many other issues that could be raised but that is perhaps not the point. This is a book determinedly addressing a provincial, partisan audience with little interest in and less knowledge of the rest of the world. People of this mind find this to be the book they need to make sense of the Book of Revelations.
John Walsh, Mahidol University International College. December 2003.
After completing this review, I thought I would give the author the chance to respond; this is not something I would normally do but I felt that. As this was a matter of belief, it would be an appropriate thing to do.
This is the email I received from Maurice in response:
Hello Dr. Walsh, December 23, 2003
Thank you for letting me see your review before posting it. And thank you for offering to attach my comments at the end of your review. That was good of you, and I appreciate it. Your e-mail caught me at a busy time preparing for Christmas. I responded right away and asked for some time to prepare my comments. Two days later, I got online to tell you I completed a draft and would be sending my finished comments shortly. I then saw your e-mail telling me you had already posted the review. I'm sorry I couldn't finish my comments in a single day. I had prepared a two-part draft, one part presenting a response to every point you brought up, the second part presenting a shorted "comments" that could be attached to the review. I think the points you raised deserve an answer, so here is the part that responds to all the points you brought up.
My book may seem to be too narrowly focused on Palestine. However, since I'm convinced that much of Revelation applies to events that happened in first and second-century Palestine, there was, I think, no need to discuss other nations. My selection of sources might seem very narrow, but these sources of first and second-century documents described what was happening in Palestine. In addition, I quoted many books written later and showed reference to them in my main text. They are all included in my bibliography of 119 titles spanning many centuries and many authors. In my last chapter, I give a comprehensive overview of what other commentators have said about Revelation from A.D. 165 to modern times, both Christian and non-Christian authors.
It's true that I give little consideration of the ancient world outside of Palestine, Egypt, for example, but I thought there was no need to discuss what was happening in nearby countries. The main action in my commentary was among Judeans, Christians, and Romans in Palestine. To discuss other countries that were not involved in the action, I think, would only confuse the reader. Because I focused on Palestine, it doesn't follow that I have a complete disregard for the rest of the world. I did make the point that Christ wanted Christianity preached to the rest of the world, baptizing all people and bringing them into his kingdom on an equal basis with those who already believed. I thought it was sufficient to say that and not elaborate on the rest of the world.
As for my apparent lack of awareness for rest of humanity and the history of the world, which seems troublesome for a book that claims to describe important events in a new way, I covered humanity by starting with Adam and Eve and later with the family of Noah. I traced the ancestry of Jesus from them. Aren't all humans descended from Noah's lineage? I traced the Israelite lineage, however, because they received God's revelation, and because the promised savior of all humanity would come from their lineage. My book would have been too broad if I tried to discuss all nations.
I concentrated on the revelation God started with Adam and Eve, followed it through the patriarchs, and elaborated on it when God made the revelation public and binding on the Israelite people through the prophet Moses. Most of the other nations knew very little of the religion revealed to the Israelites. Discussing the other nations would have shifted the focus of my book.
I do have a specific audience: what I would call ordinary people like myself who are exposed to a conflicting mixture of contradictory interpretations of Revelation. I think the prophecies in Revelation are just as important to the average person as they are to other people. I don't agree that I or my intended audience is provincial and partisan, with little interest and less knowledge of the rest of the world. Even if we were, wouldn't God want us to ponder what God's Revelation might really mean?
I did present a case that some millennial events have already happened. I believe the tribulation struck Judea. I believe the earthly, millennial, Christian, political kingdom started when the Roman Empire became Christian and continued as some European nations tried to form the replacement Holy Roman Empire. More about this later. I did not claim the end of the age of the Church, however. I specifically said that the Church (or Christianity, as I put it) did not end. I said its unity of belief ended when the political empire ended. The Church founded by Jesus Christ is still here. It will be here when Christ returns, but its message is now not easily understood because of the bewildering contradictions of doctrine among the rival branches of the Church.
On page 204, I did say that the breakup of the political empire and the rupture of the Church coincided nicely with the release of Satan. Ponder for a moment. Who would sow seeds of scandal and misconduct among Christians, seeds that tore apart the Christian political empire and confused the teachings of Christ? Would God do that? It makes sense that the great deceiver would do it, as was predicted in Revelation. The question is when would it happen? I think it happened during the Reformation.
What is so bad about the Reformation? This is a touchy subject depending which side of the controversy one finds oneself, but taken as a whole, everybody involved, when it started, set the stage for the dissolution of Christendom and the confusion of the Christian message. On page 205, I said "What potent credibility Christianity might have had in the eyes of other nations if the Reformation had not happened. It would not have happened had sufficient Christians, especially churchmen, been personally steadfast and loyal to Jesus Christ . . . " I'm surprised that I gave the impression that I was quite pleased that the moral laxity of the clergy was challenged by Luther. I'm not pleased about it. Their laxity was the catalyst that led to the Reformation.
It was not the spread of education, knowledge, and commerce that was evil. I did not suggest that. I was not silent on the policies pursued by the rulers of the sixteenth century that had not been pursued before the fourteenth. In the sixteenth century, rulers fought religious wars to separate themselves and their subjects from Church control by Rome and transferred control to their own countries and, sometimes, their own person. Along with that, came new ideas of what is true and not true in Christianity. From the sixteenth century onwards, Europe has a family of Christian religions that differ from one another, even contradict each other. I am not pleased with that either. On page 10, I said "This rupture and the controversy still attached to it eventually destroyed the credibility of all Christian groups. . . Christianity has steadily declined as a world influence due to the contradictions and rebuttals of Christian doctrine by people within the Christian community." I'm not happy with that either.
As to there being no evidence to support these startling claims. What was the Christian secular empire? Rome? Byzantium? France? Holy Roman Empire? I said this Christian political empire here on earth started off as the Christianized Roman Empire, then when Rome fell, it was succeeded by the Holy Roman Empire. I didn't think I needed to provide historical evidence that the Roman Empire became Christian or that European nations founded the Holy Roman Empire. I thought everybody was aware of that. But here are some details.
After the Roman Empire became too weak to defend northern Europe or send Christian missionaries to the northern tribes, Charlemagne of France spent thirty years subduing Western Europe, France, Switzerland, Belgium, half of Italy and Germany, and parts of Austria and Spain. By A.D. 800, he was the undisputed leader of Western Europe. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. The idea was that the Pope would be the vicar of Christ in spiritual matters and the Emperor would be vicar of Christ in temporal matters. Charlemagne was succeeded by Otto I of Germany who was crowned by Pope John XII. By 1530, the emperor was Charles V of Spain. This Christian Empire was known as "Christendom" and comprised Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, Flanders, Pomerania, Schleswig, Hostein, France, Denmark, Poland and parts of North and South Italy.
The Reformation occurred at a time when the development of the printing press and worldwide exploration made it possible to spread Christianity all over the world in response to Christ's request. No matter which side of the fence any of us are on the Reformation, if all Christians had been faithful to Jesus Christ, the political Christian Empire would have grown and have become a powerful force in evangelization. Instead, because of the shortcoming of human beings, humans themselves destroyed the political empire and lost, for five centuries, the chance to evangelize the world. If I'm right and Christendom was meant to be the human, political, millennial kingdom, then we, today, are 500 years closer to the end of human history and the final judgement. I was not referring to Byzantium because The Reformation did not occur in Byzantium. I think I was right on target talking about Christendom in Europe.
Did nations not exist prior to the fourteenth century? Of course they did, but they were different than the nations after the sixteenth century. I thought everybody knew that in the fourteenth century there was a unified Christian religion in Europe. The attempt at a unified, political, Christendom was woefully compromised by the unfaithfulness and selfishness of the people involved, but it held together for approximately 1000 years, first as the Christianized Roman Empire, then as the Holy Roman Empire.
In the sixteenth century, many individual nations withdrew from the Holy Roman Empire, changed their religious convictions, and fought war after war, many over religious differences. Christians fighting Christians over the meaning of Christianity! What a scandal! What evidence of unbelief! Wars were fought in the fourteenth century also, but for political rather than sectarian reasons.
The more popular predicted future millennial kingdom is also expected to be a political kingdom in this world. The Millennium will last 1000 years until the final rebellion when Satan will be loosed. Then, because of the unfaithfulness of humans, the political kingdom will fall apart. What comes next is the final rebellion, final judgement, and eternity. So say these popular commentaries. My argument is that the political empire already ran its course, and Satan has already been loosed. I also made a point of mentioning that the original Catholic Church, despite the Reformer's expectations that it would collapse and disappear, is still with us today.
How much all this confrontation and contradiction of Christ's teaching must disappoint Jesus Christ. He knows the truth. He revealed it. Why is it that so many Christians argue about it? This, I think, is Satan's work. The devil sowed the seeds of dissension, and dissention now flourishes in our lives. I think this saddens Jesus Christ. Many of us now have "my religion" instead of "God's religion," and many of us will hold out against all hope that "my religion" will prevail just like, as you say, "the Judeans held out against all hope to hold onto their religion." No wonder such dire consequences are predicted in Revelation. As I stated in my book, these consequences happened first to the unbelieving Judeans, but I state on page 17 that what happened to the unbelieving Judeans when Christ came the first time will happen to the unbelieving Gentile Christians also when Christ comes the second time. After all, shall God have to allow any of us to dictate what is true and tolerate our private wills contradicting a religion that God has revealed to us?
I did make a great play about God extending to man true freedom. The only choice presented is to completely obey God's desires or else disobey them. I did not say that God would subject the disobedient to merciless attacks. I said disobedience, itself, subjects us to suffering, and I tried to present my thought of why God allows it. God did give humans free will, but there is nothing in Scripture that says that God permits us to do anything contrary to God's will. Jesus, himself, more than once, claimed that even he does the father's will. Even though we are under command to obey, there is still a dignity in knowing we have the ability to refuse obedience. If we do obey, we can say that no one, not even God, forced us. If anyone disobeys, someone is hurt by it. That was the point I was trying to make. We all suffer because the disobedience of others interferes with the peace, happiness, and tranquility God wants all of us to share.
Dr. Walsh, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but it looks to me like you object to this limited amount of freedom (I'm really talking about freewill, not freedom, or as some say, license). If you think the proper response is to stick two fingers up at the consequences of disobedience, that sounds to me like an unwillingness to obey. And to hold out (even without hope) for something better! When you are dealing with God, why hold out for something that seems better when there is no hope of attaining it? Actually, is there anything better for us than what God offers? Why hold out for something different?
You said holding out was exactly the same spirit that motivated the Jews to hold onto "their religion" when continuously persecuted by the Romans and everyone else. I didn't characterize the war between Rome and Judea as a religious war even though the Judeans tried to make it appear a religious war. They hoped God would intervene on their side, like God intervened during the liberation of their ancestors from the Seleucid Empire. I claimed the war was a political war of independence. The religious war was between the unbelieving Judeans and those who believed in Christ. God did intervene, but on the side of the believing Judeans.
I propose that the Jews of the first century (the Judeans as I called them so as not to blame today's Jews for what those people did) should have been practicing God's religion, the religion God gave them through Moses and the prophets. If the Judeans had been living God's religion they could have walked right into the fulfilment of God's plan. Just like we Christian Gentiles, when Christ returns, if we are living God's religion, can walk right in.
Everyone has a worrisome feeling that we are not going to walk right in because Revelation predicts that Christ will not be accepted. Christ, himself, is quoted asking if there will still be faith on earth when he returns. We all can see today's rejection of the teachings of Christ all around the world. Our Western culture is already claiming that we are in the post-Christian era. If that is the attitude of even the European nations, how close might we be to the final rebellion?
You say "Revelation is like most mystical writing in being created with deliberate layers of ambiguity that allow the text to be interpreted simultaneously in multiple ways." Is that what you think Revelation is? Isn't Revelation part of God's overall revelation written by God's prophets? Wouldn't Revelation be meaningful to those for whom it was intended. I agree that there are different layers of meaning, first for the early Judeans then a second layer of meaning for us Gentile nations. I said so on page 17. I said that the secondary levels of meaning do not diminish the primary meaning of the visions for first and second-century Judeans should they reject the Messiah now that he has arrived. I then said that we Gentiles will experience something similar, not only as outlined in Revelation, but as experienced by the early Judeans, if we are not ready to accept Christ when he comes the second time as the Judeans were not ready when he arrived the first time.
Dr. Walsh, I respect your opinions, and you have a right to say whatever you want about my book. However, I think some of your statements are unfair. I think you were irritated by my book and wrote something while you were still irritated. I had intended to ask that you wait till your irritation passes and rethink your words before you submit your review. After all, many people will read your review. They may see the same things I saw, and I may feel compelled to defend my position. It's too late now, but I wished you would have waited and reconsidered.
Thank you for taking the time to read my book and critique it. You can add any part of this e-mail as attached comments if you still want to. I have a website. You can include My Webpage (www.mauriceawilliams.com) address in your comments if you like. This will allow others who read the review to also tell me what they think of the book.
Thanks again for spending time with my book.